Quote of the day: Thomas Jefferson

He who knows nothing is closer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.

– Thomas Jefferson

Strategy and Stories Redux

When we want to convey or convince, our first instinct is often ask to “tell a story.” It may be a joke or fable, but the ideas that we want to promote aren’t thrown out there randomly. We try to embed them in a plot and setting that engages the listener. It also brings together the teller and hearer in a way that fishing for a “yes” to an idea never can.

I was reminded of storytelling and strategy by a Jonah Goldberg piece about stories in our political culture. From his open:

There is an enormous amount of whining these days about our ideological debates. This gets the problem wrong. Ideological debates are fought over ideas, but politics is more often about competing stories, or, as the eggheads call them, “narratives.”

This insight — ideas ≠ equal stories — is one of the reasons McKinsey is the dominant strategy consultancy. The firm’s associates are great at sweating the narrative through dozens of drafts, yet they also hang the “footnote” details just out of sight. The details are out of sight of the listener perhaps, but available for the speaker to summon in a second.

I often relay the story of sweating the prep for a strategy presentation for a CEO under the tutelage of a McKinsey alum. Not only did we go through fifteen full drafts, but we carefully positioned our proof points in the appendices. Therefore, when the CEO questioned an assumption — one that underlay a key plot twist — I could then go straight to the idea that supported the assumption. In fact, those ideas were their own little story.

The result? The executive said “now I know why the story goes the way it does…I’m not sure I agree with that premise, but it makes sense now.” This careful layering of narrative and support bounded the problem for us. Now we could focus on refining and selling that plot point, not patching up scattered plot holes.

On the other hand, other consultancies don’t do this nearly as well. It’s either all story and no setting, or all setting and no plot. To tie this back to politics, I can’t say I was surprised that Bain founder Mitt Romney’s platform was a barrage of ideas, with little story to focus their aim.

We say we want faster horses

While I’m on a Henry Ford roll, here’s one about the dangers of simply taking orders from one’s customers.

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

We now mock Ford for “any color he wants, as long as it’s black“; but passively listening to the customer is no good either. Long ago Ford understood the pitfalls of just asking “what would you like?”

This quote came to mind as I reviewed the predictions in the Pew Research report on Killer Apps in the Gigabit Age. Full disclosure, I don’t buy such specific predictions. I’m with William Schrader’s take on page 2:

Gigabit bandwidth is one of the few real ‘build it and they will come’ moments for new killer apps. The fact that no one had imagined the other killer apps prior to seeing them grow rapidly implies that no one can imagine these new ones—including me.

Many of the guesses are entertaining and may well be true. In the end, what struck me was how derivative nearly every prediction was. Most involved augmentation of current functionality: a variant on the “faster horse” desire. Some, like one librarian, were hoping for features that already exist: e.g., seeing recipes in a heads-up display.

Paging KitchMe and Google Glass.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme

I can’t believe I forgot to mention this quote in my earlier post on history quotes. It has been long attributed to Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

Unfortunately, its first appearance appears to be the one that established it as a Twain quote. It’s a misattribution.

What did Henry Ford mean by “History Is Bunk?”

Last week I listened to Milt Rosenberg‘s interview with Gary Saul Morson about the value of what they called “Encapsulated Wisdom”: the “aphorisms, maxims and wise saws [that] are the stuff of conversation and argument.” What grabbed my attention was the discussion of two contrasting views of history: Henry Ford vs. George Santayana. Rosenberg suggested that if:

Santayana ( “those who forget history are condemned to repeat it”) is true or false then Henry Ford (“history is bunk”) is correspondingly false or true.

As as history guy, I’m with Santayana. However, Morson’s take was unique, at least to my ears: he maintained that both had truth in them. He pointed out that Ford would look at history with the perspective of an engineer or a “hard” scientist. He would discount the so-called wisdom of the past given its uselessness during an age of scientific progress. A quick dive into Ford’s many other proclamations regarding history and science bear that out (though he wasn’t even too clear on the history of his own field).

One irony: Ford’s attitude that the world could be made new was shared by his bitterest enemies, the socialists and progressive reformers. Even today, the Industrial Workers of the World believe that:

[W]e are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.

The Allure of Doomsaying

I just finished this Grantland piece by Bryan Curtis on the imminent demise of baseball. If you’re a fan at all — or a fan of any long-standing pastime — you’ve probably read or heard complaints like this:

Somehow or other, they don’t play ball nowadays as they used to some eight or ten years ago. I don’t mean to say they don’t play it as well. … But I mean that they don’t play with the same kind of feelings or for the same objects they used to. … It appears to me that ball matches have come to be controlled by different parties and for different purposes …

The kicker is that this quote is from 1868, eight years before the founding of the National League. It turns out that there’s a long thread of end-times commentary stretching back to the beginning of the Major Leagues, and Curtis unspools it carefully and well.

These persistent predictions hint at one of the reasons that doomsayers will never want for work: all human institutions, no matter how long-lived, will wax and wane. Predicting an institution’s demise, as Curtis describes it:

…allows us to imagine we’re present at a turning point in history. We’re the lucky coroners who get to toe-tag the game of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Kurt Bevacqua.

“We are not at a historic moment,” Thorn said. “The popularity of anything will be cyclical. There will be ups and downs. If you want to measure a current moment against a peak, you will perceive a decline. J.P. Morgan was asked, ‘What will the stock market do this year?’ His answer was: ‘Fluctuate.’”

One driver that Curtis doesn’t mention is the control that failure gives us. There’s a certain temperament — and I plead guilty — that is very comfortable with the dodge Richard Feynman mocks here:

All the time you’re saying to yourself, ‘I could do that, but I won’t,’–which is just another way of saying that you can’t.

Making a positive forecast about, in this case, baseball, would put us in the uncomfortable position of predicting success for something we can’t control. It is hard to create and achieve success in this world and nothing lasts forever. The sure bet is on the “can’t” in Henry Ford’s “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.

As everyone say, please read the whole thing.

The Apple 8.0.1 Debacle: Whom to blame?

Marc Andreessen drew my attention to a Bloomberg article that laid out what it purported to be “links” with the failed Maps launch. @pmarca was properly skeptical of the article:

And indeed, the piece starts in on the leader of the quality assurance effort, noting that:

The same person at Apple was in charge of catching problems before both products were released. Josh Williams, the mid-level manager overseeing quality assurance for Apple’s iOS mobile-software group, was also in charge of quality control for maps, according to people familiar with Apple’s management structure.

If you didn’t read any further, you’d think the problem was solved. Some guy wasn’t doing his job. Case closed.

But are quality problems ever so simple? After all, Isn’t quality supposed to be built into a product? If this guy was the problem, then why was Apple leaning so heavily on him to lead its bug-finding QA group?

Well, reading on is rewarding, for it becomes clear that the quality problems at Apple run deeper than a bad QA leader. For example, turf wars and secrecy within Apple make it so:

Another challenge is that the engineers who test the newest software versions often don’t get their hands on the latest iPhones until the same time that they arrive with customers, resulting in updates that may not get tested as much on the latest handsets. Cook has clamped down on the use of unreleased iPhones and only senior managers are allowed access to the products without special permission, two people said.

Even worse, integration testing is not routinely done before an OS feature gets to QA:

Teams responsible for testing cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity will sometimes sign off on a product release, then Williams’ team will discover later that it’s not compatible with another feature, the person said.

So all you Apple fans, just remember the joke we used to make late in a project: “What’s another name for the release milestone? User Acceptance Testing begins!”


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