Jeff Bezos on Process as Proxy

Jeff Bezos’s 2017 letter to shareholders should be required reading for all entrepreneurs. Seriously, go read it now. It’s short and well worth your time.

One point that seemed particularly relevant to my work is to resist process as a proxy:

Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right. Gulp. It’s not that rare to hear a junior leader defend a bad outcome with something like, “Well, we followed the process.” A more experienced leader will use it as an opportunity to investigate and improve the process. The process is not the thing. It’s always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us?

One of my core principles is to be intentional, but hold it lightly. Over half of my work is helping people get clear and aligned around their intentions. People often fall back on process as proxy, because they’ve lost sight of what they’re actually trying to do.

The Mainstreaming of Analytics

John Hollinger, a long-time ESPN.com columnist and inventor of the Player Efficiency Rating (PER) for evaluating basketball players, is joining the Memphis Grizzlies front office as its Vice President of Basketball Operations.

This is wacky on a number of levels. First, it represents the ongoing rise of the numbers geek in sports, a movement pioneered by Bill James almost 40 years ago, given an identity a decade ago in Michael Lewis’s book, Moneyball, and gaining official acceptance in the NBA five years ago, when the Houston Rockets named Daryl Morey its General Manager. Want to run a professional sports team? These days, an MIT degree seems to give you a better chance than spending years in the business.

Second, Hollinger spent over a decade sharing his thinking and his tools for all to see. Now, all his competition needs to do to understand his thinking is to Google him. Tom Ziller writes:

The major difference between Hollinger and, say, Morey is that we all know Hollinger’s theories. We know his positions, and we’ve learned from his work…. Will his canon hurt his ability to make moves? We can lay out exactly which players he likes based on his public formulas and his writings. Other GMs will know which Memphis players he’ll sell low on. You can anticipate his draft choices if you’re picking behind him. If you’ve got a high-production, low-minutes undersized power forward, you know you can goose the price on him because history indicates that Hollinger values him quite seriously.

This is all a gross simplification: Hollinger’s oeuvre is filled with nuance. He doesn’t rank players solely by PER, and in fact he probably has some adjustments to his myriad metrics up his sleeve. He’s not going to be nearly as predictable as a decision-maker as anyone would be as a writer. The stakes are different, the realities of action are different. But no decision-maker in the NBA has had this much of their brain exposed to the world. Morey isn’t shy, but that big Michael Lewis spread on Shane Battier was as far as we ever got into the GM’s gears. Zarren is notoriously careful about what he says. He might be the only GM or assistant GM in the league more secretive than Petrie.

It’s interesting to consider the implications on the Big Data movement in business (on which Moneyball had a much greater influence than most would probably admit). Business is not a zero sum game like professional sports, so there’s more room for nuance and many positive examples of openness and transparency. Still, for all those who believe that openness and competition do not have to be at odds with each other, this will be fascinating to watch.

Ziller also makes a wonderful point about the importance of communicating meaning from analysis:

In the end, what Hollinger’s hire means is that the ability to do the hard analysis is important, but so is translating that to a language the people on the court can understand. That’s always been a wonderful Hollinger strength: making quant analysis accessible without dumbing it down. Even someone as brilliant as Morey, who has a team of quants, can’t always achieve that.

I’m reminded of a tale from Rick Adelman’s days in Houston. Morey’s team would deliver lengthy scouting reports to the team and coaching staff well before a game. It’d have player tendencies, shooting charts, instructions on match-up advantages — everything you could ask for to prep for a game. And out of all of the coaches and all of the players only two — Shane Battier and Chuck Hayes — would devour the reports. The rest (Adelman included) would leaf through, pretend to care and go play ball. That story might be an exaggeration on the part of the person who told it, but even if that’s the case, it shows how important accessibility is. You can build the world’s greatest performance model. And if you can’t explain what it means to the people using it, it’s worthless.

Three Tips on Life from Pete Rose

Last month, ESPN launched a film series, which includes a series of web shorts. The first short in the series was a piece on baseball’s Hit King, Pete Rose, entitled, “Here Now.” There’s a line from Rose in the film that I especially loved, where he outlines his philosophy on hitting, on business, on life:

  • Be aggressive
  • Be more aggressive
  • Never be satisfied

Rose obviously had its flaws (as do we all), but this much is indisputable: He was a great ballplayer, one of the most exciting and inspiring ballplayers ever to watch, and a good manager. We could all learn a lot from how he played the game.

Advice for (Female) Changemakers

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years reflecting on where I am in my career, how I got here, and where I want to go. I find myself in a funny place. I still feel like I’m just getting started. I’m still hungry to learn and to play, to find fulfilling ways to make a bigger impact on the world.

But I’ve also been around the block a few times. Nine years ago, I had a vision for the world and my role in it, and I scratched and clawed to where I am today. I messed up a lot along the way, but I was very, very stubborn. I created a job description for myself that doesn’t exist anywhere else. I do the kind of work I want to do, the way I want to do it, with the people I want to do it with. Some critical mass of people know who I am and respect what I do, and that keeps me in business. Among that critical mass are changemakers themselves, people and organizations doing amazing things. I love what I do, I feel blessed to be doing it, and I’m hungry for more.

So now I’m in second grade. And naturally, there are folks in the first grade who are curious about how I got here. And since I’m tall for my age, there are folks in the third grade who think I know more than I do, and they’re curious too.

So I want to take a moment and offer some of that hard-earned wisdom. I want to offer this to anyone who wants to be a changemaker, but I especially want to offer it to women.

I have two reasons for this. First, for whatever reason, several women have recently reached out to me for advice, so this is in large part for them. Second, based on my experiences with an admittedly unrepresentative sample, I think that women could use this advice more than men. I’m not going to articulate my reasons for this better than Clay Shirky did last year, so I’m not going to try.

Find Your Voice

First and foremost, find your voice and own it. I can’t tell you how often I meet brilliant, passionate people who have important points of view and who aren’t willing to share them. It’s not because they feel proprietary about their thoughts. It’s because they feel unworthy of them.

There’s a psychological phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. It suggests that people who are incompetent tend to overrate their abilities, whereas people who are highly competent tend to underrate their abilities. I find the good kind of Dunning-Kruger rampant among the people I meet and know. It’s not bad on average, because it results in a learning mentality. But it becomes bad when it prevents you from owning your voice. If you’re not voicing your ideas, if you’re not interacting with others, you’re impeding your learning.

If you are humble and authentic, then most people will reward you, not punish you for owning your voice. I know people who are shy about talking about love or compassion or courage in public or even to their peers, because they fear they won’t be taken seriously by others. There may be people who won’t take you seriously, but there are many who will. If you own your voice, you will find those people.

My company has an overtly social mission, but I needed to see others do this successfully before I had the courage to do it myself. And I’ve taken my share of lumps for it. I went to Harvard, and despite the many, many mavericks who graduated (or not) from there, there is still a significant subculture among its alumni that defines success in a stupid way.

A few years after starting Blue Oxen Associates, a college friend said to me, “I’m surprised you’re doing this, Eugene.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I always thought you were more ambitious,” he responded.

I was confused. I had made it my goal to do my part to make the world a better place, and I was not being ambitious? It turned out that my friend had a very specific definition of “ambition,” one that had to do with the single-minded pursuit of money and status. Now that I’ve helped some of the most prestigious organizations in the world, he’s started taking my company seriously. Frankly, he’s still missing the point.

Anyone who claims they don’t care what other people think is a liar. Everyone cares. The question is how much you’ll let other people’s perceptions shape what you do and say. If your answer is “a lot,” the real question is, do you even know what other people think?

Most people don’t. We massively project, and then we listen selectively to feedback, disproportionately latching onto what we expect to hear. (This goes a long way toward explaining the Dunning-Kruger effect.)

I find that women have a bigger problem with this than men do, and I’m not alone in this observation. I have seen many brilliant, accomplished women not speak up in a room or not pursue opportunities that they should be pursuing, because of some self-doubt that no one else has about them. It bothers me every time I see it, because it’s not just a disservice to them, it’s a disservice to the world.

Own your voice. People may or may not take you seriously, but the reality is that it doesn’t matter. What matters is being authentic, stepping into your power. When you own your voice, you will feel better about yourself, regardless of what others have to say, because you are being true to yourself.

Find Your People

Second, find your people. Owning your voice is the best first step toward doing this, because it helps your people find you. Frankly, if it’s the only step you ever take, you’ll do fine. But there are other great steps you can take as well toward doing this.

Finding your people is not about exchanging your business card with every person who passes your way — the dreaded Drive-By Networking.

It’s not about “friending” a thousand people on Facebook or LinkedIn. Social media can be a powerful tool for finding your people, but it’s not a prerequisite. Some of the best connected people I know have almost no presence on any online social networks.

It’s about being intentional and authentic about whom you reach out to and how. It always start with listening.

When I started Blue Oxen Associates, I had zero experience or reputation in this space, but I had a list of people whom I respected and admired. I had met some of these people personally, but I hadn’t worked with many of them. So I took a risk. I contacted every person on the list, and invited them to coffee.

Every person I invited said yes. I made it a point to listen and learn from them, and if I liked them, I also asked them to join my advisory board. To my surprise, everyone I asked said yes. Moreover, every one of them went out of their way to help me get started, never turning down a request to meet, giving me much needed advice and encouragement. I would not have made it here today had it not been for their support.

At first, I couldn’t understand why they were not only willing to take a chance on me, but were so generous with their time. All of these people were extremely busy, and some of them were big names in their industry. Over time, it dawned on me. They were seeking their people too. It’s not about finding people with big reputations. It’s about finding people who listen, who are constantly learning, and who care passionately about the world, even if they happen to be naive kids in their 20s with no experience.

Putting together this advisory board was the single best decision I made in starting my company. But a few years later, something felt off. My advisors had recently become too supportive. They rarely criticized me, and that didn’t make any sense to me, because I knew that I was making mistakes. I wanted my circle to kick my butt if it needed kicking. I started recruiting more advisors, folks whom I knew weren’t afraid to give me some tough love.

At our next meeting, I presented a new strategy, a shift I had been wanting to make for some time. And my newly expanded advisory board did what I had hoped: They were critical. Very critical. The response was universal: Too soon. I didn’t like what they said, and I ended up sticking with my plan. But the truth was, I listened. They forced me to reexamine my thinking critically, and I developed contingency plans that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

As it turned out, they were right. Knowing that now, I still wouldn’t have done anything any other way. I needed to try it to know for sure. I had hoped I was right, but I was prepared when it turned out I wasn’t, thanks to my advisors.

Sometimes, people are reluctant to ask for advice or help, because they want to be a little more prepared, have a bit more to show. That’s exactly the wrong thing to do. You want to surround yourself with people who will help you as you’re developing your ideas, as you’re trying new things. Don’t wait.

At the same time, make sure you find the right balance between folks who will encourage you and folks who will be honest with you. It’s a very tricky balance. The first few years of my company were very difficult. I didn’t really need anyone else to criticize me; I was doing a great job of that myself. The support I got from my advisors, my colleagues, and my friends meant everything to me and kept me going. Later, when things started going better, and I started gaining more confidence, I needed my people to be more critical of me to keep me honest.

Many of my most successful women friends have women’s circles, which I think are fantastic. Some of them have asked me whether I would ever consider putting together a men’s circle. I usually jokingly respond, “I already have one. It’s called poker night.” The truth is, I’ve thought a lot about it, and I prefer having diversity across multiple axes in my circles, including gender. I think all women would benefit from having a strong women’s circle, but I think that many women would benefit from having strong male mentors as well.

Just Do It

Probably the biggest obstacle I see that prevents people from pursuing their passions is fear, fear of what others will think, and fear of not being ready. Don’t wait until you’re ready. You’ll never be ready. Changing the world is a moving target.

The path to changing the world is to start. Don’t worry about finding the perfect medium or the perfect job. Don’t worry about whether or not people are paying attention. Find every opportunity to try something, to practice, because that’s the only way you’ll ever get good at making change.