Bothered

When a client reaches out to tell you something’s wrong, you should feel something. It should bother you.

When we are told something’s gone wrong, there’s a leaning in that happens, a focus and attention on what’s been raised as well as a response at an emotional level – not of fear, but of heightened awareness and speed.

Think of all the time and effort that’s gone in to bringing this customer to this point: getting to know them, explaining your product, getting them to commit, working together with them for months or even years.

All of that is on the line at this moment.

The best part is, most organizations do a fabulously poor job of addressing concerns when customers raise them.

That means it’s easy distinguish yourselves from nearly everyone by responding well, quickly, and eagerly.

This comes in the form of an immediate (minutes, maybe hours at most) acknowledgement that you’ve receive their message, understand they are having a problem, and are working on resolving their issue.

It requires you to own the problem, by restating in your own words what they’ve said (so they know you’ve heard them) and telling them how seriously you take it.

And, you have to simultaneously escalate the problem so it moves as quickly as possible through your system.

Finally, it’s your job to resolve the problem with generosity, coupled with expressing gratitude to them for bringing it up.

We need to take all of our work personally, and that comes to the fore when a customer takes the time to knock on our door to say “hey, this isn’t quite right.”

Feel that moment in your gut and move accordingly.

Shaping the Path

In my first job out of business school, I was the most junior person in IBM’s Corporate Citizenship team. Stan Litow, the hard-charging ex-Deputy Chancellor of the NYC Schools, ran the group and was my boss’s boss.

Occasionally, I got to work directly with Stan, and “work” often meant doing the background research and preparing a draft document or an email for him to send out.

My barometer of success was simple. I tracked:

  1. The speed with which things I produced went out the door.
  2. The difference between what I produced and what finally got sent by Stan.

Naturally, the two were correlated: the closer I got to the target, the faster the end product was sent out.

I came to discover that it wasn’t just getting the content right that mattered. It also helped tremendously if I made it as easy as possible to turn my draft into the final product. This meant things like:

  • Drafting the outgoing email to accompany a file
  • Writing that email to make it sound the way Stan sounded
  • Succinctly explaining to Stan the context behind what I’d done and the recipient
  • Being completely clear what actions needed to be taken

While at the time I was enabling my boss’s boss, these behaviors continue to inform my actions to this day.

To be influential and drive action, part of our work is to make these actions as easy as possible – called “shaping the path” by behavioral economist Jonathan Haidt (Chip and Dan Heath also talk about this a lot in Switch). Shaping the path is the act of removing all friction between a person and the action you want them to take: giving students a printed map if you want them to go to a dorm and get a vaccine, for example, increases the number of students who get the shot.

Once you start paying attention to shaping the path, it’s addictive, especially in written communication (email/Slack).

You’re shaping the path every time you:

  • (email) Write a good self-contained forwardable email when you’re networking
  • (email) In an email, summarize your headlines in one sentence rather than assume that everyone will read the attachment
  • (email/Slack) Transform a paragraph into a numbered or bulleted list that is easy to digest
  • (Slack) Include a clickable link to a file to a colleague rather than a filepath
  • Encourage your team to take a specific action, and then model that action in verbal or written form
  • Use Docusign
  • Turn your Word Doc contract into an online Terms of Service
  • (email/Slack) Put all the information everyone needs in one place, more than once (as in, even after everyone has the calendar invite: “here are the materials for our meeting next Thursday from 10:00 to 11:00 am Eastern time and here’s the Zoom link”)
  • (email) Change the email subject line of an email to make it clearer what it’s about.
  • Are hyper-specific about what would be most helpful, or how you can help, and ask for just that (size of the action, amount of time) and nothing more.

Making everything a little easier for the people you interact with is a sign of both empathy and respect. It shows that you know how busy they are, and that you recognize how much time and energy it takes to task switch.

As a bonus, it’s more likely that people will do the things you’d like them to do and that they will feel great about it, because it was so easy for them.

Time is On Your Side

Making a good loaf of sourdough bread takes about 24 hours. There’s no way to rush it, but the good news is most of the work happens by itself.

The ingredients couldn’t be simpler: flour, water, sourdough starter, and salt. You make it like this:

At about 8am, you feed your starter with 75g of flour and 75g of water. This takes about a minute, maybe two.

At noon, you mix together your flour (1kg) and water (770g) by hand. This might take five minutes.

An hour after that, you add starter (150g) and salt (30g) and mix again. Another 3-5 minutes.

Then, every half an hour for the next three hours, you stretch and fold the dough a few times. Call that two minutes each half hour plus an extra minute each time to wash your hands.

Then you let the dough rest for five hours (rest = do nothing), and then you shape the dough. Shaping takes 10 to 15 minutes assuming you want a clean counter at the end.

Finally, you put it in your refrigerator to proof overnight.

The next morning, at around 8am again, you bake the bread. This requires 10 total minutes of activity and a bit of hovering (500 degree oven preheating for 45 minutes, then 20 minutes baking covered and 25 more uncovered).

At the end, you have hot, delicious, fresh bread. I always make two loaves and the first one is gone, every time, within an hour.

The point, besides demystifying sourdough, is this.

So much of the important work we do with people involves a bit of effort and attention up front and then letting the things we’ve set in motion—ideas, suggestions, words of support, challenges—evolve over time. Our job is to remain present and available, but we don’t have to do all the work.

The two mistakes to avoid are:

  1. Putting off having that first, foundational conversation, because then we lose the power of time being on our side.
  2. Thinking that the entire problem needs to be solved, today, by us, right now. More often than not, for important things, we can’t force it. Ideas need to take on a life of their own. People need time to work through their reactions, emotions and fears. Important things take time to process. Plans have dependencies and interconnections.

Great outcomes happen when we set things in motion early, remain available and present when needed, and let things run their course (with a few adjustments, based on our care and our experience, by us when needed). Nature, and time, are on our side.

And, for those who are just here for the sourdough, all I did to learn how to make amazing bread was to follow every instruction in this one video, 15 Mistakes Most Beginner Sourdough Bakers Make, from Mike Greenfield at Pro Home Cooks.

 

What Wins Me Over

Your enthusiasm is infectious.

Not your smarts.

Not your plan.

Not how prepared you are.

Not the product or the problem it might solve for me.

When I see how much you care, how excited you are, I can’t help but feel the same thing.

That’s what matters most.

We Work to Avoid the Work

We stumble across this all the time, when we sheepishly discover that a task we’d been putting off for days or weeks takes us just 5 or 10 minutes to complete.

“That wasn’t a big deal at all.”

Think of the mental calisthenics we regularly engage in to put off certain tasks: we schedule reminders, create lists, tell others that we are definitely going to get it done…next Thursday. This time and effort can end up dwarfing the task itself.

We tell ourselves that what’s going on is scarcity of time. Lacking time right now, it’s only logical that we spend a little time today to neatly place this task sometime in the future. But that’s just a smokescreen.

What’s really going on is a choice to spent time and effort today to gain emotional comfort today: “I’m willing do some work now in order to postpone something that I believe will be emotionally challenging now.”

Take some time to observe which sorts of tasks you put off and why: writing the first paragraph on a proverbial blank sheet of paper; reaching out to a new person; calling someone you’ve been thinking about a lot lately; having a difficult conversation about something that just happened; beginning a tough workout or a meditation.

At the heart of our perpetual procrastination is our over-estimation of the emotional labor a task will require and our willingness to create new work that enables us to  avoid shifting gears from a state that is busy with low emotional effort (read: comfortable) to one that requires greater emotional effort.

The ultimate irony is that most of the things we’re putting off aren’t all that bad, and time and again, if we just start, we find ourselves wondering what we were so worried about in the first place.

The only antidote is the practice of regularly doing uncomfortable-feeling things, and choosing to observe the repetitive cycle of: self-dialogue—resistance—starting—doing—relief. Through repetition we learn that our dramatic self-dialogue both serves no purpose and contains no meaningful information about the task that lies ahead.

Most important, what we find time and again is that our fear evaporates the instant we start doing the work: the act of crossing the threshold from anticipation to action causes fear’s  grip to loosen until, in the blink of an eye, we are free.

 

 

The Zoom bcc

Remember how email introductions used to work?

You would introduce two people by email, and then find yourself on a 20-message back-and-forth as they worked to schedule their meeting. Then we all collectively learned how to do this: you have introduced Janet to Kareem, and Janet replies, “Thanks so much for the introduction Sasha. Moving you to bcc:”

Janet and Kareem can then get on with their (hopefully useful to both of them) conversation.

Two things are going on here:

  1. There is standard, expected language for how to handle this sort of introduction.
  2. It is culturally acceptable to bcc: someone in this situation, a shift from “is it rude to drop this person from the thread?” to “it would be rude to include this person on all the follow-up emails.”

While Zoom has been a lifesaver during this pandemic, we’re still in the early days of learning how to navigate it: sound, connectivity, breakout groups, who speaks when and how, backgrounds, etc…

Our Zoom cultural norms are in their infancy.

I propose we create the Zoom bcc.

It’s for situations in which it’s clear that a meeting has too many people. Two or three people are having the entire conversation, and everyone else is just listening in.

Right now, no one knows how to handle this.

The people listening in end up choosing between:

  1. Staying focused and really listening (rare); or
  2. Doing some other simultaneous activity while pretending to be present in the meeting.

These are both bad options. Most people struggle to stay focused in an hour-long Zoom meeting if they don’t need to be there. They end up multi-tasking, an ineffective use of their time and a distraction to everyone else.

Instead, it could become culturally acceptable to drop a short note into the chat that reads,

“Glad you guys are having a great conversation. I’m looking forward to hearing the update, and I’m going to drop off now.”

The people who need to talk get to talk, the people who are less active have a choice about how to manage the situation: stay, and be fully present; or leave in a way that is understood to be both appropriate and professional.

Everybody wins.

The Paradox of Discipline, and Four Questions to Ask Ourselves

The more I listen to interviews with great creators, the more they echo the same themes. It goes something like this:

The act of creation is exceptionally hard and painful.

Writing, in particular, is torture.

It’s great to have talent, but without a disciplined process for creation, talent means nothing.

We human beings do everything we can to avoid the hard work of creating our art. To counteract this, we must create rituals and structures that make it impossible for us to hide: time every day in which the only thing we can do is produce. (For example, per Neil Gaiman, “I would go down to my lovely little gazebo at the bottom of the garden, sit down, and I’m absolutely allowed not to do anything. I’m allowed to sit at my desk, I’m allowed to stare out at the world, I’m allowed to do anything I like, as long as it isn’t anything. Not allowed to do a crossword, not allowed to read a book, not allowed to phone a friend, not allowed to make a clay model of something. All I’m allowed to do is absolutely nothing, or write.”)

We must be forgiving with ourselves when we are creating, and brutally tough on ourselves when we are editing and refining.

This isn’t going to be fun. But if we are to do our best work, if we are to give our gifts to the world, we have to be willing to grind out the effort each and every day, no matter how hard it feels and how little we feel like doing it on that particular day.

Now, I believe that these insights apply to everyone, not just to “creative” types. No one said that doing excellent, meaningful work was going to be easy, and I expect that writers and artists are just living the fully-distilled version of creating work that matters.

If these insights are to apply to all of us—and I believe they do—then we have four questions we need to answer honestly:

  1. Am I willing to care, at a personal level, about my work?
  2. Am I willing to take personal, emotional risk to put my best into my work?
  3. Will engaging in this kind of sustained, daily effort help me grow?
  4. Am I going to decide to learn how to put in sustained effort over time?

This framing feels fundamentally different from conversations about “work-life balance” and the perennial elevator small talk of “just three days until the weekend.”

In one view, work is something to be endured and minimized so we can refresh in our free time, and work being hard is an indication of something being wrong.

In another view, work being hard is the necessary precondition for it being meaningful, because there is nothing worth producing that doesn’t require risk and struggle.

While this doesn’t mean that all work we find hard is rewarding, it means that we cannot use “hard” as a barometer for something being wrong at work.

Somewhere, somehow, each of us has to find our own version of discipline.

For example, I don’t have access to Neil Gaiman’s gazebo, nor do I write fantastical fiction or comics. But both Neil and I need time alone, time to think, time with the proverbial blank page; time when we’re looking straight at a problem we don’t know the answer to; time when our job is to sit there until we produce one thing that is one small step in the right direction.

Discipline is often not fun. It is, at a minimum, the act of sitting with discomfort and delaying gratification because we know that this is what it feels like when we do real work.

Of course, most of us have not figured out what our art is, we don’t know what we are uniquely suited to do in the world.

That’s OK. We don’t need the full answer today. We need, instead, to decide to start doing meaningful, personal work as soon as possible.

And how do we start? Not with musing, reflection or pretending that if we wait long enough inspiration will touch us. That’s a great way of hiding.

Instead, we start with building a practice of creative discipline into our days, weeks and lives: we put ourselves in situations every day where we ask ourselves to make one small thing that we are proud of, one small thing that is over and above the exact thing we were asked to do.

With this mindset, our work becomes something we can take personally, and each thing we ship can be different and better for what we’ve put into it.

From the moment we decide to take our work personally, we start to show up like professionals, and, bit by bit, we watch the yield that comes from refusing to be swayed too quickly by the thoughts that all of us have: this is too hard; this might not be good enough; if I care a little less, then I won’t be hurt if I come up short.

Caring less and risking less are great ways to stay safe in the short term, and even better ways to ensure that we stay where we are in the long term.

Whereas if we shift our attitude towards our work and learn how to build discipline into our days, we set ourselves down the harder but much more rewarding path of sharing what only we have to offer through our work.

Two Extra Hours

When this pandemic is over, I will start commuting back in to work.

My commute is a 10-minute walk to the train, a 40 minute train ride, and another 10 minute walk to the office. That adds up to one hour each way, twice a day, five days a week.

The question is: where will I find that time?

Right now, my days feel full.  It doesn’t seem like there are extra minutes, let alone hours, waiting to be claimed.

And yet, two full hours a day, 10 hours a week, are apparently there for the taking, from one day to the next.

Which means that if I have something really important to accomplish, today, I apparently have 10 available hours per week that I could find if I really wanted to.

The point is: the barrier between what we are doing now and what we’d like to accomplish in the future is not a lack of available time.

The barrier is the myth of scarcity.

The barrier is our need to hang on to other seemingly essential tasks.

The barrier is our unwillingness to say that this thing is something I’m going to do, no matter what.

No fuss, no drama.

Like riding a train each day, just start doing that new thing, today.

The Measure of a Successful Day

What’s the measure of a successful day?

As we approach the one-year mark of this pandemic, we’ve all settled into our new routine. No matter how stable that routine is, most of us have come to the conclusion that we can’t measure productivity by the same yardstick as before.

Of course, it all depends on your personal situation. But I suspect that for many, our time, schedules, outside obligations and  overall sense of “I got this-ness” continue to vacillate day to day and week to week in this crazy life we’re living.

I realized a few months back that I need a new measure for my days. Not output, not hours worked, not even the metrics I’m shooting for in my annual goals.

Those are important, to be sure. But more important is, each and every day, to do (at least) one brave thing.

Brave is:

Writing something

Creating something

Supporting someone

Listening deeply

Accepting something new you’ve learned about yourself.

Letting go of an assumption, or a prejudice

Taking a risk

Pushing your limits

Not running away from discomfort.

 

One brave thing, each and every day.

No matter the pulls on our time, our attention, our attitude, our mindset, we always have the space for that. And acts of bravery have a way of adding up.

Writing Great Annual Goals

It’s the time of year when lots of folks are writing their annual goals. It can feel daunting. Too often this becomes an exercise in list-writing, task after task that we know we must get through.

Somehow, in the process of listing out everything we lose something: the meaning behind it all, the “so what.”

If I boil this exercise down to its essence, my thought experiment is: imagine it is December 31, 2021 and I’m looking back at the year. How will I (and, if these goals are for work, my boss) know how I did?

Here’s how you can bring clarity to the answer to this question.

Take a step back and write two short paragraphs.

  • Paragraph 1: if I’ve done this by the end of the year it will be a good year
  • Paragraph 2: if I’ve done this it will be a great year

Write in simple prose and focus on the stuff that really matters. Not each individual task, but where you will be and how it will feel. Most important, write paragraphs that are specific and clear enough that you, and the colleagues that will be looking at this with you in a year’s time, will be able to judge clearly how you did.

For example, when I think about 2021 for 60 Decibels, we obviously have goals around growth, revenues, profitability and impact. But those numbers alone aren’t my goals for the year. Rather, I’ve written down where I want us to be as a business and as a team, what questions we will have answered for ourselves and in the market, and the strategic milestones we will have hit that set us up for the next success.

What I write down doesn’t feel like a list of accomplishments, it’s more like a description of a location on a map: at this new (future) vantage point, thinks look and feel like this, they smell like this. Here’s who I am, and who we are, thanks to the miles we’ve walked. Here’s what we can now see thanks to how high we’ve climbed.

When I capture my goals for the year in these terms, everything feels more tangible, more visceral, and more motivating. Better yet, it’s easier for our team to understand where we’re headed and why, so we can all get behind that vision.

If it’s a good year, this is where we’ll be.

And if it’s a great year, this is where we’ll be.

Here’s to a great 2021.