On inequality

Inequality is inevitable (because we’re all different), and it isn’t necessarily wrong (if we value the freedom to make meaningful choices) and doesn’t necessarily have to be corrected (because we value diversity).

Once we’re clear on this, we’re forced to be specific. We can ask which kinds of inequality we’re not prepared to tolerate, making sure that we’re clear about where they come from and why they’re damaging (“because I believe in equality” isn’t an answer) and start talking about what we can do to make things better.

Then we can be the ones to go first and start to do those things.

Seth Godin on fear and reassurance

The way [of handling fear] that doesn’t work is reassurance. Reassurance doesn’t work because you need an infinite amount of it. Someone can give you reassurance for five minutes and then ten minutes later you go “Ooohh no no no.” So the number of times that you need to be told by someone you trust and respect that you’re going to be fine is too high to even ask for it.

For me, the alternative is generosity. That is an excellent answer to fear. That if you are doing this on behalf of someone you care about, the fear takes a backseat. So if you want to figure out how to make books, go to a charity you care about and make a book for them, because now your fear feels selfish. If you want to figure out how to make marketing work, go and market for an organisation that you believe in. If you can find a lonely person and make them unlonely, a disconnected person and make them feel connected, you can make a practice of that. And the upside is it helps you walk straighter and stand taller.

Seth Godin – on Love Your Work with David Kadavy

Typo (1)

I was reading an article – a thoughtful, well researched, nicely structured, neatly expressed piece of writing about something important – when I came across the typo.

“Ha!” ran my interior monologue. “This person is an idiot. I am smarter than they are.”

Of course, it’s better if a text is error-free. But typos and spelling mistakes are probably the least important problems a piece of writing can have and are by far the easiest things to fix.

Perhaps that’s why we’re trained to pay them so much attention: it’s a lot easier to teach kids to spell than to help them learn to think, to have something worth saying, and to say it convincingly or winsomely.

Inwardly ridiculing the idiot who misspelled a word or two is a cheap trick we use to feel good about ourselves – with the added benefit that it allows us to hide from the fact that the writer in question (smarter or not) has taken the time to write something, and we haven’t.

How to set salaries

Some ways of thinking about setting salaries:

Market Rate

You pay the lowest price that the market will bear. The bigger the market (the more appropriate candidates that you can reach), the lower the price is likely to be. This is commodity pricing: an average sort of price to attract average (or cheapest possible) candidates.

Market-plus

You pay the market rate plus a bit, fishing for better-than-average candidates or at least that your recruits will work better for you as a result of higher pay.

Market-minus

Sounds silly, but it’s quite common in the world of non-profits. You pay a little below market rate to filter out people who are in it for the money, as opposed to those who value the work itself, share your vision, are committed to the cause.

A living wage

You come at the pricing question the other way round – not “What’s this job worth?” or “What’s the lowest wage I can get away with paying for this work?” but “How do I think members of my team should be able to live?” This could end up being below market, in which case you end up with another values-filter, or above market, in which case you risk looking wasteful or attracting people who want to work for you for the wrong reasons.

I like the idea of starting from a living-wage – and if it looks too generous:
a) It’s a better mistake to make than being stingy
b) You’ve got the interesting problem of helping your recruits to be worth it.

Starting line

Where’s the starting line for your project?

How good does someone need to be to…

  • Work for you?
  • Work with you?
  • For you to work for them?

What type of ‘good’ are you looking for?

It’s highly likely that the best contractor / employee / partner / donor / customer isn’t simply the cheapest / most available / one with the most money.

In most cases, a person’s qualifications will tell you little or nothing about what they actually have to contribute, or what they might drain from you and your team.

Values and vision: the acid test

Peter Drucker and Stephen Covey ask the same simple question to get at the heart of these:

“What do you want to be remembered for?”

Covey asks you to imagine your funeral:

  • Who is there?
  • What do you hope they’d say about you?
  • Is this consistent with how you live now?
  • Which goals and relationships matter, in the end?
  • Which work and stresses fall into insignificance?

The answers to these questions are your compass.

Taking the temperature

What do you do to keep an eye on how your team is doing – as individuals and a team?

A less-structured meeting (or part of a regular meeting) can really help: a chance for everyone to check in, say what’s going well and what they’re struggling with, to let off steam, to ask for and offer help, to say what’s on their mind, or kick around a new idea or two.

Super important. Super easy to push aside when things get busy – which is when you most need to know how everyone is doing, and to do all of the things above.

Responsibility

Whether you’re improving your own work or helping others improve theirs,* it pays to spend time talking about who is responsible for what – and what you hope people will take responsibility for as they grow into their roles.

There are layers of responsibility.

1) Given all the necessary inputs…

Do you take responsibility for getting your job done?

2) If an input is missing…

  • Do you shrug your shoulders and put down your tools?
  • Or do you take responsibility for passing the problem to the relevant person – a colleague, supplier, manager?
  • Do you take responsibility for chasing up the solution?
  • If needed, will you work with the relevant person to make it easier for them to fix it?
  • Will you give thought to whether this problem is likely to happen again – and think about what you can do on your side to fix it (by, say, allowing more time in your process)?
  • Will you take responsibility for the breakdown in communication or process – by talking about it, asking for help, trying something new?

3) If the inputs are fine and the process is working…

  • Will you ask how it could be done better?
  • Will you think about whether you could entirely replace the process, or do away with it entirely?

4) Above and beyond the level of processes…

  • Will you take responsibility not just for the defined outcomes of the process, but for what those outcomes are actually supposed to achieve?
  • Will you set an example of excellence in the quality of your work…
  • Including how you treat people while you do it, both in and outside your organisation?
  • Will you take a degree of responsibility for other people do these things – that is, for setting and improving the culture?**

Basic competence in a defined task is just the start – taking that as given, members of your team become more valuable the further down this list they go.

There’s a world of difference between managing someone where you responsibility for their work, and working with someone who takes responsibility to make sure the right things get done in the right way – and helps you and others to do the same. Find more of those people.

*it’s usually best to think about both at once

**No-one likes a meddler, but most of the time most of us make the mistake of not taking enough responsibility for making things better.

Champion, or Ways to Win (1)

There are a couple of types of champion:

Noun 1 A person who has surpassed all rivals in a sporting contest or other competition [as modifier‘a champion hurdler’ [OED]

This is the winner, the vanquisher of foes. We all enjoy being this kind of champion – as individuals (probably especially as individuals) and as part of a team (“We are the champions”).

There are good champions and bad ones – heroes and villains, magnanimous victors and churls – but champions are a good thing. It’s fun to strive for something, it’s motivating to compete, and more often than not we like it when someone wins.

It’s also fleeting (“This year’s champions”), and – if you think about it in the wrong way – sets you up for inevitable failure. Sooner or later, someone else will be the champion.

And the things that we can win definitively are rarely important, and rarely satisfying in the long run. They are small, clearly defined, rule-constrained, finite games*.

When we’re striving to win these games, it’s worth double checking what we’re burning up to get there – time, energy, materials, relationships, opportunities – and weighing carefully what we get in return, because ‘fun’ is really the main thing we get from being a champion.

In the morning, life goes on.

All the other rewards of being a champion – prizes, status, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are as winners, and what we say about everyone else – take their meaning from other games we play.

More on this tomorrow.

*See this post, or go straight to James Carse‘s Finite and Infinite Games

Econtalk: Mauricio Miller on Poverty, Social Work, and the Alternative

This is a really interesting episode of Econtalk, and worth a listen.

Highlight 1: Accurate description of poor communities

A couple of things here really resonated with my experience of living and working in low-income communities in Jakarta:

  • Miller’s descriptions of the resourcefulness of people in poor communities – that many people in poor communities are hard working and resourceful and demonstrating impressive amounts of willpower and – in his word – ‘talent’ just to get by on low incomes.
  • The dynamism of poor communities, particularly in terms of people moving in and out of poverty – apparently backed up by statistics. According to Miller, although 15% of the U.S. population are ‘poor’ at any given time, the majority of those will move above the poverty line, to be replaced by other (temporarily) poor people – i.e. people who lost their job a month before the census and have no income, but will soon return to work. Miller says that only about 3% of the population are ‘long-term, generationally poor.’

Highlight 2: What happens when users pay for services

This section also really reflected my experience at the charity I work for, where a switch to a ‘user pays’ model of service (rather than a purely donation-based, ‘charitable’ model) made us more responsive to the needs of our users, and drove up the quality of what we do. Here’s Miller:

Mauricio Miller: …I wouldn’t bring my own family through [my own social services]; now I had money–

Russ Roberts: Why not?

Mauricio Miller: Because they were paternalistic. My mother hated that. She said, ‘The social workers are really nice, but they take away my pride.’ And certainly the racists would take away her pride, too. You know. And sexual harassers would take away her pride. But even the people who were trying to be really nice would take her pride away. And so, that was one of the issues. The other issue is that the programs that I had were sold–and the structures were to sell to get funding. Funders don’t really understand circumstances on the ground. But, they get certain interests. And so you have to shape your program based on what they kind of want in order to get the money. And that, then you are held accountable to those kind of standards. Where, I actually had started two businesses within my own non-profit, that, when you are running a business, you have to meet the customer demand. Not the investor demand. You have to really meet the customer demand. And so, somehow or other, when I wanted to adjust my programs, they were not responsive to my customers. And so, for me, my social service programs were too structured, too paternalistic. They did not recognize or meet that market demand. And now that I was middle income and had money, I would instead, when I had to help my nephew and nieces who struggled with drugs and all kinds of things, I would go to private sector services, because they would say, ‘Do you want us to send the advisor on the weekend, or the evenings?’ Or, ‘What’s convenient for you?’ and ‘Would you like this program?’ I was given choices. Because I had money. But people who were poor didn’t have those kind of choices. And so, why would I want to take my own family, that had struggled with everything that everybody else was struggling with what was out there in some of these neighborhoods: Why would I take them into a system that was so structured and was not responsive when I had money? So, money made a difference. And I realized that: No, I wouldn’t bring my own family.

Russ Roberts and Mauricio Miller – Econtalk

In the end, I wasn’t completely convinced with Miller’s model – or didn’t feel completely clear about what he was offering – but these bits were excellent – and true.