Doing and presenting

When doing the work, focus on the process.

When presenting the work, focus on outcomes and lessons learnt.

The former ensures we emerge from the experience with learning and peace of mind. And, the latter does the same for those being presented to.

Meeting size

Small meetings, if well run, are a great tool for efficiency – especially in the short term. They trade-off speed of decision making for inclusiveness.

Large meetings, if well run, are a great tool for effectiveness. While these may slow decision making, they often speed up execution in projects with lots of dependencies. Learning to run large meetings well is a valuable skill in larger organizations.

A lesson I repeatedly learn when thinking about meeting size is that the choice is binary. Either –
a) choose a small meeting, carefully control the size of the audience, don’t allow the meeting to be forwarded, and be comfortable about annoying a few people or
b) set the topic + agenda and don’t worry about the size of the meeting

A half-hearted attempt at control the size of the meeting nearly always backfires.

That’s because “medium” size meetings that involve some subset of a large group stakeholders and not others tend to be useless. They don’t end up achieving speed, inclusiveness, efficiency, or effectiveness sufficiently enough to make it worth anyone’s while.

Go small or go large. Either way, go all in.

Graduating during a downturn

There is a lot of good research on the impact of graduating during an economic downturn. The long and short of it is that your graduation year is a key input in your lifetime earnings and that the effects of graduating in a recession tend to persist.

By all accounts, COVID-19 is a ridiculously bad time to graduate. It isn’t just a bizarre year from the perspective of the job market. Graduates who have a job will face an unusual first year as part of the workforce. With organizations and the people generally unprepared and dealing with multiple stressors, they’re unlikely to get the training that they need on the job.

And, for those who don’t have a job, it is looking like it might be a long road back.

This is especially the case for the hundreds of thousands of students who made their way to other nations – predominantly the United States – to study. As one of those who made my way here a few years ago, I can only imagine the amount of stress today’s executive order would have caused.

This is not say that I am are above this stress. There are ripple effects of these orders that have immediate impact on the uncertainty we face. But, I have it a lot better by simple virtue of when I graduated..

These are moments when you realize how big a role dumb luck plays in any professional success we enjoy. It is so easy to attribute things that are going well to our smarts and hard work. But, there’s so much more to any success than that.

And, finally, every time I find myself in situations like this, I remind myself to stay focused on what I control and do my best to make the most of the opportunities that I have on my hands. And that this too shall pass.

It does.

In time.

The danger of single stories

James Clear’s website has a section where he’s shared transcripts from great speeches that we’ve likely never heard. I’ve been reading one speech every weekend over the past five and I’m grateful to him for the curation. Today, however, I found myself remembering the first one – The danger of single stories by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Here are 5 excerpts that resonated deeply –

Excerpt 1: I grew up on a university campus in eastern Nigeria. My mother says that I started reading at the age of two, although I think four is probably close to the truth. So I was an early reader, and what I read were British and American children’s books.

I was also an early writer, and when I began to write, at about the age of seven, stories in pencil with crayon illustrations that my poor mother was obligated to read, I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out.

Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to.

My characters also drank a lot of ginger beer, because the characters in the British books I read drank ginger beer. Never mind that I had no idea what ginger beer was. And for many years afterwards, I would have a desperate desire to taste ginger beer. But that is another story.

What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children. Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify.

Excerpt 2: Years later, I thought about this when I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.

What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.

I must say that before I went to the U.S., I didn’t consciously identify as African. But in the U.S., whenever Africa came up, people turned to me. Never mind that I knew nothing about places like Namibia.

But I did come to embrace this new identity, and in many ways I think of myself now as African. Although I still get quite irritable when Africa is referred to as a country, the most recent example being my otherwise wonderful flight from Lagos two days ago, in which there was an announcement on the Virgin flight about the charity work in “India, Africa and other countries.”

Excerpt 3: It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali.” It’s a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.

Excerpt 4: I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

Excerpt 5: Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.

The American writer Alice Walker wrote this about her Southern relatives who had moved to the North. She introduced them to a book about the Southern life that they had left behind. “They sat around, reading the book themselves, listening to me read the book, and a kind of paradise was regained.”

I would like to end with this thought: That when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.

Her insight applies just as beautifully to places as to people and groups.

There is never just a single story.

The hierarchy of customer service numbers

Pre-redirection Level 1: Automated voice with keypad options (press 1 for xx) that make it impossible to reach a representative and typically ends up in frustrating circular loops

Pre-redirection Level 2: “Smart” automated voice who cannot understand what you are saying and makes you fight to redirect to an “agent” or “representative”

Pre-redirection Level 3: “Smart” automated voice who cannot understand what you are saying but redirects your call as soon as you say the magic words – “agent” or “representative”

Pre-redirection Level 4: Automated voice who can understand what you are saying or, even better, with options that can be accessed via a keypad

<Assuming you’ve been redirected>

Post-redirection Level 1: No mention of wait time – “Our operators are busy and your calls are important to us”

Post-redirection Level 2: Clear wait time range – “An agent will be with you between 30 and 45 minutes”

Post-redirection Level 3: We can call you back! – “You will not lose your place in the queue.” But, the call doesn’t arrive or they call you and make you wait a few mins while they “redirect you to an agent.”

Post-redirection Level 4: We can call you back! – “You will not lose your place in the queue.” And it does.

God bless the genius who invented the call back option. Thank you!

Popular opinion over fact

One of the biggest societal challenges that emerges as a result of a world influenced by social media is the consistent triumph of popular opinion over facts or well researched ones.

The challenge for those who deal with facts, thoughtful opinions, or (gasp) research is that the only way to be heard now is to improve their ability to sound popular.

And, that is a skill set that is generally not correlated with their existing strengths.

Three elements of situational feedback

Most situational feedback we receive has three elements –

1. Our behavior in the situation

2. Past perception of our behavior that might have resurfaced in this situation

3. The intent and insecurities of the person giving the feedback

Situational feedback is the most helpful variant of feedback as the giver focuses on a concrete situation.

But, such feedback – as helpful as it usually is –  still has more to it than just your behavior in that situation. Past perceptions and the intent and insecurities of the giver all play roles to varying degrees.

And, understanding this helps us become better receivers and givers of situational feedback.