Stacking the Bricks Podcast EP33 - Agency Talk on The Iowa Idea
23 min

In this episode…

Over the last few weeks, I've been visiting podcasts all across the internet, talking with entrepreneurs and creative people just like you to talk about some of their  favorites tidbits from my new book, The Tiny MBA. 

In THIS episode I visited with Matthew Arnold on the Iowa Idea podcast, where he  explores modern collaboration, craft, and persistence.

We talk about:

- Why businesses - especially agencies - get distracted by awards

- What it means to "flintstone" your work

- And what people get wrong about passion

And a whole lot more!

With that, I hope you enjoy this in depth conversation I had with Matt. Here we go. 


Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: What is up brick stackers! Welcome back to a brand-new episode of Stacking the Bricks. As always, I’m your host, Alex Hillman and this is another edition of The Tiny MBA Podcast Tour. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been visiting podcasts all across the internet, talking with entrepreneurs and creative people, just like you.

And another thing that these podcast hosts have in common, is that they’ve recently read my new book, The Tiny MBA. In each of these conversations, we get a chance to go deeper into their favorite lessons from the book to help you get an even better understanding of how those lessons might be valuable to you.

Brendan Hufford: I want to talk about order really quickly. The first page says, most people pay way too much attention to things that do not matter to their customers. It’s like, press, awards, drama and try auditing who and what you’re paying attention to then cut two big things that you let distract in the past.

Why was that the first thing that came to you?

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: I don’t know, because I don’t remember exactly what was going on in my head, but what I will say is, I think it’s one of the most prescriptive things in the book.

This is probably one of my favorite questions I’ve been asked about The Tiny MBA. So, if you haven’t already checked out that episode, make sure you tune in to hear the full answer when you’re done listening to this episode. You can find that at the same place where you found this episode.

In this episode, I talked with Matthew Arnold on the Iowa Idea Podcast, where he explores modern collaboration, craft and persistence. Inside, we’re going to talk about why businesses, especially agencies, get distracted by awards and how you can do differently, what it means to ‘flintstone’ your work, and what people get wrong about passion. You may have seen that as a theme come up in previous episodes, we’re going to continue to explore that here and a whole lot more.

So, with that, I hope you enjoy this in-depth conversation I had with Matt. Here we go.

Matthew Arnold: A few things that I really appreciate about it, one is it feels like what we might call designer principles. It’s things that are almost underneath the surface guiding where we’re going and especially as the world becomes more complex, I think the weird duality with complexity is complex adaptive systems don’t yield to previous best practices, but they can be guided by some general principles.

So, if you think like a flock of birds or a swarm of bees, stay close to your neighbor and not too close when one turns, and how you can maneuver changing situations. And that’s one of the things where I see businesses and even classic MBA kind of case study elements getting in trouble is because then somebody thinks that is the answer. It leaves out a lot of context and context matters. I love that principal’s approach. And then one of the other things I really like is in kind of the agile lean world, there’s so much emphasis on speed and I think we need to be fast and accurate, and I think it’s hard to be accurate when we don’t reflect, so I really like your intentionality about that reflection and just that check in to see if that applies or not.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Yeah, I love that you pick up on the speed component, because it’s not something I say explicitly in the book, but it’s shown up a bunch of times in these conversations. The notion that, I think in modern business, speed has become the default good. If you were going fast, you are doing a good job. It’s because to me it’s become

Matthew Arnold: To me it’s become an excuse to deliver shitty products and services.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: I think in a lot of cases, that’s really true.

Matthew Arnold: Yeah, “we got it out the door!”

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Yeah, so on one hand, I want to challenge the notion that speed is the North Star or the thing to calibrate for, or even to beyond challenging the notion to say, well, what, instead? If I’m not optimizing for speed, what can I optimize for?

Another thing that is not said explicitly in the book, but I think is sort of the, the foil or the compliment to the implied challenge of speed is the implied suggestion of resiliency and building things that are designed to last. Building things that – it’s not that they’re permanent, because permanent is its own set of challenges. It’s doing things that can last so if they need to last they will, or if they need to be changed to replace you do it by choice. Not because you rushed it out the door, did a shitty job and it broke. But doing things more intentionally, slowing things down. Even, just to make sure that you gave the decision the time and the breathing room to be considered, rather than everything as a knee jerk reaction.

I felt that a lot myself over the last several months while dealing with learning, how to deal with a virus and quarantine, all these things.

When everything is a reaction, the work is bad. Work that stems from nothing, but reaction is typically going to be garbage work because there’s no coherence. There is no intentionality. And frankly, there’s no audience for it. The audience for reactive work is whatever you’re reacting to. And if that’s constantly changing, then you’re going to end up with this weird mutant of a result versus feeling the outside experience.

Whether it’s good or bad, acknowledge it, give it a second and then say, how does this fit into my strategy? How does this suggest I need to change the strategy? Separate the processing from the doing and treat them as two deliberate steps that alone I’m not talking about slowing down for days or weeks. Give yourself 10 minutes before you hit send on that email and you’d be amazed at what changes when you pause and stop and think about even seemingly minute details.

For me, I’m always using that time to consider the other person. So, if I use the email as an example, it doesn’t even need to be a bad thing, an email comes to the inbox. What do I do? I respond to that email because that’s what email clients have trained us to do. But if I don’t take the time to think about who I’m responding to, why are they sending me this email? What do I want to get out of responding? I can respond just like tennis – whap - back over to their side of the court and then we’re just going to go back and forth, or I can say, what do they need so that I don’t get another response to this email until it’s the right time? And that’s a thing for people who feel overwhelmed with email. I’m always like, well, maybe it takes some responsibility for the fact that yes, you’ve got tons of inbound email, but some of that inbound email is probably your fault. So what can you do change the way you handle email to reduce the amount of inbound, and make it less about kicking the can down the road and more about giving you, the person, what they really need to be self-sufficient for long enough to do the thing and maybe even see it all the way through?

Matthew Arnold: Awesome! There’s a few of the specific elements that I your insight or how you got there, but you kind of lead off with basically businesses, the amount of time that they focus and the energy they expand on things that aren’t valuable to customers. Could you expand on that one a little bit?

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: I mean, I can point to a million examples. I’ll put my bias on my sleeve, I learned this real hard. I cut my teeth in the digital agency world. The digital agency world loves their award shows. I am sure that stems from a past time and also the, the fact that when you’re in advertising, you’re creating ads for a client. A good ad happens. The client gets all the recognition. What do you get? So., when it comes to, how do you motivate your employees? How do you create a feedback loop inside the industry? I get why awards exist, but I also get the potential damage that can happen is once you create awards and award categories, now you are encouraging people to optimize for winning the awards instead of creating great work and the client becomes the award instead of the person paying you and the effectiveness of that ad.

I saw that early on in my career and I’ve seen it in the coworking world. People are optimizing for press and PR instead of again, deep relationships between members, they’re optimizing for button seats instead of people connecting with each other and they’re optimizing for these really short-term visible, often highly visible, wins that create a hungry beast to be fed. You need more of that thing and the more that thing needs to be fed, the more you’re pulling energy away from the thing that really matters. So even if you know what the thing that matters is it is so easy to get distracted.

I just see a lot of that happen in all industries and categories I’ve worked in. People just get their priorities screwed up somewhere. They get glamoured with fame and notoriety and all those things.

Even when you’re hearing somebody like me on a podcast, that implies that I have some level of success. Question that, is it a good thing to do? And then decide, even if it is true, is that what you need to achieve the next goalpost for you and the people who you serve? If your going and doing a podcast tour, in no way serves your audience or your customers, and it’s just serving your ego and your desire to hear your own voice - and I’m saying this as someone who really enjoys podcasting and doesn’t mind hearing his on voice - so I can call myself out on this. But I get on these shows with the goal of trying to tell a story or give an example that somebody can actually take home and use or reflect on because I have a sense of who’s listening, and because I have a sense of what problems they might have and how I might be able to help.

For me, the podcast appearance is not just to add another name to my list, it’s because I know Matt’s got an audience of cool, interesting, creative people. And if I can help one of them, then us sitting here having this conversation is a hundred percent worth it to me.

Matthew Arnold: Early in my career on kind of a brand and marketing communication side of things, it really burned me that the amount of energy that was spent on here are the awards that we won, rather than talking about the business value they created for their customers, like here, here’s how we moved the needle for this customer, so I love that one.

I want to dig in on the, the notion of flintstoning. Can you explain that for the audience?

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Well I’ll back up a little bit. A lot of the folks that Amy and I have taught through Stocking the Bricks, the main audience for Stacking the Bricks are people with creative skills. A lot of designers and developers, people who can build software and tools. A lot of people out there don’t have those abilities and so flintstoning is not always the most useful lens for them, but I think it’s invaluable, nonetheless.

If your instinct, when you need to solve a problem is to build a tool to either automate or solve that problem for you, instead of cobbled-together off-the-shelf stuff, to make sure that the problem even needs solving, people will pay to have the problem solved, that your thesis on how the problem can be solved is right. We call that flintstoning, like the cars, The Flintstones drove. There was no motor. It was just feet out the bottom, pedal till you go. It doesn’t scale. That’s okay, I get real human contact with the problem and the problem area and all those kinds of things.

In the context of The Tiny MBA, the reminder here is, is to avoid over-engineering and over complicating your solutions, whether you’re a technical person or not, I think it’s really easy to imagine - especially if you’re a designer - to imagine a really well designed system. A set of interlocking parts, pieces, whatever it is, and realize that even the best research plan survives contact with reality for very long. So, what is the Flintstone version of that? How can you kind of hold it together with shoestring and bubble gum, just long enough to make sure that actually works. As soon as you know it works, or specifically how it doesn’t work, that will inform the more permanent, maybe more engineered as well as even just the ability and how reasonable it is to invest in creating something that is more permanent, things like that.

Matthew Arnold: Yeah. I love it because where I see lots of organizations get in trouble is the lack of kind of iterating through that kind of desirability and feasibility phase. They just jump right to here’s what we’re going to do and can spend a lot of money on something that flops, because they didn’t understand the problem, or they didn’t have that human connection.

One more that I want to dig into, because you’re a passionate person talking about lots of energy, but one of the things you talk about is passion is output rather than input. Can you talk about that lesson and how you came to that?

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: So again, this is sort of through the lens of Stacking the Bricks, you see a lot of creative people show up and they narrow their choices based on what they’re passionate about.

Part of the reason for that is because there’s this intertwined confusion about passion and motivation. I think it’s good to optimize for things that motivate you, but I think when you intertwine them, you get confused about where motivation comes from. And the way I look at it is for a lot of things, especially things that you are not instantly good at, you need motivation to put in the work and get the reps to learn and practice so you can get good at it. But passion itself actually comes from the process of getting good at something. So, starting out bad at something doesn’t mean that you’re not passionate about it, but it means that you don’t have a feedback loop to show you a sense of progress.

So what we try to encourage folks to do is say rather than looking for things that you’re passionate in, or rather than limiting yourself to things that you’re passionate in, find things that are potentially valuable, and that will give you an opportunity to learn and grow because from within the learning and the growth, you can find that passion and maybe the better way to look at it is like, you can cultivate that passion. Passion is not this inert thing that’s either in you or out there, it’s the result of doing a thing and doing it with some repetition and some consistency and the feedback loop of growth. If there’s no feedback loop of growth, it is very hard to be passionate about something.

So that’s why people feel like, “I’m not passionate about that”. What they’re really saying is “I didn’t do it long enough to feel like I was good at it”. Kathy Sierra talks a lot about this in a lot of her design work as there’s a curve. I think she calls it the “trough of suckitude” and the trough of suckitude is how long you are willing to be bad at something before you give up.

In my experience, the longer somebody has been good at most of the things that they do, working professionals like you and me and the people listening, if you’ve been good at stuff for a long time, it’s probably been a while since you were truly bad something. We’re all guilty of this, this is not me pointing fingers. I think it’s just a part of the way our brains work. We tend to go to things that appear new, but when I say new, they’re new-ish, they are building on our old skills and things like that.

Truly going back to zero is rare. That’s a good thing, except for in the occasions where you really need to learn something new and it’s been so long since you were new, that you try something new and you’re not instantly good at it and you go, “oh shit, maybe I’m broken”. That’s the thing that I see kills more people and more pursuits is them trying something, not instantly being good at it, or worst as being downright bad at it. And then internalizing that is “I am bad”, then they run away and never try again, instead of a more growth mindset, which is “I’m bad at this now, but there are people that I can learn from who have gotten good at it. Let me go study how they went from being bad to being good and see what help I can get. See what structures might exist. See what milestones exist between, I’ve never done this before, and I can do this proficiently”.

It’s not a zero to one. There’s probably a thousand invisible milestones along the way. The best way to find the passion is, is to find those first few milestones and commit to them. The sense of progress that comes from them will result in the passion that people need to stay motivated to do the work for the long haul.

Matthew Arnold: Yeah. It’s funny you’re talking about solitude. I was talking with Adam Hansen recently, he’s from ideas to go and coauthored Outsmart Your Instincts, and it’s a behavioral approach to innovation. One of his personal beliefs is that you have to believe in something enough that you’re willing to suck at it.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: I totally agree.

Matthew Arnold: And it is like you said, getting in the reps and that’s one of the things that we probably could have a whole other episode on is just practice repetition and so many things in business where you’ll see somebody not put in many reps and then go do something and they’re surprised that it failed where like music, theater, arts, the amount of time that goes on behind the scenes to get ready for something. I mean, football players, the amount of hours they put in a week for one hour of game time. The musicians, the amount of time they’ll put in before a show. I love the idea of reps.

One of the things we, we talk a lot about in the podcast too is advice. As we’re getting close to the end, what was some good advice that you’ve had that sticks with you or stealing from Austin Kleon, Steal Like An Artist, is that when we’re giving advice, we’re talking to our younger self, what might be some advice that you wish you would have had early on?

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Early in my career I was, let’s be honest, I was a young white dude who made websites and thought he knew what he was doing. I certainly did and said some things that I’m sure made people think less of me. I’m sure I burned bridges, for all the bridges I built I’m sure I burnt others along the way.

I think the lesson here is patience pays off and it’s worth putting the time more specifically, that’s in relationships and realizing that if you come at it through a lens of, is there a relationship to be built here that is different from, do I like this person or not? It’s really, really tough to make a judgment from the outside. The only sort of consistent thing I‘ve found is a reason to keep somebody at arm’s length is, that they themselves have done or created harm to other people knowingly so. People make mistakes, but when you find out, you know it, you keep doing it, that’s a problem. Those people keep at arm’s length and also people who enable those people. So those are the two categories that I’m still really pretty consistent with, but everybody else, even if I am uncertain. I’m more comfortable going into a conversation uncertain now and knowing that uncertainty is a good place to be, it allows me to form sort of a more complete, honest picture of that person.

I think giving relationships the time they really need and deserve is the thing that has paid off the most. It took me a while to really figure out what that looked like and meant early in my career, because a lot of it was just like, I got to get the work done, I got to get the next project, I’ve got to show off my new skills, those kinds of things. I can really look at a few dozen relationships that I’ve now had for 15 years. Even with the book coming out, people who are buying the book now that I haven’t talked to in over a decade, but we can pick up the core connection right where we left off. And I think there’s more of that in our lives than we notice, than we invest in, and that we think to turn to in times where we need it. And I think that’s what life is all about is, is to have those relationships with people before you need them and also tap them even when you don’t need anything, just be like, “hey, how are you doing?”

Relationships are not transactions. Relationships can be for transactions. Relationships are a platform that allows transactions to happen in a new and better way. So for me, invest 90% in the relationship with no expectation of a transaction, so that if one day when there is an opportunity for a transaction to happen, I’ve got all the cards stacked in my favor.

Matthew Arnold: And there’s already a foundation of trust, right?

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Exactly.

Matthew Arnold: Thank you so much for joining me. With folks listening, where might they get a copy of Tiny MBA?

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: I’m so glad you asked! So Tiny MBA, is available at Tiny.MBA. That’s the whole website, Tiny.MBA. That’ll take you to…or you can Google it, The Tiny MBA, and that will allow you to order in paperback or a digital ebook.

We are also on Amazon for a Kindle edition, so you can buy the Kindle edition on Amazon dot whatever, wherever you are in the world. The books come with some extra digital goodies as well, which are easier for us to deliver if you’re buying directly from us. So, the Tiny.MBA option is generally going to be your best one.

Matthew Arnold: Right on! Alex, thanks so much for joining me. It was a pleasure having you here and I felt like I could keep talking for hours on all these different topics. So, thanks for coming aboard, sharing your wisdom and your journey. I appreciate it.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: If you enjoyed that episode, and I hope you did, I’ve got a couple of quick things before you go. The first of course is making sure that you have your very own copy of The Tiny MBA. If you haven’t ordered it, I’d love it if you did, and you can grab a paperback or ebook at Tiny.MBA.

I also hope you’re subscribed to this show. We’re going to be releasing more episodes like this one with other creators and entrepreneurs, just like you and I’m going to be talking with them about their favorite lessons in The Tiny MBA, learning what’s going on in their world and sharing it all with you. You can search for that by looking for Stacking the Bricks wherever you get podcasts.

And one last thing, check out the Stacking the Bricks website, we’ve got a great newsletter with new articles coming out every week or two following a lot of the same topics and themes that we talk about right here on the show. You can do that by going to

I hope you have a great rest of your day and don’t forget to keep on stacking those bricks!

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