Raising the tone

Lowering the tone is easy, often funny, and sometimes desirable: lofty conversations gain traction (or evaporate) when touched to earth. Laughter liberates.

It’s much harder to raise the tone, and harder still to do it with humour and grace… but it’s almost always desirable. It’s a way to lead.

I propose that we aim for a 2-to-1 ratio of raising the tone to lowering it. And that we hold some fart jokes in reserve in case things get too serious.

Bits for atoms

We’re repainting our house – this is one of the colours about to be mixed at our local hardware shop.

A small snippet of the colour catalogue looks like this:

Say you needed to have five tins of each colour you sold in stock – how big a shop would you have to have to stock them all? How much money would you have to have tied up in stocking colours that you rarely sold?

Here’s the wonder of the mixing station – it replaces thousands of tins of paint with a few base shades of paint, a computer, a mixing-machine and some well organised information. The result is that the selection of paint that you used to have to go to specialist paint shop for – a paint warehouse – is available at my local hardware shop, and is only a small part of what they stock.

Information (bits) for atoms.

Homework:

Which physical parts of what you do could be replaced by bits? What would this save? What new things would this enable you to do? What would this cost – you, your team, your clients?

Conflicting values

If you keep butting up against the same problem with a colleague – a problem you think you’ve fixed, but that comes up repeatedly in slightly different variations – it could be a sign of conflicting values.

Values conflicts often seem to arise over:

  • Money (fees, salaries and expenses)
  • Time (working hours, punctuality)
  • Effort and focus (work ethic, productivity, accountability)
  • How we treat people (respect, courtesy)

If it is a values conflict (and it’s worth double checking that it’s not a case of your own poor management), you can be pretty sure that it’s going to keep on appearing until you do some deep work to address it.

These conflicts are tricky to handle because they’re often both emotion-laden and subjective. That is, we’re all pretty sure we’re right, and we’re indignant about being wronged – and our feelings of indignation double when realise how the other side of the argument perceives the things we say and do.

Some questions for working on values conflicts:

  • What’s the history here? How has this problem shown up in the past, and what seems to be the root cause?
  • What shortcoming of yours might they think is the root cause?
  • How is everyone feeling about the issue? How will that affect the way they communicate?
  • Assume for a moment that they have the same values as you do on this. What might make them act this way?
  • What information are you missing (or failing to recognise the importance of) that would help you make better decisions here?
  • What information do they have that might help you?
  • What factors are you assigning importance to that they don’t know about or don’t recognise, and how can you close those gaps?
  • Get advice – think particularly about people who might be able to fill in the missing information, or give perspective on how each party feels and why – and point out to you when you’re being unreasonable?
  • Where does the power lie in this conflict? Does this affect how you should behave?
  • If you’re convinced there is a conflict in values – check that you’ve consistently demonstrated the value in question in your treatment of others. What do you need to change?
  • How can you talk about the value, sharing information and telling stories that weave it more deeply into your organisational culture?
  • How will this affect how you choose new colleagues, suppliers or partners?
  • Where are the lines you’re not prepared to cross?
  • Are there people – respected colleagues, board members – that you can involve in the process in a way that takes the heat out of the situation, or reduces the extent to which you are seen as responsible (or are responsible) for the point of conflict?
  • If (when?) you make a mistake in addressing this, how can you make sure that it’s a mistake on the side of kindness, generosity and trust?

Matt Mullenweg on distributed work

Here’s a short video with Matt Mullenweg, founder and CEO of Automattic*. He talks a bit about lessons he’s learned in running a distributed company, and why he calls his workforce distributed rather than remote.

These are his three tips for physical companies interested in transitioning to distributed work:

  1. Document everything – so that key information like the reasons for decisions are clear to those who weren’t in the room.
  2. Move communications online – “when everything’s shared and public, it allows new people to read through and catch up quickly.”
  3. Find the right tools – “If you look around the office, the things that change how you work probably aren’t objects anymore – they’re things you access through your computer. So test out and experiment with different tools for collaboration – see what works.”
  4. Create productive face-to-face time -Automattic holds an annual get together “half-work, half-play” to create the empathy and connection that helps the distributed team work together productively for the rest of the year.
  5. Give people the flexibility to create their own work environment – “Every person in Automattic has a co-working stipend… and a home-office stipend… so that they can have the most productive environment for them.

I feel wary of losing the connection and accountability that in-person work allows, but there’s a long list of potential upsides here – including a wider talent pool, greater diversity of perspectives, more time and flexibility for employees, huge savings on office space and other overheads that can be spent on other things – that make it worth thinking more deeply about this.

Today there are just a few companies that are distributed first, but if you fast-forward a decade or two I predict that 90% of the companies that are going to changing the course of the world are going to function this way. I think that companies will evolve to be distributed first, or they’re going to replace those that are.

Matt Mullenweg

See also: easier tomorrow

*the company which, among other things, makes WordPress.

Invisible compromises

Why are our compromises so often invisible to others?

We take a deep breath, struggle to assume the best, let go of a few things and then stretch out with all the patience and generosity and grace that we can muster to offer a compromise and meet them in the middle…

… and nobody sees it.

If only our families, friends, colleagues, suppliers and customers would be more reasonable, they’d compromise too.

Toolkit (v0.1)

My last post got me thinking again about the toolkit for making change and building a good future. What follows started out as the tail of that post but grew too long, so I’ve cut it off and put it here as a springboard to bounce off (or a wave to ride) later.

So here are some tools…

There are a set of practices and principles – many of them falling under the umbrella of normal ‘management’ – that are well-established and effective for running organisations. You will need to tailor them to your context, but understanding and applying them will make an enormous difference to your ability to build and run a sustainable and effective organisation. Drucker and Tom Peters are great places to start for foundational principles. Books like Financial Intelligence and 4DX are great for specifics.

There’s an overlapping set from the world of small business, startups and bootstrapping that will help you build the thing from nothing in the first place, and make it sustainable. The E-myth (which I’ve just discovered is available for a great price on amazon) is great for establishing operations (and overlaps with the previous category), as is Steve Blank‘s Startup Owners Manual (amazon) in combination with Alex Osterwalder‘s Business Model Generation (amazon). I’ll make a post of videos and audio by these people and put a link to it here.

There are resources for thinking about marketing in the deep sense – making something that people want or need and sharing it with them in such a way that they see its value and talk about it to others – is another overlapping area. I’d start with Seth Godin – probably This is Marketing (amazon) or Purple Cow (amazon) – and throw in Bernadette Jiwa’s The Fortune Cookie Principle (amazon) as another good starting point.

And there’s a whole load of writing about personal growth and effectiveness that really helps you to get these things done…

And about writing and presenting and using information (particularly the web) well…

And about thinking about culture, economics, networks and the future

And I’ve clearly gone down a rabbit hole, so I’ll stop here.

Peter Drucker on management as a discipline

If you can’t replicate something because you don’t understand it, then it really hasn’t been invented; it’s only been done.

When I published The Practice of Management fifty years ago [in 1954], that book made it possible for people to learn how to manage, something that up until then only a few geniuses seemed to be able to do, and nobody could replicate it.

When I came into management, a lot of it had come out of the field of engineering. And a lot had come out of accounting. And some of it came out of psychology. And some more came out of labour relations. Each of those fields was considered separate, and each of them, by itself, was ineffectual.

You can’t do carpentry, you know, if you have only a saw, or only a hammer, or if you have never heard of a pair of pliers. It’s when you put all of those tools into one kit that you invent. That’s what I did in large part inThe Practice of Management – I made a discipline of it.

Peter Drucker – from Frontiers of Management in The Daily Drucker

Understand the tools (make them if you have to). Build a tool kit. Make it reproducible.

I have mixed feelings about this quote from Drucker. On the one hand, bringing together a set of reliable tools for making effective non-profits or social enterprises is exactly what I’m trying to do with DriverlessCroc. On the other, a lot of the things that make these organisations effective in their contexts are very hard to reproduce – often apparently serendipitous combinations of people and resources in the right times and places, with combinations of vision, skills and technology that aren’t reproducible because they haven’t happened before – and might not again.

The point, I think, is to learn which tools are out there and how to use them so that you can be more effective at the creative, unreproducible work that only you can do in your context. Use the tools to make a new tool for change: your organisation.

I’ve posted a few thoughts about what some of these are here – more to come soon.

Struggle

Honest love is born from the struggle / it’s lived in the valley as much as the hill

Mark Stone

I saw a young man driving a supercar in Vancouver – he was too young, I thought, to have earned it – and I thought “poor guy.”

In giving him the world on the plate, I realised, his parents had rendered his life weightless: too light winning makes the prize light. His wealth had robbed him of something priceless.

This raises all sorts of questions about the good starts, leg-ups and help we give to others.* Looking back, how much struggle would you have chosen? How much would have been good for you?

*Education and training, community development and parenting are the first three areas that spring to mind.

Good starts

We think we see good starts all the time, but most of the time we see wrong.

Most of the time what looks like a good start – of a work day, a career, a diet, a business, a life – most of the time what looks like a good start is a long way into the story, the business-end of the iceberg.

That athlete off to the dream start in the 800m? He really started years ago. Quite possibly, someone else started things for him, tied his shoes, helped him train.

That overnight musical success? They started a decade ago in a garage before moving up in the world… to being ignored in tiny clubs.

That kid with the law degree from a top university? They probably got a good start by choosing excellent grandparents and even better parents, by being born in a nation and at a time where their particular skills are valuable.

Most of the stories that fed into ours were entirely beyond our control. We can be grateful for the good bits and we can mitigate the bad, but in one sense, none of it really matters.

What matters is, what is now the start of – the start that no-one else will see?

Move it on

We eat elephants of different shapes and sizes. But most of the time, doing most of the things that matter, we’re eating elephants:

  • learning a new skill
  • growing a friendship
  • running a household
  • recovering
  • building an organisation
  • bringing up children
  • staying married
  • serving a country
  • paying off a mortgage
  • writing a novel
  • being a neighbour

It’s easy to feel stuck with things like these, because they’re never done. But in all of them, we can go backward (this includes stasis) or move forward (which is a prerequisite for stability).

I’ll post another day about the meaningful goals that help with forward motion. For today – and there’s less than an hour left of it – suffice to say that sometimes the thing to do with elephants is just to show up regularly and take a bite or two.