You Aren’t the Parent of Your Team

Today’s snippet is brought to you by the asinine things I heard a well-known business leader say.

I recently attended an event where a famous American businessman was interviewed in front of an audience. At one point the conversation turned toward the role of a leader in creating and shaping effective teams. The metaphor he used for leadership — and the extent to which he drilled down on it — made my jaw hit the floor.

He equated leading teams with being a parent. Teams are filled with rowdy kids who need someone to step in, make rules, show them where to go, and keep them in line. He said, “Sometimes you need to be the parent and step in. It’s not about being their friend.” While I agree that we don’t necessarily need to be friends to work well together the idea that your job as a leader is to somehow act as my parent is… bleh.

It made me realize that even in the tech world (where we like to think companies are working in cool ways) there are huge barriers to new ways of thinking about work. Using parenthood as a metaphor for leading teams is rooted in a mindset where the world is largely static and that cumulative years of experience is the best source of knowledge for making decisions. That world doesn’t exist any longer. You don’t know best because you’ve been around the longest. Kids look to parents to make decisions for them but your manager is not your mother.

My guess is that this executive has worked on teams where he’s not the top ranking person in the room — does he revert to a childlike mindset in those situations and look up to the leader of the group as a parent? Probably not.

Teams need to be filled with competent, caring, motivated, and self-leading adults. Not carefree and wild children who need the guiding hand of someone who “knows better.” Static metaphors like parenthood need to be phased out as we develop a more nuanced and fluid mental model of what it means to work on or with teams.

Great Work Only Emerges From Doing Lots of Work

Yesterday I recorded an episode of my weekly podcast, The File Drawer. Eric (my co-host) and I were both pretty low energy as it was the end of the day and the end of a long week. We usually have a way of meandering our way to a topic and diving deep on it for an hour or so. This time, though, we just didn’t click on anything. We bounced around to a handful of different topics but never really sunk our teeth into anything good. I don’t think it was a very good episode. It almost felt like a waste of time. But it wasn’t simply because that’s what we do — we record and release episodes weekly. It’s our commitment to our listeners and to ourselves and it’s the only way to capture the truly great episodes.

I didn’t have an idea for today’s snippet but I sat down and started writing anyway. I went through at least three or four ideas and a couple hundred words before I landed on an idea worth exploring. In the past, when I felt like I didn’t have any good ideas I simply didn’t write. But that’s the problem. Most of my good ideas for future articles happen when I’m writing. By only writing when the right feeling strikes I’m cutting myself off from the well of ideas — one or more of which might be the ever elusive “great” idea.

Maybe I’m just contributing to the problem of a loud world with too much information of too poor quality just being spurted around without a second thought. There’s probably some truth to that. On the other hand, what I’m doing is exercising my ability to continuously have ideas. Some are good. Some are great. Some are shit. If I don’t write every day or record a podcast every week or only release the great stuff then I would never actually generate this mythical great stuff. Greatness is largely a function of quantity and not being overly precious with my time and effort.

I worry that our organizations often expect us to produce only the “good” stuff without allowing the space for creating all the shitty stuff that needs to happen first. Holding an expectation that your employees will only produce nuggets of gold with their efforts is extremely misguided. I’m not saying that companies should be putting out shitty products — far from it. I’m just saying that I hope we can create space and expectation for people to create, create, create, and not have to worry about creating the best thing they’ve ever done every time they sit down to work. Instead, how can we support the development of good creation habits? The habits that allow the great work to emerge naturally instead of the insane pressure of only creating great work?

I try to write a medium length snippet about whatever is on my mind every day. I write shorter snippets on Twitter. I write longer articles at The Workologist and The Ready.

Travel as a Skill

Today’s snippet comes to you from 35,000 feet.

I love to travel. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been able to do it more than most. Quebec City, Anchorage, Ireland, London, Berlin, Prague, Doha and back and forth across the United States. Part of the reason I love it, other than the obvious result of being somewhere new and exciting at the end, is that I view it as a game. It’s not just a thing to be endured — it’s part of the fun itself.

I enjoy getting to the airport or train station early and sitting near my gate with a good book, a podcast, or some music close at hand. Like a racing video game that only continues if you hit certain checkpoints by a certain time, I know there are certain checkpoints I need to hit to keep my day going. A day of traveling is a day of using my skills to hit checkpoints as swiftly and skillfully as possible. Packing lightly, responding to my environment, keeping an even emotional keel, making a plan — these are my skills that have been honed over years of travel (but are nowhere near an elite level yet).

It may seem strange to view travel this way but packing precisely the amount I need to successfully conduct a trip, going through security as smoothly as possible, walking through the terminal as calmly and collectedly as possible, getting onto and off the plane without exerting myself or causing delays for those around me — these are just a few of the things that can go a long way to making travel a more pleasurable experience.

If I do each of these well then I am swept up in the well-honed (well, usually) process of modern travel. I hit each checkpoint with plenty of time to spare and then shift my attention to the next one. One after another with as little stress and discomfort. With as much skill as possible I move through my day. Like nearly everything I do, it’s something I try to get better at without over complicating or over burdening it with meaning.

The other option is to be stressed and annoyed and view it as an unpleasant barrier between me and my ultimate goal. The nice thing is that it’s really up to me.

On Sight, Blindness, and Stretched Metaphors

Today’s snippet is brought to you by this article from CGP Grey, Daredevil, and a long walk.

Daredevil is a blind hero. After being blinded in an accident as a child his other senses grew to sensational levels of sensitivity. He could no longer see but he could hear heartbeats from hundreds of feet away, know someone’s emotional state by the way they smelled, and could move through his environment as deftly on his non-sight senses as he ever could with vision. What initially seemed like a handicap promoted him to grow in new ways.

I’m looking for a little of my own Daredevil-ness. I’ve decided to “blind” myself from easy distraction by unfollowing everyone I used to follow on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. I erased my RSS reader and moved Apple News to the back of a folder. I unsubscribed from every podcast I used to listen to. My hope is that the energy that used to go into these activities will be productively rerouted into other outlets, namely the creation of awesome stuff.

Drastic measures? Probably. Although, it feels like it’s necessary to take drastic measures if I want to make a drastic impact on the world. Working in a start-up and finishing a PhD at the same time isn’t something that can be considered doable under “business as usual.” It requires honesty with myself. If I want do what matters I can’t do it all.

Silly metaphor? Certainly. Hypocritical to follow nobody on social media when I want others to follow me? Yep. Do I feel like extremely uncomfortable that I’ll somehow miss something important? You bet.

After cleaning out all the accounts I mentioned above I went for a walk. I noticed and felt things that I haven’t in a long time. Parts of my brain that used to be preoccupied by the low din of constant connection started wandering to new places. My other “senses” (creativity, motivation, discipline, and diligence) started to feel more energized.

My powers won’t let me beat up bad guys or be awesome at martial arts, but they just might help me do something awesome in my own areas of interest. At the very least, it’s worth a shot, right?

Turning Off the Informational Deluge

Today’s snippet comes from realizing the connection between news, gossip, bite-sized nuggets of information, and doing my most meaningful work is tenuous. And this article by Jason Fried.

I recently embarked on an experiment where I opened the informational floodgates and let the world of news, think pieces, and “thought leadership” wash over me.

That experiment is now over.

I’m back to my cozy world of following basically nobody on Twitter (it’s not personal), Facebook (sorry high school friends), and Instagram (I can like you as a person even though you take terrible photographs). I’ve re-built my minimal RSS reading experience where I follow only a handful of extremely high quality sources. I’ve stopped trying to teach Apple News that I don’t want to read articles about celebrities or basketball. I’ve been exposed to some new ideas over the past few weeks, realized what I’m not actually missing out on much, and developed a new appreciation for silence, reflection, and wrestling with my own thoughts.

The nice thing about this little experiment is the fact that I’m really not feeling any anxiety about missing out on anything. I was super on top of everything for weeks and I don’t think I did any particularly great work or had any awesome ideas. I mean, I wasn’t a bump on a log or useless during that time but it’s not like I was crushing it. It just reinforces to me that feeling connected and plugged in to what’s going on in and around my areas of interest is not necessary to do great work. Without the time and attentional space provided by turning off the informational faucets it probably actually prevented a lot of great work from happening.

I’m not disappearing. I’m not turning into a hermit. I’m just committed to trying to do more awesome things.

The World Is Your Hard Drive

Today’s snippet is brought to you by the thoughts stimulated by episode 244 of the excellent podcast, Back to Work and the concept of stigmergy.

The world around us contains tons of information, some of which we placed into it and some of which we didn’t. I don’t mean newspapers or websites. I’m talking about a more basic type of information. The light is red so you stop, the sidewalk is crumbled so you step around it, and the sky looks cloudy so you grab an umbrella. Simple and obvious stuff, right?

These are all examples of things that happen to us and then prompt some kind of action. However, that’s not the only way the environment can prompt action. There’s no reason we can’t be the one who puts something into the world to prompt us to take a certain action later. We all do it already, actually. When you set an alarm to remind yourself the coffee is done brewing you’re taking action because of something you did to your environment in the past (setting a timer). You didn’t sit around and fret about when those three minutes were up. Once you set that alarm you were able to continue moving through your day without any extra psychological weight.

You can take this to an even higher level, though. This is when we start to get into the realm of Getting Things Done and #lifehacks. We can deliberately offload certain responsibilities and reminders into our environment in order to lift that burden from our already information overload ravaged and besieged brains. The classic trick of putting something you absolutely positively must not forget in the morning on top of your car keys falls firmly in this category. By doing this you’ve removed the constant tug of, “Don’t forget this, don’t forget this, don’t forget this…” and placed the only reminder you need into the physical world. You’ve offloaded your psychic worry into the physical world.

Looking back to the micro-transitions I discussed yesterday, does your environment support or hinder the action you want yourself to take? As Merlin says in Back to Work, do you “make the right thing the easy thing”? Here are some examples I’ve tried or am trying from my own life:

  • I’ve installed a “lightweight distraction blocker” into my world by moving distracting apps on my phone to a folder instead of keeping them front and center.
  • I’ve installed a “motivation booster” into my world by starting every work session with a specific playlist I always listen to while working.
  • I’ve installed a “morning routine aid” by making sure everything I need to make coffee the way I like it is clean and ready to go every night.
  • I’ve installed a “reminder app” by putting every idea I have regarding anything I’m working on into a trusted bucket (my Things inbox).
  • I’ve literally installed a shared task management product into my world (Trello) so I don’t have to try to keep track of what my coworkers are working on.

On a basic level what I’m trying to do, and where I think I’m only just scratching the surface, is to leave imprints on my environment from when I’m feeling intelligent and inspired that I can follow later when I’m feeling tired or overwhelmed. The more I can craft my environment to nudge me in the “right” direction the more willpower and attention I can save for things that matter (like solving difficult problems and thinking creatively).

Clean up your working drive (i.e. brain) by trusting more of it to the gigantic external hard drive that surrounds you every day (i.e. the rest of the world).

On Micro-Transitions and a Sense of Momentum

Today’s snippet comes from my desire to figure out how I work best.

A micro-transition is any time during my day when I’m shifting from one state to another. For example, the transition from waking up to starting my morning routine or the transition between finishing lunch and getting back to work. There are a handful of these transitions that happen throughout the day that when handled correctly often have an inordinately huge impact on how productive I feel.

Focusing on these micro-transitions makes it less daunting to try improving larger aspects of my life. Instead of feeling like I have to nail the 4–5 aspects of my morning routine everyday I’ve learned that if I simply focus on the micro-transition of minimizing the time between my eyes opening and me standing in front of my coffee maker everything else tends to take care of itself. Once I’ve got the coffee process going I know the rest of the morning is going to be okay. If I wake up and then fiddle around with my phone in bed then I know I’ve messed up.

Another micro-transition I’ve been practicing is how I spend the first ten minutes after lunch. My inclination is to open Twitter or Reddit and find something to read. However, if I instead take those ten minutes getting organized or writing the rest of the day tends to go much better. It’s when I get sucked into a mindless browsing spiral immediately after lunch that I get frustrated with myself.

I may have buried the lede here but I think this concept can be extrapolated to organizations and teams, too. Obviously, each person in an organization has to deal with micro-transitions similar to the ones I described earlier but there’s a version of these that collectives experience. How does a team manage the transition from being in a meeting to getting back to work? How does a team manage the transition from the end of the weekend to Monday morning? Or from the end of a workshop to the first day after a workshop? There’s a line that needs to be traversed between celebrating feelings of progress (“That was a great meeting,” or “We crushed phase one of this project”) and keeping the momentum going over time. The most successful projects I’ve worked on have a steadily increasing level of momentum (often with a final spike right at the end) whereas the worst projects experienced extreme variations in momentum with often a final burst of panic at the end. Teams who manage their micro-transitions keep momentum building whereas teams who do a poor job optimizing transitions don’t.

We can experiment with creating structure in our environment or developing habits within our own minds to take the actions we know we need to take. The key is to focus on the micro-transition (just open our eyes and get to the coffee) and not the overall intention (have a killer morning routine). It may take some time to land on the behavior that unlocks this shift but it doesn’t have to be a mystery — it just needs to be uncovered through experimentation and self-reflection.

Clarifying and Pursuing Greatness

This snippet was prompted by a great article from This Is Going to be Big… called The Nature of Greatness.

The reason I’m so drawn to working with organizations is because there’s a huge opportunity to help people figure out their definition of greatness and then show them the tools and practices that will help them along that path. Making work great is a lot like making your health great — as much as we wish we could do it overnight or with one intense retreat it only ever works with consistent effort over time.

There aren’t many truly great athletes and there are even fewer truly great organizations. But every professional athlete, every professional sports team, and every organization should be on the path toward greatness. If you’re not — why are you even in the game (please note I’m not defining greatness for you)? Every decision, from mundane to monumental, is an opportunity to take a step on the path toward greatness or an opportunity to wander astray.

Good leaders, managers, and self-organizing groups setup guardrails, prompts and cues to encourage continued progress down the path of greatness. Bad ones either actively dissuade their employees from making the best decision or complicate matters to the point that the path toward greatness is diffused and impossible to detect.

What does greatness look like for your organization? For you? For your team? What’s one thing it seems like nobody else is doing that would set you on a path to be truly great?

An Experiment in First Party Apps

Reflections on several weeks of using only Apple’s first party apps.

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Over the past couple weeks, and largely prompted by the releases of iOS 9 and OS X El Capitan, I’ve been trying an experiment where I used first party apps everywhere I possibly could. I had three main reasons for giving this a try: simply enjoying doing experiments like this, liking to challenge my assumptions about what I think I need to do my work, and being curious about how my computing experience might be better if I went all-in on the Apple ecosystem.

Without going through app by app I figured I’d share some of my larger learning points:

There’s a certain elegance or comforting state of mind to using all first-party apps.

I’m not sure if this is just my own broken mind or if others experience this as well, but when I was using first party apps across all my devices I felt calm about my setup. All the apps were made by the same company so ostensibly they should all work together extremely well, right? They all came pre-installed with the device I’m using so I’m computing in as minimal way as possible. No fussing over three different apps that all do basically the same thing — instead just using what’s provided and staying focused on the work. I liked the feeling of knowing that I was using my devices with almost no customization. I knew I could buy a new computer or borrow somebody else’s and I’d feel comfortable in doing the work I needed to do.

Some of the apps are just as good as what I was using before and I’ve decided to stick with them.

Early in this experiment I deleted Evernote from my phone and my computer and decided to try to use the new Notes app as its replacement. While Notes does not bill itself as an Evernote replacement and it’s not nearly as full featured as Evernote I quickly realized that it worked better for what I needed to do. Evernote had become bloated over the past few years and I no longer enjoyed using it. What I realized by shifting to Notes is that I didn’t need something as big and all-encompassing as Evernote to do my work. Notes is lightweight yet still powerful, syncs across my devices nearly instantaneously, and (this is where Evernote started to fail) is actually enjoyable to use.

You begin to appreciate apps that do the little things well when all you use are first party apps for awhile.

This experiment actually pitted two opposite sides of my personality against each other. The minimalist inside me loves the idea of using only the bare minimum tools to get work done. However, there’s also a very large part of me who loves to make sure I’m using the best tool in every situation. In many ways I have power user tendencies that result in trying out tons of new things and really making sure that what I’m using is truly best-in-class. While Apple has done an admirable job across most of the apps they ship with iOS or OS X, the aren’t necessarily aimed at power users. They aim to do the bare minimum. They do the bare minimum extremely well, but there were times I found myself longing for some apps that added that extra level of polish and functionality.

All in all, I’m glad I gave this a try over the past few weeks. Even though I’m shifting back to some of my beloved non-first party apps I now know that if I had to I could be perfectly productive using nothing but the provided apps. I may not choose to work that way right now but there’s a certain peace of mind knowing that I don’t truly need my fancy third party apps to get serious work done. And, as with any personal experiment, I learned a little bit more about myself and what I value.

If you’re curious about what I tried and what I decided to keep using I’m providing my current setup below:

  • I tried using Podcasts.app across my devices but I ended up going back to Overcast because of Smart Speed.

  • I tried using TextEdit on my Mac for all my basic word processing needs but I moved back to Byword because of Markdown support.

  • I tried using Twitter.app and the Twitter website and I’m still kind of undecided between sticking with it or going back to Tweetbot. Tweetbot is a delight to use but I’m worried about Twitter’s relationship with third party developers and I feel like I should get on board with how Twitter obviously wants people to interact with the service.

  • I tried using Calendar.app on my iPhone and on my computer but have decided to shift back to Fantastical. Quick adding events with natural language is a much better experience than adding events in Apple’s calendar app.

  • I tried using Notes.app instead of Evernote and I’m sticking with it. The new Notes app is top notch.

  • I tried using Reminders as a replacement for Things. Reminders is really not built for managing lots of complex projects so I very quickly realized it wasn’t going to work as a replacement for more robust task management software.

  • I tried committing to Mail.app on all my devices and I’ve decided to stick with it. I honestly don’t get very much email and it has been more than sufficient and enjoyable to use for my needs.

  • I’ve been using Safari across all my devices for a long time so no change there.

  • I tried using Numbers and Pages instead of Excel and Word. So far I’ve been able to stick with Numbers and Pages but I have a feeling there will be situations where I will need to revert to Excel and Word (particularly with my PhD work and collaborating with my advisor). However, I haven’t installed the Microsoft Office suite on my new work computer and I’m going to see how long I can hold out.

  • I committed to using iBooks over the Kindle app awhile ago. I didn’t like having my e-book collection spread across multiple services so several months ago I decided to go all-in with iBooks. I really enjoy it so far.

  • I tried the three month free trial of Apple Music when it first came out and decided to commit to it over Spotify. In many ways Spotify and Apple Music were basically identical for me so I decided to give the tie to the first party app. I suspect I’ll dip into Spotify from time to time to see how it’s being developed, especially if Apple Music begins to feel stagnant. For now I’m happy with it.

  • I committed to using iCloud Drive as my data backend wherever possible. I still have a Dropbox account because that is how my research lab shares data but for everything else I’m using iCloud Drive. So far it has been rock solid.

  • I tried using Safari Reading List as a replacement for Instapaper. I’m going back to Instapaper, though, primarily for the offline reading and the ability to “like” articles. I have a pretty mature workflow around sending things to read to Instapaper from basically anywhere and then sharing great articles in batches with Buffer. I couldn’t figure out a good way to replicate that with Reading List. Plus, Reading List doesn’t save the articles for offline reading and I like to use Instapaper when I’m on the subway.

  • I’ve been using Apple Maps for a long time but I’ve had a series of complications recently that are causing me to seriously reconsider whether this should be my go-to mapping service. It’s walking a very narrow line with me right now…

  • I’ve been trying Apple News since the release of iOS 9. I’m not sure if it will fit into my workflow in the long run but right now I’m trying to give it a fair shake.

  • Key third party apps I use all the time that don’t really have a first party replacement include: Day One, Slack, Instagram, and Paprika. Other first party apps I use regularly include Photos, Reminders, and Messages.

In the Name of Focus, a Hiatus

It has been a tumultuous couple of months. In early July I drove from California to Southeast Michigan and then got on a plane to New York City. Shortly after arriving in NYC I started my dream job. A couple weeks into that job, while still living in a sublet in a city I barely knew, I travelled internationally for a week with some colleagues. The day we returned, along with the rest of the company, we were laid off. Every day for approximately the next month I split my time between cold emailing people at companies I wanted to work for, having coffee with more people than I can remember, doing countless interviews, and working full-time on an organizational design project as a freelance consultant with a Fortune 100 company. Like I said, crazy times.

Finally, finally, finally it looks like those crazy times are coming to an end.

Last week I started work as the first employee at a new organizational design consulting firm called The Ready. I love it. I love what we’re doing and I love that I can finally pull in the reigns of my time and attention to focus on one thing. I’m finally getting an opportunity to catch my breath, buy some furniture for my apartment, take stock of what's working and what's not and, most importantly, regain some focus. 

Somewhat understandably, I think, I had been letting some things slide while moving to a new city, starting a new job, losing that job, working as a freelancer, and then finding a new job dominated my attention. My PhD work has sputtered along with nary a substantive sentence or p-value calculated since the middle of the summer. My physical fitness and meditation practice — both aspects of my life I value and know play a huge role in keeping me grounded and feeling halfway decent about myself — have mostly laid dormant. My website, as you may have noticed, has mostly gone quiet as well. My monthly newsletter sits untouched and averaging a decidedly un-monthly release record. 

I think focusing on a limited number of activities and truly diving into them as deeply as possible is the only way to do something that matters. In the past, I’ve counteracted this belief with my own skills in being productive and organized. Because I’m good (usually) at self-managing I’ve always taken on a bit more than I can comfortably chew. This time around, though, I need to truly take some of my own medicine. I’ve met my match productivity-wise. I’m simply trying to do too much and worst of all…

I can feel my PhD momentum slipping away. 

I’ve always told myself that I wouldn’t be one of “those” people who gets ¾ of the way through a PhD, gets a job, and suddenly gets completely stuck on making any academic progress. I study self-management for God’s sake — how sad would it be if I couldn’t self-manage myself into a completed degree? The past couple months have shown me how this happens, though. Just keeping my life moving in the right direction and my head above water required me to set my PhD progress aside. Not a huge problem in itself, but I’ve realized that every day my PhD work stays on the shelf it becomes even harder to get back into it. The guilt builds to the point where it feels like not only do I need to get started on it again but I need to make sure the next time I sit down and work on it I knock a serious chunk of it out. But… that sounds time intensive. And tiring. And I don’t have time and I don’t have the energy. So, it continues to sit and get scarier and scarier.

I refuse to let this happen. I have spent too much time and too much money (sunk costs, I know, I know) to let this fall apart. More important than the time or money, though, is that I’m sticking my foot into an area of research that I think truly matters. Organizations are changing rapidly, the future of work is going to be crazy, and I’m doing research that will help people and organizations be better.

So, here’s the plan:

SamSpurlin.com, TheWorkologist.com, The Workologist Newsletter, and my personal coaching practice are all going on indefinite hiatus.

I’m officially releasing myself from the expectation of maintaining these sites or businesses. I mean, I haven’t been writing anyway but I’ve basically felt consistently bad about it since about June. That ends today. TheWorkologist.com archive will stay up and if I’m moved to write something at any point in the future I will do so but for now The Workologist and the newsletter are indefinitely paused.

I can already tell that there is a weight off my shoulders by making this decision. This is one small step that allows me to focus a little bit more. I won't have to feel badly when I'm working on my PhD work because I'm also neglecting this website. My capacity to feel bad and do good work can only be pushed so far. I’ll revisit this decision in a couple months once I see what kind of progress I’m making on my degree.

You can still find me on TwitterInstagram, and on my nearly weekly podcast I do with my buddy Eric, The File Drawer. Keep an eye on TheReady.com as well because it’s likely that will be evolving with my input. 

It has been a wild ride! Here's to a newfound focus and to finishing this damn degree!

The List #24

Photo by Len Matthews

After a bit of a hiatus I'm bringing back my weekly link roundup, The List. Kick back with a tasty beverage of your choice and enjoy the best of what I've read recently.

P.S. Did you know you can see everything I love in Instapaper? I only share a tiny segment of everything I thought was pretty great each week. Check out that link for more great stuff to read.

To Stop Procrastinating, Start by Understanding the Emotions Involved - The Wall Street Journal

"Dr. Sirois and Dr. Pychyl also have focused on short-term mood repair as an anti-procrastination strategy. They teach people to recognize that they might have strong emotions, such as anxiety, at the start of a project but to not judge themselves for it. The next step is just to get started, step by step, with a narrow focus."

Amazing how most advice regarding self-development is some flavor of, "Feel the fear and then do it anyway." It's the simplest yet hardest advice to actually use.

Oliver Sacks: Sabbath - The New York Times

"And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest."

With Dr. Sacks recent passing I've been devouring his writing across the internet (and plan to dive into his books soon). This article is profound.

Commuters, unite! Why cities around the world need to design better routes to work - Quartz

"Poor or lengthy commuting has been linked to (in no particular order): weight-gain, neck pain, unhappiness, anxiety, lower life satisfaction, lower sense of worth, divorce, depression, stress, mental health issues, and other health issues from increased exposure to air pollution. A 2014 study of 60,000 UK commuters correlates commuting with depression and anxiety."

I've been extremely lucky in my career so far to avoid lengthy commutes (not hard to do when you are a full-time graduate student living near campus or working for yourself). I've done enough driving in Los Angeles traffic, though, to have my heart go out for everyone who has to sit in that day after day after day.

A Big Little Idea Called Legibility - Ribbonfarm

"Here is the recipe:

  • Look at a complex and confusing reality, such as the social dynamics of an old city
  • Fail to understand all the subtleties of how the complex reality works
  • Attribute that failure to the irrationality of what you are looking at, rather than your own limitations
  • Come up with an idealized blank-slate vision of what that reality ought to look like
  • Argue that the relative simplicity and platonic orderliness of the vision represents rationality
  • Use authoritarian power to impose that vision, by demolishing the old reality if necessary
  • Watch your rational Utopia fail horribly

The big mistake in this pattern of failure is projecting your subjective lack of comprehension onto the object you are looking at, as “irrationality.” We make this mistake because we are tempted by a desire for legibility."

As someone interested in organizational change this made me pause and think about my assumptions. Meaningful organizational design and change needs to avoid this trap.

A Look at the Painstaking, Intricate Art of Globemaking - The Atlantic: City Lab

"Ask Peter Bellerby, one of the few people left who still makes globes by hand. Nowadays, globes are mostly made by machines, and Bellerby says he knows why. “It’s horrendously difficult. You have to retrain your body to work in a much slower and guarded way,” he says. “They’ve got to want to do it and not be beaten by the process.” It took him more than a year to learn the art."

I never realized I wanted a globe. Now I do. Also, in the realm of people making awesome things by hand, I'm not sure how I wasn't aware of Anthony Bourdain's little web series, Raw Craft. Ignore the product placement and enjoy these short little episodes of craftspeople doing their thing.

Creating An Organizational Design Consulting Firm for the 21st Century

Photo by Chris Ford

I had been on the lookout for a company like Undercurrent for many years, was aware of Undercurrent for about a year, courted Undercurrent to hire me for about 8 months, and worked for Undercurrent for three weeks. Ever since its demise I've been thinking a lot about what the next truly influential organizational design consultancy of the 21st century should look like. Undercurrent wasn't perfect but I think they were doing a lot of great and new things along that path. Now, there's a huge gap in the market for a company to rethink what it means to do organizational design consulting. Given the state of the market, here is my opinionated take on what a company who wants to be the next big thing in the world of organizational design consulting should focus on.

The Goals

The organizational design consultancy of the 21st century is essentially tasked with helping organizations navigate a world that is rather hopelessly unpredictable, chaotic, and exceedingly quick to change. Organizations are increasingly relying on people who are highly-trained, expensive, and creative who likely have many job options and an increasingly greater expectation to be given opportunities to do meaningful work. These organizations need to become more like living, evolving, learning, and resilient organisms or networks and less like top-down, oligarchical, and brittle machines. They need to be able to make things happen quickly and entice their expensive talent to stick around while bringing their entire creative and motivated selves to the audacious challenges they face at work. Simple, right?

I believe we are seeing the limit of the gains pure organizational restructuring can accomplish. In a company where physical products need to be created and moved from place to place there’s much to be gained from restructuring organizations to amplify efficiency. In a world of knowledge work the key competitive advantage resides more in the ideas of employees and the ability to bring those ideas to fruition quickly. The growth of self-organizing principles we are seeing many companies adopt today is merely the initial forays into a tectonic shift looming in the near future.

How do you prepare for that?

How do you cut through bureaucracy so your most motivated employees feel like the organization is there to amplify their good ideas, not cover them in bureaucratic leeches until they are bled dry? How do you create an environment that facilitates the highest level of performance from employees not because you're standing over them with a stick or dangling a carrot in front of them but because you are giving them opportunities to exercise some of their most innate desires -- to do meaningful work in a supportive environment? How do you create a culture of knowledge workers who view themselves as craftsmen/women on a path of increased mastery over time where personal development and professional development go hand in hand? Oh yeah, and how do you keep making money so the company continues to exist?

The organizational design firm of the 21st century will necessarily have to be selective about the types of companies they work with. The consulting firm who gets this right will not only select the companies who obviously "get it" but will be able to teach and convince those companies who are tottering on the fence between a more traditional way of viewing business and the more responsive, humane, and ultimately more successful way of working.

This may sound fluffy and overly “soft” but I wrote all of the above with the goal of the company's economic health front and center in my mind. In a world where a company needs to grow and evolve like a living organism it is unreasonable to expect it to thrive when its individual parts are being damaged, restricted, or poisoned. A healthy organism has healthy internal components and a healthy sensory system that allows it to navigate it's world. Organizational design in the 21st century will be all about the care and feeding of that organization -- both internally and helping guide it through it's ever changing world.

The Approach

The organizational design firm of the 21st century is going to have to actively work toward resolving (and even embracing) a set of paradoxes internally (with its own existence) and externally (with its clients):

  1. Long-term perspective vs. short-term focus: As a company how can you break outside the market-driven forces that encourage a short-term focus on economic outcomes in order to make long-term decisions for the company's health? How often do companies that claim to be trying to tackle problems of truly epic proportions get sidetracked by the next quarterly earnings call? At the same time, can you have a truly long-term focus but also adopt a mindset of constant iteration and rapid short-term sprints toward a goal?
  2. The power of scale vs. the power of the individual: Software has unlocked the possibility of complex data analysis in a myriad of domains. At the same time, organizations are comprised of individuals. How do you embrace and understand scale while also embracing and respecting the individual (employee and customer)?
  3. Being responsive vs. being proactive: To what extent should an organization be able to respond to the rapidly changing external forces it faces versus to what extent should organizations focus on creating the environment in which it resides? Can an organization be reactive and proactive?
  4. Using data vs. embracing humanity: Is it possible to both be data-driven and also in touch with the "humanity" of an organization? To what extent can or should data be used when talking about meaning, motivation, and inspiration of human beings? How can an organization find useful avenues for data and an understanding of the "softer" aspects of an organization?

In addition to these paradoxes, I think there are a few foundational questions that this new type of consulting firm should obsess over asking:

  1. To what extent can we help organizations enhance the psychological & human resources they already have to meet the challenges they can't even predict?
  2. To what extent can we help organizations identify and tweak their components (team dynamics, environmental factors, culture etc.) in a systematic and holistic way to drive positive change in how they function?
  3. To what extent can we identify points of friction in the way an organization works and then offer truly foundational advice about removing that friction, not just treating the symptom of that friction?

The Services

What will the organizational design firm of the 21st century actually sell? What will be delivered? How will impact be measured? I think it goes without saying that every client engagement would be a highly unique and specialized affair starting with an intense discovery and sense-making effort. What's next?

A few ideas:

  1. Coaching around “new ways of working”: On a one-on-one basis across the entire scope of the organization, from executive, to managerial, to front-line workers there could be coaching on new ways of working. Coaches would emphasize the habits and behaviors that allow individuals and organizations to work more effectively (i.e. anti-procrastination techniques, self-leadership strategies, the development of psychological capital, etc.). A good coach should be able to help individuals develop the meta-cognitive skills and self-reflective behaviors that can drive long-term habit change even after the coaching engagement ends.
  2. Embedding teams/individuals within organizations: Consultants would shadow teams and individuals within the client organization. While this would provide opportunities for formal coaching sessions or workshops, it would also allow for a much more nuanced understanding of how things actually get done in an organization. With that more nuanced understanding the recommendations and interventions could be much, much, smaller, accurate, and simpler. I believe many of the friction points that exist within organizations are so embedded or subconscious that they never appear during interviews or surveys. Only by embedding into an organization will these friction points become visible, and therefore addressable.
  3. The setting and behavior change facilitation of strategy: Strategy consulting is not new. Helping leadership teams articulate and set strategy is a time-honored role of consultants. However, I view this 21st century organizational design firm taking it a step further and pushing, facilitating, and evaluating the action/behavior change that should emerge from a strategy session. What are the behaviors that should change based on our strategy and to what extent can we as consultants find avenues to help people (leadership and otherwise) practice these behaviors?
  4. Organizational development: This new firm will have to be adept at all the more traditional outlets for organizational development (and perhaps this is where some specialization may occur across the industry). Hiring, culture change, compensation, onboarding, physical space ... the list of possibilities is long. In each case, this firm should be able to both dive deep into the latest and best organizational psychology, sociology, industrial psychology, and other relevant academic fields, make sense of what is useful, and then carefully bring that knowledge to bear on the stated problems of the organization.
  5. Organizational re-design: There are new ways to organize companies and the organizational design firms of the 21st century need to be able to facilitate the adoption of those new ways of organizing if that is what the client wants or seems to be the best approach to improving the client organization. These can be self-organizing principles or wholesale adoption of systems like holacracy or Spotify's guilds. No system is a silver bullet and the organizational design consultants of the 21st century will both build our understanding of the contexts in which these systems work (which is an area of knowledge we are woefully lacking) and accurately facilitate the development of these systems at the appropriate time and in the appropriate situation.

Conclusion

No consulting firm is doing what I just laid out -- not even Undercurrent at its peak. From what I can tell there are some firms that are trying to do bits and pieces of it but nobody has really made a concerted effort at uniting it into a cohesive whole. The opportunity to embrace the uncertainty of this new type of consulting and possibly be the early dominant force is truly staggering. It's going to take people who aren't wedded to an old style of organizational consulting or design consulting or anything else that may poke around the edges of a true organizational design practice.

For what it's worth, I'm still looking for my next gig. If I just a.) inadvertently described your company or b.) described the direction you're trying to go with your company -- we should talk.

Otherwise, tell me what I'm missing. Where am I wrong? Where am I right? Let's push this way of thinking forward together.

I Was Just Laid Off From My Dream Job... After 3 Weeks

Photo by Glyn Lowe

UPDATE - I have since found a new job working for The Ready, a new organizational design consulting firm. 

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When I started graduate school in 2011 I was intending to build my own boutique coaching and consulting firm. I wanted to take positive psychology and figure out real ways to bring this stuff to people and organizations who could benefit from it. Looking around at existing consulting companies I didn’t see anybody doing anything remotely close to what seemed interesting and worthwhile to me. I wanted to get into the nitty gritty of how groups and individuals actually do their work. I'm fascinated by what I call the "moment-to-moment reality of work" and I knew there had to be ways I could use this fascination to bring about real change. I figured the only way I was going to get what I wanted to do was to create it myself.

That was until I was introduced to Undercurrent.

The first time I sat down and read their website I realized that this was a group of people doing the exact work I wanted to be doing on a scale I’d never be able to accomplish on my own. A huge part of Undercurrent’s business was literally called “Ways of Working.” Anybody who knows me in real life should realize why this company and what it does is so exciting to me. Literally the same day I read the website for the first time I emailed them inquiring about how I could possibly join the team. I had finally found my people. Now, I just needed to convince them they needed someone with my background and experience on the team.

That process took a long time and I’ll spare you the boring details, but in early July I moved across the country (Los Angeles to New York) and started working for Undercurrent.

Unfortunately, Undercurrent was acquired by a larger company, Quirky, in April. Quirky is not a consulting company and apparently didn’t have much of a plan for how acquiring Undercurrent would be beneficial to both sides. Instead, Quirky has slowly, and then very rapidly, been circling the drain as they failed to secure additional fundraising. I knew about Undercurrent’s situation when I decided to move across the country to join them. I knew Quirky’s fundraising situation was not good. I knew that morale was low at Undercurrent. I knew that Undercurrent had faced a ton of turnover recently. I decided to take the plunge anyway. And today that plunge ended with the end of Undercurrent.

Ultimately, it was surprisingly simple decision to pack up my life and make the trek across the country to join this company. My dream job was literally dangled in front of me. How could I have not taken it, even given the uncertainty of the situation? If there's even a 5% chance that Undercurrent would make it through this incredibly shitty acquisition I had to take it. I wanted to join this company and meet all these people, even if just for a very short time. It was easy for me to take the plunge, take the risk, and hope for the best. Sure, I think I was optimistic that there was no way this highly profitable, highly desired, extremely capably staffed organization could be destroyed by external forces. I was naive. I thought Undercurrent would somehow, miraculously, pull through this incredibly unfortunate situation and emerge victorious, if not battered, on the other side. 

It looks like I was wrong.

Four weeks after moving to New York, three weeks after starting my dream job, I'm now unemployed, living in New York with a brand new apartment lease, sitting on some debt from moving across the country, and dealing with a hell of a lot of uncertainty about what I’m going to do next.

I know some of my (now former) colleagues probably think I’m insane for voluntarily joining this shipwreck in its late stages. I came into this with clear eyes about what might happen and even though it’s incredibly frustrating to have a taste of my dream job before having it ripped away, I’m glad I got to experience it at all. 

Thank you to Undercurrent for the opportunity — I wish it could have been during better times.  I’m going to miss everyone at the company I only just met. I hope our paths cross again in some capacity and I’m excited to see what everyone goes onto next.

P.S. If you want to work with someone obsessed about making business, work, and life better shoot me an email.