My practice of improv and the book Improv Wisdom

I procrastinated from Friday night until the very early morning of Sunday before I committed myself to write about my book of the week, Improv Wisdom – Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up, by Patricia Ryan Madson.

Writing this summary has not escaped my mind, whether I was deadheading roses, or making flower arrangements, or planning for a strictly gluten-free dinner for friends with celiac disease. After hosting the dinner party Saturday night, naturally I should be very tired but I had a number of dreams about improv practices and writing this summary. I only recall fragments of them now. These are not atypical, both the dream part and not remembering much part. Before an important discussion that I will chair or a presentation I will deliver, I dream about the process of doing it for a couple nights leading to the actual activity after investing a lot effort on it. These dreams and their fragmented recollection help me feel grounded. They often also help me organise my thoughts of the underlying topics better.

I am an extreme believer of being prepared with work and somewhat less so with life. Colleagues of mine who I have worked closely with could vouch for me. It was not incidental that I know the core subjects and the topics remotely-related to those that we would cover in a meeting. It is also definitely not magic that I appeared to know the basics of domains that seem to be so far away from what my own work requires. For technical meetings, how much value you can derive from the conversations for all parties depends on how well prepared you are. If I were going to spend all the time asking you, what terminology X means and what do you mean by that acronym. By the end of the scheduled meeting, we would only be able to establish a shared vocabulary and scratch the surface. That said, I strongly recommend people not to overuse acronyms and convey thoughts in a precise manner during a discussion. This is the baseline version of me.

Patricia’s book Improv Wisdom is the “textbook” for the improv course that I am taking this term. Recall that I just established the baseline version of me in previous paragraph, am I crazy to do an improv course? No! Very much the contrary! It is true that I had no clue what to expect in an improv class prior to attending one. But I knew this is something that would stretch me out of my comfort zone, worse, scare me terribly and I might find that I dread it miserably. The more challenging it is, the more effective it would be for me. The classes have turned out to be indeed very different. We are on our feet all the time. Most of us have not taken down any notes during the lectures. I tried to mentally reconstruct the activities of each class on my way driving home. Now you ask: what is it about? I do not know about the future sessions yet, but so far there were gales of laughters. It is about being present without being intensive or stressed, performing on your feet and acting without deep thinking involved, sharing controls with others instead of hogging it, being very attentive to what surrounds you. It also help us to drop the barriers that each of us builds around ourselves over the years, forget about that we might be judged by others and what that judgement would be. It may sound a cliche, but there is a lot of emphasis on bringing out the natural talent of yourself, what is distinctively your own. These are my reflections from the games we played rather than what the lectures focus on discussing about. Only through doing group activities rather than theoretical discussions, we break the molds that govern our thoughts and actions, become more spontaneous and more creative in the process.  

Does practising improv contradict my baseline of being prepared? No. In my opinion, they enhance the benefit of each other. Have you ever prepared thoroughly for a discussion and only find you were tongue-tied during the actual session such that did not air your thoughts and contribute to the conversation much at all? Have you wished you would be more brave and participatory in events that happened in the past when you replay them in your mind? Have you felt lost and anxious while meeting a group of new people in a social networking event, even though you have looked up a few attendees ahead of time? (No, I have not. Being thrown into a new social environment actually excites me. But I know plenty of friends who feel this way though.) I think Rumi’s poem (cited in Patricia’s book) on two kinds of intelligence quoted below expressing this very well. Each of us has two kinds of intelligence: one related to preparation, one to improv. It would be utterly wasteful if we only exercise one kind living through our life.

Two Kinds of Intelligence

(From the translations of Rumi by Coleman Barks)
There are two kinds of intelligence: one acquired,
as a child in school memorizes facts and concepts
from books and from what the teacher says,
collecting information from the traditional sciences
as well as from the new sciences.


With such intelligence you rise in the world.
You get ranked ahead or behind others
in regard to your competence in retaining
information. You stroll with this intelligence
in and out of fields of knowledge, getting always more
marks on your preserving tablets.

There is another kind of tablet, one
already completed and preserved inside you.
A spring overflowing its springbox. A freshness
in the center of the chest. This other intelligence
does not turn yellow or stagnate. It’s fluid,
and it doesn’t move from outside to inside
through conduits of plumbing-learning.

This second knowing is a fountainhead
from within you, moving out.

To quote Patricia, improv is about discovering and exercising your second kind of intelligence. Patricia summarises her decades of experience of teaching improv into thirteen maxims. She also recommends many activities to practice them. To say that I completed reading her book this week is truthful, but also meaningless if I were not to practice them in the days to come. I hope Patricia does not mind me sharing her thirteen maxims with you here. Acquiring improv skills is a little similar to getting CPR training. The more people practising it, the better we as a collective group. We can influence and teach each other through doing it, although I wish everyone great health and no CPR ever needed.

Thirteen Maxims:

  1. Say Yes
    Just say yes.
    Become a “can-do” person.
    Look for the positive spin, for what is right.
    Agree with those around you.
    Cultivate yes phrases: “You bet”; “You are right”; “I’m with you”; “Good idea”; “Of course”; “Sure”; etc.
    Substitute “Yes and” for “Yes but.” Add something to build the conversation.
    Exercise the yes muscle. This builds optimism and hope.
  2. Don’t prepare
    Give up planning. Drop the habit of thinking ahead.
    Attend carefully to what is happening right now.
    Allow yourself to be surprised.
    Stockpiling ideas for future use is unnecessary.
    Trust your imagination. There is always something in the box.
    Welcome whatever floats into your mind.
    Fear is a matter of misplaced attention. Focus on redirecting it.
  3. Just show up
    Walk, run, bike, skip to the places that you need to be.
    Motivation is not a prerequisite for showing up.
    Start your day with what is important.
    Use rituals to get things going.
    Showing up to help others is already service.
    Change your vantage point and refresh your mind.
    Location, location, location – in real estate and in life.
    Be on time for the sake of others.
    Show up on time for yourself. Lost time is never found.
  4. Start anyway
    All starting points are equally valid.
    Begin with what seems obvious.
    Once it is under way any task seems smaller.
    When speaking in public don’t use a script. Write down questions and answer them.
    Talk to your audience. Don’t give a lecture.
    Trust your mind.
    Edit and develop ideas as you speak.
  5. Be average
    Close enough is perfect.
    Dare to be dull.
    Think “inside” the box.
    Celebrate the obvious.
    What is ordinary to you is often a revelation to others.
    Remember “classics” or “favorites” can be fresh ideas, too.
    Don’t make jokes. Make sense.
  6. Pay attention
    If I have made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient attention than to any other talent. – Sir Isaac Newton.
    Life is attention.
    Notice everything, particularly the details.
    Become a detective.
    Shift your attention from yourself to others.
    Make an effort to remember names and faces.
    Keep on waking up.
    This moment happens only once. Treasure it.
    Avoid multitasking. Attend to one thing at a time.
  7. Face the facts
    Don’t fight reality.
    Accept other people as they are.
    Work with what you have been given.
    What are the facts? You are probably not noticing all of them.
    Embrace the wobble.
    Insecurity is normal. Count on it.
  8. Stay on course
    Every improvisation has a point.
    Don’t let feelings alone run your show.
    There is meaning in everything we do, even small tasks.
    Keep an eye on where you are going.
    If you miss the target, adjust your aim.
    Ask often: “what is my purpose?”
    What would not get done if you were not here?
  9. Wake up to the gifts
    Notice that the glass is half full.
    Treasure the details.
    Who or what is helping you right now?
    Make a point of thanking those with thankless jobs.
    What are you doing to give back?
    Keep the gift moving forward.
    Our smallest actions count. Everything we do has the potential to help others.
    Make “thank you” your mantra.
  10. Make mistakes, please
    If you are not making mistakes, you are not improvising.
    Be like a turtle: stick out your neck to make progress.
    When you screw up, say “Ta-dah!” and take a bow.
    Mistakes? Focus on what comes next.
    Let go of outcomes. Cultivate a flexible mind.
    Mistakes may actually be blessings.
    Become a confident mistake-maker. Lighten up.
    Try bricolage – use what is there artfully.
    Admitting a mistake shows character.
  11. Act now
    The essence of improvising is action.
    Act in order to discover what comes next.
    You don’t need to feel like doing something to do it.
    Schedule a difficult task and stick to your timetable.
    Invite a buddy to join you in doing what you need to do.
    Do the hard thing first.
    To find a new perspective, try doing something a different way.
    Sometimes not doing is what is needed.
    If you can’t get out of it, get into it.
  12. Take care of each other
    Be someone’s guardian angel. Make your partner look good.
    Rescue or join someone struggling.
    Share control; don’t hog it.
    Kindness is essential during chaos or a crisis.
    Try giving yourself away.
    Always put positive thoughts into words and action.
    Do “random acts of kindness.”
    Put other people’s convenience ahead of your own.
    Listen as if your life depended on it.
    Deliver more than you promise.
  13. Enjoy the ride
    Find joy in whatever you are doing, including ordinary tasks.
    Look for ways to play. Play is essential to human growth.
    Learning is enhanced when we lighten up.
    Laughter is good medicine.
    If something is not to your liking, change your liking.
    Give away smiles every day.
    Do something just for the fun of it.

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.