The unexpected benefits of simply asking "Why?"

Curiosity is an important attribute for any successful businessperson. It's something I always try to measure during an interview, for example. That's because I've found the more curious someone is, the more likely they are to embrace change and want to learn new things.

I'm frequently amazed at how rarely we ask each other "why?" over the course of a day. Some people worry the question will be interpreted as them challenging their colleague. Others feel they just need to do what's asked and not question the logic behind the request.

In reality, "why?" is where learning often starts.

I've often wondered how many times something I thought was a simple request turned into a major homework assignment for someone else. The higher you are on the org chart, the greater the likelihood your requests become the new top priority. Again, there have been countless times when what I regarded as a low-priority, 5-minute task suddenly caused a team to drop what they're doing and spend half the day answering. Ugh.

I try to be specific by saying things like, "this is low priority" or, my favorite, which is, "if this takes you more than 5 minutes it's not worth doing." Despite those guidelines I've still experienced plenty of situations where my request derailed other higher-priority activities.

One of the things I've started doing is regularly encouraging the team to ask me "why?". More importantly, I now say, regardless of my request, if it's going to take longer than 5 minutes to complete please be sure to ask me why I need it. This not only helps provide context for colleagues but it also leads to better open communication. Better yet, sometimes when answering the "why?" I'm forced to think further about my request and realize either (a) it's not what I really need or, better yet, (b) my colleague has a better way of helping me answer the problem I'm trying to solve, and that's priceless.

So do yourself a favor and encourage more of a "why?" culture throughout your organization. I promise you'll appreciate the results.


The failed promise of turning webpages into a podcast

How many times have you found an interesting article on the web but you have no time to read it? This happens to me every day and despite the variety of save-for-later reading tools out there they all tend to fade into the background and I forget to go back and read what I've saved for later.

When I saw this article on Springwise I immediately took a closer look at the solution it described. The article talks about how a "web browser extension transforms saved articles into podcasts." It turns out this extension is like many others; it simply does a text-to-speech conversion and creates an MP3 file. IOW, there's no connection to a podcast stream. So although the conversion produces impressive human-sounding results (click here to listen to my previous article), it falls short of the promise of transforming anything into a podcast stream.

This seems like a potentially enormous opportunity and gap for someone to fill. Imagine a one-click solution that truly gathers all your saved articles into a stream for your favorite podcast platform. What if that system eventually became so popular that audio ads could be injected dynamically, creating an income source? OK, yes, there would be a number of IP rights issues to potentially overcome but I could also see a model where that revenue stream is shared with the IP owner, alleviating that legal issue. Another interesting feature would be where I could follow others and listen to the articles they curated in their feed; as we've seen with other platforms, those with the biggest following also earn some sort of affiliate income. There are loads of possibilities here and it's all about transforming the written word into audio for broader consumption.

If something like this already exists please let me know. I'd use it every single day and I'm sure there are millions of others out there who would do the same. It's also one of those rare problems where I'd gladly pay a reasonable price to solve.


The future of collaborative digital content consumption

Amazon's recent Watch Party announcement sheds light on what the future holds for digital content consumption. It's primitive, yes, but a step in the right direction.

To summarize, Watch Party lets two people watch a movie together even though they're not in the same location. The first version limits interactions to texts and emojis but you can bet a future version will support video on both ends so you can make faces and feel closer together.

With Alexa (and Prime) Amazon has built an incredible platform for on-demand content which can be simultaneously enjoyed by multiple people regardless of location. Podcasts are a great example. There have been a number of times when I wanted to listen to one with my wife when I was probably driving home but she wasn't in the car with me. Today I'm forced to stop and wait till we're together.

In the future imagine using nothing but voice commands to tell the podcast to pause, see if my wife wants to join me, then play it for both of us to enjoy remotely. Now a channel is open for us to listen, pause, comment to each other, etc., as if we're both listening in my car.

Take it a step further and think about longer-form learning. What if two or three people want to take a course together, listening and/or watching, over an Alexa-powered Zoom-like communication platform where, again, pausing, commenting, etc., is all enabled via audio commands. Thanks to a powerful search on the back side of this you're always able to pause and ask for a deeper dive on any topic that comes up.

I realize a great deal of the learning process takes place in solitude. That means textbooks don't necessarily go away but voice UI and synchronized platforms like Watch Party will undoubtedly lead to new options for learning as well as entertainment.


Experimentation and paid search

The next time you do a web search take an extra moment to see how the paid results compare to the top organic results. Sometimes the top link is the same for both.

This article, from the authors of The Power of Experiments, drives it home with this excerpt:

“Evidently, users who Googled ‘eBay’ (or another eBay-related search term), who had been clicking on the ad because they saw no reason to scroll down to the organic link just below it, were now instead clicking on the first organic search result. For these searchers, eBay essentially swapped in free organic clicks for each advertising click lost,” explain Luca and Bazerman. “In other words, much of the money eBay was shelling out to Google each year was a waste.” After the results of these experiments were published, 11 percent of large companies that were buying search ads in the same way as eBay discontinued that advertising.

It reminds me of that classic quote: "Half my marketing spend is wasted...I just don't know which half."

More importantly, it illustrates the need to continuously monitor and analyze data, all the while maintaining a strong culture of curious experimentation.

I wonder how much of Google's income is derived from advertisers who never bother asking if their high organic ranking might perform just was well as the results they're paying for...


React, respond, rebuild

This pandemic is having an immediate effect on almost every job and it's likely to have a longer-lasting impact in the years ahead. There's plenty of speculation around this topic but this article from Lynda Gratton in MIT Sloan Management Review is one of the most insightful ones I've read.

The author refers to a survey response she got from one CEO who said their mantra is "React, respond, rebuild." It reminds me of the agile approach to software development and one of the keys to both is flexibility.

She outlines three types of job categories and provides valuable prescriptive advice for each. The most challenging one is the last one, which she describes as being "non-routine and highly collaborative, with an innovation aspect" and her example is a product developer. A huge hole for this role is the serendipity that's disappeared thanks to all the work which now takes place remotely.

Those chance encounters almost never happen these days but that sounds like a business opportunity for a bright, creative technologist who can come up with a way to fill the void...