Learning from Singer

This factory tour is incredibly interesting, for three reasons.

First, the Porsche 911 reimagined by Singer Vehicle Design. It’s beautiful and seductive and I just want to jump in one and back it into corners. It’s an exemplary instance of the right group of people doing something absolutely to the hilt and beyond. Singer’s mantra “Everything is Important” shines through on every detail of the car and its production process. It’s so rare to come across an object designed and produced without regard to cost, and it’s instructive to observe how that mindset shapes the finished product and the way the market receives it. (Spoiler: as revealed toward the end of the video, they don’t have to engage in any traditional go-to-market activities in order to sell these Porsches; demand is so high that they’re going to cap production lest Singer inadvertently jump the shark.)

Roman Mars exhorts us to Always Read the Plaque; in much the same way here at metacool HQ we endeavor to Always Take the Factory Tour. Always. In this case, Singer’s factory is a fascinating mix of industrial recycling (upcycling) center, Saville Row backroom, and aerospace carbon fiber fabrication skunkworks. So perhaps the second notable thing about this video is what it can teach us about organizational culture. Now, culture is about what you do and how people behave as opposed to what you say you do and how you hope people behave. And there’s no place in an organization more oriented toward the doing of things than a manufacturing line. It’s literally where the things that customers pay for are produced. From that standpoint, what we witness on the tour reveals so much of what makes Singer tick. This is no slick tour of Singer produced by a PR agency — it’s just CEO Mazen Fawaz taking us on an unscripted stroll around the building. A telling moment in the tour happens at the 1:35 mark where Mazen informs us that each incoming “donor” Porsche 964 gets dismantled offsite because doing so under this roof would be too messy. Not an obvious choice to make from a business perspective: more complex, likely more expensive. But, with that operating decision in mind, look at the gleaming white floors of the Singer factory as evidence that what the CEO says, what actually happens in the factory (or doesn’t, in the case of incoming car processing), and the stated company mantra are all in alignment. Everything is in fact important at Singer, and is executed upon as such.

Third, Quadrant Four and the future of objects whose value is rooted in the fact that they are singularly designed to evoke certain types of strong emotions. Eight years ago, at the behest of Reilly Brennan’s Future of Transportation forum, we discussed the forking of the 20th century conception of the automobile. Simply put, four radically different types of vehicles result from this fork in the road, the most interesting of which is called Quadrant Four. Per that 2015 essay:

Internal Combustion-powered cars as the new Patek Philippe watch—more complex and less capable than their solid-state cousins, but a visceral thrill as well as a status symbol for those who choose to display their money this way. The recent run-up in prices of vintage Porsches is evidence that non-autonomous cars with manual transmissions and gas motors are already being priced in anticipation of this scenario—the thrill of driving a complex machine fast will become a rarefied luxury experience. Here cars really will be like horses, a pastime of enthusiasts, with dedicated spaces for frolicking. 

Singer, the vehicles it creates, and all of its commercial success represent an existence proof for the idea of Quadrant Four. On paper, a reimagined Porsche 911 rolling out of the Singer factory is not quantifiably a better automobile than the brand new 992 you might spy on your local dealer’s lot. The newer 911 is faster, more economical, cleaner, safer. But for many people, a Singer is an infinitely more interesting (and therefore valuable) car — a car being the antithesis of a computerized, close-to-perfection auto-mobile. As Porsche from Singer is something you want to fall in love with, much as you would a horse, a mechanical watch, an old house, or any other analog object.

Isn’t that the point of creating great stuff? Making things that people can love?

The Curious Steve Jobs

If you’ve not signed up for the Steve Jobs Archive mailing list, I would encourage you to do so. What an instructive treasure trove of photos from his life and times.

Case in point:

Here’s what Leslie Berlin, founding Executive Editor of the archive, says about this photo:

Steve’s friend Jean Pigozzi, who calls himself a “serious amateur photographer,” took the image and told me the story behind it. Although Jean did not work in tech, Steve invited him along to a software conference in New Orleans. One evening after the event, as they were walking down O’Keefe Avenue looking for dinner, Steve—a notoriously fast walker—pulled to a halt. Someone in a store window was working on a Macintosh.

He had to take a closer look. How was this person using the Mac? Steve is so curious, so lasered in on trying to understand, that he is bent nearly double.

As a person whose career has been spent dreaming up and shipping products, I know this photo well — I’ve lived it. When you’ve been a part of building something and you spy it in the wild, you just have to stop and watch and see if it is living up to standards you dreamed of — and sweated over — during its development. Is it helping the person using it live a better life? Are they enjoying the experience? What’s not working? What’s getting in the way? What’s surprising? At the end of the day, it’s just fascinating to watch a person use any product, let alone your own.

Above all, what I see in this photo is a curious person. Curiosity is the fuel that powers the engines of innovation. We’re all born with it, but it needs to be cultivated less the vicissitudes of life dampen its fervor.

The best way to stay curious? Peer in office windows. Read a new magazine. Take photos of clouds next time you’re on an airplane. Listen. Look. See.

Act curious to be curious.

A Conversation With Michael Dearing

I typically don’t go around trumpeting the arrival my latest pod episode to friends and family. Everyone is busy with their own thing, and I figure that if they’re going to listen to it, they’re going to find their own way to it. Human nature being what it is, they’re not likely to establish a listening habit just because I’m reminding them that HEY, I JUST POURED MY SOUL INTO MAKING THIS LATEST RECORDING.

That’s overstating it a bit, but for me, compared to writing words on a screen/page, speaking into a microphone represents a markedly higher level of personal commitment, involvement, and vulnerability. You can edit an audio track, but your voice is your voice, and it’s challenging to read pre-written stuff on the air — it only sounds right when it’s done wholly or partially off-the-cuff. If writing is close to the iterative, drawn-out process of designing something, then podding is akin to the real-time dynamic of playing jazz saxophone

Having said all of that, here’s my latest pod episode, one I think you will like:

Michael is the founder of Harrison Metal. As you’ll hear in the podcast, he did a ton of remarkable things before launching Harrison Metal, too. Michael and I met over ten years ago when he helped out as an “Industry Coach” for the Creating Infectious Action class which Bob Sutton and I used to teach at the Stanford d.school. He subsequently became a Consulting Associate Professor at the d.school, and it was fun to be on the faculty there together.

I am a big fan of Michael’s character and intellect, from which it follows that I am also a big fan of his feed on the Twitter. For this pod, we use that as a launchpad to talk about venture mechanics, gross margin, the clocks in Greenwich, modern capitalism, organizational life, why Harrison Metal is called Harrison Metal, and how a certain type of aquatic mammal will inherit the earth.

With the release of each new pod over the past year (save for one), I’ve consistently felt like the latest one is my favorite one ever. Ferry Porsche once said something similar, that his favorite Porsche was the one yet to be designed. My favorite pod is actually the next one to be recorded: I learn so much making these, I listen to other people’s work and learn from it, and I try to roll whatever insights I’ve had into our next recording. So it’s safe to say that this episode is by far my favorite one until we record another one.

But who knows? — perhaps this is the high water mark. Let’s ask the dolphins.


Lessons from My Not-So-Secret Life as a Soccer Referee

metacool my feet in refereeing soccer shoes

This past fall, I became a volunteer American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) referee. My experience as a neophyte referee was one of the most meaningful things I did last year. I didn’t expect AYSO soccer to help me grow in my professional life, but with an open heart and mind, insights can come from anywhere.

Founded in 1964, AYSO’s mission is to provide world-class youth soccer programs that enrich children’s lives. On any given Saturday in the U.S., you’ll see teams of boys and girls chasing the ball in AYSO soccer games, with refs like me there to ensure that everyone has an experience that’s safe, fair, and most of all, fun.

After several evenings of training, I qualified to referee matches for kids under age 8. Run without goalies, their games feature stunning breakaways and enough breathtaking shots on goal to make Arsène Wenger green with envy. This is real soccer. I’m fairly fit, but in our matches I had to run hard to keep up with these future Carli Lloyds. Seriously though: 7-year-olds can sprint really fast!

My professional life revolves around bringing new stuff into the world, and helping others do the same. As such, I’m always on the lookout for better models for leadership in the pursuit of creative outcomes. I used to think of the role of orchestra conductor as great metaphor for creative leadership, but in my experience it’s too hierarchical an approach to work in most contexts. Recently I’ve written that leaders should think of themselves as gardeners. But who in the workplace wants to think of themselves as an innocent head of broccoli on the receiving end of fertilizer — or even a spade?

I now believe that refereeing soccer — in the AYSO sense of the role — is a fascinating model for leadership in the workplace. That’s because of the PIE framework that’s a central part of the league’s referee and coach training. What PIE says is that any coach or referee interacting with players must always be:

  • Positive
  • Instructional
  • Encouraging

In a world where the dominant mindset of referees (and bosses, and sometimes even coaches) is to be an enforcer rather than a teacher, this is easier said than done.

Here’s an experience I had trying to live the PIE philosophy on the field one bright Saturday morning in California. I had a talented player who was full of energy and having a good game, pouring huge amounts of energy into her play. However, as the match flowed on, I noticed that when in close quarters with other players (from both teams), she was consistently a little over-enthusiastic with the sharp parts of her elbows. How to enforce the rules while being as positive, instructional, and encouraging as possible? I gave my whistle a pip, gathered both squads around, and calmly asked them to all position their arms like chicken wings. And then I asked everyone to give them a few good flaps. We then observed as a group that when our arms were out like this, touching other soccer players with our elbows could hurt someone, and that didn’t seem like a fun way to play. With nodding of heads, some giggles and some smiles, we recommenced our soccer frenzy with an exciting drop-ball.

I guarantee you that this intervention was more effective, more memorable, and positive for everyone — players, parents, coaches, me —  than the standard approach we see in sports or at work: a penalty whistle meant to shame a specific individual, reprimanding them in the present to limit their behavior in the future. Now, would a chicken-wing circle be appropriate when Martin Skrtel stomps an opponent like a flamenco dancer who has slurped one too many espressos? No, but I believe that individuals raise or lower their behaviors and beliefs to the expectations of the environment they work or play in. A consistently positive, optimistic, and encouraging culture can teach people that there’s a better way to be in the world.

Built into the core of a culture, a guiding philosophy like PIE creates the ideal circumstances for an up and coming leader to practice a form of leadership that helps other people grow to become the person they want to be. When it comes to leading people in creative endeavors, you could do a lot worse than to think and act like a PIE-centered referee. Keeping players engaged in a flowing game, stopping play only when absolutely essential, and using those moments as a teachable moment where the group almost leads itself — it’s a wonderful metaphor for creative leadership. As Stanford d.school founder David Kelley once said, “I can give you the confidence that you are a leader by giving some experiences where it comes out better than you thought and you were the leader.” A PIE approach — positive, instructional, and encouraging — helps you lead in that way.

All of this is why I’m proud to make being an AYSO referee part of my life outside of work, and it’s why I hope to keep on carrying a whistle (but not blowing it much) for years to come.

An Open Letter to the Car Industry

to: Manufacturers of Internal Combustion Cars
from: Diego
subject: Your Future Credibility

Hello Everyone,

September 2015 will go down as the year when even gearheads lost faith in your industry. Whether or not you saw it as a future platform, #DieselGate’s fallout doesn’t just imperil diesel’s market viability, but that of gasoline-powered internal combustion motors as well.

The public’s trust has been violated. By shipping cars with computer code designed to subvert emissions tests, VW breached a basic covenant that product creators hold with the communities they live in. Not all of you are at fault with #DieselGate, but at stake is your shared reputation as an industry.

Now is your moment to go ride the high country. To do what’s noble and high-minded, no matter how difficult. To do what’s right.

Here’s my suggestion: publish all of your emissions-related computer code to the public domain. Make it available for anyone in the world to poke, prod, and put through the wringer.

Upload it to GitHub. Because this is about transparency and (re)building trust, don’t allow lawyers to saddle your code with an obfuscating, bazillion-page software agreement. Instead, employ a Creative Commons license that we can all understand and trust. This particular license doesn’t allow any commercial use or the distribution of derivatives, so you’re protected there.

Worried about IP theft or public embarrassment? Those who desire your code for nefarious purposes have probably already hacked you (or will). And as for flaws, we citizens will help identify opportunities to improve your code. As Eric Raymond once said, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. By the way, a commissioner from the US Federal Trade Commission agrees with me on that last point.

No need to publish all of your code just yet. Begin with what could lead to yet another #DieselGate, and let’s start rebuilding the trust.

That’s just one idea (and admittedly a rather radical one), but now is the time to think big and think different.

Yours in Mobility,

metacool Thought of the Day

“Victory on the field is more often a result of three yards and a cloud of dust. I like that. So, too, startups. It’s not about being on stage at a Demo Day or featured in an article in TechCrunch or closing a $20 million round. It’s about continually shipping code. It’s about putting out menacing bugs. It’s about a 6:15am flight to a customer in Detroit in Winter for a $200k deal to hit your budget for the quarter.”

Mark Suster

Diversity, Innovation, and Hiring for Cultural Contribution

metacool diversity innovation cultural contribution

The future of your organization is shaped by the people you hire today. And given the pace of change in today’s world, not forging ahead means falling behind. As John W. Gardner once said, the “only stability possible is stability in motion.” Constantly innovating your market offerings, operations, and culture is an imperative.

Most innovations arise from transplanting what works in one field to another, bringing two separate ideas together, or by simply noticing what’s already there. Innovative organizations do all of these routinely, because:

  • the knowledge base of their employees spans a broad range of intellectual disciplines
  • their members represent a wide range of life experiences and circumstances
  • as individuals, they’re able to listen carefully to the viewpoints of others

Here’s the key to this list: diversity. The more diverse the people in your organization, the more points of inspiration it will contain. This enables the creative connections that generate the kinds of innovations that keep you at the fore.

But most hiring processes focus on “cultural fit” and lead to the opposite of diversity. Why? Because when we hire based on how well someone will fit in today, we tend to choose people similar to those already around us.

So how do I hire? My solution is to prioritize cultural contribution over cultural fit. I try to choose candidates who could make a positive contribution to the future of our culture, even if they don’t feel like today’s mainstream employee. I don’t optimize for fit with our existing culture, because over time that will lead to uniformity and irrelevancy. Instead, I try to envision a future where this person’s unique point of view has shifted how we work and what we value. I hire for an individual’s potential cultural contribution.

Focusing on cultural contribution in hiring and in day-to-day organizational life sets the stage for creativity and innovation to flourish. Some examples:

  • Putting engineers together with social scientists and business people almost always leads to breakthroughs that each group could never reach alone. A diversity of knowledge and viewpoints massively boosts their creative output. I see this every year at the Stanford d.school — it’s how students there have been able to create remarkable offerings such as Pulse and Embrace.
  • Encouraging everyone to bring their own particular life experience to work— no matter their educational background, age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political views, social status, national origin, or spot in the organizational hierarchy — dramatically increases the quality and kind of ideas that emerge. When nurses at Kaiser Permanente were directly involved in a program to improve the exchange of patient information at daily shift, their first-hand insights resulted in massive efficiency gains.

And even more importantly, hiring for cultural contribution forces managers to think critically about their existing culture: What’s lacking? Where do we want to go? Acknowledging that our culture needn’t be static helps us have serious conversations about what we want and how the world works. Doing so helps us develop a confident awareness of what makes our culture thrive. At the end of the day, an organization with a diverse, creative community living in a self-aware culture can move mountains. Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Through my own leadership roles and across the hundreds of client organizations I’ve worked with, I’ve witnessed firsthand the power of hiring strong cultural contributors. And I’ve seen how the resulting diversity drives a more innovative, competitive, vibrant, and lasting organization.

When we hire with cultural contribution in mind, we commit to evolve to where we need to go by trusting our newest contributors to take us there. That’s a bet I’ll make every time.

The Fantastic Mr. Zanardi

What separates the great teams from the rest of the pack? Why are certain people able to make the best out of whatever situation they’re given? What enables an individual to keep pushing, again and again again?

I’m fascinated by all of these questions, and so I have a deep and abiding interest in the life and teams of Alex Zanardi. He’s one of a handful of people I am willing to call a hero. I’ve written about his exploits so many times here on the pages of metacool that I had to do a Google search to uncover them all. (I’ve included a list of hyperlinks below the body of this post)

But back to those questions. What is it about Alex Zanardi that allows him to do the amazing things that he does? I recently viewed this video about the most recent year in Zanardi’s life, and for those of you love racing of all kinds—bikes, cars, swimming—I heartily recommend watching the entire thing. It’s incredibly inspiring. It blew my mind.

WARNING: you will need something to wipe the tears away as you watch this:

For those you who don’t have the time to see it all right now, please index the video to the 3:18 mark. By doing so you will play a brief, but truly remarkable and insightful interview with the great Dario Franchitti, Zanardi’s friend and competitor. No stranger to the art of digging deeper than you thought you ever could, fellow racer Franchitti tells a remarkable story about Zanardi.

To the point of the questions I posed above, here’s a key insight from Franchitti’s interview, one that provides a keen insight into the inner workings of Zanardi’s character:

…he [Zanardi] never knew when he was beaten. You might have thought you had him beaten, but it didn’t register for him. As long as there was laps left in the race there was still a fighting chance. And it helped him when had his accident and what he had to deal with. That mindset helped him.

In racing, people who have this mindset are called “racers”. Not everyone who races is a racer. But those who are end up winning more than everyone else, because they know when not to give up. In life I don’t think it is wise to always persevere in everything that you do, because that would be exhausting. You don’t always have to stand in line to get the best seat at the movie theater, for example. But for those select few things that matter most to you, the ability to tell yourself after all said and done that you gave it your all, that’s worth everything.

Remarkable teams can do that. Remarkable people can do that, too. And I think it’s a life skill that can be learned—pushing through challenges, whether they be physical, emotional, intellectual—all of those build up your ability to do this. We can all be racers, or whatever your crowd calls those who set the standard.

To me, that’s the lesson of Alex Zanardi. That’s why I call him the Fantastic Mr. Zanardi. He’s fantastic in two ways. First, fantastic, as in hard to believe someone like him can exist—how did that ever come to be? And fantastic in the way he sets the standard for commitment and the excellence that inevitably flows from it.

Thank you, Alex.


More Zanardi inspiration on metacool: