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.

Leadership: don’t say it

You may have a very good point.

You may be entirely in the right.

It may be that you’ve understood their (bad) motivation perfectly, that they are wrongheaded, inconsiderate and rude to boot.

It may be that there’s a values-conflict that’s going to take a lot of deep and difficult work to address.

Some of the above is probably true. All of it may be true*… But saying it to them now – saying it how you’d most like to say it, maybe throwing in a few of the things that you’ve been carrying for a while – saying it now, in the heat of the moment, won’t help.

Grit your teeth. Breath deeply. Don’t say it. Instead do the harder work of fixing the deeper issues and slowly, slowly getting the boat moving in the right direction.

 

P.S. Of course, I said it. 

*And of course, it’s just possible that many of them are not true, or that you need kick in the empathy to know how to respond properly

Peter Drucker on Freedom

Freedom … is not the same as individual happiness, nor is it security or peace and progress. It is not the state in which the arts and sciences flourish. It is not good, clean government or the greatest welfare of the greatest number.

This is not to say that freedom is inherently incompatible with all or any of these values, though it may be and sometimes will be. But the essence of freedom lies elsewhere. It is responsible choice. Freedom is not so much a right as a duty. Real freedom is not freedom from something ; that would be license. It is freedom to choose between doing or not doing something, to act one way or another, to hold one belief or the opposite. It is never a release and always a responsibility. It is not “fun” but the heaviest burden laid on man: to decide his own individual conduct as well as the conduct of society and to be responsible for both decisions.

Peter Drucker – The Freedom of Industrial Man

You won’t agree with all of the above – I’m still mulling it over – but Drucker’s emphasis on choice and responsibility is spot on.

Most aspects of our lives, both personal and public, are products of choice. This isn’t the same as them being directly under our control (many of the choices belong to others), but we still have choice in how we act: what to accept, what to maintain and what to seek to change.

Homework:

Look for choices that you’ve been blind to up to now. Which parts of your life – including big, permanent looking things – could do with a review?

Maintenance of the status quo is a choice that we sometimes fail to notice. What are you maintaining as if you have no choice in the matter, when perhaps you should stop? What are you ignoring that you should choose to put more energy into maintaining?

What choices are you in denial about? What have you been choosing to accept that you could – should – choose to change? Small improvements that actually happen are better than giant overhauls that don’t.

How tools spread

How do tools – ideas and understandings, practices, and real physical tools – get to the people who need them?

Some tools may only need to be seen to by copied and spread. A tool will spread if it is:

  • Visible – people need to see it (or hear, or read about it)
  • Beneficial – people need to see that the tool brings benefits too
  • Acceptable – isn’t in some way taboo*
  • Doable – simple enough to understand and apply
  • Accessible – people can get hold of what they need to start using it
  • Affordable – in terms of the physical, mental and emotional resources** and time needed to learn or use the tool

Further reading:

*Taboos may prevent one or both of the first two from happening
**”Can I afford the social or emotional costs of using this tool? Is it worth it?”
***The copyright section of which reads as follows:

You have permission to post this, email this, print this and pass it along for free to anyone you like, as long as you make no changes or edits to its contents or digital format. In fact, I’d love it if you’d make lots and lots of copies. The right to bind this and sell it as a book, however, is strictly reserved.

Leading, ends and means

Those who set the purpose or the direction for a team need to exercise their authority and be absolutely insistent about the end states to be achieved, and then hold back and not dictate all the details of the means by which those ends are to be achieved.

And that’s tough for a leader to do. I know how to be an authoritarian and tell everyone what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it. I know how to be a full-scale democrat and say “Okay, what would you all like to do and we’ll all try to come to consensus about that.”

But the right way to set a purpose is to be unapologetic about “This is the mountain that we’re going to climb.” And then not to follow that up by saying “And every time you get to a fork in the trail or a stream that needs to be forded, wait up for me and I’ll tell you how to do it.”

That’s a tough number for leaders to do but it’s really important.

Richard Hackman on the People and Places Podcast

What do you think? Maybe we could get consensus about it…

“How do I take these thoroughbreds and turn them into a team?”

Getting a team together? Start building it before you’re even in the room.

Kathy Delaney-Smith is the coach of the Harvard woman’s basketball team… A few years ago she was asked to be the coach of Team USA in the international basketball competition. And what she was going to have was a dozen kids who’d been selected from a hundred who tried out, the very best female basketball players in the United States. And the problem was that they were going to be competing for five starting positions and moreover came from schools that were highly competitive.

So she had this question: “How do I take these thoroughbreds and turn them into a team?” And she was only going to have four days of practice before they went to Turkey to actually do the competition.
And what she did was … she started building the team over a month before people came to Colorado Springs to the training center for their first practice.

She formed diads or triads … of women ahead of time by email and gave them little assignments to do, things like, since the tournament was going to be in Turkey, “What are the best museums in Turkey?” or “How would you teach the Turkish alphabet to someone who didn’t know it?”, and they had to do these things by email before they showed up and then make their presentation of their report when they arrived at Colorado Springs.

And it was amazing, she said, when they arrived they made their presentation to the rest of the team and the team USA staff, and it was all very funny, and they had started to bond as a team even before they started practice, which she said transcended the latent competitiveness that they were arriving with. So there’s all kind of creative things that you can do to try to help this set of people who are really individuals come together and experience themselves as a team.

Richard Hackman on the People and Projects Podcast

Blood and Bone (2): policy from decisions

An easy way to start making policy is to take a moment to record decisions you’ve made and why you made them.

When you can articulate the reason for key decisions, you make it much easier to make similar decisions in future – or better yet, easier for someone else to make a good decision without needing to come to you at all.

Peter Drucker describes four types of decision:

1. Decisions for generic events, of which the individual occurrence is only a symptom.

These are questions or problems that keep cropping up in the same or in slightly different form. An example might be repeated questions from clients about a specific service – our question is ‘how should I answer’?

There are three ways to save time with problems like this:

  1. Make the decision about what you’ll do and how you’ll do it, and document it. In this example, it might be writing a template email that provides key information in an appropriate tone. Copying and pasting and tweaking an email is far easier than reinventing the wheel each time.
  2. Find a way to make the problem solve itself. A good-quality FAQ section on your website might reduce the number of people who end up emailing. (But whatever you do, don’t send people who email to the FAQs without copying the relevant paragraph into your answer).
  3. Eliminate the problem. Few problems or questions are inevitable. Is there something you can do to eliminate the need for the question? This could be a case of designing a better product, or investing in a better ‘wrapper’ – one that puts the necessary information in the hands of your client exactly when they’ll need it.

2. Decisions about problems that seem unique, but are actually generic

Your problem might be new to you, but be common to all organisations. Financial management, child protection policies and performance reviews are examples of this.

There are established standards and processes like double-entry bookkeeping because everyone has to deal with money. If they help – and they’re likely to – use them.

Ask for help, learn from others, then be generous in sharing what you know when someone asks you.

If there’s nothing helpful out there – could you share yours once you’ve made it? How about open-sourcing your policies to save others from reinventing the wheel?

3. Decisions about exceptional events 

Unique and unrepeatable events are rare – do the best you can.

4. Decisions about exceptional events that turn out to be generic

It’s possible that you’ll come across an apparently unique problem that turns out to be, in Drucker’s words, ‘the first manifestation of a new genus… the early manifestation of a new problem.’ Try to look closely and see, then treat as in (1), above.

Some rules for future success

  • Know what’s important
  • …and know what’s for you (and what isn’t)…
  • … and act accordingly – NOW.
  • Be ‘on assignment‘ – make stuff happen, get stuff done.
  • Really – determinedly, doggedly get stuff done. Done is better than perfect.
  • Find the right people. Say the words. Collaborate. Coordinate. Lead.
  • All the time, be learning.
  • In particular, identify and work on foundations and fundamentals.
  • Communicate clearly and well.
  • Be attentive to feedback of all sorts.
  • Be able to use the best tools of the day to facilitate the above.
  • Be kind.**

** This might sound a bit limp at first pass, but really – If nothing else, what would you hope for in your interactions with yourself, family, friends, strangers?

Starting line

Where’s the starting line?

Sometimes we’re a few steps further down the track than the people we want to take with us:  we’ve given it more thought, we’ve done it before. We want it more.

We’re so keen to get people over the finish-line that we don’t notice that they’re still milling around at the start – or even that they’ve chosen to stay in bed.

How far away are you? How many steps backward will you need to take if you want to take them with you?

What do you need to communicate? What are the thousand other important things that you don’t?

When are you going to stop talking about techniques for crossing the finishing line and help them to put on their shoes?

 

*see also: Clarity. Simplicity. Focus.

 

Value loop

Most businesses that prosper create value for their communities and their customers as well as themselves, and the most successful businesses do so in part by creating a self-reinforcing value loop with and for others. They build a platform on which people who don’t work directly for them can build their own dreams.

Tim O’Reilly, WTF?

This is a key to building a fruitful and sustainable business or charity – be part of your partners’ success story.

Make yourself so useful that they can’t imagine doing it without you, and are eager to pay for what you do.

Align your interests so that their success is your success.

Be such a source of good in your community that they cheer you on.

Be indispensable.