Small things and big things

I once enlisted one of my wiser friends to help me with my writing. One of the lessons I learnt from him was that a sign of great writing is the ability to make the writing less about you and more about the subject. That’s one of the many reasons why I love Seth’s blog – the posts are hardly ever about Seth and his experiences. They are always about the idea.

I struggle with this and, in some ways, I’ve long given up on my writing abilities. These days, I’ve learnt to focus on the showing up and sharing bit. And, this is a long winded way of saying today’s post is another one of those that is centered around an anecdote. :-)

This afternoon, I went out for lunch with a friend – it was nice meeting him as we’d been in touch via blog and email for more than a year now as he consistently responded to my weekly “200 word project” notes every single week. It was great to meet him in “in real life.” Post lunch, we headed to a mall nearby as we both needed to get some shopping done. As I was getting done with my errands, I received a text from him. He was buying his first suit, was feeling totally lost and wondered if I might be able to help.

I knew exactly how he felt because I’d been in his position just a few years ago. I had moved to London and was about to fly out for an important client meeting in a few weeks. My manager suggested it was time to invest in a suit – I only had a blazer that wasn’t really a great fit.

This was the second important clothing recommendation he’d made. When I’d just moved to London, I had found my work attire inadequate by London standards. Big cities seem to be filled with folks with a lot of fashion sense and I needed to get with the program. So, he’d taken me to a T M Lewin store close to our work and suggested I buy their shirts. 4 shirts for a 100 pounds was a great deal for good quality shirts, he said. And, I listened. It was great advice. Now, it was time to listen to his advice again except for the fact that buying a suit can be an overwhelming experience if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Recognizing that, he did something incredibly nice – I used to often walk to the station with him on the day of the week I worked at the office (rest were at the client) and catch up. This time, he took me to the T M Lewin outlet that dealt with suits. In the 20 minutes that followed, he explained what I should look for, helped me get a sense of what colors would look good for the shirts I had, helped me narrow down on a grey suit and made sure I tried it on to see how it fit. It fit well, he said. And, I bought my first suit.

It was a small 20 minute odd errand from his side.. but it meant a lot to me. It was what I’d expect a parent to do.

So, when this friend reached out wondering if I might be able to help, I was glad to be able to pay a bit of the goodness I received forward. As he tested his suit out, I typed out a note to this manager and friend and thanked him for that lovely gesture. I also shared the story with this friend and asked him to pay it forward.

It isn’t always possible to help everyone who wants help, of course. I’m a big believer in making sure we’re selfish about taking care of ourselves first. This sounds like a contradiction, but, the more we feel taken care of, the more time we have to really give ourselves to others. And, when we put ourselves in a position to really be of help, every once in a while, we get an opportunity to help people with what might seem to just be a small investment of our time.

And, I’ve learnt to make those small investments as often as possible, because, as my manager demonstrated, a small thing for us can often be a big thing for someone else.

9 notes on competition

1. Our desire to compete is a manifestation of our insecurities. Our insecurities provide us the drive to succeed. Our drive is just an outlet for the competitive spirit that rises out of our insecurities.

2. There has been a lot written about the difference between healthy and unhealthy competition. The line between them is actually very fine and is flipped by a single switch – awareness. If we’re aware of our competitive instinct and the underlying insecurities, competition is likely to always be healthy. This is when we enjoy competing, enjoy winning and are good sports when we lose. However, the moment we lose that awareness, it becomes a race to the bottom.

3. The problem with unhealthy competition is that it is driven by looking outwards. We’re constantly measuring our success relative to that of others. This, in turn, results in a litany of negative emotions – envy, fear, and hate being the most dominant.

4. This is where companies that review performance  purely by pitting one individual over another mess up. While this is a legitimate method to measure performance, it is a sure shot method to curve long term improvement. The trouble with such review systems is that the atmosphere within the company becomes one of people jostling to become big frogs in the small pond. Destructive politics is the only outcome.

5. The right way to do performance reviews, in my opinion, would be a 1-100 sliding scale of how an individual has performed on various dimensions. One scale would be filled in by the individual (self assessment) and the other by the individual’s team members. This would make for an interesting study because the only basis for comparison would be the individual’s previous review and the level of discrepancy between the individual’s self assessment and that of the team’s. This would then need to be rolled up at a team level to then understand the effectiveness of the team – all the way to the top. The rationale here would be to raise self awareness (understanding where the discrepancies in perception lie) and to focus the competition on improving oneself (being better today vs. last year).

6. The best companies don’t set out to crush their competition. It is the wrong approach. They set out to be the best version of themselves and ship products/services that are simply too good to be ignored. In that process, they crush their competition. One is a process and the other is a by-product. Success is always a by-product of a good process.

7. There’s an interesting counter intuitive fact when it comes to competition. The best long term competitive strategy is to be intensely collaborative. When you focus your energies on being collaborative wherever possible, you rise above the competitive noise and focus on the work that needs to be done. In the process, you also build a stellar reputation for always leaving people and environments better than they were before you came. This is part of tough long and short term trade-offs that we must make. Sources of long term profits are often not friendly to short term earnings. But, they’re necessary if we plan to survive beyond the quarter..

8. The only way to re-focus our competitive energies from the long term is to choose to rise above our insecurities. This is easier said than done, of course. But, it is possible if we remind ourselves of the importance of the long term and stop reminding ourselves of our insecurities. This is also easier said than done. But, it is possible. And, that is what I’ll conclude with.

9. From my own experiments, there is only one way I know of to focus competitive energy from the short term to the long term. That is by only taking part in one kind of competition – the kind that competes with your own self. This kind of competition removes focus from everyone else and also kills all sorts of comparisons. Every time we’re in a new environment, it is tempting to compare our progress with that of our peers. There’s no good that can come from doing that. Every one has their own paths, goals and breaks. These aren’t apples-to-apples comparisons. We’re all typically working towards different ends. And, even if we are working towards the same ends, the results hardly ever matter. It is the process that counts.

All this brings me back to competing with ourselves. I believe that the only question we should be asking ourselves is – “am I better today than I was yesterday?”  If the answer is no, find out why. If it is because of your environment, change your environment. And, if it is because of you, understand what’s stopping you from learning.

That one question clearly brings a lot of good with it. However, it isn’t recommended because of that – I have come to realize that it is the only kind of competition that matters.

But, I didn’t know

Too often, when we didn’t take the course of action we should have, our reaction is ‘But, I didn’t know..’

This begs the question – would you have done it if you knew? And, if so, why don’t you eat healthy, sleep enough, meditate, and exercise every day? For all our love for data, there’s more evidence about the importance of these habits than ever before. And, yet, we’re not much healthier.

That’s because it isn’t ‘I didn’t know’ that matters but ‘I didn’t feel.’ It is emotion that changes behavior.

So, as we prepare our next presentation in our attempts to inspire change, let’s take out all those charts filled with data that exist to educate. Instead, let’s use the most important data to stir emotions. The presence of data in itself isn’t the boon we think it is. It is up to us to use the data we have to create a compelling story. The data is the supporting actor. And, we have access to a better supporting cast than ever before.

But, as it has been the case through history, it is the story that is the star.

The skills we need

We spend a large portion of our lives selling – selling our customers that they ought to buy from us, selling our organizations on our ideas, and, as parents, selling our kids to listen to us. Being a bad salesperson is counter productive to leading a good life. Selling involves influencing and moving people without any authority. Nearly every job in the knowledge economy requires that skill.

As investors and managers of our own wealth, we need to understand basic principles of finance and accounting. It is impossible to make smart investment decisions if you don’t understand how the economy, investments, interest rates and taxes work.

Most things we do either further or destroy our brand. In that sense, we are all marketers.

In most of our jobs today, we see more data than ever before. Being able to make sense of them requires us to channel our inner statisticians and engineers.

And, every memo we create, event we organize, meeting we run, and product we ship showcases (or not) our design skills. We are all designers, too.

So, to say that we only need mastery in a skill or two to lead a successful life is a flawed belief. Masters, by definition, are cross functional because mastery requires a certain cross functional awareness that most do not access simply because they don’t make the effort. We don’t all need to go to business school or engineering school to learn basic principles. Education helps a lot, sure. But, real learning involves much more than having a professor stand up in front of you – it involves thinking, synthesizing and applying what you learn. Very few manage to take those leaps.

We’re never going to be “learned.” Instead, we’re best served to consider ourselves life-long students and apply the child-like curiosity we had as kids every time we get on a new project. There is a lot to be learnt and there are many skills to be mastered. And, if you ever feel like learning new things is beyond you, just take a look at Ben Franklin’s profile on Wikipedia –

A renowned polymath, Franklin was a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat.

PS: Ascribing Franklin’s incredible list of achievements to genius is just lazy. Any credible biography of Franklin describes him as someone who combined hard work with smart application. There’s definitely inherent ability in genius. But, it takes thousands of hours of work to make that inherent ability count.

Soldiers and generals

There was a period in the past decade when it was cool to be what I describe as being a “soldier” at work – work at all odd hours, sacrifice sleep, chug coffee and take naps in the office. We are at war, always. Over time, this approach to work has gone out of vogue. There’s been a lot of research on the importance of sleep and the “work life” balance idea is trending.

The way I see it, there are 2 ways in which you can operate –
– The soldier way is the path I’m referring to above. In this mode, you are constantly at war. You can’t afford to rest because your cause would fall apart without you. Boundaries are a bad thing.
– The general way is where you deal with the reality of war very differently. You take control of your work, actively set boundaries and expectations and learn to work with others (often soldiers :-)) to do what needs to be done. Being a good general requires a degree of calm, mindfulness and focus.

Here’s the catch – the soldier’s way is the default path. You need to be very intentional to change your mode of operation. And, if it isn’t obvious as yet, you can operate like a general even if you are a soldier by rank and vice versa. This isn’t about titles. This is all about how you work.

So, why does this matter? I find it worth remembering that it is soldiers who die in battle. Generals don’t.

SonoSite resources – The 200 words project

Here’s this week’s 200 word idea thanks to How will you measure your life? By Clayton Christensen

Kevin Goodwin, the CEO of SonoSite, knew that Sonosite needed to sell their portable, but less sophisticated ‘iLook’ product over the more powerful and profitable ‘Titan’ before a competitor came in and disrupted them. But, SonoSite’s salesmen completely ignored promoting the iLook, even though it was a strategic priority for SonoSite.

Goodwin couldn’t understand what was happening and went along with a sales team member to understand if this was because of negative customer reactions. He realized immediately that the problem was that the sales team were not even showing iLook to the customer. Their commissions based on the total value of their sales and gross margin dollars. And, Titan was a more lucrative product.

Clay Christensen draws an analogy for life – “You can talk all you want about having a strategy for your life, understanding motivation, and balancing aspirations with unanticipated opportunities. But ultimately, this means nothing if you do not align those with where you actually expend your time, money, and energy. In other words, how you allocate your resources is where the rubber meets the road.”

SonoSite resources

Source and thanks to:

Watch where your resources flow. If they’re not supporting the strategy you’ve decided upon, then you’re not implementing that strategy at all. – Clayton Christensen

Listen to everyone…

… then, forge your own path.

And, when you do so, do so with conviction. Just because a certain approach worked for someone else doesn’t mean it will work with you. Very few people rarely know better. Those who do have just gotten to be good at guessing. And, they’ve gotten to be good at guessing by making many bad guesses.

So, things will definitely not work as per plan. But, it is better to be sure, wrong and open to change than to be perennially in doubt.

At any rate, you’ll become a better guesser..

Integrity in work

Everyone knows integrity should be in mission statements. Very few know why. Most know integrity is a trait that good people exhibit. Very few again know exactly what that means.

So, let’s break it down – integrity derives its roots from integer. Instead of referring to a “whole” number, we refer to people who are “whole” or consistent. People who are whole or consistent walk their talk. Or, in Stephen Covey’s words, they make and keep commitments. There is no other trait that characterizes good character as well as integrity.

Today, however, I’d like to focus on integrity at work. Every project we work on should have a one-line goal. This goal explains why we’re doing it and what our desired outcome is. If we’re working on five projects, each of them should have a one-line goal that makes sense. You can term it the mission statement of the project. But, since mission statement often requires explanation, let’s just term it a one-line goal. In a well-run company, all of these projects will further the company’s mission as well. So, if one of your projects is to invest in your development, that would further the company’s goals of retaining people. If a project doesn’t have a one-line goal, shelve it. It isn’t important.

Once you understand the one-line goals for each of your projects (and this often takes a bit of work and thought), priorities should emerge. It should become obvious as to which project will create maximum impact. Depending on the goals of your group, this could be a long-term bet or a shorter term move.

And, once you understand the one-line goals and the priority, you are now ready to do something very simple – attribute colors to your priorities on your calendar. So, if you spend an hour working on priority one, mark out an hour and color it red (for example). If you took a meeting on priority three, color it green, etc.

At the end of the week, sum up the number of hours you spent on each of your priorities. While you are at it, also sum up the number of hours you spent in meetings vs. doing solo work that made the meetings productive. Ideally, 2 things should emerge –
1. You have invested time in accordance to your priorities
2. You have spent at least as much time solo time on your most important priorities as you have spent in meetings

When you show up at work, you implicitly commit to furthering the company’s goals. You do this by committing to furthering your goals. Every minute spent on your most important goals is productive. Everything else is gravy. The more time spent productively, the more time you spend exhibiting integrity in your work.

And, integrity, both in work and life, is a sight to behold.

Not easy to measure

I’ve been using the excellent Headspace meditation app over the past 3 months. Unlike my last tryst with the app 2 years ago when I repeatedly fell asleep (!), I feel things are going much better on the whole. However, I found myself wondering this morning as to whether I was making any real progress. As I did that, I stopped myself.

There are many metrics that are easy to measure – money, promotions, number of friends on Facebook etc., number of gym memberships – and, for every one of these, there are metrics that are hard to measure – success, impact, depth of relationships, fitness. I am reminded of Clay Christensen’s anecdote about parenting. While it was easy for him to measure success in his career, he found it very hard to gauge if he was doing well as a parent. It is only after his kids turned 20 that he finally felt satisfied that he’d done a good enough job. Even if there are many apps that make it easy to quantify aspects of life that were not quantifiable before, many of these ideas will continue to be hard to measure.

My experiences have taught me that the actions with metrics that are hardest to measure are often the most worthwhile. These are the sorts of investments you make in yourself and others which, for the longest time, don’t seem to have any impact you can see or feel.

Until they do..