Gist – a Farleyfile for the 21st century

I’ve been part of the private beta of Gist for the last several months and am still wrapping my head around it. They’ve just opened up the beta for wide consumption. Here’s the announcement from CEO T.A. McCann.

Today, Gist brings you a better way to communicate and build stronger business relationships.   After a year in limited release and with the input of over 10,000 beta users, we have created a new system to aggregate, organize, prioritize and focus your time on the most important things.   We connect to your inbox or social networks to discover your key contacts and companies, automatically prioritize them and bring together personal communications, news, blogs, and the real-time web all into one neat package.


We assert a few things are true:

  • There will be more information, in more places and it s growing at an increasing rate
  • Systems will need to evolve or be created that help users harness the power of the information
  • Success in business is driven by strong relationships, both in quality and quantity
  • Companies who can quickly respond to customer demand are successful

Gist is a game changer and I am proud to be part of the team that has brought it from concept to a robust and useful solution.  We are privileged to work in such an exciting and evolving space, with great investors and,most importantly, incredible users who will continue to help us focus on what is most important and most valuable.  Thank you for the privilege to make a radical shift!

Gist a better way
T. A. McCann
Tue, 15 Sep 2009 12:18:47 GMT

Here are some pointers to other coverage and commentary about the service that are helping me get a better handle on the value of this evolving service:

What is a Farleyfile you ask? There is a Wikipedia entry for Farleyfile, but I first encountered the concept in one of Robert Heinlein’s novels, Double Star, about a hack actor forced to double for a kidnapped politician. Heinlein’s description captures the essence of the challenge and the solution that Gist promises in this 21st Century incarnation:

The tightrope act I was going to have to attempt was made possible only by Bonforte’s Farleyfile, perhaps the best one ever compiled. Farley was a political manager of the twentieth century, of Eisenhower I believe, and the method he invented for handling the personal relations of politics was as revolutionary as the German invention of staff command was to warfare. Yet I had never heard of the device until Penny showed me Bonforte’s.

It was nothing but a file about people. However, the art of politics is "nothing but" people. This file contained all,or almost all, of the thousands upon thousands of people Bonforte had met in the course of his long public life; each dossier consisted of what he knew about that person from Bonforte’s own personal contact. Anything at all, no matter how trivial–in fact, trivia were always the first entries: names and nicknames of wives, children, and pets, hobbies, tastes in food or drink, prejudices, eccentricities. Following this would be listed date and place and comments for every occasion on which Bonforte had talked to that particular man

When available, a photo was included. There might, or might not, be "below-the-line" data, i.e. information which had been researched rather than learn directly by Bonforte. It depended on the political importance of the person. In some cases the "below-the-line" part was a formal biography running to thousands of words.

"God’s mercy child! I tried to tell you this job could not be done. How could anyone memorize all that?"

"Why, you can’t, of course."

"You just said that this was what he remembered about his friends and acquaintances."

"Not quite. I said that this is what he wanted to remember. But since he can’t, not possibly, this is how he does it….

"These are things he would like to remember if his memory were perfect. Since it isn’t, it is no more phony to do it this way than it is to use a tickler file in order not to forget a friend’s birthday — that’s what it is: a giant tickler file, to cover anything."

[Robert A, Heinlein. Double Star. 1956. Del Ray Books. pp.151-154]

Most of us are called on to cope with an order of magnitude or two more relationships than our parents or grandparents ever contemplated. Applications and information management services like Gist are becoming absolutely essential if we hope to cope with those demands.

Chris Anderson on the emerging economics of Free

Free: The Future of a Radical Price, Anderson, Chris


"Free" is an excellent hook for Chris Anderson’s newest book from a sales and marketing perspective; whether it holds up as a core intellectual hook is less clear. I got my copy of  Free for free, of course, in exchange for a promise to review it. Nothing new about review copies, although the numbers may be skewing a bit with the proliferation of potential outlets for reviews. As the editor of Wired and the author of a previous successful book, The Long Tail, Anderson probably doesn’t have to worry about getting attention for his books. Free easily warranted reviews from Virginia Postrel in the New York Times and from Malcolm Gladwell at the New Yorker.

Anderson’s book represents one more attempt to extract appropriate business lessons for the emerging internet/information/flat economy. Choosing free as an organizing principle offers him the latitude to explore a wide range of phenomena and gather up a provocative collection of historical and contemporary tales. What it doesn’t do is provide enough of an organizing framework.

Zero has always been an interesting number beyond its use as a price. But it gains in power from the way it operates within a broader system, whether that system is mathematics, psychology, or economics. It’s the interaction between free and the rest of the system that is interesting. Focusing on free by itself detracts from understanding the system within which free is embedded.

Anderson summarizes the essential argument for free as follows "price has fallen to the marginal cost, and the marginal cost of everything online is close enough to zero that it pays to round down." This is the essential economic theory of perfectly competitive markets coupled with the long term economic trend of digital technologies driven by Moore’s Law. The problem of focusing solely on price is that it encourages shortchanging the more complete economic analysis that needs to be done to design a sustainable business in this evolving economic environment.

There’s a big problem and a little problem to address in this emerging environment that Anderson chronicles. The little problem comes in doing the necessary complete economic analysis that fully incorporates fixed and variable costs and the relevant cost trends over time. Whether "free" is a relevant part of the pricing strategy must be embedded in this more comprehensive analytic framework.

The  big problem is understanding whether we’ve reached or passed boundary conditions that make conventional economic guidance suspect.The reason zero is an interesting number in so many systems is that certain equations fall apart when variables hit zero. The answers are undefined. This is the question that Anderson skates up to but ultimately doesn’t address.

Free is a useful and relevant entry in this ongoing exploration. However, if you expect it to supply the answers, you have yet to understand the questions. You had  better be prepared for a more extensive reading, thinking, and action program if you hope to prosper in this evolving environment. Here’s one cut at an initial reading list:

Will organizational leaders accept the evidence about incentives and creative work?

Daniel Pink, author of the excellent Free Agent Nation and A Whole New Mind, has a new book coming out in December. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us takes a look at the evidence about the links between incentives and creative, knowledge work. Recently, he spoke about his work at a TED talk in England:

If you’ve been paying any attention at all, his conclusions should come as little surprise. This is simply one more brick in the growing wall of evidence that the fiction of "rational economic man" has long outlived whatever utility it might have had. The evidence boils down to this; if you need creative and original thought out of people, economic incentives don’t work. Creative work comes from internal, self-motivation and requires autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

This is not news. The question that is interesting is whether organizational leaders have finally reached the point where they are prepared to act on this knowledge. If what your organization needs is creative, mindful, independent thought from all quarters and you must finally abandon the pretense that you can elicit that behavior with specific, concrete incentives, then how much harder has your leadership task become? If, to use Pink’s phrase, "sharper sticks and sweeter carrots" won’t work, what will?

The answer comes down to leadership. More specifically, it comes down to the kind of leadership exemplified by Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics. For Russell, leadership was about getting the best out of each of the players on the team more than it was about getting the best out of himself.

Nip it in the bud or wait for the crisis

Twenty five years ago I was running an internal project for the consulting arm of Arthur Andersen & Co, back before it split off to morph into Andersen Consulting and then Accenture. We were creating a system development center to provide all of the development tools and facilities to support large scale information systems implementation projects. This was in the day when serious development was done on mainframe computers and setting up an environment for productive work could chew up a lot of time and fees without adding value for either Andersen or its clients. The centers turned out to be a successful venture for several years.

Setting up the first one was a large scale project management problem in its own right. Some challenges in creating a work plan and work breakdown structure for something that hadn’t been done before, but nothing out of the ordinary.

One odd conversation from that effort still sticks with me. It was early Monday morning, well before 8AM, and I was parked in the partner’s office. I had learned that the only way to guarantee Mel’s attention was to catch him before he got wrapped up in anything else. He rolled in a short time later and the conversation unfolded like this:

Me: I’ve been going over the project plans for the development center. We’re on track, but I’m worried about the scheduled install of the mainframe next month.

Mel: So?

Me: Do we deal with it now or wait until it’s a full blown crisis?

Mel: Wait until it’s a crisis

You need to understand that Mel was and is an excellent manager and leader. But I was certainly greatly puzzled at the time. Isn’t management supposed to be about anticipating problems and dealing with them before they get out of hand?

Consider some of the possibilities at this point, setting aside issues of organizational turf warfare or operating beyond your authority.

  1. Not all anticipated problems materialize. Calvin Coolidge’s observation about problems may apply, "If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you."
  2. This is a management development opportunity. Someone who reports to you needs to recognize and deal with the problem. It can short circuit or undermine their development if you point out problems before they’ve had an opportunity to see them for themselves.
  3. A crisis can be put to good use. Allowing an issue to become more troubling and more visible may be a necessary step in garnering resources you may need later
  4. You or your organization confuses heroics with effectiveness. This is the dangerous case. If you’re confused, you can either get unconfused or seek out an occupation where heroics are relevant. On the other hand, if your organization (or your client) is confused that can be a serious problem. It takes an astute manager to recognize that "no muss, no fuss" indicates effective management. Or to distinguish between a real crisis and a manufactured one.

In my earliest managerial days, crisis was my too often default mode, out of ignorance and inexperience. Since then, I’ve learned to prefer bud nipping. More importantly, I’ve learned (and continue to relearn) that there aren’t many either/or choices in the real world. What strategies have you chosen when you see a problem on the horizon?