Insights

Incredibly Simple Rules for Story-Telling

Here’s a thing that happened: we were looking for a great engineer to work on device drivers (yes, this was a long time ago). D showed up, did a great interview, and I hired him.

Here’s the story about the thing that happened: I was doing interview after interview for a great low-level engineer. I was tired of it, bored. D’s resume was sparse, but he’d written his own game, so I thought, well, maybe, sure, give him twenty minutes. D showed up to our exposed-brick, cool warehouse space wearing a suit, which was very weird, and looking like some kind of male model, which for a game coder was weirder. My skepticism increased. I looked at my watch. D started to describe his game.

He did a great job – smart, to the point and responsive to tricky questions. He talked about optimization. I asked him why he’d done it. He wrote the compiler output on the whiteboard from memory and then his own code side by side. OK, I thought, he’s a speed freak – probably doesn’t do structure. I asked him about structure. He took his suit jacket off and drew a beautifully realized architecture on the board. By this time I was laughing, and so was he. I asked him if he wanted to work at the company – he gave me a massive smile and said yes. A fantastic hire.

Stories Make Information Dance

Humans have been using stories to paint the dry business of information with emotional color and energy for millennia.

Stories make information move and dance. They are the way we communicate who we are, what we value and why we value it.

Telling a story makes your audience lean towards you, become entangled in your voice – really listen. It’s the way you will get your point of view to land, your vision to be understood and your authentic self to be seen.

The basics are simple. Next time you have a presentation, a one on one, a critical point of view to communicate, take some time and build your story.

Simple Story Guielines

  • a story is about a character, and is most powerful if it’s about you, for a couple of reasons: it establishes an authenticity to the story — we believe it happened, so we are more inclined to believe its message; it establishes a relationship between the teller and the audience. You were there, you saw it happen. And now you’re here, telling us about it.
  • the character must face a challenge, and the higher the stakes in the challenge, the more compelling the story. I had to hire an engineer. I was tired, bored, not getting anywhere. Raising the stakes would make the story better: “I had to hire an engineer that week, or I’d be fired!”. It wouldn’t be true. But notice how situations where the stakes are high (“we were out of money and…”, “the CTO quit and…” breed stories
  • it helps if the challenge involves jeopardy to a relationship that is vital to the character — the closer the better. Think of any story that moved you. What relationship was in peril? Of course, at work, the stakes are lower than marriages and families (most of the time), but founder relationships, teams and long-time bosses can be pretty strong bonds.
  • the more specific the details, the better. “We met in a conference room to discuss the merger” is less compelling than “We met at 9pm on a winter evening in a tiny, cold conference room overlooking the open workspace where two dozen engineers were furiously finishing the next release”. Take your time with this: what colors, textures, smells, sounds, temperature do you recall from the scene? Take us there — we’ll go if you let us.
  • your emotional state matters. What were you feeling? Again, specifics are important. “I was nervous” is less powerful than “I thought about drinking coffee, but my stomach was too nervous and empty…”.

And, finally, make it move: the character moves to overcome the challenge, and by doing so, is transformed. Who were you, after overcoming the challenge? What was different about you, and your team?

D was hired. The team was better. My anxiety, fatigue and boredom went away.

We listen to stories because we are deeply wired to learn from each other, to build our collective experience and wisdom. It’s a critical skill. Take a shot!

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Incredibly Simple Rules for One On Ones

This post is one in the “Incredibly Simple Management” series, dedicated to stripping great management down to the fundamentals you need to get it done.

As with any leadership activity, things are moving on two tracks: management – the art of controlling time and resources; and leadership – the art of connecting, motivating and serving people.

The Purpose of One on Ones – Management

  • To understand the work that is being done. You’re responsible, so you need to know.
  • To help the team do their jobs better, by providing your guidance, knowledge and expertise to remove roadblocks – technical, organizational or otherwise.
  • To help the team grow as professionals and people.

The Purpose of One on Ones – Leadership

  • To build relationships with the people who work for you: what motivates them, what do they want, what do they love? What do they know about you? How do you connect?
  • One on ones are the opportunity you have to build connection with your team. Use them.

One on Ones: Timing

  • Have regular one on ones. Just do it. If you are too busy, then it’s on you to get your time management sorted out. That may take a while (delegation, getting the hang of saying “no”), but it’s necessary.
  • Once a week is great. Once every two weeks is OK. Once a month is too few.
  • Schedule them ahead of time and don’t mess with the schedule. These are important events for your team  – they is where they can show their stuff, get your support and strengthen their connection with you.  Moving them around indicates that the relationship you have is not important.
  • Show up on time. See previous point.

One on Ones: Agenda

  • Have a regular agenda. Why? It’s efficient, and provides clarity for your team — they don’t have to wonder “what he/she wants to talk about this week” every time they are preparing.
  • Here’s a framework:
  • Get an update. What’s going on? Short description of status. This is checklist stuff: were things XYZ done by ABC? Is project Z going to be done by time D?
  • Successes and issues to be aware of: what went well? What’s not going great?
  • Wider discussion. What do they want your input, coaching, mentoring and judgement about?
  • Separate these out so you’re not bouncing from simple updates to longer discussions about strategy, problem solving, career growth and so on. It’s your job to be clear about what the discussion is about.
  • At the right time (once a quarter? once a month? up to you), spend more time on the wider discussion about their personal and professional development.

One on Ones: Your Approach

  • In the meeting, pay attention. Paying attention is a strong form of respect, and is deeply necessary to build human connection. Your people will know when you are paying attention, and know when you are not.
  • Your attitude is: listening. Listen so that the other person is heard. If you listen well, you’ll be able to support your team. If you listen with the intent to disagree, to correct or to be completely right, you won’t.

That’s it. Good luck!

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Incredibly Simple Meeting Rules

This post is one in the “Incredibly Simple Management” series, dedicated to stripping great management down to the fundamentals you need to get it done.

Meetings are necessary. The purpose of an organization is to have people work together. The purpose of leadership is to have people work together as effectively as possible. Well-run meetings are the most effective way to coordinate and motivate a group of people. Poorly run meetings are one of many terrific ways of doing the opposite.

As with any leadership activity, running a great meeting successfully is a mix of rational, check-box skills, and a mastery of human, emotional intelligence.

Master the easy ones – the rational, management necessities, and the human approaches will get easier.

Preparing For The Meeting – Management Hygiene

  • make sure the meeting has a purpose.
  • the purpose can be: decision, update or brainstorming. That’s it, that’s the whole list. Just make sure you’re clear.
  • if the meeting has no purpose, don’t call it. If the meeting was scheduled, but the purpose has passed, cancel it.
  • put aside time to create the agenda. You’re about to spend the time of multiple people. Take a few minutes make sure you are using that insanely valuable resource carefully.
  • check that the agenda matches the purpose.
  • choose the minimum number of people necessary to fit the purpose of the meeting. If you’re over five to seven people, very carefully ask yourself why.
  • schedule the meeting. Be smart: engineers come in late, people are tired on Friday afternoons, one hour notice isn’t going to work.
  • don’t change the schedule. Become known for this. People will love you for it.
  • start on time. Become known for this. People will love you for it. Again.

During the Meeting – Manage Relationships and Human Connection 

  • pay attention: face-time is the highest bandwidth communication you can have with a human being. It’s better than voice, video and massively, insanely better than email, slack and text. Face-time is incredibly valuable. Don’t waste it. Pay attention.
  • listen with the intent to understand. Listening is all about intention. If your intention is to be open and understand, you will generate respect and attention back. If your attention (for example) is to disagree, then it’s likely you’ll start a disagreement. Pay attention to how you are listening.

During the Meeting – Management Hygiene, Part 2

  • stick to the agenda.
  • finish by re-iterating decision and followup actions and responsibilities. If there was a decision, make sure everybody knows what it was.
  • finish on time. Manage the time your people spend together. Become known for it. People will love you for this, as well.

You’re going to have meetings. Make them work.

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Self-Awareness. What It Is. How To Get It.

We know it when we see it. We say “she’s highly self-aware”, and we mean it as a compliment. We mean that person is able to take criticism,correct her mistakes and learn as she goes. We can work with that person, tell her what we think and expect a reasonable response.

Being self-aware is a strength. It’s a foundation for authenticity, for communication, for decision and for leadership. It’s also something that can be simply defined, learned and practiced.

What It Is – A Practical Definition

Here’s a short, practical definition of self-awareness. When you are self-aware, you are able to bring your attention to:

  • your thoughts
  • your emotions
  • your body

That’s it. The whole of it. I mean, I could spin it out to book length (god knows, I wouldn’t be the first one), but really, that’s it.

Why It’s Important – Get Control of The Bus

Let’s say you are an engineering lead, and you are having a conversation with a product manager about a new feature. The conversation has become an argument. She wants it in the next release. You think it’s a waste of resources. You are both now deep into a confrontation.

Without self-awareness, it’s likely that you’ll allow your emotion to take over your side of the conversation. Maybe you’ll yell. Maybe you’ll freeze and sulk. Whatever your response, it will be conditioned by deeply entrenched patterns of behavior you have developed from every relationship you’ve ever had going back to your parents. And it won’t help you or the product manager resolve the issue.

You will be reacting unconsciously. If the conversation is a bus, you are not a driver, co-driver or navigator. You are in the back seats, feeling uncomfortable, vaguely aware that the bus is going too fast, in the wrong direction and is in danger of hitting something.

Self-awareness allows you to grab the wheel, maybe put your foot on the brake a bit, and slow the bus down.

If your self-awareness was turned on, you might be able to see:

  • your thoughts: “she’s an idiot”, “I’m always getting shot down”, “this company doesn’t value engineering judgement”. These thoughts are not necessarily true, or even close to true. They are just there  — you’re just thinking them, and they are not helping.
  • your emotions: frustration, with some fear going towards anger. Is this useful? No. In fact it’s going to make things worse. But you have no control. You not even fully aware that it’s happening.
  • your body: your chest is tight, face is clenched, arms are crossed hard. You think you are being intense and controlled. To your partner in the conversation, you look ready for a fight. A physical fight. It’s not helping your position.

If you could see those states, which are, in fact, your “self”, then you could perhaps start to take a conscious, careful and eventually wise course of action.

How To Get It

Pay attention. That’s the whole of how to become self-aware.

Our attention is one of our super-powers as humans. The problems, people and relationships we apply our attention to become more deeply understood, more intensely ours, more tractable. We become conscious of the realities of the object of our attention, and having become conscious, can apply that other wonder of our human brain — our logic, our ability to reason.

Paying attention is an act of discipline and will. Like any other skill it needs practice and focus. Developing self-awareness is a matter of learning to direct our attention, repeatedly and carefully, to our thoughts, our emotions and our body.

How To Pay Attention

Answer: learn mindfulness meditation. It’s that direct. Mindfulness meditation is a multi-thousand year old discipline of directing and holding the attention so we see how our thoughts, emotions and bodily states ebb and flow, endlessly changing.

Yes, it helps make you calmer. But that’s not the point. It may make you more efficient, but that’s not the point. It will help you with decisions — not the point, either. The point is to develop the ability to focus a conscious, unwavering beam of attention on the reality of the present moment.

So find an app. Do an online course. Start with a very short “Dummies” article (it’s here). Go to a retreat. Establish a practice. Watch your thoughts, your emotions, your reactions to bodily states. Do it every day. Start with five minutes. Get up to twenty. Then thirty. Then do it every day for the rest of your life.

That’s how you develop self-awareness.

Going Deeper

As you develop self-awareness of your thoughts, emotions and body over time, you will start to notice something interesting: patterns.

You will notice that you react to people and situations in predictable ways. But you react so fast, so incredibly fast, that until you started becoming self-aware you didn’t even know you were doing it.

Your thoughts, emotions and body will lock into a response before you have time to think — absolutely literally, the “lock” will occur before any awareness of the situation reaches your rational brain.

Some of these are trivial: you like to stand up when you drink tea. Or you always slouch, just a little, when your boss starts a meeting (something to do with your Mom? a little rebellion? I have no idea — your call). Some of these are more interesting: it took me about ten years in the tech business to realize that I tended to work for short, intense male founders with dark hair and huge ideas that they didn’t know how to realize. They would pontificate, and I would manage the work so it got done. Yes, I was rescuing my Dad, over and over.

True story!

The more you see your patterns, the more you are free of them and the more you can approach your life consciously, as yourself.

Yeah But I Don’t Have Time.

Well you do, but I hear you, we live in fast times.

So here’s a short-cut to get you a little part of the way there. Next time you’re starting to get into a stressful situation (late night coding gone wrong, boss looking at you the wrong way in a meeting, starting to get frustrated in a conversation), do the following:

  • stop. For the love of God, stop. Stop talking, walking, coding, writing, just stop.
  • breath. Yeah, but like this: sit up straight, with your head reaching for the ceiling. Take a big, big breath — three seconds in. Roll your shoulders up and back, and exhale.
  • breath again. No, not like that, I mean slowly — three seconds in etc etc.
  • check what you’re thinking. Check if it’s true (“I’m an idiot” — true? not at all true? a bit true? check it out — the truth will set you free).
  • check what your body feels like — where is the tension? gone yet? breath some more.

That’ll get you going.

Meanwhile, yeah, find a mindfulness practice. It works.

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“HR Debt” Is The Cost of Putting Off Hard Conversations. Radical Candor is a Solution.

Last week I came across this rather terrific post by Jessica Rose.  It kind of off-handedly introduced a notion we might call “HR Debt” – the organizational analogue of technical debt.

Coincidentally, a day later, I then walked into a client session where the issue was, in fact, fixing up a team that had been badly structured and poorly lead: we spent an hour sorting out the pain, cost and general difficulty of getting things set to rights.   The notion of “HR Debt” was immediately helpful.  Good!

We can describe technical debt as the literal cost (time, attention, real money) of avoiding doing things the right way.  In the short term, the company saves money by, for example, not fixing a legacy architectural issue, by “hard-wiring” a piece of code, or just not fixing known bugs (feel free to provide your own list).

Our new term, HR Debt, is exactly analogous: by putting off dealing with a problem employee, or dysfunctional team, the organization saves disruption in the short term, but pays, every day, in the time and attention the team is putting in to make things work.  As Jes puts it:

“Having your team build informal processes to work around bad actors creates an environment where additional time and energy costs are included in all team activities”

Not only that, but when the time comes to fix it,  just like technical debt, the cost is far higher than it would have been originally: people need to be moved, or fired, teams rearranged, salaries re-worked, relationships repaired.

So what to do?  Well, Radical Candor is a toolkit for saying hard things so that they are heard.  If we boil Radical Candor down to its essence, it is a model for confronting and dealing with difficult conversations well.  It encourages us not to drift into “Ruinous Empathy”, where our HR Debt will continue to accumulate as we avoid fixing people problems.  It asks us to “just say it”, whilst respecting the humanity of the person on the receiving end.

The concept of “HR Debt” gives us a way of estimating the cost of staying in “Ruinous Empathy”:  how many management hours will be dribbled away by patching over poor behavior?   how much money will be spent on a team which we’re pretty sure will have to be reworked?  how much would we save over time if we took on the hard conversations now?

So we can look at Radical Candor as a toolkit for reducing HR Debt – not just doing the right thing, but saving money, time and the precious attention of the organization.

Useful models that fit together!    Have to love that 🙂

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Curiosity: A Super Power That Gets Us Unstuck

We get stuck. Somebody won’t listen – they just won’t. We’ve tried explaining what we want, why we think they’re wrong, what they should be doing better, and nothing happens, nothing changes. The decisions keep being delayed, the advice ignored, the obvious (to us) reality avoided.

Or there’s a problem, a big one: we’re about to be out of money, we’re definitely going to miss the deadline, our very best, world-class, go-to engineering lead is quitting. We’re going over a cliff. Tomorrow. And it feels inevitable, immovable – we can’t see another path.

Struggle, or Give Up

When we get stuck, we struggle. Of course we do. We pull together our strength and we push harder, speak louder, move faster. We work massive numbers of hours, we write emails at 3 in the morning, unable to sleep. We make huge, risky bets: maybe if we made that engineering lead a VP, gave her a monster stock grant, she’d stay, and we’ll deal with the consequences (the budget, the pay parity issues, the guilt) later!

Or we go limp. We find somebody to complain to: “I’ve said everything I can about this and nothing’s going to change, so…”. We take refuge in apparent inevitability. “Yeah, we’ll miss this deadline, and we’ll have to slip everything, miss the quarter… just the way it goes”.

By assuming we know what’s going to happen, by believing we can see everything about the reality of the situation, we give up our agency, let go of our responsibility, our power.

An Analogy

My son goes fishing, a lot. I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time dealing with fishhooks stuck in my clothes. The damn things get jammed right in there, and there’s no easy way to move them. Sometimes I get irritated, struggle, try and yank the things out, usually leading to a hole in my finger and a torn shirt. Sometimes I just can’t deal with it: another fishhook, ach, really? So I snip off the pieces that I can, and leave the rest in. And then spend days with the remaining piece catching on other clothes in the washing machine, making the inevitable hole in the shirt worse.

What does work here is slowing way down, and being intensely curious: how is this particular hook, in this particular shirt, different? What material is the shirt made of? Will it tear easily if I pull, or give? How many barbs does the hook have? What tools do I have that I can use? Do I flatten the barb (probably)?

Can I just clip the barb off? Maybe.

If I pay attention to the specifics, the details, the reality of the situation, it starts to appear in higher resolution – there’s more here than I first saw. More detail, more options, more to work with.

When we pull back and allow ourselves to be curious, we start to disengage the parts of us that are unhelpful – anxiety, stress, even panic – and start to work with our creativity, our receptiveness to people and the world. Crucially, we reclaim ownership of ourselves – we begin to build an understanding of the situation that is our own, we create options, paths, choices.

Back At the Office 1

So the engineering lead is leaving. It’s painful, devastating maybe. All kinds of fears are coming up: am I a good boss? Are we a good company? What will the organization do without her brilliance and experience?

Let’s slow down, and be curious. First: is she really, really leaving? We’re not asking the question to pressure her, we’re interested in the firmness of her position – we want her authentic response, not the one based in anger or momentary frustration or a sudden grasping at a shiny offer.

Yes, she is. OK. What’s causing her to leave? Really, really listen – you will want to “listen to argue”, be making your case as she’s speaking ready to contradict her, but don’t. Listen to hear – maybe you know why she’s leaving already, maybe you don’t. Be open. Maybe you’ll discover something you can fundamentally change. Or maybe you won’t, but you certainly won’t if you don’t listen, carefully, so she is heard.

What will the effect on the organization be? Don’t jump to conclusions. Organizations are very flexible, adaptable, organic. If you genuinely ask the question, of yourself, of your team, what are the many answers, what’s the reality? What does your creativity and the creativity of your team tell you? (And by the way, “reality” is often used as a label for “brutal worst case”, as in, “you’re not facing reality here, we’re completely fked”. Reality is always more nuanced, more flexible, more surprising than we can predict. Be gentle. Be curious).

Back at the Office 2

So your boss won’t make a decision. You slide into moaning about it to friends, your partner at home, co-workers. “There’s nothing I can do or say”, you whimper. “This completely sucks”, you complain.

So try wondering what is really going on. Your boss is a person. What do you really know about him? What is the value to him of not making a decision? What does he get out of it? What is he hearing when you tell him that you need a decision? Ask him! Just ask. Genuinely – not to move him along, but to really discover something new about what the situation. Something that adds nuance and depth. Something you can work with.

Curiosity Takes Us Back to Our Best Selves

It’s much easier to give up on problems and people than it is to remain steadfastly interested in them. It’s easier to be our “small selves” – scared, reactive – to give up our agency and our power, and be scared, anxious or frozen and passive.

Curiosity takes us back to our best selves. Curiosity allows us to wonder, to investigate the world, to pay attention to the people around us – what do they want? what is compelling them right now? Curiosity compels us to ask a crucial question: what do I know, really?

By being curious, paying full attention to what is in front of us, we bring our full, creative, energetic selves to bear. We bring what is powerful and human in us to the world and to the people we share it with, and in doing so, help both the world, and the people we share it with change, for the better.

When you’re stuck, you’re not paying attention. Be curious.

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How to Work With Somebody You Don’t Trust

I once worked for about eighteen months with a peer I couldn’t trust. It was awful. I wasted time, effort and attention on parsing his emails, protecting my team and laboriously documenting “agreements” that “clarified the situation” to my boss (which would be run over an hour after we had met to “ratify” them).

And I felt bad. All the time. There’s just something nasty about not knowing: not knowing what will happen in the next meeting; not knowing if an agreement will be kept; not knowing when another email will come in from your boss, from your team, from a peer, with another set of bruises and breakages and emotional upset. And there’s something more than that: having to be around somebody who you don’t fundamentally trust is spooky, uncomfortable, unpleasant.

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Intensity Is Not the Same As Anxiety, Fear and Anger (A Note On Table Banging, and How to Stop It)

(this is one of a set of notes from my work coaching founders, CEOs and technical leaders in the tech industry.  Originally published in the “Leadership, Management and Being Human” newsletter)

I recently highlighted this rather terrific post by Jessica Rose.  It kind of off-handedly introduced a notion we might call “HR Debt” – the organizational analogue of technical debt.

Coincidentally, a day later, I then walked into a client session where the issue was, in fact, fixing up a team that had been badly structured and poorly lead: we spent an hour sorting out the pain, cost and general difficulty of getting things set to rights.   The notion of “HR Debt” was immediately helpful.  Good!

We might describe technical debt as the literal cost (time, attention, real money) of avoiding doing things the right way.  In the short term, the company saves money by, for example, not fixing a legacy architectural issue, by “hard-wiring” a piece of code, or just not fixing known bugs (feel free to provide your own list).

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Use Radical Candor to Reduce “HR Debt”

(this is one of a set of notes from my work coaching founders, CEOs and technical leaders in the tech industry.  Originally published in the “Leadership, Management and Being Human” newsletter)

I recently highlighted this rather terrific post by Jessica Rose.  It kind of off-handedly introduced a notion we might call “HR Debt” – the organizational analogue of technical debt.

Coincidentally, a day later, I then walked into a client session where the issue was, in fact, fixing up a team that had been badly structured and poorly lead: we spent an hour sorting out the pain, cost and general difficulty of getting things set to rights.   The notion of “HR Debt” was immediately helpful.  Good!

We might describe technical debt as the literal cost (time, attention, real money) of avoiding doing things the right way.  In the short term, the company saves money by, for example, not fixing a legacy architectural issue, by “hard-wiring” a piece of code, or just not fixing known bugs (feel free to provide your own list).

Read More

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“Code Wins Arguments”. Why This Is True. And Why You Should Be A Little Less Blunt About It.

(This is one of a set of notes from my work coaching founders, CEOs and technical leaders in the tech industry.  Originally published in the “Leadership, Management and Being Human” newsletter)

The issue that came up in the coaching session was: when to stop meeting and write some code?   My client, a senior software engineer, knew in his bones that more meetings wouldn’t move the project forward, but a week of him coding a prototype would.  But how to communicate that without appearing to just arrogantly blow off the team?

“Code Wins Arguments” has been around for a while.  This is from the Facebook S1 filing:

“Instead of debating for days whether a new idea is possible or what the best way to build something is, hackers would rather just prototype something and see what works”.

Classic!  “Hackers would rather…”.  Of course they would!  No more stupid meetings, we’re just going to build it and you guys can sort it out later!   Cool!   The implied context is an argument and the outcome is a win – which means a defeat for somebody. 
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