Nozick on Philosophy

I referenced this in an earlier post (here!), and it’s too good not too give it its own space. This is from the Preface of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia. He’s describing how professional philosophers assemble theories and arguments for publication.

(you can get your own copy for one dollar and nine cents right now)

“One form of philosophical activity feels like pushing and shoving things to fit into some fixed perimeter of specified shape. All those things are lying out there, and they must be fit in. You push and shove the material into the rigid area getting it into the boundary on one side, and it bulges out on another.

You run around and press in on the protruding bulge, producing yet another in another place. So you push and shove and clip off corners from the things so they’ll fit and you press in until finally almost everything sits unstably more or less in there; what doesn’t gets heaved far away so that it won’t be noticed.

(Of course, it’s not all that crude. There’s also the coaxing and cajoling. And the body English.)

Quickly you find an angle from which it looks like an exact fit and take a snapshot; at a fast shutter speed before something else bulges out too noticeably. Then, back to the darkroom to touch up the rents, rips and tears in the fabric of the perimeter. All that remains is to publish the photograph as a representation of exactly how things are, and to note how nothing fits properly into any other shape.”

This strikes me as resonant; not just for philosophers or even just academics, but for many of us (myself included!) – at work, at home.


Hospitality is a Team Sport

If you’ve been reading my stuff for very long, you’re aware that I think about hospitality a lot.

I use it in broad terms – I think that the work that we call Customer Support, Customer Success, Customer Service, and so on, all fall under this same umbrella.

Before I worked for Automattic I had a successful career in high end coffee – before that I was in grad school and working in restaurants and cafes.

One piece that’s worth keeping in mind, one cornerstone to excellence in hospitality regardless of industry, is that we’re playing a team sport.

Today is my fifth wedding anniversary (Happy Anniversary, Doc!)  – last night we went out to a nice dinner. She had a lobster salad and I had the tuna steak. During our meal, I noticed a waiter serving a large table next to us.

Each of the entrées had toothpicks with different colored foil on the end – some red, some blue, you know the kind. As he turned his back to the table to pick up another diner’s plate, he’d quietly remove the toothpick, leave it on the larger serving tray, and present the entrée to the customer, announcing confidently the entrée, the sides, the special bibs and bobs requested by that particular diner.

If you’ve worked in a restaurant, you know what those toothpicks were – they indicated the done-ness of a steak, or which cheeseburger had the Swiss rather than the cheddar. They were little reminders built into the process to allow the server to present an entirely seamless and apparently perfect experience to the customers without holding all of that information in his head.

(This was a table of maybe twelve diners? Not an easy task to remember every person’s nuanced order)

It was an interesting reminder for me, that a seamless and lovely delivery to a customer, a shiny and outstanding experience, is the result of a whole team of folks working behind the scenes – working to support one another just as much as they’re working to support the customer directly.

(I’ve written some about this here and here.)

This kind of internal hospitality may seem small – a cook leaving reminders of what makes each dish special – but it adds up to a lower effort, higher-level experience for the customer.

It’s easy for us to extend this idea to the work we do in developing software. Think of your internal tooling – are there obvious, visible flags for features or situations where things are different from the usual? How much do you make your colleagues lives easier?

This doesn’t just apply to development teams working with success/support teams, either. If you work in a customer-facing role, whether support or success or whatever, how easy do you make it for others in your company to understand your work? What are the toothpicks that you offer to make their jobs easier? Do you have a standard, easily replicated template for bug reports that includes steps for reproduction, customers effected, and a consistent urgency scale?

(If not; think about making one🙂 )

The customer experience, especially an excellent customer experience, is the end result of tons of tiny decisions, all stacked on top of one another. It’s only possible to really do the very best for our customers when we first do the very best we can for one another.

Metrics, Means, and Maps

As a younger man, I spent a lot of time reading and discussing philosophy.

In the end, I was most attracted to modern moral theorists like Rawls and Nozick, but like all Philosophy majors at the State University of New York at Binghamton, I spent some time with all of the greats: Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Descartes, Marcuse, Arendt, and so forth.

(In fact, in the forward of Anarchy, State and Utopia, Nozick describes what I think is the most perfect description of all professional academia, not just Philosophy. I’m away from my copy, but I’ll post the passage when I get home!) edit: I gave it its own Post!

I’m bringing this up because one of my least favorite philosophers to read was Immanuel Kant. I struggled with Kant, like I suspect many 20 year olds do, as his writing is so incredibly dense, and translated from the original German. One piece of his moral philosophy that stands with me is this: to behave morally, a moral agent must treat other humans always as ends in themselves, and never as means.

To be more philosophically precise, Immanuel says never to treat other humans merely as means, but always as ends as well.  So, it’s not necessarily immoral to treat another human as a means, so long as you keep them in mind as an end also. It’s a tricky bit that’s easy to forget. Kant, he’s dense.

One thing that we need to bear in mind, whatever department we’re working in, is that our metrics are necessarily abstractions, a means to a larger end. In this way our mindset needs to be like Kant’s – some things are ends, some things are means, and we should be intentional about which is which, and remind ourselves that the distinction is important.

A quote that came up a number of times at the Growth Hackers convention this year was this: “Be careful what you optimize for,” and that, too, points at what I’m getting at here.

Our metrics, our measurable indicators of success, must necessarily be abstractions from real life. 

By this, I mean, reducing churn by 10% is only a means to a larger end, and has to be considered in that larger context. What’s the real reason? Why do you, personally and as an organization, want to reduce churn? Maybe it’s because you believe you have a product that can genuinely make peoples’ lives better, so the more folks who use it, longer, the better off they’ll be. That’s great! Maybe it’s to make more money – that’s OK too. 

In either of these cases, churn reduction is itself only a means toward a larger end. Success with this metric points to a larger success, something that you’re maybe not equipped to measure, something like Customer Happiness or Success of the Business. We need to keep this in mind.

Another quote that’s on my mind a lot these days: “The map is not the territory.

Our metrics are only maps upon which we build our assumptions and beliefs – the underlying terrain, the real territory of your customers and your business, is far more complex, far more nuanced. Remember that we use metrics because they are abstractions, because they take our complex world that is impossible to understand all at once, and break it into easier-to-understand chunks.

Our metrics are by design not the whole truth. They’re reductive because they must be – because only by reducing a complex concept can we hope to make meaningful decisions. If our metric were the whole truth, if the map were a perfectly accurate representation of the whole territory, it would be perfectly useless.

Measuring our work, and our companies, and our success or lack of success, is absolutely vital to the success of any enterprise in 2016. Choosing the right metrics, and bearing in mind that our metrics only represent one part of the truth, is the hard part.


Exposure Therapy and Building Expertise

Do you follow me on Instagram?

It’s not professionally very interesting (I try to save that for Twitter, and, of course, this blog).

In the description of my Instagram profile, I mention:

I live with The Doctor (a doctor), Mango (a baby) and Elmira (a cat).

The Doc is, more specifically, a clinical psychologist. We met in college – I was in graduate school for philosophy, and she was finishing her PhD. Our relationship is rich: we’ve moved across states, have a second kiddo on the way, and have successfully kept a Maine Coon alive (and very sassy) for almost a decade.

I count myself lucky because I learn things from the Doc all the time – she’s the closest thing to a genius that I’ve found, and has a gift of being able to share complex ideas in a way that overlaps with and takes on the character of the experience of the person she’s sharing with.

One idea that she and I have discussed at great length is an approach to treating anxiety disorder, called exposure therapy. Broadly, the big idea behind exposure therapy is that exposing a person to small amounts of something that makes them anxious (or stressed, or afraid), starts a process that can eventually help that person overcome the anxiety or fear at a larger level.

(I’m very likely butchering this concept by working in broad strokes – read the Wikipedia page, it’s good, and short.)

If, like me, you have an unhealthy obsession with Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s work Antifragile, you may have already identified that there’s a parallel here between exposure therapy (exposing someone to a small amount of what makes them anxious in order to help them become less anxious) and hormesis, the concept in medicine and (since Antifragile) economics, that shows us that benefits do not always follow a linear or even exponential path – but rather many inputs have a hyperbolic curve, where limited benefits can be found in one particular application, but then the downside becomes infinitely worse as the input is continued to be applied.

One example is water – in too-small amounts, lack of water will kill you. A somewhat narrow band of water application is ideal, enough so you’re not thirsty and are able to operate in a healthy biologically appropriate way. Once you exceed that healthy space though, any additional water will have more and increasingly horrible effects – pretty quickly leading to death and only death on down the line.

The mental model of hormetics is controversial: it’s not universally accepted nor is it universally applicable. In this case, it’s a helpful way to think about a bigger model for our otherwise more specific cognitive behavioral exposure therapy.

The reason all of this is meaningful is because it ties into a bigger question that I have about my life, and I figure some of you all do, too – how do we build expertise? How do we get better at a skill or practice?

The answer is, like in exposure therapy and in hormesis: with a little bit at a time. You don’t go from being horrified of public speaking to a keynote lecturer overnight: you have to create a plan, exposure yourself to the stressor in small amounts, building over time, and move toward your goal.

One point that I want to make very clear here is that executing this idea necessarily means pushing yourself out of your comfort zone – pushing a little into that uncomfortable place, and sitting there, working there, allowing yourself to survive and thrive though that low level discomfort. That’s how we get better. That’s possibly the only way we get better.

Recognize that both exposure therapy and the hormesis model agree: large jumps are not productive. Too much water will kill you. Start small, and recognize that you have to climb a ladder from the bottom – small steps, building on one another, is where change comes from and what makes things stick.

Once I started to think about exposure and hormetics in this way, as a mental model, it’s the type of idea that is very sticky, and has started to map onto my work in many other interesting ways. You can see how exposure therapy has clear parallels to things like delegation, helping your team build expertise, and even in customer relationships.

The next time you want to build your skills or hone your practice, ask yourself: what part is the scariest for me? What looks like it’s the hardest, most out of reach bit? Then, break off the smallest chunk you can, and attack that, and only that, until you’re comfortable. Then, get started on the next chunk.


You’re Already Interviewing Your Customers

Let’s start with a story!

At Automattic, we’re lucky enough to have some pretty sophisticated internal tracking and analysis tools. I was recently involved in a conversation with my friend and colleague Martin, about a particular slice of our customer base, whose churn is higher than we would have expected.

One of the ingredients for this particular group of customers was that they had, at some point in the seven days before leaving our services, interacted with our Happiness Engineers via our live chat support offering. Given the tools at our disposal, we were able to pull together a list of all of these customers – and with the churn rate being what it was, and the total userbase for that product what it was, the list was not terrifically long. Double digits.

Some of you out there know this story, right? What better way to find out what is going on with your customers (or former customers) than asking them outright? Put together some post-churn interviews, offer an Amazon gift card, learn something new and helpful about your product or service. This is a pretty standard flow for researchers – start with Big Data to identify a focus spot, then focus in with more quantitative methods, interviews, surveys, what I think of as Small Data.

In this case, rather than jump to the usual move, and at Martin’s suggestion, I pulled up all of the chat transcripts, and read through them, categorizing them along obvious lines, pulling out noteworthy quotes and common understandings (and misunderstandings!) – treating these last live chats with churned customers like they were transcribed interviews, because in a real way, that’s what they are.

I was really surprised how insightful and interesting these live chat sessions were, especially when read back-to-back-to-back like that. In fact, I did not even feel the need to follow up with any of the customers, the picture was clear enough from what they’d already communicated with us. I was honestly floored by this, and left wondering: how much good stuff is already in these transcripts? 

Moving forward, I’m including customer email and live chat review as an integral part of any user cohort research that I do – it will allow me to come to the interviews three steps ahead, with far better questions in mind, and a much sharper understanding of what their experience might have been like.

Especially with robust data slicing tools, being able to cut down through verticals, cohorts and purchase levels means that I’ll be able to see a ton of useful, relevant conversations with customers similar to those I’m looking to learn more about.

This is also the case with you and your customers.

Even if you don’t have a user research team, or even one researcher, your support team is interviewing your customers every day. Even without data slicing tools, you can do something as simple as a full-text search on your last month of email interactions and get something close to what you’re looking to learn.

If you enjoy a support tool that has a taxonomy system or plugs into your existing verticals and cohorts, all the better.

This Small Data on your customers, these conversations, already exist. You don’t need to generate new information, you don’t need to sign up for third party user testing.

You’ve heard me say it before, folks – there’s value in the data you have. Use it!