Extending the “Gruber-Mann” theorem

What is the Gruber-Mann Theorem?

I’m again returning to the excellent talk Merlin Mann and John Gruber gave in 2009 at the famous South by SouthWest conference (SxSW). In their talk, they defined by means of a simple formula the key requirements for consistent delivery of quality work. It requires obsession feeding voice and voice working with obsession. Their formula, which reads “voice x obsession”, is powerful in all its simplicity. As great ideas often are.

Extending the formula

If the formula is that brilliant, why try to add to it? Two reasons:

  • first, I see a link with quite a few other ideas that I’ve come in contact with in the past years, which may enhance our understanding of the Gruber-Mann theorem;

  • Second, because I want to see where it leads if we link the theorem to the idea of contribution, or, as Stephen Covey puts it, the idea of leaving a legacy.

Now, what I propose is to merely add a context to the performance, the quality work which results from voice and obsession. And that context is formed by something which I refer to as purpose.
Hence, I would like to expand the Gruber-Mann theorem by adding purpose to the equation. Thus, the amended theorem becomes:

Obsession x Voice (the Gruber-Mann theorem) x Purpose = Contribution

The relevance

It’s a proof of concept. While we need to assess our fellow human beings as the complex creatures they are, just as we want to be assessed in all our complexity, this day and age is looking for a more meaningful contribution. Look at Occupy Wall Street. Look at the adoration for iconic figures, such as Steve Jobs. You feel a whole society scream out for deeper relevance. Perhaps this is a way to assist in assessing this. I was looking for the equal sign in the theorem when I thought about the extension.

The factors in the theorem

But before we get into the implications of the extended Gruber-Mann theorem, let’s make sure we are on the same page regarding definitions: These are the internet dictionary definitions of the words used in the formula:

  • Obsession: The domination of one’s thoughts or feelings by a persistent idea, image, desire, etc.

  • Voice: The expression in spoken or written words, also, the person or other agency through which something is expressed or revealed.

  • Purpose: the reason for which something exists or is done, made, used, etc or the intended or desired result, end, aim or goal.

  • Contribution: the act of contributing, to give (money, time, knowledge, assistance etc) to a common supply, fund, etc as for charitable purposes.

Deeper into the factors

Let’s talk about voice first. We learn voice. From our first breath we are surrounded by voices, which exert influence over us and teach us to become what we are. They learn us how to speak, how to write, how to draw, to dance, to present, to interact. They assist us in finding our own voice. The internet has increased the number of voices we are exposed to a million-fold. Voice can be misleading, and a key accomplishment for anyone is to learn how to recognize authentic voice.

Then there is obsession. Such a negative word. More and more people are being diagnosed with disorders related to some form of obsession. Yet at the same time, true constructive obsession in the positive sense of the word becomes more and more difficult to find. I really enjoy Sir Ken Robinson talk about education, its narrow definition (my interpretation of his words) and its impact on our ability to find our obsession. Most people take a long time to find out what they are really good at. I might even say that schools are breeding the obsession out of our kids. But if there is no obsession, if there is no striving to understand just for the purpose of understanding, what then is next? Where do we go from here? Do we only go where it glitters, or do we find our way back to what matters? I’m quoting Umair Haque, of Harvard’s Media Lab, in his excellent article in the Harvard Business Review.

The point with obsession is that a good obsession develops, matures over time, through regular exposure. However, at the current speed of consumption, where consumables are offered faster and faster still, we are creating touch-and-go people. Perhaps we are going through a transition where the minds of the next generations (I’m generation X, by the way) are learning to deal with this. On the other side, it’s entirely possible we are breeding a generation of generalists, with no one capable any longer of doing a really profound deep dive in a subject. Let me be an Apple fanboy for a moment: the longevity and the focus of Apple products is completely counter to most other brands, and I believe part of the appeal for a lot of people.

A last point about obsession, before we more to purpose: when you are obsessed by something, you tend to be able to focus longer on that specific subject, whatever the stimuli. Your need to switch tools will therefore be less frequent, and you will be more productive as an effect. Hence, if you stick to your obsession, you are likely to be better performing. This makes a lot of sense: it’s all about care.

Let’s look at purpose. I see quite a few good signs as far as the increasing presence of and striving for purpose is concerned. Is it because we realize the noise is drowning out our voices? Is it because we realize we no longer have the luxury of time to become obsessed with something? There appears to be more striving for purpose now than I have seen in the past decades. It may be that the internet is again a conduit for something bigger. That community, a concept we lost in the 1970’s and 1980’s is slowly returning as a value. We’re certainly more aware that we were before about what is going on on the other side of the world. We also start to realize what is going on next door. Of course, this is a double edged sword. On the one hand, our awareness increases our need to do something, to intervene. On the other hand, most things we learn about are really big (again, if not they get drowned out by the noise of voices yelling at a slightly different frequency than our own), and the scope often renders us helpless. This may lead to a lethargic response, to a deadening of the senses.

And finally, what about contribution? Please make sure you retain perspective. Contribution is what we have added to the mix. There is no absolute measure of value here. I’ve developed a few examples of what valuable contribution could be. It really depends on all factors as well as whom they matter to. Contribution can be enormous in the monetary sense. Or it may not involve money at all, but be about a child that was cared for. Looking at the reporting out of Ethiopia during the drought, I was heartbroken by the stories and images of parents having to abandon their deceased children. As a parent myself, it grabs my heart with a cold hard fist and squeezes. There’s quite a lot of contribution to be done there, in many forms.

Applying the formula

I’ve identified one well known person, a group of reasonably known people and an unknown theoretic person, just to elaborate on the application of the extended theorem. Let’s see if the slipper fits:

  • Steve Jobs: An obvious test. He had an obsession, which was consumer electronics and usability, coupled with a very strong voice. Just look at the 2007 WWDC Keynote, where he announced the iPhone. His obsession x voice served a purpose, which was it disrupted traditionally asymmetric markets and put down the baseline for consumer electronics usability. He also put a darn big dent in the world. Considering all that, he made a very high contribution.

  • Dan Benjamin and his team of co-hostson the 5by5 network: Yes, I am an avid 5by5 fan. Dan and his co-hosts have an obsession, which is making high quality podcasts on a wide range of subjects. Dan has a voice. He has a very good radio voice but he also has a way of bringing subject matter to the fore which he is able to adapt to his co-host and his audience. For example, if you hear him talking to Marco Arment on Build & Analyze he is very different from the way he interacts with Merlin Mann on a Back to Work He has a purpose, which is providing all this information to a group of listening nerds and enhancing their lives with the ideas he and his co-hosts put forward. All considering, his contribution is significant.

  • A single mother working two or three jobs to feed her children: I am in awe of these people. Their purpose is to help build a future for their children, a future most of them never would have had were it not for the effort of these mothers. Their voice is often their silence. Or the motivation they give their children, after having worked for many hours, to get good grades, to study, to do well. Their voice is the manners with which they raise their children in dire circumstances. In the end, their children become their voice. Their obsession is their relentless commitment to what they can do, working, and working, and if they are tired, working some more … and still be there for their children.

The link with process reengineering

If you wonder what this has to do with process reengineering … replace obsession by topic, as Gruber and Mann did in the SXSW talk, and use it as a measure for continued process relevance, or call it process contribution. It leads nicely into another blog topic on cleaning and clearing processes.