Posts by jcuene

Digital marketing & innovation leader. Founder of Fahren. Previously at GoKart Labs, General Mills, Ameriprise. MPLS. Husband to Andrea, father to 2. Lover of bikes, food, beer and rock'n'roll.

November in my Soul & Driving Off the Spleen

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.

Source: The Project Gutenberg eBook of Moby Dick; Or the Whale, by Herman Melville

YouOS: Time for 2023 Planning

I’m a big fan of EOS (or “Traction”) for those who run small businesses. It’s a straightforward, relatively easy to follow methodology for running your business. As someone prone to overthinking things in an effort to “get it right”, the tools in EOS force simplicity wherever possible.

One of the key steps in the EOS methodology is doing some annual planning, to get ready for the next year and start putting the operating plan into place. And, more specifically, to set some targets for what you want to achieve.

Late October/November is typically the time of the year that EOS businesses go offsite for their annual planning retreat, so it’s also the time that I like to starting thinking about what my own year ahead might look like.

For the last three or four years, i’ve been doing a personal version of the annual plan, It looks something like this:

  • Reflect back on the year overall: Articulate the the biggest wins, professionally and personally. Articulate some misses. I use the the “I like, I wish, I wonder” method I learned from Hyper Island.
  • Financials: Look at the numbers, and make a clear eyed assessment of whether I hit the target or not. The money isn’t really the point. the point is whether I accomplished what I hoped to accomplish or not.
  • Values Check: I review my personal values and reflect on whether they’ve changed or not (or how much) over the last year or so
  • 10 Year, 3 year Vision – I review my own version of where I hope to be in 10 years and 3 years. I re-read the narrative “from the future”, the story I want to bring to life in 3 and 10 years. I edit/adjust as necessary
  • 1 Year plan – I map out the plan for the next year, and focus on 3-5 priorities, the things I want to accomplish. I typically start by doing the Playing Field method I learned from my days at GoKart Labs (RIP). Then, i narrow down the options and pick the 3-5 things I really want to deliver on. I try to make them as specific as I can, so it’s easy to see whether they got “done”.
  • My own personal development plan – Then, i build out two or three specific things I want to work on in the next year. I like to focus on “thinking” and “doing”. For instance, in 2022, my “thinking” priorities were to 1) work on being mindful over the course of the day and 2) being aware of when I was confused/uncertain over the course of the day. The “doing” focus was about taking better notes when I’m reading, meeting, or working, so i’ve got a record of my decisions and choices.

This is by no means a bulletproof process and so far the results are mixed about whether it’s really helping me or not. But, I am trusting the process here and trying hard not to out-think what works for so many others.

Knowing What Good Looks Like and Why

I’ve been talking to a lot of mid-career folks about what they should do next with their work. Some are on sabbatical, some are coming to the end of one phase of their careers and starting another. Some just want to change jobs.

As I listen to them talk about what opportunities they might pursue or where they might go next, I listen for clues to their assumptions and what they are seeking.

Over time, I’ve built a pretty good sense of the patterns for people who successfully move from one stage to another. Someday, I’ll write up a more detailed list of what I see, but I recently read an essay that resonated.

The people that have cultivated taste and an eye for quality tend to do better in transitions like a job change. It seems weird, but I think it’s true. Its not a flair for design or an appreciation for cool visuals. It’s the ability to understand why something is good or “better” and be able to explain it.

Rossi gets at this in his essay about how to develop and grow your career:

If great taste is knowing what’s good, and great skill is knowing how to build things, there is a third element that I have consistently found in the most experienced people I have known.They do not only know what is good — they also know exactly why.

They know what makes good things good.

When I’m talking with folks or when I’m interviewing someone, I ask questions that get their ability to know and explain why something is superior. We typically (as a culture) don’t like to make judgements about people, but we often make judgements about stuff. So, I try to get at whether someone can explain what makes a thing – an app, a brand, a platform, a writer – better. Not just why its utility is good, but why its design/experience is better.

If you can spot “good” or “better” or “best” out in the world, if you can explain the differences to someone, that’s a skill. That’s taste. Thats discernment. And that ability will help you make higher confidence choices about what do next when it’s time to change.


The Synthetic, Infinite Conversation

My whole life I’ve been a tech optimist. I’ve always believed that, over time, culture and society improve when the tools for learning, understanding, doing and making, improve.

I’m not an optimist about synthetic, AI driven “content”. I’m very worried about the long-term cultural and societal impact of a never-ending stream of stuff to put into our eyes, ears, and bodies. When visuals, words, sounds and, soon, code and digital tools are being generated by algorithms, our attention will be frayed even more. We humans won’t be able to make meaning out the world because the inputs won’t be real.

This project is a harbinger of what’s to come. It’s a toy of sorts, a provocative example of the synthetic content stream we’re going to be swimming in over the next 10 years. It sounds sort of real. The words almost makes sense, but the “uncanny valley” effect might trigger careful listeners to understand this is fake.

For those of us who have lived through this first era of digital (i.e. from the late 90’s to now), what’s our responsibility to try to warn the rest of the culture about what’s coming at us? It’s going to seem fun at first, but then it’s going to be hell . Is it too late?


Source: The Infinite Conversation

Liberal Arts is A SuperPower

All day, everyday, I swim in “digital” alongside the coders, designers, and makers that create the internet. When we do our best work, we’re inventing and innovating.  You’d think I look to the scientists and coders to help me crack hard cases at work, but time after time, I find the best ideas come from non-engineers in the room.  When in doubt, I turn to the history majors and English lit nerds to guide me.  They have super powers.

The press writes stories about the lack of workers with engineering, math and science skills. Those of us running  businesses that depend on digital know there is a legitimate need for all those STEM graduates. But, I am concerned about the decline in the number of Liberal Arts degrees being granted in the US. We need their skills as much as we need people that can design algorithms. America needs more poets!

Liberal Arts degrees – English/literature, history, philosophy, etc. – create the thinkers and leaders we need to keep innovation happening. Beyond the domain knowledge that these degrees cultivate, they all build skills needed to create and shape innovative solutions. The insights that lead to new ideas come from the habits built doing liberal arts work:  Pattern matching, understanding and defining the contexts, making associations across domains.

And, just as importantly, Liberal Arts work – reading, writing, creating, analyzing – gives us practice in the skills required to get new to ideas built. Creating new things and making them useful requires working with and translating  abstract concepts clearly enough that others want to invest, literally and figuratively (e.g try explaining what a “platform business model” is to someone that’s never heard that term before). Before the coders and engineers make the ideas real, the liberal arts folks make them understandable and applicable.

I recently went to the retirement party for a business leader I’ve worked with over the years. She’s had tremendous success, building and selling technology companies worth millions, creating strong organizations where his employees flourished. An undergraduate degree in history pointed her in the direction of her first dream in life: A high school history teacher. But, tech, business and the startup life got in her way.

I believe her success was partly due to her understanding of how history works. She saw patterns unfolding in the culture and in her industry, patterns she recognized from her study of culture and history, and knew there were openings for for innovators. She was able to communicate beautifully, probably due to her training as a teacher: Clearly, simply, and to everyone. She used anecdotes and stories from American History to make current business decisions relatable. She could explain the hard concepts in language anyone could understand, getting consensus and buy in for her recommendations. I doubt those skills would have been developed as well if she studied math and engineering.

I’m a tech optimist. I know how important math, science and engineering are for the continued growth of our culture. I am  inspired by the the entrepreneurs who have built the culture-shaping, world-changing tools and platforms that we all use everyday. But, I also know those companies weren’t winners because of their tech. They won because the inventors and founders had folks around them – on their leadership teams, in the investor groups – that could translate the tech breakthroughs to everyone else. The non-techs – the language majors, the history wonks, the poet/writers on the leadership team – were just as important to the success.

Are you struggling at work to get traction on your idea? Are you feeling a little aimless in your work and want a boost of creativity? Try writing some poetry, go read a little history. Crack open that primer on philosophy. See what happens when you come at those problems in a new way and find your own super powers.

Burnt out and Lonely? What We’re All Really Missing

Do you feel that heavy weight? Maybe you sense a fatigue that’s different, not in your muscles and bones, but in your brain and heart. Do you say “meh?” more than you should? Maybe we’re all burned out.

I talk to people in digital every day. These are people that are doing the stuff at work that’s supposed to be fun: making new products, leading product teams in large enterprises, running marketing departments. It’s creative work, at its core, and that work is supposed to be energizing, right? But more and more, the folks I talk to are having a hard time reconnecting to the motivation they used to have.

A couple recent articles might shed some light on what’s happening. Trish Warren at the New York Times normally writes about faith, religion and culture, but in a recent essay she took on burnout and she touched on some potential root causes. Look beyond the christian themes woven through the essay, but pay attention to the gist of the conversation she has with Curt Thompson. A couple key ideas:

  • We’re getting atomized – At work, at home, out in the world we’re moving away from each other. It’s easier than ever to isolate ourselves (via our phones, headphones, computers) on purpose, but the pandemic made it even worse.
  • American Individualism – America’s weird preoccupation with individual identity (note: My thesis was on “Song of Myself”) is running through us all right now, making it harder than ever to find commonality, making it harder to be part of something bigger than ourselves
  • Loneliness – No one wants to talk about this, but there’s a real crisis of loneliness happening in America right now. The irony in our tech saturated world is obvious (haha “we’ve never been more connected! haha), but it’s real. We’ve all been working in our basements too long.

“We know that the brain can do a lot of really hard things for a long time, as long as it doesn’t have to do them by itself. We only develop greater resilience when we are deeply emotionally connected to other people.

In order to feel momentum in our lives, we need to move things forward. We need to make, we need to create and we need to help others. But, it’s harder than ever right now and the work of trying has burned a lot of us out. It’s not just you.

How good can work be, when most of the people in your group or on your team are feeling the same way you are, when everyone is sort of fatigued. When everyone is “over” the idea of work in general?

The Opposite of Quiet Quitting

Its easy for me to sound like an old-timer, talking about the good old days. But, I found myself nodding along as I read the first half of Brie Wolfson’s piece on her early days at Stripe. She wrote nostalgically about the high commitment, highly intention, quality-focused culture that everyone was working to build at Stripe. “Big Mood”, she calls it. “… and we were all in. On all of it.” Its the exact opposite of “quiet quitting”, and for a lot of workers, it built a sense of belonging, purpose and focus. I think a lot of people are missing that right now.

“I can say with confidence that nothing great in this town is built without the whole team linking arms to build it together. And, that true collaboration makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts. And, that getting there requires working your butt off to do work you’re proud of and leaning on and supporting your colleagues to do the same. At Stripe, we had all that pulsing through our veins. “

Brie Wolfson

She goes on to lament what seems to be a passed era, a time when everyone she knew felt fully committed to their work. And, while acknowledging the many, many negative aspects of a demanding, go-go, “hustle bro” culture, she’s eloquent about missing that shared commitment, that shared sense of purpose, the faith that the team was building something that would make a difference in the world.

I hate the effect, but I like the term she introduces: “lgtm culture.” Looks Good To Me is a mode where “good enough” is what you’re aiming for, a mode where your colleagues aren’t holding you to a higher standard and are ok with letting things go out the door that are “fine”. It’s hard to do your best work, to feel the sense of satisfaction when your team puts out “fine” work, but your ambitions point higher. But, conversely, it’s hard to feel isolated and alone when your whole team is expecting you to help them deliver something truly great.

I’m not sure what business leaders can do to address this stuff. But, as team mates, as co-workers we can do two things.

1) Make an effort to connect and draw people out of their isolation. Maybe it’s just a quick convo after the zoom, maybe it’s coffee. But, make a point to find some shared interests.

2) Help each other lift the work. Make supportive, actionable, constructive feedback. Help your team aim a little higher, so they can build something they’re proud of.

Why We’re Feeling Burned Out

A couple of takes on burnout. I’m still making sense of the culture change that’s driving the idea of (I hate this term) “quiet quitting”. My hypothesis is that it’s more about isolation and a sense of being stuck. That is, feeling disconnected – in a couple different ways – with your coworkers and work in general, because it’s hard to see or feel a sense of momentum.

Here’s a couple more articles:

  • BU’s take on a recent MSFT survey – “…revealing that 55 percent of hybrid employees—those mixing working at home and in an office—and 50 percent of all-remote employees reported feeling lonelier at work than before the pandemic
  • The MSFT survey on remote work – “43% say relationship building is the hardest part of remote work”
  • GitLab’s take on Remote work and burnout – This was done before the pandemic, but the takes are worth digging into.
  • Burnout and Isolation – What if burnout is really about isolation? A little god-centric (it’s from a writer who focuses on faith), but still interesting.

Looking Ahead to 2023 (It’s Coming Fast!)

While most of us are leaf-peeping or seeking out the weirdest use of pumpkin spice, my friends in product or marketing positions are putting the finishing touches on their strategy decks for 2023. In addition to the normal choices, there are a couple external factors that will play into the planning.

Likelihood of Recession

Depending on who you ask, we’re either in a recession now or we’ll experience one before the end of 2023. The underlying economic stuff is tricky enough, but I also wonder how much the click-baity, nervous headlines will amp up enough fear that the recession becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Either way, leading marketing and product teams through a recessionary period is going to be a new challenge for a generation of middle managers who’ve gone most of their careers (since 2008) without the joy of seeing charts moving downwards.

Tight Labor Pool

The labor crunch in digital roles doesn’t seem to be getting any better and companies who want to accelerate their digital transformations are struggling to lure full time workers. More orgs are considering flexible talent solutions or outsourcing to keep up. But, managers will have to be creative to build the teams they need to win.

Culture and Changing Attitudes Towards Work

Are all our team-mates becoming Bartleby, declaring “I prefer not to” when asked to go above and beyond? I hate the concept of “quiet quitting”, but I think the phenomenon is here to stay. It’s a phrase that perfectly encapsulates some of the changing attitudes about work. It might be easy to attribute those changing perspectives to a generational difference (“You Gen Z kids get off my digital lawn!”) or somehow a residue from the pandemic, but we’re seeing a general dissatisfaction with the status quo of work across the board. Managers and leaders will have to dig deep into their bag of employee engagement tricks to address this. I expect we’ll see a new take on “great manager” and “company purpose” training as one antidote.

Creative Partner Dilemma: Algorithms vs. Brand Creative

Organic social media reach is dead. Ad blindness is real. In a social media landscape where all of us are essentially little indy influencers, how does a brand break through? More high visibility stunts? Deep collabs on cool media projects? More worrying is the rise of algorithmically driven content and ad display, where we’re essentially letting math and luck drive where the impressions show up. What happens when brands have to fit their message into the creative expressions the robots prefer? The implication for brands is that they must conform their creative expressions to the choices that the algorithms bias. Will brands need to mimic all the trends to get seen? Either way, its going to force brands to rethink the creative partners they work with. The traditional, consumer- insight driven creative teams that specialize in crafting thoughtful, controlled brand expressions will probably give way to partner who can create a high volume of quick, clicky, meme-surfing videos in the pursuit of a few that will work. (Maybe I’m being a little pessimistic here).

Digital leaders have a lot on their plates for 2023. It will be a challenging year where early choices may set the course for a successful year.

The Writing Habit

Photo by Lukas on

While I’ve known forever that writing – really, the thinking that goes ahead of it – was a powerful habit, I lost the habit years ago with the rise of Facebook, Twitter, etc. The act of consumption became too easy and it took over the urge to create.

I find myself at a cross-roads, professionally so I need to get back into the habit, perhaps now more than ever. The work that was fascinating and challenging for years isn’t as compelling as it had been. I’m a veteran of the digital marketing world, and the game has “slowed down” (as they say in the sports world). There’s some satisfaction in that: I can see the most important moving pieces now (not just the ones about to hit me in the face), I can see where the hard decisions are going come up (so I can prepare for them sooner). And, I’ve never been more confident in my recommendations to our clients. But, where in the past the creative work had been about business models, bold innovation, and transformational change, now the creative work seems to be at the surface and it seems – more than ever – transactional.

I’m going back to the basics. I’m going to write my way through this period, and do it in public, through writing.