The real currency of the professional elite

Sunday, June 13th, 2021

The Class Ceiling combines an analysis of earnings data from the large-scale Labour Force Survey with findings from the Great British Class Survey (an online questionnaire hosted on the BBC website in 2011) to explain why it pays to be privileged:

In the case of the creative industries, being told that their employment practices are classist, racist and sexist would irritate and anger most senior staff, even when they implicitly accept the reality. Take their case study of one of the major TV companies, which they disguise as “6TV”, who, in the words of one self-employed — and underemployed — working-class actor, are “all these middle-class people making…working-class programme[s]”.

The creative industries’ diversity problem is obvious from the outset. It is partly about behaviour, an easy switch between the demotic and more rarefied. Senior commissioners at 6TV can put their boxfresh trainers up on the desk and swear freely, but only because they know how to do it at the right time and in the “right” context.

Friedman and Laurison’s interviews illustrate the power of “studied informality” — essentially the way in which working class ways of being have been ruthlessly appropriated by the upper middle-class as a way to make money and cachet from authenticity. 6TV’s commissioners pride themselves on programming that connects with “real people”, living “real lives” in “real places”. At the company’s gladiatorial commissioning meetings, where programme ideas get thrashed out, the most coveted skill is a kind of highbrow banter. You can proclaim, as one commissioner does, that “We’re talking about TV…it’s not Hegel!”, but you still have to know who Hegel is and to know how to get a laugh out of bringing up his name.

In other words, the authors highlight the multiplying effects of factors that privilege the already privileged. It’s not just that having rich parents makes your upbringing well resourced, which in turn makes you less risk-averse, secure in the knowledge that you have money to fall back on. It means being used to dinner settings with more than one fork. It means going to schools where the stock in trade is the cultivation not of passionate argument but of dispassionate debating skills — because none of it really matters, does it Boris? Wordplay, wit, highbrow references, and above all, the display of lightly worn intelligence deployed to raise a knowing chuckle, are the real currency of the professional elite.

They’re unlikely to function as effective team members in an organization that has to deal with everyday realities

Saturday, June 12th, 2021

R.R. Reno is not inclined to hire graduates from America’s elite universities:

A decade ago I relished the opportunity to employ talented graduates of Princeton, Yale, Harvard and the rest. Today? Not so much.

As a graduate of Haverford College, a fancy school outside Philadelphia, I took interest in the campus uproar there last fall. It concerned “antiblackness” and the “erasure of marginalized voices.” A student strike culminated in an all-college Zoom meeting for undergraduates. The college president and other administrators promised to “listen.” During the meeting, many students displayed a stunning combination of thin-skinned narcissism and naked aggression. The college administrators responded with self-abasing apologies.

Haverford is a progressive hothouse. If students can be traumatized by “insensitivity” on that leafy campus, then they’re unlikely to function as effective team members in an organization that has to deal with everyday realities. And in any event, I don’t want to hire someone who makes inflammatory accusations at the drop of a hat.

Student activists don’t represent the majority of students. But I find myself wondering about the silent acquiescence of most students. They allow themselves to be cowed by charges of racism and other sins. I sympathize. The atmosphere of intimidation in elite higher education is intense. But I don’t want to hire a person well-practiced in remaining silent when it costs something to speak up.

The work that made Darwin and Newton famous was actually closer in spirit to building treehouses than studying for exams

Tuesday, June 8th, 2021

A few days ago, on the way home from school, Paul Graham’s nine-year-old son told him he couldn’t wait to get home to write more of the story he was working on:

This made me as happy as anything I’ve heard him say — not just because he was excited about his story, but because he’d discovered this way of working. Working on a project of your own is as different from ordinary work as skating is from walking. It’s more fun, but also much more productive.

[...]

You have moments of happiness when things work out, but they don’t last long, because then you’re on to the next problem. So why do it at all? Because to the kind of people who like working this way, nothing else feels as right. You feel as if you’re an animal in its natural habitat, doing what you were meant to do — not always happy, maybe, but awake and alive.

[...]

Instead of telling kids that their treehouses could be on the path to the work they do as adults, we tell them the path goes through school. And unfortunately schoolwork tends be very different from working on projects of one’s own. It’s usually neither a project, nor one’s own.

[...]

It’s a bit sad to think of all the high school kids turning their backs on building treehouses and sitting in class dutifully learning about Darwin or Newton to pass some exam, when the work that made Darwin and Newton famous was actually closer in spirit to building treehouses than studying for exams.

[...]

When I was picking startups for Y Combinator, I didn’t care about applicants’ grades. But if they’d worked on projects of their own, I wanted to hear all about those.

Giving everyone new habits has become a focus of the church

Friday, May 14th, 2021

In 1979, a poor Baptist preacher was looking for a place to start a new congregation among people who didn’t already attend church, Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit), when he stumbled across a description of Saddleback Valley in Orange County, California:

The book Warren was reading said it was the fastest-growing region in the fastest-growing county in one of the fastest-growing states in America.

[...]

Warren’s focus on building a congregation among the unchurched had begun five years earlier, when, as a missionary in Japan, he had discovered an old copy of a Christian magazine with an article headlined “Why Is This Man Dangerous?” It was about Donald McGavran, a controversial author focused on building churches in nations where most people hadn’t accepted Christ. At the center of McGavran’s philosophy was an admonition that missionaries should imitate the tactics of other successful movements — including the civil rights campaign — by appealing to people’s social habits.

[...]

McGavran laid out a strategy that instructed church builders to speak to people in their “own languages,” to create places of worship where congregants saw their friends, heard the kinds of music they already listened to, and experienced the Bible’s lessons in digestible metaphors.

[...]

Most important, McGavran said, ministers needed to convert groups of people, rather than individuals, so that a community’s social habits would encourage religious participation, rather than pulling people away.

[...]

Today, thirty years later, Saddleback Church is one of the largest ministries in the world, with more than twenty thousand parishioners visiting its 120-acre campus — and eight satellite campuses — each week.

[...]

When Warren first arrived in Saddleback Valley, he spent twelve weeks going door-to-door, introducing himself and asking strangers why they didn’t go to church. Many of the answers were practical — it was boring, people said, the music was bad, the sermons didn’t seem applicable to their lives, they needed child care, they hated dressing up, the pews were uncomfortable.

[...]

He told people to wear shorts and Hawaiian shirts, if they felt like it. An electric guitar was brought in. Warren’s sermons, from the start, focused on practical topics, with titles such as “How to Handle Discouragement,” “How to Feel Good About Yourself,” “How to Raise Healthy Families,” and “How to Survive Under Stress.” His lessons were easy to understand, focused on real, daily problems, and could be applied as soon as parishioners left church.

[...]

He was never certain he would have enough classrooms to accommodate everyone who showed up for Bible study, so he had asked a few church members to host classes inside their homes. He worried that people might complain about going to someone’s house, rather than a proper church classroom. But congregants loved it, they said. The small groups gave them a chance to meet their neighbors. So, after he returned from his leave, Warren assigned every Saddleback member to a small group that met every week. It was one of the most important decisions he ever made, because it transformed church participation from a decision into a habit that drew on already-existing social urges and patterns.

[...]

“The congregation and the small groups are like a one-two punch. You have this big crowd to remind you why you’re doing this in the first place, and a small group of close friends to help you focus on how to be faithful. Together, they’re like glue. We have over five thousand small groups now. It’s the only thing that makes a church this size manageable. Otherwise, I’d work myself to death, and 95 percent of the congregation would never receive the attention they came here looking for.”

[...]

Every Saddleback member is asked to sign a “maturity covenant card” promising to adhere to three habits: daily quiet time for reflection and prayer, tithing 10 percent of their income, and membership in a small group. Giving everyone new habits has become a focus of the church.

Sticky songs are what you expect to hear on the radio

Monday, May 10th, 2021

In the summer of 2003, Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit), OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” was poised to become a hit — but it wasn’t sticky:

Sticky songs are what you expect to hear on the radio.

[...]

Our brains crave familiarity in music because familiarity is how we manage to hear without becoming distracted by all the sound.

[...]

DJs started making sure that whenever “Hey Ya!” was played, it was sandwiched between songs that were already popular.

[...]

They sandwiched it between the types of songs that Rich Meyer had discovered were uniquely sticky, from artists like Blu Cantrell, 3 Doors Down, Maroon 5, and Christina Aguilera.

[...]

When WIOQ first started playing “Hey Ya!” in early September — before the sandwiching started — 26.6 percent of listeners changed the station whenever it came on. By October, after playing it alongside sticky hits, that “tune-out factor” dropped to 13.7 percent. By December, it was 5.7 percent.

People’s buying habits are more likely to change when they go through a major life event

Thursday, May 6th, 2021

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains just how much data a store like Target collects in order to shift customers’ buying habits:

Also linked to that Guest ID number was demographic information that Target collected or purchased from other firms, including the shopper’s age, whether they were married and had kids, which part of town they lived in, how long it took them to drive to the store, an estimate of how much money they earned, if they’d moved recently, which websites they visited, the credit cards they carried in their wallet, and their home and mobile phone numbers. Target can purchase data that indicates a shopper’s ethnicity, their job history, what magazines they read, if they have ever declared bankruptcy, the year they bought (or lost) their house, where they went to college or graduate school, and whether they prefer certain brands of coffee, toilet paper, cereal, or applesauce.

[...]

The company can link about half of all in-store sales to a specific person, almost all online sales, and about a quarter of online browsing.

[...]

People’s buying habits are more likely to change when they go through a major life event. When someone gets married, for example, they’re more likely to start buying a new type of coffee. When they move into a new house, they’re more apt to purchase a different kind of cereal. When they get divorced, there’s a higher chance they’ll start buying different brands of beer.

[...]

There’s almost no greater upheaval for most customers than the arrival of a child. As a result, new parents’ habits are more flexible at that moment than at almost any other period in an adult’s life. So for companies, pregnant women are gold mines.

[...]

One survey conducted in 2010 estimated that the average parent spends $6,800 on baby items before a child’s first birthday.

[...]

“As soon as we get them buying diapers from us, they’re going to start buying everything else, too,” Pole told me.

[...]

One New York hospital, for instance, provides every new mother with a gift bag containing samples of hair gel, face wash, shaving cream, an energy bar, shampoo, and a soft-cotton T-shirt. Inside are coupons for an online photo service, hand soap, and a local gym. There are also samples of diapers and baby lotions, but they’re lost among the nonbaby supplies. In 580 hospitals across the United States, new mothers get gifts from the Walt Disney Company, which in 2010 started a division specifically aimed at marketing to the parents of infants.

[...]

Disney estimates the North American new baby market is worth $36.3 billion a year.

[...]

Expectant mothers, he discovered, shopped in fairly predictable ways. Take, for example, lotions. Lots of people buy lotion, but a Target data analyst noticed that women on the baby registry were buying unusually large quantities of unscented lotion around the beginning of their second trimester.

Another analyst noted that sometime in the first twenty weeks, many pregnant women loaded up on vitamins, such as calcium, magnesium, and zinc.

Lots of shoppers purchase soap and cotton balls every month, but when someone suddenly starts buying lots of scent-free soap and cotton balls, in addition to hand sanitizers and an astounding number of washcloths, all at once, a few months after buying lotions and magnesium and zinc, it signals they are getting close to their delivery date.

A wise leader often prolongs a sense of emergency on purpose

Tuesday, May 4th, 2021

The London Underground was governed by a sort of theoretical rule book that no one had ever seen or read, Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit), and that didn’t, in fact, exist except in the unwritten rules that shaped every employee’s life. One of these unwritten rules was, don’t panic the passengers. Another was, stay in your lane. Then someone spotted the early signs of a fire:

Yet the safety inspector, Hayes, didn’t call the London Fire Brigade. He hadn’t seen any smoke himself, and another of the Underground’s unwritten rules was that the fire department should never be contacted unless absolutely necessary.

[...]

Hayes, the safety inspector, went into a passageway that led to the Piccadilly escalator’s machine room. In the dark, there was a set of controls for a sprinkler system specifically designed to fight fires on escalators. It had been installed years earlier, after a fire in another station had led to a series of dire reports about the risks of a sudden blaze. More than two dozen studies and reprimands had said that the Underground was unprepared for fires, and that staff needed to be trained in how to use sprinklers and fire extinguishers, which were positioned on every train platform. Two years earlier the deputy assistant chief of the London Fire Brigade had written to the operations director for railways, complaining about subway workers’ safety habits.

[...]

No one inside King’s Cross understood how to use the escalator sprinkler system or was authorized to use the extinguishers, because another department controlled them.

[...]

The entire escalator was now aflame, producing a superheated gas that rose to the top of the shaft enclosing the escalator, where it was trapped against the tunnel’s ceiling, which was covered with about twenty layers of old paint. A few years earlier, the Underground’s director of operations had suggested that all this paint might pose a fire hazard. Perhaps, he said, the old layers should be removed before a new one is applied?

Painting protocols were not in his purview, however. Paint responsibility resided with the maintenance department, whose chief politely thanked his colleague for the recommendation, and then noted that if he wanted to interfere with other departments, the favor would be swiftly returned.

[...]

Shortly after the explosion, dozens of fire trucks arrived. But because the fire department’s rules instructed them to connect their hoses to street-level hydrants, rather than those installed by the Underground inside the station, and because none of the subway employees had blueprints showing the station’s layout — all the plans were in an office that was locked, and none of the ticketing agents or the station manager had keys — it took hours to extinguish the flames.

[...]

During turmoil, organizational habits become malleable enough to both assign responsibility and create a more equitable balance of power. Crises are so valuable, in fact, that sometimes it’s worth stirring up a sense of looming catastrophe rather than letting it die down.

[...]

NASA administrators, for instance, tried for years to improve the agency’s safety habits, but those efforts were unsuccessful until the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986.

[...]

Airline pilots, too, spent years trying to convince plane manufacturers and air traffic controllers to redesign how cockpits were laid out and traffic controllers communicated. Then, a runway error on the Spanish island of Tenerife in 1977 killed 583 people and, within five years, cockpit design, runway procedures, and air traffic controller communication routines were overhauled.

In fact, crises are such valuable opportunities that a wise leader often prolongs a sense of emergency on purpose.

[...]

Fennell began by interviewing the Underground’s leadership, and quickly discovered that everyone had known — for years — that fire safety was a serious problem, and yet nothing had changed.

[...]

So he decided to turn his inquiry into a media circus.

He called for public hearings that lasted ninety-one days and revealed an organization that had ignored multiple warnings of risks.

[...]

A company with dysfunctional habits can’t turn around simply because a leader orders it. Rather, wise executives seek out moments of crisis — or create the perception of crisis — and cultivate the sense that something must change, until everyone is finally ready to overhaul the patterns they live with each day.

It would create a map of your firm’s secret hierarchy

Sunday, May 2nd, 2021

When An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change came out in 1982, Charles Duhigg notes (in The Power of Habit), few people noticed, but its message became quite influential:

“Much of firm behavior,” they wrote, is best “understood as a reflection of general habits and strategic orientations coming from the firm’s past,” rather than “the result of a detailed survey of the remote twigs of the decision tree.”

For instance, every big company gives its employees a handbook with the formal rules of how the company works:

Now, imagine what you would tell a new colleague who asked for advice about how to succeed at your firm. Your recommendations probably wouldn’t contain anything you’d find in the company’s handbook. Instead, the tips you would pass along — who is trustworthy; which secretaries have more clout than their bosses; how to manipulate the bureaucracy to get something done — are the habits you rely on every day to survive. If you could somehow diagram all your work habits — and the informal power structures, relationships, alliances, and conflicts they represent — and then overlay your diagram with diagrams prepared by your colleagues, it would create a map of your firm’s secret hierarchy, a guide to who knows how to make things happen and who never seems to get ahead of the ball.

[...]

For an organization to work, leaders must cultivate habits that both create a real and balanced peace and, paradoxically, make it absolutely clear who’s in charge.

There are no organizations without institutional habits

Friday, April 30th, 2021

There are no organizations without institutional habits, Charles Duhigg reminds us (in The Power of Habit):

There are only places where they are deliberately designed, and places where they are created without forethought, so they often grow from rivalries or fear.

Starbucks has succeeded in teaching the kind of life skills that schools, families, and communities have failed to provide

Wednesday, April 28th, 2021

Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit) how companies are teaching their employees the kind of habits they didn’t learn at home:

The training has, Travis says, changed his life. Starbucks has taught him how to live, how to focus, how to get to work on time, and how to master his emotions. Most crucially, it has taught him willpower.

[...]

For Travis and thousands of others, Starbucks — like a handful of other companies — has succeeded in teaching the kind of life skills that schools, families, and communities have failed to provide. With more than 137,000 current employees and more than one million alumni, Starbucks is now, in a sense, one of the nation’s largest educators. All of those employees, in their first year alone, spent at least fifty hours in Starbucks classrooms, and dozens more at home with Starbucks’ workbooks and talking to the Starbucks mentors assigned to them.

[...]

At the core of that education is an intense focus on an all-important habit: willpower. Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success.

[...]

“Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than did IQ. Self-discipline also predicted which students would improve their grades over the course of the school year, whereas IQ did not….Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent.”

[...]

Scientists began conducting related experiments, trying to figure out how to help kids increase their self-regulatory skills. They learned that teaching them simple tricks — such as distracting themselves by drawing a picture, or imagining a frame around the marshmallow, so it seemed more like a photo and less like a real temptation — helped them learn self-control. By the 1980s, a theory emerged that became generally accepted: Willpower is a learnable skill, something that can be taught the same way kids learn to do math and say “thank you.”

[...]

Employees with willpower lapses, it turned out, had no difficulty doing their jobs most of the time. On the average day, a willpower-challenged worker was no different from anyone else. But sometimes, particularly when faced with unexpected stresses or uncertainties, those employees would snap and their self-control would evaporate.

[...]

The manuals taught workers how to respond to specific cues, such as a screaming customer or a long line at a cash register. Managers drilled employees, role-playing with them until the responses became automatic. The company identified specific rewards — a grateful customer, praise from a manager — that employees could look to as evidence of a job well done.

[...]

“One of the systems we use is called the LATTE method. We Listen to the customer, Acknowledge their complaint, Take action by solving the problem, Thank them, and then Explain why the problem occurred.”

[...]

There’s the What What Why system of giving criticism and the Connect, Discover, and Respond system for taking orders when things become hectic.

[...]

This is how willpower becomes a habit: by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, and then following that routine when an inflection point arrives.

[...]

Starbucks isn’t the only company to use such training methods. For instance, at Deloitte Consulting, the largest tax and financial services company in the world, employees are trained in a curriculum named “Moments That Matter,” which focuses on dealing with inflection points such as when a client complains about fees, when a colleague is fired, or when a Deloitte consultant has made a mistake. For each of those moments, there are preprogrammed routines — Get Curious, Say What No One Else Will, Apply the 5/5/5 Rule — that guide employees in how they should respond.

At the Container Store, employees receive more than 185 hours of training in their first year alone.

His top priority would have to be something that everybody could agree was important

Saturday, April 24th, 2021

Charles Duhigg explains the concept of keystone habits (in The Power of Habit) through the example of Paul O’Neill, who took over as CEO of Alcoa with a promise to make Alcoa the safest company in America:

The audience was confused. These meetings usually followed a predictable script: A new CEO would start with an introduction, make a faux self-deprecating joke — something about how he slept his way through Harvard Business School — then promise to boost profits and lower costs. Next would come an excoriation of taxes, business regulations, and sometimes, with a fervor that suggested firsthand experience in divorce court, lawyers. Finally, the speech would end with a blizzard of buzzwords — “synergy,” “rightsizing,” and “co-opetition” — at which point everyone could return to their offices, reassured that capitalism was safe for another day.

[...]

“Now, before I go any further,” O’Neill said, “I want to point out the safety exits in this room.” He gestured to the rear of the ballroom. “There’s a couple of doors in the back, and in the unlikely event of a fire or other emergency, you should calmly walk out, go down the stairs to the lobby, and leave the building.”

[...]

“I’m not certain you heard me,” O’Neill said. “If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing, you need to look at our workplace safety figures. If we bring our injury rates down, it won’t be because of cheerleading or the nonsense you sometimes hear from other CEOs. It will be because the individuals at this company have agreed to become part of something important: They’ve devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence. Safety will be an indicator that we’re making progress in changing our habits across the entire institution. That’s how we should be judged.”

[...]

Within a year of O’Neill’s speech, Alcoa’s profits would hit a record high. By the time O’Neill retired in 2000, the company’s annual net income was five times larger than before he arrived, and its market capitalization had risen by $27 billion.

[...]

O’Neill believed that some habits have the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as they move through an organization.

[...]

These are “keystone habits,” and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate.

[...]

At the time, Alcoa was struggling. Critics said the company’s workers weren’t nimble enough and the quality of its products was poor. But at the top of O’Neill’s list he didn’t write “quality” or “efficiency” as his biggest priorities.

[...]

O’Neill figured his top priority, if he took the job, would have to be something that everybody — unions and executives — could agree was important.

[...]

The key to protecting Alcoa employees, O’Neill believed, was understanding why injuries happened in the first place. And to understand why injuries happened, you had to study how the manufacturing process was going wrong. To understand how things were going wrong, you had to bring in people who could educate workers about quality control and the most efficient work processes, so that it would be easier to do everything right, since correct work is also safer work. In other words, to protect workers, Alcoa needed to become the best, most streamlined aluminum company on earth.

He identified a simple cue: an employee injury. He instituted an automatic routine: Any time someone was injured, the unit president had to report it to O’Neill within twenty-four hours and present a plan for making sure the injury never happened again. And there was a reward: The only people who got promoted were those who embraced the system.

Unit presidents were busy people. To contact O’Neill within twenty-four hours of an injury, they needed to hear about an accident from their vice presidents as soon as it happened. So vice presidents needed to be in constant communication with floor managers. And floor managers needed to get workers to raise warnings as soon as they saw a problem and keep a list of suggestions nearby, so that when the vice president asked for a plan, there was an idea box already full of possibilities.

To make all of that happen, each unit had to build new communication systems that made it easier for the lowliest worker to get an idea to the loftiest executive, as fast as possible. Almost everything about the company’s rigid hierarchy had to change to accommodate O’Neill’s safety program. He was building new corporate habits.

[...]

Then, as email habits became more ingrained and comfortable, they started posting information on all kinds of other topics, such as local market conditions, sales quotas, and business problems.

[...]

This is the final way that keystone habits encourage widespread change: by creating cultures where new values become ingrained. Keystone habits make tough choices—such as firing a top executive— easier, because when that person violates the culture, it’s clear they have to go.

[...]

He got fired because he didn’t report the incident, and so no one else had the opportunity to learn from it. Not sharing an opportunity to learn is a cardinal sin.”

[...]

On average, workers are more likely to get injured at a software company, animating cartoons for movie studios, or doing taxes as an accountant than handling molten aluminum at Alcoa.

“When I was made a plant manager,” said Jeff Shockey, the Alcoa executive, “the first day I pulled into the parking lot I saw all these parking spaces near the front doors with people’s titles on them. The head guy for this or that. People who were important got the best parking spots. The first thing I did was tell a maintenance manager to paint over all the titles. I wanted whoever got to work earliest to get the best spot. Everyone understood the message: Every person matters. It was an extension of what Paul was doing around worker safety. It electrified the plant. Pretty soon, everyone was getting to work earlier each day.”

Foaming is a huge reward

Sunday, April 18th, 2021

As Charles Duhigg explains in The Power of Habit, the tingling sensation from Pepsodent helped turn toothbrushing into a habit:

Yet, while everyone brushes their teeth, fewer than 10 percent of Americans apply sunscreen each day. Why?

[...]

Because there’s no craving that has made sunscreen into a daily habit. Some companies are trying to fix that by giving sunscreens a tingling sensation or something that lets people know they’ve applied it to their skin.

[...]

“Foaming is a huge reward,” said Sinclair, the brand manager. “Shampoo doesn’t have to foam, but we add foaming chemicals because people expect it each time they wash their hair. Same thing with laundry detergent. And toothpaste — now every company adds sodium laureth sulfate to make toothpaste foam more. There’s no cleaning benefit, but people feel better when there’s a bunch of suds around their mouth. Once the customer starts expecting that foam, the habit starts growing.”

No one craves scentlessness

Friday, April 16th, 2021

In The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg tells the story of a chemist at P&G who was working with hydroxypropyl beta cyclodextrin, or HPBCD, at the lab, and when he came home, his wife asked if he’d stopped smoking, because his clothes didn’t smell like smoke at all. The new product they developed was a huge success — but only after they learned how to market it:

They spent millions perfecting the formula, finally producing a colorless, odorless liquid that could wipe out almost any foul odor.

[...]

They decided to call it Febreze, and asked Stimson, a thirty-one-year-old wunderkind with a background in math and psychology, to lead the marketing team.

[...]

The same pattern played out in dozens of other smelly homes the researchers visited. People couldn’t detect most of the bad smells in their lives. If you live with nine cats, you become desensitized to their scent. If you smoke cigarettes, it damages your olfactory capacities so much that you can’t smell smoke anymore. Scents are strange; even the strongest fade with constant exposure. That’s why no one was using Febreze, Stimson realized.

[...]

Television commercials were filmed of women spraying freshly made beds and spritzing just-laundered clothing. The tagline had been “Gets bad smells out of fabrics.” It was rewritten as “Cleans life’s smells.”

Each change was designed to appeal to a specific, daily cue: Cleaning a room. Making a bed. Vacuuming a rug. In each one, Febreze was positioned as the reward: the nice smell that occurs at the end of a cleaning routine. Most important, each ad was calibrated to elicit a craving: that things will smell as nice as they look when the cleaning ritual is done.

The irony is that a product manufactured to destroy odors was transformed into the opposite. Instead of eliminating scents on dirty fabrics, it became an air freshener used as the finishing touch, once things are already clean.

When the researchers went back into consumers’ homes after the new ads aired and the redesigned bottles were given away, they found that some housewives in the test market had started expecting — craving — the Febreze scent.

One woman said that when her bottle ran dry, she squirted diluted perfume on her laundry. “If I don’t smell something nice at the end, it doesn’t really seem clean now,” she told them.

“The park ranger with the skunk problem sent us in the wrong direction,” Stimson told me. “She made us think that Febreze would succeed by providing a solution to a problem. But who wants to admit their house stinks?

“We were looking at it all wrong. No one craves scentlessness. On the other hand, lots of people crave a nice smell after they’ve spent thirty minutes cleaning.”

New habits are created by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop.

Administrative assistants did not do management, but managers did do administration

Thursday, April 15th, 2021

Has the economic clock started to run backwards?, Tim Harford asks:

As Philip Coggan writes in his epic history, More: The 10,000 Year Rise of the World Economy, Smith’s 1776 book was not the first to note the productivity gains that resulted from specialisation. Xenophon was making similar remarks in 370 BCE.

But why does the division of labour improve productivity? Smith pointed to three advantages: workers perfected specific skills; they avoided the delay and distraction of switching from one task to another; and they would use or even invent specialised equipment.

The modern knowledge worker fits uneasily into this picture. Most of us don’t use specialised equipment: we use computers capable of doing anything from accountancy and instant messaging to filming and editing video. And while some office jobs have a clear production flow, many do not: they are a watercolour blur of one activity bleeding into another.

[...]

In 1992 the economist Peter Sassone published a study of workflow in large US corporate offices. He found that the more senior a person was, the more likely they were to do a bit of everything. Administrative assistants did not do management, but managers did do administration. Sassone called this “the law of diminishing specialisation”.

This law of diminishing specialisation is surely stronger today. Computers have made it easier to create and circulate written messages, to book travel, to design web pages. Instead of increasing productivity, these tools tempt highly skilled, highly paid people to noodle around making bad slides.

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Cal Newport’s new book, A World Without Email, is searing on this point. Examining scientific management studies from the early 20th century, Newport makes the case that manufacturers analysed and fixed their aimless processes a century ago. The gains were dramatic. For example: at the Pullman factory complex near Chicago, people from various departments would wander into the brass works and pester the metalworkers until they got what they needed. After a systematic overhaul, many clerks were hired as gatekeepers and to plan and schedule work. Productivity soared.

Newport argues that knowledge work is long overdue a similar rethink. How often is office work assigned and prioritised by random pestering? Certain disciplines, including producing a daily newspaper, have developed a clear workflow that doesn’t depend on long email chains. A lot of knowledge work, however, is still in the “wander in and pester” stage.

You’ll feel a film

Wednesday, April 14th, 2021

In The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg shares some advertising history:

Hopkins was the man who had convinced Americans to buy Schlitz beer by boasting that the company cleaned their bottles “with live steam,” while neglecting to mention that every other company used the exact same method.

He had seduced millions of women into purchasing Palmolive soap by proclaiming that Cleopatra had washed with it, despite the sputtering protests of outraged historians.

He had made Puffed Wheat famous by saying that it was “shot from guns” until the grains puffed “to eight times normal size.”

He had turned dozens of previously unknown products — Quaker Oats, Goodyear tires, the Bissell carpet sweeper, Van Camp’s pork and beans — into household names.

And in the process, he had made himself so rich that his best-selling autobiography, My Life in Advertising, devoted long passages to the difficulties of spending so much money.

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Throughout his career, one of Claude Hopkins’s signature tactics was to find simple triggers to convince consumers to use his products every day. He sold Quaker Oats, for instance, as a breakfast cereal that could provide energy for twenty-four hours — but only if you ate a bowl every morning. He hawked tonics that cured stomachaches, joint pain, bad skin, and “womanly problems” — but only if you drank the medicine at symptoms’ first appearance. Soon, people were devouring oatmeal at daybreak and chugging from little brown bottles whenever they felt a hint of fatigue, which, as luck would have it, often happened at least once a day.

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“Just run your tongue across your teeth,” read one. “You’ll feel a film — that’s what makes your teeth look ‘off color’ and invites decay.”

“Note how many pretty teeth are seen everywhere,” read another ad, featuring smiling beauties. “Millions are using a new method of teeth cleansing. Why would any woman have dingy film on her teeth? Pepsodent removes the film!”

The brilliance of these appeals was that they relied upon a cue — tooth film — that was universal and impossible to ignore. Telling someone to run their tongue across their teeth, it turned out, was likely to cause them to run their tongue across their teeth. And when they did, they were likely to feel a film. Hopkins had found a cue that was simple, had existed for ages, and was so easy to trigger that an advertisement could cause people to comply automatically.

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Before Pepsodent appeared, only 7 percent of Americans had a tube of toothpaste in their medicine chests. A decade after Hopkins’s ad campaign went nationwide, that number had jumped to 65 percent.

There’s a bit more to the story:

Unlike other pastes of the period, Pepsodent contained citric acid, as well as doses of mint oil and other chemicals. Pepsodent’s inventor used those ingredients to make the toothpaste taste fresh, but they had another, unanticipated effect as well. They’re irritants that create a cool, tingling sensation on the tongue and gums.

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What they found was that customers said that if they forgot to use Pepsodent, they realized their mistake because they missed that cool, tingling sensation in their mouths. They expected — they craved — that slight irritation.