My Daughter the Brainiac

My daughter is working her way through a summer book of math and reading. She got to the end and found this Summer Brainiac Certificate on the last page. She was ecstatic.

Brainiac, Brain Quest

After filling it in and cutting it out she asked, “Is this a real certificate?”

Striking to notice how, at just seven years old, she’s already picked up that it might be someone else’s job to tell her if she’s achieved, to decide whether she gets a trophy, a certificate or a gold star.

“Yes,” I told her, “it’s definitely a real certificate.”

This lesson, that someone besides us is judge and jury, holds on tight to us. We started learning it at a tender age, and year after year, our schools and then our workplaces have taught us that a grade is coming from somewhere, that someone besides us decides what the homework is, how we should direct our efforts, what is going to be on the test. If we do it all right, they give us a piece of paper that confirms, to us and to others, that we hit the mark.

Makes me wonder what blank certificates I should be writing for myself for the skills and achievements I’m working towards. So simple to write them out and leave a blank space for my name.

To be clear, I couldn’t be prouder of my Brainiac daughter, most of all that she choose to do the work and then she filled out her own certificate.

Old Dog, New Tricks

old dogs, new tricks

It is simply not true that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Yes, you might not be able to teach an old dog to run as fast, or jump as high, or even see as well. Old has its disadvantages, to be sure. But old dogs are actually better than young ones at learning new tricks: they have better attention spans, and are less easily distracted.

No, the old dog’s problem is the old tricks: having spent a lifetime getting positive reinforcement for those old tricks, she just can’t seem to let them go.

If you are one of my many non-dog readers, think about it for a minute: isn’t what got us here all our old tricks? And aren’t we quite well-trained to seek the praise get when we do them?

Couple the power of that lifetime of reinforcement with our recommended daily allowance of pride, fear, unwillingness to admit fallibility and surrender authority. Then top that with a cherry of the smidge of shame we anticipate if we try something new and unproven in front of other dogs. After all of that, we may not even know if we’re any good at new tricks, because there’s so much underbrush to clear away before we even let ourselves get started.

Perhaps we can motivate ourselves by another adage, this one less famous but more useful: if we fight for our limitations and win, our prize is that we get to keep them.

One number(s)

We all have one big, headline line that we want to see move up and to the right—that could be revenues or profits, funds raised or grant dollars dispersed, or number of people reached through our programs.

Underneath this are the gears of our enterprise, the everyday of what we put in to get that output.

Three conversations you can have, either alone with your notebook or with your team.

  1. This leads to that: What are the most important things we do to make the numbers we want to go up go up?
  2. We do a lot of this, but it doesn’t create that: What are the things we spend a lot of time doing that we could strip away without impacting the results that really matter for us.
  3. These things create short-term results, but might hurt us in the long run: What are the things that are going up today (stress, eroding trust or joy, command-and-control) that create results in the near term but risks in the long term?

The Walk-Talk Gap

“Change is hard.”

“You’ve got to show up every day.”

“To learn new skills, you must to push through a period of incompetence.”

“Self-knowledge is hard-won.”

“True acts of leadership are rarely praised.”

“We only grow when we’re willing to let go of some of our most deeply held beliefs.”

“Sometimes you just have to compromise.”

I’m reminded of the time I spent in Indonesia nearly 20 years ago, and my going-in expectations about learning Bahasa Indonesia, the fifth language I had studied.

“I’m good at languages,” I thought, “so this shouldn’t be so hard.”

And then I remember the blindingly obvious observation I made about a week in: how, to speak this new language, I’d have to learn a new word for nearly every single thing on the planet: types of food, trees, animals, verbs, possessive…the list was endless.

As if there was going to be some way to skip those steps.

Just because we possess hard-won knowledge of what the path looks like from here to there, just because we’ve walked that path a few times before, does not mean it will be a breeze to walk the path this time. Far from it. It just means that we might walk it with a bit more perspective and perseverance, a dash more courage and determination.

Being in the trough, though, that valley in which we find ourselves face-to-face with an important compromise, feedback that cuts deep, or the recognition that, this time, the person who is set in his ways is us…

The question we’re faced with at that moment is the only one that matters: this time, are we going to be willing to do the hard work?

Symptoms and causes

You tweak your knee and start limping a little, only to find that your lower back on the other side starts to ache.

Your job has gotten overwhelming, you are working too many hours, and now, no matter what kind of day you had, you’re finding it hard to get a good night’s sleep.

Two colleagues have misaligned expectations for who will do what, the deliverables get botched, and, going into the next client presentation, they are reticent to work together.

We’re all told to work on the root cause, and not just the symptoms. But often the symptoms become just as real as the thing that caused them – whether pain in your back, learned anxiety, or another deliverable that’s not up to snuff.

If the thing you can work on today is the symptom, and you know how to do that work, then that’s the right place to start.

Often, we behave our way into new attitudes, not the other way around.

 

P-walking

Twice in my life I’ve almost been hit by a car while crossing the street. Both times I was looking at my phone.

This is not a joke, I remember my heart pounding and how stupid and thankful I felt to have dodged a bullet, and how I swore never to do it again.

I noticed yesterday morning while biking to work what an epidemic this is, how many people are crossing New York City streets looking straight down into their screens. I’m not talking about listening to music or talking on the phone, I’m talking about reading the screen while you’re crossing the street, sometimes against the light.

99 times out of a 100, as you cross while checking your Facebook or Instagram feed or reading a text, nothing is going to happen. Maybe 999 out of 1,000.

What about that one time though?

It’s a dumb thing to do, an unnecessary risk that should be at least as bad as J-Walking or texting while driving.

Be safe out there.

Whatever it is you’re looking at can wait.

Must Do List

I’ve tried a thousand times to have a consistent, useful To Do list.

I’ve written them by hand in notebooks. I’ve tried fancy project management apps like Trello and Asana. I even almost settled on various paired-down “it’s just a list and nothing else” softwares like Teux Deux, Remember the Milk or Wunderlist.

But eventually, each of my To Do lists fails, and I end up abandoning it.

The problem, I realized, isn’t the interface, it’s the list itself. My To Do lists do a terrible job distinguishing between important and urgent, and between simple and complex. In the end, some combination of three things ends up happening:

  1. I prioritize small things that are easier to check off the list, at the expense of the “real stuff.”
  2. The important things languish…
  3. …or they get so big that they don’t make sense on the To Do list

The result is a doubly whammy of decreased output: a persistent pull towards the simpler, less-important tasks; and a growing To Do list that is either stale (stuff that rolled over week after week for months) or overwhelming (long lists of complex, insurmountable tasks).

Eventually I give up on the list, and the software, revert back to a hodgepodge of solutions.

Lately I realized that what I need isn’t better software, it’s a better list. I need a Must Do List: a things-that-absolutely-must-happen-this-week list.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Find a window at the start of your week, either on Sunday night or, better, Monday morning when you’re fresh and thinking clearly and broadly. Jot down the first 1-3 things that come to mind that feel like they’re going to be most important in the coming week.
  2. Look at your calendar for last week and for the coming week, as well as whatever communication tool (email, Slack, etc.) you use, to orient yourself to the flow of meetings, deadlines, and communication.
  3. Write your Must Do list, a short list of important things that really, truly, must get done this week. You’re allowed an absolute maximum of 10 items on the list.

Use the list all week, and return to it on Friday afternoon to see how you did.

Here’s the important bit: your Friday afternoon job isn’t simply to look over the list and roll things over to the following week. Your job is to evaluate what did and didn’t get done, and then, seriously and intentionally, figure out what happened: was your judgment off on Monday morning about your must-do’s, or did your execution and time management slip during the week?

Now do it again for the following week.

The result of all this isn’t just more efficiency. It’s creating a practice through which you improve both at identifying and executing the things that must happen to move your important work forward.

 

Pomp, circumstance, or access

The strangest thing happened to me the other day. I wasn’t feeling well and I emailed my doctor early in the morning.

And.

He.

Emailed.

Right.

Back.

Not just once, but twice, all in less than an hour.

It got me thinking about other places where there are mismatches between what we really want (a responsive doctor who we can occasionally hear from without making an appointment) and what we get.

If you were an alien visiting from another planet, sent to understand the relationship between funders and social sector organizations, what would you tell your superiors on the Mother Ship? You’d likely explain that people who give away their hard-earned money are mostly interested in fancy meals in expensive settings, supplemented by the occasional, sorta boring glossy report.

We throw resources at the wrong solution because it is safe: no one will get fired for putting on next years’ Gala that raises $75,000 more than this year’s, or for publishing an annual report that is good enough and mostly looks like everyone else’s.

So, you can keep playing that game, and come in neither last nor first.

Or you can decide to win at a completely different offering.

It’s the offer of permeability. The offer of the quick response. The offer that makes available useful and relevant access to your team that’s doing the work. The offer to open up the gritty, imperfect details, and the hard-earned insight and experience: things that are easy for you to share but priceless for the person on the other end of the line.

My doctor’s day is more productive when he spends more time with more people who can only be helped by a visit to his office. My day is better when I have a first-line plan of action right away, not after four hours waiting at urgent care or a week waiting for an appointment.

Providing the right kind of access is better for everyone.

Top 10 Slack tips for new users

After a couple of failed attempts, I’ve finally migrated to Slack for all communication at work. It’s not perfect, but I’m confident that it’s an improvement on email.

The benefits are significant. I spend much less time in my inbox –  it’s no longer the center of my work life, no longer a weed I have to hack back to submission.This is the main shift I’ve experienced, and it’s a big one.

It’s also cleaner to have email be for external correspondence, separate from Slack, which is internal. This makes it easier to track things and easier to know why I’m going into my Inbox.

Plus, Slack, in addition to feeling lighter and more responsive, has huge benefits in terms of transparency (easy to ‘see’ what is going on in channels even if you’re not the recipient of a message) and for new team members (who can see and search history).

This is my second attempt at Slack. After failing the first time, I’d been intending to shift over for more than a year but couldn’t muster the courage. I ended up following some braver folks at Acumen, and I’m very happy with the results.

In case you’re about to jump in, or thinking about it but not sure if it will work, here are my suggestions about how to achieve Slack success.

  1. All or nothing: this is the most important one. On the day (after you’ve set up Slack, channels, etc.) move your entire team to Slack. You can start with one team, not with your whole organization. But it won’t work if half of your team is on Slack and the other half is on email.
  2. No more email for internal communication: this is connected to #1. You have to agree that, for a period of time, everyone is going to use Slack for everything. Here’s a cue: if you find yourself sending someone an email and a Slack message because you’re not sure which tool to use, something’s wrong.
  3. Three month trial period: when we started, I hoped a two week trial period would be long enough. I was told I actually needed to give it three months. That was good advice.
  4. Set up the channels right: Have someone on your team/in your organization set up the right channels at the outset, a person who is detail-oriented and likes that sort of thing.
  5. Create a Learn Slack channel: Create an #all-learn-slack channel where folks can ask questions and your super-users can answer them. This eases the onboarding and empowers your super-users to do an important job
  6. Use the Google Docs or Dropbox integration: Slack has a million add-on tools. If you’re using Google Docs or Dropbox for shared files, integrate them into Slack. This allows you to see GDocs comments directly in slack, upload links to Dropbox files instead of the whole files, and a bunch of other magical things.
  7. Download the app: Slack is good on desktop but feels optimized for iPhone/Android. You definitely want both the desktop app and the phone app for the best experience.
  8. Be ready to ‘tether’ your laptop more: Slack doesn’t work offline. This is a bummer and the one major drawback. If, like me, you have a chunk of time each day when you’re offline but on your laptop (say, on a train), you’ll want some way to get online. I’ve been using the Personal Hotspot on my iPhone through AT&T nearly every day. It’s intermittent, but workable, you just need a cellphone plan with this option. Same thing goes for flights – you will want to pay for wifi more often.
  9. Use the ‘star’ ‘reminder’ ‘mark unread’ or ‘pin’ tools: the biggest adjustment I’ve had in Slack is the (bad) email habit of reading emails when I don’t have time to respond to them. I find it a bit harder to re-find things after I’ve read them in Slack, and am using the Star a lot to keep a running list of things that I have to go back to. I’m guessing that a combination of all four of these tools will work for me once I master them.
  10. Use Slack help: one of the best things about Slack, which is completely counter-intuitive if you’ve been living in Windows land, is that (nearly) every question you might has an easy-to-find answer. Start with the Slack Help Center and go from there.

All of this has made for a smooth transition to Slack, better communication, and time and energy freed up for the important stuff.

As a bonus, here’s the Masters of Scale podcast about Slack: The big pivot – Stewart Butterfield, Co-founder & CEO of Slack. It’s a good one.

Here’s How I Intend to Make You Feel

For the longest time I was blinded by my own good intentions.

I’d focus too much on what I’d meant others to feel and see, asking them to carry the weight of any miscommunication, misunderstanding, or misinterpretation. They should be open to honest feedback, and not caught up in the specifics of how the message was delivered. They must know that we all value their hard work, never mind that it wasn’t as well-received as they’d hoped in that big meeting. And certainly they are filling in the blanks just the way I’d expect, even though we’ve not been in touch for a few weeks or months.

Well no, actually.

Good intentions are nice enough. They are certainly better than bad intentions. But, to quote that old saw, all you need is good intentions and a token (OK, a Metrocard swipe) to get a ride on the NYC subway.

The skill of leadership is the skill of mobilizing others to action. This starts with consistently, intentionally, and skillfully translating our right intentions to everyone else’s right experience.

If our message doesn’t land in the right way for different people – people who process information differently, people who show up differently, people who have different relationships to power and autonomy and to themselves – then that’s on us.