More Cowbell... I say More White Space! by Scott Nichols

In Seth Godin’s book Linchpin, there is a great chapter that highlights a famous SNL skit featuring Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken. Will Ferrell plays a member of Blue Oyster Cult, whose job is to play the cowbell on the track Don’t Fear the Reaper. Playing the cowbell in a rock band is pretty insignificant in contrast to the vocals, drums and guitars. However, at Walken’s request for more cowbell, Ferrell fully embraces his part and owns it. The result is some extremely enthusiastic cowbell playing. Using that skit as an example, Seth points out why it’s so essential to not just play your part but to own it. 

An article on today, reminded me about the More Cowbell chapter in Seth’s book. The article is about Apple’s recent marketing campaign for the Apple watch. Specifically, the 12-page spread in the March issue of Vogue. A single page ad in Vogue can go for $189,888. Apple purchased twelve of those. That is very expensive print real-estate. Now the tendency of most organizations would be to cram every square inch with as much content as possible. However, Apple did just the opposite.

At Apple’s core is a value of great design. Great design extends to every facet of what Apple does. Apple has spent years iterating its design of the Apple watch. That is why they are completely comfortable taking 12-pages in Vogue and filling it with all product, lots of white space, no unnecessary words and no prices. Great design or rather thoughtful design speaks for itself, it doesn't require an explanation. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s characterization of pornography was “I know it when I see it”. I believe that the same characterization is true of thoughtful design work.

So to get the point… it occurred to me that for an organization that values thoughtful design, it is important that value be expressed in everything it does. Without the need for unnecessary embellishment or varnish; thoughtful design work stands on its own. Like Will Ferrell’s character, if your organization values design… don’t just play the part… own it. The mantra of more cowbell could simply translate to more white space. Let the work speak for itself. Once the audience is engaged, then provide opportunities for them to then learn more about the features and process.

Respect and Prejudice by Scott Nichols



Respect and Prejudice - One requires effort and the latter occurs in the absence of effort.

It’s much easier to settle on a single perspective or worldview, narrowing our opportunities within a small framework. This makes it easier to make decisions or judgments about people, ideas, situations and opportunities. This shortcut for decision making arises from the ancient part of our brain concerned with survival. It was useful when ancient humans encountered a sabretooth tiger for the first time. …This cat looks dangerous, I’m going to avoid it!

In the modern world, where most of our eminent, environmental dangers are mitigated. This shortcut, or lazy quick decision mechanism, blinds us to opportunity.  For example organizations actively screen out candidates who don’t have an MBA. The reason stems from a fear of hiring the wrong candidate. After all you could end up hiring a Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg; that would be a disaster! Your boss would certainly fire you if you hired one of those guys by accident.

That was a business example, but if we are honest with ourselves, we all engage in this cognitive laziness. That is why you are certain that you don’t like that food that you have never tried at that strange restaurant.

Conversely, respect is what can occur when we take the time to observe and learn about people, ideas, situations and opportunities. Lead with respect and withhold judgment. At the very least, you may discover that you love eating kimschi or pad thai.

The Trouble with Labels by Scott Nichols

  Milam Residence / Paul Rudolph

Milam Residence / Paul Rudolph

The trouble with labels is they are generic and tend to stick around too long. In architecture, look at the labels historic and modern. The terms are used as labels to identify a time period or architectural movement. However, some of the building that qualify for historic preservation status (at least 50 years old) are also labeled as modern, or mid-century modern to be exact. These buildings don’t look “historic”, no columns, plinths or pilasters, so in many instances they aren’t actively being preserved. If you evaluate these buildings by criteria and not by label bias, the mid-century building should be as actively and equally preserved as its federal and colonial counterparts. A good argument for this is made in the book titled Facadomy: A Critique on Capitalism and its Assault on Mid-Century Modern Architecture.

Even the label “modern” is problematic, which is probably why that label has been modified to mid-century modern. This will eventually present another problem in the year 2050. What will we call it then last mid-century modern architecture? This happens in music and fashion as well; remember New Wave? Some of the songs from that genre are now considered “Classic Rock”.

In the computer industry, we have the label PC. Many interpret this as a computer that isn’t an Apple computer. However, an Apple computer is in fact a Personal Computer (PC).

How about in your industry or tribe; is there a label that should be re-thought or retired?

Are labels another example of cognitive laziness?

Leadership vs. Management by Scott Nichols

“Avoid managers who lack the expertise and relationships to justify the control they seek. Influence, best when earned.”

Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky’s quote reminds me of the important distinction between management and leadership.­­

A former associate of mine values management processes above leadership. Their assertion is that leadership isn’t sufficient on its own. To a certain extent this can be true, but it really depends on an objective’s level of uncertainty.

The problem is, when there is a high degree of uncertainty (show me an industry that doesn’t currently have a high degree of uncertainty), there isn’t any amount of management process that can lead you to an unknown solution. Even if you have an idea of what the solution is, you need the power of leadership to inspire and persuade others to follow you in times of uncertainty. You cannot achieve this with management processes alone. You can’t manage your way to innovation; management is best suited for what is known. You need leadership when the outcome or objective is new or unknown.

Management is best suited for objectives that have a high degree of certainty. This is why management processes evolved out a maturing industrial revolution. You can effectively manage an assembly line with management processes, because every task has a high degree of certainty. However, if you are trying to guide an organization that has been disrupted by uncertainty, such as the economy, technology or social change, what you really need is strong leadership not more management.

The tricky part is leadership can’t be taught. That is you can’t simply read a book on leadership and become a leader. You have to absorb the content, cultivate your personal character and implement the principles of leadership. This requires time and a meaningful commitment to personal growth and the active cultivation of the people around you. You can however, read a book on management a learn how to write memos, use schedules and create work plans; you can learn management processes.

If your organization is struggling with a high degree of uncertainty, you need to cultivate leadership. Identify the people who are natural leaders and provide them with a modicum of management tools and give them permission to lead. If you have some great managers, bombard them with a high degree of leadership training and measure their progress by asking the people they manage how they are doing as leaders. Put your best managers on production oriented tasks with a high degree of certainty, but put your leaders on the tasks with a high degree of uncertainty.

If your organization needs to figure out how to survive in a disrupted industry and you need solutions that are currently unknown, empower your natural leaders to find the path forward.

For more on leadership, take a look at Leadership: The Warrior’s Art, by Christopher Kolenda

Leadership: The Warriors Art