A balancing act for leaders (1)

Some types of work that leaders do:

Foundational and Directional Work

This is the vision and values stuff – identifying needs, thinking through the “why” of the project, articulating its importance and sharing the vision and values with those both inside and outside the organisation. This is the work that keeps you and your team and partners focused and on the right track. It’s also often generative work, in the sense that it generates possibilities for your organisation and others, and also generates work for your team. (This can be good or bad depending on the work and the team’s capacity, but long term you can’t live without it.)

Strategic and Managerial work

This is getting into your organisation’s mission – making strategic decisions (or working with others to make decisions) to do with the “what” of how the vision will be achieved, with finding people who can do the technical work (including managing others) and with managing them as they do it.
Management work is also generative in the sense that it turns vision into specific work and jobs to be done (i.e. it generates work), and because good management generates capacity for the organisation. It does this because people are more productive when they are clear about the work that they need to do and supported to do it, and also because good management allows more effective and integrated specialisation, either by type of task or by project.

Executive tactical and technical work

Unless your organisation is big are big or you have a large personal staff, it’s probable that you also have a technical contribution to make: as a consultant helping your team to set up systems, or as a specialist doing a specific part of the team’s work on the ground. This might be outward focused (delivering training and working on products or selling them) or inward focused (things like recruiting, completing accounts and managing inventory in support of your outward goals). This work is executive in the sense of getting things done and shutting down possibilities. Tactical tasks can be ticked off as “done”. It’s generative to the extent that the quality of the work enables more and better work by colleagues or creates a reputation that attracts new partners to the organisation.

Horse to water

If a horse is thirsty, if they know that water will help, and if they trust you, then all you need to say is “There’s water over there,” and the rest will take care of itself.

Nothing is as important as whether people want the change you’re working for, and whether they trust that you can help it happen.

Good enough to enjoy it

Running is unpleasant until you get fit.

Swimming is the struggle to avoid drowning, until you can swim.

Writing of any kind can be a horrible sort of trudge through fog until you’ve done it enough to trust the process and it becomes an interesting trudge through fog.

Learning to play an instrument is a lot less fun than making music with other people.

You drop a lot of balls learning to juggle.

The list goes on.

Once you’ve learnt enough new things – and especially if you’ve come close to mastering a few – the struggle of learning new things takes on the glow of anticipation. You can see that you’ll get a feel for it in time. You’ve experienced the pleasure that comes as the basics become automatic, and what it’s like to be good enough at something challenging that you enjoy it.

Are there things that you do just rarely enough, or half-heartedly enough, to stay bad at them? It’s time to decide either to stop playing, or to commit the little extra it will take to allow you to start doing them well, and even to enjoy them.

Eyes. Sawdust. Planks.

 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?”

Jesus of Nazareth – The Gospel of Matthew

Some ancient wisdom about the mechanics of criticism and disagreement:

  1. You’re far more aware of the shortcomings of others than you are of our own. (We spot specks a mile away, despite our blindness to our ridiculous planks).
  2. Our own shortcomings make it much harder for us to help to handle the shortcomings we see in others. (They distort our perspective, and also make us far less credible sources of help)
  3. The crucial insight I’ve been reminded of this week is that in most disagreements these mechanics of distorted-perspective work in both directions at the same time. That is, at the same time as we are prone to assume the worst and blow the shortcomings of others out of proportion, they are doing exactly the same thing to ours. We think we’re doing well by allowing for the distortion, but don’t appreciate that there’s often a double-distortion that we need to account for.

A series of questions to help think through disagreements:

  1. What do I think the problem is?
  2. How do I feel about my-idea-of-the-problem and why?
  3. Do these two things seem in alignment, or do my feelings suggest that I’ve got a different problem lurking below the surface?
  4. What does my colleague say the problem is?
  5. How do they feel about it and why?
  6. Ask question 3, but for them.

Example:

A colleague recently asked for a small extra allowance for a particular type of overtime. My logical and (to my mind) internally consistent solution was worth significantly more than they were asking – but they repeatedly stated their preference for the smaller allowance. I thought that they were really interested in the financial value of the payment – and was effectively offering more. It turned out (as I currently understand it), they were interested in feeling recognised and valued – and the smaller extra payment with the right frame spoke to this feeling in a way that my solution didn’t.

I saw “This person is always asking for more money.” They saw “This person doesn’t appreciate me.” We might both have been right – but neither of us had things in proportion.

Sawdust. Plank.

The clothesline paradox

If you take down your clothesline and buy an electric clothes dryer, the electric consumption of the nation rises slightly… If you go in the other direction and remove the electric clothes dryer and install a clothesline, the consumption of electricity drops slightly, but there is no credit given anywhere on the charts and graphs to solar energy, which is now drying the clothes.

Steve Baer – The Clothesline Paradox in Co-Evolution Weekly as quoted by Tim O’Reilly in WTF? What’s the Future and Why it’s Up to Us.

The clothesline paradox applies even more sharply to domestic labour, of course: the work of a professional cleaner or child-minder registers as economic activity, but the work we do cleaning our own homes or caring for our own families doesn’t, despite the same work getting done.

The problem is that we come to treasure what we measure, and end up creating incentives that cost us in ways we don’t expect. In the case of the clothesline being replaced by an electrical dryer, it’s pollution. In societies where the norm has become that all adults work outside the home (often incentivised by the state), there’s a cost in the quality of care and in the relational glue that keeps families and societies healthy.

The point for your organisation is there: think carefully about how you measure success. Clayton Christensen has written about how focusing on ‘return on net assets’ leads companies to damage their long-term prospects in the name of short term ‘efficiency’.

In my organisation we measure the overall cost of our program per child served, which encourages us to pay attention to efficient use of resources… but could lead us to find ways to avoid spending money on things like improving the design of our resources or upskilling our team – all of which would make us less effective down the road. (Christensen has also written well on how the wrong metrics can have similarly damaging effects on our personal lives.)

So it pays to be careful about what you’re measuring, and keep your eyes open for the unhelpful incentives that you’ll almost inevitably create. Staying focused on your organisation’s values (specifically about relationships and how you treat people) will help. You can do this by deliberately talking about them, regularly asking how you’re living up to them, and using them explicity to guide you in making decisions.

Quick emails

There are two types of quick emails.

There’s kind where you can handle it in five or ten minutes and…

  • the job’s finished;
  • someone else can get on with their job, so you avoid becoming a bottleneck;
  • you can help someone out by being on-the-ball and courteous with a quick and efficient reply;
  • you can hand it over to someone else who can deal with it and forget about it.

In these cases, if you’ve already opened your email it’s probably worth just finishing the job. You’re already distracted from whatever else you were doing, and you’ll save far more time and energy by reducing mental overhead (you won’t be carrying another ‘to do’ on your growing list) and emotional friction (you’ll avoid feeling bad about yourself or the people you’re holding up) than you’ll spend on the task itself.

The other type aren’t quick emails. Often they’re asking for the quick summary of a long thought process that you haven’t worked through. I think the best way to deal with these is to work consistently to keep your house in order, to spend time on those thought processes, to do them well enough – and perhaps document them well enough – that you won’t have to revisit and revise them the next time someone asks you the same question.

Charles Koch on creating value for others and always getting better

The starting point is to understand what capabilities you have that others will value, that you can use to create value for others.

And then to find the opportunities for those capabilities that will create the most opportunity for others and particularly those who will reward you for that value.

So the ideal for business is to maximise the value that you create for others, and your profit would come solely as compensation for that value you’re creating for others, and then to continually improve and add to those capabilities, and look for, based on that, what other opportunities are there for which you can create superior value.

So there are two components then: one is to become preferred partner for all your key constituencies. That starts with customers but includes employees, suppliers, communities and society as a whole.

And the second piece is to continually transform yourself. So our philosophy is if we in a business or you as an individual are working in an area, if you’re the best in the world, it’s not good enough. And particularly today, with rapid improvements in technologies within year or wo you’re going to be obselete if you just rest on your laurels. So you’ve got to be constantly thinking on how do I improve, how do I do things differently, what are the new opportunities.

If we’d just stayed with the crude oil gathering… we’d be out of business now. It’s by applying these principles of human flourishing to create these beneficial cycles focusing on how do I create value for all my constituencies – particularly those who will reward us for the value we create for them – is what has enabled us to do what we’ve done.

Charles Koch – The Tim Ferriss Show #381

Good jobs for smart people

“Seek out and develop talent.”

“Hire the best people.”

“Recruit people smarter than you.”

“Raise the average.”

Good advice from some of the best business thinkers out there – although Michael E. Gerber has pointed out that basing your business model on highly talented people is going to make it harder and more expensive to run (rocket-scientists and brain-surgeons are hard to find).

But the problem on my mind with all this is slightly different, and it’s this: smart people can get jobs elsewhere.

It’s far harder to build teams and organisations that open doors for the less-smart, or the not-yet-that smart, while avoiding lowest-common-denominator, bad work for bad pay.

Can we build organisations that work for ‘normal’ people, or people who are struggling – and help them to grow, and perhaps to move into (or on to) better, ‘smarter’ jobs as soon as possible?

The spotlight we need to shine on our talk of inclusivity and opportunity is this: Who do we work with? Who do we welcome in? Where do they end up?