Jan 072016

The Illusion and (Mis)uses of Certainty

September’s Harvard Business Review had a really thought-provoking article for me called How Certainty Transforms Persuasion.  Seth Godin wrote a blog post around the same time called The Illusion of Control.  The two together make for an interesting think about using information to shape behavior as leaders.  I’ve often been accused of delivering too many mixed messages to the company at all-hands meetings, so I enjoyed the think, though not in the way I expected to.

Let’s start with Seth’s thesis, which is easier to get through.  Essentially he says that nothing is certain, at best we can influence events, we’re never actually in control of situations…but that we think we are:

When the illusion of control collides with the reality of influence, it highlights the fable the entire illusion is based on…You’re responsible for what you do, but you don’t have authority and control over the outcome. We can hide from that, or we can embrace it.

Moving onto the much longer HBR article, the key thesis there is that certainty shapes our behavior, as the more certain we are of a belief (whether it’s correct or incorrect), the more it influences us:

In short, certainty is the catalyst that turns attitudes into action, bringing beliefs to life and imbuing them with meaning and consequence.

At first, it seems like these two positions might be at odds with each other, but there are other interesting nuggets in the HBR article as well that tie the two positions together.  First, that the packaging of information influences the certainty of the consumers of that information (for example, when a generally positive product reviews takes pains to admit the product’s deficiencies).  Second, that your own position in a given situation may influence your level of certainty (for example, when you are the most senior person in the room, as opposed to when you are the most junior person in the room).

The HBR article then goes on to talk about four ways companies can boost certainty in their employee population, since certainty is a driver of behavior:

  1. Consensus – showing your view is widely shared (or shaping your view to perceptions)
  2. Repetition – having people express their own opinions repeatedly (encourage customers, employees, etc. to express positive opinions or opinions aligned with corporate goals)
  3. Ease – how easily an idea comes to mind (making good, regular visual use of key concepts)
  4. Defense – people are more certain after defending a position (being a devil’s advocate in an argument to get employees to defend their position)

My initial reaction to reading both Seth’s post and the HBR article was that if Certainty is nothing but an illusion, and yet it’s a key driver of behavior, then using Certainty by definition a manipulative management technique.  Say something’s true enough, get people to believe it, hope it’s right.  Or worse, get people to say it themselves enough so they believe their own inner monologues, not just yours.  But then I thought about the feedback that I get — that I deliver too many mixed messages — and changed my view. Coming across as certain, even when certainty may or may not be real, isn’t any more manipulative than any other management or even sales technique.  Our job as leaders is to generate inspiration and activity in our teams, isn’t it?  Using certainty isn’t by definition disingenuous, even if it’s an illusion at times.  It’s one thing to be All In, Until You’re Not, for example, and another thing entirely to publicly support a position that you know is false.  All we can do as leaders is to do our best.

Having said that, I think using certainty as a management tool is something leaders need to do judiciously given how powerful it is, and also given its fragility.  If business results are mixed, you can’t stand up in front of a room full of people and say things are great (or terrible), even if your people are seeking a black and white answer.  However, you can (and should) communicate your certainty that the direction you choose to take your team or your company is the right one.  And you can use transparency to further bolster your position.  Share the details of HOW you reached your decision with the people on your team.  After all, if you’re not certain, or if the logic that drove your certainty is flawed, why would anyone follow you?

Nov 112008

If You’re Going to Do Something, Do It First Class

If You’re Going to Do Something, Do It First Class


I have long made this statement, not just about business, but about life.  Why bother doing something big if you’re not going to do it right?  Don’t just write a senior thesis, get an A on it.  Don’t invite the boss over for dinner and serve chicken nuggets.  You get the idea.


Our marketing team at Return Path totally nailed this last week with our IN conference on Reputation.  They selected a venue, the American Museum of Natural History, that wasn’t just a standard issue hotel conference room.  They sought out a killer keynote speaker, Seth Godin, instead of just having Return Path staff and clients talk.  They used Perception Analyzer, a new technology to integrate audience polling into the presentations instead of just serving up one bullet-point slide after the next.  They went above and beyond and paid attention to every last detail. 


All these things made the event harder to pull off (and more expensive), but collectively they made the day absolutely First Class — and that was noted by every attendee who I spoke with during and after the event as they gushed about the quality of the conference.


The proof is always in the pudding with these things, and we’ll have to measure our ROI on the event over the next few months in terms of new sales and client retention, but I bet that the quality and remarkability of the event will prove the axiom that If You’re Going to Do Something, Do It First Class.

Filed under: Business, Marketing, Return Path


Jun 052008

Email Checklist

Email Checklist

Seth Godin has a great checklist up this morning of things you should ask yourself before you hit “send” on an email.  It’s a mix of personal rules and business/marketing rules, and it has some pretty entertaining things in it.  Definitely worth a quick read.

Filed under: Email


Nov 182007

Saying Goodbye

Saying Goodbye

Seth Godin’s post yesterday of the same title has this good advice for businesses who are shutting down:

It seems to me that you ought to say goodbye with the same care and attention to detail and honesty you use to say hello. You never know when you’ll be back.

The same should be said of companies and employees.  We always try in interviews to be as kind as possible to candidates who we are not going to hire.  I’m sure we don’t always get it right at all levels, but I always make a personal phone call and usually send a handwritten letter to finalists for senior jobs.  Once, when I had to “ding” a candidate for a VP level job who was expecting an offer based on something I said, I even sent him a bottle of his favorite wine.  You don’t have to go to those extremes all the time, but sending a candidate a letter or more formal email or giving him or her a phone call if they’ve taken the time to come in and interview goes a long way towards building your company’s brand as an employer.  And you never know when a candidate who isn’t a fit for one position is a perfect fit for another position.  Calling back is much easier if you say goodbye the right way the first time around.

I try to do the same thing with employees who leave the company, regardless of who terminates the employment relationship.  I do my best to see or at least call the departing employee on or near his last day to thank him for his service and – if appropriate – let him know that the door is always open if he wants to come back someday.

And we ask the same of employees who leave of us – that they say goodbye the right way.  We ask departing employees to give us as much of a heads up as possible that they’re considering looking for a new job (without retribution, of course).  If people have decided to leave, we ask for three weeks’ notice instead of the traditional two or less.  Again, we don’t get this from everyone, but we do get it from many.  And for people’s “lame duck” time, we ask them to stay focused and complete the documentation and transition of their responsibilities in as orderly a manner as possible. 

There’s just no good reason to burn a bridge, even if for whatever reason you feel wronged by an employer or an employee.

Filed under: Human Resources, Leadership


Dec 112006

Book Short: A Primer on Viral Marketing

Book Short:  A Primer on Viral Marketing

“People talk about Andy,” writes Seth Godin in the foreward to Andy Sernovitz’s new book, Word of Mouth Marketing:  How Smart Companies Get People Talking.   “He’s a living, breathing example of the power of word of mouth.”  Andy’s the CEO of WOMMA, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, and a former colleague of mine.

Ever since reading The Tipping Point, I keep looking for the secret sauce around viral marketing.  What is it that makes something cool enough to buzz about?  My conclusion from reading Andy’s book is that secret sauce doesn’t exist.  Like everything else, being buzzworthy comes from hard work, being inherently good, AND using the techniques and understanding in Andy’s book.  Tables like “The Three Reasons People Talk About You” and “The Five T’s of Word of Mouth Marketing” are worth the price of the book in and of themselves, as they explain how to manage, handle, and drive viral marketing — once you have your own secret sauce down.

Andy’s wanted to write a book for a long time (in fact, he got us started on ours), and I’m glad he finally did it.  If you’re interested in an easy-to-follow, practical, hands-on guide to viral, or word-of-mouth marketing, this is the book for you.

Sep 052006

Seth Responds

Seth Responds

About an hour after I posted a not so flattering review of Seth Godin’s new book this morning, I got an email from Seth with a couple good points worth responding to here.

His main points (other than offering me a refund, which was nice) were that (a) the book itself was very clear about its content — on the book itself (back cover, inside flap, marketing copy), kind of like a ‘live album’ for a recording artist; and (b) if I thought the blog postings were worthwhile, why  did I still feel like there was a downward trend in his writing?

Ok, so these are fair points.  Let me try to clarify.  I am 99% sure that I bought the book off the Amazon.com email which said “if you enjoyed other books by Seth Godin, then here’s his latest,” which prompted my robotic one-click order without paying attention to the fine print.  That’s why I was disappointed when I got the book.  My bad, I guess, although that’s somehow an unsatisfying thought as a consumer — that I should have paid more attention to the fine print.  Live albums from musicians usually have that in the title so the marketing is clear, and they still sell a ton, probably even more so.

In re-reading my review, I actually think it’s balanced — I do say there are a bunch of circumstances where the book is a must-have — but my use of the word “sell-out” was a bit harsh given the attempts to present the book as a compendium.  But the downward trend in my mind is more than just this book.  I think a lot of Seth’s writings have been hitting the same notes for the last couple of years, while I’ve been hoping to hear his next Big Moo.

I didn’t take up Seth’s offer for a refund, as I fall somewhere between (a) and (c) in my definition of why this is a must-have.  And while I’m at it, maybe I should rethink my earlier point that this whole blog thing isn’t about conversations.

Filed under: Books, Business, Email


Sep 052006

Book Shorts: One Up, One Down

Book Shorts:  One Up, One Down

I read new books by two of my favorite authors today:  Geoffrey Moore and Seth Godin.  Moore’s was his best book in years; Godin’s was his worst.

Geoffrey Moore’s latest book, Dealing with Darwin:  How Great Companies Innovate at Every Phase of their Evolution, is Moore’s best book in a while. While I loved Crossing the Chasm and thought Inside the Tornado was a close second, both The Gorilla Game and Living on the Fault Line didn’t do it for me — they both felt like a pile of Silicon Valley buzzwords as opposed to the insightful and groundbreaking market definition in his first two books.

But Darwin is a gem. It goes back to Moore’s strengths in analyzing leading companies and creating a powerful framework for innovation that transcends industry and stage of company. And even better, the book has a few very useful “how to” lists to help readers interpret the content and adapt it to their own environments.

So whether you’re a Geoffrey Moore fan or not — assuming you are a fan of innovation and kicking your competitors’ collective butts — this book’s for you.

By contrast, Seth Godin’s Small Is the New Big is old news if you are a Seth Godin fan. It is literally a repackaging of essays, articles, and blog postings he’s written over the years. He’s trended down lately in his writing, like Moore (and most authors who have a single theme or two, it should be said), but unlike Moore, this book isn’t his recovery. The book is a must-have if you (a) love Seth’s writing and want a hard copy archive of his soft-copy stuff, (b) you don’t read Seth’s blog and want to see what you’ve been missing, or (c) you have his other books and are compulsive enough that you can’t stand incomplete collections.

Otherwise, wait for his next book, which hopefully will have some more of the original thinking and writing and ideas that made books like Permission Marketing, Unleashing the Ideavirus, and Purple Cow such new business classics.  I have to say, the thing that disappointed me most here is that I felt like Seth totally sold out with this book — as a regular reader of his, I just felt duped by the Godin Marketing Machine, which is precisely the kind of thing he rants against.  There was definitely NO Free Prize Inside this one.

Sep 072005

Book Shorts: Fred the Cow?

Book Shorts:  Fred the Cow?

I enjoyed two interesting, super-quick reads from last week that have a common theme running through them:  being remarkable.

The Fred Factor, by Mark Sanborn, is one of those learn-by-storytelling business novellas.  It’s all about the author’s mailman, Fred, and how Fred has figured out how to make a difference in people’s lives even with a fairly routine job.  The focal points of the book are things like “practice random acts of kindness” and “turn the ordinary into the extraordinary by putting passion into your work.”  It’s a good reminder that it is unbelievably easy, not to mention free, to be kind and thoughtful, and that those things are always always always worth doing.  Kinda makes me wonder what the Brad factor is.  <g>

The Big Moo, a collection of essays written by 33 different business thinkers/writers and edited by Seth Godin, isn’t out yet, but you can pre-order it via that link on Amazon.  It follows the main theme of another of Seth’s books, Purple Cow, about how to make your business remarkable and backs it up with various vignettes from the different writers.  It has some great reminders about how easy and inexpensive it can be to be remarkable in business.  Wisdom like “Criticism?  Internalize it,” and “Get great ideas about your business from new employees,” and “How would you run your business if you relied on donations from your customers in order to survive?” are all insightful and thought provoking.

Each is great and an easy read, and while one is more personal and the other business-oriented, in they are both somewhat remarkable.

May 062005

Book Short: More on Email Marketing

Book Short:  More on Email Marketing

My friend Bill Nussey’s The Quiet Revolution in Email Marketing is a good read for those in the industry.  It’s a little different in focus than our recently published book, Sign Me Up!, and in many ways is a good complement.

Bill develops a good framework for Customer Communication Management (CCM) based on his experience as CEO of SilverPop, one of the leading email marketing companies.  He builds on Seth Godin’s permission framework and applies it directly to email marketing, point by point.  He addresses head on every email marketer’s nightmare, when you tell someone what you do for a living, and the person replies “oh, you’re a spammer.”

The book also has a wonderful quote from Bill’s SilverPop colleague Elaine O’Gorman:  “Locking down email policies and enforcement too tightly i like cooking a potato in the microwave.  If you don’t poke some holes in the potato before turning on the microwave, you’ll be doing a lot of clearning up afterwards.”

Mar 212005

Today’s Wheel: Parsley

Today’s Wheel:  Parsley

Spiritually akin to my recent posting As Simple As The Wheel is Seth Godin’s posting today about Parsley, and why we don’t necessarily eat it off our plate but notice when it’s not there.

Filed under: Entrepreneurship