Specs, laws and floors

A spec sets standards and defines output, and laws set the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

They are indispensable, but here’s the thing: specs and laws are always floors. You can’t legislate the maximum.

There is always an extra mile.

There are unlimited extra miles in just about every direction.

Once we’re meeting spec (within the law) and doing it consistently well, it’s helpful to ask these questions:

  • Which extra miles are most important to my customers, and which do they notice?
  • Which are most helpful to my customers, to my organisation and to society in the long run? (This sounds similar but is a different question)
  • How can I make spec with less effort, and grow my capacity to exceed it in important and memorable ways? (c.f. the placebo effect)
  • How can I create a culture where going above spec and getting at the spirit of the law – a culture of kindness, generosity and a default of giving people the benefit of the doubt – is the norm?

Thanks to Kevin for pointing this idea out, and to Seth for the reminder.

Networks: your organisation as an unending conversation

What would happen to your organisation or movement if you dropped out?

If the answer is “It would probably die,” then you probably* need to think about building something bigger and longer lasting than yourself.

One lens for understanding how to do this is to think of your organisation as ‘conversation’, drawing on Kenneth Burke’s metaphor for history and culture as ‘unending conversation’:

Imagine you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before.

You listen for a while; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

Kenneth Burke – The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action

Who’s carrying the can?

Of course, we want the ‘conversation’ around what we do to be as big as possible, but at the core of your organisation there will be a few people with the vision, commitment and skills necessary to keep the show on the road.

One person can be enough to enable things to happen – the host of Burke’s ‘parlour’ – but if that person has to leave, the conversation stops.

I suggest that you should aim to have at least three of these people in your organisational ecosystem at any time.

Network theory and the crucial three

Three is the crucial number, and network theory (or at least, this video by Clay Shirky where he explains this idea) offers an explanation why: networks of three or more people gain the quality of persistence.

Two people can have a conversation (and shape an organisation), but if one leaves, the conversation dies, and with it, the shared understanding and culture that they’d developed.

But if there are three people in the network and one leaves, the conversation continues… and a new person can join, and it is still the same conversation. In fact, people can come and go until the original participants have all been replaced, but the conversation continues.

What this means for you

This means that if you have fewer than three of these crucial people in your organisation – they could be on staff, on the board, or an informal champion – your organisation (and by extension, the change you seek to make) is far more vulnerable than if you have more than three.

Attrition from three to two is worrying; from two to one might not seem immediately life threatening to your organisation, but it’s critical.

Nuances of vision and values, ways of thinking and doing – transmission of all the unwritten cultural DNA of your organisation – depend on this conversation continuing.

The moral of the story? Build the network. Find friends.

*Probably – unless it doesn’t matter to you or the people you’re serving if the whole thing falls apart in your absence

What’s the story? (1)

We’re always telling stories about who we are, where we’ve come from and where we going.

We tell stories about what’s good and what’s bad, what should be and what shouldn’t. We tell ourselves stories about what’s possible and why and how, and about which things that will never happen, or which things we’ll (or they’ll) never be able to do.

We tell these stories about ourselves, about our organisations, about colleagues and partners and the people we serve, about the context we work in and the wider world.

And we tell them to ourselves, and to and with friends to remind ourselves who we are and who we are together, and we tell them to other people so that they’ll know who we are. We find it easier to trust people who tell the same stories.

Some of the stories we tell are helpful, and some are damaging, and some are true.

It’s a good idea to be aware of the stories we tell because they’re the raw material we use to write the scripts we live by.

Resource: Seth Godin on Systems Thinking

Akimbo Season 4 Episode 20 (July 10, 2019) – Systems Thinking

This is a great episode of riffs on how systems create – and constrain – possibilities, and the opportunities that open up when systems change. Featuring Mr Heinz and the fictional (!) Betty Crocker.

Akimbo Season 4 Episode 18 (June 26, 2019) – Find the others: Apollo 11 and the making of culture

This episode isn’t flagged as an episode about systems or systems thinking, but that’s really what this telling of the story of going to the moon is all about. We watch the Space Race grow out of the wreckage of the Second World War and unfold across a network of more-and-less-and-un- expected connections within the complex adaptive systems of science, science fiction, culture and politics. I loved it.

Highly Recommend.

Friction (2): emotional friction

This is a different kind of friction: the uncertainty, delay and discomfort that comes from lack of trust or understanding. Like bureaucratic or procedural friction, emotional friction slows us down and makes things more difficult than they need to be. It takes many guises:

  • The extra time we spend second-guessing and explaining ourselves because we’re worried someone will take what we’re saying the wrong way;
  • The time we spend crafting a treading-on-eggshells email to a customer or colleague or skirting around an issue;
  • The things that really need to be said that we avoid saying completely because we’re desperate not to offend, or can’t stand upsetting others (the relationship is too fragile to take it);
  • The energy we waste worrying about how we sounded or looked, or what people thought of us (whether or not anyone cared);
  • The work we lose (in terms of time and quality) to distraction frustration, disappointment, heartache, and hurt when trust breaks down;
  • The opportunities lost because we (or they) couldn’t listen or properly consider an idea because of the (noisy) emotional elephants in the room;
  • The energy loss that comes with dreading the next conversation / message / arrival at the office;
  • The knock-on damage to our health and other relationships (we’re snappy, distracted, less generous) that emotional stresses cause;
  • The small problems that grow way out of proportion to their importance because un- or mishandled as a result of emotional avoidance;
  • The decisions that get left unmade because they touch on painful issues.

Emotional friction has causes on both sides of any relationship (in intentions, words and actions, and how they’re perceived), and it usually needs teamwork to solve and avoid it.

So what, Sharky?

  1. Recognising emotional friction – in yourself and others – is the first step in being able to address and minimise it.
  2. Once you’re aware of the negative impact of emotional friction, you’ll learn to see it coming – to spot energy drainers, time-wasters, unpleasant customers as they enter your life – and politely say ‘no thanks’ at the door, because they’re not worth it.
  3. You’ll also better understand the value of enthusiasm, a positive attitude and healthy sensitivity to others (as opposed to technical skills) when you’re hiring or building partnerships.
  4. When emotional friction is bringing you to a standstill, recognising the emotional component (yours and theirs) can help you separate the problem from your feelings about the problem, taking out some of the heat making it easier to see a way forward. Talking about how your’re feeling can help.
  5. Understanding how vulnerable we are to emotional friction forces us to talk about it in our team, and be explicit about the culture we hope to build, and how we hope to get there – and to acknowledge that this takes a long time.
  6. Seeing the waste that emotional friction causes pushes us to be more direct in our communication, speaking frankly and cutting problems off early rather than living with the ongoing friction for months or years.
  7. Understanding the importance of how people (you!) feel eliminates any last excuses for sloppiness or rushed-thoughtlessness in the name of ‘busy-ness’ or ‘being professional’ and motivates you to invest in slack.

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.

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.

Seth Godin on recruiting: raise the average

That next person you hire – are you lowering the average, or raising the average? ‘Cause if you’re lowering the average of your team because you’re in a hurry, when are you going to stop lowering the average of your team? How low does the average of your team go before it’s over?

On the other hand, anytime you can raise the average of your team, it’s probably a smart move.

Seth Godin – Entreleadership Podcast, Ep. 266

This applies to technical skills, but I think it’s even more relevant to team culture.

Ben Horowitz – The Hard Thing About Hard Things

This is a great cut-the-crap book about management and building a company. It’s most relevant to the the tech world, but there are plenty of gems here that are relevant to anyone – he’s especially good on shaping your culture (hint: yoga at work is not your organisational culture).

Here’s the introduction:

Every time I read a management or self-help book, I find myself saying “That’s fine, but that wasn’t really the hard thing about the situation.”

The hard thing isn’t setting a big, hairy, audacious goal. The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal.

The hard thing isn’t hiring great people. The hard thing is when those “great people” develop a sense of entitlement and start demanding unreasonable things.

The hard thing isn’t setting up an organizational chart. The hard thing is getting people to communicate within the organization that you just designed.

The hard thing isn’t dreaming big. The hard thing is waking up in he middle of the night in a cold sweat when your dream turns into a nightmare.

The problem with these books is that they attempt to provide a recipe for challenges that have no recipes. There’s no recipe for really complicated, dynamic situations. There’s no recipe for building a high-tech company; there’s no recipe for leading a group of people out of trouble; there’s no recipe for making hit songs; there’s no recipe for running for president … and there’s no recipe for motivating people when your business has turned to crap.

That’s the hard thing about hard things: there is no formula for dealing with them.

Nonetheless, there are many bits of advice and experience that can help with the hard things.

I do not attempt to present a formula in this book. Instead, I present my story and the difficulties that I have faced.

I share my experiences in the hope of providing clues and inspiration for others who find themselves in the struggle to build something out of nothing.

Ben Horowitz – The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Highly recommend.

The soft option

Your desire to be generous to others is a great motivator to excellence: if you’re serious about ensuring that the externalities of your project are consistently positive, you’re going to need to be doubly good at what you do.

You need emotional energy and time to spare to listen well, to be gracious under pressure, to be the kind of employer or customer that helps your team or partners to do their best work.

It takes discipline to do this kind of emotional labour day in, day out. You need to be clear about what you’re doing and how and why, plan for it, and be deliberate about doing it consistently. You need to find ways to articulate your values to people inside and outside your project.

You need to be hard-headed about being soft-hearted.