Learning How To Learn

Image courtesy of D Sharon Pruitt
Image: D Sharon Pruitt

I read a lot…mostly nonfiction; business books, history, science, and cognitive psychology, not to mention the endless online journals, blogs, software tutorials, and news articles. When it comes to the practical application of Big Ideas retention rapidly fades. I have so many books I want to read I jump into the next one, hoping that all of this information is somehow being stored in my personal cerebral cloud for later recall. It is easy to become addicted to the novelty of something new.

To apply my rudimentary understanding of cognitive bias or Bayesian inference to a problem, it is not enough to have a broad conceptual familiarity these complex and counterintuitive ideas. I need to strengthen my thinking skills, and that requires intentional practice.

Ideas and skills are encoded in the brain through the process of recall, particularly randomized recall that allows some in-between time for forgetting to occur; not too much forgetting, just enough to create cognitive effort and some failure when recalling the skill. It turns out that contrary to what many of us have been taught, mass repetition (repeating that difficult four-bar musical passage for an hour until you go into a trance) is not the most efficient way to learn; better to spread the drilling over several days and contexts.

Some books are designed around how we learn, continually coming back to key ideas, synopsizing chapters, and building quizzes into the text. I have tried the time consuming task of taking extensive notes while reading, but my notes tend to be forgotten when I move to the next field of study.

Lately I have begun experimenting with flash cards. While reading, I note ideas I want to learn, dig deeper with additional research, and develop flash cards to quiz myself. I am using a program for the Mac and iOS called Flashcard Hero. The program allows you to easily create you own card decks which are stored in the cloud and sync to a free iPhone app. It is easy to quiz yourself anytime, customize the look of the cards, and shuffle them randomly. We’ll see how this goes.

What learning techniques work for you?

Beethoven’s Morning

Beethoven_2089781b“Beethoven rose at dawn and wasted little time getting down to work. His breakfast was coffee, which he prepared himself with great care – he determined that there should be sixty beans per cup, and he often counted them out one by one for a precise dose. Then he sat at his desk and worked until 2:00 or 3:00, taking the occasional break to walk outdoors, which aided his creativity. (Perhaps for this reason, Beethoven’s productivity was generally higher during the warmer months.)” -from the book, Daily Rituals, How Artists Work by Mason Curry

RCM: Business books and resources

A list of business-related books referenced in my recent seminar at The Royal College of Music in Stockholm, Sweden:

  • ReworkJason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

RCM: Creativity, problem solving, and skill building resources

A list of creativity, problem-solving, skill-building and teaching/coaching resources. referenced in my recent seminar at The Royal College of Music in Stockholm, Sweden:

  • SwitchChip Heath and Dan Heath

RCM: Music industry books

A list of music industry related books referenced in my recent seminar at The Royal College of Music – Stockholm, Sweden:

Book Review: We First – How Brands and Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World

We First logoIn his new book, We First – How Brands and Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World, creative director and blogger Simon Mainwaring makes a compelling argument for the need to redefine capitalism, factoring the social and environmental footprint into how we evaluate and support corporations. Social communication technologies provide consumers with an increasing array of tools fostering transparency and intentional, purpose-driven consumption.

At first I thought Mainwaring was preaching to the choir, but as I continued to read this thorough and well documented manifesto I became more and more excited. There are many innovative examples and practical ideas here that can be applied by corporations, consumers, government agencies and non-profits to foster sustainable business practices and create a better world.

Highly recommended.

What Is the Unmet Need?

Companies are most successful when their products meet fundamental human needs. Focusing on the unmet need creates an environment for product design and communication that speaks directly to human beings.

What I learned from wraparound…

As a product manager I sensed this intuitively, but I really saw it in action when I worked on wraparound teams organized to help at-risk kids and their families. Wraparound is a non-clinical planning process not dissimilar to product management, creative problem solving, and business model design. The process is simple to describe but very difficult to pull off successfully, in part because people are not used to thinking and speaking in the language of needs.

A wraparound team is organized around the family and their natural community. The process begins by creating an inventory of the strengths of each team member. Next the team develops needs statements, and brainstorms strategies to meet those needs. The strategies are filtered to best align with the identified needs and the strengths of the team. Finally, the plan is executed and adjusted.

Sounds simple, but guess what? If the needs are not correctly articulated the strategies are rarely successful. For example, “He needs to finish high school” or “She needs to stop taking drugs” are goals and outcomes not needs. Perhaps the real unmet need is knowing he can take care of himself, or that she can experience joy. That changes the entire conversation.

Business is all about people too…

The same ideas hold true in business. Every successful product solves a problem by meeting a basic human need. Companies that understand this are able speak to customers directly about why they are in business without becoming trapped in describing  what they do and how they do it. Simon Sinek discusses this in his book, Start With Why. As Marty Cagan says in his great book for product managers, Inspired: How to Create Products Customers Love:

“I find it ironic that so many of us in the product world come from science and business oriented backgrounds, yet such a large part of what we do every day is really about emotion and human psychology. Most of us may not think of our job this way, but we should.

People buy and use products largely for emotional reasons. The best marketing people understand this, and the best product people ensure that their products speak to these emotions.

… Once you have clearly identified and prioritized the dominant buying emotions your customers bring to your product, focus on that emotion and ask yourself where else they might be able to get that need met? That’s your real competition. In many cases you’ll find that the competition you should be worrying about is not the startup or big portal that’s after the same thing you are, but rather the offline alternative.”

Apple and eBay

Apple is in the business of empowering individuals. This mindset enabled them to invert the carrier/hardware equation for the entire wireless industry. I recently caught a Harvard Business Review podcast with John Donahue, CEO of eBay. He described the company as being in the business of ‘connecting buyers and sellers’. Each acquisition and product development decision is measured against this simple mission, which clearly describes the basic need the company addresses.

Imagine your company makes electric chairlifts for the elderly living at home. Think how your products and communication would differ with these two perspectives:

The elderly need to get up and down the stairs when their mobility becomes limited.

The elderly need to know they are independent and can stay connected with their family.

In the first case you might talk about the features of the chair, reliability of the motor, ease of installation, etc. In the second scenario I imagine the conversation would be quite different.

If you are not used to thinking of products, and services in terms of the needs they meet, you might want to take a look at this needs inventory courtesy of the Center For Non-Violent Communication.

The idea here is to continually ask yourself, “What need does my business meet? What problem does it solve?” It is  easy to be swept away by particular strategies and technologies. If you lose the human focus you may also lose your customers.

What do you think makes products and businesses successful? Join the conversation!

Social Norms & Market Norms

As behavioral economist Dan Ariely notes in his book, Predictably Irrational, we live simultaneously in two worlds; one ruled by social norms, and the other determined by market norms. If you hire a professional designer to develop a website for you, they  expect to be paid in cash. If they invite you to Thanksgiving dinner, it would  be inappropriate to offer them $200 for the wonderful meal! Bringing a dessert or a bottle of wine and offering to help clean up would fit the social norm.

Social Networks are, well, Social…

Online social networks arise spontaneously and are built on trust. Permission to join a network and share your art, requires an understanding of that community’s purpose and rules. People connect online out of a need to be acknowledged; to stay in touch with friends and loved ones, express themselves, create, have fun, show off a bit and share opinions. Before you start talking about your business, your next gig, or your latest album, ask yourself what the network values.

What have you learned about the online communities you participate in? What  contributions have gotten the conversation going?

Understanding & Managing Social Media – Part 1

Getting Started

The rise of the social web has caused profound shifts in the way we consume and share information. Media industries like publishing and music, have experienced devastating disruption. Even if your business has avoided this first shockwave, the relationship between you and your customers has changed forever. If you are not using social communication technologies to engage your customers today, don’t wait any longer. You can be sure your competition is way ahead of you.

But why?

For many, the idea of committing to a Social Media strategy and collaborating with customers is still uncomfortable, but the payoff can be enormous. Well designed Social Media campaigns create a direct channel to your fans; a powerful opportunity to understand their needs, establish trust, and personalize your offerings.

I’m still not convinced…

If you are new to Social Media and skeptical or confused, there are many good books for business people exploring the larger dynamics of this massive social shift. I can recommend a few:

The Thank You Economy by Gary Vaynerchuk

The Network Is Your Customer by David Rogers

How To Make Money With Social Media by Turner & Shah

Content Rules by Handley & Chapman

The New Rules of Marketing and PR by David Meerman Scott

Groundswell by Li and Bernoff

… and anything by Seth Godin who’s book, Permission Marketing was one of the first to identify the significance and dynamics of this global change.

But I’m already on Facebook…

I suggest developing a solid understanding of the principles and underlying forces in social campaigns before jumping into the tools in a big way. Having a million Twitter or Facebook followers doesn’t really mean much unless the relationships are genuine and your approach is aligned with your larger business strategy.

In Part Two of this series I will offer some tips for managing the “always-on” overload that can accompany Social Media.

Connecting with your most passionate fans…

The companies that understand how to genuinely connect with their customers, online, and offline, are the ones that will emerge over the next twenty-four to thirty-six months, putting significant distance between themselves and their competition. – Gary Vaynerchuk, The Thank You Economy

Companies should also remember to focus on their passionate customers – both passionate fans and disappointed critics. These will be the customers who are most actively discussing your business, the ones who will share the most ideas, and influence others, and the ones whom you might easily convert from critics to lifelong supporters by giving them a little respect and attention. – David Rogers, The Network Is Your Customer

As you connect with your fans through blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and online forums, keep in mind that the most passionate are the most active in the network and can easily become your advocates and emissaries if they are not already. Pay attention to them. Listen, and connect.

A customer or fan who is talking about you critically can become your greatest ally if you listen to them, understand their perspective, and respond with genuine caring. I’m not talking about trolls and sociopaths, but people that for one reason or another disagree with you or have had a bad experience. This is the best customer you could ever have. If you really take care of them, they can become a lifelong fan and evangelist for your company, your music, or your brand. Put your biggest supporters and your biggest critics at the top of the list and give them special attention.

What has your experience been connecting with your fans? How has listening to them and responding authentically changed your business? Share your stories!