I See That You Sound the Best

Related to yesterday’s post about quality versus quantity and how we learn new skills, I came across an academic paper (thanks Gabriel) that looks into how we judge the quality of musical performance.  Through a lifetime of playing classical piano I’ve come to believe that there are clear objective measures about the quality of musical performance, about excellence.  But what really goes on, even at the highest levels, when we try to make objective judgments?

To figure this out, Chia-Jung Tsay at the Department and Science and Innovation at University College in London designed an experiment to understand whether we use our ears or our eyes to judge the quality of musical performance (full article here).  To test this, she asked experimental participants to guess, in just six seconds, which of the top three finalists in 10 international classical music competitions won the competition.  Obviously that’s hard to do, so one would expect that untrained listeners would guess right 33% of the time.

The experiments worked as follows: participants either listened to a six second recording of the musicians, watched a six-second video of the musicians without sound, or watched a six-second video of the musicians with sound.   Not surprisingly, when they just heard a six second recording they only guessed the winners 25.5% of the time.  More interesting was that they guessed right 52% of the time when they could watch videos without sound.  That’s right: six seconds of silent video allowed them to guess right more than half the time.

Perhaps the experts would do better?  Alas, no, they had essentially the same results: 25% identified the winners when they could only listen to the sound, 47% when they could watch silent video clips.  When they could watch video with sound they were right 29% of the time.  Put another way, the only way that experts or novices could do better than chance in this experiment was by not hearing the music.

Classical music is a funny beast – it is subjective, it can be opaque, and the degree of difference between the three top finalists in any competition is likely pretty small.  So these experimental findings could be pretty narrow, and if I take a step back I find myself not too surprised at the finding that we, fundamentally visual creatures, are susceptible to all sorts of bias based on visual cues (in who we hire, who we like, who we vote for).

But as I reflect on yesterday’s post and think hard about what holds me back from jumping in, from just starting, I realize that part of the baggage I carry around is the notion of expertise: that in most domains you can figure out what is best and what is good and what is only OK.  And certainly the experts can make all sorts of informed, refined judgments about quality…

Unless of course they can’t.  Unless they’re kidding themselves and kidding us at the same time.

If so, that puts a whole new twist on where we’re headed, on the impact of moving to a world where the experts have less power, where gate-keeping has become radically democratized, where it’s no longer someone else’s job to pick us because we need to pick ourselves, it’s so easy to quietly believe that we’re losing something in that exchange, that based on some objective standard quality will have to fall.

What objective quality standard?  Where?

I’m not suggesting that some things aren’t better than others, nor that it’s impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff.  But maybe today’s world is one of multiple winners, lots of “best” things, and our opportunity is to hone our craft, create our art, do our best work based on our own true and honest take on what “best” means to us.

And that one step in getting there is to truly let go of the notion that there is someone out there whose job it is to tell us that what we did was good enough.

Kindle reflections: Do nothing badly

I got a Kindle as a birthday gift, a practical, non-iPad antidote to caving to an iPhone 18 months ago, when I turned in my trusty Blackberry.

(Side note for int’l travelers: AT&T iPhone data plan does not cover Kenya).

The Kindle has a great feature with a tiny glitch:  “Sync to Furthest Page Read.”  It works seamlessly between the Kindle and the Kindle iPhone app, letting you read on your Kindle at home, pick up where you left off on your iPhone, and come back to your Kindle at the end of the day without ever having to flip pages.

The glitch is that you can never go backwards.  So if you go to the end of the book once (because, say, someone else read the book before you; or you’re rereading a  book; or you went to the index once), the sync becomes useless – it always syncs to the last page ever read in the book, with no way that I can find to reset it.

I was trying to figure out if there’s an easy fix to this glitch by skimming the Kindle User’s Guide, whose three different version (v3, v4, v5) take up too much real estate on my Kindle’s Home screen.  And while I didn’t find a fix to the problem, I did discover that my Kindle can do all sorts of things I never knew about: I can post to Twitter from my Kindle about a book I’m reading; I can browse the web; I can type notes in the margin of whatever I’m reading; and on and on.

And guess what?  Nearly all of those features are slow, clunky, and nearly unusable.  It’s the kind of meager feature creep that happens with subsequent iterations on a product – ironically cutting directly against what Kindle did so well: create a reader that’s JUST a reader, and make it incredibly quick and easy to buy books from the largest online store around.

“Do nothing badly” is not an inspiring mantra, but it’s a good way to kill lots of nice-to-have ideas that you know you won’t execute better than anyone else.  It’s much more actionable than “do everything well” because “everything” sounds like too much and what exactly do we mean by “well?”

“Nothing,” on the other hand, is much clearer.

“We will not do one thing, not single thing badly.  Not even one.  Not ever.”

The one thing I’d like to know

How can you get a read on an organization, what really makes it tick and if it is functioning well?

For example, say you’re considering taking a new job – you want to understand how the place really functions, not just what the website looks like and what people say when they know you’re listening.

Look at all the little things, the things that are too small to specify, and see how they handle those.  How do they greet people who call on the phone, unannounced?   How do they welcome visitors?  How quickly do people walk down the hallway?  How clean is the store or the stockroom or the warehouse?  How candidly do they answer when you ask, “what do you dream about?”

If I were trying to suss out one thing to predict long-term success, one thing that would help me understand how well an organization is going to do not just today but tomorrow, I’d want to understand: are people proud to be here?  Do they treat this place like it’s their own?

If you can get that right at any sort of scale, so many other things will take care of themselves.

Yesterday’s salad

Traveling on Monday morning, and hoping to avoid on-board food, I picked up a $9 Caesar salad at the Balducci’s in the Delta terminal at JFK. A few hours later, my laptop dead, I popped open the plastic box to dig in.

The salad looked beautiful, but it was very sad indeed.  The first clue was a squishy crouton. The second crouton also didn’t crunch. Then I picked up a piece romaine, and it had turned a little red from spoilage. So had nearly all the lettuce in the salad. Red, wilted lettuce and soggy croutons for lunch? No way.

It turns out that I had paid, at 9 in the morning, $9 for a day-old salad at one of the upperiest of the upscale food chains in New York.

It’s so easy to convince yourself to sell the day-old salad, to give your customer something other than your best because it is cheaper or easier or because you’re just plain lazy. Plus, you convince yourself, they won’t notice.

The thing is, they will notice and so will you.  The only question is which will happen faster: you losing them as a customer, or you quietly begrudging yourself and your organization for delivering such a shoddy experience?

There’s old salad somewhere in your organization – old reports or analysis or ways you treat people that might have been good enough when they were fresh, but they’ve passed their expiration date.

Throw out the old salad. Today is a new day.

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