#37 Playing the long game requires moves that don’t map to traditional measures of productivity
The messy middle, leaps of product faith, how to evaluate advice and more
Edison liked to be personally involved in choosing staff. When new positions opened for research jobs at his labs he was there to give the candidates a thorough vetting. He came to find a favorite method for finding the right people was by offering them a bowl of soup and then watching them eat it.
The reason for this soup test was that the famous inventor wanted to see if the applicants added salt and pepper before tasting what was in their bowl, or if they waited until they tasted it before proceeding with the seasoning. Edison immediately rejected the premature seasoners, as he reasoned he didn’t want employees who relied on assumptions. In his opinion, those who were content to abide by preconceived notions had no place in his business because the absence of curiosity and willingness to ask questions were antithetical to innovation.
Yes, curiosity is the fuel for innovation. Use it wisely and widely. You will always be on the right path to success or learning. And with that, let’s get to today’s selection of ideas & stories.
A lot of my work in the last few years has been in areas where calculating and showing real ROI is a big challenge. Initiatives for improving NPS, customer delight, employee & customer education etc can have only a few measurable goals in the short term. But, for many critics, those are not always enough & foolproof. I have resorted to our core values as a guiding input to seek investment & attention to these areas. For an org, where the core values are not just the posters on the office walls - it works to a good extent. We communicate and celebrate many minor/major wins on these projects as well. It helps to show positive outcomes and progress.
John Cutler’s Leaps of product faith offers a good solution for this (highlights are mine).
Only a small % of product managers and product leaders have the confidence to pitch and get support for a strategy with some “leaps of faith” connected to longer term results. Factor in the willingness for other leaders to go along with that, and you have a recipe for a rare situation.
It takes experience, confidence, and credibility. And sustaining that credibility! Plenty of leaders pitch “big, bold projects” and get the benefit of the doubt. Only a small number preside over making regular progress—moving those inputs, and contributing to undeniable success over the mid/long term.
A lot of it boils down to the past experiences of the leadership team. What have they seen work? Not work? Most teams want the certainty fix.
This is why I tell product leaders that they are in the narrative business AND the make-regular-progress business.
Part of your role is creating a coherent narrative—both qualitatively and by structuring (and periodically updating) a quantitative model—that tells the story of how efforts today will contribute to success in the future. And then selling it. You may be able to get some help from an analyst to “back up” your point, but if you’re going to lay the groundwork for the future, some leap of faith is required.
There is a special place in heaven for those who can make you smile. If they can do it without using a lot of abusive or double meaning jokes - even better. For the 'suites' and 'geeks' out there, there is a gold tier as well - those who can use technical or management jargon and make all the fun. In most cases, they are telling the hard truth and mocking us. But it does not pinch so much. It feels relieving.
We visited a gem from McSweeney's in the last post. “Ten Tips for a (Slightly) Less Awful Resume” from Steve Yegge is a well-deserving follow-up act to that. It's not frivolous, it's 100% practical advice. I can guarantee you will agree with most of it. But it is Steve's style of narrating, that makes it worth visiting. He is hilarious in sharing many actionable ideas. He has written it for engineers, but it easily applies to all. You might not make your resume that often. But lessons from this post will help make your career story a little more interesting.
This post is meant to be a disclaimer of sorts. I’ve shared a lot of gyan (advice) in this and earlier posts. But you’re not expected to follow it at the face value. As Ross Gordon suggests, giving advice “is a method for them to build self-assurance rather than to provide helpful guidance to others.”
I cannot totally deny that. All the things that feature in my posts pass one filter that I like & connect with them. No further promise about their connection or relevance with you.
Further, Ross does a good job sharing a framework on how to evaluate a piece of advice. His 2x2 grids are easy to understand and come with relevant explanations & examples. Here’s the snapshot of his grid from his post. For the rest, you can read his full post.
Source: Ross Gordon’s post.
I started reading The messy middle by Scott Belsky last week. I’m just in the early chapters and I must say this has the most useful piece of advice per page that I found in any book. Scott is like a seasoned coach here. A lot of what he is telling us is not new and already known to us. He is just putting the right context to make it useful & actionable. Here’s a brief snapshot from the book (highlights are mine):
The human mind is remarkably shortsighted. We're very good at recognizing cause and effect and projecting the short-term implications of our actions. But we struggle when it comes to chain reactions and laying the groundwork for future opportunities. It takes an entirely different set of measures to engage and endure the long game.
The long game requires us to sometimes break the rules of productivity. For instance, do you take meetings that could only yield a possible transaction in the near term, or are you seeking to build relationships that may yield collaborations many years from now? Are you willing to spend time just brainstorming for the sake of brainstorming, even when you're busy? Do you make time investments only with people who can give you something you want right now, or are you willing to invest in people in whom you believe, even if you think their next project is more likely to succeed than their current one? While many people claim to value long-term moves, few people have the patience. Curiosity is the fuel you need to play the long game. When you're genuinely curious about something, you're less likely to measure productivity in traditional ways. Instead, you're content being in the muck and gain satisfaction from learning something new, not just ticking off to-do items. Rather than seeking a positive outcome, you're exploring all options to satiate your own interests.
In a talk he gave at the Aspen Institute in 2009, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, legendary for his long-term vision, reiterated this point. "Invention requires a long-term willingness to be misunderstood," he said. "When you do something that you genuinely believe in, that you have conviction about, for a long period of time, well-meaning people may criticize that effort." To sustain yourself over this time, you can't look for accolades, and you can't rely on being understood. Playing the long game is a test of your fortitude, your ability to persevere, and just how genuine your interests are.
This book is already on my list of must-reads for any startup leader. Keep it close to you, visit whatever section you need, whenever you need. You’re not going to be disappointed.
Some random goodness from the internet:
Twitter thread: Rahul Chaudhary (@7rahulc) shared a thread about ‘some things about a founder’s mental wellness that he wished someone had told him when he started. I’m keeping this bookmarked for my reference.
Instagram: Jon Foreman (@sculpttheworld) creates land arts. Shells, pebbles, sand, even mushrooms - his creativity has no bound.
Short reads: A 2010 profile on Kobe Bryant (he has cracked, fractured, strained, torn, cut, bruised, nicked, and risked every part of his finely tuned self. And he’s got the rings—and the scars—to show for it), The mysterious bronze objects that have baffled archaeologists for centuries (there is still no clear explanation), Gustave Zander’s 19th-century gym (their workout wear are a ‘class’ apart)
Before we sign off, here's a snapshot of a message worth noting.
That's all for this week, folks!
If you enjoyed this post, show your love by commenting and liking it. I write this newsletter to share what I learnt from others. If you learnt something from this today, why not share it with a couple of your friends to continue this chain?