Book Notes

The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Posted on April 5, 2018

The Hard Thing About Hard Things is ostensibly a book about how to build a business but it is in fact a collection of war stories and opinions by venture capitalist and erstwhile CEO Ben Horowitz. I think it is probably a fairly helpful read to somebody in crisis in a CEO-like role who needs to hear that the work is difficult and that even CEOs regarded as successful have a really hard time of it. I personally found lots of the book sort of narrow-minded and wrong-headed and sometimes downright offensive. It comes off as a bit of a long-form humble-brag, which is annoying. I wouldn’t personally want to work for this guy or to emulate him. And as someone in a leadership role, it’s frankly hard to imagine putting much of what he writes about into practice.

Structurally the book is very weak. It starts with a longish set of anecdotes about Horowitz’s background but by the end becomes a series of brief, un-nuanced spurts of advice. It waffles a bit between offering more pragmatic tips and offering more vague blustery opinions. It feels a little scattershot, and it’s disappointingly casual and shallow — meaning that some sections feel like summaries for what could usefully be more in-depth treatments. On the whole, the book reads a bit as if you’re listening to a blowhard carrying on in a bar. It’s not a book I would recommend to most people.

Deep Work

Posted on April 3, 2018

I wanted to add some notes to Daryl’s earlier post about Deep Work. These are less of a book review and more of an overview of the key highlights from different chapters. If the tidbits interest you I’d definitely read the full book. It’s a quick read that will likely prompt a lot of thinking.

Newport defines deep work as:

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate. pg. 3

Our broader work culture’s shift toward shallow work presents an economic opportunity to those who can master deep work. This is because deep work allows for learning complicated things quickly.

Deep Work Is Valuable
When a market is universally accessible the peak will thrive while the rest suffer. In our economy there are two core abilities:

  • The ability to quickly master hard things.
  • The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

Deliberate practice is key to achieving this. It involves focusing your attention tightly on a specific skill or idea and then receiving feedback so you can correct your approach and keep your attention where it is most productive. Sophie Leroy introduced an idea she termed attention residue. When you move from one task to another not all of your attention follows. A residue is left behind with the first task.

A good chief executive is essentially a hard-to-automate decision engine. pg. 46

Deep Work Is Rare
Three trends lead to this rarity: open office floor plans, instant messaging, and the push to maintain a social media presence. Newport argues these trends actively decrease people’s ability to perform deep work. The busyness they engender is only a proxy for productivity.

In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner. pg. 64

Deep Work Is Meaningful
Newport’s thesis here is that deep work is not just economically lucrative. It’s also a life well lived. Our brains will ultimately construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. Winifred Gallagher writes that, “when you lose focus, your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what’s right.” Generally speaking a sense of meaning comes not from the work itself but from how you approach it.

Work Deeply
Newport outlines four depth philosophies he’s found to be successful. These aren’t an exhaustive list, but a sampling.

  • Monastic: when you maximize deep efforts by eliminating shallow obligations. It requires having a crystal clear notion of one’s value to the world.
  • Bimodal: when you divide your time, dedicating clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits. The minimum unit here tends to be one full day.
  • Rhythmic: when you generate a rhythm for deep work by consistently making it a simple habit. This can be just a portion of your day.
  • Journalistic: when you can shift into deep work at a moment’s notice and take advantage of any time available. This is not for the deep work novice.

Regardless of approach it’s important to be deliberate. A haphazard approach gets you nowhere; you have to ritualize it. There’s no one correct ritual. Just be consistent.

Expose yourself to ideas in hubs on a regular basis, but maintain a spike in which to work deeply on what you encounter. pg. 132

Key to any approach is execution. Newport encourages thinking of execution as a business would. He summarizes four disciplines from The 4 Disciplines of Execution:

  • Focus on the wildly important.
  • Act on lead measures.
  • Keep a compelling scoreboard.
  • Create a cadence of accountability.

One thing that supports deep work is have a shutdown ritual at the end of the day. The goal is to close off all work and shut down work thinking. Trying to squeeze more work out of evenings likely reduces your effectiveness the next day. “Fortunately we don’t need to complete a task to get it off our minds.” (pg. 153).

Embrace Boredom
If you flee the slightest hint of boredom you’ll struggle to achieve the deepest levels of concentration. Strategies for this are motivated by the idea that training is necessary to get the most out of your deep work habit. Newport recommends scheduling in advance when you’ll use the internet and to then avoid it altogether outside of these times. The goal isn’t to avoid or even reduce distraction. It’s to resist switching to distractions at the first hint of boredom. He also proposes productive meditation, or focusing your attention on a problem while your occupied physically but not mentally (e.g. while walking).

Quit Social Media
Largely clear from the chapter title. The shift is to think of a tool not through the lens of any benefit it offers but instead through whether it has a net positive impact.

Drain the Shallows
The goal is not to eliminate shallow work from outlet day. Instead we can focus on taking its footprint. We should treat shallow work with a healthy suspicion. One way to do this: schedule every minute of your day. It also helps to fix a start and end time on your work day.

Deep Work

Posted on April 2, 2018

Deep Work by Cal Newport is a great read if you’re looking for motivation, tips, and reassurance that might help you transcend what he characterizes as “shallow” work to do higher impact “deep” work. He defines these work types as follows:

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

Shallow work is composed of tasks like answering emails and performing social media activities (e.g. for authors who feel like they ought to keep connected). Deep work is more creative and productive in sustained ways and tends to generate substantive output. Newport proposes that deep work is increasingly important in our economy but decreasingly rare, and he makes an argument for the value of deep work and shares some approaches that have helped him and others perform deep work.

Most of the things he proposes are fairly common sense. For example, you should find ways to engage less with email and other distractions that aren’t high value. Push these things to the periphery of your work and intentionally spend more focused time on high value things. Optimize your behaviors to promote this sort of prioritization. And more.

Newport describes several modes of deep work that have proven successful (you don’t necessarily have to build a tower on a remote island and cut yourself off from all distractions, it turns out), and he shares a few tactics for training yourself to be more effective at deep work. The book offers a pretty good balance of sales pitch for the concept and pragmatic suggestions for how to begin doing deep work, and it for the most part does so without seeming too smarmy about it.

Although I’ve never called it deep work, I’ve certainly proven capable of focusing pretty intensely on a given task. To help myself do so, I’ve recently made a shift that clears my Fridays of meetings and designates some scheduled time for certain types of tasks, for example. And I’ve begun to be more intentional about how I plan my week and load balance my tasks, offloading some of the cognitive burden of spinning my various plates to simple tools rather than feeling as overwhelmed by miscellany. When I know I really need to focus on something, I’ll shut down email and other distractions and go dark for two or three hours to get the task done. These are all the sorts of behaviors that Newport suggests, but I’ve arrived at them out of necessity and often out of frustration, mostly by happenstance. This book presents a bunch of underpinning ideas and a double handful of tactics all in one source, and it’ll likely shape how I continue to iterate on my own approach to deeper work.

If you’re in a similar place to the one I’m in in your current approach to work, this book may offer useful refinements to your approach. If you’re already in the 90th percentile for how effectively you structure your work to be consistently effective, the book won’t likely offer you much. If your work’s primary function is composed by design chiefly of shallow work (these terms are not intended to suggest any sort of value judgment; some sorts of shallow work make the world go around!) and that work is appropriate and satisfying, this probably isn’t the book for you. If you’re familiar with the phenomenon of getting to the end of the week and feeling like you’ve left a lot of big important things unfinished because you’ve been mired in miscellany that is lower impact within the context of your job’s mandate, you may find value in Deep Work.

The Effortless Experience

Posted on February 2, 2018

The Effortless Experience, by Matthew Dixon, Nick Toman, and Rick DeLisi, is a really good read for pretty much anybody who runs a customer service organization, and parts of it are worthwhile for anybody who leads people working in a customer service organization. The authors strive to make a pretty solid case for a Customer Effort Score framework that their research has led them to develop; I don’t intend to push too hard for the introduction their framework in my organization, but I still felt like a lot of what the authors share makes good sense and can contribute to providing better customer service. Several times, I found myself kind of smacking my head and thinking “we should be doing a better job of that.”

The authors start with a consideration of the cases you hear of every once in a while in which a customer support representative goes many extra miles to delight a customer. These are appealing as viral stories, but based on a lot of research the authors did, this sort of story is more of a flash in the pan. It’s expensive and unsustainable. Instead, the authors propose, we should scrap the notion of delighting our customers and instead work to make their experiences be (or at least seem) as low-effort as possible.

The authors’ research has turned up four headlines:

  • A strategy of delight doesn’t pay.
  • Satisfaction is not a predictor of loyalty.
  • Customer service interactions tend to drive disloyalty, not loyalty
  • The key to mitigating disloyalty is reducing customer effort.

The authors think of customer loyalty in terms of whether customers continue to buy things, how much they spend, and how much advocacy they perform for the company (do they talk the company up to friends and family?). A customer who scores high marks across these dimensions is a loyal customer. Loyalty correlates with lower-effort experiences.

The big drivers of customer disloyalty are as follows:

  • Having to contact the company more than once to resolve the problem
  • Generic service (feeling treated like a number, having no personalized experience)
  • Having to repeat things (your story, your account number…)
  • Being bounced around a lot to different departments, or channel-switching (going from FAQ to chat to email to phone, etc.)

The four best practices that are common to low-effort service organizations:

  • Minimize channel switching by making it easy for people to self-serve, so that they never have to leave that self-service channel.
  • Don’t just resolve the current issue, but set agents up to prevent future calls by using next issue avoidance practices.
  • Set agents up to use advanced “experience engineering” tactics to manage the customer interaction and create a good emotional experience for the customer. This can be as simple as phrasing things better (you hear this sometimes called “turning a can’t into a can”) but can also be a lot more involved.
  • Incentivize agents to optimize for quality of the experience over speed and efficiency, which also tends to include giving agents some autonomy (untether them from the long, rigid checklist).

The practices above that are in the customer support representatives’ hands are pretty trainable.

The perception of effort has more to do with how the customer feels about it than what steps they actually had to take. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we should just be nicer to customers, but rather that we can plan next steps and language carefully to anticipate pitfalls and think of outcomes that, while not the initial desired outcome, might be agreeable to the customer. The book offers a really good example of the way one company manages this alongside helping the customer feel like they’ve had a really personalized experience.

The authors write about Control Quotient (CQ), which they define as the ability to “exercise judgment and maintain control in a high-pressure, complex service environment.” Most reps already have high CQ, but organizations inhibit it by, for example, limiting people to using rigid checklists and generally opting for standardization over autonomy. The drab name aside, CQ as portrayed in the book does a good job capturing a lot of what I’ve seen in very good customer support representatives, so the idea here passes the sniff test for me. Traits common to people with high CQ:

  • Curiosity
  • Creativity
  • Capable of critical thinking
  • Experimental

And a further set of skills common to these folks:

  • They demonstrate product knowledge.
  • They demonstrate technological expertise.
  • They communicate confidently.
  • They communicate clearly.
  • They ask good questions.
  • They’re capable of multitasking

There’s another set of skills and traits categorized as emotional intelligence that, when present in customer service representatives, tends to correlate with an even bigger performance lift than those listed above:

  • They’re empathetic.
  • They can flex to different personality types.
  • They have a customer service ethic.
  • They’re extroverted (they’re comfortable interacting with strangers).
  • They advocate for the customer.
  • They’re persuasive.

And finally, there’s a set of five skills and behaviors that lifts performance yet further:

  • They’re resilient.
  • They’re able to handle high-pressure situations without becoming burned out.
  • They take responsibility for their own actions.
  • They respond well to constructive criticism by managers.
  • They’re able to concentrate on tasks over extended periods of time.

Now that we know a lot of great traits and behaviors, how do we unlock them? There are three environmental factors that we can influence:

  • Trust customer service representative judgment.
  • Make sure they understand and are aligned with company goals.
  • Assure that they have a strong peer network.

The authors write about the distinction between training (which is very common and tends to be kind of negligent in practice because people read it once and move on) and coaching, which is often focused more on being corrective after the fact than instructive in the midst of an interaction. Training of course can be useful, but more hands-on (vs. retrospective) coaching leads to better outcomes.

The book talks a bit about change management, which is perhaps useful for organizations making a big shift in how they approach thinking about customer satisfaction and success, but it was a pretty shallow treatment of the topic and probably is useful for a small segment of the people to whom the book might be more broadly appealing.

I’ve offered a lot of highlights here. If they’re enticing to you and you’re in a position to implement some of the changes they might inspire you to make, a deeper read than this glimpse provides might be in order, as the authors do go into more detail and offer stats and a few case studies to clarify their argument.

The Effective Executive

Posted on January 19, 2018

Years ago, I started to read an abridged version of James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a huge work of comparative religion and mythology that jumps from continent to continent from one sentence to the next as it outlines myths and magics of the world. It’s a dazzling book that’s really hard to absorb because of how much information it throws at you. Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive made me think of Frazer’s book, though Drucker’s is a fair bit more modest in scope. Often in the book, he states a premise and then catalogues a few case studies in brief, and his catalogues, located as distant in time as they are, and as discursive as they sometimes are, kind of made me glaze over sometimes. The same was true for me of Frazer’s landmark book.

Drucker’s prose is very clear and confident and assertive, and so it feels like it has the weight of authority. The case studies he offers are dated (the book was published in the 1960s), and sometimes his organization of information feels a little scattershot. In the end, I felt like I had read a bunch of useful information but hadn’t retained many of the details. For the most part, this is fine; for example, the first thing an executive must do to be effective is to understand how time is being spent, and to spend it effectively. This is simple enough to understand and agree to without retaining a lot of specifics. But in the longer sections on effective decision making, I had difficulty retaining some of the details in part because of Drucker’s scattershot delivery, so I found those sections less useful.

Drucker defines as executives “those knowledge workers, managers, or individual professionals who are expected by virtue of their position or their knowledge to make decisions in the normal course of their work that have significant impact on the performance and results of the whole.” He doesn’t limit this cohort to people with the initials “C” or “VP” in their title. Any knowledge worker may act in an executive capacity.

The main things an effective executive must do are as follows:

Effective executives know where their time goes.

Effective executives focus on outward contribution. They gear their efforts to results rather than to work.

Effective executives build on strengths—their own strengths, the strengths of their superiors, colleagues, and subordinates;

Effective executives concentrate on the few major areas where superior performance will produce outstanding results.

Effective executives, finally, make effective decisions. They know that this is, above all, a matter of system—of the right steps in the right sequence. They know that an effective decision is always a judgment based on “dissenting opinions” rather than on “consensus on the facts.”

Much of what he writes about squares with my experience. I can testify for example that losing time has been a big problem for me and that in order to increase my effectiveness and impact, finding ways to set aside significant chunks of time (hours in a row) to focus on important tasks has been key.

I can also vouch for the focus on outward contribution. What he means here is that we should push for achievement rather than activity. For me, this combines with time auditing. I’ve often found myself spending lots of time in conversation or suggesting edits to things that cost me a lot of time and likely had a minuscule impact. Better to keep that hour haggling over minor details reserved for other, higher impact use, no matter how relevant it might seem in the moment. Of course Drucker also means that we should similarly direct the efforts of those who report to us.

Playing to strengths includes not merely working toward your own strengths but making sure the people in your care are in the right job or that the job is designed (where possible) to make the best use of their strengths. This one can be tough unless you’re in the position of actually designing the job.

As noted above, Drucker lost me a bit in the details and case studies around making good decisions. He suggests that you should start from opinions rather than facts, that you should tend to look for ways to focus decisions on general cases so as to build principles rather than re-making situational decisions every time, and that you should encourage disagreement so that as you make a decision, you’re able to consider a diversity of perspectives rather than falling victim to confirmation bias.

Many business books are delivered in a way that feels like the author is posing as a guru. Drucker’s book by contrast is shot through with a sort of moral philosophy. He sees the work as a thing worth moral reflection, and I find this both a little old fashioned and very appealing. For example — “A superior owes it to his organization to make the strength of every one of his subordinates as productive as it can be. But even more does he owe it to the human beings over whom he exercises authority to help them get the most out of whatever strength they may have.”

On the whole, I’m glad I read the book, but it was more detailed in some ways than I found useful, and it was hard to connect a lot of his case studies to my own current reality. By contrast, many of the case studies and the framework offered in Switch were easy for me to internalize. I suppose I would recommend The Effective Executive to some. At present I’m more excited about The Daily Drucker (post forthcoming when I finish it), which distills a much broader range of Drucker’s work into daily reflections that might offer some of the moral or philosophical tidbits and send me deeper into more recent and relevant parts of Drucker’s body of work.


Switch: How to Change when Change is Hard

Posted on January 8, 2018

Chip and Dan Heath’s Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard is a solid read.   Kotter’s Leading Change is pretty structured and high level and kind of hard to think about using on a day-to-day basis. By contrast, Switch actually starts at more of a micro level and encourages you to think of small things you might change to lead to a bigger change. I cover most of the book’s main points below, but the book provides a lot more texture and a lot of inspiring case studies, and I highly recommend it as a resource for practical approaches to navigating change; it has already impacted how I approach parts of my work.

The book outlines a basic framework around the metaphor of trying to ride an elephant, and it offers loads of case studies that show both big and small changes, often undertaken by people or groups with no real authority over the people or control over the environments they wish to involve in the change (for example, a group of high school kids who revitalized the economy of their small community).

The authors of this book think about the human response to change as being like a rider on an elephant trying to get to a particular place. The elephant represents the emotional response to the stimulus — it can be very hard to control. The rider represents the analytic or controlling force that keeps the elephant/emotions in check. Different people and situations have different elephant-to-rider ratios. Part of the trick to navigating change successfully is finding a good working relationship between the rider and the elephant. The bigger the change, the harder it is to get the elephant to veer from its current course to make the change.

To make change effectively, you must do three things:

  1. Direct the rider. That is, provide clarity that lets the rational, logical part of a person decide what needs to change.
  2. Motivate the elephant. Even if a change makes sense rationally, you sometimes have to make essentially an emotional appeal to get people on board. If we’re invested personally and emotionally in a change, we’re more likely to go along with it.
  3. Shape the path. That is, set circumstances up so that change is actually feasible. An example here is using smaller plates to help you eat less so that you’re more healthy. This simple change in plate size actually does help people eat smaller portions, which can lead to weight loss. Just doing this small action shapes the path for you to make a change that is otherwise more difficult to make.

Direct the Rider

The authors propose a few ways to direct the rider. First, look for bright spots. That is, what has been successful already that we might build on? In an effort to improve nutrition among children, workers studied the habits of those mothers whose children were more healthy and brought some of their practices to other mothers. Nutrition increased! This wasn’t a huge sweeping change to healthcare but was an observation of what was working for some and the simple transference of that behavior to others.

Next you script the critical moves. This means providing simple rules that reduce decision paralysis, which can really hurt change initiatives. For example, in an effort to turn a railroad’s finances around, a leader identified four rules to govern the company’s expenditures. Anything that would have violated these critical rules was off limits, period. You don’t have to outline every move — just the ones that are highest impact, the critical ones. In another case study, researchers seeking to improve health in a community by reducing saturated fat set a rule to drink 1% milk, as milk was the biggest source of saturated fat in the diet. They could have made rules that had people counting calories and reading labels on all their foods, but the people’s elephants would have lapsed on that quickly. It’s easy (and it proved effective) to simply make the rule “drink 1% milk instead of 2% or whole.”

Finally, you point to the destination. This can mean making a “destination postcard” — something that can be achieved in months or years rather than decades. An example from the book is that in working to improve school performance for first graders, a teacher told them that by the end of the year, they would be third (not second) graders. This gave them a clear destination (perform according to educational standards at the level of third graders) and motivated the elephant (it gave kids something to feel proud to strive for).

Sometimes, the critical moves should include black and white goals — things that very intentionally restrict behaviors and remove ambiguity. These aren’t inspiring on their own, but paired with a destination postcard that motivates the elephant, they can provide great direction.

It’s important to “marry your long-term goal with short-term critical moves.”

Motivate the Elephant

To motivate the elephant, you “find the feeling,” “shrink the change,” and “grow your people.”

If you’re stuck in a burning building and your options are to stay and burn or leap and maybe live, you’ll likely accept the change of leaping from the building. That’s one way to find the feeling. But fear isn’t generally a good motivator to use intentionally for corporate change. If you can find more positive motivators, you should do so, and you should be relentless in doing so.

Shrinking the change seems related to finding the bright spots for the rider. Rather than trying to overhaul something huge, narrow scope and work on something that feels more achievable (then lather, rinse, repeat). This can mean things like (for retail businesses) giving out loyalty cards with a couple of stamps already stamped, so that a customer feels like they’re already part-way along the journey. If your house is a mess and you want it clean, make your task to clean the bathroom rather than to clean the house. Feeling like the change is manageable potentially gives you a sense of accomplishment when you do the smaller task and gives you momentum to work on the next bit of it.

You can shrink change by decreasing the investment (of time, money, whatever) or by setting up smaller achievable milestones and building on the momentum of hitting them.

Growing your people means in part setting stakeholders up to feel a sense of identity with or ownership of the change rather than setting them up merely to feel as if there will be consequences for failure. The more you can underscore this identity and connect goals and change to serving a shared value, the smoother your change efforts may be. The more a change seems disconnected from this goal the change supports, the less smooth it’ll go.

Promoting a growth mindset rather than a fixed one also helps with change, as it helps us embrace failure when it occurs as a thing we can learn from and improve, vs. as a thing that merely feels bad.

If you can grow your people and shrink the change, your elephant will feel like the task at hand is achievable.

Shape the Path

Shaping the path means making it pretty easy to work on the task at hand. The book gives an example in which people were asked to donate cans of food. People who had been classified by peers as jerks were more likely to donate food even than non-jerks if they (the jerks) had simple, clear instructions for doing so that the non-jerks did not have. The path for them was easy, so they did the thing it led them toward.

Sometimes, shaping the path can mean doing little hacks to yourself or to your processes. For example, if you want to spend less of your evening time plugged into work, you might take Slack off your phone (or mute its notifications). Otherwise, you’ll be constantly checking in at work even when you really don’t want to.

Habit-building is a fundamental part of shaping the path, and an effective way to build habits is to use action triggers, which means setting up rules that “when X happens, I will do Y.” Preloading this sort of behavior basically into the environment reduces decision fatigue and helps you build habits; you need only follow the simple rules you set up. In thinking about habits as a way to implement change, it’s important both that habits advance progress toward the change and that they be pretty easy to embrace.

Checklists are a great tool for shaping the path.

Rallying the Herd

Behaviors are contagious, and so once we’ve begun to change things, we also want to begin to build them into the norms of the group that’s making the change. So, when a group has embraced desired behaviors, we should publicize it. It’s a little harder when people don’t embrace the desired behaviors, as it can lead to things like shaming folks for not being on board, so there’s a delicate balance to strike here.

The book also talks about just getting desired change into the consciousness. For example, we have the notion of designated drivers because of a careful campaign on the part of its champion to get it mentioned in many TV shows starting in the 1980s.

Some of the case studies in this section amount to promoting propaganda, which feels a little weird.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Posted on January 8, 2018

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick M. Lencioni, offers what it bills as a fable dramatizing a team’s shift from dysfunction to function. It’s a little annoyingly patronizing in how it lays out the fable, and it’s also annoying how much it relies upon stereotypes (e.g. the spectrum-ish CTO or the sort of diva marketing personality), but it’s also fairly useful and easy to follow, and it’s a small time investment.

The five dysfunctions are (indented bullets are quotes from the book):

  • Absence of trust (the bottom of the pyramid)
  • Fear of conflict (building on absence of trust)
  • Lack of commitment
  • Avoidance of accountability
  • Inattention to results

In a nutshell, if you lack trust on your team, you likely also have a fear of conflict because people don’t feel like they can engage in constructive conversations when they disagree. This in turn leads to a failure of commitment since there hasn’t been room for team members to feel heard and to get on board in spite of reservations. The prior three build to lead to an absence of accountability — without trust and comfort with conflict, it’s difficult to hold people accountable, and without commitment to the direction, people might actually resist being held accountable since they weren’t on board in the first place. Finally, these can all build toward a failure to get results. If you weren’t committed, you might prize your own ego or resume above that of the team and wind up hurting the team as a result. In any case, you’re likely pulling in different directions rather than pulling toward the same results based on a shared commitment.

A lot of the dysfunction portrayed in the book is very familiar to me based on my own job experience, and I can personally vouch for how some of the dysfunctions can lead to poor results.

The key takeaways for me:

  • Always work to build trust.
  • Model vulnerability when opportunity arises (and mean it).
  • Model holding members of the team accountable, and respond well when you mess up and are constructively held accountable by a teammate.
  • Consider trying out the Team Effectiveness Exercise the book offers.
  • Spend less time delaying and waiting for perfect data, as doing so can lead to decision paralysis and lack of confidence.
  • Consistently review key decisions and messaging.
  • If there’s difficulty getting commitment, take a few minutes to consider worst case scenarios as a way of gut-checking actual risk next to unfounded fear.
  • Commit publicly to specific results.

If you’re working with a team that’s not collaborating well to accomplish things, this book may be worth a read. It’s a quick read, and the dramatization of a team working through the dysfunctions may be useful, but be forewarned that it’s also a pretty ham-handed fictionalization of a scenario probably not many of us would actually be in, so the book itself (vs. the info distilled above) is only so useful.

Leading Change

Posted on January 8, 2018

Leading Change, by John Kotter, feels very corporate and a little dated. It seems to be aimed at bigger changes than what I’ve had occasion to help steer — big merges or reorganizations, for example. So a lot of it felt like it wasn’t super useful to me all the way through, but there’s plenty to learn from it.

I’ve heard and read a bit lately about the distinction between management and leadership, and this book reinforces that distinction. Management is more tactical and leadership more transformative and strategic. I think this is a useful distinction. A relevant quote:

Management is a set of processes that can keep a complicated system of people and technology running smoothly. The most important aspects of management include planning, budgeting, organizing, staffing, controlling, and problem solving. Leadership is a set of processes that creates organizations in the first place or adapts them to significantly changing circumstances. Leadership defines what the future should look like, aligns people with that vision, and inspires them to make it happen despite the obstacles

The big errors in change management:

  1. Allowing too much complacency.
  2. Failing to create a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition.
  3. Underestimating the power of vision.
  4. Undercommunicating the vision by a factor of 10 or more.
  5. Permitting obstacles to block the new vision.
  6. Failing to create short-term wins.
  7. Declaring victory too soon.
  8. Neglecting to anchor changes firmly in the corporate culture.

And the steps to avoid those errors are:

establishing a sense of urgency, creating the guiding coalition, developing a vision and strategy, communicating the change vision, empowering a broad base of people to take action, generating short-term wins, consolidating gains and producing even more change, and institutionalizing new approaches in the culture.

The single most useful chapter in the book was the one on vision. It’s worth a read on its own even if the whole change process prescribed seems like overkill. High points are that if the vision is super clear and can be articulated simply, then it’s easy for people at all levels in the company to make decisions about what actions they should perform and why it’s important to do so. A vision that is clear about what it offers and what the tradeoffs are for all stakeholders (including employees) is more likely to be successful than one that alienates some of the stakeholders.

Key elements in the effective communication of vision (this is all quoted directly from a table in the book):

  • Simplicity: All jargon and technobabble must be eliminated.
  • Metaphor, analogy, and example: A verbal picture is worth a thousand words.
  • Multiple forums: Big meetings and small, memos and newspapers, formal and informal interaction—all are effective for spreading the word.
  • Repetition: Ideas sink in deeply only after they have been heard many times.
  • Leadership by example: Behavior from important people that is inconsistent with the vision overwhelms other forms of communication.
  • Explanation of seeming inconsistencies: Unaddressed inconsistencies undermine the credibility of all communication.
  • Give-and-take: Two-way communication is always more powerful than one-way communication.

Of vision at a high level, the author says that “whenever you cannot describe the vision driving a change initiative in five minutes or less and get a reaction that signifies both understanding and interest, you are in for trouble.” This rings very true to me. I think that if you haven’t shared a vision that anybody whose work you supervise and who is sufficiently engaged in the work (and who is in the right job) can summarize briefly and feel proud to be working toward, you haven’t communicated it effectively.

Here’s a really great quote about communicating vision effectively:

Contrast these two scenarios: In case A, the new vision is introduced as part of three speeches at the annual management meeting and is the subject of three articles in the company newspaper, for a grand total of six repeats over a six-month period. In case B, each of the firm’s twenty-five executives pledges to find four opportunities per day to tie conversations back to the big picture. So when Hiro is meeting with his top twenty people to review monthly results versus plan, he asks that all decisions be evaluated in light of the new vision, which he repeats. When Gloria does performance evaluations for her employees, she ties her assessments to major change initiatives. When Jan conducts a Q and A at a plant, he answers the first inquiry by saying: “I think yes, but let me explain why. The vision directing our change efforts is . . .” The net result: twenty-five executives, four times a day, over six months equals more than 12,000 repeats. Six versus 12,000.

The book also talks a bit about culture, which is difficult to change and which actually tends to change after actions in support of big changes have been changed. Culture shift comes late in the change management process. (And to be clear, this doesn’t mean that we must decide what nefarious changes we wish to make and then bend the culture to them after we’ve rammed the changes through — the vision that informs the change should consider culture tradeoffs, as employees who participate in the culture are also stakeholders in the vision.)

I’d recommend the book for anybody who is struggling to communicate a clear vision and make progress toward it, especially if that vision requires change that’s likely to be tricky to navigate. The book doesn’t offer much in the way of immediate cure-all solutions, and some of the information it purveys is very high level, but on the whole, it’s a useful read.

The Coaching Habit

Posted on January 5, 2018

Although this book has some useful into in it, I wouldn’t recommend that anybody read it. For one thing, it’s chock full of teasers to go watch videos on the author’s web site; for another, there’s a plea midway through to rate the book on Amazon. So it feels very spammy. It also generally feels like an “I’m a guru” sort of book in which the author synthesizes things that other similar gurus have written about in their own books. I guess this saves me the effort of reading those unappealing books, but it still feels kind of weird. On the whole, I feel like this would have worked pretty well as a short blog post with a list of questions and brief blurbs about the questions but that packaging it up into a book is a stretch.

The notion of building a habit around asking the suggested questions is foregrounded in the title and in the structure of the book (which walks you through the steps to building habits of asking the questions), but it actually feels secondary to just reading the questions. So in a way it feels like maybe the author padded the book by wrapping the questions up into a package promoting the establishment of a habit. But the bits about building a habit at the end of each section pretty much just suggest that you start asking the question the section covers, which is kind of silly.

Now I’ll stop complaining. There are some useful bits in the book. The author emphasizes asking questions over giving advice, and I think this can be useful. If you guide people toward answering some of the suggested questions (or toward thinking them through more intentionally and building the confidence to provide their own answers in the future), you increase the odds that they start to ask the useful questions themselves. You also increase the odds that they solve their own problems and feel equipped to do so, and you help them feel like they got to their own solutions. In other words, you help them feel comfortable in their own skin as a lead, vs. building a codependency with you. This all makes pretty good sense and seems valuable.

In general, he suggests starting from a place less of giving advice and more of leading the person to think through a situation or problem and use their own knowledge and judgment to figure out the best path forward. I think this makes good sense.

Here’s a quote I liked a lot:

Coaching for performance is about addressing and fixing a specific problem or challenge. It’s putting out the fire or building up the fire or banking the fire. It’s everyday stuff, and it’s important and necessary. Coaching for development is about turning the focus from the issue to the person dealing with the issue, the person who’s managing the fire. This conversation is more rare and significantly more powerful.

The suggested questions, more or less in the order in which you should ask them, are:

  1. What’s on your mind?
  2. And what else? (Keep asking until you run out of answers.)
  3. What’s the real challenge here for you? (Zoom in on the specific thing that’s an issue for the person.)
  4. What do you want? (What are they really wanting out of this coaching or this conversation or out of this situation?)
  5. How can I help? (Get clarity on what the person actually needs from you vs. going straight to your own prescriptions.)
  6. If you’re saying “yes” to this, what are you saying “no” to? (Help them figure out tradeoffs.)
  7. What was most useful for you? (Reflection after the fact helps with memory, solidifies any takeaways, and as a bonus helps affirm that there actually was something useful in the conversation.)

Leadership and Self Deception

Posted on January 5, 2018

The idea at the core of this book is insightful and valid, but the book itself is painful to read because it’s written for an audience that lacks self-awareness or nuance. It’s written in the form of a dialogue, as fiction. There’s a fine old tradition of this going at least as far back as Plato, and that tradition tends to include kind of a dumb-ass who has to be led by the nose from his benighted state to enlightenment. This is fine as ancient literature, but in a modern business book, it comes off as patronizing, and, reading this book, I often felt as if I was reading the script for an infomercial, or as if it was some kind of long-form version of the old Goofus and Gallant cartoons. Basically, I think the ideas in the book could very easily have been purveyed effectively in a much shorter and less annoying form.

Now, on to the idea.

Self-deception in this context occurs when you are dishonest with yourself about why you’re engaging with a person in a negative way. The central example in the book is one of a pair of parents and their baby who wakes them up at night crying. Dad lies there thinking that he should go get the baby so that his wife can sleep, since she spends all day with the baby. But he really doesn’t want to. He’s also tired, and he worked all day, and (he begins to tell himself) she probably napped or watched TV for half the day, and she’s got a history of being lazy anyway, and so on. Basically, because he himself doesn’t want to do the thing he feels as if he actually should do, he begins to make a narrative about his wife that may or may not be true. By not doing the thing he knows he should have done, he has performed a sort of self-betrayal that he then is inclined to justify, and he justifies it by creating a narrative that supports the notion that it is his wife and not he who is in the wrong. It then works to his advantage to believe this narrative, as it helps him further justify his behavior, which makes the narrative that much more important, and so on, in a nasty cycle. The narrative makes it easy to forget that you are yourself guilty in your own ways, which further reinforces the narrative. You then resent the person the narrative pertains to and stop treating them as a person, which increases the odds of your creating false narratives in the future. It just gets worse and worse, and because the narratives feed into your sense of your own rightness or justification, you don’t see it as your own problem, but as a problem with the other person.

The fix? Don’t betray yourself, and treat people as people rather than objects about whom you’re inclined to fabricate nasty narratives.

This all rings true to me. I can think of many times that I’ve been annoyed at people for doing or not doing a given thing, and I’ve made big leaps in how I’ve thought about their behavior and what drove it. This built resentment and no doubt fed into how I engaged with them in the future. I can imagine that avoiding this tendency to assume the worst about people, and avoiding creating (often ridiculous) narratives to prop up my frustrations with the people would help me feel less annoyed (a good minimal first step) and help the relationship overall.

This all applies to work in that we work to achieve results for the company. If we are all looking inward and justifying our silly self-perpetuating narratives about how crummy others are, we’re not focusing on the work. If we’re justifying our failures or behaviors by pointing fingers at others rather than just trying to excel at the work, we’re not devoting ourselves to achieving results.

This doesn’t mean that we have to look the other way when people aren’t excelling. That is, acknowledging somebody else’s failure isn’t necessarily creating false narratives and treating the person badly. It’s only bad if you’re doing it to justify your own behavior, if your opinion and expression of it is focused on you rather than on helping the person excel at the work.

The book proposes that if a company can build a culture around being results-oriented and avoiding this cycle of self-betrayal and self-deception, it’s more likely to succeed. The book suggests that this applies outside the workplace too, and I can sure buy it.