To Get to the Point, you need to Know the Point

It sometimes feels like you need lots of words/pages/slides to look/sound credible, but great communicators go through the hard work of refining their idea/message/recommendation down to a crisp, easy-to-digest message.

“I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one” – Mark Twain

This concept is so valuable in so many ways — for example:

  • Getting to the root cause of an issue requires that you continue to ask “Why did this happen?” to get past the symptom/second-order effects, and get to the root (see 5 Why’s Technique)
  • In Product Management, it’s tempting to add many variations/options/different products, but it’s powerful when someone works on refining that down, like the classic story of Steve Jobs in 1997, created a simple grid with 4 product categories and shifted Apple to only make 1 product in each category, with a focus on excellence
  • When communicating with others, push yourself to try to get to the point faster — the US Military communicates very efficiently in this way, often using things like a Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) or Executive Summaries (not to be confused with Introductions) to rapidly communicate the point, instead
  • When launching a new IT project, don’t rush through exercises like a project charter or determining the business case/justification/problem (see Digital Services Playbook, Play #1) — invest time in peeling back the layers of really understanding what the real problem you’re solving is — it will be well worth it!
  • Amazon has a meeting culture where the meeting requester/leader crafts a 6 page memo with the recommendations/context, and everyone in the meeting silently reads the memo to start the meeting.  The quote below shows their approach and their expectation that a good 6-page memo should take a week or more to develop and refine into a high-quality product.

We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall.” Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely. Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion. Sometimes they come in at the other end of the spectrum.

In the handstand example, it’s pretty straightforward to recognize high standards. It wouldn’t be difficult to lay out in detail the requirements of a well-executed handstand, and then you’re either doing it or you’re not. The writing example is very different. The difference between a great memo and an average one is much squishier. It would be extremely hard to write down the detailed requirements that make up a great memo. Nevertheless, I find that much of the time, readers react to great memos very similarly. They know it when they see it. The standard is there, and it is real, even if it’s not easily describable.

Here’s what we’ve figured out. Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right. The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two. The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope – that a great memo probably should take a week or more.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon Shareholders Letter

You’re Not Good at Multitasking

In computer science, the concept of a computer’s processor switching from one system to another is referred to as context switching, where the computer switches from updating your gmail browser page over to your Microsoft Word application, etc.  Computers are very good at this, but people are horrible at this.

Everyone, myself included, thinks we’re great multi-taskers who are great at juggling lots of things at once, and we’re so much faster doing that than stopping to focus on one thing at a time.  While this sounds intuitive, it’s usually horribly wrong.  Not only are you slower overall when juggling lots of different things, you also can’t significantly advance the important/complex work — instead you’re often attracted to, and only make progress in, tactical/shallow work.

Cal Newport, a professor at Georgetown, has written a great book (Deep Work) on this concept of how important/valuable work happens when you ignore everything else, you don’t check Facebook every 6 minutes, and you instead really focus on the important, complex work that is valuable.  A similar book I’ve heard great things about is Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows.

There are techniques that can help in this vein, like the Pomodoro Technique, where you intensely focus on a single task for 25 minutes, take a 5 minute break, repeat that cycle 3 more times, and then take a half-hour break.

Another concept is to check your email only a few times a day (2-3 times), and intensely review/groom/action your inbox during these times, instead of checking in on it every few minutes, you’ll be much faster.

Paul’s Graham wrote a great essay, Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule, about the difference between the work schedule of makers (e.g. software developers, business analysts) and managers (leaders who are focused on making decisions through a series of reviews and meetings), which is related to this concept that if you’re a maker, you need to dedicate significant blocks of time to advancing important/complex things.

Not only is focusing on one things overall faster, it can also be a much more effective way to deliver value more frequently — instead of slowly advancing 10 big initiatives, if you finish 1 before moving to the first, it means that first thing got complete and delivered value faster, which is great (one of Agile’s great values is encouraging/forcing people/teams to actually prioritize their work and then force prioritized progress within timeboxes — check out Great Big Agile by Jeff Dalton for some great techniques for this within a team/organization context).

It’s hard to do in today’s frenetic, distracted world; but when you can carve out intensely focused time, you’ll accomplish important things much faster than you would trying to advance everything all at once.

(James Hance is an awesome artist, who does amazing mashups.  This one, The Meep is a great mashup of Edvard Munch’s 1910 The Scream and Beaker from the Muppets — you can buy a print of The Meep at https://www.jameshance.co.uk/collections/regular-prints/products/the-meep)

It’s Tempting, but DO NOT skip Planning and Premortem

So many leaders or teams quickly move too quickly (or skip entirely) the early parts of a new project/initiative, failing to invest real time in wrestling with questions like:

  • Should we do this project? (This question is skipped way too often — think about investing in exercises like a business case or a project charter to ensure everyone is clear on the value/ROI)
  • Who are all the stakeholders/users (not just the primary one(s)) who are affected or will be affected by this project? What do they really want/need?  What are their pain points?  What are their issues they don’t even know they have?  (Note: The whole field of User Experience (UX) and User Centered Design (UCD) has many, many tools and techniques to help navigate this area)
  • Do we really understand why we’re doing this project? (What is the business problem?  What value will the ‘business’ receive at the end of the project?
  • Do we understand the different ways we could break down the value we’re going to deliver, to understand the trade-offs in different ways to approach the project (e.g. could we deliver value earlier and get validation (reduce risk) by starting to focus on a specific Minimal Viable Product instead of running in the direction we think is ‘most efficient’ for the final product (which almost certainly isn’t the most efficient way, because there’s so much we don’t know at this point) (See The Startup Way by Eric Ries)

After we get through those phases, we should avoid the desire to jump into execution by taking a breath and asking ourselves:

  • Conduct a Premortem (see HBR Premortem article):  Get the team together and ask everyone to imagine this project has failed spectacularly — start writing down, independently, all the ways it failed, and then have the group discuss (Heard about this from Seth Godin)

Clayton Christensen, in his book How Will Your Measure Your Life? encourages people to ask a great question early on in a new project/initiative:

What assumptions must prove true for this plan to work?

New Top Career Book Recommendation

When I’ve chatted with people in the past about how to plan/manage their careers, I would often to refer to the book What Color is Your Parachute as my go-to recommendation, as it’s packed with great resources (a great friend of mine referred me to its Flower Exercise many years ago).  But recently I’ve been listening to Clayton Christensen’s (who recently passed away) How Will You Measure Your Life? (Harvard Business Review has an article about the book here), and it’s now going to be at the top of the list, along with What Color is Your Parachute as a recommendation for people to invest the time in reading.

Christensen is famous as an Harvard Business School profession who wrote extensively about disruption, and I’ve enjoyed his writings on that topic; but this book is a great read in a very different direction.  This book is focused on asking great questions about how to plan and run your life, with a focus on how to measure ‘success.’

He starts the book talking about how interesting it was to see at school reunions how different people’s lives evolves, and how they prioritizes their time and energy.

He shared some great concepts to be thinking about through your career like:

  • Deliberate vs. Emergent Strategies: The different between having a clear goal and working toward it vs. being open to new opportunities and seeing where they take you
  • Identify Assumptions: Before making a big decision, thinking about ‘What would have to be true for this to success?’, where you invest time in thinking about what assumptions/dependencies are inherent in this thing you’re considering (similar to investing time in a pre-mortem)
  • Resource Allocation: How will you invest your time and energy?  Be careful not to invest it only where short-term feedback/gains show up (such as work) and not invest where it takes a while to see feedback/gains (e.g. relationships with your spouse, children, friends)

I’m only 40% through the book, but it’s already so good I have to share it.

Moving up the Value Curve

A mentor, and family friend, of mine made a great point to me years ago. He explained that people are valued (e.g. job security) and compensated based on the value that they offer their organization (that part should be obvious), and a common way to increase the value you deliver is to manage/oversee increasingly important parts of the organization.

He explained that people often start their careers managing things (e.g. technology, machines, clothes on a retail floor). To become more valuable to your employer, you should look to manage people (e.g. overseeing, supervising, leading), and then manage money (e.g. budgets, purchase/investment decisions, a profit & loss center).

If you want to increase your value, you want to be moving toward a role where you’re leading/influencing a large number of people (every organization is different — maybe that’s a Product Manager in your organization, or a second-line supervisor) and/or overseeing a large budget/revenue area, such as a P&L Owner (Operations Division Director), etc.

Update: An interesting point a colleague recently mentioned to me, after seeing this post, was thinking about how innovation/disruption fits into this.  People who make improvements into process and/or innovation (e.g. improving how an organization delivers service, or improving an internal process to increase efficiency) is another way you can increase the amount of value you create, which is a great point!

Simple Meeting Best Practices

Many people have written great blog posts (see Seth Godin’s blog) and books (see Michael Hyatt’s No Fail Meetings) on the topic of planning and running meetings well.

Here’s a few tips on things you, as a meeting leader, should ensure:

  • Before the Meeting
    • There’s a clear owner of the meeting who will prepare for, present information, and “own” the meeting
    • The time allocated to the meeting is appropriate to what is needed, not just a time slot that fits in the calendar
    • There’s no better way to move this forward than to have this meeting. (Ensure a meeting is necessary before scheduling it, as it’s a very ‘expensive’ investment of time
    • If you organize and schedule a meeting, always include a specific, detailed purpose and agenda in the meeting invite
    • Avoid coming “empty handed” to a meeting if you’re the organizer – come organized with a draft approach, presentation, documents, etc. to accelerate the meeting and use people’s time more efficiently
    • Ensure you’re prepared, so you’re not spending the first 5 minutes of the meeting pulling up the right documents while everyone watches
    • When sending out a meeting invite, include links (instead of document attachments) when sharing documents to make version control easier AND know that based on calendar sharing, actual attachments can be seen by anyone who can see your calendar – make sure you don’t attach docs that are sensitive in nature
    • Clearly communicate who will be taking notes, if anyone, and how actions will be captured and/or tracked after the meeting
  • Starting the Meeting
    • Review attendance to ensure the right people are there
    • Clearly state the purpose of the meeting
    • Clearly state the desired outcome using simple language like “This is what I want to happen from this meeting: ___”
    • Clarify the type of meeting:  Is this to review a draft approach? Is this to gain someone’s approval? Is this to work on an approach that isn’t created?  Something else? (see https://seths.blog/2009/03/three-kinds-of-meetings/)
    • Present the agenda clearly and get feedback from group on recommended revisions
  • After the Meeting
    • Follow up with quickly with pictures of whiteboards, action items, etc.
    • Ensure every action item has a single owner/assignee (group assignments aren’t clear re: ownership)
    • Consider tracking the actions in a system to track them to closure (e.g. Atlassian Jira) to ensure they’re not “lost” among competing priorities

What Great Leaders Look Like according to Bill Campbell

Trillion Dollar Coach is a great read (or listen if you’re an audiobook fan like me) about Bill Campbell, a football coach who pivoted mid-career into a business executive in Silicon Valley, as an executive at Apple, a CEO of Intuit, and an executive coach to Steve Jobs and other high profile leaders.  The book talks about some the qualities he looked for in leaders, which I found very useful to consider as I think about how what I look for when I’m interviewing or considering someone for creased responsibility:

  • Smarts:  Ability to learn quickly and apply new concepts in novel ways
  • Hearts:  Ability to empathize with and understand others
  • Grit:  Ability and willingness to work hard
  • Curiosity:  Desire and openness to continually learn (Avoid people who “have it all figured out” — instead you want people who always have more questions)
  • Winning Right:  A desire to win the right way, with a team-first attitude and integrity, all the time not just when it’s easy
  • Humility:  Pay attention when people celebrate other teams or leaders succeeding, not just themselves
  • Sacrifice:  Pay attention when people are willing to sacrifice something for the organization, another team, or a customer

 

Effective Leaders see the Bigger Picture

It’s easy for leaders, especially ones early in their careers as leaders, to struggle to see the bigger picture (instead being focused on managing/coordinating/triaging the day-to-day operations of a team/department/division (losing the forest for the trees).

When that happens, inexperienced leaders may respond to big capacity/schedule/velocity issues by just trying harder without stepping back to evaluate if their targets are attainable based on current resources and approach.

I’ve seen leaders drive their team harder and harder, working nights and weekends without realizing that even with that surge in effort, they’ll still miss the deadline/target by a huge margin without going to senior leaders and asking for help.

When you realize you’re in over your head, go to your senior leaders, mentors, or peers ASAP — it’s only going to get worse.  Maybe you need additional people (even if that hurts profitability in order to meet a commitment) or maybe it’s a technology investment to allow efficiency gains through automation.  Or maybe you need to consider changing the target/finish line.  Or something else.  But don’t assume you’ll figure it out later.

It’s important as a leader to make time (especially when it doesn’t feel like you have any time for planning/reflection/zooming out) to step out of the tactical view and assess how you’re doing against the bigger picture goals/priorities/milestones (see Drucker’s What Makes an Effective Executive).

And when the issue isn’t the team’s overall velocity, but your personal, individual busy-ness, it’s critical to realize that unless this is some unique, temporary burst of work, things likely won’t get any better by you just trying harder — you probably need to invest the time you feel you don’t have, to ask for more help, or better publish/share the knowledge about the work/procedures you do, or invest in training the people you have.

Don’t think you can dig out of a hole of crazy-chaotic-busy-ness, by doing the same thing you’ve been doing only faster — it probably won’t work (and you’re only making it harder for yourself to dig out later)

A Tip on those Hard Conversations

If you’re a leader, being able to effectively lead the tough, important, critical, crucial, game-changing conversations is a huge piece of being able to succeed.  It’s certainly worth reading great resources in this area like Patterson’s Crucial Conversations.

When you need to have a tough conversation with someone based on poor performance, you should first reflect on what you’re trying to accomplish and if you think that person can succeed in your organization (either in the current role or another role) — your discussion should reflect if you’re trying to coach someone who can succeed, or if you need to have a tough conversation with someone who needs to either be in another role, or who should consider another organization.  Think about which of these categories might best describe them (and be careful not to only use qualitative feelings to assess this — make sure you’ve clearly communicated goals and expectations and then measured them against those):

  1. Moderate/high-potential performer who needs coaching/mentoring to succeed in this role
  2. Moderate/high-potential performer who could succeed in other roles in this organization, but isn’t a good fit for the role he or she is currently in
  3. Someone you’re not sure about their interest/capability/aptitude to success within this role or other roles in the organization, and you need to quickly find ways to assess that
  4. Someone who isn’t a good fit for your organization and you probably need to have that tough conversation on if them moving on if the right move for you and them

When someone is on the wrong role, or in the wrong organization, it’s an exhausting and horrible experience for them, you as their leader, and everyone around them.9 box chart

A more nuanced way to think about this is to assess your people in the classic 9 Box Model to see if they need help moving up their performance axis, based on the potential; or if they’re in the wrong position, team, or organization.  The idea is that people get measured on the x-axis of current performance and the y-axis of potential (see below).

 

Replace recurring chaos with a RAM

Most teams have a lot of recurring tasks they have to keep track of, such as an HR team doing annual benefits ‘open enrollment’, or an IT Service Desk team reviewing weekly automated backup status messages, or an Accounting team doing their monthly book close, or that annual data audit people always forget to do.

Many teams remember those types of tasks in the heads of different people on the team. Some have recurring Outlook/G Suite calendar reminders.  Some have sticky notes.  Or smartphone alarms.  But all those approaches are prone to lots of issues (e.g. someone is sick on a key day, or someone leaves the organization and doesn’t transfer that knowledge well to new team members).

I’ve seen a lot of value in creating a centralized Recurring Activity Matrix (RAM), which can be a simple table in a wiki tool (e.g. Microsoft SharePoint, Atlassian Confluence) where a team can see what recurring activities exist, their frequency, and what procedure/checklist goes with that task.

I’ve found a great, simple, cheap approach is to publish that table and then create an automated, email reminder for each row using SendRecurring, which is a free or cheap service (depending on how many tasks you juggle) to send emails as a reminder, ideally to a system to ingest and publish them to the group, such as Atlassian Jira Service Desk (JSD).

Just creating this simple knowledge management tool and incrementally refining it, each time you identify something the group should know about it, is a great way to improve the operational resilience of a group, and drive people to identify the work they do (and ideally create procedures/checklists/processes to define them).

A RAM table could have columns like this:

  • Owning Team (if your organization has more than 1 team in it)
  • Task Name
  • Associated Task Procedure/Checklist (e.g. maybe a link to a wiki-based checklist or a formal process asset that defines the procedure)
  • Frequency (e.g. Weekly)
  • Trigger Day/Time (e.g. 28th of each month at 11am EST)

(I’ve written about this before, but I think it warrants another post because it can be so valuable for teams to do)