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.

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?

A sense of urgency (2): Clayton Christensen on measuring your life

John Greenall wrote this about our lack of a sense of urgency about the most important things in life:

I wonder if it comes back to overscheduling, busyness, lack of prioritisation and an internal need to look good. This all leads to overloaded diaries and an overly full life. The routine is downplayed and not given sufficient time or consideration and you lurch from one thing to another. Another factor from above is the lack of urgency on relationships. It can be easy to see people as tools to achieve an end, or to further your own purposes, rather than seeing developing them and helping them win as an end in itself.

John’s right – and his comment is a great introduction to these words from Clayton Christensen, which I added to my ‘to post’ list this morning. Christensen was asked about the origin of his book, “How Will You Measure Your Life?”, and began by sharing the ‘scarily’ sad life paths of many of his apparently successful peers. In effect, he blames ‘wrong metrics’ – measuring the wrong things, or paying too much attention to the short-term, immediately measurable things:

… I can tell you with perfect certainty that not a single one of my classmates when we graduated from Harvard planned to go out and raise children who hate their guts, and get divorced one or two or three times. Our intention was to create homes where there was happiness there, that was a source of happiness for the rest of our lives.

That was what we intended to do, and how we spent our time and energy was just the opposite of that.

And the reason why is the very same thing [discussed earlier]: it’s the metrics. So those of us who are driven to achievement… when we have that need for achievement, then when we have an extra thirty minutes of time or ounce of energy, we instinctively spend our time and energy on whatever activities will give us the most immediate and tangible evidence of achievement. And our careers provide that. So every day at work I ship a product, I finish a project, I get promoted, I get paid, we close another deal… and every day I get immediate and tangible evidence of achievement at work.

And then when I walk into the front door there’s not a lot of evidence of achievement when you look at your kids. On a day to day basis they may misbehave every day, the place gets cluttered every day and it really isn’t until twenty years down the road, until you’re able to look at your kids and put your hands on your hips and say “My gosh, we created a wonderful young man or woman.” But on a day to day basis there’s no evidence of that.

As a result of that, we invest our time and energy in our careers, and under-invest in our children and our spouses, even though we plan to have that be the source of energy… and that’s why I chose to write that book, “How Will You Measure Your Life?”

Clayton ChristensenWhere does Growth Come From? (Talks at Google)

Carl Sagan on starting from scratch

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.

Carl Sagan

Starting from scratch is overrated (and impossible). Some better questions are:

– Has someone else already made what I’m trying to make? Or something similar? Or part of it? (Readymade is usually easier than DIY).

– What new things can I make with the components I already have?

– Which building blocks have I overlooked or neglected?

– Where can I look for new building blocks?

– Who else would find what I’ve built useful? Can I share it – or share instructions for how to make it? (Saving someone from having to make something themselves is the foundation of most business models, and instructions are another type of building block.)

– Which pieces of what I do is it really essential that I break down and re-make myself?

Marks and Spencer as disruptive innovators

Marks and Spencer have been a mainstay of British retail for more than 100 years, so it’s hard to imagine them as disruptive innovators – but it turns out they were innovative all over.

More immigration and innovation

Michael Marks (born in 1859 Slonim, then part of the Russian Empire) moved to the U.K. in 1882, and within a few years had a market stall in Leeds. He was successful, in part because of a pricing innovation: he called his shops Penny Bazaars (“Don’t ask the price – it’s a penny!”) and allowed customers to browse with no pressure to buy.

Eventually Marks began a partnership with Thomas Spencer, who brought additional capital and good connections with manufacturers, enabling them to source goods directly from their suppliers.

Peter Drucker picks up the story:

World War I had profoundly shaken their country’s class structure… [creating] masses of new buyers for good-quality, stylish, and inexpensive merchandise such as lingerie, blouses and stockings – Marks and Spencer’s first successful product categories.

Marks and Spencer then systematically set to work developing brand-new and unheard-of core competencies. Until then, the core competency of the merchant was the ability ot buy well. Marks and Spencer decuded that it was the merchant, rather than the manufacturer, who knew the customer. Therefore the merchant, not the manufacturer, should design the products, develop them, and find producers to make the goods to his design, specifications and costs. This new definition of the merchant took five to eight years to develop and make acceptable to traditional suppliers, who had always seen themselves as “manufacturers,’ not “subcontractors.”

Peter Drucker – The Daily Drucker

A different retail experience

S4RB continues:

[After the First World War] M&S continued to grow and innovate. The company displayed its products on trays in the store allowing customers to browse. This was different to most other retailers who kept the products on shelves behind the counter… In the early 1920 M&S started selling what is now their most famous product: underwear. Today one in three women wear an M&S bra.

The history of M&S: This is not just a store, it’s an M&S store since 1884 – Blog at S4RB.com

Other innovations

There’s much more to write about: no-limit cash-refunds with receipt; a staff welfare department; clothes and cafes designed to meet the requirements (or exploit a loophole in) of post-war rationing; a survey of women’s legs to improve underwear design; the invention of ‘cold-chain’ supply so that meat could be sold fresh instead of frozen; the introduction of ‘sell by’ dates to products; some of the earliest sales of Indian and Chinese ready meals – and the Chicken Kiev; increasing emphasis on sustainability and responsible sourcing for clothing.

Slowing down

Innovation seems to be have slowed down a bit at M&S in the 2000s, but with any luck they’ll return to the habit and continue to flourish into the future. After all – it’s where I buy my pants.

Read more at Marks in Time: A History of Marks and Spencer and S4RB.com