Better Data Doesn’t Give You the Answers

I run a data company, and I’m often asked, when speaking to a new client, what our customers do differently because of the data.

The implication often seems to be:

Before they didn’t have the data, so they were doing one thing.

Now, they have the data, so presumably they’re doing another thing.

Of course, we have plenty of examples of concrete changes that clients have made when they get our data, as in:

A solar home system company learned that a huge proportion of customers were experiencing product defects and poor after-sales support…so the company reinvented after-sales support and addressed the issue, and saw massive improvements in both customer satisfaction and social impact metrics.

But the more nuanced answer is this: the immediate actions companies and funds take, when we get them new data, are largely focused on the biggest, most surprising, or most troubling findings—the headlines.

Beyond that, what the data allow them to do is to ask a new and better set of questions.

The Path from Ignorance to Clarity is Not Flat

Our misconception is that we think we can go directly from ignorance to clarity (the drawing on the left).

In reality, for any topic that matters, as we learn more we embark on a journey. Over time, we will climb a mountain of increased complexity—with new insight, new inquiry, new investigation—until ultimately, after a great deal of focused attention, we begin seeing the world more clearly and, ultimately, arrive at deeper understanding and the simplicity that we seek.

Social and Environmental Impact Measurement Isn’t Simple, Yet

I often hear the concern, in conversations about social impact measurement and ESG, that “this social and environmental stuff is all awfully complex, isn’t it?”

This effective defense mechanism communicates, “I’m all for measuring my social impact, it’s just that it’s too much right now. Once it’s simplified, I’ll get on board and take it seriously.”

And yet, the person finding social impact measurement or ESG too complex is the same person who undoubtedly manages tremendous complexity in other areas of their professional life. Why, even the most simplified presentation of an income statement, cashflow and balance sheet is mystifying to most folks. Just look at this:

So the question isn’t whether something is simple or complex. The question is whether a domain is important enough to merit sustained time, effort, and spirit of inquiry to scale the Peaks of Complexity.

Coming back to social and environmental impact, my take is that the trillions of dollars flowing into ESG, and the pressure on brands to differentiate themselves for their social and environmental stewardship, speak for themselves.

The question isn’t whether sophisticated data and a nuanced understanding are needed.

The question is who will start on this journey first, thereby establishing an insurmountable lead on those who are happy to dawdle at the base of the mountain, in search of a way around or through.

It also helps to remember that a desire for quick and easy answers is nothing new. If anything, it is a normal and natural outgrowth of the beginning of every journey. If we’ve never walked a path before, we’ve no idea what it’s going to be like: we don’t know how high the mountain goes, how much jungle we’ll have to hack through, whether bad weather will come our way.

But the unavoidable, optimistic truth is that, should we walk this path we will, inevitably, arrive at better questions, deeper insight and, ultimately, the simplicity we are seeking.

 

What Else is Like Touch Typing?

In sixth grade, I took a two-week, after-school typing class.

For some reason, it was held in our middle school computer room. We were surrounded by some old DOS terminals, seated a few feet away from a dot matrix printer with green and white lined paper.

Each of us was given a manual typewriter, the kind where you had to push the keys down three or four inches to get them to hit the ribbon. I sometimes wonder if the physical force we had to generate, and the ‘clack’ of the letter hitting the ink and the page, grooved the keyboard layout in our neuromuscular system more than a computer keyboard ever would.

Amazingly, that class alone (coupled, perhaps, with the fact that I played the piano) was enough for me to learn how to type. After the two weeks, I had my ‘ASDF JKL;” grooved, and soon after that I was typing without looking down and gradually increasing my speed and decreasing my error rate.

I can think of few things I’ve learned that have yielded more for my professional life: learning to type 80 words a minute, and not 20, saves me hundreds of hours each year.

Typing, unlike most skills, has a distinct before-and-after and an obvious path to mastery: before, I looked for each of 26 letters (plus punctuation) one at a time; after, my hands stay in the right place, the letters’ location have entered my muscle memory, and I’m 4x as fast.

But nearly everything we do has a slow/manual version and a fast/grooved version, even things that don’t look, at first glance, like concrete skills.

There’s the little stuff: how we get through our Inbox, create a chart, proofread.

But there’s also bigger stuff, which has similar multiplicative properties: the time it takes us to write a good email, to prepare for a 1-on-1 meeting, to think through and deliver feedback.

And there are things that don’t even look like skills, but are. Think, for example, about something that happens in most demanding jobs, having a surge in work and pushing for a deadline. This experience of pushing ourselves (or being pushed) requires us to develop the skills of: focused endurance; staying grounded while managing the stress of (self-imposed/external) deadlines; maintaining quality with constrained time; prioritization; overcoming procrastination; shipping.

Managing through, and eventually thriving amidst, things that are “hard” is just as much a skill as touch-typing, and it has just as much yield.

What it requires of us is the recognition that there’s something here for us to learn, and not just endure, and the patience to allow ourselves to grow, in time, from amateur to novice to expert.

 

Short-term brain, Wellness brain

“What do you do to preserve your sense of wellness?”

I was recently asked this question as the prompt to a breakout I was a part of, and I gave an answer that I found surprising:

“Ignore my short-term brain.”

Things my short-term brain regularly tells me:

  • I don’t want to walk the dog for 40 minutes each and every morning, no matter the weather;
  • 4 out of 5 days, I’m not ‘in the mood’ to work out, and I should skip it;
  • I have a bit more work to do, I probably don’t have time to sit down with my family for dinner tonight;
  • To really unwind, I need to watch a TV show after my kids go to bed;
  • I should eat dessert, or fried food, first.

And yet:

  • 9 out of 10 times I finish that morning walk feeling more grounded and clearer;
  • 4 out of 5 times the workout was a great idea;
  • Work will never end, and dinnertime is the fabric of family life;
  • I need a good nights’ sleep more than I need ‘down time,’ and for that I need to go to sleep earlier than feels right and to wind down slowly;
  • I should eat more colorful vegetables.

I don’t have a perfect definition of wellness, but I associate it with words like “groundedness,” “spaciousness,” “connection,” and “self-care,” and with time in nature, with family and friends, and asleep.

These last two years at home have given me more time, and my need to break up the endless expanse of the sameness of this time led me to impose structure on my days and weeks.

By ritualizing activities that refill my stores of wellness, my job, most days, is to keep to these structures. This, in turn, requires habitually ignoring what my short-term brain says it wants to do.

To be honest, this is harder than it sounds: it requires a certain amount of discipline, and a good degree of grooving of my habits.

Plus, occasionally I throw everything out the window to binge on a new TV show…even if I quickly regret that the next morning.

Marinating

A little while back, a dinner I made was a bust.

It was a steak taco that required marinating meat for “2 to 24 hours.” With only 2 hours of marinating, the meat barely had any flavor.

Fortunately, I learned my lesson, and marinated overnight the next time around.

You can see the punchline easily enough.

The harder question is: what parts of our work (and home) life are like marinating?

Where will doing the same activity sooner create 10 times the yield?

Things like:

  • First drafts
  • A half hour with a pen and a blank piece of paper jotting down first thoughts about a thorny problem
  • Reading together at bedtime
  • Feedback given right after something happened
  • Coaching
  • Problem-defining (versus problem-solving)

Often, we find ourselves stuck in a vain search for more time, when we don’t need more time at all.

We need time well spent, invested early, so that the seeds we plant have time to grow.

The Invisible Fence

We have an invisible fence set up around our yard for our dog. To mark it, we’ve put up little white flags and taught her not to cross them. Since we live on a busy street, it’s doubly important that my dog understands and respects these boundaries.

Of course, she needs to get out of the yard a few times a day for her walks. Any time I walk her, the first thing I do is take off her Invisible Fence collar. This means she could easily cross the line without our help.

But, because she’s a dog and I want to keep things simple for her, I never walk her across the line. Instead, for each and every walk, I carry her across the line.

It’s quite a sight, me or a family member lifting up our long-legged, muscly, 55-pound dog to cross a line that won’t shock her because she’s not wearing her Invisible Fence collar.

The message: it’s only safe to cross the line when in our arms.

Now, my elaborate charade exists because she’s a dog and I can’t explain the whole fence / safety / car situation in another way that she can understand.

But charades exist all around us: elaborate dances designed to reinforce boundaries and to create the mirage that we must rely on certain people to cross them.

I’m confident that my charade is keeping my dog safe. And other charades may be equally well-intentioned.

But, most of the time, these rituals get so grooved that everyone involved forgets where and why they began, and loses sight of whether they’re real or imagined.

Often, the first step to breaking through is seeing clearly: we’re being kept in by story told by others, one that we’ve repeated to ourselves enough times that it’s indistinguishable from reality.

 

 

 

Can the Farmer Who Grew My Coffee Put Food on the Table?

You’d think, in 2022, that the answer to this question would be simple enough to discover, but it’s not.

Most labels on the food we buy—coffee, chocolate, fruits & vegetables—focus on environmental practices. They ignore the well-being of the more than 1 billion farmers who put food on OUR tables.

This is why, even if I’m paying $20 a pound for coffee, I still have no idea if the farmer who cultivated and picked my coffee can put food on HIS table.

That might be surprising. Shouldn’t someone have figured this out by now?

Unfortunately, we’re stuck with a food labeling system that prioritizes  farming practices (“is the fertilizer organic?”) over farmers (“how much of my $20/pound actually goes to the farmer, and is it enough?”)

The good news, you might think, is that ESG (“Environment, Social and Governance”) is coming to the rescue. After all, capital invested in ESG increased 10-fold from 2018 to 2020. Bloomberg estimates it could be a $54 trillion market — 1/3 of all capital invested globally — by 2025. Surely this means that the market is coming to the rescue to solve this massive inequity.

Not so fast. As my colleagues and I shared in an article we published last week in Stanford Social Innovation Review, there are two massive problems with ESG. These problems could undercut everything good that might have come from this movement:

  1. If it doesn’t matter to shareholders, it doesn’t matter. Standards bodies have agreed that the only things that are relevant to rating the ESG performance of a company are things that affect returns to shareholders.
  2. We should probably call it “EG investing,” because the S doesn’t exist. That’s very bad news for farmers, for employees, for communities.

If it doesn’t matter to shareholders, it doesn’t matter.

This is by far the most surprising thing about how ESG has been defined.

You’d think the notion was: “environment, social and governance factors are inherently important. That’s what makes this different!”

But instead it is: “we’ll figure out which of these things might impact shareholder return and report on those only. Nothing else matters.”

The impact of this decision is that, as we say in our article:

“…there are many companies that are mistreating workers and worsening health outcomes—doing obvious harm to society by improving their bottom line—while still garnering top ESG ratings. How else could one explain the fact that British American Tobacco has been part of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for the past 20 years, garnering top scores along the way.”

This is the core of the ESG mirage as it exists today.

We should probably call it “EG investing,” because the S doesn’t exist.

My hope is that this is a function of time. The initial thrust of EG investing was the Environment, so that’s where we started. Corporate Governance, which is relatively easy to define and quantify, can come along for the ride.

But if we don’t make a fuss about the missing S, it will never get a seat at the table.

And this is not a small technicality.

Two billion or more people grow the food we eat, produce the clothes we wear, assemble the electronics that power our lives.

And, a generational shift is taking place in how we think about investment capital.

Yet this shift, from day 1, is largely ignoring the well-being of these 2 billion people.

That is one of the biggest missed opportunities the world has ever seen.

We propose a number of ways to fix this in our article, perhaps the simplest one is this:

We should return to having separate categories and frameworks for E, S, and G. Currently, companies focused on E or G but neutral or even negative on S can get a high aggregate ESG rating. This incorrectly implies that they perform well on all three. Separate rankings on environmental, social, and governance factors should be clearly distinguished so that both companies and investment funds could be selected and evaluated based on their performance on individual dimensions.

This way, at least, we can avoid the biggest risk of all: the illusion that we are solving a problem, instead of just papering it over.

Coming Back to Our Farmer

The first step to addressing any problem is to see the problem clearly.

The second is to gather the data you need to start fixing the problem.

My company, 60 Decibels, is working to do just this. We want to make it as easy as possible to collect, understand, and compare data on farmer well-being, and then make these data as transparent as possible for consumers.

If this might interest you or someone you know, here are two ways you can help:

  1. If you know of specific, progressive companies that are treating farmers well and need better data to tell that story, please let me know, please email me to let me know, I’d love to talk to them.
  2. If you have ideas about how to raise awareness, to consumers, about the importance of this issue and the need for more transparency, I’d also love to hear about that.

By now we’ve all learned about the interconnectedness of our world: our health, our supply chains, our markets, are all deeply intertwined.

Imagine if we could, bit by bit, find the leverage points that would shift how these markets work and, in so doing, unleash more prosperity and well-being for billions of people around the world.

That’s what I’m working towards, and I’d love your ideas about how to make that happen.

 

 

 

Seeing the Problem Clearly

We waste a lot of time because we misunderstand the problem.

Our poor diagnosis leads to the wrong mental models. We then waste energy focused on addressing things that aren’t really a priority.

Worse, we incorrectly assume that “correct diagnosis” is binary: either we see things the wrong way or the right way.

In reality, we don’t flip from not seeing to seeing.

Rather, we have a first glimpse of true understanding, and we sharpen what we see over time.

If, tomorrow, you finally figure out what the problem is, in your enthusiasm you might rush to turn that eureka moment into a plan for action.

Let me suggest, instead, spending some time sitting with your new understanding.

Keep doing things the way you’ve been doing, while all the while keeping your hypothesis about what needs to change in the back of your mind.

Letting this gap persist—the gap between today’s practice and your (new) view of what things should look like tomorrow—will automatically force your diagnosis to sharpen. As your understanding deepens, you will have:

  1. A more complete understanding of what you need to do differently
  2. Much more conviction behind starting down that new path

The clarity of understanding will itself be hugely valuable.

The strength of your conviction will make it much more likely that you’ll successfully lead those around you to rally around the changes you want to make.

Open Mondays, Open Fridays

18 months ago, I made a structural change to my calendar that I love: leaving Mondays and Fridays (nearly) free of meetings, so that each week has a No Meeting Monday and a No Meeting Friday.

These days are dedicated to ‘doing’ rather than to talking or reacting. What’s valuable is not simply the number of hours available, it’s the large blocks of time every week: enough time to create, and the requirement to face a blank page.

How to Make it Happen

Most of my meetings are external, so I’ve set up my Calendly to only show free time on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Beyond that, it’s up to me to stay disciplined when someone asks me if I can meet on Monday at noon. (“No!”)

(Though, in truth, a short meeting here or there doesn’t materially impact my flow, since I do need some breaks.)

The Flow of the Week

On Mondays, I’m setting up for the week and laying the foundation for things that I need to move forward. This allows me to maintain some control over my (and the company’s) direction of travel rather than constantly being in responsive/reactive mode.

Fridays are for closing everything that came up during the week, including ensuring I’ve properly followed up on the many (many) external conversations I had on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

In addition, to make things really hum I also:

  • Us the end of the day on Friday to make a short list of Monday morning priorities. This helps me ensure I don’t lose any threads from the previous week.
  • Find time on Sunday to clean out my Inbox / Slack from the weekend. This way I don’t lose my Monday morning to responding to inbound traffic (but this is a balancing act because it’s also important for me to keep my weekends free…).

The Great (and Hard) Parts

The obvious challenge of this schedule is the hyper-full Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursday that can feel overwhelming.

I have pretty good endurance but there’s a limit to how many productive hours of conversations I can have (my max is 5). And even 3 or 4 hours of meetings is too much without great notes. I use Notion, with clear next steps documented at the end of every meeting. Otherwise, by 3pm I’ve forgotten what I agreed to do in my 9am meeting.

The more important, and subtle, challenge is starting the week off with blank space.

If I’ve caught up on Friday (and, when needed, over the weekend), then Monday morning is all mine. Forcing myself, nearly every week, to face that down and decide for myself what’s most important for me to do, feels a lot like staring at a blank page and needing to write a blog post: humbling, often intimidating, even spilling over into a bit of soul-searching….

What is my job when I’m not frantically responding to the things that everyone else needs me to do for them?

It’s a good question that we all need to ask ourselves regularly.

And I’ve found that without this sort of structure in my days, I can go weeks, and even months, without asking myself this question.

The fact is, it’s a question we all need to answer for ourselves, regardless of how ‘senior’ we are in the organization.

We all have unique talents and a unique perspective. We all, therefore, need to have our own agenda: the work we do when it’s our time and not someone else’s.

How to Write Good Annual Goals

Nearly every organization has you write out your goals for the year in some form.

And, in nearly every organization I’ve been a part of, doing so has felt like an exercise for someone else.

That’s not how it should be.

So, if you have to write professional goals for 2022, or (even better) if you don’t but you want to write them for you, here’s a better approach.

First, write for you.

Write a first draft in whatever format is most comfortable to you, and write it for you. Make it informal, write it in a notepad, on a blank piece of paper. Do some drawings. Make it creative.

The point is to recognize how constraining it can be to write your Formal Professional Goals for your Boss.

When you do that, you’re already doing a bunch of editing. You’re crafting a story for what you think they want to see rather than writing, in a non-judgmental way, what’s meaningful to you.

So, take a moment to quietly ask yourself:

What would make this year be successful for me?

What set of accomplishments would make me proud?

What new skills would I like to learn / strengthen?

Think of this as a journaling exercise first, so you can honestly explore what would feel like success.

Then, edit this rough draft plan in whatever way you find helpful. See if you can boil it down to a few salient points to summarize your priorities for the year.

Second, write for your supervisor.

Now that you have your own rough draft, open up whatever formal document your company / organization uses and draft your official 2022 goals for the year.

After you have your first draft, review what you’ve written and see if you’ve done a good-enough job of writing SMART goals.

Per this nice graphic from the Indeed website, a SMART goal is one that is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Based.

The shortcut I use when reading goals is to ask myself, “if it were the end of the year, could I easily and objectively judge whether this goal was achieved?”

For example, you might write a goal along the lines of “improve my analytical skills.” This is a great place to start, but it’s hard to judge what “improved” really means.

Whereas a goal that reads “improve my analytical skills so that fewer than 10% of my projects require re-work of my analysis by” is a much “SMARTer” goal.

Some parting thoughts on accountability.

I believe we should write goals for ourselves so we start out unconstrained. But there’s something more important going on: I find goals to be the most motivating when they are promises I’m making to myself.

In addition, there’s value in stating out loud what you think you can accomplish over the course of a quarter, six months, or a year.

First, by setting an intention I believe we are more likely to make that intention come to pass.

And, the act of goal-setting is also a sort of prediction: a statement of what you believe is possible to do in the next year, both in terms of delivery and in terms of professional development.

When you get to the end of the year and look back at your goals, remember that they were your best guess at what you could and wanted to accomplish in 2022. Use that reflection to calibrate your goal-setting abilities.

Getting better at predicting what we can accomplish is itself an important skill.

Your Speed, Client Speed

If you’re running a fast-paced, high growth organization, your speed frequently outstrips your clients’ speed.

It’s natural, then, that your pace rarely matches your clients’ pace Indeed, sometimes they slow down, or nearly stop, only to reappear ready to move once again.

What to do then?

So much has happened since you last spoke. So many new things have come to the fore. So many new priorities on your plate. So many other clients have moved more quickly than this one.

It. Doesn’t. Matter.

Your job, always, is to be like a soccer player: from stand-still to full-speed faster than the next guy.

This isn’t the time to mirror them.

This is the time for fast acceleration, every time.