Archive for July 2007

Why Seth Godin Isn’t Right.

July 9, 2007

Heidi Miller did a blog entry on The Dip, by Seth Godin a while back. The Dip is one of those little books that is a quick read, but takes time to really understand.

I’m not ready to say Seth Godin is wrong, but I’m sure he’s not right about The Dip.

The premise of The Dip is something I readily understand: The only cases where effort and results have a linear relationship are probably trivial or pathological. Godin’s example is smoking: The more effort you put into smoking, the more pleasure you get from the experience, until you hit a crash. The crash could be quitting, in which case you pay in withdrawal, or it could be cancer and heart disease.

For nontrivial things, you put in more effort, and initially it feels easy. But then it gets harder, and you have to decide if you’re in The Dip, or in what Godin calls the cul-de-sac. If you’re in The Dip, you should power through. If you’re in a cul-de-sac, you should quit now, before you waste any more effort. And if you’re going to quit in The Dip, you should quit too, because otherwise all that effort is wasted.

Godin describes several Dips, and they all do in fact look familiar. His Dips also don’t look like the kinds of problems I care about. Not that the ability to identify problems, invent solutions, manufacture products or design services, sell and deliver aren’t important. They are the kinds of ordinary problems that you can solve, or you can walk away from.

There are three very good reasons to ignore the distinction between The Dip and the cul-de-sac.

The first, oddly, is the very example Seth uses in starting to describe the cul-de-sac: The Space Shuttle.

Even before Columbia, for some of us as far back as Challenger, we understood that the Shuttle was a cul-de-sac. It was never going to give us cheap, routine access to low Earth orbit, and it was certainly never going to take us beyond that orbit, back to the Moon and on to Mars.

But it was, and still is, the only heavy-lift crewed launcher available. Godin is wrong when he argues that canceling the Shuttle would have created an urgent need for a replacement. Most of the people I know believe that canceling the Shuttle before a replacement was defined and started would have simply meant the end of humans in space, at least on US launchers. Even now we face a gap between the Shuttle and its far-less-capable replacement of many years, perhaps decades. We stick, in the cul-de-sac, knowing the Shuttle will never get better, because we need it to accomplish a larger goal.

That larger goal, building the International Space Station, is the second problem with Godin’s analysis: I can’t tell if ISS is a cul-de-sac or a Dip.

Even people who have worked on the program can’t tell if it will be another pointless boondoggle, or a National Laboratory to rival Fermilab or Lawrence Livermore. When the goals are more than ordinary, the ordinary distinctions of The Dip fail me. We have a great deal to learn about the Universe beyond, and a permanent presence in space may be the best way to learn many of those things. The only way to tell if ISS will be a Dip or a cul-de-sac is by experiment.

When we started a Science Fair at my daughter’s elementary school, I had no idea if we’d get any participation. None of the kids were required to participate, and most of them are involved in a lot of after-school sports and other activities. Even once we got people signed up, there was no reason to assume they would show up the night of the fair. But we kept putting more effort in, and now, four years later, the Science Fair runs without me.

An awful lot of things are like that: The only way to tell if you’re facing a Dip, or a crash, or a cul-de-sac is in retrospect. So you stick because you care about the outcome enough to risk a cul-de-sac.

The third reason to stick, when maybe you should quit, is because you care about what you’re doing enough to fail. Almost everything I do that is of any importance is about people, and I care about those people. The limit of my caring is defined by my relationship, and the limit of my willingness to stick is not bounded by my analysis of The Dip. Rather, my willingness to stick is bounded by the limit of my caring.

I have regular conversations with people who used to work with me. I’ll keep trying to help them as long as they keep coming back to ask for help. Some of those people keep getting better, but others are stuck in their own cul-de-sac, and some are currently working through a Dip. I won’t devote my whole effort to them, but I’m willing to spend a couple hours a week because they need the help. I believe that some of these people come back because they see I’m willing to work with people, regardless of immediate return. I hope that when I hit my dip, they’ll help me.  Working through somebody else’s cul-de-sac is an investment in my future ability to power through a Dip, with help.

The extreme case is my daughter. My relationship with her is independent of my expectation of her success or mine.  I’ll never quit.  Whether she ends up as a crack whore on the streets of Baltimore or Secretary-General of the United Nations, she will always have the first, best claim on my energies.  Calculations of Dip or cul-de-sac simply don’t matter, because I care more about the effort than the outcome.

Godin also argues that you should only start down The Dip if you’re going to be “the best in the world” when you’ve finished. I only have two reasons for ignoring that advice.

The first reason is that I do many things simply because I like them. I don’t get much time to ride these days, but when I do, I put my best efforts into the horse and course that I’m on. I am not ever going to be the best rider in any part of the world. I’m not even the best rider in my household: Teela has rocketed past me in skill and endurance in the last year.  I don’t care.  If I get a chance to get in the ring or on a trail with her, I’ll grab it and enjoy it while it lasts.

The second reason is that I’ve learned in the last decade or so that I have no idea what I’ll be best at. I thought I would be a terrible parent, and that a child of mine would end up psychotic. I seem to have been wrong about that. I thought I would hate being a manager, but on good days it is very satisfying and on the worst days I still feel better for doing it. (It’s the days in between that are hardest.) I thought our plan, three years ago, for changing the role of matrix managers would lead to many positive, empowering changes. Oops.

The one thing that resonated was Godin’s criticism of half-hearted efforts: Do crappy PowerPoint presentations, because you don’t have the time or energy to do a good one. Do customer service that’s just good enough to keep a customer, rather than amazing customer service that makes a customer-for-life. Ship code that has bugs, but mostly works, because the ship date has arrived and you have to ship something.

Even so, I think Godin fails to recognize how institutionalized that sense of acceptable mediocrity can be. On my best days I can push back against cutting corners and accepting “close enough,” but not every day. On my worst days, I can only do the best I can for my own work. On the days in between, I choose my confrontations, and nibble around the edges, looking for improvement in small ways, and trying to persuade others to keep trying.

That’s the best I can do for now.