Growing responsibilities and scope

The default approach to growing responsibilities in organizations is often focused on two dimensions – i) breadth – i.e. broaden scope and ii) layers – i.e. add layers and build a team.

What is fascinating is that consistent personal and professional growth in the long run tends to skew in another dimension – our ability to go narrow and deep. Doing so means asking difficult questions, pushing boundaries, and demanding excellence (even when it is unpopular) over a sustained period of time.

When we demonstrate the ability to dig deep into narrow areas over a sustained period, we provide great leverage to the organization. As a result, we are trusted to broaden our aperture and hire others to provide more leverage.

The other benefit of this approach is that expansion of this sort tends to be organic and, by definition, healthy for the organization we are in. But, as it is built on trust, it doesn’t show instant results.

Instead, like most good things in life, this trust builds and compounds over time. Slowly at first. Then quickly.

Satya Nadella and bad days

I was recently reminded of a line about bad days from an interview with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

He was talking about what changed when he became CEO and he said (paraphrased) – “One of the things I realized is that I can never have a bad day.” He went on to explain that the ripple effects of his bad day were too large for it to ever be an option.

It is a simple and powerful idea – one that is applicable well beyond work and the teams that we run.

We don’t control what happens to us. But, we do have options on how we respond…

Mistakes, chatter, and showing up

The more time we spend trying to build new things or get work that matters done, the more mistakes we are inevitable going to make.

I’ve come to realize that the key is to not let the chatter (both external and internal) about the mistakes and the stuff that is broken to get in the way of showing up every day with enthusiasm.

Every day, we get the opportunity to solve puzzles that involve continually prioritizing between fixing what’s broken, plugging short term gaps, and investing in the long term. We get to do this in our products, in our communities, in our families, and within ourselves.

We (and what we build) are always going to be work in progress. Once we accept that, it follows that the best thing we can do is to make the most of that opportunity and continue to earn it every day.

In the long run, it turns out that becoming is far more important than being.

Strategy and trade-offs

Good strategy involves making explicit choices that are backed by a clear articulation of the trade-offs that accompany those choices.

Articulating strategy well isn’t about listing everything required to be done to win. That part comes easy.

The challenge with crafting good strategy lies in picking the path to winning with the limited resources (and they are always limited) at hand. More often than not, that path involves investing heavily in your own strengths while doing just enough so the weaknesses don’t get in your way.

There are obvious trade-offs with that (or any) approach. But, again, if there aren’t clear trade-offs, it isn’t strategy.

Change and resistance

We cannot effect the change that we seek to make without fighting the inertia that accompanies attempts to break unhelpful habits and destroy existing patterns.

The inertia is universal – it applies just as well to changing how often we exercise to reinventing how our teams do work.

So, if you are trying to effect change and are sensing resistance, that’s just a sign that you are on the right track.

Instant perspective

A simple approach to gaining instant perspective is to ask ourselves – “Will this matter in 10 years?”

The question’s power lies in its ability to instantly expose what is trivial – usually matters that touch our ego and insecurities.

It thus enables us to focus on what actually matters – usually matters that involve love and relationships.

Bend vs. squat

A good friend went to a physiotherapist recently to get started on treating his back. The physiotherapist demonstrated a collection of small things he’d need to change to give his back relief. The principle underlying these changes was either to lean forward or to squat instead of choosing to bend.

His experience immediately resonated as I’d shared this in a post recently about the right way to lift weight (or a kid depending on what you do more often :-)).

When faced with picking something up from the ground, our backs readily offer to help shortcut the effort it takes to squat. But, every time we do so, we strain those muscles and, in the process, lose the leverage that comes from the stronger muscles in our legs.

The more we avoid taking this shortcut, the stronger and healthier our backs and legs will be.

There’s a life lesson in there somewhere too.

Two ways we shape culture

Every person, team, and organization has a culture – a set of norms that governs how decisions are made. Since the quality of our execution is a by-product of our decisions, our culture becomes our strategy in the long run. “This is how we do things here” becomes “this is what people like us do.”

There are two ways we shape the culture of our own self, of our teams, and organizations every day –

1. People: The people we decide to hire, fire, or promote (whether via titles or via praise) are the single biggest lever we have to shape culture. While this appears to apply only to organizations and teams, the same holds true in our life. The people we choose to spend time with and, more importantly, the people we choose not to spend time with shape our personal culture.

2. Systems/Processes: The systems/processes we create do two things at once. First, they guide and incentivize certain kinds of behavior. And, second, when done well, they provide transparency into how decisions are made. A great resource planning process, for example, clearly lays out the decision criteria. In our personal life, habits are examples of the systems we create to guide behavior and help us make better decisions consistently.

I’ve spoken to many folks who ask questions about the cultures of the teams they’re considering joining. While this is a very important question, I think it is also important to remember that cultures aren’t set in stone. Instead, like wet clay, they can be shaped.

And, as we make daily decisions (whether consciously or unconsciously) on people and processes, we play our part in shaping it everyday.

Learning one line

There’s an old Indian story about a child who once told his teacher that he only learned one line during the few days the teacher was away. As all of his classmates claimed to have studied multiple chapters in this time, the teacher was upset about the child’s progress.

As he pressed the child further on this lack of progress, the child calmly explained that he’d put in maximum effort. As the conversation progressed, the teacher became increasingly infuriated, insulted the child’s intelligence, and slapped him.

The child stayed calm throughout this fit of anger.

Surprised at the child’s reaction, the teacher finally asked him what was the line he’d learnt.

“Don’t get angry.” – came the response.

On occasions when I think of this story, I’m reminded of the power of doing few things well.

And, of the fact that to learn and not to do is not to learn.