What do you do with an unmarked bag of seeds?

Imagine you are handed, Jack-and-the-beanstalk-style, an unmarked bag of seeds whenever you start a new job.

The seeds, being unmarked, are a mystery to you. And let’s agree, for the sake of the metaphor, that you have no fancy app on your phone that helps you discern which seed is which.

If you want your garden to grow, with productive plants, beautiful flowers, big trees and, if you so choose, a magic beanstalk, what’s the best strategy?

It seems to me there are two real options.

The first is to wonder why in the heck you were given a bag of unmarked seeds, for goodness sake? I mean, it would be a lot more straightforward to know which seed is which, and the instructions you need to follow to make each one thrive. That way you’d also be sure not to invest too much time or effort into the beans that are never going to amount to much, and you can focus your efforts on following the proven instructions for growing a garden.

Another approach is to just start planting and caring for the seeds: preparing the soil, fertilizing, watering regularly, diligently nurturing each one as best you know how. And, to maximize your chances for success in the face of uncertainty, you’ll plant as many seeds as you can care for, and show up every day to take care of them.

If the first approach appeals to you, then you are most likely to be happiest in an organization with clear, well-defined career paths. In each role, you’ll know exactly what it takes to succeed, and you can allocate your time to just those specific seeds that you’re expected to plant this year, next year, and the year after that.

And if the second appeals to you, then you most likely find yourself in a startup or in some other kind of entrepreneurial environment.

In these organizations, the paths are rarely well-worn, the skills required are emergent, and the seed that will lead to the next big breakthrough is unknown.

In these sorts of organizations, senior management probably talks about making your own opportunity and taking initiative, but it can be hard to know what that means today and tomorrow.

But, with the right culture—the right soil in which you’re planting your seeds—your consistent work and excellent attitude will lead to surprisingly fruitful results down the line.

Here’s one way to think about it:

You know that you don’t know what leads to what. Which means that this thing I’m doing today could become something big, or it could not; this client could become huge, or maybe they won’t; this experiment that we’re running might be the future of the business, or it may not.

Like the seeds, we don’t know which activity or idea or client will become the next big thing. So, if we want to maximize our chances of making an impact, of creating a shift in the trajectory both of our company and of our own career trajectory, the best approach is to put more bets on the table (plant more seeds), and cultivate all of them with consistent, diligent professionalism.

This way, more of the things you work on have the chance to become great.

Which means things like…

…being proud of everything you send to every client, because you never know what they might say to the next person.

…paying close attention to the conversations that don’t directly relate to your work today, because that context might lead you to do something differently tomorrow.

…being proactive and attentive whenever you can, and always aiming to make those around you better.

…doing something surprisingly wonderful for someone you’ve not worked with for 6 months, whether a paying client, someone in a peer organization, or a colleague.

These and countless other actions boil down to the daily work of cultivation, of planting and tending to a big garden and working that garden like a professional.

The uncertainty cannot be changed. But if each individual seed is given the greatest chance to grow, in a year or two year’s time there’s no doubt you’ll have a thriving, eclectic, beautiful garden.

 

Good Enough, Fast Enough, The Right Way

Every day, every moment, we’re engaged in a dance with ourselves that revolves around three questions:

  1. What’s the best way to do this?
  2. What speed do I go?
  3. How do I know when it’s finished?

1. What’s the best way to do this?

There’s the way I’ve always done this, the way I did this yesterday, the way I know will work well enough.

Then there’s my ongoing tracking of whether this way is good enough, a dialogue with myself about whether it’s time to upgrade. This conversation is an outgrowth of my intuition, knowledge and research.

Every day, I can ask an answer a simple but important question: is today the day I start learning one small part of a better way to do what I do?

2. What speed do I go?

I know I shouldn’t be rushing; I can’t be if I’m going to do my best work.

At the same time, like a runner, I can, over time, get comfortable with faster, get comfortable with leaning a little more forward, get comfortable with a new pace.

While it might be hard to see our own progress in individual tasks, we also know that there are things we do in a minute today that took us five before. This means that there is a pace we can go tomorrow that feels risky, even dangerous today.

The trick here is to decouple the speed itself—the actual pace we’re going, the essential interplay between quality and throughput—and our experience of speed.

If we feel uncomfortable, that might mean we’re going too fast. Or it might be a barometer of our fear.

If our pace feels “just right” all the time, that might mean we’re not pushing hard enough.

3. How do I know it’s done?

This is hardest one of all, because we could always make it a little bit better, because that last finishing touch might be the difference between good and great.

Or it might be where we hide.

Hide from the fear of putting our work out there in front of a colleague or a client.

Hide from the moment when we say, “I did this, and I stand by this.”

Hide in the safety of knowing that “I’m just making it a little bit better” will rarely be criticized, even though the time I’m taking on this thing is taking away from time on the next thing.

How do I track my progress? 

By remembering to ask myself these questions: Is there a better way? Could I go faster? When is it done?

By learning to switch between the dance floor and the balcony: to be in the action, and to see myself in the action. This is how we gain perspective.

But most of all, by regularly asking honest questions of our colleagues:

“This is my approach, how do you do it? Who’s the best at this? Could you, or they, teach me? Can I find a better answer online, in a course, in a community of practice?”

“Do you feel like I generally go the right pace, too fast, or too slow? Can you give me an example?”

“How good am I at following the 80/20 rule? When you get something from me, does it feel ‘good enough’ or ‘perfected’? This is how long the last 20% took me—does that seem like a good use of my time?” 

We never get better in a vacuum.

 

Oh, and if learning to work in this way interests you, you might want to become part of our amazing team at 60 Decibels. I’m hiring an Inside Sales Associate to work closely with me, based in New York. The job posting just went up today, so spread the word!

The Flag

I just spent some time off, which included a good deal of driving around the U.S.

My obvious observation is how ludicrously big this country is, and how breathtakingly beautiful. It defies hyperbole.

(There is also tremendous amount of monoculture agriculture, or at least that’s what you see from the highways.)

The one thing I found most surprising, though, was the American flag. Very often we’d see it from the road, often on all the posts of one big farm or another.

And every single time, the farms that displayed that flag also displayed a strong, right-wing message of some sort: either about Trump and the “stolen” election, or something really clever like “Biden Sucks” or “Let’s Go Brandon.”

I hate the fact that when I see the American flag now, I increasingly expect to see, next to it, a statement or sentiment that I find profoundly anti-American. A statement that, to me, rings of intolerance and aggression and hatred.

And I can’t help but wonder what the people who feel strongly about the things I think that flag represents—tolerance, women’s rights, welcoming the stranger, openness to new ideas, and seeing difference as the bedrock of what makes this country great—can do to reclaim that flag.

Perhaps most important of all, we need to again be a nation in which the flag is embraced by everyone, a nation that is unified in our patriotism even though we might be divided on our views and the policies we embrace.

The Stories We Can Tell Without Data

A few weeks ago, Bloomberg published two scathing articles about the microfinance industry. The articles asserted that major investors—both public and private—are making massive profits through their investments in microfinance, while the industry systematically hurts borrowers. The article begins:

Suicides, debtors’ prisons and delinquent borrowers forced to sell their land—the grim social costs linked to microfinance a decade ago were supposed to be a relic of the past. But efforts to clean up the industry lost momentum, and today billions of dollars are flooding into a system that promises the world’s poor a better life while often compounding their misery.

As I shared in an article I posted on LinkedIn yesterday, the claims in this article are not supported by the data.

Most Impact Reports Are Nothing More Than Stories

How could this be?

It’s because this article falls into an all-too-common trap: relying on robust, objective data sets to profile the financial returns to microfinance investors; and resorting to a handful of interviews and case studies of borrowers, plus a number of expert interviews, to paint the story of social impact.

The question we must ask is: how can it possibly be that, in 2022, the social impact of an industry that reaches more than 140 million clients can credibly be assessed from a few dozen client interviews?

And the answer is: because this is common, accepted practice for assessing most social impact.

For most investors, even those who have a stated intention to create social impact, the “assessment” of this impact is a storytelling exercise. These stories are often based on a handful of anecdotes or case studies, which might include conversations with a small number of customers.

Indeed, if you pick up an annual social impact report from most investors or companies, what you’ll have in your hands is, most likely, a narrative exercise devoid of first-hand data.

So, it is no great surprise that microfinance—a well-established, well-respected sector in social investment—has fallen victim to this same sort of storytelling exercise…only this time, the individual case studies paint a particularly troubling picture of the industry.

Better Social Data is Available in Microfinance

My response to the Bloomberg article points out that there is, in fact, a massive dataset that captures the lived experience of nearly 18,000 microfinance clients who represent 25 million microfinance customers.

This dataset, gathered by the company I run, 60 Decibels, shows that microfinance is creating positive outcomes for the vast majority of borrowers:

Nearly three in four of the clients we spoke to said that their loan repayments are “not a problem”…. Seven in 10 of these clients credit their microfinance institution with helping them strengthen their financial resilience, meaning that they are better able to face a major expense. Four in five clients told us their lives are improved thanks to access to microfinance, with a subset of these, one in three, saying their lives are ’very much improved.’ Similarly, four in five clients say they are better able to reach their financial goals thanks to microfinance.

The dataset also shows that, for a small subset of microfinance customers, their microfinance loans are indeed a burden, that their repayments are causing major strain on their well-being, and that their lives are worse, not better, because of their microfinance loans.

The point is: like most financial products, microfinance has the potential to create both benefit and harm. How the service is delivered, and, in particular, product design and client protection practices, play major roles in determining the impact of this product on the lives of millions of customers.

Of course, this more nuanced version of the story doesn’t make for flashy headlines. Then again, we shouldn’t be surprised that the microfinance industry, or any industry that aims to create social impact, would be vulnerable to such a story being written.

Until we set a new standard, one in which regularly collected, objective, comparable, quantifiable social impact data is expected for anyone claiming to create social impact, we will remain an industry that relies on storytelling.

You can read my full article here.

A Different Walk Every Day

My 2-year-old dog, Birdie, needs to walk at least five miles a day to be calm, relaxed and happy.

My wife and I have concluded that the best way to make this work is with lots of walking first thing in the morning. I’ve been taking her 3 miles right when I wake up, and my wife takes her another mile or so when she walks our youngest daughter to school.

I’ve chosen to walk the same route nearly every day. This makes the timing predictable, and it also helps for training purposes (especially if I let her off leash).

A lot of days, the walk/run is great: the air is cool, dew is on the grass, it’s quiet and beautiful, and I feel lucky to be out.

And some days it feels like drudgery. Not only the same walk as yesterday, but the same walk I’ll do tomorrow, and the day after that, until forever. And then I’m bummed and a little overwhelmed.

The good news is that this thought—“am I really going to be doing this same walk every morning for the next decade?”—gets obliterated immediately when I find myself, say, in some high grass with Birdie, and I start watching her: nose twitching like crazy, tail wagging, searching each tuft of grass and thicket of plants for a squirrel, chipmunk, bunny, or turtle—or just to figure out what that great smell is.

We walked through this high grass yesterday, and we will tomorrow, of course.

But this smell, right here and right now, is new and fascinating.

Where I’m getting things totally wrong is my “this walk” construct: an artificial mental shorthand that incorrectly equates today’s walk with yesterday’s and with tomorrow’s.

This is nothing less than lazy thinking by my lazy mind. In my effort to simplify the world, I completely disconnect from the present, and completely miss what is really going on.

This mistake is easy to make, and it’s the reason why we lose momentum and enthusiasm around the work we set out to do.

You can see the conundrum: there is literally no task that we can master without long-term, repeated work.

This means that we need a mindset that will allow us to walk the path of mastery.

This mindset doesn’t begin with commitment or work ethic.

It begins with remembering to stay present and curious.

When we are present, when we are curious, we can see our reality anew. We are constantly in a new moment and always exploring. We are forever on the cusp of discovering what is different about this specific thing at this moment of this day.

Even, and especially, if that different thing is us.

Playing fast, slowly

My father, who is a concert pianist, reminded me and my daughter of this idea a little while ago.

Consider this passage, from Chopin’s Etude Op. 10 No. 5 (‘black note etude’).

This whole section, all 64 notes, goes by in less than four seconds if played at tempo. The question is: how to practice this section, or the rest of the piece for that matter, when you’re just getting started?

The natural, and most common, approach is to play each note one at a time at a reasonable tempo and, over time, increase that tempo.

My dad argues that this is a road to nowhere: there’s no way to play note by note by note and ultimately hit the fast tempo.

Instead, he suggests: play fast, slowly.

This means picking out very small sections, playing them at full tempo, then pausing, and doing the same for the next section. Like this:

In this way, you’re teaching your hand, and your brain, to play at full tempo, and using the pauses to give yourself enough space and time to set up for the next group of notes.

Over time, then, your job is not “play faster.”

Instead, your job is to “shorten the pauses” until they disappear.

This works for four reasons:

  1. You’re exposing and teaching your body the physical sensation of playing at speed. So much of what we learn—in piano, surely, but everywhere else as well—is learned in the body and not just in the mind.
  2. You’re transforming groups of 6 or 12 individual notes—each of which had to be thought of, processed, and remembered individually—into blocks. It’s easy for the mind to think of a 6- or 12-note block as ‘one thing’ after a bit of practice. And since playing the piano is mostly about your mind keeping up with the torrent of notes your hands have to play, any ‘chunking’ you can do of this overwhelming amount of information allows you to speed up.
  3. The breaks, at the beginning, are much longer than the time you spend playing. When doing something new and difficult, we need extra time to recover and reset.
  4. You’re taking something that’s dangerous—in the sense of “if I play this at full speed, it will fall apart”—and making it safe, thereby building confidence and competence. “I can’t play the whole passage at speed (yet). But I can play these six notes at speed, with full confidence that I won’t mess this little bit up.” And then, over time, the little bit grows, as does your confidence.

What’s powerful about this isn’t only the counterintuitive approach to solving the problem. It’s the conjecture that our standard approach must always have a view towards what it will ultimately become.

Is this an approach, or a process, that both works for where I am today and will get me to tomorrow?

A little bit every day

More often than not, we’re comfortable with “a lot,” and we’re comfortable with “nothing.”

It’s easy to make a big push for something when we’re feeling inspired: a New Year’s resolution; after reading a great article on the benefits (or drawbacks) of coffee; while on vacation.

Often, that big push either overshoots (we overdo it and get tired), or our inspiration wanes.

Which is why “a little bit every day” is tougher, and more valuable, than it appears.

It requires us to find out what “a little bit” for this new thing means to us: the smallest possible dosage that will make a difference.

And it requires us to do this meaningful thing each and every day.

My natural inclination is get inspired, overdo things, fall short/get injured, and then get frustrated. Then I give up.

The biggest changes I’ve made have happen when I’ve made small, consistent, long term commitments to things that really matter: from generosity to running to listening to recovering from injury.

This isn’t a conceptual point or a conceptual blog post. I encourage you to pick something that matters to you, figure out what “a little bit” would be, and commit to doing that for 30 days. You can even use Austin Kleon’s 30-day challenge printout to keep track.

A little bit every day adds up to a lot. And it’s rarer than it appears.

Seeing the Elephant

It’s easy to assume that the more senior you get in an organization, the more you can see the whole.

This is only partially true.

It’s true that you have more access to a facsimile of the whole, whether through dashboards of KPIs or access to other senior people who run major functions.

But all these inputs are at best proxies for what’s really going on. While they serve as early warning indicators that can tell you where to dig deeper, they often lack texture, nuance, and context,  and are at best a fuzzy representation of the whole.

This is why it’s doubly important, no matter where you sit in an organization, to let go of the notion that the senior folks “just know more stuff” and, therefore, that they don’t have much to learn from or don’t need to hear from you.

The reality is each of us sees our own small, unique part of the elephant, and beyond that, we all have massive blind spots.

For any of us to truly understand the whole, we must travel far and wide, within and outside our organization, and hear what everyone has to say.

And we must engender a company culture that encourages everyone to speak up and share what they see. This culture must be reinforced daily—in how 1-on-1s and larger meetings happen, in what is said in which Slack threads, in how questions are asked and answered. The lifeblood of this culture is people who model brave behavior, sharing the important details early and often.

It’s so tempting to paint the pretty picture of what’s going on in our little neck of the woods, to assume that “nothing to see here” is the right, safe message.

Picture, instead, the power of describing the salient details, the bits that only you know, and partnering to connect that up with the whole.

Only together can we see the whole elephant.

The problem with skipping Tuesday

Hopefully you noticed by now that I publish this blog once a week every Tuesday.

Except for last week: I got back from my first big international trip post-COVID, and returned to such a mountain of work + jetlag that I didn’t put up the post that I’d written. I wanted to give it another turn, and I was shot by the end of the day on Monday.

Of course the week stayed busy, and then it was a holiday in the US yesterday, so again, no post. And, since I schedule all my meetings on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, I’ve got very limited quiet time until the end of the week.

From where I’m standing, I can see how easy it would be to let another week go by.

And, in the tradition of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, pretty soon one thing leads to another…

I think people often confused routine and discipline, and the role that they play in long term projects and how we structure our days.

Discipline by itself is awfully hard: doing all the mental work of deciding to do a difficult task, prioritizing that task, fighting through the resistance, and getting the job done.

Phew.

Whereas routine is a lot easier: discipline is involved, but it is simply the discipline of walking a well-worn path.

That’s much, much easier.

Until next Tuesday.

 

The Three Jobs of Any Leader

If you are a senior person in an organization, you have, at most, three jobs.

  1. Make decisions
  2. Make the people around you better
  3. Do stuff

Make Decisions

Seth argues that this is our most important job, and I agree with him.

In an information economy, decision-making happens constantly: the decision about what to do with the next hour of our time; about whether we’ll serve this customer or that one; about whether our product needs this new feature or that one.

The act choosing of whether we’re doing A or B, whether we’re going here or there, creates forward momentum.

And yet, most people, regardless of their role, avoid making decisions. Making decisions means being willing to take a position, to put ourselves on the line, to have a point of view. Terrifying indeed. Because of this fear, decision-makers are few and far between.

This means that no matter our organizational structure, anyone who regularly chooses to make decisions is a positive outlier with outsized influence on our direction of travel.

Making decisions quickly, and often with less information than we feel like we need, defines a culture that doesn’t have time to waste, because the work is both important and urgent.

And, like all things, the more often we – individually or collectively – make decisions, the better we’ll get at it.

Make the people around you better

Whether defining culture, cheering people on, removing roadblocks, coaching, or empowering others, the highest-leverage job we have is to find great people, bring them into our organization, and do everything we can to help them succeed.

The ability to attract the best people is a superpower. Talent attracts talent, and great attitude is the ultimate multiplier.

If we’re lucky enough to have great people, our main daily obsession, beyond making decisions, is to create an environment in which they can do their best work.

This starts with tons of communication: describing, over and over again, our ‘why;’ articulating where we are heading; making it as easy as possible for people to connect the dots between what they are doing and the big picture.

It requires individualized coaching and mentorship: skillfully deploying situational leadership so that our team has the right balance between supportive and directive oversight, so that their skills and autonomy develop over time.

And, ultimately, it is about standing side-by-side with people as they chart their path and, in so doing, move your whole organization forward.

Doing Things

This comes last on the list, and it may even fall off the list over time.

This might be counter-intuitive. How could “doing things” not be important, especially for your most senior people?

It’s true that most senior people became senior people because of their exceptional ability to do stuff: analyzing, building, visioning, strategizing, organizing, selling, and executing are the foundational skills that got us where we are today.

And yet, deploying these skills is often a low-leverage activity.

At worst, a leader who only ‘does stuff’ might be hiding from her two more important jobs of deciding things and making others better.

And, hiding aside, the act of “doing” too much runs the risk of creating dependency on this leader to do these important tasks.

Our success as leaders in organization, then, requires three things of us:

  1. Making decisions, as well and we can and as quickly as we can
  2. Helping others thrive, and diving into this work every day
  3. Leaving a small space for the jobs that we are uniquely suited to do….and then consistently, actively, giving those jobs to others over time.