The Art of Learning: Fractals, Water Polo and Marketing Templates

“We do not learn from experience, but from reflecting on the experience.” – John Dewey

[This post started out as a book review and became a reflection on my own experiences of learning. The idea of fractal learning is one that I would love your feedback on in the comments. Is it useful? Could it be applied in a way that helps us to learn more rapidly or teach more effectively? With more depth or more focus on the passions we have?]

Josh Waitzkin has a fascinating story. He is:

  • 2 x US Junior Chess champion (his father wrote a book about his journey called Searching for Bobby Fischer which was turned into a feature film of the same name),

  • Tai Chi Push Hands World Champion (2004) – the martial arts version of Tai Chi – and has subsequently coached others to that same title,

  • and founder of The Art of Learning Project.

I’ve read his book, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance and loved it.

The Art of Learning:

The Art of Learning

The book explores Josh’s journey from US Junior chess champion to world champion as a martial artist in Tai Chi Push Hands. As he learned TaiChi, Josh began to see how his deep understanding of chess was influencing his learning process and vice versa. Josh subsequently spent years deconstructing his learning process across the 2 pursuits and shares his universal themes in the The Art of Learning.

Josh’s principles of learning:

  • Cultivating a beginner’s mindset
    A beginner is open to all possibilities, is excited to learn and is not afraid of failing. As a beginner there is no expectation to succeed or produce results.

    As your skill level increases, so too does the expectation (often self-imposed) for you to produce results. We stop learning when those expectations make us too afraid of making mistakes. Cultivating a beginner’s mindset helps us overcome this fear of mistakes so we can continue to learn and improve.

  • Invest in loss
    By training, practicing and competing with people who are better than you, you will be forced into making mistakes (losses). These losses become investments when you take the time to reflect on them to understand what happened and why. Through this reflection you can learn and then refine and improve your skills and performance.

  • The study of numbers to leave numbers
    Another way of wording this principle might be to call it the study of a skill to make that skill automatic. By studying and practicing your skills, you gradually absorb them. They become intuitive, automatic, no thinking required.

    Remember the basics of how to catch a ball? Keep your eye on the ball and watch it into your hands. Do you repeat this to yourself every time you catch a ball? When you’re first learning – sure. However, after practicing for a while, you don’t think about it anymore. In fact, often you forget someone even taught that to you.

    This is one of the key difficulties for masters trying to teach beginners – they have forgotten what they have learnt and how they learnt it.

  • Making smaller circles (condensed technique)
    Over time you work on finer and finer details within a skill, condensing your technique to use less effort to achieve the same result. To progress to smaller and smaller circles you’ll need to follow the above 3 elements every time:

    • adopt your beginner’s mindset,

    • invest in loss to understand and learn the finer level of a skill

    • then reflect, study, and practice the new “smaller circle” of the skill until it is automatic. Then you can progress to even deeper levels.

  • Slowing down time (enhanced perception)
    In a competitive arena, if you are “making smaller circles” by focussing on finer details of a skill than your opponent, you will feel like you have more time. The greater the difference in skill level, the greater the time difference will feel.

Fractal Learning

As I was trying to understand these principles, I started to draw. This is my original drawing and notes:

Fractal Learning.png

 My notes on the side tie it back to Josh’s themes:

  • Level 1 Novice sees 3 skills to master

  • Level 2 Intermediate sees 3 skills to master

  • Level 3 Expert sees 3 skills to master

  • And so on

  • Cultivating a beginner’s mindset is about forever being open to, and then seeing the next 3 skills to master.

  • To move deeper into the pattern and down a level to more condensed technique you must invest in loss.

  • You progress to a deeper level when it is internalised by study, reflection and practice.

This drawing – of smaller and smaller circles within circles – immediately reminded me of fractals.

From Wikipedia: A fractal is a mathematical set that typically displays self-similar patterns. Fractals may be exactly the same at every scale or they may be nearly the same at different scales.

I started to look for a fractal that would help me visualise Josh’s concept of “making smaller circles”. I found the Apollonian Gasket. Here is an animated version:

Apollonian Gasket.gif

As the animation proceeds, it is exactly the same at each level – a bit like the drawing in my initial notes although with much more detail.

On the other hand, The Mandelbrot Set – one of the most famous visualisations of a fractal pattern – varies at each level:

1024px-Mandel_zoom_00_mandelbrot_set.jpg

Here’s an animated zoom of it (you don’t need to watch the whole thing):

You’ll notice that as you zoom into the structure, you don’t get an identical pattern repeating. Unlike the Apollonian Gasket, you get something different at each level. BUT it is still related to the whole.

Fractals really helped me to visualise Josh’s principles. So I wanted to step through 2 examples from water polo and web marketing to make these ideas more concrete.

Water Polo

I created a simplified water polo example:

Level 1 – A beginner, keen to learn, watches a game of water polo and sees 3 circles of skills she will need to learn to be able to play the game:

    • Water Polo:

      • Ball skills

      • Swimming

      • Game play

  • Level 2 – When she arrives at her first training session, the player becomes aware (with the help of her coach) that these 3 skills can be broken down further. For example she learns that in Ball skills there are 3 more circles – Passing, Shooting and Blocking:

    • Water Polo:

      • Ball skills

        • Passing

        • Shooting

        • Blocking

      • Swimming

      • Game play

  • Level 3 – This cycle of awareness of more detail (and capability to progress) then repeats and she then breaks each of these skills down even further.

So a branch of this water polo example might look like this:

  • Water Polo:

    • Ball skills

      • Passing

        • Forehand pass

        • Backhand pass

        • Push pass

      • Shooting

      • Blocking

    • Swimming

    • Game play

Drawn out, the pattern of smaller circles looks like this:

Water polo example

It looks a bit like a very simple Apollonian Gasket. In reality, there a more than 3 circles at each level of water polo, so let’s look at web marketing to provide a more detailed example.

Web Marketing and Templates

We started to create web marketing templates to help us teach our clients how web marketing worked and how all the various pieces of the puzzle fitted together. In hindsight, we were deconstructing the relevant skills as we learnt them.

So let’s consider web marketing as a skill set you might want to master.

The visual side of the Web Strategy Planning Template works as a good representation of the broadest level of web marketing.

Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 7.46.52 am.png

Level 1: In the above image there are 5 areas that will need to be understood:

  • Outcomes

  • Website

  • Search

  • Backlinks

  • Social Media/Content Marketing

Level 2: Let’s zoom in on one – Search. There are 2 skills to learn in Search:

  • SEO – Organic searches

  • SEM – Google Adwords

Level 3: Let’s zoom in again – SEO. The Web Strategy Planning Template doesn’t give more detail, so we can use the SEO planning template to explore the smaller circles:

SEO can be broken down into:

  • Keyword Research

  • On-page SEO

  • Off-page SEO

Level 4: Let’s zoom in one final time – On-page SEO. Again, the template helps us to clarify that we need to learn:

  • Target Keyword

  • URL

  • Page Title

  • Header tags

  • Meta description

  • Image alt tags

  • SEO Yoast

  • Web page copy

  • Google Authorship

So one branch of Web Marketing might look like this:

Web Marketing:

  • Outcomes

  • Website

  • Search

    • SEO – Organic searches

      • Keyword Research

      • On-page SEO

        • Target Keyword

        • URL

        • Page Title

        • Header tags

        • Meta description

        • Image alt tags

        • SEO Yoast

        • Web page copy

        • Google Authorship

      • Off-page SEO

    • SEM – Google Adwords

  • Backlinks

  • Social Media/Content Marketing

Imagine if you expanded each of these – it would be complex right? Visually it might start to look more like the Mandelbrot Set with related but not identical patterns at each level.

In order to progress through the levels of either of these skills and “make smaller circles”, we need to look back at Josh’s principles:

  • Cultivate a beginner’s mindset
  • Invest in loss
  • Study numbers to leave numbers

All with the purpose of making smaller circles as we learn to condense our technique in order to enhance our perception.

So thanks to Josh for an incredibly thought provoking book that inspired me to explore and reflect on my own learning journeys. I can’t recommend The Art of Learning highly enough.

Finally I’d be really interested to hear what you think:

  • Could fractals help you to visualise your learning journey? Or to help you to teach others?
  • How might your expertise or specific skill set look laid out as a pattern?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks!

The 5 Temptations (and remedies) of a CEO

The 5 Temptations of a CEO - Patrick Lencioni
Not these temptations!

A 1 minute summary of Patrick Lencioni’s 5 Temptations of a CEO:

The 5 Temptations:

  1. You put your own career status ahead of getting results for the organisation.
  2. You want to be popular with your team instead of holding them accountable for delivering on the commitments that drive results.
  3. You want to ensure your decisions are correct to achieve certainty which means despite being willing to hold people accountable, you don’t because you don’t think it’s fair.
  4. You desire harmony in your team rather than passionate ideological conflict (not personal attacks) which means that you haven’t benefited from the best sources of information available to you – your team.
  5. You desire invulnerability rather than vulnerability which means your ideas (and others’) don’t get challenged and your team just goes along with what they think your opinion is.
Fortunately, as well as detailing the 5 above, Patrick shares some simple advice to remedy the temptations.

 

Patrick’s 5 simple pieces of advice for CEOs to counteract the temptations:

  1. Make results the most important measure of personal success, or step down from the job.
  2. Work for the long term respect of your direct reports, not for their affection. …View…them as key employees who must deliver on their commitments if the company is going to produce predictable results. And remember, your people aren’t going to like you anyway if they ultimately fail.
  3. Make clarity more important than accuracy. The cost to you of being wrong is pride. The cost to your company of not taking the risk of being wrong is paralysis.
  4. Tolerate discord. Encourage your direct reports to air their ideological differences, and with passion. Tumultuous meetings are often signs of progress.
  5. Actively encourage your people to challenge your ideas. Trust them with your reputation and your ego.

In the vein of Marshall Goldsmith’s “What got you here, won’t get you there”, The 5 Temptations of a CEO, forced me to take a look in the mirror. Result = opportunity to improve!

My temptations:

I feel the temptation I most succumb to is #2 – a want to be popular among my team rather than holding each accountable. I spoke with Adam about this a while ago before I read this book and his advice was spot on – it’s not what you say but how you say it. Holding people accountable means being clear with what is expected and then demanding great performance. It doesn’t mean you have to rant and rave. In the self assessment section of the book, he says that this temptation often manifests itself in comments such as “When will these people stop questioning us and start understanding what we are trying to do?”.

We’ve just set up our scorecards (How to create Scorecards for Topgrading) with outcomes and deadlines for each of us. I think they will be fantastic opportunities to practice my resolve to turn this temptation around.

#4 is the second one I succumb to – the desire for harmony. Being a debate maker is a crucial skill to master in becoming a Multiplier. With a clear understanding of what outcome we are trying to produce, debate helps to extract all of the information in order to make the best decisions. There are plenty of opportunities to practice this in our weekly, monthly and quarterly meetings.

This was an awesome fable by Patrick Lencioni. I read it in an hour and a half on the beach and now I’ve spent another hour and a half re-reading sections.

I have a feeling I’ll be coming back to this post many times.

20 Habits That Won’t Get You There

what-got-you-here-wont-get-you-there-how-successful-people-become-even-more-successful Marshall Goldsmith

I’ve just finished Marshall Goldsmith‘s great book: “What got you here, won’t get you there – How successful people become even more successful“.

What is the book about?

My one sentence answer is:

It is about removing your personal obstacles to further magnify your strengths. 

Here’s some more detail:

Marshall describes the 20 habits of leadership that hold us back from getting where we want to be:

  1. Winning too much (p45)
  2. Adding too much value (p48)
  3. Passing judgement (p50)
  4. Making destructive comments (p53)
  5. Starting with “no”, “but” or “however” (p57)
  6. Telling the world how smart we are (p59)
  7. Speaking when angry (p62)
  8. Negativity or “let me explain why that won’t work” (p65)
  9. Withholding information (p68)
  10. Failing to give proper recognition (p71)
  11. Claiming credit we don’t deserve (p73)
  12. Making excuses (p76)
  13. Clinging to the past (p79)
  14. Playing favourites (p81)
  15. Refusing to express regret (p83)
  16. Not listening (p86)
  17. Failing to express gratitude (p88)
  18. Punishing the messenger (p91)
  19. Passing the buck (p93)
  20. An excessive need to be me (p96)

That’s quite a few flaws to deal with right?

I was reading the book on a plane trip to Brisbane with my fiancee. We jumped into a cab and she suggested that we could go to work drinks on the Friday night with her friends. I immediately said: “That sounds great. The only problem is I have my friend in town from the UK and I’ve got a huge week so I’ll be pretty tired.” In a classic number 8 style (negativity or “let me explain why that won’t work”), I’d leapt straight to the reasons why it wouldn’t work rather than looking for ways it could work.

As Marshall detailed each of the 20, I kept seeing myself in situations at home and at work displaying these habits. In some parts, he literally quoted words or phrases that I have used… It was like ripping off the rose coloured glasses, looking into a not so pretty mirror and seeing my behaviours clearly and how they impact those around me.

Perfection across the 20 habits is absolutely not the aim. The aim is to take your single worst habit out of the equation – the one that is really holding you back.

So what’s Marshall’s solution to breaking these habits?

It’s a 7 step process:

  1. 360 degree feedback on your behaviour as a leader (see the appendix on p225 for a list of 72 questions)
  2. Confront the reality of your flaws
  3. Apologize to those you’ve impacted
  4. Advertise your efforts to improve
  5. Follow up religiously on those efforts
  6. Listen without prejudice
  7. Gratitude

There are a stack of other great ideas in this book. Here are 2 of my favourites to wrap up:

Feedforward:

Feedback is based on the past (behaviours, patterns, data etc). Feedforward is a way of getting buy-in into the future – particularly when you have decided what you want to get better at.

The question to ask is:

What are 2 things I/we can do to get better at [desired outcome]?

You do not get better without follow up:

Am I getting better? Checking in with those around you to see if you are actually getting better (or indeed anything else) is essential to creating lasting change. It holds us to the goal, it helps us measure our progress, it reminds us that change “is an ongoing process, not a religious conversion” (p162).

Here’s a video from YouTube of one of Marshall’s presentations: 

Why do we exist as a business?

It’s an existential question I asked myself after reading Ben Horowitz’s blog post: Lead bullets.

Fortunately I was reading Ron Baker’s book Implementing Value Pricing at the time.

Ron proposes a simple, yet extremely demanding, 2 part answer:

  1. The sole reason for a business to exist is to create value for its customer.
  2. Value, both tangible and intangible, is solely in the eye of the customer.

It’s simple because it can be communicated in 2 sentences.

It’s extremely demanding because of all it implies.

If value is solely in the eyes of the customer, then this answer demands that you understand your customer and their needs and wants, that you help them identify value, that you deliver on the value that you promise and that you continue to help them extract value across the lifetime of your product or service.

The beauty of this is that those who can live up to it will reap the rewards by being able to charge a price commensurate to the value delivered.

“We are committed to delivering value at least 3-10x the price we charge.”

This is our new commitment at Bluewire. It changes the discussion with an existing or prospective customer from adversarial sales to genuine partnering and deeper relationships. It sets a standard of excellence for our delivery and ongoing service. It creates accountability to deliver on that value.

2 elements of the book really clarified this new perspective on value for me:

The first was a graph:

Customer Value vs Price vs Cost Graph

Price reflects a portion of the value created for the customer, so if you grow the value, you can grow the price.

The second element was this:

Poor business is: Service > Cost > Price > Value > Customer

Good business is: Customer > Value > Price > Cost > Service

The customer must always come first.

Then you measure the value to them, decide on a price, and work out the cost to deliver the service required.

So it’s a call to arms to grow value, both tangible and intangible for customers. And with it comes a renewed sense of purpose, a reason to exist.

It’s the reason you pick up the phone with a smile.

It’s the reason you say no when you can’t deliver the value to the customer in the first place.

It’s the reason you have a moral obligation to help your customers continue to extract value from your product or service.

It’s the reason you keep checking on customers in an ongoing relationship.

It’s the reason your customer has to work with you to extract this value from your product or service as soon as possible.

It’s the reason you need to explore as many options as possible.

It’s the reason to stay current with events and trends and best practice, because you might be able to help your customer extract further value from your services.

It’s the reason exactly the same advice can have hugely different value to different customers and hence the reason you can charge different prices.

It’s the reason you must keep improving your business, so you can help your customers improve theirs.

It’s the reason your communication is so important – how do you know what is valuable to the customer without talking to them?

It’s the reason that value is not rational – it is not always absolute dollars, but speed, response times, flexibility, comfort, self-esteem, “cool”, a smile, trust, ease of use, great design, simple, fun, taste, great service, friendly atmosphere, lighting, music, attitude all make a difference.

Ultimately, it’s the reason for everything you do as a business.

So, finally, to blend Ron and Ben:

If you don’t deliver value to your customers, why do you need to exist at all?

I think it’s a question worth revisiting everyday.

You Can’t Eat On Facebook – 3 Timeless Fundamentals from Never Eat Alone

Never Eat AloneYou know it’s a good book when you dog ear the last page. That’s what I did with Never Eat Alone, by Keith Ferrazzi. I did it for this quote:

…you can’t do it alone. We are all in this together.

It’s a book about the power of relationships.
It’s a book of advice and practical  tips for starting, growing and strengthening relationships.
It’s a book that takes it one step further and holds up your relationships as the single most important ingredient to your success.

While the success part is all in the eye of the beholder, I completely agree with him on the importance of relationships – and it’s a timely warning.

Social Media is something that we advise clients on all the time. Sure it’s great to have lots of Facebook fans, or Twitter followers. But ultimately you’ll need to turn these contacts  or “weak ties” (as Malcolm Gladwell has contended in his article “Why the revolution will not be tweeted”) into people who take action – whether that is downloading your e-book, buying your product, or overthrowing a government.

Never Eat Alone is all about acknowledging the power of your relationships and then helping you to grow and strengthen them.

There are definitely some great tactics in this book, but my top 3 take homes were reminders of timeless fundamentals that just can’t be over looked:

  1. ALWAYS follow up
  2. Build Mentor/Mentee relationships
  3. Have dinner parties with friends – old and new

To paraphrase Verne Harnish:

We are not B2B or B2C, we are all P2P. [People to People]

If you believe that like I do, then read this book.

Be grateful. Life’s a Black Swan.

One of the things that I’ve enjoyed most about being in business has been the exposure to new ways of thinking and a whole new genre of books. The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is a book that has definitely challenged my thinking.

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas TalebWhat is a Black Swan?

A Black Swan has 3 attributes:

First it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable. (p xvii)

It’s a humbling book in many ways and Taleb drives home his ideas of the “Impact of the Highly Improbable”. There are some great stories inside, from a turkey being stuffed to financial markets to billiards to melting ice.

Funnily enough, after reading this book, I’ve been left feeling grateful. Enormously grateful. Every now and then it’s good to be reminded of the spectacular odds that we’ve faced to get to where we are in an infinite universe.

Here are a few of my notes:

  1. Beware the bell curve
    We need to be careful of the environment we’re in when we’re dealing with probabilities and outcomes. He talks about the difference between Mediocristan (where the bell curve applies) and Extremistan (where it absolutely does NOT).
  2. Mediocristan vs Extremistan:
    Non-scalable ScalableMild or type 1 randomness vs Wild (even superwild) or type 2 randomness
    The most typical member is mediocre vs  The most “typical” is either a giant or dwarf, ie there is no typical member.
    Winners get a small segment of the total pie vs Winner-take-almost-all effects
    Example: audience of an opera singer before the gramophone vs Today’s audience for an artist
    More likely to be found in our ancestral environment vs More likely to be found in our modern environment
    Impervious to the Black Swan vs Vulnerable to the Black Swan
    Subject to gravity vs There are no physical constraints on what a number can be
    Corresponds (generally) to physical quantities: ie height vs Corresponds to numbers, say, wealth.
    As close to utopian equality as reality can spontaneously deliver vs Dominated by winner-take-all inequality
    Total is not determined by a single instance or observation vs Total will be determined by a small number of extreme events
    When you observe for a while you can get to know what’s going on vs It takes a long time to know what’s going on
    Tyranny of the collective vs Tyranny of the accidental
    Easy to predict from what you see and extend to what you do not see vs Hard to predict from past information
    History crawls vs History jumps
    Events are distributed* according to the “bell curve” (the GIF) or its variations vs The distribution is either mandelbrotian “gray” Swans (tractable scientifically) or totally intractable Black Swans
    *What I call “probability distribution” here is the model used to calculate the odds of different events, how they are distributed. When I say that an event is distributed according to the “bell curve”, I mean that the Gaussian bell curve (after C.F. Gauss) can help provide probabilities of various occurrences.
  3. We are hopeless at predicting
    Did you know that to predict the 56th impact of a billiard ball on a pool table, “…every single elementary particle in the universe needs to be present in your calculations”?
  4. All pieces of information are not equal in importance (p 58)
    The single observation that disproves the theory is far more important than the previous million observations that confirmed it. Example: A million sightings of white swans in Europe led to the belief that all swans were white. Then they found a black swan in Australia.
  5. Be an empirical skeptic
    Formulate a bold conjecture then start looking for the observation that will prove you wrong.
  6. Luck favours the prepared
  7. Focus on the consequences
    In order to make a decision, you need to focus on the consequences (which you can know) rather than the probability (which you can’t know).
  8. Don’t try to predict the precise Black Swan.
  9. Seize any opportunity or anything that looks like an opportunity.
  10. Serendipity
    Finding something that you’re not looking for.
  11. Barbell investment strategy
    Taking maximum exposure to the positive Black Swans while remaining paranoid about the negative ones.(p207)

Humanising – the real value of Real Time

Real Time Marketing and PR“Our people are our greatest asset.”

“Our differentiator is our relationships.”

“Product X is great but it’s our people and our culture that really makes the difference.”

“Our competitors could walk into this place and look around. They can even copy everything we do, but they can’t copy our culture or our people.”

Have you ever heard these statements? I have. Many times.

David Meerman Scott (in Real Time Marketing and PR) has nailed a fundamental shift in communication:

…the web has actually brought communication back full circle to where we were a century ago… communication is once again real, personal and authentic… word of mouth has regained its historic power…

Humanise your company.

If you believe these statements, if you truly believe them, then place your trust in your people and culture, and let them wow the world. Give them the tools – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and whatever else is next – to share that very same culture and grow those same relationships – in real time.

If your people and culture can’t be copied then surely that is the one thing you can fearlessly make public.