An organization’s surface area


Organizational “surface area” is a concept I came into contact with recently. It’s based on the ideas of a prominent scientist, Dr. Arno Penzias.

As an organization gets bigger, it gets harder to interface with because for a smaller organization that is working with a larger one, there is a mismatch in scale. For example, a friend with a small agency told me once how it was impossible for him to work with MTV because they had so many people on MTV’s side to interface with — that they didn’t have enough of inside their small firm.

More on this thought later as I am at the end of my 5-minute blogging time … -JM

Putting People At Ease

Last week was my first one in the “Design and Venture” world. I kept mental note of one particular event that stayed with me, and I keep coming back to it in my mind because I know it’s key.

There were three young men doing their pitch for an idea … and then a segue to that all important moment of “the demo.” I know that moment well from my time at the Media Lab when “demo or die” was the raison d’etre of the 80s and 90s in the tech-research world. As someone who oversaw or participated in the many moments where the demo … died, I know all too well the feeling of dismay and heartache when the demo worked “a minute ago” and for some reason it had decided to go fishing … just as you’ve asked everyone to put all their eyeball energy on it.

So, the setup was all fine and we were starting on time. I saw it working on the way into the room. And then, fifteen minutes into the pitch, we all turned to the demo. It wasn’t syncing anymore to the display screens. Then, the moment of despair appeared in the eyes of the three young men. The jiggle of a cable. The seating and re-seating of the connector. Blowing into the connection to imagine that dust might be affecting the problem. Followed by the curious look to the ceiling to imagine there’s some wireless wave that is bouncing around the room aimlessly that you might be able to redirect with your brain and gaze. I think you know what I’m talking about.

But then, while this all-too-well-known scene was occurring, one of the key partners at the venture capital firm that I’m at said softly and concernedly, “Is that *our* fault? Is there something wrong with the setup of our room? I’m so sorry if that’s the case.” And it immediately put the three young men at ease. I immediately wondered how in the many times in the past when I had been on the cable-jiggling end or the “waiting for the demo to be shown to me” end … whether I had exhibited or felt such compassion before? I made a mental note to be sure to do so, when on the being-pitched-to end, in the future. It was a simple, elegant act of leadership.

It reminded me of a similar moment from a few years ago when I saw another leader in the venture world do a similar thing with great creativity and empathy. 

Boy, do I have a lot to learn! I’m excited to get to do so in what remains of my second quarter. -JM

On Routine

Note: My longtime collaborator Becky Bermont (we did Redesigning Leadership together) is going to be blogging here regularly. You can read more of her posts from back when she posted with me on the HBR blog here. -JM


One of my main takeaways from John’s work on simplicity is that simplicity and complexity need to live in balance – too much of one or the other gets boring (or overwhelming) and is generally undesirable. As John likes to point out, they need a rhythm.

For me, it is the same with routine and change; structure and adventure. I crave both. This week I had the delightful (and scary) experience of deliberately trying to craft a new routine, one that has me unbeholden to an office for the first time in my professional life (with notable exceptions for grad school and a baby). Making the transition from being someone who is part of a larger organization to being a mobile free agent is a common one in today’s creative economy, and only becoming more common, as Richard Florida writes about eloquently.

I wrestle with tensions about how much routine to have in my personal life constantly. On one hand, I love the adventure of travel, for work and play, and have found scaling it back to be one of the biggest compromises of having a family (yes, there are rewards too). On the other, I have an extremely rigid bedtime routine that never gets compromised no matter where in the world I am, or if I had an extra glass of wine. When I’m all over the place too much, I want to be home; when I’m home too much, I need to get out. It’s about the rhythm.

As I try to set up my new officeless life, one principle I’m settling on is having just enough routine and structure to feel free. Without a routine, it’s easy to get stuck in wasting time constructing each day as if it were a bespoke garment, wondering what the best pattern and location to work in are. As I try on new routines for my days, I am eager to find one that feels comfortable, if only so I can enjoy the act of breaking it.

Becky Bermont

Fors and Againsts


At the recent WEF summit in Abu Dhabi and on the New Models of Leadership Council on which I serve, my favorite sports coach, Ralph Krueger, shared a thought that has bugged me ever since Malcolm Gladwell published that piece on the 10,000-Hour Rule. The notion of “practice makes perfect” is a good one because it reinforces another phrase I like which is “good luck is hard work.” But while the *why* of practice makes good sense, I’ve wondered about the *what* to practice that isn’t often easy to choose. Because there’s a lot of *what*s out there …

Coach Ralph shed light on the answer to this question I’ve had when he described how after a game is played, Ralph will review two types of moments during the game: Fors and Againsts. And he will set up practices to drill into the player the best response to those two types of moment so that he can embody in his players the actions to take so as to harden into … intuition: repeatable and unconscious embodied knowledge that can kick into act without thought at the decision points that matter most during a game.

Fors are opportunities the player has created for his team to score a goal. Againsts are opportunities the player has created for the OTHER team to score a goal. The beauty of Ralph’s approach is that he doesn’t care about the number of goals scored or goals lost. Ralph only cares if his players are constantly nudging opportunities in the direction of winning while nudging opportunities away from the direction of losing.

Ralph’s elegant design of team performance enhancement made me wonder if the performance evaluation process in work environments misses the point around metrics of success and failure that focus on the outcome versus the process. Better processes can more reliably deliver better results — the goal isn’t the result, but rather the quality of the skills that deliver the results. This approach of course doesn’t say that we need to ignore results; it speaks to where we want to place our emphasis when coaching the teams that we lead.

Okay, my blogging break time is up. Now back to the hockey rink for me. -JM


Social Media

I recently gave a talk on leadership to the folks with the intent of learning more about social media. Sometimes I think of social media as a new word for “customer service in public” — which isn’t easy by any means. The link above, to me, represents the kind of lower-level challenges that social media folks get into on the Web. If you note, there never is a point of resolution achieved on the strand. The higher-level challenges of social media for a leader beg all kinds of new questions. I wanted to keep a link to the above URL so that’s what this post is for (a note to myself). -JM