On Building

Highlights from Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making by Tony Fadell (who led the teams for the iPod, iPhone, and Nest Learning Thermostat):

On the need to divide decisions into two main camps, data-driven or opinion-driven:

Data-driven: You can acquire, study, and debate facts and numbers that will allow you to be fairly confident in your choice. These decisions are relatively easy to make and defend and most people on the team can agree on the answer.

Opinion-driven: You have to follow your gut and your vision for what you want to do, without the benefit of sufficient data to guide you or back you up. These decisions are always hard and always questioned-after all, everyone has an opinion.

Every decision has elements of data and opinion, but they are ultimately driven by one or the other. Sometimes you have to double down on the data; other times you have to look at all the data and then trust your gut. And trusting your gut is incredibly scary. Many people don’t have either a good gut instinct to follow or the faith in themselves to follow it. It takes time to develop that trust. So they try to turn an opinion-driven business decision into a data-driven one. But data can’t solve an opinion-based problem. So no matter how much data you get, it will always be inconclusive. This leads to analysis paralysis-death by overthinking.

“Data can’t solve an opinion-based problem” is a core problem of the universe.

And the problems are worse when you can find a way to shirk responsibility for making those decisions:

But we fell into the same trap as everyone else. We were wowed by the consultants, excited by the numbers. And we quickly became far too reliant on them: everyone wanted data so they wouldn’t have to make decisions themselves. Instead of moving forward with a design, you’d hear, “Well, let’s just test it.? Nobody wanted to take responsibility for what they were making.

So you’d run the test. And then run it again. On Monday the customer panel would pick option X. On Friday, the same group would go with option Y. Meanwhile, we were paying millions of dollars to consultants who took a month and a half to put their own slant on everything.

The data wasn’t a guide. At best, it was a crutch. At worst, cement shoes. It was analysis paralysis.

“Design by committee” is an adjunct to the crutch of data, where there is no vision for the product and no responsibility for the outcome. I see this in medical schools, residency programs, and medical centers of all varieties. So many meetings to discuss so many dashboards. The analytic tools have become robust, so we are awash in numbers and react by massaging our processes to push various metrics in the right direction, often with no regard to second-order effects.

We so often seem locked into a rearranging deck chair approach to problem-solving instead of designing from first principles to make better products and achieve better outcomes.

On being a doofus:

I remember we had a huge all-hands meeting at Apple once these meetings would only happen two, maybe three times a year. And a guy stands up during the Q&A and starts asking Steve Jobs why he didn’t get a raise or a good review. Steve looks at him in stunned disbelief and says, “I can tell you why. Because you’re asking this question in front of ten thousand people.”

On quitting:

Anyone who’s ever stuck with a job they hated knows the feeling.

Every meeting, every pointless project, every hour stretches on and on. You don’t respect your manager, you roll your eyes at the mission, you stagger out the door at the end of the day exhausted, dragging yourself home to complain to family and friends until they’re as miserable as you are. It is time and energy and health and joy that disappear from your life forever. But hey, that title, that stature, that money it’s worth it all, right?

(He’s asking a rhetorical question.)

The threat of leaving may be enough to push your company to get serious and make whatever change you’re asking for. But it might not. Quitting should never be a negotiating tactic. It should be the very last card you play.

So before you quit, you’d better have a story. A good, credible, and factual one. You’ll need to have a rationale for why you left.

And you’ll need one for why you want to join whatever company you’re heading to next. These should be two very different narratives. You’ll need them for the interview, but also for yourself to make sure you’ve really thought things through. And to make sure you’re making the right choice for the next job.

The last part I think is sometimes underappreciated. You don’t just quit from something. Until you retire, you’re also quitting to something.

I wrote a brief article last year on evaluating jobs, where I referenced a 2020 study that showed 41% of radiologists had changed jobs in the past 4 years. I bet it’s even higher now given the current market. Lots of folks are quitting. The question is, are they learning from their experiences?

On the benefits of integrating old and young people:

The best teams are multigenerational Nest employed twenty-year-olds and seventy-year-olds. Experienced people have a wealth of wisdom that they can pass on to the next generation and young people can push back against long-held assumptions. They can often see the opportunity that lies in accomplishing difficult things, while experienced people see only the difficulty.

The generational conflict is real, and it’s often amazing to see in person how easily both groups generously weigh only their own strengths.

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