What does the Hippo think?

I was in a meeting recently with a successful startup CEO who was sharing how he runs his teams for best results. He finished by by saying, “…and that way we make sure we don’t end up with ‘hippo’ decisions.”

And I thought, “Heavy decisions?” “Decisions that are big and more dangerous than they appear?”

No, “hippo” decisions are actually HIPPO decisions, ones in which the HIghest Paid Person’s Opinion rules the day.

There are entire organizations and cultures built around HIPPO decision-making. You’ve worked at these sorts of places–maybe you do right now. In these cultures, in meeting after meeting everyone is holding their collective breath waiting for the HIPPO to speak. Or, whole conversations happen and ultimately the HIPPO tells everyone what she thinks of the conversation and tells us all what we’ll do next.

Some anti-HIPPO resources that might be useful: the original HBR article on Adaptive Leadership and the great +Acumen course that will help you learn and apply the concepts. A powerful book by General Stanley McChrystal on Teams of Teams.

The funny thing about HIPPO cultures is that they let everyone off the hook: you’d think the non-HIPPOS might feel frustrated that their voice isn’t being heard, but often it’s a relief to have someone else decide, to know that you’re just pitching in some thoughts and that someone else will be on the line.

(And to all you HIPPOs out there, while it’s possible that you’re consistently the smartest, most experienced, wisest person in the room in general, what are the chances that you’re the smartest, most experienced, wisest about all things all of the time?)

Lest we forget forget…hippos are the most dangerous animal on the Savannah.

Blank Spaces

There’s no way I can fully know and see everything you know and see (and vice versa). So how do I react when I discover you did something that seems wrong?

I start by reminding myself that what I know right now about the facts you had and the decision you made is full of blank spaces. In the absence of knowing what you know, I can choose to have a bias in favor of believing that you likely did the right thing. (did you really?)

I can decide that the difference between the choice I’d have made and the choice you did make is the different, better information that you had.  (or you just acted without really thinking things through)

And I can remember that it is always better to enter conversations about what happened and why with genuine curiosity, not judgment. (even though, let’s be honest, we’ve seen you do this sort of thing before)

I can also remind myself that there’s a short game and a long game at play, and be careful about sacrificing your long-term agency for my desire to get each and every step right between here and there. (at the same time, this was a screw-up)

This doesn’t mean that the decision might not have been wrong, or that there aren’t things to learn—because it might have been, and there probably are. But the strongest message we send in each interaction is whether we really believe in and trust each other, and how much we are committed to investing in each others’ agency. (and let’s remember that trust needs to be earned every day)

Finally, and most importantly, I can hold firmly to the notion, each and every time, that your intentions, like mine, were overflowing with goodness, with care, and with as much desire as I have to get the best outcome.

(And to be honest with myself about my own inner narrative.)

(Everything in parentheses is the corrosive inner dialogue, the one that says “I really do know better,” the one that communicates just going through the motions rather than honestly and fully embracing the other persons’ decisions and actions.)

(Even if that voice is speaking truth in this particular situation, you’re kidding yourself if you think that you’re the only one who hears that narrative of doubt.)

(So does the other person, in his own head, and he’s just waiting for you to amplify it.)

(The point is to actually, truly, let that go.)

Culture shortcut

Conversations about team and organizational culture can easily go off track, veering into a messy mixture of behaviors, culture, values, strategy, and attitudes.

To cut through it all, I’ve had success with the following: ask each member of the team to imagine they are interviewing a candidate they would like to hire. Have them describe to this candidate what it feels like to be part of this team: how do we behave, what does it feel like, what are the words that jump to mind?

The answers you’re looking for are tangible, simple:

“We move fast.”

“We are collaborative.”

“We talk a lot.”

“We have fun.”

“We are always thinking three steps ahead.”

“We have a plan.”

“We are disciplined.”

“We listen to everyone’s voice.”

And then you also want people to think about and tell you: what are one or two things that are missing from our culture that would help us be more effective?

To avoid anchoring (having the first, loudest, or most senior person’s voice determine the direction of the conversation), have each person write down their answers first. Then read them out, one at a time, and see where there are similarities and differences.

I’ve found that this is a nice way to cut through the noise, helping teams to zero in on who we are today and who we’d like to be tomorrow.

One Bag to Rule Them All (and more international travel tips)

I’m just heading out on an international trip, and I’ve been meaning to write a rave review of the bag I bought a year ago, so here goes.

Let me start by saying that I don’t care much about this sort of thing: I don’t need the perfect bag, pen, belt, watch, etc. – as long as it’s functional, I’m fine.

That said, international economy air travel is its own special version of “how can we make this even more unpleasant?” and my biggest gripe is the insult-to-injury-ness of the lost time spent after 24+ hours in the air, as you wait at 2AM in the baggage claim for the roller bag they forced you to check.

Which is why I didn’t buy a roller bag, I bought a duffle.

It’s this Tumi Alpha 2 Double Expansion Travel Satchel bag, which, in my experience, has the following benefits:

Tumi Alpha 2 Double Expansion Travel Satchel
Tumi Alpha 2 Double Expansion Travel Satchel
  • It has more packing space than most small rollers, because roller bags (especially smaller ones) have lots of wasted internal space for the handle hardware.
  • It is soft, so it squishes up well
  • I have yet to find an overhead compartment (domestic or international) it doesn’t fit in
  • I even once had a stewardess walk by and say, “wow, what a small bag”

Getting a week’s worth of clothes into this bag, as long as you’re sensible about toiletries and shoes, is easy. Last year I managed a two week trip (NY – India – Uganda – New York) with just this bag and a briefcase (OK, I was pushing it a bit).

The one big caveat here is that it doesn’t roll. So if it’s going to be your main bag, you have to have a decent amount of upper-body strength to comfortably get through the airport. I think it’s a good trade in exchange for being 100% sure that you’ll be able to carry on a bag that easily fits a week’s worth of clothes.

As long as we’re at it, a few other bonus travel items that keep me sane:

  • YogaPaws: this is a new one as of last year, and to my surprise they
    YogaPaws. Image from Wanderlust and Lipstick

    work for 95% of the yoga poses I want to do, and I now bring them on every trip I take. They take up the space of a pair of socks and you can do yoga anywhere as long as the floor/ground is clean enough. Since my biggest international travel challenge is falling asleep when I fly east, not having to think twice about being able to do yoga every day, even if just for 15 minutes, is heavenly.

  • Slipper-like running shoes: back when I was transitioning back from
    Nike Flyknit 4.0
    Nike Flyknit 4.0 (why did they discontinue them?!)

    barefoot running I bought a pair of Nike Free 4.0 Flyknit mesh running shoes (sadly, that model has been discontinued but some places still have it in stock). They take up almost no space in my bag, I can wear them with a pair of jeans on a casual day, and I can still run five miles on them without issue.

  • Meditation Podcast: I don’t have a regular meditation practice at home, though I’d like to. For my last few international trips I’ve been more consistent about meditating for 15-30 minutes before going to sleep. Not only is that a good practice for winding down, but it reminds me that emailing up until 5 minutes before turning out the light is not what I do at home, why would I do that when I’m on the road?

    Kindle Paperwhite
    Kindle Paperwhite
  • Kindle Paperwhite:I love this device so much more than I’ve ever liked an iPad. It costs less than $100 (which is great, and it means I’m not stressed about traveling with it), it’s lightweight, lasts at least a month on a single charge, creates no eye strain, and I can’t google something from the book and then get distracted by my Twitter feed or whatever else.
  • Eye cover: essential for the plane, whether a hat to pull over my eyes or eye shades, these are much more important than those bulky, uncomfortable neck pillows. Oh, and no movies on flights unless I’ve got two 8+ hour flights, otherwise I never fall asleep.
  • Foam earplugs: no noise cancelling headphones or other such
    3M E-A-R Plugs
    3M E-A-R Plugs work best for me

    nonsense, for less than $0.10 a pair I keep out the roar of the jet engines, which helps me stay asleep and lessens how tired I feel after a long flight. These E-A-R Plugs from 3M don’t fall out my ear like other shapes do.

  • Sleep aid: I stick with over-the-counter, and find that Benadryl and/or Melatonin do the trick, and help me get through the first few nights.
  • Global Entry/TSA Pre: this is just for U.S. citizens, but it’s great at the end of a trip to breeze through immigration (with my always-fits-in-the-overhead-carry-on) and get from the gate to the curb in 10 minutes or less.

That’s pretty much it for me.

Any other essentials you’d add to the list? Throw your suggestions into the comments, I’d love to know what’s missing.

Dyads

Criticizing or complementing?

Doubting or encouraging?

Analyzing or cheerleading?

Creating tension or diffusing tension?

Being easily influenced or holding firm?

Setting high expectations or letting it slide?

Driving to closure or being generative?

Adjusting based on others’ input or trusting our inner truth?

Demanding excellence at every moment or giving ourselves a break?

Stepping up or raising others up?

Laughing or crying?

The big con of school and of many jobs is the unspoken message that the way this works is: you learn a bunch of stuff—facts, figures, techniques, skills—and then you’re “good at your job.”

And then one day you open a new door and discover that the art of leadership isn’t about those kinds of skills. It is about how we can deploy, navigate and manage between and around these sorts of “ORs.”

We do this by becoming skillful at seemingly opposable dyads, so skillful that we can weave them together in unlikely ways.

We do this by fully embracing opposable attitudes, behaviors and orientations.

We do this by becoming nimble and flexible, while remaining clear and strong.

We do this, mostly, by showing up differently for different people in different situations, while also living a set of core truths, behaviors, and values.

The Do It Yourself Tax

Each time you decide that you can and will do something better, there’s a tax.

A tax on the initiative of the person you took the job from.

A tax on their sense of agency.

A tax on confidence.

A tax on learning.

Taxes are important. They are part of how things work. They allow other good things to happen. They are necessary.

But they’re still taxes. They have a cost.

So use them wisely.

Acumen Energy Impact Report

We’ve just launched the Acumen Energy Impact Report. It is the culmination of more than 10 years investing in early-stage, off-grid energy companies in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, and more than four years of developing Lean Data, our approach to measuring social impact that’s built on the simple premise that talking directly to customers is the best way to build successful companies that make a meaningful impact in people’s lives.

The headlines are exciting: the $22 million we’ve invested in 20 companies has allowed more than 80 million people to have access to safe light, power, and cooking fuels. Three-quarters of these people—58 million of them—have access to modern energy for the first time.

Think about that for a minute.

$1 invested means three people can, for the first time, move away from dirty, dangerous, and expensive fuels like kerosene. Three people can turn on a light that costs nothing to charge. Three people can feel safer at night. All for a dollar.

But everything I just wrote, about what it means to have access to that light—is it really true? How can we know for sure?

It’s simple. We know by asking them.

At its most basic level, this is what we do with Lean Data. It sounds simple, but if we’d written this report five years ago, and you’d asked us the following questions, here’s what we’d have said:

Who exactly are these 80 million customers?  We don’t know.

Are they men or women? Rich or poor? We don’t know.

Do they really stop spending money on kerosene? How much? We don’t know.

Does financing create more access? Or more debt? We don’t know.

Do they use the light to run a business? To study more? We don’t know.

What about cookstoves…do they really get used? How often? We don’t know.

Do these answers differ for different countries, different customers, different types of business models? You guessed it, we don’t know.

OK, I’m overstating, but only a little bit. We’d know something thanks to the customers we’d visit in person. We’d have anecdotes from the companies in Board meetings. We would talk to management and to the sales team and learn from them.

But the simple truth is, the amount of educated guesswork was enormous.

The “impact math” you’d have found from us then, and which is still prevalent today in much of the impact investing sector, assumed that every customer in every place was more or less the same. It assumed that every product, no matter who it was sold to and where they lived, had the same impact.

And the thing is, those assumptions were often way off.

This isn’t just important in terms of how we learn, or in terms of how we deploy capital to solutions that make more of a difference, or even in terms of how we serve our companies better.

It’s important to the customers themselves. Really important.

If you’re the person buying a stove, and you still have to collect wood or charcoal for your other stove, it matters, because you’re still wasting time and money and your home is full of smoke.

If you’re the mother who saves up for a solar panel on her roof, only to discover three months later that the panel doesn’t work when it rains, it matters because you’re in debt and your home is still dark.

If you’re a customer off the grid and, despite tens of millions of new investment in off-grid companies, you’ll still be in the dark five years from now, it matters to you.

And if it turns out that certain products are bright enough, durable enough, and flexible enough that they make it easier to start and run a business, and if that helps more shops stay open later so more customers can make more money, and local economies can grow, that matters a lot too.

These are the questions we are starting to be able answer thanks to Lean Data—because we talk directly to customers (more than 5,500 of them, in this case, twice for each customer), we hear what they have to say, we learn about their lived experience and can use that to help our companies serve them better.

Some of those stories are here in this report: data on who the customers are, whether they save money, if they feel safer, if their homes are less smoky. With all this data at our fingertips, we begin to understand which companies have the most impact, which companies reach deepest into low-income markets, where there are trade-offs between financial and social returns.

Giving these customers voice to tell us what is actually happening in their lives, rather than just assuming that we know, is the first step towards real understanding. It’s the first step towards dialogue. It’s the first step towards holding ourselves accountable to the promises we make and the claims we share.

I don’t make a habit of reading nonprofit annual reports, and you probably don’t either, but this one is different. I hope you’ll check it out: bit.ly/EnergyImpactReport

No wonder(ing)

During my first proper summer internship, working in Washington DC, some colleagues and I got into a friendly argument over lunch about whether pinball was a game of skill.

To resolve this heated debate, we agreed that the “ayes” would have it if and only if we could prove, by the end of the working day, that there was such a thing as pinball competitions or tournaments.

“By the end of the working day.” Can you imagine such a thing? That it might be hard to get this sort of answer in five hours?

But it was the early 1990s, so we dutifully thumbed through the yellow pages, called up pinball shops, and eventually tracked down the answer (yes, with apologies to the taxpayers for our wasted time).

Today this would never happen. Being able “to Google” anything instantly means all knowledge is at our fingertips. Which feels like an unabashedly good thing until we discover that we’re letting our brains off the hook: our memories are actually getting worse.

Plus, kids who have grown up with devices in their hands exhibit shallower information-processing. It’s not surprising. Even around something as trivial as an argument about pinball, we had to do more than state our opinions and look up who was right: we had to imagine the steps we would take to solve the problem, and then walk down that path. Even for an argument about pinball, meta-cognition (thinking about how we would think about the answer) was a required behavior.

In terms of practicing the skills that ladder up to leadership, today’s instant-information world is losing the daily tension of not-knowing. We spend less time holding and exploring two equally-plausible outcomes. We have fewer genuine moments of “I wonder.”

Instant gratification is indeed gratifying, but let’s be careful not to forget what it feels like not to know. Let’s not atrophy our “how would I figure this out” muscle in a world in which it’s gotten so easy to figure out the easy stuff, yet the hard stuff looms as big and as complex as ever.

I’m not the best

Compared to everyone around me, I’m not the best thinker, writer, speaker, leader, organizer, coach, or blogger.

I’m not the best risk-taker, strategist, fundraiser, relationship manager, pipeline-generator, or closer.

Nor am I the best author, researcher, public speaker, project manager, course designer, facilitator, data analyzer, financial planner, business modeler, lean startup doer, creator, thinker, researcher or innovator.

The good news is, it is not my job to be the best.

My job, first and foremost, is to care the most.

Then I have to turn that caring into a willingness to put myself on the line.

Then I need to translate that into fierce dedication to follow-through, relentless commitment to outcomes, ongoing openness to learning, and strong orientation to partnership. I must be able to see where I know enough already, where I can learn things I need to learn, and where others will be better placed than I am to take parts of the work forward.

Someone else is always going to be better than I am, smarter, more experienced, or more capable in some way.

But my decisions about what I will do, what role I choose to play, what steps I will take next, where I choose to take the reins – these will never get out of the gate if they go through a “best at” filter.

A New Algorithm

The definition of the word algorithm is “a process that solves a recurrent problem.”

We come up against recurrent problems all the time. Here’s a list of things that are decidedly not a process:

. Wishing the problem didn’t keep cropping up

. Continuing to do things in the same way

. Ignoring the problem

. Working on other, smaller issues

. Getting frustrated

. Keeping your best ideas about a better process to yourself

. Talking about a new process, acting like you care a lot about doing things differently, but then continuing to act in the old ways

. Complaining

. Shooting down suggestions about doing things differently

. Blaming the people around you for not solving the problem

Your recurrent problems deserve a new algorithm.