Best Brands of the Decade and their Key Strategies

“I don’t know what you do, but you do it well.”

Duffy, “Mercy”

The appeal of companies that have taken over the zeitgeist can sometimes feel like Duffy’s “Mercy” – you get sucked into their orbit, and suddenly find you *like* them, inexplicably, like a trusty companion. Looking back at a decade of big winners, winning product strategies that turn consumers into tribal advocates have common threads that fall into three categories. All can land a company on the map, but only some of have resilience in the face of change. The three strategies are:

1. Think in an ecosystem
2. Define the category
3. Make it more than the ordinary

Think in an ecosystem: Apple, Tesla, and Amazon

Source: Insider Monkey

Having a good product is, well, good. Having many good products that complement each other with smooth interoperability is even better. That’s ecosystems-thinking: figuring out how to make synergistic products that seamlessly integrate, to drive market domination.

Seamless like Apple

Apple was among the earliest companies to develop a suite of products that talk to each other. From Mac to iPhone to iPad, each could airdrop files to each other and sync your favorite music. Now with Airpods and iWatches, it’s simply a pain for Apple users to add non-Apple devices to the mix. As a consequence, success in one category – the iPhone – begets success in other categories – iPads, Macs, and iWatches. As users become enmeshed, switching costs rise. And as Apple stays cutting-edge in their leading category, there is even less incentive to switch.

Synergistic like Tesla

Tesla takes ecosystems-thinking to the next level, because they are deploying complementary products at massive scale. It started with their electric vehicles (EVs) and Supercharger stations. Next were Powerwalls and solar panels, allowing people to charge their cars at home and also supply their own day-to-day electricity. Most recently Elon Musk broke ground with the Boring Company to start a high-speed underground, EV-only tunnel to circumvent Los Angeles traffic. Tesla’s products are so well integrated and high quality that it will be hard for any competitor to take a piece of Tesla’s pie anytime soon.

Ubiquitous like Amazon

Amazon is not just the “everything store” anymore – they’ve also become the everywhere store. With the acquisition of Whole Foods, Amazon gained 450 stores in 42 states to offer pick-up lockers for Prime Members. Whole Foods has also become an ever-present marketing channel. I am regularly asked at checkout if I’m a Prime Member, and flashed deals for consumer staples as bait. Further, with Prime Video, billboards and subway ads remind me that I can’t watch Season 3 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel without Prime. I have a strange sense of “missing out” without a membership. The reach of Amazon’s ecosystem makes me want to join the club!

Whole Foods is in 42 states. Source: Inverse

Creating a full ecosystem is a highly defensible market strategy if you can pull it off. But most companies just have one thing they do very well. And a single concept can drive a winning strategy, as the following two examples show.

Define the category: Uber and Starbucks

One of the biggest signs of market domination is when a company becomes category-defining, providing standard-setting leadership that make it a reference point for any similar enterprise. Most big winners have done this by creating a new market where none existed before.

Ground-breaking like Uber

Uber has changed the way businesses think by creating a market-clearing platform where none had been conceived before. They achieved network effects that set the standard in their category — so much so that people say “let’s get an Uber” even when they mean Lyft here in NYC. Calling your startup the “Uber of X” is universally considered a selling-point. Startups are invoking Uber’s ability to capture first-mover advantage in a scalable, profitable way.

Benchmark-setting like Starbucks

Nowadays, “Let’s find a Starbucks,” is a common refrain in any airport around the world. Starbucks has defined a new minimum quality expected for a coffee, so much so that people are willing to spend $5 on what used to cost 50 cents. By carving out a masstige segment in a previously commoditized category, Starbucks opened the door for artisinal “hipster coffee,” shops, expanding the culture and experience surrounding coffee. Yet even as boutique cafes have emerged across NYC, many people still go to Starbucks! Because they have defined their category. Their first-mover advantage has allowed them to build a permanent association in consumer’s minds with consistent quality.

Of course very few companies can be a first-mover in their category. A few companies this decade have figured out how to be a great late-mover, as the final examples show.

Make it more than the ordinary: Allbirds and Away

Even a commoditized product can be a huge hit — by being more than just a product. Powerful brands can make everyday items feel extraordinary, as Allbirds and Away figured out how to do.

Sustainability with Allbirds

Allbirds came on the market with a message of sustainability at a time when the Paris Climate Agreement had been junked by the U.S. “Buy our comfy sneakers, and you can help save the planet,” was the implicit message. And it seemed to work! A quarter of my office had a pair at one point, and their brick-and-mortar store in the West Village is brimming with shoppers.

Wonder-lust with Away

Source: Away

Away quickly carpeted the NYC subways with images of chic travelers and a simple anecdote that many could identify with: arriving after a long journey with a dead cell phone. Their image of the tech-forward, boundless traveler struck a cord that has left them ahead of many “me-too” suitcases with battery slots.

Winning Big vs. Staying Big

When looking at the decade-defining brands above, they each represent something quintessential about the modern consumer economy and what works. Ecosystems of products are convenient to the point of become part of a lifestyle. Single products can also be powerful by carving out brand-new categories, or by digging down to a purpose beyond the product. My prediction is that the order of the categories above will reflect their. Making an ecosystem creates the stickiest customer relationship. Defining a category also guarantees a long company life, though with low switching-costs. And being more than ordinary will certainly give you a grand entrance to the consumer market, but perhaps not sustainably.

How to Split the Dinner Bill: Should Millionaires Pay More?

Recently I was listening to an episode of the Slate Money podcast where the hosts had an argument that really caught my attention. It was about who pays for dinner in a mixed income group, and it went something like this (very paraphrased):

Felix Salmon: You expect your friend to pay for dinner because she’s rich?

Emily Peck: Yeah, she has like 500 million dollars! Of course she pays. I offer to pay if she’s OK with going some place more affordable.

As I listened, at first I was a little surprised at Emily’s confidence in flouting what is an unspoken taboo at most dinner tables. Yet Slate Money’s extreme example of millionaires with thousandaires was actually one I have found myself in, and so it seemed worth taking a second look at my thinking and the beliefs underlying it.

In New York City, proximity creates cross-class interactions in every-day life. With Section 8 government housing opposite million-dollar mansions, and millionaires taking the subway with working Joes, we are organically a part of each other’s day-to-day. I’ve met every kind and class of person in the City, and have had the pleasure of meeting a few people in the “Two Commas Club” that have become good friends. And when I go to dinner with them, I want to pay for myself. Why is that?

Splitting the bill equally vs. equitably

On an interpersonal level, I don’t want wealthy friends to feel imposed upon or used. But Emily has forced me to ask, is a friendship really about equality, i.e. everyone paying the same, or equity, where each person contributes what they uniquely have to offer? If the latter, then in the dinner scenario that is purely about dollars and cents, shouldn’t the wealthier person pay more in proportion to their income? I’m surprised to find myself uneasy with the idea that my rich friends should pay more of the dinner bill when I have no problem with the idea of them paying more in taxes.

Source: Interaction Institute for Social Change

Dinner bill math as a microcosm of economic policy

Our current unease with wealthy friends picking up more of the dinner tab translates directly into the Republican line of thinking: that each person should look after themselves, and if they can’t afford to eat out, they should go without. Simply put, everyone should pay for their own dinner. This argument ignores context: it’s easier to pick yourself up by your own bootstraps if everyone has similar incomes and similar access to opportunities. Thus, it’s easier in single-class circles for each person to pay their own dinner bill. But that’s not the scenario many people find themselves in in New York City.

Getting comfortable with the idea of the wealthy paying more for dinner requires a more liberal paradigm. From a liberal perspective, there are different levels of economic responsibility for public goods, depending on your wealth. And sharing a meal with friends is, arguably, a public good, a microcosm of pro-social economic policy. At the dinner table level, the wealthy paying more for meals would lead to more diverse life experiences through cross-class friendships. These benefits, one could argue, ultimately pay for themselves in the form of a more functional society.

The alternative for the wealthy is relative social isolation — which under our current paradigm is the path most often chosen. The rich feel more socially isolated today than ever before as income inequality has increased. On the flip side, the positive externalizes of the wealthy paying more for meals have actually already been measured: namely, through free school lunch policies. Free breakfast and lunch leads to stronger student performance and, thus, stronger long-term productivity for the economy.

Systemically better results

One might argue that there is a risk of creating reliance on the wealthy that undermines relationships and self-reliance. It’s why parents stop paying for their adult children, even while parent incomes are typically greater. Yet the liberal paradigm isn’t trying to put parental responsibilities on the wealthy. It’s simply trying to systemically produce the best result and best opportunities for the most people.

So this holiday season, as you catch up with friends over cozy meals, think about what norms you want to have. And share with me what you think: should rich people pay more for dinner the way we ask them to pay more for taxes? Tweet at me: @mbainthecity

Top 10 mental models for the workplace

 Source: Litmos
Source: Litmos

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.” — Henry David Thoreau

Mental models allow us to simplify our complicated world. They are abstracted truths that, in finding the through-line of many instances, despite losing detail they are actually more true than any individual instance. They are powerful drivers of our behavior that help us quickly choose what to focus on and how to make decisions. So it’s worth taking a conscientious look at the ones that have baring on our day-to-day, and consider how we want to employ them.

Based on the Farnam Street list of 109 mental models, I have selected the top 10 that I have most often needed to revisit in innovation and strategy consulting work. They roughly fall into the categories of planning, process, and people – the raw ingredients of any initiative or organization. Below is a brief description of each, and why they are perennially relevant.

1. Planning

Whether planning for your company or your client, managing complexity and collecting the right level of input to make informed decisions is a critical skill. And it is also a complex thing to try to optimize. Here are a few mental models that help guide my focus and sense check my thinking.

The map is not the territory

A map is intentionally designed to be a reduction of what it represents, and is not to be confused with a full representation of reality. As George Box famously noted, “All models are wrong but some are useful.” To preserve the utility of maps, we must guard against over-simplifications that loses touch with reality. For example, average is a myth when it comes to clothing or car seats – acknowledging this has spurred the universal design movement, which demands a much deeper understanding of users than summary data can provide. Which leads us to our next mental model…

Seeing the front

The military has a leadership norm of “personally seeing the front” before making decisions. When decision-makers establish a ground truth first-hand, they avoids losing touch by over-relying on data that fails to capture the nuances of real life. As Jared Belsky would put it from a business leader’s perspective, “Get out of your ivory tower and into the stores.” Then you can test and validate your ideas, assumptions, and plans directly.

Second-order thinking

Second-order thinking involves thinking beyond the immediate effects of an action to the knock-on effects. This kind of holistic thinking needs to be balanced against the typical interpretation of Occam’s razor, which posits that the simplest explanation is most likely the correct one. Occam’s razor is not a call to give up critical thinking, but does call us to put more weighting on simpler explanations.

Tendency to overgeneralize from small samples

Overgeneralization occurs when we take a small number of instances and come to a general conclusion from it, even if we have no statistically sound basis for it. This is tricky to navigate if you are in situations with naturally low numbers of instances. In these cases, I try to validate my conclusion from multiple angles, and am highly open to updating my thinking as new information becomes available.

2. Process

A plan cannot manifest without an effective process to execute it. At the same time, process has many opportunities for minor or major misalignment that can limit both team outcomes and progress towards larger goals. Below are several key process-related mental models that, if applied well, can drive task success, systems improvement, and individual growth.

Feedback loops

A feedback loop occurs when an input originates from within the system itself, not from outside the system. Feedback loops can be positive, negative, or neutral, and can often be greatly impacted by any one actor who decides to intervene by changing one of the key inputs. This means that you can change the course of a relationship, with a coworker or client, using the right strategic interventions. It’s also why first impressions matter so much, as that impression is easily reinforced.

Regression to the mean

In a normally distributed system, while you might observe deviations from the average, performance will tend to return to the average with an increasing number of observations. This is most visible day-to-day with unconscious habits. Say you want to break your habit of checking e-mail too often. You may make a short-term effort to look at e-mail less, but unless you learn a whole new habit (say, by having e-mail blackout periods or switching to Slack), you may find yourself drifting back to sub-optimal behavior patterns.

Tendency to want to do something

Most humans have the tendency to need to act, even when no action is needed or additive. Action can give the illusion of productivity and progress, perhaps shielding our ego from the fear of failure. At the end of the day, though, we are better off focusing on results. Which links to our next mental model…

Velocity

Velocity is how fast something gets somewhere — speed plus direction. An object that moves two steps forward and then two steps backward has moved with speed but with no velocity. Focusing on velocity can be a tricky disposition to manage in light of its competing mental model “Tendency to want to do something.” Thus, if you are uncertain as to whether actions will be additive, it is important to try to take considered actions that produce data that inform whether you are moving in the right direction.

3. People

All the planning and process in the world doesn’t amount to a hill of beans without getting people on board with you. Working well with people is most of the magic of successful initiatives. The following mental models are two considerations to keep in mind when getting in the flow with your team or client.

Influence of stress

Stress causes both mental and physiological responses and typically amplify our biases. Stress can also cause us to be hasty and revert to unhelpful habits. Thus, it is important to be sensitive to people’s stress levels, and to try to either reduce stress or introduce conditions that improve the quality of team engagement during stressful circumstances.

Circles of competence

Circles of competence are niche areas of specialization that people develop. Understanding your circle of competence enables you leverage your strengths, identify opportunities for improvement, and learn from others. Many a successful CEO has cited this as a top skill that enabled them to manage a global company. The same is true on a micro level, within a small team.

Leveraging mental models

The world can often seem very complicated because, well, it is! But not all of that complexity is relevant. Being able to more quickly filter out the noise and cut to the heart of the matter is a critical skill in an world of increasing information density. The mental models above provide tools to help evaluate plans and processes, and optimize how you work with people.

Shaping community in the age of Facebook: three success stories

 Source: Sagepub.com
Source: Sagepub.com

As American society is increasingly moving from towns to cities, and from meeting face-to-face to meeting on Facetime, we have had to re-imagine community. We are figuring out how to navigate the “iPhone Effect” on our social connections. And our choices about how we engage with others with technology have huge implications. Will our social capital die down as we withdraw from traditional community, as Robert Putnam feared, or will community simply take on a new form? What does it look like to create and maintain a network of reliable peers, to make meaningful connections in new ways that suit our modern context?

Three principles from three places

I have been a part of a few different communities – work, home, and church – and have observed a few features that have made each a place of belonging. I’ll share a story about each, and then explore why these features of community feel increasingly rare.

De-anonymize

It’s wonderful to be loved, but it’s profound to be understood.

— Ellen Degeneres

In hustle-bustle cities like New York, there’s a sense of anonymity as you walk the streets and peruse the shops. You may be having a bad hair day, but you’ll never see those people giving you side-eye again! It can be liberating. And isolating. And so when I walked into Abyssinian Baptist Church, I noticed the immediate difference in the environment. Famous for their role in the Civil Rights Movement, ABC‘s activist roots run deep and were laced through the sermon. But that is not what gave the church a palpable feeling of connection. Rather, it was their ability to lift their community members up and make them known to each other. The head pastor invested a quarter of the service in spotlighting congregation members, asking them to stand and share their two way relationship with the church. The children reading passages from the bible were introduced. A woman who leads a black women on Broadway group was announced and lauded for her contributions. With so many names and faces getting celebrated and supported, it de-anonymized everyone, made me proud of people I didn’t actually know. In other words, I didn’t just connect with the general experience of the church service. I felt I understood some of the people in it, and cared about their well-being.

But this sort of success in fostering connection doesn’t happen on its own. It needs to be deliberately structured into the cadence of community interactions. The next principle and example share a great success story of building relationships in a group whose members were simultaneously complete strangers and close peers.

Build a support system

Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together. There it begins.

— Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Gathering a bunch of people who don’t know each other well in a room, even if they have a lot in common, can often lead to short, somewhat transactional exchanges. Yet that same room of people, with deliberate facilitation, can come alive together and seed the beginnings of lifelong friendships. I saw this arc in my company as we facilitated educator user groups, brought together virtually to develop free math resources online. At the end of the first user group, educators noted that, even with virtual summits and chat room discussions, they felt they’d missed an opportunity to connect more meaningfully with their peers. And so we designed more structured interactions into the next group’s architecture. We created peer pairings for ongoing support. We gave each educator two peer reviewers to provide feedback on the resources they designed. And we scheduled weekly discussion prompts for the chat rooms, giving educators a predictable rhythm of convening to exchange information and ideas. Engagement skyrocketed, and lasting friendships developed.

Providing structure to interactions led to shared expectations about engagement. This organically led educators to invest time into knowledge sharing above and beyond what the program required. Creating availability, it seemed, had been the key ingredient to relationship building. This has proven out in other communities, as I explore in the next example.

Be available

The more we can be in a relationship with those who might seem strange to us, the more we can feel like we’re neighbors and all members of the human family.

— Mr. Rogers

In many buildings I have lived in in New York, I never met my neighbors. My latest apartment is different. There are a number of retired folks who have lived in the building for many years, and they use their free time to be, well, neighborly. They have time to chat in the hallways. They knock on my door if they notice I have a package in the lobby. They offer to dog-sit. In short, they have time for me. And I, of course, have time for them. I offer to plant sit and pick up their mail when they travel. I have their phone numbers and know who their friends are in the building. We’ve inserted a bit of dependability into our network, by taking every small opportunity to be supportive of each other.

Where technology fits in

You may be wondering, why isn’t all of this obvious? Why is it so rare to know and support the people in your social circles in a reliable way? Why do we fail to consistently invest in relationship building?

Many would argue that today’s lower levels of community connection are a continuation of a multi-decade trend. Robert Putnam famously published a macro analysis in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, that identified a 58% decline in club meeting attendance, a 43% decline in family dinners, and 35% drop in having friends over between 1975 and 2000. Putnam identified changes in work, family structure, suburban life, and screen time, among other factors, as contributing to this decline in meaningful group relationships.

The solution to help buck this structural trend, according to the tech giants of the 2000s, was technology. Technology was supposed to bring us closer together. Facebook famously claimed that it could expanding the Dunbar number, the number of meaningful relationships a human can maintain. However, it turned out that the Dunbar number didn’t change. What social media has done is bring your outer circle of acquaintances in, rather than strengthening or growing your inner circle. Simultaneously, technology has increased our culture of distraction, competing for attention that could otherwise be focused on our close friends and communities.

If we rule our technology, and don’t let our technology rule us, it can still be a tool that builds community rather than undermines it. Use technology to make yourself available. Use the structure of a WhatsApp group to organize regular meetings. Carve out time in your group gatherings on and offline to hear more about the individuals that make your members. Abandon the convenience of liking a post, and actually speak directly to your friends, be it in-person or on Skype. Reject the loneliness of optionality and anonymity that big cities and infinite online interactions offer. Make your circles smaller and your world more personal.

Why Brazilians are burning the Amazon, and how policy has solved this problem before

 Satellite image 2019 Maxar Technologies
Satellite image 2019 Maxar Technologies

Nations across the world are lambasting Brazil for the rising rate of deforestation by forest fires. Images of the blazing infernos across the Amazon are viral on every media outlet. Surprisingly, most coverage frames the issue as a political one rather than an economic one. The focus remains on Bolsonaro’s right-wing politics, and the social injustice to indigenous communities being driven from their lands. Yet few ask why burning the rainforest seems to be the best economic option for so many farmers and ranchers. A candid look at Brazil’s economy and the nature of this classic policy problem point to both the central issue and some possible solutions.

One of the most unequal economies in the world

The Gini coefficient is the World Bank’s choice indicator of social progress. It measures income distribution, where 0 represents perfect equality (i.e., everyone has the same income), and 1 represents perfect inequality (where one person has all the income, and everyone else has no income). In May of this year, Brazil’s Gini coefficient rose to 0.627, just shy of it’s 1989 record of 0.633, when Brazil was the 2nd most unequal nation in the world. This marks a huge regression from their decade below 0.55, and it’s 2018 level of 0.51. In other words, more people are worse off this year than last.

 Brazil’s Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, was declining over the past decade
Brazil’s Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, was declining over the past decade

International pressure doesn’t put food on the table

The international community is doing its best to apply economic pressure rather than ease economic suffering as their chosen solution. And it doesn’t seem to be working. France threatened to scupper the EU – Brazil trade deal over the Amazon fires. Yet with the US – China trade war heating up, Brazil has another big market to sell its soybeans and cattle to.

So the EU tried offering a carrot with its stick: $20 million in aid to help fight the fires. To put that in context, the world’s richest nations just offered 1/6 of what Juicero raised to help combat the Amazon wildfires. It’s a literal drop in the bucket.

But none of this is surprising, because the benefits of burning the Amazon are concentrated and the cost are dispersed.

Concentrated benefits + dispersed costs = tragedy of the commons

Economic benefits and costs can be both concentrated to certain individuals and small groups, or dispersed to the public. Different archetypal social behaviors emerge with each combination of costs and benefits. The most challenging dynamic is the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons occurs when individual actors overuse a public resource. It’s what causes over-fishing or drinking water pollution by factories. All the benefits flow to the individual or company. But the costs are so dispersed that no individual baring just a fraction of the cost has enough incentive to take counter action. Hence the richest countries in the world offering Brazil only $20 million to fight Amazon wildfires. That’s their willingness to pay as individual countries for the global benefit of mitigating climate change.

 The tragedy of the commons occurs when individual actors overuse a public resource
The tragedy of the commons occurs when individual actors overuse a public resource

How tragedy of the commons is (usually) solved

To overcome the tragedy of the commons, most policy makers try to emulate a market place. Governments try to create concentrated costs to match the concentrated benefits. They typically do this via privatization or regulation.

1. Privatize

Privatizing public resources is thought to create a sense of ownership that incentivizes long-term maintenance of those resources. This has worked for U.S. forests: privatization has led to sustained growth for about 50 years. Because loggers never want to run out of trees on their allotted land, more than 90% of U.S. paper comes from high-yield, rejuvenated forests planted for harvest. Fisheries have also tried privatization in the last two decades, with notable successes. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council privatized harvests of two species. This led to sustaining yields while cutting the number of boats needed by 90%.

Yet few critics trust privatization writ large. Standard market dynamics often continue to motivate destruction of the commons.

“Privatizing the commons may not work in a lot of cases. The incentive to chase a quick buck may outweigh the financial and social rewards of long-term stewardship. Ownership is not necessarily stewardship.”
– David Brodwin, cofounder of American Sustainable Business Council

The Global Landscapes Forum further sites how public land ownership optimizes environmental benefits. For example, many national parks would not exist without federal ownership.

So let’s suppose that privatization is off the table. That leaves us with regulation as a second option.

2. Regulate

Governments protect the commons by restricting resource extraction, using quotas, permitting systems, and bans. Brazil historically implemented restrictions on rainforest abuse, but enforcement has decline. Further, Bolsonaro signaled through his campaign and his environment minister selection that it is open season in the Amazon. The downward trend in government spending further suggests that environmental regulation enforcement will continue to decline.

Money talks

The likelihood of the current Brazilian administration using policy tools to solve this tragedy of the commons is low. But it’s worth remembering why the Amazon is being burned in the first place – money. Perhaps the west’s $20 million pittance needs a few more zeros behind it, and needs to be directed at those actually starting the forest fires. Money is a blunt instrument, but it seems to work for organizations like Kiva, a microfinance match-maker that has distributed $1 billion in loans to 2.5 million recipients. They create an average of 1.2 jobs per loan. GiveDirectly is another example of cash donations changing lives. Sustainable livelihoods and sustainable environmental treatment do not have to be mutually exclusive. We need to be more targeted in our interventions, by directing funds to those who need it most.

Buyer beware, dark patterns are everywhere

From Intuit to Amazon, dark patterns have emerged as an inescapable part of our our digital lives. A dark pattern, as Fast Company succinctly put it, is “a user interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things.” And it’s different to bad UI. It’s the inviting blue button on TurboTax that leads you to a paid tax return form, next to a garish orange button that leads you to the free filing option. It’s the greyed-out, less expensive option on Amazon below the default selected, more expensive Prime option. In short, the default is the annoying thing.

Given the ubiquitous presence of dark patterns, consumers seem to be waking up and wondering “how did we get here?” Taking that question one step further, are there any redeeming qualities of dark patterns? And if not, what should we do about their rampant use?

How we got here

Dark patterns are largely the product of the capitalistic pursuit of money and the commodification of people’s attention. And we can probably thank the ruling doctrine of the day, the Lean Startup method, for this newfound efficiency of capturing money and attention. Lean Startup methodology asks a fundamental question of product engineers: when we make changes to a product, how do we know we’ve made it better? Lean Startup devised a means of fast learning about product efficacy through rapid testing. And Intuit, the owner of TurboTax, was the poster child featured in the book. Fast-forward a decade later after Eric Ries has transformed the speed of learning at Intuit, and they have deployed their newfound abilities to guide consumers to costly decisions: TurboTax ripped off troops with a bait-and-switch dark pattern promising a “Military Discount” and milked the unemployed with a misdirection dark pattern, obscuring the free filing option with obtuse language, convoluted website pathways, and wiping the free page from search results.

 Journalist Justin Elliott reported extensively with ProPublica on the nature of TurboTax dark patterns that guided users away from free tax filings.
Journalist Justin Elliott reported extensively with ProPublica on the nature of TurboTax dark patterns that guided users away from free tax filings.

Is it all that bad?

Intuit’s CEO fought back against the media bashing to say that their dark patterns were in the “best interest of taxpayers”. Many dark pattern architects might argue the same thing. Take the example of newsletters. Almost every online vendor has made newsletter subscription an “opt out” option at checkout, with “subscribe to our newsletter” checked as the default. Such vendors might posit that they want to deliver useful deals and information that you just don’t know you want or need yet. You can all but imagine the disembodied sales bot saying, “it’s not a trick, it’s a legitimate sales tactic in the best interest of the consumer.”

There are a few rare instances where dark patterns are motivated by consumer service priorities. For example, some cloud providers will provide a default option of using the regional data center with the most capacity, rather than the data center you most recently used. Most customers choose the default, and receive more reliable service as a result.

But for the most part, dark patterns are the evil twins of nudges. A nudge is “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives”. Think putting fruit at eye-level and candy on the bottom shelf. Or how the Austrian government makes organ donor the default status for citizens, resulting in over 90% donor status vs the US’s ~15%. The UK government loved the concept so much that they created a “Nudge Unit”, more formally known as the Behavioral Insights Team, to influence public policy.

Are dark patterns just nefarious nudges? Not exactly. The big difference between nudging and dark patterns is in the definition. Dark patterns, by definition, “trick consumers” to do something they wouldn’t want to do. It’s not simply that you make one option more top of mind; it’s making the desired option appear to be the only option, to the benefit of a private company, over the consumer body.

What’s a consumer to do?

Regulation is one possible solution to dark patterns. The Federal Trade Commission and local Consumer Protection Offices already protect against a number of aggressive and fraudulent sales tactics. If you’re in Europe, GDPR may be helping consumers out too. However, with today’s gridlock in Congress, we may be on our own as consumers for a time. But we do have our own power of the purse. So vote with your dollars! If you notice a company using dark patterns, don’t reward them with your patronage. Companies are using dark patterns because they work. If we show them that they don’t, then they won’t. Preference vendors who don’t use dark patterns.

Lastly, in researching this piece, ProPublica, who provided the deep dive on Intuits abuses of consumers, hit me with their own dark pattern.

Nature, nurture or neither? The power of titles

What is in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.

— William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Human resources department across America have been forced to ponder William Shakespeare’s question as the demand for and supply of creative titles has proliferated in our millennial-filled workplaces. Titles like “ninja”, “rockstar”, and “magician” have become common place. This shift in corporate and startup culture alike provokes the question of how much titles influence behavior, and vice-versa. Psychology and history both have something to say about this question.

Titles vs. labels vs. names

Titles are an indication of what an organization ascribes to your role. And it could be argued that names and labels play a similar role of indicating expectations of an individual. So we will explore the history and research of the impacts of each.

What is in a name?

Names hold great significance in the Bible and Torah, indicating family history, identity and personality. Re-naming in both books also indicates a transformation in the person’s life. Still, it is not entirely clear from the stories what to conclude about the roles of nature and nurture, whether the name shapes one’s destiny, or whether one defines the ultimate meaning of their name.

Recent academic research by Steven Levitt of Freakonomics posits that there is no relationship between a person’s name and their life outcomes. This is colorfully illustrated by the stories of Winner and Loser Lane, brothers whose life outcomes were opposite to their birth names. Loser was a winner, a star student and athlete who joined the NYPD. Winner was a loser, living a life oscillating between incarceration and homelessness.

Boxing people in.

Adjacent to names are “labels”, categorizations that we place people in. And labels have been seen to have significant effects on perception. According to the linguistic relativity hypothesis “the words we use to describe what we see aren’t just idle placeholders–they actually determine what we see.” Social psychology research has demonstrated the impact of labeling on social treatment. In a 1963 study, Rosenthal and Jacobson found that teachers labeling students as “smart” or “slow” changed their academic trajectory, positively impacting the IQ of “smart” students by 10-15 points over the course of a year. They called this impact the expectancy effect: once you label someone something, you expect that attribute of them, and you perceive and encourage more of what you expect.

Titles in social contexts.

Popular wisdom posits that job titles are closer to labels – they affect how people treat you inside and outside of a company. With half of Americans gaining their sense of identity from their job title, many individuals are giving power to their titles to impact their sense of importance and self-worth. Yet this does not need to be the case; one’s actions and implicit role can shape perception of titles more than the title itself.

The history of the title “president”

The role of president was intended to be fairly minor at the outset of the American republic. When deciding the title of our founding father, George Washington, The House of Representatives was adamant that he have a simple title. Whereas the Senate proposed “His Highness, President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties”, the House demanded removal of any attribution resembling monarchy rule. “President” was reasonably diminutive; a local bridge club could have a president. The title simply meant a person who presided over an organization.

Yet over time, the role and how the president has acted has changed the meaning of the title. Today, there is much less distance from the term “king” as was originally expected and intended. In part, the actions that presidents have taken have given them greater authority. FDR’s New Deal created an era of big government, also attributing greater responsibility to the president. Nixon was said to have expanded the power of the president beyond that of any predecessor, expanding decision-making in foreign affairs and exercising greater budgetary and programmatic power. Beyond how presidents have shaped the power of the office, the office came with inherent authority to set priorities and issue rules, which drove a natural evolution of the office. In other words, the office was always intended to have significant power.

Your title, your role

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.

— William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

Whether your title confers great responsibility to you or not, you will have opportunities to shape your own role and story in your work. Yes, your title will impact first impressions and expectations inside and outside of your company. But no one’s abilities, role, and trajectory are completely summarized by their title. So call yourself Wonder Woman if it get you up in the morning, as long as you are living into a fulfilling role and not being limited by it’s titling.

Keeping social media from steeling your vacation

Unhashtag your vacation

I noticed a bold ad campaign at 14th St. for a city not a lot of people talk about. It’s a city I’ve been to, the home of Mozart, with airy music chambers graced by string quartets and delicious chocolate deserts. Things that are engage the senses beyond sight. Their ad campaign slogan is “unhashtag your vacation”. Their campaign images use a hashtag like a strike-through. They suggest to the viewers that they should engage with experiences personally rather than positioning them for personal branding on social media.

These ads are a bold statement – speaking to America, the birthplace of Mad Men, in our own language – marketing. Because social media has literally become dangerous.

Death by selfie

The viral photo of the queue of mountaineers waiting to take their selfies at the summit of Mt. Everest, and also struggling for oxygen, has shocked the world into a moment of reflection.

Eleven deaths resulted from the excess of wealthy adventurers. Have vacations been reduced to photo ops for bragging rights?

In the same moment, Vienna is challenging us to think about the purpose of vacations and the role of photography – big questions in a world with a growing middle-class and a camera on every personal device. To answer these big questions, it’s worth walking back to the land before digital photography and the world before social media, which I grew up in.

My journey from photography to social media

My first experiences traveling were on middle school trips. My parents let me borrow their film-based camera, and I took as many as 3 roles of film for a 3 day trip to places like Salem, Massachusetts and Washington, DC. With film, you never knew how a photo would come out until it was processed, so I erred on the side of volume. I assumed everything was interesting, worth capturing and documenting, from store fronts to tourist attractions to friends. Eventually I realized that my documentary style photography was a little extreme, and only ~10% of the photos had strong visual interest – I wasn’t even looking at most of the photos! In high school, I had fewer field trips and was more selective about what I photographed. My photography became anthropocentric, capturing natural moments that I valued and events that were firsts or celebratory. I made my favorite photos into little gifts, which friends loved. They were personal moments made special, for private consumption.

When digital photography arose in my college years, I had opportunities to travel again and work in other countries in the summers. My first digital camera was quickly stolen, and when I finally acquired a new one, I was more sparse and selective about what I photographed. Only the most beautiful sites that I would not want to forget. The misted mountains of Machu Picchu. The colorful sands of the Atacama Desert. Enchanting sights that I had never imagined existed, let alone having the chance to visit.

As I was starting to travel, social media was on the rise. This meant, for the first time, large scale external feedback, for better or for worse. I joined the fray of “look how awesome a time I’m having” posts for a while, but found myself naturally limiting my Facebook consumption to one hour a week. Yet I found that hour to be mostly an unhappy one. I told myself I was keeping up with friends, but increasingly just felt left out of all the fun people were having without me. But business school amplified my use and, thus, the detrimental effects of social media, which have now become well documented.

I now sit in the in-between. Sometimes I feel like I should participate in social media because my peers do, yet it doesn’t fully make sense to me. I see lots of photos of food with hundreds of likes, yet when I take similar photos they feel uncompelling, and I never post them. It feels strange, creating content that has become part of our typical virtual communication, but it feeling entirely forced and artificial. Increasingly, I try to eat my chocolate cake without photographing it, too.

Vacation for vacation’s sake

It goes without saying, vacations are more than just selfie opportunities. They are about your being present in a refreshing setting, not about the social media story you tell about it. I used to take a ton of photos and go through roles of film. Then I realized I was neither stopping to look at the photos nor stopping to really soak in the sites I was visiting. Vacations should not be about the external feedback that social media provides. What is most important is the internal moments of reflection, observation, and appreciation that they offer. And the same is true of our weekends, our moments with family and close friends, and every joie de vivre.

From Adam Grant to Susan Cain: What introverted leadership looks like

The article is for all the introverts out there who have risen to a leadership position. Looking at your peers, you may intuitively notice as you look laterally and above you what the data show: 96% of leaders self-report as extroverts. You may be wondering if you can succeed and be effective as a leader, given your personality type. Let’s look at what at the science has to say.

First, can you fake it til you make it?

Your first course of action may be to consider, can I just act like an extrovert until I become one? The science of personality suggests that this would likely be an uphill battle. The Big 5 personality traits (which have more research backing than the Myers-Briggs framework) have been shown to have strong consistency over time, with only moderate changes over many years. The Extroversion/Introversion trait is highly stable; it can vary somewhat over time, but not significantly. So your best bet is to figure out how to play to your own strengths as an introvert.

The research summary that follows re-frames leadership from having “correct and incorrect” styles to “pros and cons” that pair with personality type. There is a way to play to your sweat spots and craft your environment for success.

The research

You may remember the best-selling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can ́t Stop Talking. Authored by Wall Street lawyer turned author, Susan Cain, who took the reader through her seven years of aggregated research on the strengths that introverts wield and the cultural dynamics that they navigate. Adam Grant has recently brought back to the fore some of the key findings on what type of people introverts manage best. Below is a summary of the key points for business leaders to consider.

In Index Card Summary style, the three key lessons to keep in mind, and that I walk through below are:

1. Introverts and extroverts make equally good leaders, but are more effective at leading different types of people.

2. Yet the extrovert bias is real and present in corporate America.

3. Effective leaders who are careful to avoid similarity bias will craft environments for each personality type to thrive in.

1. Introverts and extroverts make equally good leaders, but are more effective at leading different types of people

Cain and Grant both cite introverts as being uniquely good at leading initiative-takers. Their inclination to listen to others and lack of desire to dominate social situations makes introverts more likely to hear and implement suggestions. By encouraging the talents of their teams, they can more easily motivate them to be even more proactive. The challenge for introverts is to manage misguided or less proactive employees.

2. Yet the extrovert bias is real and present in corporate America

As Cain shared with Business Insider, “Extroverts are routinely chosen for leadership positions and introverts are looked over, even though introverts often deliver better outcomes. They’re not perceived as leadership material.” The modern American archetype of a leader is a talkative alpha who is comfortable in the spotlight – the more a person talks, the more attention they receive, and the more powerful they are perceived to be. The result is that introverts are seen as poor leaders by 65% of executive leadership. They also earn ~20% less and manage half as many people as extroverts, according to Truity Psychometrics.

3. Effective leaders who are careful to avoid similarity bias will craft environments for each personality type to thrive in

Adam Grant posits that the dynamism of modern business environments makes proactive employees critical, and introverted leaders tend to encourage and cultivate such employees. The most effective teams are composed of a good mix of introverts and extroverts, and it is highly possible to create a symbiotic environment for both. Leadership can craft and distribute tasks based on people’s natural strengths and temperaments. For example, extroverts can more effectively manage information overload, high pressure, and multi-tasking, while introverts are better at solving complex problems through patience, clarifying, and persistence. Projects and their timelines can be crafted and distributed accordingly.

We need introverted leaders

Being an introvert does not make you a bad leader – in fact there are many strengths you can play to. The challenge is that you won’t be able to learn everything by example from your extroverted peers. Don’t focus on changing your personality – the science says this would be draining and would yield limited results. Your version of successful leadership will activate a more proactive workforce and enable you to tackle long-range problems.

To think of a classic introvert/extrovert duo, Bill Clinton and Al Gore immediately come to mind. One ascended to the presidency for 8 years, carried in part by his charisma. The other was perceived as dry and dispassionate on the campaign trail, but went on to be a pivotal leader in the modern climate change movement. Looking at Cain’s descriptions of personality characteristics, these aren’t surprising outcomes: perhaps Clinton is the action-oriented and rewards-sensitive extrovert, while Gore is the slower and more deliberate introvert, less attracted to wealth and fame. Which is a more effective leader? That, I would argue, is the wrong question.

 Source: YouTube
Source: YouTube

A fork in the road at Stuyvesant High School – race, opportunity, and the SHSAT

 Source: Bloomberg
Source: Bloomberg

Reading the op ed of Alina Adams, a mother and wife of African American Stuyvesant High School graduates, I must agree that the debate about the New York Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) has been improperly framed. As one of the minority Stuyvesant graduates that are the focus of the SHSAT test debate, I agree that shifting the discussion to be about the test rather than the system, and race rather than socioeconomics is a mistake for New York. I say this as someone who almost did not get into Stuyvesant, but whose life was so drastically changed by it.

There are big moments in every lifetime that define who we are as much as the course we take through life. Sitting in that exam room on that sunny fall day was one of those moments. I still well up from time to time when I look back on it and realize just how close I was to a different life, a different, more confined world, a different smaller me.

In 8th grade, a teacher told me that I should take a test for a school in the city called Stuyvesant. I hadn’t heard of it, but I was most definitely off-ramping from private school to public school in 9th grade because it was no longer financially sustainable for my parents. As I mentioned the test to other teachers, and a new friend that was school shopping, the common chorus was that Stuy was a better option than Tottenville, which I vaguely understood was an option, or Curtis, the zoned school which had an abysmal graduation rate.

Finally the test day came. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was woefully unprepared. You see, I hadn’t done any preparation at all. Everyone I asked about the exam had simply told me that math and reading of some sort would be covered. I assumed that the test would match up to what I was already learning in school – why wouldn’t it? The point of school, as I understood it, was to prepare you for whatever comes next. So I sat there, focused, and plowed my way through. I got in, and months later learned that it was only by the skin of my teeth. A classmate shared that the cutoff was around 530 that year, and my score was only 5 points above it. I further learned that most people had actually studied for the test, some for up to 18 months, spending Saturdays and perhaps Sundays memorizing the content of the exam. Looking back on it now, it seems so obvious, but why had no one ever mentioned it? Why did I only learn that Stuyvesant was the 10th best school in the nation once I was there? I still have no answers, and also have no doubts that the same story is playing out today for many others.

My world changed at Stuyvesant. Stressful though it was, I was empowered to be everything I wanted to be and do anything that excited me. The multifaceted stimuli of the people and the place kept me continually on the edge of my own interests and goals. I made friends across the spectrum of wealth, which wasn’t hard to do with a sizable free and reduced lunch qualifying student segment. I never felt poor the way I heard some of my private and boarding school counterparts seemed to. Most importantly, the multitude of student groups made it feel like anything you were interested in, you could do. When surrounded by that attitude everyday, it easily unlocks something within you. For me this manifested itself in my junior year, when I founded a mural that still stands at Chambers St. and the West Side Highway. I planned, socialized, sought and ultimately received support from the Parks Department to create it. Writing about that experience got me into Stanford University, another “yes and” environment full of aspirational dreamers, where support and resources are a given. Another fork in the road, moving me further from the under-resourced neighborhood I grew up in and expanding the people and places to which I was exposed.

Alina writes that if New York grade schools weren’t so terrible, the SHSAT wouldn’t be so hard for so many minority students. That much is clear from my own experience. But awareness of both the test and the preparation opportunities are equally important to gain equity of access. I am grateful for my luck and opportunities. I equally have friends that opted out of Stuyvesant and went to other New York high schools, and they turned out as wonderful humans. But the set of good high school options is entirely too narrow, as AOC recently argued in a town hall. With New York education in the current state it is in, a fork in the road this significant, determined by just a few points, is not nearly enough leeway.