The 30 minute introductory conversation

There is no tool I’ve found to be more effective in 10x-ing the productivity of a working relationship than a 30 minute introductory conversation.

How it works: Before you need to collaborate with a colleague/partner on a project or request them for something, go for a coffee or walk outdoors with them. Then, spend that time getting to know them with your pick of questions. My favorites are – i) “Would love to get to know your story starting from when you were born…”, ii) “What is the dream?,” and iii) “What do you like doing when you have free time?”

(And, if they’re interested, share your story too :-))

As simple as this sounds, I’ve found that it is easy to forget to do this in the face of the many urgent things that need to get done.

And, yet, this knowledge leads to the the understanding and trust that enables us to collaborate effectively.

The nature of competition

Competition is a funny beast. We all engage with it at nearly every stage of our lives – as kids in school, as employees in the workplace, as companies in the market place, and so on.

There are lots of theories around what it really takes to be competitive. I think the challenge with competition comes down to one core idea – what helps you compete in the short run is not what’s going to help in the long run.

And, understanding this idea is precisely what innovators and creators get right. They abhor the idea of playing in the rat race. Instead, they focus on creating the next thing and starting with a blank slate. It doesn’t always work. But, when it does, it is pretty magical.

This has a couple of interesting implications in our own lives –
1. It is okay to compete for something in the short term. But, pouring all your energy and resources into a short term competition is counter productive. You might win the proverbial battle but will lose the war.

2. That said, if you can avoid short term competition, do it. The best way to compete in the long run is to actually not engage in any short term competition. And, you soon realize that the only worthwhile competitor in the really long run is yourself.

3. The beauty about competing with yourself is that you soon realize there is nothing to be gained by viewing people around you as competition. In fact, the only lens with which to look at people (or organizations) around you is whether they are potential partners/collaborators or not.

And, that brings us to the final idea – how do you effectively compete with yourself? By starting on a journey of continuous improvement. The only measure of progress that matters is that you’re solving different kinds of problems this year than you were last year. And, the only score that matters is whether you’re better today than you were yesterday.

Building teams that innovate – learning from history

I am reading “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks” Created the Digital Revolution.” I realized I didn’t know much about the early history of the digital age and have, so far, found it fascinating. I’m still only 25% into the book and am beginning to see a trend in how innovative teams that shaped the digital age were built.

1. Multi-disciplinary teams. Great technology breakthroughs were not made by a group of computer scientists working together. Instead, they involved groups of theoretical physicists, chemists and programmers who came together. This was the case in the creation of the early computers at University of Penn and in the case of the semiconductor at Bell Labs.

Bell Labs was a great example of a place that was simply bustling with innovative ideas. Its DNA was built on the fact that it kept exposing scientists to others with different expertise. Steve Jobs was so inspired by Bell Labs that he designed the Pixar headquarters (and, perhaps, Apple, too?) to mimic Bell Labs. At the Pixar headquarters, you are forced to bump into others from different parts of the organization at the large Atrium. It is, as Jobs described it, a place that “promoted promoted encounters and unplanned collaborations.”

2. An intersection of science and the arts. Ada Lovelace, John von Neumann, Steve Jobs were examples of people who brought together two seemingly unconnected disciplines. This is, in some ways, related to point 1 but still worth a separate call out. All 3 were credited with visionary thinking that shaped the digital age and, perhaps, it was only made possible by their position at that intersection.

3. Teams that combined individual genius and great team spirit. We like building tales of the individual inventor. But, great inventions were largely built by teams. What is distinctive about nearly every one of these teams is that they combined individual genius (often one or two within the group) and great team spirit from working really well together. Not all these times lasted long because of recurring issues around ego, but when they did, they worked fantastic.

This point is a great guide to anyone looking to build a great team. You want to encourage individual genius in your team and, at the same time, do your best to foster team spirit. It always feels safer to just bring people whose egos don’t clash. But, then, you lose edge. And, edge is often what make teams great.