Understanding the Mind

Sam Harris quotes that I wrote down without getting the source. They are from the lessons and interviews in the Waking Up App which I love as I am delving deeper into mindfulness. Also recommended is the Making Sense Podcast.

…to recognize how consciousness is prior to thinking, reacting, or trying to change your experience, in any way at all, can be the most important thing you ever learn to do.

…a choice between noticing what arises in your mind, and not noticing…

When you are suffering you are lost in thought.

Diversifying your life

I loved How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life by Scott Adams. I lost the book at Houston airport. Maybe it was meant to be. I hope that whoever picked it up enjoyed it and found it valuable. I don’t think the quotes below come from the book, they are from Tools of Titans by Tim Ferris which I also love. Scott Adams is featured in the book.

This involves choosing projects and habits that even if they result in failures in the eyes of the outside world, give you transferable skills or relationships.

Diversification works in almost every area of your life to reduce your stress.

Quotes from 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Quotes from 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari.

In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power.

Humans think in stories rather than in facts, number or equations, and the simpler the story, the better.

The revolutions in biotech and infotech are made by engineers, entrepreneurs and scientists who are hardly aware of the political implications of their decisions, and who certainly don’t represent anyone.

It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.

But liberalism has no obvious answers to the biggest problems we face: ecological collapse and technological disruption.

The next decades might therefore be characterized by intense soul-searching and by formulating new social and political models.

The book seems even more relevant now that COVID-19 has intensified the crises we are facing. In a Financial Times article on 20 March 2020 Harari writes:

In this time of crisis, we face two particularly important choices. The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.

Primary and secondary research

I like how Matthew Kalil describes primary and secondary research in his book The Three Wells of Screenwriting. In the book he applies the lens of screenwriting to creativity. I find it relevant for design as well, lately I’ve begun to see design as a performance played out in organisations to create change. In the book he describes three wells that creatives can draw inspiration from: The External Sources Well, The Imagination Well, and The Memory Well. As a designer I find this a useful framework.

Secondary research is based on information gathered by others.

Primary research is new research. It could be interviews we have personally conducted or photographs we have taken. It is preferable to secondary research because it is new and personal.

The context here is that when we create something new, doing primary research is preferable. The direct experience provides material to our Memory Well that we can draw from when we need inspiration.

One of the best things about this on-the-ground research is that we are constantly activating all our senses. Later, when we write, we will consciously, or even unconsciously, tap into these senses. One can’t buy that kind of research, and we certainly can’t find it online or in a book.

The usual case for doing primary research is that we empathize with end users and the understanding that we get helps us to design products that solve real pain points. Another way of looking at it, is that doing primary research changes us, and in the process it changes what we end up designing.

Strategy for designers

Designers need to learn about business. I’ve heard first-hand people say that designers don’t understand business problems and are only focused on aesthetics. Understanding business is a great way for designers be more influential when it comes to product decisions. Designers work with both tech and marketing teams. In product teams designers are usually closer to the developers. Because marketing folks are often not co-located it takes more effort to collaborate with them. But it makes sense for designers to be closer to marketing and the business side because this is where product decisions are made that directly impact customers and end-users.

The business concept at the top of the list is strategy. Strategy means different things to different people which is why we need a clear model that can be applied across different scenarios. For example, there is corporate, business, and product strategy. This is important because a company’s strategy determines what designers work on. But for the most part designers are not involved in any strategy making at all. This makes sense because designers are not trained in strategic thinking, but this needs to change.

Kernel of good strategy

In Good Strategy, Bad Strategy Richard Rumelt writes that the kernel of good strategy contains three elements:

  1. Diagnosis: break down the complexity of reality by identifying the critical aspects and obstacles of the situation.
  2. Guiding policy: overall approach to overcome the obstacles identified in the diagnosis.
  3. Coherent actions: coordinated steps to accomplish the guiding policy.

This model helps to simplify strategy because it applies to all levels of strategy: corporate, business, and product.

Ultimately strategy is about trade-offs to get a competitive advantage. Trade-offs because people and organizations have limited capacity. Strategy is as much about what you are doing as it is about what you are not doing.

But the truth is that many large companies, especially large complex companies, don’t really have strategies. At the core, strategy is about focus, and most complex organizations don’t focus their resources. Instead, they pursue multiple goals at once, not concentrating enough resources to achieve a breakthrough in any of them.

Blue Ocean Strategy

In Blue Ocean Strategy the authors take a different approach. A lot of traditional strategy is about gaining competitive advantage in red oceans, that is markets that are filled with competition. In contrast blue ocean strategy takes a different approach. The basis of blue ocean strategy is value innovation. Value innovation is where entrepreneurs don’t use the competition as their benchmark:

Value innovation is the cornerstone of blue ocean strategy. We call it value innovation because instead of focusing on beating the competition, you focus on making the competition irrelevant by creating a leap in value for buyers and your company, thereby opening up new and uncontested market space.

Three practical strategy making tools

  1. The blue ocean strategy canvas. This links nicely with Rumelt’s kernel of good strategy by acting as a diagnostic and a coordinated action framework for building a blue ocean strategy. The visual nature of a blue ocean canvas is also a great way to get alignment and share strategy.
  2. The four actions framework. Get clarity on trade-offs when designing new value or strategy.
  3. The eliminate-reduce-raise-create grid. Scrutinise the factors your company is competing on and decide what to do more of vs less.

Overall strategy is about structuring a problem, and once having looked at all the pieces, you plan your next move from a solid basis of decision making by focusing efforts on high value initiatives. But you need to keep iterating based on market feedback. Beyond business schools strategy is not something that is widely and explicitly taught, but I think it should be.

For more on Blue Ocean Strategy check out Blue Ocean Studio.