Quadrant II – invest to prevent fire fighting

One of the best frameworks from Stephen Covey’s excellent book – The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – is the urgency-importance matrix.

time-matrixSource: Tina O Brien’s blog

Covey’s thesis was that effective people spend a comparatively large chunk of their time in quadrant 2 – activities that aren’t urgent, but are important. Quadrant II activities are those that require us to invest in ourselves and the long term. For example, exercise and spending time with your loved ones are Quadrant II activities. If you don’t exercise and take care of yourself, it is very likely it’ll show up in Quadrant I as a health crisis. So, in many ways, a lot of Quadrant I activities are former Quadrant II activities that we didn’t work on.

This is an interesting idea – the more time we spend in “investment mode,” the less time we will likely have to spend in “fire fighting” mode. It also gets to the root of productivity. I define work done as a function of focus, intensity, and time. And, spending time on Quadrant II is focus done right.

This is the idea I was trying to get to when I discussed waking up in the morning and getting to the news/email versus meditation. As a dear friend wisely pointed out to me, the morning, for many of us, is the only real time of the day when we can take a step back and think about where we should direct our focus. As a result, it becomes the best time in the day to plan or perform Quadrant II activities.

It is important we use it well.

Meager resources and fluid plans

I played a fair bit of cricket and soccer growing up. As resources were not in abundance, we used the following as replacements for equipment.

Cricket bat replacement: Part of a coconut tree branch, scratch pad
Cricket ball replacement: Crushed paper ball (played with a scratch pad)
Soccer ball replacement: Tennis ball, Crushed coca cola can

The handle part of a coconut tree cricket bat (Source)

There were many other substitutes to other games too. Like these, none were close to perfect. But, as kids looking to play, it didn’t really matter. The most important thing was to just play. As kids, we readily accepted plan A was not likely to happen and moved very quickly to plans B, C, D and so on.

As I’ve grown up and gotten used to having more resources, I have found myself occasionally getting thrown off when plan A doesn’t work. This could be a reaction to small annoyances – a power cord that doesn’t work, a faulty presentation adapter, etc.

Remembering these childhood hacks from days with meager resources is a good reminder that I should respond better.

News frame-of-mind versus Meditation frame-of-mind

I’ve experimented with various arbitrary rules for my post-wake-up routine over the years. For a long time, I didn’t get to email or the news till I’d thought about my day and written my blog post. This made a lot of intuitive sense to me – use the early morning freshness to think and don’t just get into execution mode.

Over the past two weeks, due to a combination of the sheer volume of stuff going on and a lack of clarity in why I resisted opening up my email and news as soon as I woke up, I began doing exactly that. As this blog is just one giant experiment, I figured this would be an interesting one. So, after two straight weeks of checking email and the news as soon as I woke up, I went back to my preferred default habits this morning – wake up, meditate, organize my priorities for the day, blog and then get to email, news and all the good stuff.

The benefit of getting to email and the news first thing is the instant gratification associated with “getting things done” within minutes of waking up. However, I noticed it had a pretty large effect on ideas in the morning. For example, I struggled to write my blog post in the morning yesterday. But, this morning, there are at least three topics I feel really excited to write about. I can also just feel a huge difference in mental freshness.

I’ve found that there are two common states of the mind – ideas and execution. And, I’ve found that different stimuli and environments aide one or the other. For example, using a standing desk is a very effective way to get into the execution frame. Standing brings with it a certain amount of tension that gets us into execution mode. It is, however, bad for ideas. Most of us tend to be more creative when we’re in a relaxed frame of mind.

Similarly, reading the news and email first thing put me in the execution state of mind. This isn’t a bad thing. But, since most of us spend a large part of our day in execution mode (I certainly do), wasting early morning freshness and creativity is a pitiful waste of a limited and scarce resource. Additionally, I’m not all that certain that the net gain in productivity from getting things done first thing even exists. I have no reliable way of measuring this but my gut tells me that I execute better after giving myself the space to think. I’ve definitely observed that the principle of going slow to go fast generally holds true.

Lesson learnt… at least until the next time I feel compelled to experiment. :-)


Walking meetings

Instead of catching up over coffee, I’ve been insisting on walking meetings these past months. I’ve noticed 3 interesting things about walking meetings.

First, there is no chance of distraction. People rarely dig out the phone or check messages when you are out on a brisk walk.

Second, LinkedIn’s CEO Jeff Weiner had shared that he found walking meetings to result in more forthright discussion as he felt facing each other put more pressure on people. I think that’s right. I think there’s also less pressure to fill every minute with chatter – that’s important too.

Finally, I’ve found myself feeling regularly thankful for beautiful outdoors and fresh air. And, nothing like a bit of gratitude to remind me that life is good.

In control or out of control

As I think about the day today, there are many factors that are outside my control. There are deadlines I’m working on that were set by others, there are projects that depend on others, I don’t control the weather or the behavior of those I meet (they could be real surly, for example) and can’t ensure this week will be one without any mishaps.

On the other hand, there are so many little things that are actually in my control. I have control over a good proportion of my time and definitely have a fair bit of control over my energy. I can choose to make many micro decisions that would greatly improve the quality of my day and week.

So, are things largely in my control or out of my control? There’s enough data to argue this both ways. It all just depends on what I choose to focus on and the narrative I choose to believe.

The quality of our life is directly related to the stories we tell ourselves.

And, if that is the case, we might as well learn to tell ourselves stories that make our life better.


The expert trap – The 200 words project

What comes to mind when you see this image?

Expert Trap

When most people see this image, they see shock, danger, fear, and a gun pointed at a child.

However, when law enforcement officials were shown this picture in class, they immediately noticed that the official’s finger was not on the trigger. This, in turn, meant that, as per protocol, the child was not in any danger.

The law enforcement officials’ expert knowledge had resulted in a complete disconnect with a normal human reaction.

In a famous study, Stanford graduate student Elizabeth Newton studied a simple game where she asked people to tap a famous song (like “Happy birthday!”) and asked the listener to guess the song. The listener success rate was 2.5% (3 out of 120 songs). And, yet, when she asked the tappers the probability that listeners understood their song, they predicted 50% success on average.

These expert trap/”curse of knowledge” studies illustrate that it is clearly difficult to un-know what we know. They, therefore, point to an interesting idea for us as communicators –   a first step for when we communicate (difficult) ideas is to discipline ourselves to list what we assume/take for granted. We are, then, less likely to fall into the expert trap.

The problem is that once we know something—say, the melody of a song—we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. We have difficulty sharing it with others, because we can’t readily re-create their state of mind.

Source and thanks to: Prof Adam Waytz @ Kellogg, HBR

Paris reflections

I picked up an image from the mourning in Paris post the attacks on Charlie Hebdo last year.

In response to the horrible attacks yesterday, Joanne asked on her blog – How could people have so much anger at the world to kill innocent people? What happened that made people want to be a part of a terrorist group where their lives are so unhappy that becoming a human bomb and killing themselves doesn’t matter? Where do we go from here? How do we unite as a world to stop this? As parents how can we feel safe for our families?

There are definitely more questions than answers.

Barack Obama, in his own televised address, said the US stands ready to assist France, its oldest ally. “Those that think that they can terrorize the people of France or the values that they stand for are wrong,” Obama said.

But, as Quartz pointed out in their newsletter this morning, – “Except of course they are not wrong; their terror already has been committed. The question now is how the world responds.”

And, we need a response.

Amazon’s Udaan program – MBA Learnings

Just last week, we looked at why Amazon’s first physical bookstore in Seattle made sense.

Supply Chain Strategy

The central theme here is that different products are suited to different kinds of retail channels. As you might imagine, shipping individual cartons of milk or toilet paper isn’t cost effective as the delivery costs likely outstrip the cost of the good. Additionally, it is easy for stores to carry excess milk or toilet paper as these goods are cheap. However, when the good becomes niche and expensive (e.g. diamonds), delivery becomes cheaper and it then makes a ton of sense to centralize warehouses as carrying inventory in store is a very expensive proposition.

So, as retailers get larger, it becomes essential to adopt a “hybrid” or “omni-channel” approach to supplying goods to customers. It is the only way to stay competitive.

When we then consider an emerging market like India, retailers like Amazon are faced with additional problems. For example, Indian consumers don’t trust the online channel as much and regularly opt for “cash-on-delivery.” This has massive costs associated with it as it means all delivery personnel need to be equipped with and trained to deal with cash. Additionally, it is not very efficient.

So, our class discussion centered on what Amazon’s approach in India might look like – our Professor’s thesis was that the best way forward for Amazon would be to partner with the hundreds of thousands of local retailers as it would solve three important problems –
1. Tailoring. Low value products could be sold from the retailer and save Amazon delivery costs. In return, retailers could place orders for the more expensive, niche goods and better serve their customers.The best part is that this wouldn’t require customers to change their behavior – opening up Amazon retail stores, on the other hand, would require customers to stop visiting their local retailers.

2. Cash-on-delivery. Amazon delivery personnel need not worry about cash-on-delivery. They could enable cash-on-delivery for in-store pick up only.

3. Delivery. Finally, delivery personnel need not worry about not being able to deliver orders. If there are any issues, they could then deliver the goods at a retail store nearby.

And, right on cue, Time had an article about Amazon’s “Udaan” program – unveiling a large pilot of a retailer partnership program. Fascinating.

HT: Prof Chopra @ Kellogg

Self awareness – switch flip vs long march

A lot of the discussion around self awareness alludes to the idea of “becoming” self aware – as if you flip a switch or turn a corner one day and voilà! you have reached self awareness point.

My experience with self awareness is that it is just a really long march. You don’t become self aware one day. Instead, you become more self aware – ideally every day. And, over time, you learn what to do with that knowledge.

A big part of this process is gradually embracing your own quirks and developing your own library of tell-tale signals. For instance, I caught myself talking way more than usual (I generally speak up a fair bit – so you can imagine what this was like) at a group meeting. In my case, that’s a tell-tale sign that I was out of sync with myself. I was just reacting to discomfort.

Similarly, I realized another meeting was going nowhere recently as I just felt I’d hit a point of exhaustion. Instead of ploughing on, I decided to call it a day and work on it early next morning. I’d seen that movie many times and knew this would result in a better ending.

I think of all of this as a long drawn collection of experiments. You observe yourself, figure out the patterns, guess the causes, observe some more, try and attack the causes and, over time, understand why you behave the way you do in a particular situation. The beauty about this understanding is that, over time, you can bring most behaviors down to a few root causes (typically deep-rooted insecurities). And, once you understand those, you then figure out ways to work with the root causes and, hopefully, get to a more accepting, productive and happier place.

I can see why the switch flip idea sounds better/more easier. This is hard work. But, this is definitely one of the cases where the juice is worth the squeeze.

They have no idea

One of the interesting things when you design experiences for people is that your new users have no baseline understanding of the kinds of improvements you have made.

So, if you drastically revamped your website’s design and made it so much easier for users to navigate, it won’t really matter to a new user. To them, this is the base line expectation.

While you are sure to experience a bit of frustration and probably say to yourself – “They have no idea! If only they had experienced the old crappy model” – the reality is that such experiences are simply a lesson in how expectations work. The more better work you do, the more better work will be expected of you.

I think it all begins to feel negative if you expect plaudits at every step because they never quite arrive. Yes, you might have a small subset of grateful users who will thank you. But, their voices will likely be drowned out by noises of dissent and complaints about the (smaller) issues the new design has created. As Seth wrote yesterday, no matter what you do, failure of some kind is certain. Now that we have gotten that out of the way, let’s focus on the impact.

The take away for me – do great work simply because you want to do great work. The reward at the end of the journey is not universal love from everyone your experiences touches. The reward is that you became a better version of yourself in the process of doing great work.

And, I would argue there are few greater rewards than that.

Often we spend all our time thinking how we can change situations instead of simply letting them change us.