The (sometimes abusive) power of consistency

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Consistency is important to us puny humans, it’s fundamental to how we construct our view of the world. We don’t see the actual world, we construct a model of it in our head.

David McRaney has a great explanation of it.

“You are trapped in a skull, unable to actually interact with the world outside. You depend on messages from sense organs written in code. When you decode the messages, you alter the map and the models, but that’s all you can ever hope to know about the outside world – that map and those models.”

Things which behave, perform and present themselves to us consistently, are easier for us to model.

Things which behave, perform and present themselves to us consistently, are easier for us to model. Similarly, we become uncomfortable when we experience something which is not consistent with our model of it

People are the same. We’re comfortable who act consistently with our model of them – both from a behaviour and a performance perspective.

How we deal with inconsistency

Someone who is always pleasant to us, we model as pleasant.
Someone who is always an arsehole to us, we model as an arsehole.
Someone who is sometimes pleasant and sometimes an arsehole, we tend to defensively model as an arsehole.

As soon as you’re inconsistent, people are tempted to model you against the worst end of your spectrum. It’s easier for them the deal with. If someone is an arsehole a significant percentage of the time, then its simpler (and less painful) to expect that from them in the future.

Likewise with performance. It doesn’t matter if someone’s work is brilliant some of the time. If you rely on the quality of their work output, then their lack of consistency will negatively impact your model of them.

This isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination.

The world and the people in it are complex and nuanced, and nobody is pleasant or high performing all of the time.

But our brains don’t care, they want to do what’s easiest, what conserves glucose. Unless we make a deliberate effort, we rest on our models.

What are the real world takeaways?

There are two sides to this:
1) The more consistent you are, the easier things will be with other people. The narrower your spectrum of behaviour or performance, the more likely they are to model you close to your best.

Of course, it’s ok to not be consistent. You might not want to make it easy for others, or not care what they think. But that should be a deliberate choice – not a habit or reflex.

2) The more aware you are of you’re own models, the more you can spot when they’re inconsistent with the actual situation in the here and now. We can sleepwalk through the day quite easily letting our models act as a crutch. But we can also take the time to deliberately notice what’s true now, and use that to update our models – to make them more accurate.

Consistency isn’t everything, but for better or worse it radically influences the default settings we all come with. Best to understand both sides of it and make deliberate choices about how we let it impact our lives.

Shipping, fear & the resistance

I gorged on some Seth Godin videos over the weekend. Hey, you can judge me, but you gotta do something while you fold the washing for a family of five.

I was aware of Seth, but not particularly familiar with his work. His name would pop up, associated with an idea which sounded challenging, but intriguing, and I would dutifully note it down in under a category of things best described as “I probably should, but never will, look into this further.” It’s a big category full of vague, knotty items like “learn more about affiliate marketing, explore Dostoyevsky & find out why men your age like Taylor Swift”.

Anyhow, he has lots of interesting ideas which do sound worth exploring, one of which is this notion of “shipping”.

It’s a product term relating to the act of actually getting your product to customers, but in a broader context could be analogous to “completing”. When you ship something, you’re putting a version of it out into the world with your name on it. People will (may) see it, and when they do, they’ll know that you’re responsible for it.

OK, so while this is Mickey Mouse stuff (do stuff, then put it out there), the interesting thing is this gulf between having an idea, and shipping it. Lots of people have ideas, but very few people ship. Everyone has a great idea for a product, a movie, a book – but very few people become product designers, directors or authors.

Why is it that we all have these ideas, but that most of them die as scribbles in Moleskin notebooks and not out in the real world?

Godin contends that it’s because people assume that coming up with ideas is the work, but that the actual work is shipping. Ideas are a penny a pound, but commitment to ship is rare.

He suggests that partly what makes shipping so difficult is the social fear of failure generated by our brains in our Amygdala (or Lizard Brain).

Our Amygdala is one of the most primitive blocks of our brain and is hardwired to respond to some of our most primary needs and mechanisms. Memory modulation, aggression and the utility of fear as a motivator, all fall under it’s purview. While the Amygdala’s response to fear was originally primarily to physical threats which tended to be short-lived (either the leopard ate you or you got away), it is now capable of triggering the same response in the presence of more chronic, social pressures such as email, public speaking and anything else which can make you look stupid in front of other people.

Since “shipping” a product or idea into a public space has the capacity to make you look publicly silly, the Amygdala will create a fear response to the notion of shipping. This fear can become one of the primary barriers to bridging the gulf between having an idea and shipping it. Godin calls these barriers, The Resistance, a term which was coined by Stephen Pressfield.

The real challenge, according to Godin, is how to manage this fear so that you can move beyond it to just ship.

Shipping is where the exposure to criticism will come, but it’s also where all the value is found.

There’s a lot more in this, and I haven’t done enough work to have an opinion on most of it – but I thought it was worth capturing for a start.

Here are links to:
Seth Godin’s site
Seth’s talk on shipping and fear
Stephen Pressfield’s site

Manufacturing Authenticity (or “Starbucks vs. a Dead Babylonian King”)

At first, I enjoyed giving myself fanciful names because there’s nothing quite like listening to someone yell, “flat white for Nebuchadnezzar,” in a crowded Starbucks.

But the fun fell out of it when the staff began to recognize me, and they’d just ask, “And who are you today?”

This was last April, when Starbucks decided to force/encourage their staff to request the names of customers when taking orders and then announce them when the drinks were ready. It was an attempt to manufacture authenticity — to artificially create the social bond that might naturally grow between a vendor and customer in a bygone era when local customers patronized local shops staffed by local employees where everybody was on a first name basis.

This familiarity and sense of community is a powerful force. It’s one of the key aspects of the past that causes old people to believe that it was a better time to be alive, having conveniently forgotten that the same past was also generally more racist, sexist and homophobic and that domestic violence used to be an Olympic sport.

But you can’t blame Starbucks for having a go at creating this type of atmosphere; after all, they know we’ll all spend more money with them if we forget they’re a corporate behemoth. (Albeit one that doesn’t seem to turn enough of a profit to pay tax in the U.K.)

As a person who viewed this move with naked cynicism and resented its obvious, awkward and clunky nature, you can imagine my surprise when I came to the realization that it had worked.

A few weeks after the new policy was in place, I had forgotten how forced and faked this initiative had felt initially. My local branch was suddenly staffed by people whose names I knew and who (to varying degrees) knew mine as well. Written versions of my name on the cup varied wildly from Ken, Trent, Kenneth and Clint, but there was definitely a connection there. Their names were Peach, Simon, Jura and Luke, and I was the tall, bearded, flat white drinker with the inconsistent, one-syllable name.

As time progressed, our connection grew, and I realized that now we had a relationship that felt authentic. I cared about them, and they cared about me more than we had before the name game started. Starbucks had successfully manufactured authenticity.

Unfortunately for Starbucks’ shareholders, a superior (and genuinely local) coffee shop opened up just down the road, so one morning I sacrificed my sense of community to try the new place. These new kids on the block didn’t give two hoots about my name. In fact, they were almost indifferent to my patronage at all, but damn could they make a good coffee. There was no sense of community, but the warm fuzzy feeling of an excellent flat white trumped the warm fuzzy feeling of a mediocre flat white made by someone who thinks my name is Trent — and so I defected to the new shop.

In the aftermath of the Christmas/New Year break, I returned to work and was shocked to find my new coffee dealer was still closed for the holidays, so I sheepishly returned to Starbucks. I foolishly set my expectations high and fully anticipated to be welcomed back to the store by teary staff overjoyed at my return.

Unfortunately, times had changed at the big green mermaid, and names didn’t seem to carry the currency they once did. Not only did no one recognize me (let alone my name), but no one’s names were being requested or announced. The staff was the same — some of them even sporting the old name badges — but gone was the familiarity, the camaraderie and the community. What remained was authentic, but it was authentic to a corporate giant whose focus had moved on to something else, leaving staff and customers rolled back to their default state: half-arsed greetings from the staff and surly orders from the customers.

I haven’t been back since, and this was only one store, so I wouldn’t consider this a rigorous, scientific appraisal of Starbucks’ customer service policy. However, it did teach me a couple of things:

  • You can manufacture authenticity, and it can work, but it takes effort, focus and consistency.
  • Occasionally you’ll lose out to a superior product, even if you create a better experience.
  • If you’re going to fake it, you have to be willing to keep up the facade if you want to continue to reap the benefits.

My regular coffee shop is back open now, but they seem to have come back from the holidays even more caustic and unwelcoming than they were when they left. They could certainly teach Starbucks about making an absolutely banging flat white, but they could learn a thing or two from Starbucks as well, namely:

  1. Focusing on your customers is never a waste of time, but you have to keep at it, and
  2. Anyone who calls them self Nebuchadnezzar is nothing but trouble.

This article originally appeared on the Agency Post

Squirrel #8 – Top games, chilli biscuits, arse PEZ & the corporate dick

At least 8 weeks after everyone else has done their “best of 2010” shows, Jim & Kent turn up to the party fashionably late with a list, a microphone and an hour.

If you like us, half as much as we love you, then you’ll probably have a lovely time listening to the show.

Rock on!

Download Episode 8

Toad Lodge

This weekend I’m gigging in Bristol, and while I’m here I’m staying somewhere called Toad Lodge… no shit.

It’s lovely, cheap and completely infested with amphibian monuments, statues and images.

Also, there is an Italian style sink in the corner of a large, sparse, Victorian era room. Weirdness below.