Author Archives: Ben

All Understanding is Visual: Why Aristotle Writes With Pictures

Sometimes when I’m reading bedtime stories to my five-year-old, I glance at her and wonder Is she following this? We recently made the jump to “chapter books,” starting with some that have illustrations on every page. She often stops me and says “Let me see.” She’ll grab the book and pull it up to her nose to study the pictures.

Pictures seem to be at the core of how we understand anything. People often say “I’m a visual learner” as if it were a matter of personal style. (Where are all the audio learners? Taste learners?) I’m no neuroscientist, but it seems to me that everyone is a visual learner.

The fact that great writing is rich in imagery is not some accidental aesthetic quirk (like the fact that pavement always appears wet in movies), but an insight into how our minds work. I first encountered this idea reading Steven Pinker, but Aristotle gave me a renewed appreciation for it.

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You Only Get One Triangle: Storytelling Is the Art of Attention

We live in an age of distraction. Attention is a scarce commodity, which makes storytelling more valuable than ever. Good storytelling, after all, is the art of attention management.

Storytelling—or rhetoric as the ancients called it—has always been my most valuable asset as a product manager. A product manager’s first job is to persuade a group of smart and opinionated people to follow a particular strategy. The key word here is persuade. A strategy is not provable, so product managers have to convince people to follow a plan, even though we can’t be sure of what the future holds.

If you’re a product manager looking to improve your storytelling skills, where should you turn? There is no obvious answer. If you wanted to learn Python or repair your refrigerator, you could easily find plenty of online courses and videos. But when it comes to improving storytelling skills, I’ve never come across anything particularly helpful. Why is that? One compelling explanation for our lack of rhetorical resources can be found in Plato’s dialogues.

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Building a Learning Culture, Part 1: The Problem of Organizational Knowledge

Every time I watch a teammate walk out the door for another opportunity, I wonder how much of our organization’s knowledge leaves with them. Surely an organization can “know” more than what’s inside each employee’s head. But how is this knowledge acquired? Where is it stored? Is it written down in documents, or is it tacitly woven into a team’s culture?

These questions are especially pertinent to product managers. Think about a product manager identifying the winning variant of an A/B test. Given enough of these tests, the PM begins to build an intuition for what tends to work. But does the organization share these data-driven intuitions?

I believe that organizational learning can be a source of operational effectiveness and even a competitive advantage. Further, product managers are in a unique position to enable such learning due to the data-driven nature of our work. My team of product managers has been experimenting with a process to translate our product experiments into shared organizational knowledge. This is the first in a series of posts that will describe how we approach building our team’s knowledge base.

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Homer & Helen: My Twenty-Year Odyssey Through the Iliad

I never stop reading a book. But I often lose momentum. The first time I failed to finish the Iliad was during a great books seminar in college. I was terrified to learn that we were expected to read the entire book in just over a week. I calculated how many pages I had to cover each day in order to keep up: 68. After a few days it became clear that momentum was not on my side. I fell behind. We moved on to Herodotus. My partially read Iliad moved to the shelf, where it would remain for twenty years.

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Resentment in the Oresteia: The Power of the People

Every era has a defining anxiety. Ours is an era of technological anxiety. We ask ourselves questions like: What are smartphones doing to us? Is social media making us miserable? We’ve been asking these kinds of questions since the industrial revolution. The early 20th-century folk song “John Henry” and contemporary movies like Ex Machina ultimately pose the same question: Will these machines be the death of us?

John Henry was a newborn baby
Sittin’ down on his mama’s knee
Said, “That Big Bend Tunnel on C-and-O Road
It’s going to be the death of me, Lord, Lord
It’s going be the death of me
– John Henry, as sung by Leadbelly

Aeschylus, judging from The Oresteia and Prometheus Bound, lived in an era of political anxiety. The world is unstable in his tragedies. Power is in flux. Regimes come and go. The tragedies of Aeschylus are concerned with power, and particularly with the instability of power. These works ask the question: In a world without kings, where does power come from?

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This Time Machine Saves Lives

Now if it is in our power to do noble or base acts, and likewise in our power not to do them, and this was what being good or bad meant, then it is in our power to be virtuous or vicious.

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 1113b11

Imagine you had a time machine that could save lives.

Imagine you could go back to 2005 to reinforce the levies and floodwalls in New Orleans. Imagine being able to evacuate people from the beaches of Thailand in 2004 before the tsunami hit. Imagine you could prevent the 9/11 terrorists from boarding those planes.

Now consider this: We are in exactly such a position today. We are facing a once-in-a-century calamity with COVID-19 that could claim more lives than all of the aforementioned natural disasters combined. But unlike most disasters, we can actually prevent this one from happening. Our actions over the next few weeks can prevent death, disease, and economic disaster. In fact, given the potential impact of our actions, I’d argue that we will soon be making the most important moral decisions of our lives.

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It’s Time to Act

My family and I are making the decision to keep our kids home from school and stay home from work. Why are we doing this? Anything we can do to slow the COVID-19 outbreak can save lives by evening out the demand for healthcare over time. We are fortunate to be in a position to do this — I know others are less able for many reasons. But I’m posting this because I want to help remove the stigma of taking action for those who are able.

From Carl Bergstrom, Biology Professor at the University of Washington

During the 1918 flu epidemic, St Louis took decisive action two days after the first identified case, enacting “a broad series of measures designed to promote social distancing.” Philadelphia delayed action for 16 days, just two weeks longer than St. Louis. Here is what the death toll from Pneumonia & Influenza (P&I) looked like for the two cities:

We need to be more like St. Louis and less like Philadelphia.

We need to do what St. Louis did. Given how quickly the virus is spreading (look at recent news from Italy and Iran), if we wait until the problem is in our faces, we might already be in grave danger. Those who are able need to act now to protect those who are most vulnerable to this virus.

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The Price of Survival: The Odyssey

Maybe you knew someone like this in high school. He was the guy who organized the parties, the guy who somehow procured the beer. He was the leader. The instigator. He was the reason everyone showed up at Heather Morgan’s house to get buzzed on Milwaukee’s Best Light the Saturday her parents were out of town. But when the police showed up, he was nowhere to be found. Sure, he broke the rules, but so did everyone else at the party. The difference between him and everyone else was that this guy somehow survived.

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Addicted to Data: How an Obsession With Measuring Can Hurt Businesses

This post was originally published in The Atlantic on February 29, 2012. It was republished in frog’s “15 Must-Reads from 2012.”

The Gospel of Metrics says, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” But what if some companies are measuring themselves to death?

Here’s one thing I love about plumbers: whenever I hire one, they stick to the plumbing. Not once has a plumber fixed my kitchen sink, only to follow up with a credit card offer. No teaser rates, no plumber points, no “convenience checks.” Not even a customer satisfaction survey. They simply do their job and collect their fee. It makes me wish dealing with larger companies were that simple.

Take for example the pre-authorized credit card offers that incessantly arrive in the mail. Every weekend, I spend a few minutes opening, shredding, and recycling the week’s accumulated offers. This routine is especially galling because many of the offers come from companies I have a relationship with. As with the plumber, I hire these companies to do a job for me (one that has nothing to do with credit cards). But unlike the plumber, these companies don’t seem to understand their role in my life.

Most of us call these unsolicited offers “junk mail.” The industry prefers the euphemism “direct mail.” Within marketing circles, this kind of tactic is known for being highly measurable. Outside of marketing, it is known for being highly annoying. (I’d suggest that these two attributes are not mutually exclusive.)

Complaining about junk mail is hardly novel. But “Junk Mail Thinking” is not limited to credit card offers. Junk mail thinking is metric-oriented thinking, and it pervades the business world, stemming from an almost religious devotion to measurement. An entire generation of managers has been brought up in the Church of Measurement, whose catechism is: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” It seems like an innocent enough idea. But as uncontroversial as it sounds, a dogmatic devotion to measurement can create problems. Those problems begin with a few simple truths:

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A Year on the Bike: 12 Months of Commuting to Work Without a Car

This post was originally published in The Atlantic on September 27, 2011.

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What I’ve learned about systems design, health, and human nature a year after I sold my car and decided to bike 12 miles to the office every day.

In our era of polarized politics, the idea of changing someone’s mind seems increasingly implausible. But what if instead of changing someone’s mind, you could change their behavior? This is a subject on the mind of many designers today. Whether you’re talking about healthcare, the environment, or education, designers are increasingly being asked to solve problems by changing the way people act. How can we encourage people to eat right, reduce carbon emissions, and spend less (or more)?

For empathy’s sake, over the last year, I undertook a behavior change of my own: I sold my car and started biking to work every day. One year later, it’s time to reflect on what I’ve learned about behavioral change: What it takes to make it happen, how it can surprise you, and the limits.

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