Insights #9: February 2019

Distilled lessons, ideas and wisdom from the past month

Content summary
1: Advice on developing / marketing products based on why people use them
2: A more effective way to approach arguments
3: The distinction between ‘freedom to‘ and ‘freedom from
4: Commonly used redundancies that should be removed from writing
5: Tips on how to negotiate the purchase of a house
6: A writer’s life advice
7: Seven universal moral rules
8: A customer-led approach to building hi-tech companies
9: The most effective strategies for dealing with challenges
10: Why ‘to do’ lists don’t work and the benefits of ‘timeboxing’


1: Great products start with real problems

To create an anxiety relievable only by a purchase…that is the job of advertising’
– David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Customer messaging platform Intercom provides a review of the key lessons it has learned on marketing and innovation through the application of the ‘jobs-to-be-done’ framework.

This framework, which may be used to inform both product development and marketing, is based on the idea that people often ‘hire’ (i.e. buy and use) products in order to do a specific ‘job’ (i.e. address a specific problem), rather than because of who they are.

Alternative approaches to identifying customer drivers, such as market segmenting or development of personas, focus on attributes rather than motivations – in other words who people are and what they do rather than why they do it. However, in many contexts, people with very different attributes have the same motivations. Focusing on identifying what people actually use products for (and the frustrations they face) reveals existing needs without making assumptions related to the type or category of product, and without having to hypothesise about markets or customers. Personas may be useful in building customer empathy but can be misleading and are unlikely to yield innovative insights.

By establishing the context in which a problem is faced, the motivation for solving it and what constitutes a good outcome, companies are more likely to develop offerings that people actually want (and are better than the competition). The authors note that ‘when you’re solving needs that already exist, you don’t need to convince people that they need your product. It’s easier to make things people want than it is to make people want things. The challenge for any company is to understand what products are currently serving those needs, and improve upon that.

The ‘job’ being addressed by a given product is not always obvious (Peter Drucker observed that customers rarely buy what a company thinks it sell them) while the same product may be ‘hired’ for multiple roles. The approach can thus be effective in exposing unknown competitors, spotting potential threats and informing the approach to marketing. On this basis, competition may be split into three categories:

  • Direct competitors ‘do the same job in the same way’ e.g. McDonalds v Burger King
  • Secondary competitors ‘do the same job in different ways’ e.g. Skype v Business Class Travel
  • Indirect competitors ‘do a different job with a conflicting outcome’ e.g. McDonalds v WeightWatchers. In other words, these address two different jobs that a customer wants to do but which compete with each other.

The authors observe that ‘purchases are multidimensional, have multiple buyers involved, and are spread across multiple timelines’. While many companies attempt to address competition by offering a better product, this ignores important aspects of the customer decision-making process. The ReWired Group identifies four forces that push or pull customers from purchases:

  • Problems with a current product
  • Attractions of a new product
  • The anxiety and uncertainty of change
  • Existing habits and allegiances

Advertising can highlight existing problems further, enhance the appeal of the new, decrease fear / uncertainty of change or decrease attachment to status quo. With indirect competitors, marketing may either focus on making the alternative less desirable, or repositioning a product so that the outcomes no longer conflict.

Other interesting observations include:

  • Consumers often overestimate the status quo (e.g. through inherent biases such as the endowment effect or loss aversion) while innovators typically overvalue what they offer (they may develop products that they rather than customers like, add irrelevant benefits or fail to understand what jobs products are hired to do). Thus incremental improvements are often insufficient to gain market traction.
  • Companies must decide carefully on what a product does – if it does too little, people will not take the effort to adopt it, but if it does too much it will clash with too many established components of the system. A good approach is to focus on where real value can be added, and avoid expanding into spaces with well-defined leaders, fragmented approaches / user groups or where a new group of end users are involved.
  • ‘There is a fundamental difference between making a product simple and making a simple product’. The former removes unnecessary complexity, while the latter reduces features as far as possible and creates the risk that that customers view the offering not as a stand-alone product but rather as a feature of one.
  • ‘People are experts in their problem, not the solution’. They may make suggestions for solutions, but this does not provide a deep understanding of the problem. Customer engagement may reveal what they want but not necessarily why they want it – companies should dig further until they identify this.


2: How to Win Your Next Argument

Writing on Medium, psychotherapist Lesley Alderman sets out some tips on how to more effectively approach arguments.

Instead of viewing an argument as a process through which a winner and loser (i.e. someone that is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’) is established, she advises that it should instead be thought of as a way to work towards a resolution. This prevents participants from viewing each other as adversaries, which makes it less likely that they will capitulate and agree to an acceptable resolution.

The best way to do this is to change perspective from ‘I’ to ‘us’. Alderman writes: ‘Focus on your shared goal, even if that goal is simply to reach a resolution. You may want different things, but you both want to stop arguing and get the issue resolved. Keep in mind the rule of reciprocity by which most humans abide: If you do something for me, I will feel more inclined to do something for you.’

Other tips include:

  • Pre-suade: where possible, plan-ahead so that appeals can be made at optimal times, such as when people are relaxed and able to focus. As Robert Cialdini points out in his book Pre-Suasion, psychologically the framing of an appeal can be even more important that the logic or ideas underpinning it.
  • In spontaneous disagreements adopt a spirit of cooperation and ‘let the person vent. Anger that’s not stoked with rebuttals subsides over time.’
  • Avoid irrational behaviour by controlling emotions and reactions. Mentally or physically removing yourself from the situation can help to re-establish emotional detachment.
  • Listen fully to people. This will make them more likely to reciprocate. People also like talking about themselves, so giving them an opportunity to do so will make them feel better and therefore more receptive to your arguments.
  • Develop a full understanding of the other perspective.  Convey this by paraphrasing or summarising key arguments,  repeat them back to the other party, and ask clarifying questions.
  • Calmly explain your position and hope that it will be understood. Avoid using absolutist words like ‘never’ and do not tell people how they think or feel (e.g. ‘you always want’), which can alienate them.


3: Tools for thinking: Isaiah Berlin’s two concepts of freedom

Writing in Aeon, philosopher Maria Kasmirli looks at two different definitions of ‘freedom’ proposed by political philosopher Isaiah Berlin in his 1958 essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’.

Berlin distinguished two types of freedom / liberty:

1 – Negative Freedom: freedom from control or constraints imposed by other people, either directly or through their support of social / economic arrangements that do so. In some cases, limitations on negative freedom are widely accepted, for instance in the laws that society imposes to prevent chaos.

2 – Positive Freedom: freedom to control our own actions, rationally and in line with our own interests. This reflects an absence of interference from others, as well as an ability to control irrational impulses or addictions.

Berlin warned that such concepts could be used for questionable purposes, for instance to justify the coercion of individuals by organisations or the State. Expanded slightly, this distinction also provides an interesting perspective on assessing tradeoffs that people make in their lives. For instance, people often pursue career paths that provide them with freedom to (go on holidays, buy a nice house etc) without appreciating the constraints on freedom from (stress, responsibility, expectations) that these impose.


4: ‘Close’ Proximity, ‘End’ Result, and More Redundant Words to Delete From Your Writing

Writing on Medium, Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer highlights some of the most commonly used redundancies. The following are the best examples, and the italicised words should be removed:

  • absolutely certain, absolute certainty
  • absolutely essential
  • added bonus
  • advance planning, advance warning
  • all-time record
  • ATM machine
  • blend together
  • broad spectrum
  • cameo appearance, cameo role
  • closed fist
  • close proximity
  • consensus of opinion, general consensus
  • direct confrontation
  • disappear from sight
  • end product
  • end result
  • erupt (or explode) violently
  • exact same
  • fall down
  • few in number
  • final outcome
  • free gift
  • full extent
  • full gamut
  • fuse together
  • future plans
  • gather together
  • glance briefly
  • hourly / daily basis
  • integrate with each other
  • join together
  • kneel down
  • last of all
  • lift up
  • main protagonist
  • merge together
  • might possibly
  • moment in time 
  • mutual cooperation
  • orbit around
  • overexaggerate 
  • passing fad
  • personal friend, personal opinion
  • PIN number
  • plan ahead
  • rise up 
  • shuttle back and forth
  • skirt around
  • slightly ajar
  • sudden impulse
  • surrounded on all sides
  • swoop down
  • sworn affidavit
  • undergraduate student 
  • unexpected surprise
  • unsolved mystery



5: How to talk down the price of a house

Writing in the FT, Hugo Cox outlines five tips from estate agents on how to negotiate a reduction in price when buying a house:

  1. Be prepared: demonstrating that you can complete the transaction quickly makes it more likely that an offer will be accepted. Many buyers wait until they have found their target house before seeking legal / financial advice and lining-up a mortgage.
  2. Research the seller: particularly in difficult markets, many sellers put their properties on the market because they face some kind of problem. Looking for clues when visiting the property and questioning the agent (favouring closed over open questions e.g. ‘is the owner getting divorced’ rather than ‘why is the owner selling’) can provide useful guidance.
  3. Build a network: many of the best value properties never come to market, so ‘befriending’ a number of agents may provide access to these. Agents that are not representing a seller can also be a good source of information – these may have tried and failed to win the assignment, so may be able to provide useful tips. Personal networks may also leverage useful guidance.
  4. The best bargains are often achievable where an otherwise great property has a key feature missing, for instance a flat without a lift or family home without a garden.
  5. Treat pricing information carefully. If previous offers have been rejected, establish how firm they were or if other issues were present (i.e. price may not have been the problem). Metrics that agents quote may be out of date, while valuations are inherently subjective – features that prospective buyers hold dear may be irrelevant for sellers.


6: 40 things I wish I knew when I was younger

Writer Srinivas Rao reflects on key life lessons as he approaches his 40th birthday. Ranging from philosophical to practical, the best suggestions include:

  • I wish I’d known that forgiveness sets you free. It keeps you from hanging onto what was never meant to be so you can live up to what was destined to be.
  • I wish I’d known that the most liberating thing you’ll ever experience in life is making your own definitions.
  • I wish I’d known that it makes no sense to follow the advice of people who won’t live with the consequences of your choices.
  • Whether it’s a relationship or a customer, anything that goes from zero to 10 that quickly is likely to go from 10 to zero just as quickly.
  • I wish I had known that sometimes our losses liberate us from the life we live so that we can pursue the one we’re destined to lead.
  • I wish I’d known that you can’t solve internal problems with external solutions.


7: Seven moral rules found all around the world

A study of 60 cultures, conducted by anthropologists at the University of Oxford, identified seven universal moral rules:

  1. Help you family
  2. Help your group
  3. Return favours
  4. Be brave
  5. Defer to superiors
  6. Divide resources fairly
  7. Respect others’ property

The report sheds some light on the longstanding debate between moral universalists and relativists, showing that all societies have a similar set of social problems, and use a similar set of moral rules to address them.

The authors write that ‘The study tested the theory that morality evolved to promote cooperation, and that – because there are many types of cooperation – there are many types of morality. According to this theory of ‘morality as cooperation’, kin selection explains why we feel a special duty of care for our families, and why we abhor incest. Mutualism explains why we form groups and coalitions (there is strength and safety in numbers), and hence why we value unity, solidarity, and loyalty. Social exchange explains why we trust others, reciprocate favours, feel guilt and gratitude, make amends, and forgive. And conflict resolution explains why we engage in costly displays of prowess such as bravery and generosity, why we defer to our superiors, why we divide disputed resources fairly, and why we recognise prior possession.


8: The ‘soft’ approach to building hi-tech startups

Cambridge University research report Exploding the Myths of UK Innovation Policy: How ‘Soft Companies’ and R&D Contracts for Customers Drive the Growth of the Hi-Tech Economy explores the benefits of adopting a service-led approach to growing hi-tech start-ups.

Having analysed the Cambridge technology cluster, the authors observe that, contrary to common perceptions, many prominent science/technology ‘success stories’ have started with customer funding rather than venture capital (VC) and have commercialised innovations developed through customer interaction rather than those stemming from academic research.

The authors attribute this phenomenon to the initial adoption of a ‘soft’ model, through which companies rely on their expertise to provide R&D services (e.g. consulting or contract R&D) to a wide range of customers and applications rather than focusing on developing a narrow range of ‘hard’ products. While less scalable, the soft model involves far lower initial risk (e.g. through posing fewer management challenges and enabling greater flexibility) and significantly reduces early cash requirements (as a result of lower capital expenditure and early revenue generation).

Interestingly, start-ups can also use such an approach to position themselves for a successful transition to a more scalable product-focused company. While the exact approach varies according to the sector being addressed, the report observes that interaction with a wide customer base enables start-ups to undertake continuous market research, identify promising areas for IP/product development and nurture the expertise/team necessary to target such opportunities. Furthermore, working with numerous clients provides external validation that can help raise VC funding if required.

Companies that have successfully followed this path include Cambridge Consultants, ARM, Chiroscience and Symbiotics and the report breaks the general approach into the following steps:

• Form team with high level of specialist expertise

• Offer expertise and product ‘concepts’ to target customers

• Sell consulting and development contracts

• Gradually expand team and take on more ambitious contracts

• Use deep market knowledge and customer contacts to identify generic opportunities

• Progressively ‘harden’ the business model by licensing IP alongside contracts or developing standard products and platforms

• Complete transition to hard company

Moreover, by enabling founders to delay or even avoid external funding, the soft model reduces dilution and facilitates the emergence of angel investor networks, while also providing expertise to help the growth of other companies. There are therefore significant potential benefits for local economic development.


9 – Study Identifies The Most Effective Mental Strategies That People Use To Get Through Aversive Challenges

Writing in the British Psychological Society’s research digest, Christian Jarrett looks at a study from researchers at the University of Zurich that claims to make the first investigation into the effectiveness of strategies that people use to get through challenging situations.

The researchers identified 19 coping strategies, the majority of which fall within two categories:

  • 1 – situation modification strategies (e.g. drinking coffee; listening to music while working)
  • 2 – attentional deployment strategies (e.g. motivational self-talk or thinking the finish is near).

Jarret reports that ‘across the different types of aversive challenge, the strategies correlated with success were: thinking about the positive consequences of getting to the end (this was also the most popular strategy); monitoring one’s goal progress; thinking that the end is near (the second most popular strategy); and emotion regulation (e.g. trying to stay in a good mood). In contrast, distracting oneself from the aversive challenge was associated with less success – perhaps because distraction makes us more inclined to give in and do something more pleasant (note the contrast with research on resisting temptations, such as in the classic Marshmallow Test studies, in which distraction was found to be effective).’


10: How Timeboxing Works and Why It Will Make You More Productive

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, entrepreneur Marc Zao-Sanders looks at the benefits of moving away from traditional ‘to do’ lists which, according to a 2012 article written by Daniel Markovitz, have at least five important flaws:

1.     They provide too many choices for what to do

2.     People are naturally drawn to simpler tasks

3.     Tasks that are important but not urgent tend to go unaddressed

4.     They lack the context of how much time is required and available, making it difficult to determine what to do next

5.     They have no ‘commitment device’ that makes people choose to tackle and stick with more challenging tasks

An alternative approach, termed ‘timeboxing’,  involves assigning tasks to specific blocks of time in a calendar (leaving some unassigned time to deal with unforeseen requirements). Markovitz writes that ‘deciding which item to handle at what time overcomes the paradox of choice, compensates for the intrinsic heterogeneity of your work, provides the context of deadlines and other commitments, and provides a (soft) commitment device to help you do the right thing at the right time.’ The approach also helps to determine if new projects should be pursued and, if so, how long they may take, and may be useful in providing justification when pushing back on additional requests from bosses.

Zao-Sanders argues that the timeboxing approach brings a number of additional benefits:

  • It allows tasks to be scheduled relative to their deadlines, and makes it easier to assign the amount of time required. He observes that ‘working hard and trying your best is sometimes not actually what’s required; the alternative — getting the right thing done at the right time — is a better outcome for all.
  • It facilitates communication and collaboration, through enabling tasks, priorities and allocated times to be shared with others.
  • It provides a comprehensive record of work done (which helps with reviews) and makes it easier to plan ahead.
  • It reduces interruptions and allows focus, helping people to feel more in control and generally happier.
  • It enhances productivity. Parkinson’s Law refers to the observation that work tends to expand to fill the time assigned to it, and ‘a corollary of this observation in practice is that we often spend more time on a task than we should, influenced by the time that happens to be available (circumstantial) rather than how long the work should really take (objective). Disciplined timeboxing breaks us free of Parkinson’s law by imposing a sensible, finite time for a task and sticking to that.’

In summary, he writes that ‘the benefits of calendarized timeboxing are many, varied, and highly impactful. The practice improves how we feel (control), how much we achieve as individuals (personal productivity), and how much we achieve in the teams we work in (enhanced collaboration). This may be the single most important skill or practice you can possibly develop as a modern professional, as it buys you so much time to accomplish anything else. It’s also straightforwardly applied and at no cost. Box some time to implement a version of this that works for you.’


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