The Art of Possibility

A great lecturer and mentor of mine, John Steinhart, recently recommended the book The Art of Possibility. John specifically mentioned its audio recording. Although I have a reasonably lengthy list of books to read already, a recommendation from John no doubt sets me into motion to check both the audiobook and paperback out. The Art of Possibility, written by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, is my book of this week. The audiobook is also read by both authors. It is fascinating that the audiobook includes many pieces of music that were intimately relevant to the context. I am very fond of classical music, even more so when the music is intertwined with the stories and discussions in this book. I am grateful to John for suggesting this book.

It takes certain mindset to settle into this book. The shift from last week’s Information Retrieval to this was not a comfortable one. My very analytical mind initially responded quite badly to the vagueness of its writing and its light-weight philosophical discussions. I was constantly battling with my inner voice: Why is this the case? How did we derive this point? Is this a single instance? Do we have a sufficiently large data set to draw this kind of insights/conclusions? How do we know that we have attributed to the right causes for the effect observed? Then suddenly one sentence opened the door for me to enter this book: “do not take yourself so goddamn seriously.” Did not Oscar Wilde have a similar line: “Life is too important to be taken seriously”? It reminded me also of a piece of advice that my friend Jay Owen gifted me last year: “do not take yourself too seriously”. That sentence was very powerful. In this particular circumstance, I told my inner self off immediately, “Just shut up! Be open-minded and see what the authors have to say!” I subsequently experienced the wonder of this practice. I was curious enough and wanting to learn all the rest of the practices covered in the book such that I started again from the beginning.

This book is about possibility. The message resonates with what I learned some time ago that I am only limited by my own thinking. As the authors put it: much, much more is possible than people ordinarily think. The authors wrote this book with the objective to provide us the means to lift off from the world of struggle and sail into a vast universe of possibility.

“Our premise is that many of the circumstances that seem to block us in our daily lives may only appear to do so based on a framework of assumptions we carry with us. Draw a different frame around the same set of circumstances and new pathways come into view. Find the right framework and extraordinary accomplishment becomes an everyday experience. Each chapter of this book presents a different facet of this approach and describes a new practice for bringing possibility to life.”

Here is a short summary of a selectively few out of the 12 practices included in the book. I include the steps to get there from the book too. Some are direct quotes. Some are paraphrased by me. Purely for readability purpose, I do not use italic font to mark the quoted phrases or passages, but I happily acknowledge that all messages below are read or learned from the book.

  • It’s All Invented. Ask these questions: what assumptions am I making, that I am not aware I’m making, that gives me what I see? And ask: what might I now invent, that I haven’t yet invented, that would give me other choices?
  • Stepping into a Universe of Possibility. How are my thoughts and actions, in this moment, reflections of the measurement world? You look for thoughts and actions that reflect survival and scarcity, comparison and competition, attachment and anxiety. Recognising that your measurement mind is at work, you ask again: How are my thoughts and actions, in this new moment, a reflection of the measurement world? And how now?
  • Being a Contribution. Life is a place to contribute and we as contributors. Unlike success and failure, contribution has no other side. It is not arrived at by comparison. How will I contribute today? Declare yourself to be a contribution. Throw yourself into life as someone who makes a difference, accepting that you may not understand how or why.
  • Lighting a Spark. Ben told a story that his father said “Certain things in life are better done in person”, when Ben asked him why not making a phone call instead of making a train journey. That answer bewildered Ben in a wonderful way. Many years later, Ben made a day trip by air to persuade the world’s greatest cellist Mstislav Rostropovich to play in a concert. Rostropovich agreed to play. To light a spark, the authors suggest to practice enrollment: imagine that people are an invitation for enrollment, stand ready to participate, willing to be moved and inspired, offer that which lights you up, have no doubt that others are eager to catch the spark. It is similar to the “yes, and” practice in improv.

I would like to highlight a few passages that relate the practices in this book to a much broad world.

When one person peels away layers of opinion, entitlement, pride, and inflated self-description, others instantly feel the connection. As one person has the grace to practice the secret of Rule Number 6 (do not take yourself seriously), others often follow.

I am the framework for everything that happens in my life….If I cannot be present without resistance to the way things are and act effectively, if I feel myself to be wronged, a loser, or a victim, I will tell myself that some assumption I have made is the source of my difficulty.

The foremost challenge for leaders today, we suggest, is to maintain the clarity to stand confidently in the abundant universe of possibility, no matter how fierce the competition, no matter how stark the necessity to go for the short-term goal, no matter how fearful people are, and no matter how urgently the wolf may appear to howl at the door. It is to have the courage and persistence to distinguish the downward spiral from the radiant realm of possibility in the face of any challenge.

The term mission statement is often used interchangeably with the word vision in business and political arenas but, by and large, mission statements are expressions of competition and scarcity…A vision releases us from the weight and confusion of local problems and concerns, and allows us to see the long clear line. A vision becomes a framework for possibility when it meets certain criteria that distinguish it from the objectives of the downward spiral.


The book has a list of criteria as what is a vision in the universe of possibility, which I do not list here for the sake of brevity. That said, I do think they are very relevant to any organisation.

After reading this book, I understand why John recommended this book. The views and methods advocated here can be very powerful in searching for good solutions to resolve conflicts and even better in transforming the conflicts to profoundly rewarding experiences.

Getting to Yes

Getting to Yes – Negotiating an Agreement without Giving in is written by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton.

This is another book that I borrowed from John Steinhart. It is one of John’s many recommended books on leadership and conflict management. I enjoyed reading the paperback tremendously, but had a lesser experience listening to the audiobook. Perhaps the subject matter is more suitable to be consumed in print than in sound waves. As a comparison, the audiobook The Selfish Gene, read by Richard Dawkins and Lalla Ward, was addictive to listen to.

In the authors’ own words: This book is about the method of principled negotiation. The first chapter describes problems that arise in using the standard strategies of positional bargaining. The next four chapters lay out the four principles of the method. The last three chapters answer the questions most commonly asked about the method: What if the other side is more powerful? What if they will not play along? And what if they use dirty tricks?

What is negotiation? It is easier to think what it is not. In my view, it is not a contest of will, for example, whether I am more stubborn than you or vice versa. It is not threatening. By threatening with statement such as “if you do not meet my request, I would do X just to spite you”, you only show how fragile and insensible you are. At the receiving end, no one should give in to threats like that, unless the concession to be made is of no consequence to others and we do not want to waste any more breath with the other party. I also think it is wrong to have a specific and fixed goal prior to the negotiation. With an unshakable target in mind, you might turn deaf to the other party’s reasoning and stop seeking other potentially better options. Negotiation is a dialogue. The more challenging the underlying conflict, the better to have this dialogue in person, side by side. Ask questions and listen to others’ perspectives, seek understanding of what matters most to them. Finally, before heading into a conflict and negotiation, there is always the question whether it is worth it.

In the authors’ words: Negotiation is back-and-forth communication designed to reach an agreement when you and the other side have some interests that are shared and others that are opposed (as well as some that may simply be different).

This book is centered at principled negotiation and I list four methods to achieve that below. As usual, texts in italic are quoted from the book, the rest is my thought based on reading the book.

  • Separate the people from the problem

Every negotiator has two kinds of interest: in the substance and in the relationship…The relationship tends to become entangled with the problem…Positional bargaining puts relationship and substance in conflict…Dealing with a substantive problem and maintaining a good working relationship need not be conflicting goals if the parties are committed and psychologically prepared to treat each separately on its own legitimate merits. Base the relationship on mutually understood perceptions, clear two-way communication, expressing emotions without blame, and a forward-looking, purposive outlook. Deal with people problems by changing how you treat people; don’t try to solve them with substantive concessions.

  • Focus on interests, not positions.  

The basic problem in a negotiation lies not in conflicting positions, but in the conflict between each side’s needs, desires, concerns, and fears….Behind opposed positions lie shared and compatible interests, as well as conflicting ones….How do you identify interests? One basic technique is to put yourself in their shoes. Examine each position they take, and ask yourself “Why?”… Ask “Why not?” Think about their choice. One of the most useful ways to uncover interests is first to identify the basic decision that those on the other side probably see you asking them for, and then to ask  yourself why they have not made that decision. What interests of theirs stand in the way? If you are trying to change their minds, the starting point is to figure out where their minds are now.

  • Invent options for mutual gains

This method calls for being creative in coming up with potential solutions. Neither of the two negotiating parties has to lock into certain positions. By examining both conflicting and shared interests, being open-minded without forming premature judgement helps to search for new options that might satisfy the interests of both parties. Do not think that solving their problem is their problem. In a negotiation, the problem is affecting both parties. It pays to invent ways to make the counterparty’s decision making process easier.

  • Insist on using objective criteria

Principled negotiation produces wise agreements amicably and efficiently. The more you bring standards of fairness, efficiency, or scientific merit to bear on your particular problem, the more likely you are to produce a final package that is wise and fair. The more you and the other side refer to precedent and community practice, the greater your chance of benefiting from past experience. And an agreement consistent with precedent is less vulnerable to attack…Three basic points to remember: frame each issue as a joint search for objective criteria; reason and be open to reason as to which standards are most appropriate and how they should be applied; never yield to pressure, only to principle.

The vast majority of workplace conflicts are small-scale and are usually caused by misunderstanding, particularly when the communication skills, culture and personal backgrounds vary drastically. We should refrain from sending emails or messages when the recipients are reachable in person. In the absence of face-to-face discussions, video calls are better than phone calls, which in turn are better than emails for dealing with conflicts. An extension, but not far-fetching: life is much better without being the slave of e-communication. Finally, I also think it is important to know that not all negotiation will result in win-win solutions. It is perfectly fine to agree that we disagree with each other with mutual respect intact.

I end this article with a few more interesting points of view from the book:

A great need for negotiation based on a joint search for mutual gains and legitimate standards.

Conflict remains, as we have noted, a growth industry. Indeed, the advent of the negotiation revolution has brought more conflict, not less. Hierarchies tend to bottle up conflict, which comes out into the open as hierarchies give way to networks. Democracies surface rather suppress conflicts, which is why democracies often seem so quarrelsome and turbulent when compared with more authoritarian societies.

The goal cannot and should not be to eliminate conflict. Conflict is an inevitable – and useful – part of life. It often leads to change and generates insight. Few injustices are addressed without serious conflict. In the form of business competition, conflict helps create prosperity. And it lies at the heart of the democratic process, where the best decisions result not from a superficial consensus but from exploring different points of view and searching for creative solutions. Strange as it may seem, the world needs more conflict, not less.

The challenge is not to eliminate conflict but to transform it. It is to change the way we deal with our differences – from destructive, adversarial battling to hard-headed, side-by-side problem solving.

Like it or not, you are a negotiator. Negotiation is a fact of life.

People find themselves in a dilemma. They see two ways to negotiate: soft or hard. The soft negotiator wants to avoid personal conflict and so makes concessions readily to reach agreement. He or she wants an amicable resolution; yet often ends up exploited and feeling bitter. The hard negotiator sees any situation as a contest of wills in which the side that takes the more extreme positions and holds out longer fares better. He or she wants to win; yet often ends up producing an equally hard response that exhausts the negotiator and his or her resources and harms the relationship with the other side. Other standard negotiating strategies fall between hard and soft, but each involves an attempted trade-off between getting what you want and getting along with people.

The (principled negotiation) method applies whether the other side is more experienced or less, a hard bargainer or a friendly one. Principled negotiation is an all-purpose strategy. Unlike almost all other strategies, if the other side learns this one, it does not become more difficult to use; it becomes easier. If they read this book, all the better.

The Five Dysfunctions of A Team


This week, I read The Five Dysfunctions of A Team by Patrick Lencioni. It is a fascinating read. After this week’s Leadership and Conflict Management class with John Steinhart concluded, I stood by the desk where John laid out a collection of recommended books, picked this book up, started reading and became completely hooked by it. As time went by, everyone else left the lecture theatre. There I was, still holding this book. John graciously offered to let me take this book home to continue the reading. Borrowed books are always more interesting to read than the ones we own, especially if you borrow from a friend rather than a library.

To whet your appetite, I include this short passage from the cover: After her first two weeks observing the problems at DecisionTech, Kathryn Petersen, its new CEO, had more than a few moments when she wondered if she should have taken the job. But Kathryn knew there was little chance she would have turned it down. After all, retirement had made her antsy, and nothing excited her more than a challenge. What she could not have known when she accepted the job, however, was just how dysfunctional her team was, and how team members would challenge her in ways that no one ever had before.

The best feature of this book lies in its storytelling. The pseudo company DecisionTech is failing despite its initial success under the founder and CEO Jeff. The board brought in Kathryn Petersen aged 57 out of retirement to fix the company up and turn it into a success. Kathryn has no prior experience working in high tech companies. She was a “blue-collarish executive’ in an automobile manufacturing plant. Kathryn spent first two weeks attending meetings and simply observing without actions, which frightened the board and the company as to how much value she would add, if any. Then she decided to have a series of off-sites with all executives, while the company was in dire need of bringing in customers and generating revenue. The very first conflict arrived from this, followed by other conflicts and at the core the five dysfunctions revealed and Kathryn’s actions in addressing them. At each turn of the page, I was eager to find out how yet another new mess is to be sorted out.

Unlike most books about leadership and management written with analysis and case studies, this book is a leadership fable with the style of a fiction. With one set of characters in a fictitious startup, many stories are progressively told to reveal the five dysfunctions of a team that are very common at most workplaces and show the steps taken to overcome these issues to build a highly effective team. Thanks to Patrick’s excellent portraying of the characters through dialogues and thought processes, while reading this book I was able to map myself to the key characters, see their perspectives and learn what behaviors are constructive or destructive for building a great team.

What are the five dysfunctions of a team? I share the descriptions from the book below with one warning. Simply looking through the list here without seeing its manifestation would discount its value significantly, particularly for readers without leadership experience.

  • The first dysfunction is an absence of trust among team members. Essentially, this stems from their unwillingness to be vulnerable within the group. Team members who are not genuinely open with one another about their mistakes and weaknesses make it impossible to build a foundation for trust.
  • This failure to build trust is damaging because it sets the tone for the second dysfunction: fear of conflict. Teams that lack trust are incapable of engaging in unfiltered and passionate debate of ideas. Instead, they resort to veiled discussions and guarded comments.
  • A lack of healthy conflict is a problem because it ensures the third dysfunction of a team: lack of commitment. Without having aired their opinions in the course of passionate and open debate, team members rarely, if ever, buy in and commit to decisions, though they may feign agreement during meetings.
  • Because of this lack of real commitment and buy-in, team members develop an avoidance of accountability. Without committing to a clear plan of action, even the most focused and driven people often hesitate to call their peers on actions and behaviors that seem counterproductive to the good of the team.
  • Failure to hold one another accountable creates an environment where the fifth dysfunction can thrive. Inattention to results occurs when team members put their individual needs (such as ego, career development, or recognition) or even the needs of their divisions above the collective goals of the team.

This figure cited from the Table Group gives a pictorial overview of the five dysfunctions and example methods to combat them.

A few more passages from the book are worthy mentioning:

Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.

Building a strong team is both possible and remarkably simple. But it is painfully difficult.

Kathryn’s lack of in-depth software experience did not concern her. In fact, she felt certain that it provided her with an advantage. Most of her staff seemed almost paralyzed by their own knowledge of technology, as though they themselves would have to do the programming and product design to make the company fly. Kathryn knew that Jack Welch didn’t have to be an expert on toaster manufacturing to make General Electric a success and that Herb Kelleher didn’t have to spend a lifetime flying airplanes to build Southwest Airlines.

As harsh as that may sound, Ken (Kathryn’s husband) always says that his job (as a coach) is to create the best team possible, not to shepherd the careers of individual athletes. And that’s how I look at my job (CEO).

Find someone who can demonstrate trust, engage in conflict, commit to group decision, hold their peers accountable, and focus on the results of the team, not their own ego.  

Now, what dysfunctions have been affecting your team? Would you like to exit from it or to fix the dysfunctions? How would you like to address them? You might find this book a useful one to read.

Only the Paranoid Survive

In this book, Andrew Grove talked to us about strategic inflection points: what they are, how to identify them, how to separate the signals from the noise, how to lead your business through the tough transitions and emerge from them stronger. Finally he offered advice on dealing with a career inflection point. In his own words:

this book is about the impact of changing rules. It’s about finding your way through uncharted territories. Through examples and reflections on my and others’ experiences, I hope to raise your awareness of what it’s like to go through cataclysmic changes and to provide a framework in which to deal with them

Given a curve, an inflection point is where the rate of change of the slope of the curve changes sign. In this book it is the time and place where the second derivative of the curve changes its sign from negative to positive. The figure below cited from the book illustrates this change. However, in reality, it is very challenging to pinpoint when exactly this inflection point takes place, what causes it and how to handle it. In this book, Andrew Grove shared his insights though both his own experience of navigating Intel through multiple challenges and observations of the other players in the computer industry.

Andrew Grove used the change of direction of the company Next as an example to illustrate a strategic inflection point in the computer industry. After leaving Apple in 1985, Steve Jobs started a new company, Next, to create the “Next” generation of superbly engineered hardware, a graphical user interface that was even better than Apple’s Macintosh interface and an operating system that was capable of more advanced tasks than the Mac. Unfortunately he and the team were oblivious to the new development that Microsoft had made in the PC domain, Windows. I like Andy’s way of capturing this: It was as if Steve Jobs and his company had gone into a time capsule when they started Next. They worked hard for years, competing against what they thought was the competition, but by the time they emerged, the competition turned out to be something completely different and much more powerful. This threw Next into a strategic inflection point. Eventually, Jobs pivoted Next to become a software company instead of a vertical hardware company.

Andrew discussed about the six forces affecting a business. The six forces are:

  • power, vigor and competence of existing competitors, complementors, customers, suppliers and potential competitors
  • the possibility that what your business is doing can be done in a different way.

He detailed the potential impact of a 10X force that could arrive from any one of the six forces or their combinations. For example, focusing on  changes from customers: customers drifting away from their former buying habits may provide the most subtle and insidious cause of a strategic inflection point….Businesses fail either because they leave their customers, i.e., they arbitrarily change a strategy that worked for them in the past (the obvious change), or because their customers leave them (the subtle one).

He gave many examples of inflection points to help us identify the 10X forces in industries other than high-tech. For example, the impact of Walmart moving into a small town on small grocery stores, that of sound movies take over the silent movies, and how containerization transformed the shipping industry.

One very detailed discussion in the book is about the transition of the computer industry from a vertical one to a very different horizontal one. This potentially could be extended and applied to other industries too.

Horizontal industries live and die by mass production and mass marketing. They have their own rules. The companies that have done well in the brutally competitive horizontal computer industry have learned these implicit rules. By following them, a company has the opportunity to compete and prosper. By defying them, no matter how good its products are, no matter how well they execute their plans, a company is slogging uphill.

In this book, Grove prescribed three rules for succeeding in a horizontal industry.

  • Do not differentiate without a difference. Do not introduce improvements whose only purpose is to give you an advantage over your competitor without giving your customer a substantial advantage.
  • In this hypercompetitive horizontal world, opportunity knocks when a technology break or other fundamental change comes your way. Grab it. The first mover and only the first mover, the company that acts while the others dither, has a true opportunity to gain time over its competitors – and time advantage, in this business, is the surest way to gain market share.
  • Price for what the market will bear, price for volume, then work like the devil on your costs so that you can make money at that price. This will lead you to achieve economies of scale in which the large investments that are necessary can be effective and productive and will make sense because, by being a large-volume suppliers, you can spread and recoup those costs. By contrast, cost-based pricing will often lead you into a niche position, which in a mass-production-based industry is not very lucrative.

I was particularly drawn to one story told in this book: In the midst of the memory crisis, Andrew Grove asked Gordon Moore, “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?” Gordon answered without hesitation, “He would get us out of memories.” Andrew stared at him, numb and then said, “Why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back and do it ourselves?”

The Route to Survival (advice from the book, roughly in the order of identifying inflection points, differentiating signal from noise, handling the chaos, how to rein in chaos):

The more complex the issues are, the more levels of management should be involved because people from different levels bring completely different points of view and expertise to the table, as well as different genetic makeups. The debate should involve people outside the company, customers and partners who not only have different areas of expertise but also have different interests.

When dealing with emerging trends, you may very well have to go against rational extrapolation of data and rely instead on anecdotal observations and your instincts.

I cannot stress this issue strongly enough. It takes many years of consistent conduct to eliminate fear of punishment as an inhibitor of strategic discussion. It takes only one incident to introduce it. News of this incident will spread through the organisation like wildfire and shut everyone up.

The old order will not give way to the new without a phrase of experimentation and chaos in between. The dilemma is that you cannot suddenly start experimenting when you realise you are in trouble unless you have been experimenting all along. It is too late to do it once things have changed in your core business. Ideally, you should have experimented with new products, technologies, channels, promotions and new customers all along.

How do we know whether a change signals a strategic inflection point? The only way is through the process of clarification that comes from broad and intensive debates.

Resolution comes through experimentation. Only stepping out of the old ruts will bring new insights.

Develop a new industry mental map. This map is composed of an unstated set of rules and relationships, ways and means of doing business, what’s “done” and how it is done and what’s “not done”, who matters and who doesn’t, whose opinion you can count on and whose opinion is usually wrong, and so on….knowing these things has become second nature.

Clarity of direction, which includes describing what we are going after as well as describing what we will not be going after, is exceedingly important at the late stage of a strategic transformation.

To make it through the valley of death succesfully, your first task is to form a mental image of what the company should look like when you get to the other side. This image not only needs to be clear enough for you to visualize but it also has to be crisp enough so you can communicate it simply to your tired, demoralized and confused staff.

Seeing, imagining and sensing the new shape of things is the first step. Be clear in this but be realistic also. Do not compromise and do not kid yourself. If you are describing a purpose that deep down you know you cannot achieve, you are dooming your chances of climbing out of the valley of death.

If you are in a leadership position, how you spend your time has enormous symbolic values. It will communicate what is important or what is not far more powerfully than all the speeches you can give.

Assigning or reassigning resources in order to pursue a strategic goal is an example of what I call strategic action. I’m convinced that corporate strategy is formulated by a series of such actions, far more so than through conventional top-down strategic planning.

Should you pursue a highly focused approached, betting everything on one strategic goal, or should you hedge?…I tend to believe Mark Twain hit it on the head when he said, “Put all of your eggs in one basket and WATCH THAT BASKET.”…It is very hard to lead an organisation out of the valley of death without a clear and simple strategic direction…While you are going through the valley of death, you may think you see the other side, but you cannot be sure whether it is truly the other side or just a mirage. Yet you have to commit yourself to a certain course and a certain pace, otherwise you will run out of water and energy before long. If you are wrong, you will die. But most companies do not die because they are wrong; most die because they do not commit themselves. The fritter away their momentum and their valuable resources while attempting to make a decision. The greatest danger is in standing still.

While struggling with a 10X force, you cannot change a company without changing its management .

Finally, Andrew Grove draw parallel of the career inflection points to the business strategic ones. Career inflection points caused by a change in the environment do not distinguish between the qualities of the people that they dislodge by their force.

The desire for a different lifestyle, or the fatigue that sets in after many years of doing a stressful job, can cause people to re-evaluate their needs and wants, and can build to a force as powerful as any that comes from the external environment. Put another way, your internal thinking and feeling machinery is as much as part of your environment as an employee as your external situation. Major changes in either can affect your work life.

The chapter on Career Inflection Points teach us a few lessons:

  1. Each person, whether he is an employee or self-employed, is like an individual business. Your career is literally your business, and you are its CEO….It is your responsibility to protect your career from harm and to position yourself to benefit from changes in the operating environment.
  2. initiate your career transition in your own time rather than having it initiated for you by outside circumstances.
  3. Be alert to changes. Go through a mental fire drill in anticipation of the time when you may have a real fire on your hands. Be a little paranoid about your career.
  4. Be aware of the sources that might keep you from recognizing the danger, for example,  the inertia of previous success, the fear of giving that up and the fear of change. Denial will only cost you time and lead you to miss the optimal moment for action.
  5. While experimenting for change, avoid random motion. Look for something that allows you to use your knowledge or skills in a position that is more immune to the wave of changes you have spotted. Better yet, look for a job that takes advantage of the changes in the first place. Go with the flow rather than fight it.
  6. Andrew’s final advice of the book on career transition: looking back may be tempting, but it is terribly counterproductive. Donot bemoan the way things were. They will never be that way again. Pour your energy, every bit of it, into adapting to your new world, into learning the skills you need to prosper in it and into shaping it around you. Whereas the old land presented limited opportunity or none at all, the new land enables you to have a future whose rewards are worth all the risks.

This concludes my summary of the book. I came across this book from two sources: Ben Horowitz’s book that I wrote about in previous blog and the leadership courses that I have been attending at Stanford. To me, if there are multiple significant and credible sources that mention a book or a person or a topic, that qualifies it as a definite “signal” for me to look into. I am glad that I read this book as a result of that. Although it appears that a few concepts conveyed in the book are contradictory to those of other books. For example, here advocating for being a first mover, while as Adam Grant’s Originals and Peter Thiel’s Zero to One recommend to beware the disadvantages of that and that the conventional view might have over-estimated the benefit for first movers. In my opinion, the correct way to read leadership, management and entrepreneurship books is to get different perspectives and to broaden my thinking, to see how the insights were derived from the particular circumstances, and to learn what fundamental attributes of the authors enabled them to navigate through the difficult times and lead their business to success. It is useful having read these books to think about the values of what has been regarded as wrong or bad practices. The goal is absolutely not to memorize the rules, as there could never be a rigid set of prescribed one-size-fit-all advices for the constantly evolving world.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things

The Hard Thing About Hard Things is written by Ben Horowitz. This book is hard for me to summarize. The lessons learned from the book are invaluable, but by not reading the stories themselves, you would only comprehend its gist with a large discount. In fact, most of the advice offered in the book might be covered by Ben’s blogs. As he said at the beginning, this book is his attempt to tell the back stories from where those insights were derived.

In the first a few chapters, Ben shared with us his years of experience with SG, an unsuitable startup, Lotus, Netscape, Loudcloud and Opsware, and finally moved on to found the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz with his long-term business partner Marc Andreessen. I found his explanation on why he has worked well with Marc over many years very fascinating: “Most business relationships either become too tense to tolerate or not tense enough to be productive after a while. Either people challenge each other to the point where they don’t like each other or they become complacent about each other’s feedback and no longer benefit from the relationship. With Marc and me, even after eighteen years, he upsets me almost every day by finding something wrong in my thinking, and I do the same for him. It works.

Ben’s honesty and courage of sharing all these behind-the-scene stories is very admirable. A few interesting stories about his early years as a young boy and student shine the lights on how some of his worldview was developed, particularly how not to judge by appearance and to separate facts from perception.

Based on the lessons distilled from his time at Loudcloud and Opsware, Ben offers advice on the many challenges that a startup CEO might face. For example: how to survive the struggle, communicate with the team, hire and train people, and build the company culture,  use different approaches for wartime from those for the peacetime. He also covers how to become elite at giving feedback, suggestions on handling the accountability and creativity paradox, how to evaluate CEOs, deciding whether to sell or not sell your company and so on. I’d recommend all managers or aspiring ones to read the sections about employee training and retention, what features a good vs poor organisation has, what the characteristics of being a good product manager are vs those of being a bad one.

I particularly like the discussion about making yourself a CEO. Do not despair, if you as a CEO feel incompetent doing some of your work and fear that you do not have the talent to handle being a CEO. Take Ben’s advice: “This is the process. This is how you get made.”  “Being CEO requires lots of unnatural motion. From an evolutionary standpoint, it is natural to do things that make people like you. It enhances your chance for survival. Yet to be a good CEO, in order to be liked in the long run, you must do many things that will upset people in the short run. Unnatural things.

Here are a number of practices and lessons covered by Ben in the book that stood out for me. As in all previous posts, the words in italic are quoted from the book.

When it came to the realisation that LoudCloud had to reset its earning guidance to the investors, facing the tough choice of either minimizing the initial damage by taking down the number as little possible (as their immediate quarter number is met, but the whole year forecast is way off) or minimizing the risk of another reset, Dave Conte advised to Ben: “No matter what we say, we’re going to get killed. As soon as we reset guidance, we’ll have no credibility with investors, so we might as well take all the pain now, because nobody will believe any positivity in the forecast anyway. If you are going to eat shit, don’t nibble.

Some things are much easier to see in others than in yourself.

Needs always trump wants in mergers and acquisitions.

Michael Ovitz advised to Ben and his team when they were working on selling part of Loudcloud to potential bidders (IBM and EDS):

Gentlemen, I’ve done many deals in my lifetime and through that process, I’ve developed a methodology, a way of doing things, a philosophy if you will. Within that philosophy, I have certain beliefs. I believe in artificial deadlines. I believe in playing one against the other. I believe in doing everything and anything short of illegal or immoral to get the damned deal done.

What a clear message! Another piece from Michael from the book: Going past the deadline is a better move than not having one.

After the deal of selling part of Loudcloud to EDS was signed, Bill Campbell advised Ben to stay at Loudcloud instead of going to New York to announce the deal: You need to stay home and make sure everybody knows where they stand. You can’t wait a day. In fact, you can’t wait a minute. They need to know whether they are working for you, EDS, or looking for a fucking job. Retrospectively from Ben, “that small piece of advice from Bill proved to be the foundation we needed to rebuild the company. If we hadn’t treated the people who were leaving fairly, the people who stayed would never have trusted me again.”

I move onward, the only direction. Can’t be scared to fail in search of perfection.

One great characteristic of Ben’s stuck me while reading the book: the extreme simplicity of his communication style. The book provided many examples of his messages to the employees, advisors etc. One example:

“You have now heard everything that I know and think about the opportunity in front of us. Wall Street does not believe Opsware is a good idea, but I do. I can understand if you don’t. Since this is a brand-new company and a brand-new challenge, I am issuing everyone new stock grants today. All that I ask is that if you have decided to quit that you quit today. I won’t walk you out of the door – I’ll help you find a job. But, we need to know where we stand. We need to know who is with us and who we can count on. We cannot afford to slowly bleed out. You owe it to your teammates to be honest. Let us know where you stand.”

As painful as it might be, I knew that we had to get into the broader market in order to understand it well enough to build the right product. Paradoxically, the only way to do that was to ship and try to sell the wrong product. We would fall on our faces, but we would learn fast and do what was needed to survive.

Throughout the book, the importance of a great team is crystally clear. There are numerous examples in the book showing that how many brilliant minds were part of Ben’s journeys. For example, Anthony Wright was described by Ben in the book as: self-made, super-determined, and unwilling to fail. Anthony had an uncanny ability to quickly gain deep insight into people’s character and motivations. I was particularly drawn to how Anthony handled Frank regarding Frank’s plan of dropping Opsware software completely and immediately. “Frank, I will do exactly as you say, I’ve heard you loud and clear. This is a terrible moment for you and for us. Allow me to use your phone, and I will call Ben Horowitz and give him your instructions. But before I do, can I ask you one thing? If my company made the commitment to fix these issues, how much time would you give us to do that?” That rhetoric and the subsequent answer probably saved Opsware from a lot trouble.

Whenever a large organization attempts to do anything, it always comes down to a single person who can delay the entire project.

It is a good idea to ask: what am I not doing?

Startup CEOs should not play the odds. When you are building a company, you must believe there is an answer and you cannot pay attention to your odds of finding it. You just have to find it. It matters not whether your chances are nine in ten or one in a thousand; your task is the same.

Sadly, there is no secret (to being a successful CEO), but if there is one skill that stands out, it’s the ability to focus and make the best move when there are no good moves. It is the moments when you feel most like hiding or dying that you can make the biggest difference as a CEO.

The struggle is where greatness comes from.

CEOs should tell it like it is. My single biggest personal improvement as CEO occurred on the day when I stopped being too positive.

When hiring executives, one should follow Colin Powell’s instructions and hire for strength rather than lack of weakness.

We take care of the people, the products, and the profits – in that order.

Being too busy to train is the moral equivalent of being too hungry to eat.

When you think there are things you can count on in business, you quickly find that the sky is purple. When this happens, it usually does no good to keep arguing that the sky is blue. You just have to get on and deal with the fact that it’s going to look like Barney for a while.

There are two kinds of cultures in this world: cultures where what you do matters and cultures where all that matters is who you are. You can be the former or you can suck.

As a venture capitalist, I have had the freedom to say what I want and what I really think without worrying what everybody else thinks. As a CEO, there is no such luxury. As CEO, I had to worry about what everybody else thought. In particular, I could not show weakness in public. It would not have been fair to the employees, the executives, or the public company shareholders. Unrelenting confidence was necessary.

Embrace the struggle….Embrace your weirdness, your background, your instinct.

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future

This book came out of a course about startups that Peter taught at Stanford in 2012. My overall experience of reading this book front to back once and selected passages twice has been a very unsettling one in a positive way. It would be an understatement to say it is thought-provoking.

Many opinions shared in this book shake up the conventional beliefs, particularly the part dissecting how profoundly flawed our education system is. For example, educating people like a manufacturing pipeline, pushing people to think alike, being competitive for certain metrics, being “good” in many areas but “great” at none etc. Peter’s discussion on competition and monopoly challenges the conventional view that most of us are accustomed to: that competition is good and monopoly is bad. Partially to blame are the educational experiences we all had in competing against our peers to get ahead at school. Partially to blame is the distortion of our perceptions of the two as a result of legislation, morality or bending the facts to support our arguments. From an entrepreneur’s point of view this conventional view is not necessarily correct. This part of the book was one of the most stimulating debates for me. With the belief that I think for myself and do not agree blindly with others, I found myself taking the risk of being unoriginal and agreeing with his points on monopoly and competition. Last but definitely not least, compared with many other (non-fictional leadership/management/entrepreneurship) books I read recently, the writing demonstrates that the author has very high-powered and unyielding points of view charged with great logical reasoning. In my imaginative world, by reading this book I experienced what an ancient Roman citizen had while listening to the great orators debate in the Roman Forum (such as Cicero, about whom I wrote three blog entries earlier). A law school education certainly contributed to this. This supports one argument in my previous post on immersing in a new domain and broadening the frame of reference. To me, a human life is wasted, if you do not have, and are willing to defend, strong beliefs about what matter to you, under the condition that you stay open-minded and let your beliefs evolve as you gain more insights.

The book started by asking a contrarian question: What important truth do very few people agree with you on? Most answers to the contrarian question are different ways of seeing the present; good answers are as close as we can come to looking into the future. Peter classifies the progress we could make towards a future into two forms: horizontal (or extensive) progress and vertical (intensive) progress. The former means copying what has worked before, going from 1 to n; the latter is about doing new things, going from 0 to 1. Globalisation is a typical approach of horizontal progress, while technology is the vertical one. Circling back to the contrarian question, Peter’s answer is that most people think the future of the world will be defined by globalization, but the truth is that technology matters more. The argument is supported with a few examples. The gist is that globalisation without new technology is unsustainable.

Every monopoly is unique, but they usually share some combination of the following characteristics: proprietary technology, network effects, economies of scale, and branding. This book has broadened my view on what qualifies as proprietary technology. It is not limited to patents. Proprietary technology must be at least an order of magnitude better than its closest substitute to lead to a monopolistic advantage. Depending on how you view this, proprietary technology is rather more broadly defined than developing new patents or acquiring patent rights; or, viewed more restrictively, a new solution that is only mildly better than the existing widely adopted products might not be significant enough to attract the customer base.

Below I share with you some selected passages from the book that have stirred up a lot of thinking on my part.  

Today’s “best practices” lead to dead ends; the best paths are new and untried.

The paradox of teaching entrepreneurship is that such a formula necessarily cannot exist; because every innovation is new and unique, no authority can prescribe in concrete terms how to be innovative. Indeed, the single most powerful pattern I have noticed is that successful people find value in unexpected places, and they do this by thinking about business from first principles instead of formulas.

Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.

Positively defined, a startup is the largest group of people you can convince of a plan to build a different future. A new company’s most important strength is new thinking: even more important than nimbleness, small size affords space to think. This book is about the questions you must ask and answer to succeed in the business of doing new things: what follows is not a manual or a record of knowledge but an exercise in thinking. Because that is what a startup has to do: question received ideas and rethink business from scratch.

Ask yourself: how much of what you know about business is shaped by mistaken reactions to past mistakes? The most contrarian thing of all is not to oppose the crowd but to think for yourself.

There’s an enormous difference between perfect competition and monopoly, and most business are much closer to one extreme than we commonly realize. The confusion comes from a universal bias for describing market conditions in self-serving ways: both monopolists and competitors are incentivized to bend the truth…..Non-monopolists exaggerate their distinction by defining their market as the intersection of various smaller markets….Monopolists, by contrast, disguise their monopoly by framing their market as the union of several large markets.

Rivalry causes us to overemphasize old opportunities and slavishly copy what has worked in the past.

If you focus on near-term growth above all else, you miss the most important question you should be asking: will this business still be around a decade from now? Numbers alone won’t tell you the answer; instead you must think critically about the qualitative characteristics of your business.

The perfect target market for a startup is a small group of particular people concentrated together and served by few or no competitors.

As you craft a plan to expand to adjacent markets, don’t disrupt: avoid competitions as much as possible.

Iteration without a bold plan won’t take you from 0 to 1.

We don’t live in a normal world; we live under a power law (distribution).

The most valuable kind of company maintains an openness to invention that is most characteristic of beginnings.

The most valuable business of coming decades will be built by entrepreneurs who seek to empower people rather than try to make them obsolete.  

Finally, there are far too many intriguing discussions in this book for me to quote them all. To me, this is one of those books of which I will flip through some pages after having new experience and re-think. The final words in the book would be a great parting message here:

Our task today is to find singular ways to create the new things that will make the future not just different, but better – to go from 0 to 1. The essential first step is to think for yourself. Only by seeing our world anew, as fresh and strange as it was to the ancients who saw it first, can we both re-create it and preserve it for the future.

Originals: How Non-conformists Move the World

After I read Adam Grant’s Give and Take a few months ago, I added his next book Originals to my reading list. The day before my trip to London, I decided to have this book as reading companion for the long haul flight ahead. Over the last decade, I have become used to long-distance flights between Europe, North America and Asia. It is ritual to choose a couple of books before a trip. Once or twice I have chosen the wrong one. By the time I realised that I did not enjoy reading the volume in hand or disagree with the writer so profoundly, the rest of the flight became intolerable. Flipping through the alternative reading material (flying magazine or newspaper supplied by the airline) made me feel that I was wasting my time and energy. From those bad experiences, I learned to choose my flight companion very carefully. I invest more strict scrutiny on the selection process based on the potential value and readability of the book. I always have the fantasy of boarding the long-haul flight as one person and landing as another, in the intellectual sense. That strong urge of acquiring the knowledge and understanding that I do not possess before the flight would keep me reading throughout the entire flight. (My apology to the unfortunate passengers sitting near me for using the overhead reading lights before the kindle era.) Like in Hamilton, “In New York you can be a new man”; to me, at the end of the flight, arriving at a new continent, I can be a new person. It does not matter how many times I have landed there before. That remarkably refreshing feeling has not failed to excite me.

Suffice to say that Originals made it onto my list for this trip, together with the other two that I shall write about in next two entries. Originals proved to be a good flight companion to me. In short, unsurprisingly its writing style is about the same as the Give and Take. As the author is both an academic and an avid practitioner, this book similar to the previous one and shares a vast collection of stories, experiments, analysis and insights from other researchers besides the ones of his own. Because of this particular trait of the book, the reading process felt like conversing with many dozens of leading scientists, being part of the real events involving great entrepreneurs and their adventures, and participating in the psychological/social studies described. I would not be surprised that some readers might find that the book is cluttered or could be shortened. That said, I do not think anyone without a curious and investigative mind would pick this book up. In this sense, it is safe to bet that you will find this book a great read if you voluntarily choose to read it.

You wonder now what is Originals about. The book’s webpage summarizes it as follows: “Originals is about how to champion new ideas and fight groupthink. Using surprising studies and stories spanning business, politics, sports, and entertainment, Grant explores how to recognize a good idea, speak up without getting silenced, build a coalition of allies, choose the right time to act, and manage fear and doubt; how parents and teachers can nurture originality in children; and how leaders can build cultures that welcome dissent.”

Next you are curious to know what I have learned from it, if you are still reading this blog entry. A lot. But let’s start with sharing a few.

  • Do not blindly accept the default options. Take some initiative to look around and seek out an option that might be better than the default. Initiative is the key here. I would not over-exercise this one though. In my opinion, we need to evaluate whether the matter is trivial enough to go with the default or significant enough worthy taking more initiatives to explore and challenge the convention. If the latter, by all means, reject the default and find better or simply other alternatives.
  • Monitor the drive to succeed. Is it healthy enough that it still propels you to pursue originality? Is that drive becoming toxic such that your fear of failure forces you to want to maintain stability and only to follow conventional approaches? Quoting from two psychologists in the book, “once people pass an intermediate level in the need to achieve, there is evidence that they actually become less creative.”
  • Have a balanced risk portfolio. The portfolio here is not specific to financial investment. You can be very original in one part of your professional life but yet be very conventional in other parts. Examples and discussions in the book show that actually having a sense of security in one realm gives us the freedom to be original in another and successful originals take extreme risks in one arena and offset them with extreme caution in another.
  • Feel the fear, do it anyway. In Adam Grant’s word: the originals’ inner experiences are not any different from our own. They feel the same fear, the same doubt, as the rest of us. What sets them apart is that they take action anyway. They know in their hearts that failing would yielding less regret than failing to try.  
  • Cultivate the right startup/corporate culture that rewards originality and encourages heterogeneity. We live in a society with regional characteristics. When friends and family elsewhere in the world ask me what I do not like about Silicon Valley after I rave about how much California has grown on me, usually I bring up its homogeneity, in the sense that many professionals I meet in the valley work in the computing industry or related to it. It takes some effort to be among a diverse group of people. Today has been a good day though. I met a painter and a photographer while out hiking along the coast. Conversations with them were delightfully new and offered interesting perspectives, creative and artistic in a different way other than that of a typical computer scientist. I think being among people who are different from ourselves help broaden our view and enhance our creativity. Professionally, we should always encourage people to speak up, to disagree, to criticize (with good intention) at work. It is a great piece of advice of this book to hire people based on their culture contribution rather than culture fit. A culturally enriched work environment is significantly more robust and productive than a homogeneous one where people share the same view most of the time. One wonders why an organisation should ever keep one out of two employees who agree with each other all the time.
  • Immerse yourself in a new domain. I was very pleased to see this one was recommended in the book, because I have always wished for that whenever a career change is underway. Originality increases when you broaden your frame of reference.
  • Be more descriptive about my thoughts on an idea or a piece of work during a discussion. For instance, try not to say: I like, love or hate it; instead, try to explain the reasoning. For example, this is a better approach because it gives a clearer view of the gain and loss than the other metrics; the other one could be improved if X, Y, Z. Being descriptive invites other people to contribute to the discussion, point out what is wrong in one’s reasoning and generate new ideas.

The book includes a section on Actions for Impact consisting of three parts. The first one is for individuals to generate, recognize, voice and champion original ideas, and also how to manage emotions. The second part is for the leaders to spark original ideas and build cultures of originality. The last part offers suggestions to parents and teachers, such as to emphasize values over rules, explain how bad behaviors have consequences for others, praise good characters rather than good behaviors, and others.

Give and Take

The name Adam Grant came to my attention multiple times within a short timeframe just before Christmas. I was astonished and partially ashamed that I was not aware of his work before that. Just to think how many good readings I have missed and the thoughts those articles would have provoked! On the plus side, it is not too late. After reading some articles he coauthored and published in Harvard Business Review, I ordered his book Give and Take. To confess, I have a very soft spot for academic writers, particularly when they also have lots of real-world experience of refining and furthering their views. Adam Grant easily fits into that category for me.

This is a book about: understanding the behaviours of givers, matchers and takers; how do people in each category achieve their success and how do they compare with each other; why do some givers end up achieving the least, whereas other givers are top achievers; are people fixed to each category and do they adapt their behaviour; what influences people’s giving/taking attitude; how can we identify people in these categories; how can one give without reducing his/her own chance of success? If these questions sound interesting to you, I highly recommend reading the book.

Due to the lack of knowledge of the big names in American sports, the names quoted in some chapters in this book did not mean much to me. But the essence of the stories was clearly presented and supports the arguments well. I particularly like the writing style of the book. The great story-telling that draws your attention and tempts you to read further and further and, at the same time, the stories lead you to contemplate many questions: what would you have done if you were one of the characters in that specific circumstance; how would one’s approach impact others; would you be concerned about being taken advantage or would you continue giving despite suspecting the person you are dealing with is a taker; would it be wiser to handle givers, takers and matchers you meet in life differently and how?

Adam shared his insights about identifying clues to who is a taker, matcher or giver. While reading the book, I found myself subconsciously map people I encounter into those categories. I started paying more attention to how many I/my versus we/our are used, how big the portrait of a leader included in an article, how people attribute credits and share responsibilities, and so on. Not to say these are the exclusive and exact metric you should use to calculate one’s giving/matching/taking score though. Just this evening while reading an article in this month’s Harvard Business Review, I see clear signs of egoism and possibly some indication of a taker.

Reading the book made me more aware of the differences between being agreeable and being outwardly disagreeable but inwardly prone to giving. One key takeaway of the book is to learn ways to give without burnout or adapting from a purely selfless to a more intelligent giver. It makes sense if you think mathematically: the integral of the amount of giving over a long time period could easily be larger than that of a short one (a couple of years in the teaching examples discussed in the book). In analogy to studies on how to maintain high productivity: our brains like to exercise different regions or think about different topics at reasonable intervals rather than focusing on one topic for a lengthy period. Giving wisely is to re-energize oneself by giving in multiple formats with appropriate dose and identifying the source that drives us to give.

The book also leads me to think: would people tend to work and socialise more with the ones falling into the same category as themselves? It does not make sense for takers to match with takers though, which seems to spiral downwards and destroy the harmony and productivity among relations. To what extent, would takers adjust their mentality and behaviour while surrounded by givers/matchers? It seems to me that we adapt ourselves constantly with small adjustments frequently within a set of beliefs that we hold, and less frequently denounce what we used to believe and form new opinions based on new experience or learnings. Some examples in the book lead me to think that takers can behave like givers in certain circumstances, for instance within a group of people sharing the same optimal distinctiveness. The explanation of optimal distinctiveness reads beautifully and sensibly to me.

One aspect that was alluded to with respect to groups but worthy of further studies is how people may be givers in some situations and takers in others when their underlying culture may push them that way. For example, a culture that is very family focused might lead to widespread giverness within the family, while many people will be takers or matchers outside of the family. Presumably in either situation there would be the three types of people, or a continuum of the three, yet a person might fit differently on the continuum in the distinct culturally defined areas of interaction.

Another major reason I enjoy reading this book: it contains many brilliantly succinct summaries of other scientists and writers’ work, seamlessly integrated within the text. To quote Adam Grant’s passage on “optimal distinctiveness” from an influential theory developed by Marilynn Brewer:

On the one hand, we want to fit in: we strive for connection, cohesiveness, community, belonging, inclusion, and affiliation with others. On the other hand, we want to stand out: we search for uniqueness, differentiation, and individuality. As we navigate the social world, these two motives are often in conflict. The more strongly we affiliate with a group, the greater our risk of losing our sense of uniqueness. The more we work to distinguish ourselves from others, the greater our risk of losing our sense of belonging. How do we resolve this conflict? The solution is to be the same and different at the same time. Brewer calls it the principle of optimal distinctiveness: we look for ways to fit in and stand out. A popular way to achieve optimal distinctiveness is to join a unique group. Being part of a group with shared interests, identities, goals, values, skills, characteristics, or experiences gives us a sense of connection and belonging. At the same time, being part of a group that is clearly distinct from other groups gives us a sense of uniqueness. Studies show that people identify more strongly with individuals and groups that share unique similarities. The more rare a group, value, interest, skill, or experience is, the more likely is to facilitate a bond. And research indicates that people are happier in groups that provide optimal distinctiveness, giving a sense of both inclusion and uniqueness. These are the groups in which we take the most pride, and feel the most cohesive and valued.

There are many passages that I’d love to quote and share with you my thoughts at another time.