The Spelling Bee Forum and Our Best New Ideas

Lately, my family and I have gotten obsessed with Spelling Bee on the NYTimes Crossword. Someone in our family does it nearly every day.

The game refreshes daily and we’ll typically spend 10-20 minutes playing it across all devices. The rules are simple: make as many words as possible with the 7 available letters; all words must be four or more letters long; and all must use the middle letter at least once. Also, there’s a Pangram every day, a word that uses all 7 letters.

Recently, the Times added a something called the Spelling Bee Forum. It has hints for each day’s puzzle, and is divided into two sections: (1) A grid that shows the number of possible words and their length, listed by letter…

..and beneath that, (2) A list that tells you the first two letters of the words listed in the above table.

So, for example, for last Sunday’s puzzle there were (per the grid above) 11 words that started with C: one with four letters, two with five, two with six, three with seven, two with 9, and one with 10.

Of these, per the next section of hints, 9 of the C words start with ‘CO’ and 2 start with ‘CU.’

As a family, whenever we play, we try not to click on the hints. But when we do check out the hints, I try to look first at the top table and then, if I’m really at a dead end, I’ll look at the bottom list as well.

It is difficult to overstate how helpful the first table is. I can be absolutely stuck, having stared at the same seven letters for 5 minutes straight, sure that there are no words left that I can find. Then, after a glance at the first table of ‘hints,’ and armed with the information that there are 7 words that start with the letter ‘G’ when I’ve only found three…it practically makes more ‘G’ words appear as if by magic.

This is a version of looking when know something is there (in the pantry, in your organization).

The new information—in this case about the number of words that start with the letter G—is telling me two things:

  1. To narrow my field of vision: looking for words that start with G will be fruitful.
  2. That I’m on the path to success: there are four more words that start with G. Hence, the (previously credible) voice telling me I’m at a dead end is silenced.

Having played Spelling Bee for a few months, I’ve become familiar with the ‘stuck’ feeling: staring at that honeycomb of letters and being fully, completely convinced that there’s nothing left there for me to find. Then my wife will come along and find ‘udon’ or ‘iconic’ or ‘epee’ or ‘naan,’ or we’ll click on the hints to look at the skeleton key for that day’s puzzle, and a new door opens.

While life rarely can tell us so cleanly which of the uncertain paths we’re exploring will be fruitful, there’s still a lesson here.

When we’re searching for new answers (how to fix a thorny problem, how to get unstuck, what our next product or offering should be) our biggest limitation is not our ability to find new and better answers. Rather, our biggest limitation is the voice, that gets louder after each passing minute, telling us we are stuck, we are done, there’s nothing fruitful here for us to find.

Perhaps, then, we all are spending too much time focused on improving our “looking,” “thinking” and “analyzing” skills…when our biggest untapped potential is the simple realization that the answer we’re seeking really is in the palm of our hands—if only we could see it.

(And why wouldn’t it be there? We’ve done the work up to this point. We are ready, we are prepared, we are the right person in the right place. Of course the answer is there!).

The moment we vanquish the thought that there’s nothing left to find, the moment we dance a bit longer with belief, the moment we dare to think that magic is within our grasp…that thought alone is what unlocks our potential.

“I’ve looked as hard as I can look. There’s nothing there that I can find,” sounds sensible and objective. But, in truth, it’s nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy.

More accurate would be, “I can’t find anything more because I’ve decided that there’s nothing more there left to find.”

Don’t look harder.

Don’t look smarter.

Look with more confidence.

Look with the belief that of course “it” is there for you to find, and you’re looking in exactly the right place.

Indeed, you have everything you need, right now, to make that next breakthrough discovery.

I Just Got Here

To you it probably feels, by now, all too familiar.

But to that customer or employee who just arrived today, it is all new: the product, the community, the story.

It’s easy to forget this when we’ve told our story 10 times, 100 times, 1,000 times or more.

Indeed, as the storyteller, salesperson, fundraiser, or CEO, if you don’t feel like you’re repeating yourself, you’re probably not sharing enough.

By all means, find a way to keep things fresh, but don’t stop telling the story.

No skipping steps just because it doesn’t feel new to you.

Culture Graphs

Culture (organizational or otherwise) can most simply be understood as “how we do things around here.”

There are a million “things” that make up an organization’s culture: things like meeting norms; how we talk to each other (in person, online); what it means when someone says “the deadline for this project is November 6th;” how inclusive we are.

To imagine this visually, imagine an N-dimensional chart with each element of culture on one axis.

And now, to keep things simpler, let’s collapse that N-dimensional chart into two dimensions – because otherwise all of this will be too hard to visualize.

Envision an organization’s culture represented on this graph. To explore what we mean here, let’s imagine two organizations.

Organization 1 has a loosely defined culture: we represent that with the broad shape on the graph, and the light color to show ‘low intensity.’ In organization 1, a wide spread of behaviors “works” because the culture is not strongly defined.

Conversely, in organization 2, the shape of the “culture graph” is much tighter and the culture is much stronger (darker color).

In organization 1, nearly anyone can “fit in” because anything goes in that organization. In organization 2, with a stronger culture, only a certain set of people will feel comfortable there, but, for those people, the culture will have a stronger pull that will keep them motivated and make them more productive.

Now, moving beyond thinking about the impact of the culture on the employees, let’s think about the impact of the employees on the culture.

Here’s where things get interesting, because culture is not static: each team member has their own influence on the culture, either pushing against (weakening) the existing culture or strengthening it.

Let’s visualize this as the cultural “force field” that each team member brings to our organization, each and every day. Like our two organizations, each person has a different cultural force field that they exert on those around them: it has a size, a shape, and an intensity…all of which affect how that person impacts the organization’s culture over time.

(I understand that the visuals might be breaking down a bit…stay with me here. The point is: the shape and intensity of your ‘culture graph’ today and tomorrow are a function of all the behaviors of your team between now and tomorrow: how people act, what behaviors are rewarded and punished, what people say, what they do…)

With this backdrop, we can ask a few questions about our organizational cultures, things like:

  • What is the shape and intensity of our own ‘culture graph’?
  • How does it differ by location, function, and seniority? Are these differences intentional?
  • When we think of the future, what do we imagine happening to our culture graph? Does today’s culture remain in place? Does it morph? Intensify so we stay true to ‘who we are’? Weaken so we can accommodate more people?
  • What do we do about people who supercharge our culture, who will serve as ballasts between today and the future?
  • And what do we do about people who perform well but who push against our current and future culture?
  • Most important: if you asked your team whether their job is to create and accentuate your culture, or to accept and adapt to it, what would they say?
  • What would you like them to say?

I share all this not to offer answers to the above questions, but in an effort to make the invisible visible.

Our culture either accentuates and accelerates everything we do, or it stands in the way, gumming up the works. Yet, despite these powerful multiplier effects, we often act as if culture will take care of itself.

Perhaps, then, it is time to bring it out in the open.

Perhaps it is time to invite ourselves and teams to see and own our active role in defining, strengthening and reinforcing “how we do things around here.”

Leading Indicators

Most of what we do today is going to bear fruit in a few weeks, months, or years.

This means that the feedback we’re receiving today–about how things are going around us, the results we are getting, the way people are feeling–are mostly the result of actions we took in the past.

Consider our oceans: they have absorbed 93% of the excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions since the 1970s. They are a buffer between yesterdays’ actions and today’s reality. They lull us into a false sense of security that what we’re doing today will lead to a safe tomorrow.

We are often blind to this time lag. We see what’s going on around us and falsely attribute today’s results to our current or recent actions.

Figuring out how long our actions take to create results—whether in our organizations, our families, or in the world—is one of the best ways to learn where to look to see if what we’re doing is, or is not, working. When looking for the right organizational KPIs, we’d do well to home in on those that tell us what will, or will not, happen in 6 months’ time (think: new sales leads generated, not new sales closed).

The high-leverage we should be asking ourselves is: how early do I need to adjust to make a meaningful difference?

Too Hot, Too Cold, Just Right?

I, like many of you, have spent the last 18 months working mostly from home.

In that time, I’ve experienced the challenges of more childcare, more meals to prepare, more tugs on my attention. I’ve also relished ditching my commute and the less glamorous parts of business travel, and have treasured having more time with my family.

For all the pushes and pulls, it certainly feels like, on balance, I’ve got more hours in the day to deploy.

The question is, how best to deploy them?

Do we run extra hot, finding even more time to work longer and harder?

Do we discover that we can run cold: in the absence of time wasted in planes, trains, and automobiles, can we get all that we need to get done in fewer total hours, resulting in shorter workdays.

Or is there a “just right” solution in which we spread our work our in discrete chunks across the 16+ hours we are awake?

The “just right” solution can be magical, but it also carries its own risks.

Sometimes, “just right” feels amazing: a few hours here, thirty minutes there, interspersed around a walk or cooking or driving kids around or time with friends and family. You can’t ask for more than that.

However, I’ve also noticed some important pitfalls of “just right.” For me, the whole thing falls apart when my “off” switch is faulty: rather than freedom with my time, I get stuck in a no-man’s-land of “always on a little bit.”

Here are some of my own leading indicators that I’m getting stuck in the wrong kind of “just right:”

  • Picking up my phone during every blank space (and realizing that I don’t know what I’m looking for)
  • Being confused, and a little anxious, when 30 free minutes present themselves
  • Facing the endless chatter of my monkey mind (note: that’s a great little video) during my down time
  • Trying to go to sleep but instead lying there having both sides of unfinished conversations from my day

Freedom and flexibility are beautiful things, but they require us to get really good at fully flipping our “on” and “off” switches: being hyper-focused when we are “on” (that means: no distractions or fake-work behaviors); and fully turning off the switch when it is time to stop.

I Get a Cookie

It turns out that Jerry Seinfeld has a 24 hour rule.

Whenever he writes any new material, his rule is not to show it to anyone for 24 hours.

The rationale is that writing is a brave, creative act. We humans need and deserve positive reinforcement every time we engage in that act of bravery.

Part of the way we preserve that is by shielding anything new we’ve created from others’ eyes. This allows us to experience the halo of “I did it” before experiencing the crush of “maybe it’s not any good.”

In fact, Jerry advises that when we do a brave act of creation, we should give ourselves a (metaphorical or actual) cookie.

Time and again, I find myself skipping this congratulatory step, the one in which I get to bask, for just a moment, in the knowledge that I was brave today, that I created something new.

Instead, I nearly always ship off that new thing to someone for their quick reaction and feedback (time’s a-wastin’). Or, just as bad, I finish my first draft, put down my pen, and notice how much time that took and all the other undone things on my to do list.

One solution that helps me is having time in my calendar for “brave work:” empty spaces that are only for creating new things. This way I know what that time is for, and I cannot beat myself up for other tasks that remain undone. This also helps me remember that brave acts of creation and efficient time management exist on different axes.

Finally, I remind myself of the advice of one of my favorite yoga teachers: we can leave our problems and our worries outside of the studio door, because we can be sure that they’ll be there waiting for us when our practice is done.

So, maybe it’s time to resolve that our best work should be free from prying, critical eyes for a day.

Without knowing there’s some psychic reward waiting for us on the other side, why will we ever dare to take the plunge?

Bugs or Features

Most organizational change efforts frame things that aren’t working as bugs in the system.

As in, “That’s not working the way we want it to. We’re not doing this the way we’d like to. We just need some help with…”

One of the great insights of the Adaptive Leadership work of Ron Heifitz, Alex Grashow and Marty Linsky  (great short summary PDF here) is that systems are optimized to deliver exactly the results that they deliver.

Put another way: those things that are going wrong aren’t bugs, they are features.

This means that things are the way they are because it serves someone’s purpose – most often the purpose of someone with authority. That thing that everyone says they’d like to achieve (that better result, that clearer strategy, that adoption of a new decision-making process) is less valuable than something that’s going on today.

So, any time you see a gap between what people say they value and how they’re behaving, stop and look more closely. Look more closely to figure out what that valuable “something” might be.

If you don’t do this correct diagnosis upfront, you’ll be unnecessarily surprised when:

…the new person hired into that just-created, change agent role fails after 12 months.

…the guy who endlessly complains at the water cooler never seems to quit his job.

…the new mission statements end up as empty words on a page.

…and Facebook, to much fanfare, creates a Oversight Board, funds it with $130 million, and then systematically hides information from and misleads that Board (link to a free WSJ article for readers).

If we want to make change, whether in our own family, our organization, or in a social system, our first step is to remind ourselves: this system is delivering exactly the results it was designed to deliver.

This system—all systems—is not flawed. They are functioning perfectly at delivering the results that they currently deliver.

Once we see this, our next step is to figure out: who is being served by the results that are being achieved today?

And then, finally: how do we tip the scales so that the actors in our system are willing to do something different, something that makes it harder to allow things to continue the way they are today?

 

First…what?

When we sit down, first thing in the week or first thing in the morning, to our desk, what do we do?

At this precious moment when the sun is still low in the sky and our mind is clearest, how do we choose to act?

Because so many of us are working remotely, we aren’t starting our days pushing through the stress and distraction of our morning commutes. There’s no need to fight our way through traffic, people and transit systems to finally land at our desks.

What an opportunity, then, to take advantage of the calm of the morning.

What a chance to quiet the chatter, to pull back our aperture and think bigger…

…about what this week would look like if it were really successful (planning).

…about what we could look like in one month or three if we really invested in our own professional development (self-reflection).

…about a piece of work that we’ve been stuck on, and a new way to approach it (problem-solving).

…about the direction of travel of our organization, and whether it needs a tweak or an overhaul (strategy).

A quiet morning is a terrible thing to waste with cleaning out our inboxes and “just checking” our social media feeds.

This is our most productive time, and its ours to do with as we choose.

Good Mistakes, Bad Mistakes, No Mistakes

We all know we’re supposed to be OK with mistakes, that they happen.

And yet, if you’re like me, you hate mistakes. You hate making them. And, sometimes, you can’t help being frustrated when those around you make them as well.

Which, of course, is both right and wrong.

Some mistakes really are a problem.

Careless mistakes—a term I mean literally, a lack of care taken for something important—really must be avoided. The discipline of a professional requires us to do our work with care and attention. This is the promise we make to ourselves, to our colleagues, and to our customers, and it’s our job to honor it each and every day.

Repeated mistakes are also a problem. They mean we’re not learning.

But no mistakes…that’s not OK.

It’s our job is to move at a certain pace, with a certain sense of forward motion, and with a willingness to walk out on limbs we’ve never stepped out on before. If we are doing all these things, we will have to get some things wrong some of the time–either because we moved too fast, or because we are trying things that are truly new to us, things that we’re not yet good at specifically because they are new.

If this seems counterintuitive, think of it this way: if we are getting nothing wrong all the time, that has to mean that we’re either absurdly lucky or that we’re not moving fast enough, not moving forward quickly enough, and we’re not walking out on limbs in the way we’d like to think we are.

Viewed in this light, mistakes aren’t just “not a problem,” they are valuable. They are the data that tell us: look at that, we are moving fast enough, we are being brave, we are taking enough risk.

We might still reflectively dislike mistakes in the moment, but it’s our job to praise the right kind of mistakes, and to praise the mistake-maker (whether ourselves or someone else) for their courage and bravery.

They (or we) are moving in the right way, taking the right risks, walking out on enough limbs, and, naturally, sometimes mis-stepping.

That’s good news indeed.

Awesome Hiring, Awesome Team

I’ve always found First Round Review’s articles to be exceptionally useful. Lately, they are on a roll.

Our company, 60 Decibels, is going to be doing a bunch of hiring in the next six months, so I shared this article with our team:

First Round Review: 20 Underrated Qualities to Look for in Candidates — And 50+ Interview Questions to Suss Them Out

I particularly appreciate both the list of the 20 traits and the practical interview questions for each trait. As interviewers, we often do a poor job of assessing whether a person is right for a job (and whether the company is right for that person). This is because most of us interview infrequently, so we give little thought about how to do it well or we’ve gotten comfortable doing it the way we always have and stick with what’s familiar.

The reality is that there are few things more costly—in terms of money, time and culture—than bad hires, so it’s worth investing the time to try new ways to interview.

But wait…there’s more.

If you squint, you’ll see the other side of the coin: this list is also a helpful guide for what makes a great team member.

Here are the 20 traits of great hires / team members. They:

  1. Embrace change and exhibit adaptability
  2. Can get their team to open up (remotely)
  3. Care about empathy
  4. Tell true tales of failure — not humble brags
  5. Keep DEI top of mind
  6. Sell the team, not themselves
  7. Look for ways to improve processes and reduce administrative burdens
  8. Challenge the defaults
  9. Can iterate and introduce change
  10. Focus on outcomes, not (just) shipping
  11. Will help you avoid bureaucracy
  12. Apply a long-term lens
  13. Are fueled by curiosity
  14. Are clear on the things they don’t want to do.
  15. Exhibit thoughtfulness
  16. Can point to a pattern of taking initiative
  17. Show a need for speed
  18. Are good at spotting superpowers
  19. Demonstrate a knack for finding the 10X — not 10% — improvements
  20. Can tell you what you should be looking for.

As I spent time with these 20 traits, I found myself bucketing them into five categories:

  • Flexible, moves fast, avoids bureaucracy: 1, 11, 17
  • Takes initiative, is curious, is always trying to make things better: 7, 8, 9, 13, 16, 19
  • Empathetic, values diversity, is humble, communicates & connects with others: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
  • Keeps an eye on the big picture: 10, 12, 20
  • Is self-aware: 14, 15, 18

These five categories are an excellent jumping off point for what makes a great team member and, consequently, the building blocks for culture.

(Bonus: here’s a google doc with my cut-and-paste of the 50+ interview questions from the article. I hope you use it.)