Quis custodiet ipsos custodes

One of my favorite cartoons growing up (and, to this day) was/is “Justice League.” There’s a nice scene in one of the episodes when the founding members decide to disband the Justice League after a bad mishap. Superman makes the case for disbanding it on their behalf.

As they begin to walk away, Green Arrow – one of the vocal minor characters – makes an impassioned speech asking them to reconsider. They do.

Right after, in what remains a memorable scene, Batman walks over to Green Arrow and says – Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

To this, Green Arrow responds – “Who guards the guardians? We got this covered.”

If you’ve always had people you’ve turned to for help, advice or simply to vent and complain, it is worth remembering that being a guardian comes at a cost. Being in a position of leadership of any kind is an inherently lonely place. The more you do and the more you care, the more lonely it likely is. So, every once in a while, check in on your “guardians” and see if you can take care of them. It’ll mean more to them than they can express.

And, if you find yourself playing guardian regularly, make sure you find your Green Arrow(s). :-)

Hiring for expertise vs. hiring for attitude

I don’t think the answer is one or the other.

I think the answer lies within the spectrum and depends on the kind of task you’re hiring someone for.

If you want the world’s expect on a certain kind of brain surgery, there are just a handful of those folk out there. And, if all of them have a bad attitude, there’s not much you can do beyond not offering brain surgery as an option in your hospital. Expertise matters.

That said, there are many many jobs that don’t require much expertise. They can be done by anyone above a basic threshold of capability. And, yet, we see job descriptions that list a long laundry list of basic/preferred qualifications. I would imagine they would be better served if they just said – “Need someone with some grit and a very positive attitude.”

I have found myself kicking myself every time I’ve looked for expertise. I’ve almost never been disappointed when I’ve just looked for attitude.

Maybe the way to think about it is – if you really really need expertise, go for it. If not, once folks are above a basic expertise level, default to hiring for attitude.

It just works better that way.

Micro decision tests and when will I learn?

I have written about how critical sleep is to my performance more times here than I count. And, yet, even though I went to bed much later than usual yesterday, I thought it’d be a good idea to sleep less than 6 hours so I could wake up in the morning and get stuff done. Luckily, every part of my body disagreed when I heard the alarm go off this morning. I ended up getting that extra hour and few minutes of extra sleep and, thanks to that, I know I will get a lot more done this morning than I would have if I was sleep deprived.

I took away 3 things from this micro decision moment –

1. Thanks to paying close attention to my ability to focus, I’ve become increasingly sensitive to this. This is because I find myself repeatedly asking the question – “Am I actually going to be effective doing xx now or should I be doing something else?” So, if I feel I’m not getting enough sleep, I go straight back to bed – no questions asked. Feeling focused and alert improves my productivity by a factor of 2-3x depending on the kind of work (more thinking = higher efficiency). So, I can generally replace 3 hours of sleep deprived attempts at work with 1-1.5 hours of focused work. That’s very useful to know.

2. Despite having known (and seemingly internalized) this, I am still susceptible to bad micro decisions. I could hear a voice screaming “bad idea” as I contemplated sleeping less last night. That said, if I had chosen not to listen to myself this morning, I would have found myself sleep deprived, annoyed and unproductive. The difference? Our willpower reserves get recharged after we get rest. And, no willpower = bad decisions.

3. The question that crossed my mind this morning is – this was a minor close call – when will I actually learn this and make better micro-decisions by default? While I don’t know the answer, it does remind me that applying what seems like an incredibly simple concept is really hard.

In graduate school, we often study what companies and people did in the past and find ourselves wondering – how the hell did they make a mistake as dumb as that?

But, as my experiences have taught me, consistently doing simple things right is among the hardest things in the world.

Investment returns

High investment returns come from believing things others don’t believe in.

While it is tempting to believe that only financial investors and venture capitals should care, in reality, we are all investors. We all invest in people and ideas every single day. And, the bets that result in massive return (financial or otherwise) are those where we saw potential quicker than most other people.

So, it is worth asking ourselves – how do we see the world?

If all we see are what “common knowledge” dictates, it is unlikely we’ll experience anything uncommon.

Rethinking feedback (1/4) : Why most personal feedback is useless

Every age has had a collection of flawed beliefs that have driven behavior that made little sense in retrospect. In the early 1900s, thanks to the psychologists of the day, kids in England were separated from parents and sent to boarding schools at an early age. And, until a decade ago, we had a couple of decades where the press and flawed research would have us believe that boosting self esteem was more important than anything else.

An item on the current list of head-fakes, in my opinion, is giving and receiving feedback. Managers are asked to take it seriously, leadership coaches are studying it and business schools are talking about it.

Before I explain why, I’d like to highlight a quick terminology quirk. I refer to professional feedback as feedback around hard skills – e.g. creating better PowerPoint, doing better analysis, giving better presentations, etc. And, personal feedback refers to everything else. This deals with all the hard, personal stuff – “you come across as too mellow” or “you’re going to have to learn to tone it down.” The lines between these can often be blurred. But, it is important we start with these definitions and work our way through the problem.

There are 3 reasons for most feedback being useless –

1. Most feedback just attacks the flip side of a strength. Telling a warm person they are often too warm or telling an analytical data geek that they need to be less analytical isn’t very helpful. Yet, this is pretty much the default state of most feedback conversations. This happens simply because these “issues” are easiest to observe. Learning to work with (and not over do) our strengths is a skill we all develop through our lifetimes. Presenting just the flip side of these regularly does more harm than good.

2. Most feedback tells more about the giver than the receiver. If I am a loud and talkative person (I am :-)), the chances that I’ll give you feedback for being the same are near zero. In any case, it would take a huge lack of self awareness for me to do so. However, if someone I find annoying exhibits a trait similar to one you exhibit, you will definitely hear about it.

3. Context matters a lot. Our behaviors often change with context. And, as a giver of feedback, it is hard to really understand if we’ve gotten context right. Is this how the person always behaves? Would it change with different circumstances? As any person who works with data knows, it is dangerous to read too much into small sample sizes.

And, if all this wasn’t bad enough, just take a moment to consider the impact. As we know from experience, people remember one negative comment over twenty positive ones. So, even if you did have something incredibly insightful thing to say but, somehow, phrased it wrong – you can be sure that it is all the other person would remember.

Feedback done well assumes a very high level of wisdom, self awareness, tact and perspective on the part of both the giver and receiver.

I’m not sure I would put money on those odds.

So, what do we do about it? Coming up in parts 2, 3, 4. The key words are self-awareness, experimentation, and trust.

Slash and Burn your calendar – The 200 words project

We’ve heard numerous complaints about “too many meetings.” Meetings, like a snowball rolling down a mountain, develop ever greater inertia, roll down a path of their own – different from their initial purpose – and ensnare increasing numbers of people as a business grows.

To counter this effect, James Reinhart and the team at ThredUp, a clothing marketplace metamorphosing through hyper-growth, slashed and burned their calendars by deleting every standing and recurring meeting in their agendas. During the next few days, the team questioned what meetings should exist, who ought to attend them, and what their agendas and goals should be. In addition, the team pushed to cut meeting times in half from 50 to 25 minutes.

The impact to the company has been dramatic – fewer, shorter, more productive meetings. And, if a 100 person startup eliminates one 1 hour standing meeting each week from every employee’s calendar, they will have unlocked more than an extra man-year of work to allocate – a new “free” employee.

Slashing and burning calendars periodically challenges a company to allocate its most scarce resource, employees’ time, more effectively. By torching all the scheduling chaff that accumulates over time, companies can start fresh and cultivate a schedule to maximize company and employee performance (and happiness). – Tom Tunguz

Source and thanks to: VC Tom Tunguz’s blog

5 stars

Seth Godin had a wonderful post on his excellent blog this week.

The two-review technique

As you work on your project (your presentation, your plan, your speech, your recipe, your…) imagine that it’s the sort of thing that could be reviewed on Amazon.

Now, write (actually write down) two different reviews:

First, a 5 star review, a review by someone who gets it, who is moved, who is eager to applaud your guts and vision.

And then, a 1 star review, an angry screed, not from the usual flyby troll, but from someone who actually experienced your work and hated it.

Okay, you’ve got two reviews, here’s the question:

Are you working to make it more likely that the 5 star reviews are more intense, more numerous and more truthful than ever, or…

Are you working to minimize the number of 1 star reviews?

Very hard to obsess about both, since they tend to happen together.

The thing is, if you work to minimize criticism, you have surrendered the beauty and greatness of what you’ve set out to build.

I shared this post with a group of friends who I’ve been working with over the past months. We’ve had many a discussion about this and Seth put it beautifully.

There were two learnings that jumped out to me as I read it  –
1. A big part of aiming to do 5 star work is accepting that there will be those who will give you 1 star. It isn’t an easy thing to do accept by any means and requires you to be able to give yourself entirely to your art… and then completely let go.

2. And, perhaps, more interestingly, I think a big part of being a 5 star person by your own values/measures of success requires you to accept that there will be 1 star reviewers. So, we ought to consider spending less time rounding ourselves out to reduce the 1 star reviews. Perfection isn’t the point. Being human and authentic is.

Thanks as always, Seth.

Giving thought to your to do list

While it might be tempting to treat your to do list like a dump throw all tasks down its throat (it is just a list, after all), I think it is important to give your to do list a fair bit of attention.

Here’s why –
1. The way you structure and maintain your list has a direct impact on how much you get done.
2. Wording matters a lot – specific to do items always see more action.
3. If your to do list is messy, you have lost your way. After all, didn’t we make a list so we could get things organized?
4. Batching small tasks can go a long way in helping you get blocks of time to do meaningful work.
5. We always have surprises and unexpected interruptions. The biggest benefit of organization is that we can now embrace these interruptions without worrying about whether we’ve got the rest of our life under control.

There’s a lot of psychology around getting things done and there’s good reason many books have been written around the topic. As small and trivial as it is, we spend most of our lives taking directions from a to do list that we create (either in our minds or written/typed somewhere). Let’s make sure we give it the attention it deserves and build lists that work for us.

How work gets done

I was reminded of my preparation in the months leading into my high school final exams this morning. I was keen to do my undergraduate studies in the National University of Singapore and the criteria for admission was a good score on these exams. With exams coming up in March, the key preparation months were between September and December. So, in those months, I went to bed around 630pm in the evening and woke up by 230am. This way, I got a good 3-4 hours of uninterrupted time every week day. It was a very consistent routine. I used to microwave some food, grab a quick meal and get to work. During this time, I played the exact same collection of songs on CD (we had just moved from cassettes to CDs) – so much so that I can still remember the rough order of those songs 10 years later.

Those months of effort definitely paid off. While they helped ensure I did do my undergraduate studies where I wanted (which, in turn, created a significant ripple effect), their long run effects, however, were that they taught me how work gets done.

I needed to get a chunk of work this morning before my classes started. And, as I needed uninterrupted time, I went to bed at 8 and woke up at 3 to get to work. Learning from that experience, I had my email and messengers switched off and, just for old times’ sake, played songs from my list from 10 years ago.

I’ve rinsed and repeated this process many many times over the years. And, this is a big reason why I do my best to wake up at 5am on most weekdays.

Growing up, I heard, and believed, various kinds of myths about top performance. I heard about people who could ace their exams without effort and solve problems in their sleep. Over time, I’ve learnt to consign those myths to the rubbish bin. The top performers I know combine focus, intensity and hard work incredibly well. If, over time, they need to work less to get a particular kind of task done, it is because they’ve worked so hard on it previously that they just know smarter ways to get it done in less time. We’ve all experienced that type of mastery.

It was in those preparation months that I learnt how to combine intensity and hard work. Focus (and, here, I refer to focus as a verb) took a lot longer to understand because I initially thought of intensity as the only kind of focus. However, the focus I’m referring to is that dynamic process that constantly evaluates what you should be focusing your intensity on.

The beauty about these three factors – focus (deciding what to focus on), intensity (focusing on it) and hard work (putting in the time) – is they are all learned. All we need to do is to learn how to work them in tandem and work hard to keep honing them over the course of our life.

The result is magic.