Note: This article is part three in an ongoing series about mastery.

When the LA Opera recently announced its 2019-2020 season, a major coup was the world premiere of Eurydice by Matthew Aucoin. I am very excited about this opera and Matthew Aucoin’s music in general.

Though, to be honest, as of today, I haven’t heard any of it.

A quick explanation is in order: Matthew Aucoin rocketed to fame in the last several years as an unusually gifted young opera composer and conductor. His best-known work Crossing—an opera about Walt Whitman—has played only in small houses so hasn’t been seen in that many cities, or by that many audiences.

But even if Aucoin’s music is low-profile, the buzz around it and him is consistently strong; his conducting work is varied and impressive; and in public appearances, podcasts, tweets, and talks, he always comes across as generous, perceptive, and passionate about opera in a way that’s instantly engaging and infectious.

His warmth and intelligence are both on display in the following master class, recorded at the Music Academy of the West:


I watched this entire two-hour video in one sitting and may watch it again soon: it’s that good.

As a composer, Aucoin understands music in a unique way, and in the video above, he guides a soprano through the difficult work of turning Desdemona’s sad meditation from Verdi’s Otello into a journey of terror and despair. He similarly guides a baritone through making Mozart’s famous catalogue aria from Don Giovanni pulse with life. Aucoin doesn’t just know these songs, he understands deeply how they work.

The third student ventures into trickier territory with an aria from Stravinsky’s mid-20th-century opera The Rake’s Progress. The student is perhaps a bit nervous, but Aucoin is fairly blunt with his feedback:

“I don’t feel like you have command of the syntax… You have to have a better command of it.”

If you haven’t watched the video yet or don’t know these operas: the first two arias are in Italian.

The third is in English.

Granted, the text of The Rake’s Progress by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman is full of complex language that’s very, very, very difficult to parse. But knowing what the text is saying is key to being able to sing it, to interpret the line and communicate its meaning to the audience. Aucoin demonstrates with the student that these lyrics might seem like word salad on the page, but when married to Stravinsky eclectic music and performed correctly, they make immediate sense. The music elevates the words, and the two together elevate the audience… if the singer is prepared.

I feel for this student. He clearly chose or was handed an unusually difficult song. At the same time, I can see why Aucoin’s feedback was so unequivocal. The first two singers could sing their parts and knew what they were saying… which allowed Aucoin to work with them more deeply to discover why they were saying what they were saying and to give those lyrics emotional depth and specificity… which could be expressed to the audience with clear vocal and acting choices. The third singer hadn’t done that work yet, so there was nowhere to go.

Embedding good vocal technique, then discovering the meaning of the text, and then bringing that meaning to life in a specific, personal, intentional way is an example of what I would call a methodology.

Methodologies in practice

A methodology is “a system of methods.” It’s a journey of inquiry, not a simple process or checklist. Methodologies are directive, not prescriptive.

Methodologies are everywhere in business today, across industries and sectors. Examples:

When I worked at Sapient in the late 1990s, I was in charge at one point of the company’s “One Team” development methodology. My blog series on connecting business, brand, and marketing strategy is another example of a methodology, and one I use to this day. I’ve been a methodology junkie for a long time.

I see organizations get into trouble all the time when they choose the wrong methodology for the current challenges they face, or instead jump immediately into process or (worse) tools.

When a company is violating a principle, as I described in my last article, an expert will usually react by bringing the conversation to an abrupt halt. When a company is working without a methodology, or using the wrong one, an expert will usually say something like: “we’re asking the wrong questions, in the wrong order, in the wrong way.”

When you find yourself facing a work situation that intellectually and interpersonally feels like strange Stravinsky music paired to an impenetrable W. H. Auden poem, imagine Matthew Aucoin (or Mark Gibson) saying: “But but but… If we went about this in a different way, things would make more sense. It could be different. Even beautiful.”
Next article: Process


Note: This article is part two in an ongoing series about mastery.

If you ever need a study break, I recommend checking out Thomas Hampson’s performance in the Willy Decker 2005 production of La Traviata.

Hampson’s rendition of “Di Provenza il mar, il suol” has authority and a beautiful vocal line. His acting is also solid. At one point in the aria, he lumbers towards his distraught son, arms outstretched with love, but looking like Frankenstein’s Monster. With his voice and physicality, Hampson brings to life the conflict in the character: Germont is the bad guy, but unintentionally so.


Hampson is a teacher as well as a singer, and if you search his name on YouTube, most of the videos you’ll find these days are of his master classes. He’s hosted many of these, and they are a joy to watch.

Hampson is an incredibly erudite singer and teacher, always engrossed in small details of history, pronunciation, and textual analysis. I love this aspect of his approach, since I can get very geeky and erudite myself.

Hampson also happens to be my favorite go-to example of what “principled” instruction looks like.

First things first

I’m humble enough to admit that one of the many pleasures I get watching opera master classes online is schadenfreude.

Often in these videos, the student will be singing a difficult aria, pouring out his or her heart and filling the room with sound… but the teacher will interrupt them mid-way through the song. Or the phrase. Or the initial note. The teacher is just being efficient of course, but still I cringe whenever this happens. I imagine what it would be like to be that student, and today at least, I’m thankful that it’s not me.

Thomas Hampson takes things just a bit further: instead of cutting off students during their first phrase or their first note, he cuts them off during their inhalation… before they’ve produced a single sound.

As Hampson says in the video below (and he says some variation of this in almost every class):

“The breath you take on stage is the breath you need to make that thought in that language audible. Right? Air is not gasoline. It’s not tanking up for something we have to propel.”



This is actually excellent instruction. If the singer has the wrong amount of air and isn’t prepared and intentional about the sound they’re about to produce, then the ensuing phrase will not be good. At best, it will be fixed-on-the-fly… far below the standards demanded by opera. If the inhalation is distracted, the singing will be too.

A simple idea.

But isn’t it interesting how many singers get this wrong? In video after video, Hampson makes this comment, and most of his students struggle in real time to act on it. Also, after so many videos, any new student who performs in Hampson’s classes has to know in advance that this critique will come up. And yet they still fail to inhale properly.

There’s a fine line between principles and pedantry, but Hampson clearly knows what he is doing. He coaxes excellent performances every time. He remains insistent on this one issue and at the same time helps his students bring out the richness of their vocal production, their acting, and their joy in the music.

The transformation in the video below, for example, is breathtaking. A former mezzo attempts her first public version of “Dove sono”; with Hampson’s guidance and before our eyes, she becomes the character and achieves a gorgeous sound.


Principles in practice

The funny thing about principles—like Hampson’s guidance about inhalation—is that they tend to be incredibly clear and intuitively correct, yet very hard to remember in the moment.

They stop the conversation and stop the flow. They can be annoying.

They are also inarguable. They do not need data to back them up. Hence the idea of arguing “from first principles.”

I use principles in my professional work all the time. Two examples:

  1. A strategic plan is half about the strategy, half about the plan.

  2. For marketing to be effective, we have to know who we’re talking to.

Basic, important, difficult, and powerful.

Organizations thrive, and leaders thrive, when they internalize clear principles and build systems based on those principles. Doing the right thing consistently then gets a whole lot easier.

It can become as instinctive and effortless as breathing.

Next article: Methodology


I love watching opera master classes online.

If you’re not familiar with this genre, here’s what it involves:

Young singers perform in front of an audience, while well-known opera stars critique their performances in real time. The singer may start out as solid, or even exquisite, but the teacher finds subtle and blunt ways to coach them to new heights.

Singing difficult material in front of a live audience—and a global online audience—with a famous expert standing right beside you, telling you what you’re doing wrong, requires a level of vulnerability that most of us don’t risk in our daily lives. If you want to know what courage looks like, watch these students.

In a recent post, I shared one of these videos and used it as a jumping-off point to comment on the importance of connecting “principles, methodology, process, tools, and results… in that order.”

I want to explore that idea in a bit more depth.

In the current economy and mediasphere, the emphasis is almost always on quick-fix solutions, immediately digestible advice. Yet the higher we intervene in the knowledge stack above, the more energy we can unlock.

Even for non-singers, these opera master classes are object lessons not in what to think but how to think. They also demonstrate the deep intertwining of cognition, kinesthetic awareness, emotional intelligence, technological support, and social context.

We can be smart and fully alive at the same time. In fact, that is the only option.

“What an amazing word ‘heady’ is, en passant, suggesting both acute and sensuous alertness, and its opposite, the pleasure of the brain as opposed to the viscera—though each is implicated in the other, as we know very well, with both, when they are working.” – A.S. Byatt, Possession

Next article: Principles


Product and Marketing

In 2017, Brad Feld wrote an article in which he proposed that any startup can be viewed as essentially three machines: “(1) the Product machine, (2) the Customer machine, and (3) the Company machine.”

I love this model. For me, it captures what day-to-day strategy and execution feels like at a typical startup and many other kinds of organizations, too. The three machines must be high-functioning, and they must be aligned.

Feld adapted this framework from one of his investees, and when he first saw it, the machines had different names. I similarly want to tinker with his labels just a bit:

  • As I’ve written previously, organizations must build relationships with diverse external stakeholders beyond just customers. Depending on the business model, those stakeholders could include consumers, press, unions, standards bodies, donors, local communities, analysts, employee recruits, investors, strategic partners, or influencers. For broad elasticity, I’d like to call the second machine “Relationships” instead.
  • I’d like to relabel the third machine “Operations” to reflect that the emphasis here is on financial integrity, not cultural integrity. Company culture is critically important but is not an end in itself. The right internal culture is the one that optimally aligns and supports the three machines.
  • I’ll keep the label “Product” for the first machine, but different kinds of organizations might want to use Offerings, Services, Products, Platform, Programs, or Programming instead.

Here are our three machines, relabeled:

Now I love the model even more, in part because it gives me a context and container for one of my favorite topics.

Over the course of many posts, I’ve talked about the importance of connecting human activity in an intentional way from an organization’s board down to its grittiest day-to-day interactions with the outside world. These linked strategies together comprise the “Relationships” machine in toto.

For those who don’t want to go digging, here is the complete series:

  1. Corporate strategy
  2. Business strategy and competitive advantage
  3. Brand strategy
  4. Marketing strategy and positioning
  5. Brand vs. performance marketing
  6. Aligning Marketing and Sales

In these articles, I’ve emphasized that an organization’s relationships with external stakeholders can and should be modeled as funnels. And Feld’s framework—especially with the tweaked labels above—makes it easy to see that each of the three machines is in fact a funnel: turning casual users into deeply engaged ones, new prospects into brand advocates, dollars into sustainable strategic advantage.

The details and specific metrics vary, but all businesses are measured on the health of these three funnels.

I’m not the only one to notice this. Check out David Ulevitch’s recent tweet and the conversation it inspired:

With only slightly different vocabularies and always-converging tools, software programmers, fundraisers, marketing analysts, and COOs are all working every day on FSMs (Finite-State Machines).

The three machines are Finite-State Machines.

Marketing today: the CEO view

Many startups break down marketing into three macro functions: product marketing, brand marketing, and performance marketing. If we layer these functions across the three machines, we might get something like this:

This illustration, though crude, makes some helpful distinctions.

  • Product marketing is essentially about Product Market Fit and aligning product to customer needs.
  • Brand marketing is essentially about scaling long-term revenue and creating intentional full-funnel relationships.
  • Performance marketing is essentially about driving short-term revenue in a scalable, repeatable way.

If any of these functions is missing or misaligned, then the company’s marketing strategy will be incoherent and unsuccessful.

Blowing out this idea a bit further, this sketch shows the high-level marketing skills stack that supports the Relationships machine:

Questions for all CEOs: Are all these functions covered? Are they deeply connected to each other? Is this Relationships machine fully aligned with our Product and Operations machines?

Marketing today: the practitioner view

Marketing in general is a bit under the gun as a profession.

Ten to fifteen years ago, Marketing’s star was rising, and there were many business articles suggesting—in the wake of Apple’s singular success and the explosion of the Web 2.0 economy—that the head of marketing position would become the new fast-track to the CEO role. Companies were expanding marketing budgets rapidly, and Marketing often controlled the digital platforms and data that were driving real or hoped-for innovation.

When former CMO Beth Comstock did not replace Jeff Immelt as the CEO of General Electric in 2017, for me it was one of many signs that the winds had shifted. Many observations could of course be made regarding that one story, but in recent years I’ve noticed generally that Marketing has retained large budgets for tools, campaigns, data, and staff… while losing relative internal power. CMOs now do not become CEOs typically unless they pass through the CRO, CDO, CPO, or COO roles first. In many organizations, the Head of Marketing isn’t a C-level role at all.

Meanwhile, below the Head of Marketing level, many marketing directors and senior marketers fight a daily battle where it can feel like everyone in the world is trying to do their job for them. I’ve seen company-wide democratic votes on everything from color palettes to ad spend to channel prioritization. Product marketers, brand marketers, and performance marketers overlap in their job functions all the time, and Sales and Customer Success can sometimes try to claim the bottom of the funnel for themselves and push marketers all the way to the top. Meanwhile, algorithms and monopoly tech ecosystems are slowly but surely automating many performance marketers out of a job.

It’s tough out there.

Across the Relationships funnel, and within it, roles are blurring. And although I feel for marketers, these trends aren’t going away anytime soon because they affect all business functions, and not just Marketing.

The most obvious example of this blurring is the rise of DevOps and DevSecOps in application development. Software used to be produced in a linear flow, with a clean separation between pre-launch development and post-launch performance. But that’s no longer true, thanks to the exploding complexity of code bases, the ubiquity of open source, the speed mandates of agile development, and the realities of Continuous Integration.

Tasks that used to be spaced along a timeline are merging into an endless “Now” where an individual developer may need to care about inherited code, code-in-development, and deployed code at the same time. The paradigm shift is from silos to holism.

What we’re seeing in Marketing is identical to what’s happening in software development, except instead of playing out across the lifecycle, the blurring is happening across the funnel.

The situations are parallel not only because the macroeconomic conditions and drivers are the same, but because software developers and marketers are working with increasingly inter-dependent and centralized ecosystems and data sets.

For marketers, what this means is that discrete areas of marketing like brand, performance, and product marketing, and then the channel specialties within them, are evolving towards Areas of Responsibilities (AoRs), not job titles. Multiple AoRs can be covered by one person, and that person might not always be a marketer, an internal resource, or a permanent hire. Different staffing approaches can sometimes work equally well, and contextual “right answers” can vary. The system, the machine, is what matters.

Software is eating the org chart.

Towards a new paradigm

Brad Feld’s “three machines” article focused primarily on the disconnect between what organizations need to do and how they are organized to do it. This is a perennial challenge, as scaling organizations get caught up in their internal dysfunctions and conundrums and lose touch with the outside world. Culture eats strategy for breakfast, and businesses inevitably ship their org chart.

That said, this evergreen challenge is taking place in specific and new historic conditions, and Feld’s model usefully clarifies for me the AoRs and job titles we’re most likely to find in the future. The closer a marketer aligns his or her career to the three machines, the more likely they are to have a valued and valuable job.

This new paradigm for day-to-day business management assumes as givens contemporary technology ecosystems, more dynamic and less predictable external conditions, and leaner staffing. In tandem with insistent economic pressure towards career specialization, there will be a countervailing push for the vocabularies and perspectives of Product, Relationships, and Operations to merge ever-closer. Organizations and individuals who are savvy about these deeper connections, and who focus on system-building and real-time observability, will do well.

We’re all working together on one job. The unexpected overlaps may feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar, but deeper integration, deeper understanding, and shared languages can unlock new human potential.

Chocolate and peanut butter together can taste pretty damn good.

Aligning Marketing and Sales

For years, I’ve been writing about how businesses can optimize human relationships inside and outside their organizations. I’ve fleshed out this idea over many blog posts, with a core visual denoting three kinds of strategy that should always be tightly linked.

I love the purity of this diagram, but some kinds of businesses merit an expanded framework. In my last post, I complicated this model slightly, by adding a fourth circle for corporate strategy:

For B2B companies, however, there is at least one more circle that’s conspicuously missing, and I want to address it now: Sales.

I have avoided talking about Sales in this series until now for two reasons.

First, many B2C businesses and social sector organizations have no sales functions, so for them, the topic is irrelevant.

Second, it screws up my diagrams.

One but not the same

B2B organizations face an unresolved tension between the business imperative to have a unified distribution strategy that yokes Marketing and Sales together, and the human reality that Marketing and Sales have very different cultures and priorities. The two worlds overlap but don’t cohere, like the cross-hatched cities in the China Miéville novel The City and The City. In other words, each of the following, conflicting, diagrams is correct:

And each of the following funnel illustrations is likewise correct:

This unresolved tension is an example of what Venkat Rao has referred to as an “abstraction leak.” There is in fact no abstraction for the marketing/sales relationship that will work for every situation, industry, or level of scale. Some defining quirk or information will always fail to be captured, and Marketing and Sales will divide yet co-own the funnel no matter what.

Many marketers write about the ambiguity of who owns what, where, across the funnel. Most good textbook models of the customer funnel, for example, look something like this:

Meanwhile, most real-world B2B top-of-funnel (TOFU) experiences I’m aware of look more like this:

And bottom-of-funnel (BOFU) experiences can look more like this:

The good news is that although there is no general, all-purpose model for the Marketing/Sales relationship, in my experience, every organization *can* model that relationship across the funnel in a way that works uniquely for them. A company can designate clear areas of responsibility and evaluate the integrated marketing/sales function at a level of dynamic complexity, and not just detail complexity.

Good marketers and salespeople create systems. Good systems are instrumented, observable, and scalable.

Although there’s no right answer that works for everyone, here are some of the frameworks and tools I use most often to design, evaluate, and optimize integrated Marketing/Sales functions.

1. TAM -> PMF -> GTM -> PCF

Any growing business can be described as an attempt to capture a Total Addressable Market (TAM) with an offering that achieves Product/Market Fit (PMF), connecting with external stakeholders via a Go To Market (GTM) strategy that includes an appropriate mix of channels, optimally leveraged—i.e., Product Channel Fit (PCF).

I use this conventional framework frequently with investors, CEOs, and COOs. It speaks their language and reflects their core concerns. This framework takes as a given that Marketing and Sales work together as part of one integrated GTM strategy: high-touch vs. low-touch, fast vs. slow, direct vs. indirect.

This tool, though crude, can quickly expose some common and important errors:

  • TAM: We haven’t prioritized our potential target markets. We could be over-focusing on short-term TAM while missing the bigger opportunity. Or conversely, we could be failing to pick up all the money on the table when we need it to buy time to fight another day.
  • PMF: We have not set up clean and separate hypothesis tests for PMF and GTM strategy: we might have the right product to capture the market but the wrong marketing strategy, or vice versa. Or, we could be driving high-volume traffic to an unproven product, beyond what we need to do to validate PMF.
  • GTM: We’ve prescribed a channel mix without a clear GTM strategy: for example, we’ve become addicted to PR, performance advertising, or social media instead of cross-channel, integrated funnel design.
  • PCF: We could be under-investing in a marketing channel that’s key to our GTM success—for example, trying to get by with a simple Wix site when we need WordPress and Marketo.

If there are any gaps or errors in this chain of logic, no marketing or sales team can succeed, so making this clear, and making it right, are mission critical.

2. The SiriusDecisions Demand Waterfall®

Every B2B organization I have ever worked with uses the conventional funnel stages defined by SiriusDecisions and that align strongly to “Salesforce reality.”

For those who don’t know this framework already, in its simplest and more advanced versions, it essentially says that Leads flow in from various sources, and then Marketing qualifies them as Marketing Qualified Leads (MQLs) which are then handed off to Sales, who further qualifies them as Sales Qualified Leads (SQLs), which are pursued until they are won or lost. Optimizing the lead lifecycle—including lead volume, lead quality, conversion per stage, and overall sales velocity—is key to ensuring ongoing business success.

The SiriusDecision frameworks and labels are near-ubiquitous in B2B marketing, and for good reason: they’re good. But unlike the equation above that yokes Marketing and Sales together into one integrated GTM strategy, the SiriusDecisions framework emphasizes a bright line between Marketing and Sales. Literally, some of the funnel stages have M’s and some have S’s, with no crossover between them. This separation provides useful focus and accountability, but it also can foster some common mistakes:

  • Holding the marketing organization accountable for only TOFU metrics—either Leads or MQLs—without full-funnel visibility about how those leads convert by audience, cohort, or acquisition channel
  • Allowing the sales organization to be sloppy with its Salesforce hygiene, leading to fuzzy BOFU data to inform ongoing marketing decisions

These are rookie mistakes, but they happen all the time. The end result is the (stereo)typical one: Marketing complains that Sales can’t forecast or close deals, and Sales blames Marketing for generating a bunch of bad leads that don’t convert.

Fights between Marketing and Sales are tedious for everyone. Sometimes there are real talent issues where either the head of Marketing, the head of Sales, or the CEO is over their head. Marketing and Sales can also snipe at each other when the company has not found PMF and discussing this candidly is culturally forbidden. (There’s only so much Marketing and Sales can do when there’s a core product problem.)

That said, even when the product is strong and the right people are in the right seats, if a company uses a model that splits Marketing and Sales into two camps, I find that the teams themselves tend to split into two camps. So, although the SiriusDecisions framework is necessary and very helpful, I find it works best when paired with OKRs, incentives, business rules, or other mechanisms that foster collaboration, coordination, and understanding between the two teams.

The new trend towards hiring CROs (Chief Revenue Officers) who manage both Marketing and Sales is yet another way to broker peace and foster continuity between the two functions.

3. Sales-centric frameworks

Venkat Rao elsewhere wrote that “Marketing people and sales people are very different” and that transitioning from one role to the other would involve “enormous personality transformations and very tough learning curves.”

I believe this is true. I have never met a head of Marketing who would make an equally-good head of Sales.

But marketers must work with sales teams every day, and a big chunk of B2B marketing is in fact sales enablement. I therefore recommend that all B2B marketers do everything they can do to absorb sales frameworks, language, and perspectives.

Hands-down the best information I’ve found about Sales has been from Mark Cranney on the a16z blog and in the write-up about him in the Ben Horowitz book The Hard Thing About Hard Things.

One Mark Cranney framework that I particularly like layers a progression of Why Buy?Why Buy You?Why Buy Now? onto the typical sales process, with key assets and activities at each step. I find this matrix a handy starting point whenever I am creating sales enablement infrastructure or materials.

Other excellent Sales resources include:

Increasingly sophisticated funnels

Some parting thoughts.

I have worked with over a dozen B2B and B2B2C startups and enterprises in the last five years who have commented on the unusual, baroque complexity of their customer segmentation, offerings, and funnel design. I’m ready at this point to say this phenomenon is the new normal, not an exception.

Out in the wild, the following scenarios are all typical:

  • A scaled, enterprise SaaS company could offer an integrated platform as well as one-off software products within that platform. Those individual products may have conflicting freemium, fixed-fee, and use-dependent pricing strategies.
  • An enterprise company could support multiple in-house sales teams, each one aligned to different products that it acquired through inorganic growth.
  • An early-stage startup could begin offering a product or service to an audience that has never been marketed to before and that has no tried-and-true marketing channels or sales best practices.
  • A late-stage startup could pursue multiple GTM strategies at the same time to disrupt themselves and capture new TAM.
  • A BU within a larger organization could torque its marketing and sales strategies to reflect the priorities of the corporate parent: e.g., by bundling offerings or by using a different pricing sheet for specific customer segments.
  • Companies with complex sales processes often instantiate separate funnels for different offerings or buyer personas.
  • A SMB or early-stage startup could hit paydirt by optimizing a brand-new media channel that has no defined rules yet.
  • Companies that make money via B2B2C, P2P, or B2G business models will have funnels that do not align to B2B best practices.

The right funnel designs for organizations like these will never be found in an off-the-shelf framework: they will always be bespoke.

Given that reality, a good B2B head of marketing does not just impose a favorite or familiar framework for the Marketing/Sales funnel. Rather, she brings strategic insight about which models to choose, adapt, and evolve. As organizations mature, they will inevitably cycle through several models, sometimes quickly, so a lot of hustle and know-how regarding one specific model tends not to be very valuable.

Thank goodness marketing professionals can turn to world-renowned opera singers for wisdom and guidance. 😀 Case in point, I think mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato has the right idea here.

As she coaches this student:

“Don’t recreate what just worked. Analyze the process you went through to create that result. You go for the result, it ain’t gonna work. It might, but it’s luck.”

My advice to younger marketers:

Learn as many models and tools as you can, or learn a handful well. Be scrappy and inquisitive. But aim over the course of your career to connect principles, methodology, process, tools, and results… in that order.

That level of mastery can handle any unique future situations or uniquely complicated funnel designs—and help you build successful alliances with Sales, Product teams, and CEOs as well.