Jeff Bezos’s one empty chair rule

When starting a new business, it can be easy to get caught up in the day to day minutiae.

It seems like there is an endless list of tasks to complete and never enough time to get everything done.

Unfortunately, this often leads to making poor decisions when it comes to setting priorities.

As crazy as it seems, this can lead to overlooking what should always be a company’s greatest priority: their customers.

The world’s richest man Jeff Bezos understands the importance of this implicitly.

This is why at Amazon, he asks for an empty chair in all meetings.

This chair is to represent the customer.

It’s both brilliantly simple and effective.

It’s a constant reminder that everything a business does, it must be done to enhance their customers’ lives in some way.

Without happy customers a business will not survive long term.

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The Alarming Consequences Of Poor Sleep

On the 13th of April 2015, Willa Junior woke up to find himself in a life-threatening situation.

He was trapped inside the cargo hold of an Alaskan Airlines plane. To make matters worse, it was airborne.

As a baggage handler, he had been loading bags hours before, only to fall asleep on account of exhaustion. Panicking, Willa first called his company. The person at the other end immediately hung up assuming it was a prank call.

As the plane climbed higher and higher, he became increasingly concerned for his safety. He placed a 911 call and then texted his mother. However, as the plane was already too high in the sky, it failed to go through.

Desperate, Willa resorted to shouting and banging on the roof of the cargo hold. Eventually, a member of the flight crew heard him and the plane was diverted to the nearest airport. Fortunately, he survived with no injuries but this story could well have had a different ending.

The consequences of poor sleep are numerous.

As Willa’s story above illustrates, a lack of sleep leads to accidents. For example, more people die from sleep related car crashes every year than from alcohol and drug related ones combined.

Doctors and nurses who are sleep deprived will make poor decisions regarding their patients care which, in some cases, leads to serious injury or death.

The accident reports into the disasters that befell the Challenger mission, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the two nuclear meltdowns at Nine Mile Island and Chernobyl all cited sleep deprivation as a key factor.

Recent medical research has also revealed that a lack of sleep is associated with weight gain, cancer and other types of diseases. In the case of weight gain, a 2004 study showed that production of the ‘hunger hormone’ ghrelin increases as sleep duration goes down, increasing the likelihood of overeating and obesity.

Sadly, the implications on our health aren’t just physical.

Poor sleep also affects our mental health. Indeed, it has been linked to conditions such as anxiety, depression and schizophrenia. In the case of Alzheimer’s disease, this is likely related to the fact that one of the vital functions that sleep performs is to rid the brain of toxins via the glymphatic system.

As the writer Thomas Dekker once said, “Sleep is that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.”


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The First ‘Elevator’ Pitch

In 1853, an American named Elisha Otis discovered a solution to a critical problem: how to make lifts safe.

At that time, taking an ‘elevator’ was risky business. They were prone to malfunction, which was not much fun if you had climbed a dozen stories and then the central cable suddenly snapped.

Fortunately, the ingenious Otis had found a way to overcome this. He attached a large spring to the lift cage and added a series of ratchet bars within the shaft so that if the cable did break the spring-activated braking system would bring the lift and it precious cargo to a safe stop.

It was a brilliant idea with the potential to save a lot of money and many lives. The only problem was it was difficult to persuade the public that it actually worked.

Undeterred, the inventor rented out the main hall in what was then the largest exhibition centre in New York. There, he constructed an open lift shaft and platform for all to see. When it was finished, he gathered together a crowd of exhibition attendees.

He stood proudly on the platform and instructed an assistant to raise him up to a height of three stories using a pulley and rope. Once he had reached that height, he looked down at his audience and in a dramatic fashion, instructed his assistant to slash through the rope that was suspending him in mid-air.

The platform fell and the audience gasped in horror. Then, a second or so later, the safety brake engaged and brought Otis to a stop. Again, he looked down at the audience. Only this time, he said, “All safe, gentlemen. All safe.”

Apart from being the first demonstration of a lift safe enough to carry people, this historic event was also the world’s first ‘elevator pitch’. I.e. A short, simple and effective way to ‘sell’ an idea.

Elisa went on to found the Otis Elevator Company of which you are more than likely to have experienced (safely, no doubt) one of their products.

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Accidental Inventions – Dynamite

Asciano Sobrero is a name you’re unlikely to have heard of.

And yet his contribution to society was, if you’ll pardon the pun, explosive.

He was born in Casale Monferrato Italy in 1812 and worked as a chemist. In the 1840s, whilst working in a laboratory in Paris, he invented the substance known as nitroglycerin, an oily and highly explosive liquid. 

Terrified by its enormous powers of destruction, Sobrero is later to have said of his creation, 

“When I think of all the victims killed during nitroglycerine explosions, and the terrible havoc that has been wreaked, which in all probability will continue to occur in the future, I am almost ashamed to admit to be its discoverer.”

Whilst Sobrero saw no potential commercial use for it, in that same Parisian laboratory worked a Swedish man named, Alfred Nobel, who did. 

Nobel believed that if he could find a way to tame its volatile nature then he would have a very effective replacement for the black gunpowder (first introduced from China in the 9th Century) used at the time.

Indeed, he had a vested interest in doing so because his family business was selling land mines and other explosives equipment.

Thus, on completion of his studies, Alfred started experimenting.

It was to cost him dearly.

During the course of his attempts to make Sobrero’s invention stable, he destroyed his own factory and killed a number of his workmen as well as his brother, Emil.

Yet the wide-eyed inventor was not deterred.

He continued to trial different approaches until one day he stumbled upon the perfect concoction of nitroglycerin and something called kieselguhr (or diatomaceous Earth) which acted as a stabilising agent. 

The new material could be placed in cardboard tubes and Nobel designed a ‘blasting cap’ and fuse to allow the explosion to be controlled. 

His new invention was patented in 1867 and originally sold as “Nobel’s Blasting Powder”. It was later changed to “dynamite”, from the Ancient Greek word dýnamis, meaning “power”.

Somewhat ironically, after successfully finding a way to commercialise Sobrero’s idea and using it to blow a lot of things up, Nobel presumably felt a sense of overwhelming guilt and ended up giving his name to the famous international prize celebrating peace.

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What Is Your ‘Circle of Competence’?

It would take you over 80,000 years to read all of the material in the British Library.

That’s obviously far more information than anyone could possibly take on board in a lifetime.

It is a mighty humbling fact. 

As the august philosopher Aristotle once said, “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”

So what can you do about it?

The main thing is to stop stressing and realise that not knowing the entirety of the world’s information can be an advantage.  

You see, we all have our own areas of specific knowledge.

They are the product of our unique upbringing, personal interests and career experience.

Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor, argues that it is here that we should ruthlessly focus our efforts.  

Buffett first outlined his ‘circle of competence’ concept in one of his shareholder letters, designed to help investors better judge the quality of their investment decisions.

The idea is you don’t have to be an expert on every company. You just need to evaluate those companies that fall within your own ‘circle of competence.’

He credits awareness of the limitations of his own knowledge as being fundamental to his extraordinary success.

Take a moment to think about how this might apply to your own life. Be honest with yourself about your own circle of competence. 

Consider the following questions:

  1. What exactly is my ‘circle of competence’? 
  2. How can I use this particular knowledge to improve my position in life?
  3. What am I currently wasting time on that sits outside my circle?

In summary, if you want to be more successful in life, define the perimeter of your circle and operate inside it.

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‘Morton’s Fork’

John Morton was born in Dorset, England in the early 1400s.

In his early career he practised law before joining the clergy. There, he quickly rose through the ranks and was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1486 under King Henry VII.

Just a year later, he became Lord Chancellor. 

Morton’s main job in his new role was to organise the collection of taxes on behalf of the crown.

This was a particularly challenging task at the time as the royal coffers were in a sorry state having been drained by the previous King, Edward IV.

Morton’s response was to see that no one was given exception from taxation and made the following statement:

“If the subject is seen to live frugally, tell him because he is clearly a money saver of great ability, he can afford to give generously to the King. If, however, the subject lives a life of great extravagance, tell him he, too, can afford to give largely, the proof of his opulence being evident in his expenditure.”

This type of false dilemma where two equally unpleasant alternatives lead to the same conclusion is known as ‘Morton’s Fork’. In more colloquial terms, it’s that popular expression ‘between a rock and a hard place.’

Perhaps the most well known example of a Morton’s Fork occurred to those accused of witch craft in the late medieval/early modern period of the 17th and 18th Centuries.

They were placed in a dunking chair over a river and lowered underwater.

If they floated they were deemed a witch and drowned. If they sank to the bottom and drowned they were innocent.

Either way, their number was up.

Are there any other great examples of a ‘Morton’s Fork’ you’ve come across? Please let us know in the comments below. 

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The Pratfall Effect

In 1966, the psychologist Elliot Aronson published a paper with an intriguing revelation.

His research had demonstrated that a simple blunder or mistake could, in some cases, improve the attractiveness or likability of someone.

Participants in the study were asked to listen to the recording of a quiz show contestant (played by an actor).

In one group they heard the ‘contestant’ answer 92% of the questions correctly.

Another group heard a separate recording which included the audio from the first recording but this time it also contained audio of the contestant spilling a cup of coffee at the end.

The respondents found the clumsy one more likeable.

Interestingly, what is true for humans is also true for products. This has obvious implications for marketing.

A brand can strengthen their message by admitting their disadvantages.

One of the most famous examples of this is the beer Guinness.

Compared to other beers it takes at least twice as long to pour because it requires a two phase pouring process (see example ad below which is one of our favourites).

Their canny marketing department turned this on its head with the inspired ‘Good things come to those who wait.’

If something seems too good to be true, it normally is. So if you want to make yourself or your brand more likely to be loved, be sure to make sure to show your that you’re not perfect (just be sure to make sure it’s not a humble brag!).

If you want to read up more on the Pratfall Effect a good book to start with is Give & Take by Adam Grant.

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The ‘Four Stages of Learning’ 

A big part of what makes learning something new so rewarding is moving up the rungs on the ladder.

In the beginning, enthusiasm overcomes a lack of experience and propels us through the countless mistakes.

We then start to develop confidence and not long afterwards we realise just how little we really do know.

So we work harder and push ourselves a bit further each time. We begin to become more aware of our abilities.

We got this.

That’s until we realise that true mastery lies much further ahead.

So we double down on our efforts.

Then, one day, we realise that we’re not even consciously aware of what it is we’re doing. It just comes so effortlessly.

Everything seems to flow. We have mastered the art.

If this sounds familiar to you, it might be reassuring to know that it’s a universal phenomenon.

In the 1970s, Noel Burch worked at an organisation called the Gordon Training Company. He decided to explore what’s going on during the learning process.

Noel hoped to gain a better understanding into the emotions and frustration we often experience as we make progress. His research focused on the relationship between consciousness (awareness) and competence (ability).

According to Noah’s model, we all move through the following four stages as we build competence in a new skill:

1 Unconsciously unskilled – we don’t know that we don’t have this skill, or that we need to learn it.

2 Consciously unskilled – we know that we don’t have this skill.

3 Consciously skilled– we know that we have this skill.

4 Unconsciously skilled – we don’t know that we have this skill (it just seems easy).

The above model is useful to keep in mind when learning anything new. You’ll soon recognise which stage you’re at and be more aware of your feelings as a result. 

It’s also invaluable for when you are teaching others.

You will have a better understanding of the emotional journey they undergo as they acquire new skills and can adapt your training approach accordingly. 

Good luck on your learning journey! 

 

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The Curse of Knowledge

In 1997, a Scottish police officer named Shirley McKie found herself in a terrifying set of circumstances.

Her fingerprint had been found at the murder scene of a woman called Marion Ross in the burgh of Kilmarnock, East Ayrshire.

Shirley was completely dumbstruck. After all, she had never set foot in the house in her life.

However, despite her protestations, she was eventually suspended and then charged with perjury.

Why?

Simply because four finger print experts from the Scottish Criminal Record Office were unequivocal in claiming it was hers.

Some years later, a subsequent enquiry revealed that officer McKie had, in fact, been telling the truth along. It found systematic errors in the fingerprinting services’ approach and eventually awarded her £750,000 in compensation.

Chairman Sir Anthony Campbell said at the time that fingerprint examiners were “presently ill-equipped to reason their conclusions as they are accustomed to regarding their conclusions as a matter of certainty and seldom challenged”.

This extraordinary story highlights the very real danger of putting blind trust in experts.

Whilst they are in general safe to rely on, experts suffer from something known as the ‘Curse of Knowledge.’ This is a cognitive bias that leads people highly informed about a topic to be unable to think about it with a fresh pair of eyes.

The billionaire inventor James Dyson fell victim to this mentality early on in his quest to create his revolutionary Dyson DC-01.

When he first proposed his suction-less vacuum cleaner modelled on cyclone technology his then board quickly dismissed it saying that “If it was truly worthwhile doing then Hoover or Electrolux would have already made it.”

They failed to think beyond the accepted ‘expert’ opinion of what a vacuum cleaner should be like. This type of ‘narrow’ thinking is just one of the potential downsides associated with experts.

Others include:

  1. Experts look for ways to apply their skills beyond where it’s actually useful. E.g. a doctor promoting treatment where prevention would be better.
  2. Once an expert decides on something, it can be very difficult to challenge their decision. Even if it’s the wrong one. 
  3. As a consequence, their advice is readily accepted and rarely questioned.

It seems, therefore, that knowledge can be both a blessing and a curse. As the psychologist Abraham Maslow wisely opined, “To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.”

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Why you should create a ‘stop doing’ list

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple as CEO in 1997 the company was in dire straits.

They had too many products and too many projects and the company needed to radically focus if they were to survive.

Jobs wasted no time in culling product lines and rationalising Apple’s offer to just two types of computer user: the home and the professional user.

The bravery of this decision meant pulling out of potentially lucrative markets. But it was this ruthless focus and the ability to say “no” to things that created the room for wildly successful products like the iMac, iPod and iPhone to be made.

Indeed, so driven was Jobs by a desire to omit the non-essential that he would ask his designer Johnny Ive how many time he had said the word “no” that day. 

Whilst you might not be in the same position of having to save a failing computer company it’s almost a guarantee that you feel like you have a million and one things on your plate.

A seemingly never ending ‘to do’ list.

And this is the problem with lists of this nature. It’s all too easy to keep adding to them and it can quickly become overwhelming.

Luckily, there is a different way to approach the same problem of having a lot of stuff to do.

It’s called a ‘stop doing’ list.

It’s about identifying those tasks which are non-essential and either stopping them completely or delegating them.

Have a go at writing your own version. Write down all those daily tasks that you find yourself doing that are big time wasters and offer little in the way of a reward for your input.

Pin it up close to your workspace as a reminder.

As the Austrian-American management guru Peter Drucker famously quipped, “Half the leaders I have met don’t need to learn what to do. They need to learn what to stop.”

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Accidental Inventions – The Slinky

The year was 1943 and the war in the Atlantic was raging.

With the US Navy demand for ships at an all time high, the country’s ship yards were kept extremely busy.

In Philadelphia, employees at the Cramp Shipbuilding Company were working round the clock to meet their government quota.

Richard James worked in the engineering department and was tasked with working on a new design of spring to reduce the movement of the ship’s equipment in heavy seas. 

One day, as he was working on a prototype, he knocked it off the bench top and it fell to the floor.

Instead of bouncing back up as expected, it walked itself across the room. It instantly sparked a thought in the mechanical engineer’s mind.

What if the spring was made into a child’s toy?  

He spoke to his wife about the discovery and she agreed to help him come up with a suitable name. Thumbing through the dictionary one day she settled on a word that perfectly matched the way the spring moved: Slinky. 

After a year or so of tinkering with the material’s thickness and length, the couple took out a modest loan and applied for a patent.

It wasn’t long before the toy became a big hit but then the story took a strange turn.

James lost interest in his invention and became deeply involved with a religious cult in Bolivia. He spent the organisations money, and eventually left his family and six children in 1960 to live over there. 

His wife Betty took over the company and it continued to expand under her watch. She remained head of the company until she sold it in 1998 aged 80. 

In the late 1990s, the Slinky enjoyed a resurgence in popularity due to the Pixar film Toy Story which featured a character based on the toy’s design. 

In 2000, the Slinky was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame. That same year, it was named the official toy of Pennsylvania.

Not a bad result for something that started out as an accident. 

If you enjoyed this post you might also enjoy Accidental Inventions – The Microwave and Accidental Inventions – Safety Glass. 

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