Targeted Ads are the Worst of all Possible Worlds

The justification used for the incredible invasions of privacy on the part of the internet marketers of the world is that they want to serve us “targeted” ads. Targeted ads are ads that relate to what we’re doing at the moment. Theoretically, if I’m having a discussion about how my child is dying from kidney failure, that’s exactly the moment when I’ll feet eternally grateful to be shown an ad for how to overcome that embarrassing middle aged male incontinence issue.

All joking aside, targeted ads seem worse to me than random ads, even aside from the privacy violations. I am online to get things done (sometimes work things, sometimes social). I am rarely online to buy things, and when I am, I know it.

A “targeted” ad has a much higher probability of successfully distracting me into a purchase experience and completely derailing what I’m trying to do. An untargeted ad, though distracting, is much easier to ignore and far less of a drain on my productivity.

Perhaps if I intrinsically valued purchasing things, I’d welcome targeted ads. But I don’t intrinsically value buying things.

So on the very rare occasions I’m in buying mode, targeted ads are a good thing. But in the rest of my life, which is 99% of the time, targeted ads are downright destructive.

Efficiency Might Be Bad

I’m a huge fan of system dynamics and the understanding of complex systems that has come from the field that Jay Forrester invented.

This is a superb article by the late Donella Meadows about the leverage points in complex systems, in ascending order of effectiveness.

Alas, most of the things we do to try to change our social and economic systems use only the least effective levers.

Tonight I’m especially struck by #9, delays in systems. Delays of information and material movement can throw a system into or out of sync in ways that utterly change the system’s characteristics.

For many years, we’ve been operating as a society under the implicit assumption that speed = efficiency. The faster things are, the fewer delays, the better off we are.

But this isn’t necessarily true. Increasing the efficiency of communication decreases the time between communication we have to understand and respond. We end up in reactive mode, rather than thoughtful mode. That’s one of the pernicious effects of email. Many people take action on email as it comes in, rather than taking action only on what’s important. That can make the difference between overload and achievement.

Removing communication delays also seems to reduce our tendency to prepare. When you can make changes to your presentation all the way until the night before it’s due, then you will. In prior years, when you had no choice but to finish early enough to send your slides to be duplicated, you actually had time you could then use to rehearse and concentrate on delivery, rather than on making last-minute changes.

Read the article. Let me know your thoughts, if you still have enough attention span to make it through, after all the years we’ve spent training ourselves to operate in a purely reactive—but oh, so efficient–mode.

Is texting in meetings rude?

Do you think it’s rude to text/email during a meeting?

Some say it’s multitasking. An article I read celebrated “the skill of following along in person while simultaneously [doing other stuff]” Alas, that skill simply doesn’t exist. Our brains are not wired to multitask, and splitting attention vastly decreases the quality of thought we bring to the individual activities.

Furthermore, even though you may not consider it rude, it can have very real negative effects for you. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely discusses this in his book The Upside of Irrationality. When someone took a quick cell phone call in the midst of an interaction, the person they were interacting with was quick to retaliate by not returning a cash overpayment. (He then showed that an explicit apology offset that effect. So perhaps texting then apologizing is fine behavior.)

If the text or email is relevant to the task at hand, perhaps we can adopt the same policy we did in elementary school: let the team leader see the notes being passed back and forth. Next time someone texts in a meeting, they have to show everyone the text sent and the response. Then the group can decide whether it’s worthwhile


Want to Change a Habit? Enlist People!

As much as you can adopt systems to help point your life and job in the direction you want, systems fail if you don’t use them. And if you’re like me, that promise to work out 3 days a week has a way of taking back seat to dinner invitations, long hours at work, and dessert-eating contests. Good intentions aren’t enough.

The only thing I have found that consistently helps me change behavior is to set up accountability structures that involve other people. As much as I’m sacrifice my promises to myself on an altar of Oreo ice cream cake, I am much better at keeping promises to others.

Right now I am helping a client make daily progress on an important project just by calling daily to hear one to-do item a day. He feels compelled to choose an item that he can tell me, and our talk is the trigger to get him to take the action.

Do-It-Days are another example–they use group accountability every hour to keep you moving on a single productive day.

If you want to change a behavior, develop a skill, or change a habit, enlist someone else–a co-worker, family member, or friend–to be your accountability partner. Share your goals and progress with them, and have established regular contact around your goals. You’ll find that, in the words of the Beatles, you’ll get by with a little help from your friends.

Are You Forgetting The Big Picture?

The Big Picture

A client asked me to facilitate her senior team’s big picture, strategic planning retreat. It was a $200 million company. They listed important issues on the whiteboard. Item #1? Replace the refrigerated water fountain with a ‘green’ ground-cooled fountain, to show commitment to the environment. Worthwhile? Maybe. But… strategy? big picture? Not even remotely.

We do this in our daily lives, too. A friend tied himself up in court for a year to win a few hundred dollars damages from a fender bender. Was he right? Sure. Was that a good use of his time? No way.

The Big Picture Guides Decisions

“The big picture” matters because it tells you how to spend your time. It guides decision making. If you’re starting a business to build a world-changing empire, that’s one thing. Creating a comfortable business that runs on four hours’ effort a day so you can have free time for friends and family is something different. Even when doing the same activity—building a business—a different big picture leads you to make different decisions in the day-to-day.

If you lose the big picture, you can go very far afield. I once had a client who had 60 employees. The company was bringing in a couple million a year, but it all went to salary for the employees. My client was sleeping on friends’ couches because he wasn’t paying himself a salary. He was living the “build an empire” big picture when what he wanted was a comfortable life. Linking his big picture and his day-to-day transformed his life. By closing his company and becoming a sole practitioner, his income and lifestyle became everything he wanted.

The big picture also gives you important information. If someone makes a bad decision, how you judge it depends on the big picture. If a money manager loses money after representing themselves as a knowledgable professional who manages risk, that mistake may be very bad, indeed. But if someone is carefully investing calculated amounts with the goal of teaching themselves investing, that same loss may be a very good thing. It’s a chance to learn that will help them make good decisions later. A big picture of “I’m guaranteeing your security” versus “I’m learning my craft” changes how we treat the outcomes.

Revisit Your Own Big Picture

Are you paying enough attention to the big pictures in your life? Next time you make a decision or form a judgment, stop and pause. Consider the big picture. If you’re making a decision, what is the reason for making that particular decision? Is there a big picture point of view that will make the decision easier or more obvious? “Should I take out a loan to buy this car?” It’s easy to believe this is a real decision … until you consider that you take the subway to work, you have no need to drive, and you just like the mental image of how you’d look in a cool, sporty convertible. At least in my life, a big picture of “I want to be cool” versus “I need a car to survive in my daily life” makes the decision obvious: no loan, on any terms.

When you make a snap judgment, it’s also a good time to revisit the big picture. “She’s a poor employee because she missed three days of work last week.” If your big picture is “I want compliant workers,” you’d be tempted to give her a pink slip. But if your big picture is “I want skilled employees who do a great job,” you might dig deeper to find out she’s completing her masters degree, coping with finals, and her extra skills are already showing up in the form of high-quality work.

Spend time on a regular basis to revisit your big picture. You may find it guides you towards not only towards a better decision, but towards a wise decision as well.

Our Intuitive Knowledge Isn’t Always Right!

I was recently listening to a lecturer discuss how risk-taking is an integral part of “the entrepreneurial mindset.” He was very inspirational. Unfortunately, he was also flat-out wrong. There has been a lot of research into the psychological qualities of entrepreneurs. What has it concluded? There is no “entrepreneurial mindset”–entrepreneurs are a very diverse group. But especially among lifelong entrepreneurs who have experienced multiple successes, there is no evidence that they are any more risk-taking than anyone else. In fact, they do everything they can to mitigate risk.

My point, however, has nothing to do with entrepreneurs. It has to do with conventional wisdom. We intuitively (or culturally) want to believe that entrepreneurs are a special breed of person. That way, we have an excuse to be an entrepreneur if we deem ourselves “that breed.” Or we have an excuse *not* to be an entrepreneur if we aren’t “that breed.” Either way, we get to shift the responsibility for the decision to our personality type, rather than our decisions and efforts. That makes the very notion of an “entrepreneurial mindset” attractive, as a flexible rationale we can use for all kinds of stuff.

A lot of conventional wisdom is similar. The American myth that CEOs are somehow to credit for the entire performance of their companies, for example, is unsupported by any data whatsoever. W. Edwards Deming, the statistician who created the Total Quality movement, said that no more than 10% of a company’s performance could be attributed statistically to the CEO, and then only in highly unusual cases.

The problem is that our minds aren’t very good at understanding complex things. For 100,000 years, our minds weren’t able to do much beyond farm. Then we invented the scientific method, which was the first time we had a rigorous way to separate our intuitive-but-wrong ideas from the nonintuitive-but-accurate ways the world really works.

There is a lot of poorly-done science in the works. There is also a lot of excellent science, which is why we live 2x as long as our ancestors, in comfort, with electric lights and polar fleece.

Especially in the human potential fields–self-help, business leadership, etc.–there is a substantial body of research about how people and human systems actually work. Much of that research has even been popularized and published in books accessible to everyday people.

Before jumping on the pleasant, inspirational stories propagated in our cultural myths, take the time to read some of the research-based books on the topics. You can even go further and read the studies the books are based on. Some of the science (or the way it is being interpreted) may be ‘iffy,’ but some may be solid. And you may learn how the world *really* works, which will only make it easier for you to create the life you want.

(*) this is what I did for the Get-It-Done Guy episodes on visualizing for results. “The Secret” doesn’t work. They’ve done controlled experiments to find out. But some slight tweaks in the visualization technique *has* been shown to boost results. Not because of a deep spiritual principle, but because the right visualization gets people motivated and moving to make their dreams come true.