tsih-paperbackDan Pink is a five-star author, but To Sell is Human is “only” a four-star book. Having started with that sentence, I should explain it. The best start to the explanation is a quote from the book itself. “Clarity depends on contrast… The most essential question you can ask is this: compared to what?

To Sell is Human (TSIH) is a four-star book compared to other books by the same author, and to other books about the same thing. Now, what is TSIH about? The answer, obvious from the title, is: selling. It is less obvious from the title that this is a book, not only about sales, but also about “non-sales selling”.

“Non-sales selling” is Dan’s term for “moving other people to part with resources—whether something tangible like cash or intangible like attention—so that we both get what we want.” A survey commissioned for the book showed about 40% of respondents’ work time devoted to non-sales selling. (I did a far smaller and less formal survey with a graduate school class, with a similar result.)

So non-sales selling is very similar to influence, and Dan Pink’s To Sell Is Human shares its subject with Influence: Robert Cialdini’s classic account of the psychology of persuasion. Dan is explicit about his knowledge of, and respect for, the earlier book, especially in his chapter on clarity: Influence tops his list of favorite books on the subject. Dan’s judgment is sound: if I were to recommend one book on non-sales selling, it would be Influence (rather than TSIH).

The contrast with Influence may be more harsh than it is fair: TSIH does in some ways go beyond Influence, rather than attempting to go head-to-head with it. Most important, To Sell is Human is a book, not only about non-sales selling, but about sales selling and about change. Selling cars provides a salient example. In the past, the seller was much better informed that the buyer. That information asymmetry has been eroded over time, particularly by the internet. Dan argues that it is now better business, as well as better ethics, to sell based on empathy with the buyer than to attempt to exploit the (potentially well-informed) buyer.

However, sales selling and non-sales selling seem like strange bedfellows, or bookfellows: they don’t fit into the same book as naturally as they perhaps should. This is one of the reasons why To Sell Is Human isn’t in the same five-star class as Influence, and some of Dan’s other books. I could list a few other reasons, but none is major, and it’s time for a shift toward the positive.

TSIH is very much a Dan Pink book, with all the good things that implies. Dan explains convincingly why his subject is interesting and important. He makes each topic engaging with practical examples, draws on and clearly explains relevant research, and provides practical implications. It sounds easy, and Dan’s books make it look easy, but many similar (i.e. popular social science) books end up being superficial, stodgy, or both.

TSIH does not need to be pushed off a bookshelf by Influence and by Dan’s other books, however much this review might have so far put it up against those strong competitors. TSIH complements those other books as much as it competes with them. For example, Influence’s Epilogue warns of the threats lurking in an environment rich in content, when much of that content comprises attempts to influence us, and many of those attempts are deceptive or worse. TSIH is very much about the content-rich environment, but is more positive, and not just because this environment provides buyers with information previously reserved for sellers. The very volume of content provides opportunities for curation: to select from the abundant content, to share the selection, and thus to add value.

With TSIH, Dan also complements his best book: Drive. Drive is about motivation: what drives us. TSIH is about how we can move others. There can be few aspects of psychology as important, or as mutually complementary, as what drives us, and how we can move others.

One last complement is Dan’s website, since it complements his books well. One last compliment: To Sell Is Human is a very good book, and one that I might perceive to be even better were it not for the comparisons invited by a Dan Pink book about influence.

Politicians’ Dilemma

March 24, 2014

This is a game with two players, Arboma and Berckle. They are politicians who have agreed not to tap each other’s phones (or otherwise to spy on each other).

Each has a choice between sticking to the agreement, which will call cooperating, or breaking the agreement, which we will call defecting. Each would prefer to be able to make private phone calls. Each would prefer to be able to listen in on the other’s phone calls.

If we assign numbers to the possible outcomes, we can specify the payoff matrix for the game. Each player faces the same decision—cooperate or defect—although it is possible for each to decide differently. For example, if A cooperates and B defects, A gets zero, and B gets five (of whatever unit A and B are playing for).

A cooperates A defects
B cooperates 3 each for A and B 5 for A, Zero for B
B defects Zero for A, 5 for B 1 each for A and B

As A, how would you play? In other words, would you cooperate, or would you defect? Note that B faces exactly the same question, and the same payoffs. You will each choose to cooperate or to defect; you will do so simultaneously and without conferring.

Now you and the same person will play the game again. The only change is that you will now play it three times in succession, rather than just once. How did this change (three rounds) to the game change your thinking? Did it change your decision? What other changes to the game might change the players’ thinking?

You may have recognized the Politician’s Dilemma. It is the Prisoners’ Dilemma, with the prisoners disguised as politicians; I’ll shorten the name of this game to PD.

Why call PD a game? Because the study of models involving interdependent decisions is called game theory. Game theory terms include payoff matrix, used above, and Nash equilibrium. The latter refers to a combination of decisions in which each player’s decision is the best response to the other player’s. Not every game has an equilibrium, but PD does: defection by both players.

One of the interesting things about PD is that its equilibrium does not yield the best outcomes for the players. Both would fare better is they both cooperated. But, as we can see from the payoff matrix, if A cooperates, B will do better by defecting than by cooperating.

A player may think differently if they play PD multiple times against the same other player. (This is known as the iterated Prisoners’ Dilemma.) A player may cooperate, hoping that the other will reciprocate by cooperating in future rounds.

We might think differently about PD if we question the assumption that cooperation is “good”. For example, we can: change the setting of PD to business; have A and B represent firms (Arboma Inc and Berckle Werks?); assume that A and B control the supply of a product (i.e. assume a duopoly); and focus on the form of cooperation known as price-fixing. Then mutual cooperation would constitute collusion; it would maximize the outcome for both firms, at the expense of consumers.

Defection would mean competing on price. This would maximize market share for the price-cutting firm, and would also benefit consumers.

Should government act to prevent collusion between firms? If the answer is “yes”, the government can “change the game.” It can reduce the payoff for collusion in one or both of two ways. First, it can increase the penalties for colluding, by increasing fines. Second, it can increase the probability that collusion will be detected, by allocating more resources to investigation of corporate wrongdoing.

The government can change the game more radically by making sure that there are at least three major competitors in the industry. This moves us beyond PD, to what I’ll call the Peasants’ Problem, and addresss in the next post.

If you want to read more on PD, the classic book is Robert Axlerod’s The Evolution of Cooperation. Note about links: to Amazon; to Kindle edition, where available; I’m an affiliate, so there’s a danger I may earn a commission.

If you want to read more on game theory, I recommend Thinking Strategically: The Competitive Edge in Business, Politics, and Everyday Life, by Dixit and Nalebuff, as accessible without being superficial. (I understand that their more recent book, The Art of Strategy, is rather similar, but I haven’t read it.)

If you want to read my favorite business book, go for it: Co-Opetition. It’s about the mix of cooperation and competition. Appropriately enough, its two co-authors were at rival universities: Harvard (Adam Brandenburger, now at NYU) and Yale (Barry Nalebuff, still at Yale).

PDjpg.If you want to an illustration of old-school PD, here you are, thanks to Giulia Forsythe, Flickr, and Creative Commons.

Do you have any superstitions? I have one: the jinx. The NY Times reassures me I’m not alone: “people… tend to believe that negative outcomes are more likely after they “jinx” themselves.”

So when, just after I posted approvingly about Kickstarter, the site’s security was breached, I felt a little guilty. I knew I was being irrational. I also knew that I would feel less guilty if I backed something. I backed the boardgame Lagoon: Land of Druids.

Lagoon went on to meet stretch goal after stretch goal, closing with 3,503 backers and more than seven times its initial funding goal of $20,000. No jinx there. But my irrational belief in the jinx lingers. That’s not an entirely bad thing: it provided an excuse to get an excellent deal on what looks like a very good game.

Kickstarting

February 10, 2014

KSlogoOne of the problems with restarting posting is that there are so many things I intend to post about. Kickstarter is more appropriate than most for the restarting phase. KS is “a funding platform for creative projects.”

I have backed a few projects on KS, most of them in the Tabletop Gaming category (i.e. boardgames or cardgames, videogames go in the category next door). One of my first was Eight-Minute Empire: Legends. As its KS project page shows, it met its funding goal of $10,000, and so was produced. It also met several stretch goals, attracting over $40,000 in funding. So I feel a little foolish that one of my reasons for funding was to make sure this worthy project got produced. Another reason was to get an early copy. Yet another was to get extra boards, and so I went up to the funding level at which they were included.

TanStatesMore recently, I backed Tangram States, in the Illustration category. I’ve always been fascinated by maps, and this one seems particularly cool.

Kickstarter is an example of crowdfunding (links to Wikipedia and to Forbes). Comments on KS, or on crowdfunding in general, are welcome…

Aaron Swartz is dead. It appears that he took his own life. He was facing prosecution, and the possibility of jail time. I didn’t know him personally, but I am grateful for much of what he accomplished in his too-short life. I knew of him best for his co-founding of Reddit, but obituaries and other accounts of his life show that his energy and achievements went far beyond software development and entrepreneurship.

One of the outcomes of Aaron’s death has been a petition to remove from office Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, “for overreach in the case of Aaron Swartz.” The petition is directed to the Obama administration, which appointed Ortiz.

I have signed the petition. I did not do so lightly. It first occurred to me to sign when I read the following quote from Ortiz in a recent Guardian article.

Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.

My reaction was (and is) that if Ortiz said this in the context of the Aaron Swartz case, I don’t want her anywhere near such a case. It is alleged that he copied documents. Copying documents, leaving the originals intact, is not the same sort of taking as stealing money, leaving the victim poorer. To introduce a economic term, copies of documents are not rivalrous goods.

Notice the if in the previous paragraph. It occurred to me that Ortiz may have been misquoted. I didn’t want to jump to the conclusion that she had said something so ridiculous. So I Googled the above quote. One of the many sources I found for it was a web page with the title “USDOJ: US Attorney’s Office – District of Massachusetts”. So the web site of Ortiz’s own organization “credits” her with that exact quote.

My objection to Ortiz as US Attorney is manyfold. First, she is actually responsible for the ridiculous statement quoted above. Second, she sought to have someone convicted of a felony and imprisoned on that ridiculous basis. I’ll stop here, partly because I am in no position to measure Ortiz’s share of the blame for Aaron’s death.

At about the same time I was rereading Getting Things Done, I was reading Reality is Broken for the first time. The full title of Jane McGonigal’s book is Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.

Make us better? Does that mean that games can encourage us to get things done? Yes it does: for example, McGonigal and her husband compete in the game Chore Wars, each an adventurer seeking to outdo the other in tasks such as “conjuring the clothes” (doing the laundry).

That raises the question: can Allen’s GTD system be “gamified”? This question has been asked and addressed before (for example, by this fellow WordPress blogger).

Next question: has someone already developed a GTD game? The nearest thing I and Google could find was Epic Win, an ioS app that provides a role-playing interface to the familiar to-do list. Here’s the avatar for my character, which has recently leveled up (but only to 2).

To address first the question that led me to Epic Win: it’s not a close fit with GTD. For example, EW expects actions/quests to be assigned a date, whereas Allen specifically recommends against the daily to-do list. It would be more GTD-ish for quests to have locations on the EW map, just as GTD actions can be assigned contexts.

That said, it would be unfair to judge EW as an implementation of GTD, since it doesn’t claim to be one. So how is it as a to-do list flavored with quests and other role-playing spices?

I’d say that the (RPG) spices are done better than the to-do nutrition. I don’t find the interface to be intuitive. Part of this is due to organization by date, rather than by context, priority, or some other criterion my choice. But there are other things I stumble against.

There is integration with Google Calendar. But as far as I can see, there is no integration with Google Tasks. More seriously, EW made some strange (with respect to time of day) changes to my calendar.

Epic Win feels like a work in progress. To be fair, there is progress, in the form of updates to the app. But, at $2.99, it feels expensive for an iPhone app. Maybe we’re spoiled in terms of app prices, and maybe I’m judging EW as I’m using it, on the iPad, rather than on its native iPhone.

So I’m still looking for an iPad app to gamify GTD. Any suggestions? Or any reactions to my remarks on Epic Win?

Time to get more organized! I decided that a couple of weeks ago. This isn’t the first time I’ve made that decision. Neither is it the first time I’ve turned to David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Here’s how David contrasts his system with other systems.

The big difference between what I do and what others do is that I capture and and organize 100 percent of my “stuff” in and with objective tools at hand, not in my mind.

That quote captures the first of the half-dozen points that struck me as I reread the book. Another basic point is that GTD is a bottom-up, rather than a top-down, approach to personal productivity. Each of those first two points is from the first chapter.

The Workflow DiagramThe second chapter is the most important in the book, and makes each of the remaining points. In particular, it includes The Workflow Diagram (that link is point three). The workflow is the process for filtering stuff, identifying actions (i.e. things that can actually be done) and putting deferred actions in the appropriate place (Next Actions list or calendar.

A couple of explicit contrasts with some time management systems provide points four and five. Such systems recommend that actions be given priorities, and the that highest-priority actions be done first. In GTD, other criteria trump priority. One of these is time available: when do you have to do something else, and what can you fit in before then?

Allen recommends against the daily to-do list. The calendar is for things that have to be done at a particular time, or on a particular day. Other actions, however important, belong on a Next Actions list.

The sixth and final point concerns the weekly review: a look through Next Action lists, Project lists, etc. Like most of the points made in Allen’s first two chapters, this one is revisited later in the book: Friday afternoon is, for many people, a good time for the weekly review.

So those are the half-dozen things about GTD that struck me. If you have encountered GTD and wanted to make a similarly brief set of points about it, how would your list be different?

I’ll follow up soon with some thoughts on tools for GTD.

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