Crisis Speed

There was a moment, not long after we incorporated 60 Decibels, when I was sitting in the office with my head of operations. We had to decide which of a number of office spaces we had seen was right for us, and what lease to sign.  We discussed it for about five minutes, agreed what we wanted to do…and then we both just stopped for a beat.

Both of us paused because it felt like we needed to check with someone else, to get an additional approval, to run it up the flagpole.

But in a startup, blessedly, there is no flagpole.

Both of us got a bit giddy as we realized it was just up to us. When the surrounding silence made this abundantly clear, we confirmed our decision and moved on. That was the first of a thousand small decisions we made quickly.

She and I had both spent our careers in bigger organizations. We’d learned about things going slowly. It had been, slowly and surely, pounded in to us.

Of course things change in moments of crisis–like what we’re living through right now. When a crisis hits, we all move faster, because what’s happening externally is so big and so universally understood that no one will punish us for choosing to act.

The question that presents itself is: why only in a crisis?

One of the many things we are all learning is that we can up our game when we have to: we can make important decisions and own the consequences.

The people whose job it is to make sure everything is just right have other things to worry about right now. Or they’ve consciously changed their standard, tilting far in favor of action and away from methodically checking off all the boxes.

This has happened because we all understand the cost of inaction in a crisis.

What we shouldn’t forget, not just today but also in a calmer tomorrow, is that the cost of inaction is always high.

Many of us have learned that we can’t get blamed for doing nothing. But the much more important lesson is that inaction and passing the buck are nearly always the most expensive thing–not just because of the things we don’t get done, but because of the culture we build and the lessons we teach our best people:

That’s it’s not really up to them to decide.

That they’re not really on the hook.

That we don’t, when you boil it all down, trust them to act in our best interest.

What could be more damaging to the cultures we aim to build?

Sundays at Cafe Comercial

I’ve lived in Spain twice, once taking a semester off at the start of my junior year in college, and once four years later. Both times I mostly lived in Madrid.

Madrid seemed familiar to me at first, a big city that reminded me of my hometown of New York. But Spanish culture and the patterns of daily life were very un-American at the time. The siesta still existed, meaning long breaks at 2pm for lunch, and the workday stretched to 8pm. You couldn’t start dinner at a restaurant before 10pm unless you wanted to eat alone.

The thing I noticed most, though, were Sundays.

On Sundays, nearly everything was closed. A whole vibrant, dynamic city shut itself down for the day.

When I first lived in Spain, those Sundays felt endless. I spent a huge amount of energy grumbling about things being closed, noticing all the things I couldn’t do, and, finally and reluctantly, finding ways to fill my time.

I moved back to Spain four years later, and this second time around I more quickly slipped into the culture and rhythm of the place. I began to notice the beauty of the different way things were done: going to lots of little shops one at time to shop on Saturdays (a fruit shop, a cheese shop, a butcher) wasn’t worse than having everything at one supermarket. Yes, it was slower, but I got to know the couple that ran Tomad Mucha Fruta, and they got to know me. I talked each week to the butcher, and to the many abuelas on line with me, about how a stew or a roast had turned out and what I would make the following week. My now-wife and I would have long conversations with the cheese guy (she also had a crush on him…and how can you compete with a guy who is good looking AND sells cheese?) All of this wove us into the fabric of our neighborhood and the local community.

Sundays were the biggest difference. This second time around, ‘nothing to do’ was something I began to understand intuitively. A few months into the year, my wife and I created a lovely routine. We’d print out the NY Times Sunday Crossword (newly possible thanks to the internet) and make our way to one of Madrid’s big old coffee shops, Café Comercial. We’d settle in with a big café con leche, maybe a palmeira or other snack, and pass half the day reading, talking and doing the crossword.

Those Sundays were far and away the most peaceful time I had during that year.

Everything being closed meant we had nowhere to be. Having nowhere to be meant we could embrace moving slowly, letting time be expansive, and truly taking a day of rest.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as ready as you are for “shelter in place” to become a thing of the past. But that’s not happening any time soon.

So, let’s allow ourselves—those of who are not on the front lines, bravely serving others with a fraction of the support they need or deserve—to reframe this moment.

Let’s allow time to pass differently.

Let’s be thankful for what we have, and sometimes, just sometimes, to experience our inability to do all we want to do as a new kind of freedom.

Resources for Remote Surveying

Much of the world has ground to a halt in the last week, and I expect it will continue this way for some time.

Our 60 Decibels team has been looking for ways we can help directly, and we’ve put together some resources I’d like to share.

First, yesterday we shared the 60 Decibels Remote Survey Toolkit. It is a new, free 19-page guide on how to successfully conduct research work remotely. This is a response to the fact that virtually all face-to-face research has stopped in reaction to COVID-19, and many organizations are scrambling to shift some or all of that data-gathering to mobile phones.

Since our 60 Decibels team has been conducting phone-based surveys for the past six years, we thought it would be helpful to compile some of the lessons we’ve learned about how to gather high-quality feedback and social performance data remotely. This Toolkit capture the most important lessons we’ve learned in speaking to more than 120,000 customers in 35 countries.

60 Decibels Remote Survey Toolkit

In addition, we have a network of more than 200 trained enumerators in 30+ countries who speak 40 languages (ready for the list? It’s awesome: Amharic, Arabic, Assamese, Bangla (Bangladesh), Bemba, Bengali (India), Bisayas, Burmese, Chichewa, English, French, Gujarati, Hausa, Hindi, Igbo, Japanese, Kinyariwanda, Kiswahili, Krio, Luganda, K’iche, Kannada, Malagasy, Malay, Malayalam, Mandarin, Marathi, Nepali, Oromo, Oriya/Odia, Pidgeon English, Portuguese, Punjabi, Q’eqchi, Shona, Siswati, Sotho, Spanish, Swahili, Tagalog, Tamil, Tigrinya, Telugu, Twi, Urdu, Wolaiytigna, Wolof, Xhosa, Yoruba, and Zulu.)

While we have, so far, used this network to conduct our own work, we’re having lots of conversations with other research organizations to see if we can help them keep their work on track. If this network might be helpful to you, please let me know.

Finally, we are going to take steps to integrate questions about COVID-19 and its impacts into all our ongoing 60 Decibels surveys. While there are already some great initiatives tracking the impacts of COVID-19 globally, like this one created by Harvard, Cambridge, Warwick, and 7 other universities, they are mostly online-only and won’t capture the voice of the 3.5 billion people who don’t have a smartphone.

While it’s just one small piece of a much, much bigger puzzle, we hope that the work of listening, especially to those most impacted by the many hardships the world has to offer, can continue through these challenging times.

Stay safe, stay positive, and let’s take good care of each other.

The Second Wave

A week ago, I felt ahead of the coronavirus curve. Our town had closed schools as of the prior Sunday night, so our kids were already at home. Our community had started social distancing and I was already staying home from work. Meanwhile, the rest of the country, and most of the rest of the world, was going about business as usual.

What a difference a week makes.

If last week my community was living through a first, early wave, this week everyone everywhere got hit head-on with a mammoth second wave, and it’s knocked us off our feet.

My sister-in-law runs a wonderful commercial bakery in Nashville, and nearly all the restaurants in town are running skeleton operations and will soon be shut down. She and countless others running small businesses have no playbook for “the economy grinds to a halt.” For now, she and the restaurants are doing what they can to keep paying their staff, but that can’t last forever. What happens 3-4 weeks from now?

She, and I, and every small business owner in the country and the world spent the early part of this week running all the numbers: our revenues, our costs, our cash. We’re trying to make plans but have no crystal ball to tell us how big a hit this will be and how long it will last.

Are we stopping everything for a few weeks or for a few months?

Come mid-April, will we have adjusted to a new normal, a pulled-back version of what we know, one in which everything functions, albeit at 60-70% its normal capacity?

Or is it possible that major parts of the economy, our school systems, our houses of worship, our community service organizations, and our social fabric all stay offline for months or longer while our healthcare system gets crushed by demand that is a multiple of its current capacity?

Honestly, it is all too much to get my head around.

And, in truth, while all of this worries me, I quietly fear that in a few months’ time I will look back longingly to a time when I was mostly thinking about changes in regular life instead of worrying about the health and well-being of people I know and love.

I pray every day that what we’re all doing will buy us the time we need and avert the worst-case scenarios.

Instead of trying to make sense of it all, I’m doing what I can to keep focused on the present, to do what I can to take care of my family and myself, to stay connected to the people I work with and the customers we serve, and to find ways, big and small, to support one another.

I notice that our 60 Decibels team is much more active online—new Slack channels are coming to life, and everyone is much more responsive. It’s become OK to spend time on a Zoom call just asking how people are doing, to speak about feelings and experiences. These are all good things.

I’ve also noticed is how differently time is passing. Without a regular schedule, the days have lost their structure, so they are bleeding into one another. A morning or afternoon might fly by, but the days themselves feel slow, sometimes plodding. Every time I count how long it’s been since schools shut down–8 days, as of today–the number feels woefully small compared to what’s to come.

I, along with a number of people around me, have…some sort of illness. It’s some combination of a low fever, a tight chest, aches, listlessness. Normally we’d take a DayQuill and get on with things, but now we realize that we could be the ones spreading this thing if we’re not careful, and of course its scary to think of the worst scenarios. So, we alert everyone we’ve been in contact with over the last 10 days (nearly nobody), while at the same time all deciding that there’s no point in trying to get tested because tests aren’t available.

This means we don’t know, and we won’t know, if we have a cold or the flu or the coronavirus, and I expect most of us never will. Even the relief of catching the virus, getting over it, and having immunity eludes us because of the embarrassing, dangerous lack-of-response to this pandemic that’s our reality in the United States.

At the same time, there have also been many wonderful moments over these last eight days. I’m definitely spending more time, and different time, with my children. We, and they, have gone for many more hikes. They are, by necessity, much more independent, venturing off on walks and through parks without us, the sort of unstructured free play that’s all but vanished in our modern, over-parented and over-scheduled era. I’ve taught my third-grade daughter how to add fractions—I didn’t just help her with her homework, I taught it to her from scratch. We’ve brought the ping-pong table back out and everyone’s eager to play. We are eating all our meals together and cooking even more than we normally do (which is a lot). Mostly, we can get the groceries that we want.

When they ask, we tell our kids this has never happened before, that it’s unprecedented. I think we’re failing to communicate the scale of our un-knowing. We are all children in the face of this new era that’s smacked us in the face, with no experience to guide us, no intuition to inform where we are relative to where we will be.

Stay safe, stay positive, and let’s take good care of each other.

The Eye of the Storm

Like many, I’ve found my week and life disrupted by the Coronavirus.

First, over the weekend we decided to keep our 60 Decibels New York team working from home for the start of this week, since two of our team members live in Westchester County (which has been leading the nation in total number of Coronavirus cases).  Then I learned late on Sunday night that our school district was closing until March 18th.

One thing I’ve noticed over the past week is that we’re all on different Coronavirus waves. Each wave is separated by a few days or maybe weeks, and each brings with it a different experience of how real, and close, this pandemic is. I expect that what’s going on in Westchester County, where I live, is a lot like what happened in Northern Italy two or three weeks ago, and that what we’re experiencing will soon happen in other parts of the country.

The main thing I’m noticing is nobody seems to really know what’s going on or what to do. This is all new, uncharted territory, and outside of learning how to wash our hands better, everything else—figuring out whether and when to close things down, to practice social distancing or to quarantine ourselves—is a guessing game, especially in the absence of widespread testing.

What I’m personally experiencing is a low-level fog, a sense that there’s something potentially terrible going on out there, with “out there” not that far from home. I think a lot about the math of exponential spread: it would overwhelm our healthcare system and, potentially, cause significant and widespread fatalities. At the same time, I pray that we will look back at this as a crisis averted and learn from it for the future. I’m pretty sure that the best way to avoid the worst scenarios is much broader testing and changes in social behavior to lower the rate of transmission. But what that means in reality, on a national scale, is hard to imagine.

Despite these thoughts droning on in the background, boosted by my Twitter feed, the sun has been out, the early spring days are beautiful, and right now everyone I know is, as far as I know, as safe and healthy as they were last week. It’s all very confusing.

If a preview of having Coronavirus in your community is helpful, here goes. We keep getting drips of messages of closures and cancelations, including from stores and care providers we’ve never heard of.  Everyone who has been “thinking hard” about whether or not to close has closed. Our school’s messaging is broad and vague: there’s no clear plan for how long this will last, whether remote instruction will happen for our kids, and whether this is the start of something that will last much longer.

At each juncture we have no choice but to guess at how to act and what to do. No one has told us that we, or our kids, should stop seeing other people, so do we stop completely? Do we stop sort of? Do we stop not at all? Should we be buying beans and rice and canned goods like crazy, or just shopping normally? And why, of all things, are people stocking up on toilet paper? Is that really our biggest concern?

And, taking a step back, if this is going to be a long haul, will we look back at these early days and think how good we had it? Or will we think “if only we had done more, maybe we could have collectively contained this better?”

I honestly don’t know.

I do I wish that the people whose job it is to take away all this collective guesswork were doing a much better job. Isn’t it easy to take public infrastructure and the public good for granted until we really need it?

Insurance policies are a waste of money until disaster strikes. The ability to attend to collective well-being is quaint, antiquated, even un-American until we are all, collectively, at risk. The need for a functioning healthcare system for all is a politically charged, ideological question until, suddenly, we realize we are all in it together.

My hope is that our public infrastructure and civic leaders step up despite our systematic disemboweling of the public sector, and that our renowned private sector, so adept at saving us one day of delivery time on a pair of sneakers can point its problem-solving ability to a challenge of global proportions.

In the meantime, stay safe, stay positive, and let’s take good care of each other.

Your Best Work

There will come a day, maybe even today, that you produce something truly outstanding.

It’s you at your best, a commingling of great ideas, inspiration and a heavy dose of grit that got it over the line.

Most people who see it will be moved, maybe even inspired. They will let you know that you’ve done something truly important. You will be reminded that you at your best is really something special.

And some people, people who you truly and deeply respect…they will not like it at all.

Not because it’s not good.

Not because your best isn’t remarkable (it is.)

Simply because it is not for them.

Just like we can’t fool all the people all the time, we also cannot please all of them—and this includes people we like and respect.

The sooner we learn this lesson, the sooner we can get on with doing the work that only we can do. Because what they like or don’t like isn’t us, it’s the work.

We’re not here to please everyone.

We’re here to create concrete, meaningful, positive change for a small group of people.

Figuring out that those people are “not everyone” is incredibly freeing.

The Best Time to Start

Time is a tricky thing.

I remember like it was yesterday sitting on the floor with my newborn son, a famously bad sleeper, at a few minutes past four on a Saturday morning. It was pitch black out, I’d only slept a few hours, and we were up for the day. He sat in front of me, smiling and up for the day, diligently working on picking things up and trying to place them in a plastic shape-sorter that played a bunch of different tunes.

Day after day, week after week, my day would start at this hour—long before the neighbors, my friends who didn’t have kids, even the Marines. Being awake for hours before the sun came up each Saturday (and Sunday, and Monday) felt endless, as did that phase of life.

These days, things are a bit different.

My son, when he comes over to give me a hug, lifts his chin up a bit—he’s not yet a full head taller than me, but I expect he will be soon. We talk about his ceramics and logarithms, what e means, and about politics.

Just like that, in the proverbial blink of an eye.

Time is neutral, just doing its job day after day. Yet, despite its consistency, we fail to understand it. We get fooled into thinking we have forever, that tomorrow is just as good as today, for…

…starting that new project

…keeping a commitment

…telling someone we love them

…lending a hand

…letting go of a bad habit

…or starting a good one.

We have all the time in the world, until we don’t.

And waiting until a better time to start often means never starting at all.

We let ourselves believe that whatever is happening today will last for forever, and that we’ll never get free of the hard thing we are facing.

Just as easily, we can believe that we have “all the time in the world” when someday it will run out.

We reliably accomplish less than we think will each day and week, but much more than seems possible over the course of a year.

Assuming, that is, that we start today.

The 3Cs of great meetings

Most people hate meetings, a lot.

Responding to a 2015 Harris poll, 46% of people said they’d rather do “almost anything” over a status-update meeting. 17% said they would choose to watch paint dry, and 8% claim they’d rather have a root canal.

Admittedly, this just proves that 50% of all statistics are made up, inaccurate or exaggerated.

Still, we can agree that most staff meetings (or similar) are a drag and most people dread them.

In the face of this knowledge, your first option is not to have these meetings at all. When choosing between a terrible meeting that demotivates people and nothing, by all means cancel the meeting, send a memo instead, and see what breaks (if anything).

But you can also give your meetings a huge shot in the arm by reminding yourself of the 3Cs of great meetings: communication, connection, and celebration.

Communication is probably the meat and potatoes of your current meeting. We get together to share (ostensibly) essential information. To improve the quality of your communication, send content in advance, and expect people to have reviewed it before the meeting. Use the in-meeting communication to give context on what’s already been shared, emphasize key points, and have a discussion—limit yourself to the things that you can’t write down.

It’s the other two Cs that nearly always get short shrift.

Connection is the big one. I remember, two years into my first real job as a management consultant, noticing that I was consistently spending more of my waking hours with my work colleagues than with my girlfriend (now wife).

Without connection, these hours feel empty.

You can build in connection with rituals at the start of a meeting. Google CEO Eric Schmidt famously started all staff meetings with “trip reports” both about work and about his team’s weekend. The point was to give everyone a chance to experience one another as whole human beings, and to remember that we are more, and have more to offer, than our job and role at the company.

Celebration is the most rare. Why is this? Maybe we’re embarrassed to praise someone in public or to be praised. Maybe it’s just hard to deliver compliments in a genuine way. But this is a muscle we can easily build. Just think, in advance of the meeting, of something a colleague did last week worth celebrating. Best of all, this doesn’t need (and shouldn’t only) to come from The Boss. It can come from anyone to anyone. The easy shortcut: sentences that start with, “I really appreciated it when you…”

You’ll want to figure out how to make the 3Cs, communication, connection and celebration, work for your own culture. It will depend on how formal or informal you are, how important hierarchy is for your organization, and how you approach structure or lack thereof.

But all meetings—especially staff meetings or other regular comings-together of larger groups—should have elements of all three Cs, each and every time.

The Story of a Truth, Revealed

We all carry around The Story of Me: the things we know to be true, an admixture of strengths and idiosyncrasies, faults and foibles.

Our identity is a many-layered thing. At its deepest layers are the things about Us we are most sure of. These things, buried so deep, are the hardest to see: attributes and mindsets, tendencies and habits so firmly held they become invisible.

Then, one day, someone shines a new light on one of these until-now truths. This is a someone who cares enough, knows us well enough, is expert enough and speaks so clearly that the truth they’ve uttered cuts all the way to our core.

Like hearing our own recorded voice, or seeing ourselves in a video, something previously invisible is at the center of the screen, revealed. We can’t look away. It takes up our whole field of vision.

This is a tough moment.

This Truth was so deeply held it formed part of our identity—it touches on the story of who we knew ourselves to be.

It is natural, in this moment of revelation, to experience this new Truth as a flaw, one that eclipses our strengths, our natural talents, the things that make us special.

At first, preoccupied by this new Truth, our performance plummets. Because we can’t tear our eyes away, all we see is the ways it makes us less than we thought we were. Preoccupied, we lose our ability to do things naturally: the grooved behaviors that worked so well in the past feel off, but we don’t know what else to do, how else to act.

The natural reaction is to turn away, to hide from this new Truth. It feels so ugly and misshapen, making us feel clumsy, awkward.

That’s not the answer. We shouldn’t run from this Truth. It has, after all, been offered up as a gift by someone who cares.

Nor should we be sucked into obsession, seeing the Truth in our every action, being fooled into thinking that it is Everything.

Our job, instead, is to stand firm. The “it’s all I can see, I’m a failure, I should give up” stage will pass if we are patient and we can stay grounded. Our job is to live with the truth, not to hide from or banish it.

If we can do this, then, in due course, we’ll arrive at the next stop on our journey: the It’s Not Everything stage.

In this stage, we begin to see the playing field more clearly. A number of important Things that didn’t make sense—surprising impacts we’ve had on others, results for us or our team that were less than we’d hoped for—are explained by their connection to this new Truth. In the It’s Not Everything stage, we’re not fully comfortable yet, but a fog is lifting and we’re getting more clarity. With clarity comes progress.

Finally, in time, we arrive at the last stop in our journey: the New Story.

We’ve shifted, we’ve test, we’ve adjusted, we’ve trialed-and-errored, and we’ve loosened our grip just a bit on the way things were. We’ve integrate this Truth into the New Story.

This New Story is a more real story of Us. It’s one in which we’ve traded a shiny, but ultimately faulty, piece of the puzzle for a new one.

This new piece at first seemed imperfect and misshapen.

In time we’ve cleaned it off, honed the edges, and discovered it for what it really is: a stronger, more reliable, more real than the piece that was there before.

Remembering Jason Polan to Find our Inner Artist

The artist’s job is to see the world around him.

I didn’t know Jason Polan, or his work, until I heard last week that he passed away. Jason was a 37 year old artist who, among other projects, had the beautiful, outlandish idea to draw every person in New York City. He completed 11,000 drawings, and would have gotten much further had he lived longer. Jason’s drawings are raw, irreverent, deeply human, joyful, and full of life. As Jason once quipped, “I feel my drawings have gone downhill since I was about five.”

I particularly like this one.

Jason Polan drawing
Man on 6 Train by Jason Polan

The writer and artist Austin Kleon starts his homage to Jason with one of Jason’s tweets, “It’s like, anyone can figure out how to draw something. But it’s hard to tell people how to see something.”

If the job of the artist is to see, then we have two questions to ask:

Am I an artist?

What does it take to see?

The first question, ironically, is the easy one. Today, you’ve no choice but to be an artist, even if, to start, you do it with a tiny, lowercase ‘a’.

The artist is the person who does more than she is told, who sees something unformed and forms it, who sees something that is missing and takes the steps to create it. To do art is to create, and no matter how big or small you dare to dream today, what we need from you is the creation of things that only you can see, the making of things that only you can make.

But what about seeing? How, as Jason asks, do we learn how to see?

We begin by deciding that seeing is a thing that we do. For me, that decision came in the form of deciding, in 2008, to write this blog. It’s been reinforced by the daily and weekly decision to keep it up for the last 12 years over more than 1,000 posts. That commitment, week in and week out, to create original content moves me from looking at the world to seeing the world; and the act of writing about what I see makes think harder about what I’ve seen and what it means.

But you don’t need a commitment as big as a public blog you’ll write for a decade. Not, at least, to start.

Creating Space

What you need is a bit more space.

Last week, in a rush of enthusiasm, my 15-year-old son shared a drawing he created last summer. He didn’t think of it as anything special, just something he’d done one day at camp when he sitting at Saturday morning services, a bit bored and trying to pass the time. (Apparently, as we just discovered, he also taught himself calligraphy over the summer.)

Because no good teenage deed goes unpunished, a few days after sharing how beautiful we thought the drawing was (and talking more about my son’s art—he makes beautiful ceramics too), we had a conversation about time.

Specifically, would that drawing have ever been created if he’d had access to his phone, to Snapchat, to Reddit, to YouTube?

And, before we get on our collective high horse about teenagers and screen time, let’s turn the mirror back on ourselves: we can easily replace “teenage-phone-distractions” with our “grown-up” distractions: the crush of email, meetings, our news feed, the latest crisis at work, and, yes, Candy Crush and its ilk.

Boredom is the Artist’s Friend

Think for a moment about what happens when we’re bored.

Our idle mind gets jumpy. If we can remind ourselves not to get hijacked by endless internal thoughts and dialogue, we find a bit of stillness. Our mind wants to turn this open, unstructured space into something.

If we allow it room to breathe,  eventually our undistracted mind will chooses to create something.

This new thing, this interesting thing, is the (metaphorical) corner of the pattern my son drew: the start of something worth creating. Once we put this down on paper, we have a jumping off point. Then, having crossed the threshold from nothing to something, it is much easier to fill in the rest through a process that is as much discovery as it is exposition.

Our choice, then, begins with recognition that being always-on, always-busy eclipses the potential for any blank space. Without blank space, without a little boredom and the prospect of a blank page, we will never begin.

But begin we must.

A small shock to the system can help. Here’s a thought: try a painless, one-month commitment to something you want to create. Use Austin Kleon’s 29-day calendar (recently updated for the leap year), and see what happens when you do some new thing for 15 minutes a day.

Do it for Jason Polan, to make up for a fraction of the beauty lost when he passed long before his time.