Avoid Firing a Cannon from a Canoe (how to make your analytics count)

For my birthday, I gave myself the gift of re-reading Dale Carnegie’s great masterpiece How to Win Friends and Influence People. In the very first chapter, Dale was explaining the research behind the book: the polls they conducted, other published material they researched, people they interviewed, etc. They reached a conclusion that sort of blew my mind:

Less than 15% of what influences someone’s success in their career is their actual competence or skill in their craft. 85% of your success is determined by your ability to handle people and get them on board with your way of thinking.

This probably isn’t all that surprising. Looking at the most shining examples of success, people like Jeff Bezos, for example, we know for certain that his success doesn’t come from his unparalleled ability to ship packages, stock warehouses, build a web site, etc. And when we get out of the clouds of uber-success stories like Jeff and into more everyday situations, we may think the scenario changes, but it doesn’t.

So what’s with the cannon and the canoe? I was watching Mythbusters the other day and Grant had created this harpoon shooter that could shoot a 10 lb “anchor” 60 feet, or something bonkers like that. It used compressed gas at 3,000 psi to do this.

In their test run, Grant set up a mattress to catch the anchor, put the cannon on top of a tripod, pressed the fire button, and watched the tripod go flying backwards, crashing into the back wall of the warehouse with enough force to just about kill someone.


This episode reminded me of this “firing a cannon from a canoe” thing, and it all got me thinking about what we do. How we have this incredible, amazing power to effect change, but often struggle with making it happen. Perhaps it’s because we work so hard to become amazing at what we do, but that, unfortunately, may not be the place that needs the most focus.

Now among the community of brilliant people in our industry, I am yet to meet a person that I didn’t find convincing. When you work in our field, it’s hard not to be: you are highly intelligent people who have such great information. So, I think we are prepared to succeed at both the skill and the people side of things, it may just be a matter of how we apply these abilities, or a misunderstanding of what the people side really is.

Rather than pretending I am capable of helping 1% as much as this book, I’m just going to briefly summarize. Pick up a copy of the book and give it a read. You’ll see some things that are almost laughably simple, but work. Simple things like learning what other people are interested in, forging great relationships, building on success and learning, rather than focusing on failure. Ways we can create rapport and relationships that build a stronger base for our cannon, most importantly by not talking about the cannon at all.

The surprising thing is that the 85% isn’t our “delivery,” because the 85% has nothing to do with what we are going to talk about in the 15%. Our relationships with people are more human than that. Yes, a significant part of (and probably the impetus for) our relationships are professional in nature, but what Dale Carnegie writes about is world leaders talking about stamp collecting, boats, hunting, and other personal interests in order to lay the foundation for the professional discussion that follows. The 85% is truly a person-to-person connection, and once that is achieved, the potential for your talent to make a difference is amplified immeasurably.

Once that foundation has cemented, I’ve found that my cannon can actually do some real damage to inefficiency, poor execution, and misallocation of resources, rather than the ill fate I’ve suffered many times where I have just blasted myself farther away from my target.


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  1. John Whitmer

    Great comment and insight, and I’m going to Half.com after this post to order the book. Makes me think of “getting to yes” as another resource for thinking about how to influence people – and I think you’re absolutely right – the main focus on our community is on the accuracy of our models and insights – but not on how we deploy them, what changes we effect with them, etc. To some degree, I think that reflects our interests – more in the data than in the organizational “chatter”.

    Also, since I’m reading the end of Steve Jobs’s biography – I do think some brilliant work can increase that 15%. Steve was *not* a relationship person, but his product focus made him successful. This seems like one of those fundamental human tensions, a dialectic between two opposites.

    Posted January 17, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Permalink
  2. Thanks for the comment, John.

    In reading the Jobs book, I agree that this seems a little paradoxical. On the one hand, you are right: he is not a relationship person. But I do get the sense that there is a part of him that was, though. There is a lot of reference to his “reality distortion field,” and his ability to connect with people and get them caught up in his way of thinking. I’m not sure what the right words are to describe his method, but there was definitely something there that did connect him with other people in a way those people saw the world through his eyes.

    Posted January 17, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

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