Favorite Books of 2017

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As the year comes to a close, I wanted to share my favorite books list of the past year. Hope you’ll give one of these a try during the holidays.

The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football by S.C. Gwynne

If you love football and want to understand how the game evolved from a stodgy, run-first sport into one that relies more and more on passing and spreading the field, this book will take you on a very rewarding journey of Coach Hal Mumme and the founding of the influential air raid offense.

One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer Ph.D

Lots of great, actionable advice in this book about the power of thinking small. Ask small questions, seek small rewards, solve small problems, and keep at it. Over time, these amount to big changes and big results. I read this book around the time we were putting the finishing touches to our Microhabits e-book and was happy to see many parallels.

Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now by Gordon Livingston

I wrote a blog post where I highlighted my favorite quotes from the book and jotted down some thoughts. This is a timeless book with so much great wisdom about living life, enduring loss and grief, and constantly working to be a better person.

Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice by Clayton M. Christensen

This book convinced me that we needed to embrace and offer a Jobs to Be Done customer interview offering at Barrel. I had always been a fan of JTBD and dabbled in it, but the book helped to solidify some of the ideas and concepts in my mind. We successfully completed a client engagement this year and established a process to offer it for future clients. This e-book from Intercom was also very helpful.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Harari

This follow-up book to Harari’s Sapiens explores a future in which technological advances introduce new questions of ethics and our understanding of morality and mortality. I wrote a short blog post with some excerpts from the book about spirituality and religion.

Tempo: Timing Tactics and Strategy in Narrative-Driven Decision-making by Venkatesh Rao

This book was a really fun mind trip into deconstructing everyday behaviors and looking at the concept of time and action through different lenses. I even made a graphic for one of the mental models that Rao discusses in the book.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Such an amazing novel. The story of Koreans in Japan and their struggles through the 20th century. Beautifully written, epic, tragic, and unforgettable.

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

I began this book a number of years ago and then stopped before picking it up again this year and finishing it out. I think part of me didn’t want to read about Moses’s downfall. For all of the man’s faults (e.g. his racism, his corrupt dealings, his disregard for the poor, etc.), Moses shaped New York (both City and State) in ways that no one man ever had or has ever since. Any time I take a ride around the different boroughs, I’m reminded of the highways, bridges, parks, and buildings that were created under his authority.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

This is a very powerful book, basically a memoir, of Stevenson’s mission to serve those on death row (predominantly African-Americans) who may have been falsely convicted or were penalized unfairly. I found many of the stories in here to be heartbreaking, but Stevenson’s resolve as well as the toughness and resilience of his clients were very inspiring.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The other fiction book on my list. After spending my entire twenties reading mostly white male novelists (except for Ishiguro and Chang-Rae Lee), it was refreshing to read such a smart and incisive book. The story is about a half-Vietnamese, half-French communist double agent who comes to America after the fall of Saigon and continues his mission of spying on the anti-communist Vietnamese refugees. I wrote a blog post to reflect on some of my favorite lines from the book.

I feel fortunate to have read many interesting, fun, and eye-opening books this year. I’m hoping to finish up a few more in the coming weeks and excited to crack on my list for 2018. Of course, it doesn’t matter how many books one reads, but what we get out of them and how it helps us in our lives. I got a lot out of the moments when I could go back and write about a book or jot down some passages and my thoughts in my journal. That’s something I hope to do a lot more of in 2018.

You can always check out my on-going Reading List.

Netflix Culture Deck: 7 Slides to Remember

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After listening to an NPR podcast about Netflix’s legendary culture deck (read here), I decided to take a look through the 125-slide presentation to get a better understanding. There were a lot of great points that resonated with me. Last week, I printed up the entire presentation for the Barrel leadership team and we read the slides together out loud. I know we’ll continue to discuss and adapt certain lessons in the coming weeks and months, but for now, I wanted to highlight 7 slides that stood out to me.

I would highly recommend taking a quick read through the entire deck. It doesn’t take too long, and it’ll provide greater context for these highlighted slides. At its core, Netflix’s culture deck is about building a team of high performers and setting them up in an environment that enables them to excel (a healthy amount of freedom & responsibility, strong context provided by managers with limited top-down control, and a comp/promotion system that rewards A-players efficiently).

#1 – Values are Shown By Who Gets Rewarded, Promoted, or Let Go

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I can’t agree with this enough. It took me a long time to grasp this, but nowadays, I know that who we hire, reward, promote, or fire is a direct reflection of our true values. What used to be fear of awkwardness and discomfort in confronting underperformance is, more often than not, replaced by a drive to stay true to our core values, which means being quick to reward, praise, and promote those who uphold and live our values and to address, remediate, or ultimately remove those who don’t uphold the values and fail to achieve consistently at a high level. We still have room to improve on this, but the concept is definitely top of mind.

#2 – The Keeper Test

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We’re not yet at a place where I can say I would “fight hard to keep at Barrel” unequivocally for every person at the company. I’m open to exploring the severance option in the future feel that we have a strong recruitment system to consistently feed high performing candidates. I can recall several instances over the years when I was relieved to get a resignation from an employee. That should’ve told me that I waited too long and would’ve benefited from being proactive about removing such team members. Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve!

#3 – Hard Word – Not Relevant

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I wrote previously that when employees don’t know or aren’t aligned on the goals of a project, they will often lean on their effort as a gauge of their performance. This is on the manager/leader of the project for not setting the proper context (#5 is about this).

Over the years, we’ve had instances when employees would demand higher compensation and promotions based on the hours they put in and all the “hard work” they had to endure. As managers, we would disagree with the results and quality of the work, which would then lead to drawn out meetings about comp numbers. We would, more often than not, give in to most demands afraid that the employee would otherwise leave and put us in a tough spot. The employee, even with the raise, would not be happy since the process was convoluted and unexpectedly difficult.

These days, we’re better about articulating goals and demanding results when we don’t see them. We make it clear when team members fall short on performance and if they did well, we are specific to point out how and why. There are, for the most part, no surprises when it comes to compensation reviews.

#4 – In Creative/Inventive Work, the Best Are 10X Better Than the Average

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I used to think this was a Silicon Valley platitude, but we’ve had some team members in recent years who’ve achieved 5x-10x results, and it accelerates all kinds of things for the business including better processes, happier clients, greater opportunities, and improved team morale. It’s not that they work longer hours or are technically more advanced. It’s a combination of the right attitude, a certain drive, curiosity, and intelligence that helps them focus, prioritize, and deliver solutions in a big way. While we may not have a 10x-er in every role, it’s worthwhile to want and to seek out those who’ll have such impact.

#5 – Managers: Are You Articulate and Inspiring Enough About Goals and Strategies?

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When working in creative teams, so much depends on the manager’s ability to set the context and to make sure the team understands what they’re trying to achieve and why. I know I can always work to improve in this area. A big part is overcoming the curse of knowledge bias, where I might assume that the team knows what I am talking about and skip certain information and concepts. I’ll have to be more effective in sharing, educating, and training the team on certain foundational knowledge that will help set the full context and set them on course to solve the right problems.

#6 – Highly Aligned, Loosely Coupled Model of Teamwork

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I think the Highly Aligned, Loosely Coupled model is one to continue aspiring towards. Right now, we are closer to a top-down structure where decisions and processes are established by the leadership team and then rolled out to the rest of the team. Given our small size, this isn’t as much of a problem right now, but if we are to continue growing and to have a higher ratio of high performing employees, then we’ll want to shift our culture to allow for less rigidity in process and more autonomy in decision-making based on the goals and strategy that’s been effectively articulated.

#7 – Three Necessary Conditions for Promotion

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We’ve made many mistakes on the promotions front. We’ve promoted people in the past just to keep them even though they may not have been stellar. We’ve promoted people to bring a sense of uniformity across departments even when performances was clearly uneven among team members. We’ve promoted people just because the number of years they worked at the company.

This slide is a painful yet great reminder that promotions need to be taken very seriously and need to be considered a very important statement about the company’s culture and values. We’ve become more cautious about this and have upped our expectations on the person’s readiness for the role and their ability to model our culture and values.

Conclusion

We take inspiration and ideas from a number of different sources. Netflix is just but one corporate culture and certainly not the only one that has an emphasis on high performance. Reading the culture deck was a productive exercise that forced us to reflect and view our practices from a different lens. We’ll continue to draw from various sources and march along this endless journey of refining and improving our company culture.

Managing Complex Change Applied to Projects

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Mel shared the Managing Complex Change model with me a couple years ago and it’s something that’s stayed in the back of my mind. I had trouble recalling all of its components, so I decided to make my own graphic version to help me remember it better.

I like this model because it breaks collaborative change into five distinct elements: Vision, Skills, Incentives, Resources, and Action Plan. I also like it because I think it applies as much to projects as it does to big organizational initiatives. At Barrel, our projects can be quite complex and involve various stakeholders on the client side as well as different team members and contractors on our side. When I think about projects that have gone off the rails, this model can be helpful in pinpointing the missing element or elements that contributed to poor outcomes.

Here’s a project-based look at each of the outcomes in the model and what I’ve observed:

Confusion: No Vision

Managing Complex Change: Confusion

When it’s not clear why we’re doing something for a client, the project can quickly spin out of control. I’ve written before that not being clear on the goals of a project can lead to team members focusing instead on effort and on activities that may or may not be of value to the client. The poor outcome in this case is not only confusion but a work product that may completely miss the client’s expectations while the team may have poured a lot of energy into producing something they thought was great.

Anxiety: No Skills

Managing Complex Change: Anxiety

Tasking a team with little or no experience on a certain type of assignment and not providing the time or the training guidance to quickly ramp up on the skills can put a stressful strain that causes anxiety. I struggle with this from time to time because a part of me wants to challenge team members and put them in new situations. Sometimes they step up to the challenge and exceed expectations, but there are also times when they really struggle. I don’t know if there is a clear cut way to avoid this and it’s often a case-by-case situation, but having a culture of continuous growth and learning (a core value at Barrel) that is supported by on-going skills training and professional development along with paired project experiences, where someone with prior experience on a certain assignment can model for the inexperienced team member, may help us avoid too many anxiety-inducing situations.

Gradual Change: No Incentives

Managing Complex Change: Gradual Change

I wonder if “slow change” might be a better fit for this particular scenario. Incentives can be a number of things, but it really boils down to what’s in it for each of the involved team members. I think alignment of incentives starts with having the right people in the right roles, which provides inherent motivation for the team member to excel at whatever is assigned to them. At a project level, it may be worthwhile as the project lead to highlight for each team member what the opportunities are at an individual level. For example, for a designer at Barrel, the opportunity might be something like “this is a really great chance to know the ins and outs of this e-commerce business and to design something eye-catching for your portfolio” while for a developer, the opportunity might be something along the lines of “you can sharpen your skills with this particular technology and also take lessons you learned from the last project and push yourself to do this a lot faster.” Of course, it’s important to have a good understanding of and relationship with the team member in order to highlight the opportunities that truly get them excited and for them to view such as incentives.

Frustration: No Resources

Managing Complex Change: Frustration

The lack of resources is a recurring challenge for a people-intensive business like Barrel. We sometimes have too many projects and not enough people to get them done. People may get double-booked or a contractor might become unavailable at the last minute. One way we’ve gotten around this is by being as diligent about resourcing as possible. We try to look out weeks or months at a time to see if there are potential resourcing issues looming and we also try to stock up on various freelancer contacts in order to have them available for hire when the time comes. In our business, resources can be managed well by smart and consistent planning. At a project level, the lack of budget can be another source of frustration, especially if the client expects more. This problem can be avoided if we take the time to detail what’s possible for a limited budget and set expectations. Big problems emerge when we’ve failed to lay out what’s possible (and what isn’t) and instead have to react to client requests. It’s not that they’re trying to annoy or unfairly get more. More times than not, we just haven’t done a good job of communicating and providing guidance on what resources it takes to get something done.

False Start: No Action Plan

Managing Complex Change: False Start

I used to be a big perpetrator of false starts: good vision, some skills, got people excited (incentives), and put resources in place, but not enough time spent putting together a plan. These days, I try my best to write out a vision and action plan first before going out to put a team together. When you fail to have an action plan, you’re pretty much “winging it” and while this might work from time to time, it exposes you to breakdowns and sloppy decision-making. I find the act of putting together an action plan extremely valuable because it forces me to think about potential risks and roadblocks and pushes me to address these in a proactive manner. It also makes me prioritize tasks and think hard about the sequence of the project, thereby also acting as a filter on what we shouldn’t do. Without an action plan, a project can quickly get derailed, especially if resources are allocated towards non-critical tasks that suck up time and don’t move things forward. I’ve accepted action plans as a default for all projects. The on-going challenge is figuring out the right balance between an action plan that is super detailed / overly prescriptive and one that is too loose / flexible. Creating an action plan that has enough structure and details to serve as a foundation while giving some slack for improvised problem-solving doesn’t come easy. It’s a practice that I hope to continue to fine-tune and get better at as I work on initiatives and projects of all kinds.

The Spiritual Journey

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I read Homo Deus by Yuval Harari back in March and one passage that stuck with me was his take on spirituality and why religions are anything but spiritual. Harari defines religion as such:

Religion is any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values. It legitimises human social structures by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws.

Religion asserts that we humans are subject to a system of moral laws that we did not invent and that we cannot change. A devout Jew would say that this is the system of moral laws created by God and revealed in the Bible. A Hindu would say that Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva created the laws, which were revealed to us humans in the Vedas. Other religions, from Buddhism and Daoism to communism, Nazism and liberalism, argue that the so-called superhuman laws are natural laws, and not the creation of this or that god. Of course, each believes in a different set of natural laws discovered and revealed by different seers and prophets, from Buddha and Laozi to Marx and Hitler.

Keep this in mind as you read the next passage:

The assertion that religion is a tool for preserving social order and for organising large-scale cooperation may vex those for whom it represents first and foremost a spiritual path. However, just as the gap between religion and science is narrower than we commonly think, so the gap between religion and spirituality is much wider. Religion is a deal, whereas spirituality is a journey.

Religion gives a complete description of the world, and offers us a well-defined contract with predetermined goals. ‘God exists. He told us to behave in certain ways. If you obey God, you’ll be admitted to heaven. If you disobey Him, you’ll burn in hell.’ The very clarity of this deal allows society to define common norms and values that regulate human behaviour.

Spiritual journeys are nothing like that. They usually take people in mysterious ways towards unknown destinations. The quest usually begins with some big question, such as who am I? What is the meaning of life? What is good? Whereas most people just accept the ready-made answers provided by the powers that be, spiritual seekers are not so easily satisfied. They are determined to follow the big question wherever it leads, and not just to places they know well or wish to visit. Thus for most people, academic studies are a deal rather than a spiritual journey, because they take us to a predetermined goal approved by our elders, governments and banks. ‘I’ll study for three years, pass the exams, get my BA certificate and secure a well-paid job.’ Academic studies might be transformed into a spiritual journey if the big questions you encounter on the way deflect you towards unexpected destinations, of which you could hardly even conceive at first. For example, a student might begin to study economics in order to secure a job on Wall Street. However, if what she learns somehow induces her to end up in a Hindu ashram or helping HIV patients in Zimbabwe, then we could call that a spiritual journey.

Why label such a voyage ‘spiritual’? This is a legacy from ancient dualist religions that believed in the existence of two gods, one good and one evil. According to dualism, the good god created pure and everlasting souls that lived in a blissful world of spirit. However, the evil god –sometimes named Satan –created another world, made of matter. Satan didn’t know how to make his creation endure, hence in the world of matter everything rots and disintegrates. In order to breathe life into his defective creation, Satan tempted souls from the pure world of spirit, and confined them inside material bodies. That’s what a human is –a good spiritual soul trapped inside an evil material body. Since the soul’s prison –the body –decays and eventually dies, Satan ceaselessly tempts the soul with bodily delights, and above all with food, sex and power. When the body disintegrates and the soul has the opportunity to escape back to the spiritual world, its craving for bodily pleasures lures it back inside some new material body. The soul thus transmigrates from body to body, wasting its days in pursuit of food, sex and power.

Dualism instructs people to break these material shackles and undertake a journey back to the spiritual world, which is totally unfamiliar to us, but is our true home. During this quest we must reject all material temptations and deals. Due to this dualist legacy, every journey on which we doubt the conventions and deals of the mundane world and venture forth towards an unknown destination is called a ‘spiritual’ journey.

 

With this definition of spirituality, how many of us are truly on a spiritual journey? I suspect very few people can honestly say they reject all material temptations and deals and pursue big questions relentlessly.

If anything, I’m reminded of all the religions, in Harari’s definition of the word, that I follow and how little I question their tenets–liberalism, and the belief in the equality of all people; capitalism, and the belief in trade and markets; animalism, and the belief that all animals are sentient beings; and various others that I’m sure have labels I don’t even know about.

If I was to characterize anything that I do as “spiritual”, it may be moments like this when I can take a step back for an hour and ask myself why it is that I believe in the things that I do, how it is that I came to those beliefs, and if it makes sense for me to continue believing in the same things. It’s likely that I’ll soon get tired or bored and return to the various distractions and obligations of life, but it’s also possible that a certain strain of thought may lead me to change my position on something, to pursue a new belief, or to slightly tweak an existing perspective. This practice–the occasional reflection and thought exercise on a few big questions–is a good safeguard against having ossified beliefs that make it tough for me to accept an alternative worldview. And I can’t discount the importance of reading and how books can spark these meditative moments.

I’ll leave you with this last bit from Harari on the cycle that turns spiritual journeys, which sought to question if not destroy existing belief systems, into established belief systems of their own:

From a historical perspective, the spiritual journey is always tragic, for it is a lonely path fit only for individuals rather than for entire societies. Human cooperation requires firm answers rather than just questions, and those who fume against stultified religious structures often end up forging new structures in their place. It happened to the dualists, whose spiritual journeys became religious establishments. It happened to Martin Luther, who after challenging the laws, institutions and rituals of the Catholic Church found himself writing new law books, founding new institutions and inventing new ceremonies. It happened even to Buddha and Jesus. In their uncompromising quest for the truth they subverted the laws, rituals and structures of traditional Hinduism and Judaism. But eventually more laws, more rituals and more structures were created in their names than in the name of any other person in history.

 

Favorite Quotes from The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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I recently finished reading The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a novel about a double spy agent during and after the Vietnam War. It was one of the more memorable fiction reads I’ve had in a while. I really enjoyed Nguyen’s style of writing and found myself highlighting a number of passages. I’ve been trying to get better in general about revisiting books I’ve read and re-reading my highlights. With The Sympathizer, I found it a very worthwhile exercise and got more out of reading these passages a second time.

This post will best serve a future me who can reminisce about the book some months or years from now. For those who haven’t read the book, I hope some of these passages can be a motivating teaser.

On Race, America, and Speaking English

The narrator, who was born to a Vietnamese mother and a French priest, continues to revisit his mixed-race identity and his “two selves” that seem at odds with each other. He reminisces his experience in college, which he attended in the US, where his ability to speak fluent English seemed to surprise people:

On meeting in person, my interlocutor was invariably astonished at my appearance and would almost always inquire as to how I had learned to speak English so well. In this jackfruit republic that served as a franchise of the United States, Americans expected me to be like those millions who spoke no English, pidgin English, or accented English. I resented their expectation. That was why I was always eager to demonstrate, in both spoken and written word, my mastery of their language. My vocabulary was broader, my grammar more precise than the average educated American.

A character named Ms. Mori works in the same Asian studies department as the narrator. She is a fiery 46-year-old who becomes a love interest and is not shy about sharing her views on race and identity in America. She criticizes the narrator for what looks like his willingness to please white people:

You’ve mastered the inscrutable Oriental smile, sitting there nodding and wrinkling your brow sympathetically and letting people go on, thinking you’re perfectly in agreement with everything they say, all without saying a word yourself. What do you say to that?

She goes on talk critically about the head of their department, an old white professor who fetishes all things Asian:

I can’t help but feel he’s a little disappointed in me because I don’t bow whenever I see him. When he interviewed me, he wanted to know whether I spoke any Japanese. I explained that I was born in Gardena. He said, Oh, you nisei, as if knowing that one word means he knows something about me. You’ve forgotten your culture, Ms. Mori, even though you’re only second generation. Your issei parents, they hung on to their culture. Don’t you want to learn Japanese? Don’t you want to visit Nippon? For a long time I felt bad. I wondered why I didn’t want to learn Japanese, why I didn’t already speak Japanese, why I would rather go to Paris or Istanbul or Barcelona rather than Tokyo. But then I thought, Who cares? Did anyone ask John F. Kennedy if he spoke Gaelic and visited Dublin or if he ate potatoes every night or if he collected paintings of leprechauns? So why are we supposed to not forget our culture? Isn’t my culture right here since I was born here? Of course I didn’t ask him those questions. I just smiled and said, You’re so right, sir. She sighed. It’s a job. But I’ll tell you something else. Ever since I got it straight in my head that I haven’t forgotten a damn thing, that I damn well know my culture, which is American, and my language, which is English, I’ve felt like a spy in that man’s office. On the surface, I’m just plain old Ms. Mori, poor little thing who’s lost her roots, but underneath, I’m Sofia and you better not fuck with me.

Later, at a wedding, Ms. Mori is irked that the Congressman, an honored guest at the event, gets heavy applause after his speech that ends with a chant in Vietnamese:

Typical white man behavior, Ms. Mori said. Have you ever noticed how a white man can learn a few words of some Asian language and we just eat it up? He could ask for a glass of water and we’d treat him like Einstein. Sonny smiled and wrote that down, too. You’ve been here longer than we have, Ms. Mori, he said with some admiration. Have you noticed that when we Asians speak English, it better be nearly perfect or someone’s going to make fun of our accent? It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been here, Ms. Mori said. White people will always think we’re foreigners.

The narrator is invited to the home of a Francis Ford Coppola-like director after providing detailed notes on a movie script that is to be about the Vietnam War. He is greeted by the assistant Violet, a white woman who seems to regard him with disdain.

What she saw when she looked at me must have been my yellowness, my slightly smaller eyes, and the shadow cast by the ill fame of the Oriental’s genitals, those supposedly minuscule privates disparaged on many a public restroom wall by semiliterates. I might have been just half an Asian, but in America it was all or nothing when it came to race. You were either white or you weren’t. Funnily enough, I had never felt inferior because of my race during my foreign student days. I was foreign by definition and therefore was treated as a guest. But now, even though I was a card-carrying American with a driver’s license, Social Security card, and resident alien permit, Violet still considered me as foreign, and this misrecognition punctured the smooth skin of my self-confidence. Was I just being paranoid, that all-American characteristic? Maybe Violet was stricken with colorblindness, the willful inability to distinguish between white and any other color, the only infirmity Americans wished for themselves. But as she advanced along the polished bamboo floors, steering clear of the dusky maid vacuuming a Turkish rug, I just knew it could not be so. The flawlessness of my English did not matter. Even if she could hear me, she still saw right through me, or perhaps saw someone else instead of me, her retinas burned with the images of all the castrati dreamed up by Hollywood to steal the place of real Asian men. Here I speak of those cartoons named Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan, Number One Son, Hop Sing—Hop Sing!—and the bucktoothed, bespectacled Jap not so much played as mocked by Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The performance was so insulting it even deflated my fetish for Audrey Hepburn, understanding as I did her implicit endorsement of such loathsomeness.

The narrator recalls a moment during the war when he was tasked with torturing a Viet Cong prisoner. One of the techniques was to blare music that would keep the prisoner awake. He opts for country music and shares his thoughts on why it was an apt choice for the moment:

Country music was the most segregated kind of music in America, where even whites played jazz and even blacks sang in the opera. Something like country music was what lynch mobs must have enjoyed while stringing up their black victims. Country music was not necessarily lynching music, but no other music could be imagined as lynching’s accompaniment. Beethoven’s Ninth was the opus for Nazis, concentration camp commanders, and possibly President Truman as he contemplated atomizing Hiroshima, classical music the refined score for the high-minded extermination of brutish hordes. Country music was set to the more humble beat of the red-blooded, bloodthirsty American heartland. It was for fear of being beaten to this beat that black soldiers avoided the Saigon bars where their white comrades kept the jukeboxes humming with Hank Williams and his kind, sonic signposts that said, in essence, No Niggers.

On Women and Sex

The narrator has a complex history with women. He often reflects and laments the early death of his mother, who succumbed to illness in her thirties. She had him when she was a young teenager, exploited by an older priest who would become the narrator’s father. There is a long passage in which he describes his rampant puberty-stricken desire to masturbate, which leads him to defile a squid, a highly prized ingredient for a poor family, only to see it later used by his mother in her dish. There are heavy doses of Oedipal conflict throughout the book that now seem more apparent to me in revisiting these passages. For this section, I picked a few quotes that demonstrate the narrator’s view of the opposite sex.

Waiting at an army base during the Fall of Saigon, the narrator observes the prostitutes who have managed to be included in the air lift out of Vietnam. He then makes a more general observation about prostitutes:

I had an abiding respect for the professionalism of career prostitutes, who wore their dishonesty more openly than lawyers, both of whom bill by the hour. But to speak only of the financial side misses the point. The proper way to approach a prostitute is to adapt the attitude of a theatergoer, sitting back and suspending disbelief for the duration of the show. The improper way is to doltishly insist that the play is just a bunch of people putting on charades because you have paid the price of the ticket, or, conversely, to believe utterly in what you are watching and hence succumb to a mirage. For example, grown men who sneer at the idea of unicorns will tearfully testify to the existence of an even rarer, more mythical species. Found only in remote ports of call and the darkest, deepest reaches of the most insalubrious taverns, this is the prostitute in whose chest beats the proverbial heart of gold. Let me assure you, if there is one part of a prostitute that is made of gold, it is not her heart. That some believe otherwise is a tribute to the conscientious performer.  

The narrator, at a wedding, boldly decides to flirt with the daughter of the General, his longtime boss who still commands him in America. He subscribes to, with success, his approach in impressing a young woman.

Sitting down next to Lana and thinking of nothing, I merely followed my instincts and my first three principles in talking to a woman: do not ask permission; do not say hello; and do not let her speak first.

And then he struggles to keep his eyes away from her chest:

All this time I kept my gaze fixed on hers, an enormously difficult task given the gravitational pull exerted by her cleavage. While I was critical of many things when it came to so-called Western civilization, cleavage was not one of them. The Chinese might have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage, with profound if underappreciated implications. A man gazing on semi-exposed breasts was not only engaging in simple lasciviousness, he was also meditating, even if unawares, on the visual embodiment of the verb “to cleave,” which meant both to cut apart and to put together. A woman’s cleavage perfectly illustrated this double and contradictory meaning, the breasts two separate entities with one identity. The double meaning was also present in how cleavage separated a woman from a man and yet drew him to her with the irresistible force of sliding down a slippery slope.

I found this passage to be another example of the “two selves” theme that comes up again and again throughout the novel. The narrator exhibits his carnal desire through his gaze of Lana, his more basic, animal self, all while showing his erudite, civilized self in deconstructing the word and meaning of “cleavage.”

Misc.

I also highlighted some sentences here and there because I loved how they sounded and admired their construction.

It is always better to admire the best among our foes rather than the worst among our friends.

So it was that we soaped ourselves in sadness and we rinsed ourselves with hope, and for all that we believed almost every rumor we heard, almost all of us refused to believe that our nation was dead.

The emotional residue of that night was like a drop of arsenic falling into the still waters of my soul, nothing having changed from the taste of it but everything now tainted.

But while science fiction imagined time travelers as moving forward or backward in time, this timepiece demonstrated a different chronology. The open secret of the clock, naked for all to see, was that we were only going in circles.

They’re beautiful, which may or may not have been a lie. They were not beautiful to me, but they were beautiful to her.

What do those who struggle against power do when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe, as so many around us apparently do, in nothing? We can only answer these questions for ourselves.

The Importance of Training in an Organization

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Training is, quite simply, one of the highest-leverage activities a manager can perform. Consider for a moment the possibility of your putting on a series of four lectures for members of your department. Let’s count on three hours of preparation for each hour of course time–twelve hours of work in total. Say that you have ten students in your class. Next year they will work a total of about twenty thousand hours for your organization. If your training efforts result in a 1 percent improvement in your subordinates’ performance, your company will gain the equivalent of two hundred hours of work as the result of the expenditure of your twelve hours.

This assumes, of course, that the training accurately address what students need to know to do their jobs better. This isn’t always so–particularly with respect to the “canned courses” taught by someone from outside. For training to be effective, it has to be closely tied to how things are actually done in your organization.

– Andy S. Grove, High Output Management

Things have been going more smoothly at Barrel than I can ever remember. Sure, we have our occasional fire drills and challenges with clients, employees, and contractors, but overall, there’s a degree of stability, accountability, and consistency that feels… great. The more I think about why we’re enjoying such a period, the more I believe that training has a lot to do with it.

At Barrel, training happens in a number of ways. Each discipline has a lead who owns training for that group and dedicates time each week to ensuring that learning happens. Sei-Wook, Lucas, and Wes have done an amazing job in making sure our Project Management, Design, and Development teams, respectively, are constantly learning new things, reflecting on mistakes/difficulties and turning them into lessons, and building processes to avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future.

In my case, I oversee our Growth Marketing team. We meet for 90 minutes every Thursday. I typically use that time to introduce new topics in areas such as email marketing, analytics, site optimization, or paid media. Many of these sessions include a great deal of drawing on the whiteboard and use of real client data to illustrate examples. Some sessions are devoted to collaborative problem-solving, where we tackle an especially challenging task together as a group while I also play the role of instructor who asks questions and nudges the students to making the right decisions on their own. I’ve seen over time the impact that training has had on our Growth Marketing team: they’ve grown more comfortable and confident in talking about various topics related to our discipline; they’ve become technically more proficient and adept at getting tasks done; and they’ve started to ask better questions that lead to better outcomes. Outside of my discipline, I’ve seen similar impact across the entire company as we’ve kept up our training.

My only regret is that I haven’t been as consistent in devoting my time to planning and giving full attention to these training sessions. There have been periods of intense training and then, in busy times, some lazier last-second planning that haven’t been as fruitful. This is why I thought it would be good to excerpt Andy Grove’s thoughts on training above. It is indeed one of the highest-leverage activities I can engage in, and something I need to be reminded of every now and then.

Other ways that training happens at Barrel include:

  • Peer-to-peer training, where co-workers within a discipline or across different disciplines, help each other learn new skills and processes. As managers, we try to encourage as many opportunities for this to happen as possible, often involving different team members in new employee onboarding or having team members present learning topics to each other.
  • External experts, where we bring in someone from outside the company to share their knowledge and to help us better understand topics that are less familiar to us. These engagements require investment and can get pricey, but for the right topics that are directly relevant to our client work, they can be very helpful. In certain cases, the expert may actually just confirm what we already know and have figured out on our own–instead, they help us validate and feel more confident about our abilities.

I think what’s been different recently than in the past is that training as an activity feels a lot more concerted and constant. Sei-Wook and I reflected on how we’ve come around to investing more of our time in the training of our team, whereas in the past, we may have hoped to hire for certain skills and assumed that merely bringing in someone would solve our issues. When I look back on a post written 3 years ago, I can see that I didn’t quite grasp the importance of training, just mentioning it once in passing. To truly build capacity within an organization, I believe what’s required is a commitment to training and real time and resources spent by the management team to foster a culture of continuous learning and growth. It’s not something that we do when client work is slow and people have time on their hands. Instead, it’s a built-in habit that gets reinforced during the weekly discipline team meetings, check-ins with various account teams, and in one-on-one discussions with team members. Any and all problems that come up having to do with execution, project management, and clients’ expectations have clear channels that flow into action. Our weekly meeting among the Partners serves as a very effective forum where we surface client and employee issues and quickly generate To Do’s that make their way into training sessions and new documentation for our processes. Seeing how we operate, our employees have become a lot more comfortable bringing up their observations and requesting that we address issues that they feel are problematic or could use improvement. Every week, there’s potential for everyone on the team to further their training and to become more effective at what they do. To see this in action has been very rewarding. Of course, the work continues and this week is yet another opportunity.

Level, Listen, and Leave Yourself Out

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“Preparing and delivering a performance assessment is one of the hardest tasks you’ll have to perform as a manager.” – Andy S. Grove, High Output Management

I’ve been re-reading sections of High Output Management by Andy Grove of Intel fame (he was president and then CEO at Intel during its years of incredible growth; Grove passed away in March 2016). There are a lot of valuable nuggets throughout the book. I wanted to highlight a section from his chapter “Performance Appraisal: Manager as Judge and Jury” because I thought it would serve as a great reminder for myself whenever I have to engage in performance reviews of employees at work. Grove introduces what he calls the “three L’s” to keep in mind when delivering performance reviews:

  • Level: be honest and straightforward in giving both praise and criticism to the employee
  • Listen: employ all your senses to make sure that the employee has fully understood what you are trying to communicate; in addition to using words, be sure to watch how the employee receives and reacts to the messages, and keep at it until you’re sure the employee is on the same page
  • Leave yourself out: giving performance reviews is tough and can bring out emotions in not only the employee but you as the reviewer; control your emotions and focus on the fact that the review is all about the employee and his/her performance

The section is called “Deliver the Assessment” and here’s basically the full text:

There are three L’s to keep in mind when delivering a review: Level, listen, and leave yourself out.

You must level with your subordinate–the credibility and integrity of the entire system depend on your being totally frank. And don’t be surprised to find that praising someone in a straightforward fashion can be just as hard as criticizing him without embarrassment.

The word “listen” has special meaning here. The aim of communication is to transmit thoughts from the brain of person A to the brain of person B. Thoughts in the head of A are first converted into words, which are enunciated and via sound waves reach the ear of B; as nerve impulses they travel to his brain, where they are transformed back into thoughts and presumably kept. Should person A use a tape recorder to confirm the words used in the review? The answer is an emphatic no. Words themselves are nothing but a means; getting the right thought communicated is the end. Perhaps B has become so emotional that he can’t understand something that would be perfectly clear to anyone else. Perhaps B has become so preoccupied trying to formulate answers he can’t really listen and get A’s message. Perhaps B has tuned out and as a defense is thinking of going fishing. All of these possibilities can and do occur, and all the more so when A’s message is laden with conflict.

How then can you be sure you are being truly heard? What techniques can you employ? Is it enough to have your subordinate paraphrase your words? I don’t think so. What you must do is employ all of your sensory capabilities. To make sure you’re being heard, you should watch the person you are talking to. Remember, the more complex the issue, the more prone communication is to being lost. Does your subordinate give appropriate responses to what you are saying? Does he allow himself to receive your message? If his responses–verbal and nonverbal–do not completely assure you that what you’ve said has gotten through, it is your responsibility to keep at it until you are satisfied that you have been heard and understood.

This is what I mean by listening: employing your entire arsenal of sensory capabilities to make certain your points are being properly interpreted by your subordinate’s brain. All the intelligence and good faith used to prepare your review will produce nothing unless this occurs. Your tool, to say it again, is total listening.

Every good classroom teacher works in the same way. He knows when what he is saying is being understood by his students. If it isn’t, he takes heed and explains things or explains things in a different way. All of us have had professors who lectured by looking at the blackboard, mumbling to it, and carefully avoiding direct eye contact with the class. The reason: knowing that their presentation was murky and incomprehensible, these teachers looked away from their audience to avoid confirming visually what they already knew. So don’t imitate your worst professors while delivering performance reviews. Listen with all your might to make sure your subordinate is receiving your message, and don’t stop delivering it until you are satisfied that he is.

The third L is “leave yourself out.” It is very important for you to understand that the performance review is about and for your subordinate. So your own insecurities, anxieties, guilt, or whatever should be kept out of it. At issue are the subordinate’s problems, not the supervisor’s, and it is the subordinate’s day in court. Anyone called upon to assess the performance of another person is likely to have strong emotions before and during the review, just as actors have stage fright. You should work to control these emotions so that they don’t affect your task, though they will well up no matter how many reviews you’ve given.

I’ve given over 100 performance reviews during my years at Barrel. We’ve made many tweaks to the format over the years, and yet, I know there’s still room for improvement. Looking back, the best reviews are those that have had proper preparation, solid documentation, and a session in which I was able to follow through on the 3 L’s–I gave frank, straightforward praises and critiques; the “listening” was evident in a productive communication flow; and I was able to avoid making any of part of the discussion about myself, keeping the focus totally on the employee. The challenge for myself and our organization is to raise the quality and consistency of our reviews so that even during very busy times, we are able to provide our team members with helpful and productive performance assessments that not only look back on their past work but help them chart the course for substantial improvements in the following weeks and months.

How (and Why) I Built an E-commerce Store in Under 8 Hours

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AgencyDocs is a collection of documents and templates based on our work at Barrel. It’s an e-commerce store where other agency owners or managers can buy things like our employee onboarding checklist, our project brief template, or our functional spec document.

Back in 2013, I wrote how I would gladly have paid for access to another agency’s documents to see how they did things. Over the years, we’ve seen bits and pieces of various documents through our association with various agency groups and with employees who worked at other companies before coming to ours. But I still felt that a website with a well-organized cache of docs could be a good resource, especially for new, up-and-coming firms who perhaps did not have many processes figured out.

I’ve launched various internal projects at Barrel over the years that were exciting, fun, and ultimately very painful. These projects included: a WordPress theme for viral marketing (over 40,000 downloads); a project-tracking software-as-a-service (SaaS) tool (over 10,000 users); three Shopify themes (installed on over 2,000 e-commerce stores); and a performance management tool for 360-style reviews on projects (never publicly released). While I am proud that these projects served various customers well and were of good quality, I regret the haphazard planning (100% my fault) that put our internal resources in a crunch and also left many of these products half-baked in the long-run due to neglect. It was only earlier this year that we shut down the last of these projects after a prolonged and annoying wind-down process.

With AgencyDocs, I vowed to learn from my lesson. I wanted to launch something that followed these rules:

  1. The project must directly benefit our core business, which is serving our clients.
  2. The project should not require any design or web development resources and should be something that our leadership team can handle without assistance.

To the first point, AgencyDocs has made it necessary for us to examine our own processes and to take account of what’s working well and what isn’t. In order for us to generate documents that may ultimately be useful to many other agencies, we’ve had to streamline some to be more flexible and generic. This process has presented an opportunity for us to improve existing documents and to question decisions we made some time ago. In my book, this is a direct benefit to our core business.

Another reason why AgencyDocs benefits our core business is that it can serve as a sandbox for us to test out various e-commerce tools and digital marketing tactics. I think having our own live e-commerce website with real customers will give us a golden opportunity to experiment with some interesting ideas and fine-tune them before rolling them out to our clients.

To the second point, this is where I promised myself not to start on a project that might eventually become a time suck for the rest of the team. My initial impulse was to get a few hours from a designer to get some branding done and a developer to help with the site theme, but then I told myself that I should try to do it all on my own.

The Store is the Easy Part

We build most of our clients’ e-commerce website on Shopify. It’s a fast-growing platform that’s become more ubiquitous in recent years. I personally like how easy it is to use and appreciate the attention they’ve put into the admin experience.

To get AgencyDocs started, I fired up a dev store using our Barrel Shopify Partner portal. This is not so different from signing up for a 14-day free trial off the Shopify site. I then went in and browsed for an appropriate theme to use. I actually liked the default Debut theme that was already installed, so I left things the way they were.

Shopify Theme customizer

Customizing the theme in Shopify was as easy as filling out a few fields.

Next, I went through the online store settings and quickly filled out and updated everything. These are some of the key things I did in about an hour’s worth of time:

  • Customized homepage settings (Online Store >> Themes >> Customize) by changing logo, font, text/link colors, the sections on the page, the images, and the text
    • I created the logo in Adobe Illustrator. Took me about 5 minutes. I used Avenir Next Condensed and picked a shade of blue.
    • I found a stock image for the hero from Unsplash, a site where you can get free images to use on your projects.
    • I also pulled an image from our Barrel team photo collection.
    • I kept the copy brief and wrote what I thought would appeal to an agency owner.
  • Customized the website navigation (Online Store >> Navigation) by simplifying the footer nav and adding a few links to the main top menu
  • Filled out everything under Preferences (Online Store >> Preferences)
    • Title and meta description: I played around with variations of the tagline and came up with a short description that would show up on search engine results.
    • Google Analytics: I created a profile under our Barrel Analytics account and pasted the tracking ID here
    • Facebook Pixel: I created an Ad Account under Facebook Business Manager, generated a pixel, and pasted the ID here
  • Set up payment provider (Settings >> Payments)
    • Selected Shopify Payments, which runs on Stripe, as our payment provider (2.9% + 30¢ per transaction for the $29/month Shopify plan that we’re on; it’s less for higher plans)
  • Customize checkout page (Settings >> Checkout) to add the logo and adjust some colors and to make sure refund, privacy policy, and terms of service text are in place.

I then installed a couple of apps to the store: Digital Downloads, which lets you attach files to products that become available after customers pay and MailChimp for Shopify, which helps connect Shopify with MailChimp, a popular email marketing tool.

AgencyDocs MailChimp and Shopify

Once you connect your Shopify account with MailChimp, you’ll be able to customize a pop-up and various automated emails from the Connected Sites section.

Once MailChimp was in place, I spent an hour customizing various elements. These included:

  • A welcome email that gave customers a free “gift” document, a checklist to use before kicking off a project and before launching a website.
  • A pop-up form encouraging people to sign up for our email list.
  • An abandoned cart email that goes out when people add a product to cart but don’t check out.
  • A product retargeting email that suggests different products to people who visited the site and viewed products.

I didn’t change the design much other than uploading the logo. I spent most of my time tweaking some copy. By setting these automations up, I know that MailChimp will ping customers and guide them to take different actions without me doing anything.

With these fairly straightforward steps, the skeleton of the website was in place. All I would need to do is write some content for the FAQ, upload the product, and get a domain name registered. Of course, one of those things, the product, would be the most important part of this entire project.

The Product

AgencyDocs products

The documents, our core product for AgencyDocs, is the most time-consuming and most valuable part of the e-commerce website.

Before I started on the website, my goal was to get together about 10 or so docs before officially launching. Before that, I set a goal to get 4 docs in place before doing a soft launch where I would get the website live, show it to some friends, and get some feedback. The 4 docs I decided to put up were:

  • Ops Checklist: what we use to track various HR, finance, and office activities that need to happen each day, week, and month (also comes with a Supplies Inventory Checklist)
  • Client Intake Questionnaire: what we use at the start of new client engagements to learn about our clients, their industry, their customers, and their goals
  • Project Brief: the document we use to inform our internal team of a client, the project’s objectives, and various details about what we need to get done prior to kickoff
  • Employee Onboarding Checklist: what we use to ensure that new team members are properly set up and equipped to begin their role at Barrel
AgencyDocs Product Descriptions

I spent a good amount of time writing the product descriptions to help potential customers know how and when these docs were used at Barrel.

Each product required a thorough review of the doc to ensure that they were general enough to be of value to another agency. I edited places where I thought the description or text was too specific to something we did internally and also added some guiding text to provide context. I stripped each doc of our Barrel branding so that they would be generic files that could easily be copied and pasted into another agency’s branded template.

After making sure the doc was in a good place, I spent a good chunk of time writing the product description and creating a thumbnail showing a zoomed out view of the doc to show how many pages and text density the customer could expect. For each description, I tried to be very specific about how and when we used these docs and how they helped our team. I know that not every doc will be useful to every agency, but my hope is that certain descriptions will hit a chord with an agency owner going through a specific pain point that can be mitigated by referencing our doc.

I created the product entries in Shopify, loaded in the text and image, and uploaded the file using the Digital Downloads app. All in, the product part of the e-commerce website probably took up 80% of my time. So if you really break it down, the website component that displays content and takes people through a checkout process probably took no more than 90 minutes and the rest of the 8 hours was spent on product. This, of course, is further distorted by the fact that I’ve not created any products from scratch but merely repurposed existing assets. Our checklists, project brief, and questionnaires took shape through the investment of many hours over the course of many years. Some have been tested on dozens of projects, clients, and employees. We’ve tweaked, refined, and rebuilt these docs countless times. Luckily for me, that work was already done in advance so that I may just make mostly cosmetic adjustments. For many others pursuing an e-commerce business, getting the product right will take 99.5% of the time and just 0.5% to deploy on a website. That is probably a more prudent ratio.

Just Halfway There

Now that the website is live and I’ve gotten very close to getting 10 docs up, the halfway point is near. Now the work of marketing and reaching the right people will become my primary focus, and there’s a great deal to be done. I’ve been compiling a list of influencers and giving away copies of docs to various agency owners for free in the hopes of generating some buzz. I’ll be leveraging my membership in different agency groups to offer special deals to members. I’m also compiling a list of various freelancer and website design and development blogs that I can hit up for a mention or blog post about our offering. This is nuts and bolts marketing work, the stuff that requires patience and discipline. I’ll also have to queue up some retargeting ads to serve on Facebook.

I don’t know what to expect from this project. It may end up selling well or it may not sell much at all. Either way, I’m not too worried because it’s something that I’ve kept very contained in terms of time and money investment. Beyond the Shopify $29/month fee and $11.99 for annual domain renewal, there are no other significant costs. I’ve asked my partners to pitch in a few hours here and there to clean up some existing docs that we can use as products. Other than this, it’s mostly an hour or so a day that I’ll be spending to see if this sticks. I’m in no rush and I’m happy to keep this up for a year or longer. If I come across young, up-and-coming creative entrepreneurs starting their own agencies, I’ll tell them to check the site out and maybe give them a discount code or just shoot all the docs to them for free. What I’m most excited for is to keep on growing the library of documents as we continue to streamline processes internally and have good things to share with others. And as a secondary benefit, I hope to try some innovative and interesting experiments with marketing to see how potential customers react and if anything sticks.

It always satisfying to engage in deep activity that brings an idea to life. With AgencyDocs, an idea that’s been percolating for some years now, I’m looking forward to nurturing its growth.

 

My Personal Finance Stack

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I’ve been revisiting the way I handle my personal finances in recent months and thought it would be good to list out my “personal finance stack” – the different accounts, tools, and workflows I have in place to handle my finances.

Back in March 2015, I wrote about how I had missed golden opportunities in my twenties to invest earlier (see blog post). It was only when I turned thirty that I seriously considered putting my money to work through various purchases of stocks and index funds. In the 2.5 years since I wrote that post, I’ve continued to put aside the majority of my income into various investments, but the allocation of these funds have changed somewhat.

First, I took all my money out of Betterment, an investing service that promises to manage money in a smart way for very low fees. I did not like the idea of constant tinkering and rebalancing that Betterment did on a weekly basis. I came to feel, whether rightly or wrongly we’ll see in time, that placing big bets on a handful of companies that I felt strongly about would be the way to go. In my mind, I thought about what Warren Buffett has said about a 20-slot punch card when investing: imagine that with each stock purchase, you punch a hole in the card, and after 20 punches, you can never buy again–how would that change the approach to the way you pick your stocks?

Without going into exact details, I bought a good chunk of shares of a tech company that I felt was still capable of long-term growth, not too different than what Microsoft was before the release of Windows 95. Later on, I would identify for myself another tech company that I felt very bullish about and allocated a good amount of my income to its stocks. My plan, and this is what Buffett was essentially preaching, is to believe in and hold on to these stocks for a very long time–maybe 10, 20, or even 30 years–and not worry about the choppy swings of the short-term.

Automatic Investments

In addition to my one-off purchases of stocks that I believe in for the long-term, I have a few automated investments in place. One of them is called Acorns. It looks at my credit card and bank transactions and looks for opportunities to “round up” and pulls those amounts into an investment account, where the money is used to buy various funds. So for example, my $4.25 purchase at a cafe would mean I have $0.75 in round up money. Once the total number of round-ups hit $5, there is a deposit from my bank account to Acorns. I’ve set transactions that end in $.00 to round up to a whole dollar. I’ve also set up the account to pull $5 from my bank account every single day. It’s been exactly 2 years since I opened an account, and I’ve put in an average of $160/month. I like Acorns because it’s got a fairly low fee structure ($1 per month for all accounts with a balance under $5,000 and .25% of the balance per year on accounts over $5,000) and it’s something I rarely even think about.

The other automatic investment I have in place is Motif Investing, which I recently started up again. It allows you to create a bundle of stocks–your “motif”–that you can then invest in as if it’s your own fund. I had some fun making my own motif consisting of companies that I think are make a lot of headway into AI and integrating AI into their businesses and felt comfortable enough to subscribe to Motif’s Blue program, which costs me $9.95 to automatically invest in my motifs each month. This is nice because a single share of some of the companies in my motif are close to the $1,000 range, so Motif allows me to own partial shares while charging me a flat $9.95 fee to get exposure to 8 different companies (whereas buying shares individually would cost me $6.95 per transaction in my brokerage account).

In recent months, I’ve also started making small bets into cryptocurrencies. I have a Coinbase account where I’ve set up two automatic investments–a weekly investment into Bitcoin and a biweekly investment into Ethereum. I understand that things are pretty speculative right now, but I’m not expecting to make a quick buck. I do think, from what I understand, that cryptocurrencies can be a disruptive force in the coming years, so I don’t think it’s the worst use of my money to have a little stake in the upside.

Real Estate

Since 2015, I’ve dipped my toes in some real estate. With a group of friends, we purchased a couple properties in West Philadelphia that have become very good rental income generators. Melanie and I also purchased a co-op in Sunset Park recently where my parents reside. That means a big chunk of our monthly income will go towards a mortgage, but we’re very bullish on the neighborhood and it’s great to have my parents nearby. With rising interest rates and the general hassle of buying properties, I don’t know if I’ll be doing many real estate deals in the coming years, but I learned a great deal by going through the property-buying process.

Monitoring

I don’t spend much time looking at my personal finances. I’ll occasionally look at stock prices as I might look up sports scores of my favorite teams, but I don’t fret if the market is down or get too excited if the prices jump. I do like looking at the overall picture every 10-12 months to see how things have grown. I’ve linked up all my accounts to Mint and Openfolio to get a high-level view of my net worth (at least where my stock investments are concerned). I haven’t spent any time trying to get real estate values into the mix yet. In writing this post, I was pleasantly surprised that since 2015, my net worth has increased by nearly 60% not counting any real estate holdings. This despite the fact that my earnings have stayed generally flat during that time.

I love the idea of steady, sustained growth in personal wealth. Sure, we might hit lucky breaks or land a big score that can make a huge difference, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be slowly rolling our snowball while we pursue our big payday. The nice thing is that if the big payday never comes, you can still be perfectly happy and comfortable with what you have.

Tools/Services in My Stack

Here are the tools/services mentioned above as well as others I use regularly:

  • Capital One Investing: What I use to buy most of my stocks.
  • Fidelity: I use this for my IRA retirement accounts.
  • Robinhood: Used for speculative stock purchases and also a way to put affiliate income from Buys with Friends to use. We’ve invested in some real estate stocks that pay nice 8-12% dividends each year.
  • Acorns: Automatic micro-investments using round-ups on credit card and bank account transactions.
  • Motif Investing: Ability to create your own fund and invest across various stocks for a flat fee.
  • Coinbase: Service I use to buy Bitcoin and Ethereum.
  • Mint: Popular tool that pulls in data from various accounts and shows trends and reports.
  • Openfolio: Mobile app that shows investment performance across various accounts and also provides performance benchmarks vs. other types of investors.

Tower Defense and Business Management

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Tower defense (TD) is a subgenre of strategy video game where the goal is to defend a player’s territories or possessions by obstructing the enemy attackers, usually achieved by placing defensive structures on or along their path of attack. – Wikipedia

I wanted to put my mind on auto-pilot for a few hours this weekend, so I downloaded a tower defense game on my iPhone. It’s called Pirate Legends and it reminds me very much of the Kingdom Rush tower defense series that I used to play quite a bit a few years ago. The graphics are cartoonish and the screen quickly fills up with dozens of enemy attackers swimming or sailing through the channels of water trying to attack my ship. It took me a few tries before my eyes and mind calibrated to the dizzying movements of the screen and I started to get in the groove of launching turtle-shell cannons and positioning the ship to blast multiple cannonballs at incoming enemy waves.

pirate-legends-gameplay

As I progressed through the different levels, it struck me that the core of TD strategy was not too different than running a business, namely the important task of putting the right people in the right seats (see “The People Component” chapter in Gino Wickman’s Traction for a good explanation of this concept). In a TD game, there are limited spots where you can place different types of “towers”. In the case of Pirate Legends, there are four types of towers: a cannon-based tower, a gun/spear-based tower, a magic tower, and a toxic-sludge tower that slows enemies down. As you play, you can pay to upgrade (think “promote”) these towers to ones that have greater powers and capabilities. The key to winning a level in a TD game is to have the right combination of towers that can most efficiently kill off the enemy.

How do you know how to have the right combination of towers? You have to have a good understanding of the enemy. While it’s an unfortunate word choice for the analogy I’m making, the “enemy” is the customer and the problems/challenges the customer brings to the business. In a TD game, there are many types of enemies. Some can fly, some can disappear underwater, some are immune to magic, and some can even disable your towers momentarily. Understanding the enemy’s characteristics will help inform the decisions you make in the types of towers you build. As I played Pirate Legends, I typically played each level the first time as a scout to see the composition of each enemy wave. Once I understood which enemy types would come in which order, I could devise a winning strategy and reconfigure my towers for a better chance to win.

In between levels, you can choose which skills you want to increase.

In between levels, you can choose which skills you want to increase.

The analogy extends beyond in-level gameplay. After you complete each level, you are awarded certain amounts of gold (or in the case of Pirate Legends, some golden anchors and toes) to build up your skillset or to add weapons to your arsenal. There are parallels to this in business: do you reinvest your profits in expanding operations, in providing additional training for employees, in enhancing marketing and sales, or taking it out of the business? In a TD game, the choices are much simpler and straightforward than in business, but the types of skills you invest in and the timing of that investment could impact your performance with new enemies in the next level.

The last aspect of TD that I’ll compare to business is the second-to-second management of the towers and their development path. When you start a new level, you have a limited amount of gold to build your towers. This means that a big chunk of the building will happen as enemies continue to come in waves. There are moments when the waves start to overwhelm the towers and get increasingly close to breaching your tower (and subsequently taking your lives). The key is to keep your cool and methodically build and upgrade the right towers at the right time while also deploying one-off attacks that supplement the towers. In the case of Pirate Legends, this includes a “hero” character who flies his plane and shoots at the enemy as well as a turtle shell that can shoot cannons for a few seconds before disappearing. When it comes to business, this is not too different from the manager doing his or her best to hire and promote the right people and also jumping into the action to help troubleshoot when necessary. Most of the time, it’ll be hectic with customers (or orders/projects/assignments/tasks) continuing to come in waves. The key is to keep your cool, trust your process, and continue to grind it out. In TD, when that final wave comes and you’re able to destroy everything with your fully upgraded towers, it’s a very satisfying feeling. Likewise, when you’ve built up a competent and well-trained team that can handle the toughest of customer demands, it’s a winning feeling.

Winning in business feels many times better than winning a level in a TD game, but TD is fairly easy and a lot less stressful.

Winning in business feels many times better than winning a level in a TD game, but TD is fairly easy and a lot less stressful.

To summarize, business lessons found in TD are:

  • Put the right people in the right seats (which means understanding the strengths and weaknesses as well as the right combination of people)
  • Understand your customers and their problems (the many types and nuances, and which of your people will be best equipped to handle them)
  • Be thoughtful in the way you reinvest in the business
  • Keep your cool, trust the process, and grind it out (the day-to-day requires rigor and discipline)

Of course, TD is just a video game. Business, as much as I love to bring analogies into talking about it, is not a game. It’s a serious activity that involves people’s lives, real money, and lots of time. It’s also not something you can totally figure out and master like a video game. No matter how good you may be at it today, there’s always a chance that something unexpected will trip you up tomorrow.

Thoughts on “Exactly What to Say: The Magic Words for Influence and Impact” by Phil M. Jones

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Exactly What to Say: The Magic Words for Influence and Impact by Phil M Jones is a very quick read. As in, you can probably finish it in under 1 hour if not less than 40 minutes. But its value was in making me think about the words I use in my day-to-day conversations and what kinds of adjustments I can make to shape conversations in favorable ways.

I’m not going to give a detailed summary of the book, but I’ll quote a few things and mostly dive into the actual “Magic Words” that Jones presents and how I find some of them useful in my daily conversations.

Magic Words

Magic Words are sets of words that talk straight to the subconscious brain. The subconscious brain is a powerful tool in decision-making because it is preprogrammed through our conditioning to make decisions without overanalyzing them. It works a little like a computer—it has only “yes” and “no” outputs and can never land on a “maybe.” It is strong and decisive and moves quickly. Using words that talk straight to the part of the brain that is free from maybes and responds on reflex gives you a fair advantage in conversation and can result in you getting your own way more often.

Jones begins the book by sharing his observation that successful people have one thing in common: “they know exactly what to say, how to say it, and how to make it count.” Magic Words are his cataloged collection of the words and phrases that successful people use to influence others in conversations.

Here’s the list of the Magic Words. I recommend picking up the book to get more context and more examples (it’s so short that pasting any more would essentially be copying over the whole book):

  • I’m not sure if it’s for you but…
  • Open-minded (e.g. “Would you be open-minded about giving this a chance?”)
  • What do you know?
  • How would you feel if…
  • Just imagine…
  • When would be a good time?
  • I’m guessing you haven’t got around to…
  • Simple swaps (e.g. turning “Do you have any questions?” into “What questions do you have for me?”)
  • You have three options…
  • There are two types of people in this world…
  • I bet you’re a bit like me…
  • If you… then… (e.g. “If you decide to give this a try, then I promise you won’t be disappointed.”)
  • Don’t worry…
  • Most people… (e.g. “Most people in your situation would probably select the middle option.”)
  • The good news… (e.g. “The good news is that we’ve got a robust training program and 24/7 customer support, so we’ll make sure you’re getting the most out of your product from day 1.”)
  • What happens next…
  • What makes you say that?
  • Before you make up your mind…
  • If I can… will you? (e.g. “If I can come down 10% on the price, can you complete the purchase today?”)
  • Enough (e.g. turning “Would you like 1 or 3 bottles?” into “Would 3 bottles be enough for you?”)
  • Just one more thing…
  • Could you do me a small favor?
  • Just out of curiosity…

My Most Frequently Used Magic Words

“Most people…”

I’ll typically use this with clients when guiding them through a decision, whether it’s picking the right content management system platform or the right email marketing software or the amount to spend on a certain paid media campaign. I might say something like “In this type of situation, our other clients do this and that…” or “Our other clients do this…”. If I don’t have specific client examples but can pull from my knowledge of the market, I might say “Most businesses…” or “Other businesses in your space…” and that tends to have the same impact.

“Just out of curiosity…”

Whenever there’s a rejection or some kind of deferred decision from a prospect or a client, I try to ask for the reason. “Just out of curiosity, what made you go with the other firm?” Most of the time, the client will offer useful feedback that I learn from.

“Don’t worry…”

I probably overuse this sometimes, especially when I’m too confident about an outcome. “Don’t worry, we’ll figure a way to get it done even though our team is pretty booked up for the next 2 weeks.” I don’t find these words to be too magical, but rather something to be cautious of, especially when I’m using it myself.

“What happens next…”

I use a variation of this when talking to prospective clients or at the end of a client meeting. It’s something along the lines of “So for next steps…” or “For our next steps…” and then I’ll proceed to paint the picture of what will follow from our end and what we need from our clients to get things moving.

Magic Word I Want to Use More

Could you do me a small favor?

I’ve found that people who know how to ask of others usually end up getting more. And it doesn’t have to be in a slimy and inconsiderate way, but just having the courage to ask for help can be beneficial in many ways. I’ve seen this work out nicely for me in the few instances I’ve used it. I hope it’s something I can use strategically more often.

Just one more thing…

The author talks about how TV detective Columbo would be so good at using this to quiz his suspects at the very last moment. I think it’s a powerful way to save a conversation that may be sputtering or to make a lasting impression. I’ll have to think a bit more on specific use cases, but I’d like to experiment with this one.

Enough

I like this one because it requires a degree of confidence and of knowing what’s right for my clients. Rather than giving my clients too many options, I think framing it as “X hours should be enough” or “4 weeks of development should be enough” would make the decision-making process easier for them. There are so many applications of this, so I’m interested to see how I can use it in different situations.

Personal Accountability and the Pursuit of a Boring Culture

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In QBQ! The Question Behind the Question: Practicing Personal Accountability at Work and in Life, author John Miller offers a simple framework for handling ourselves day-to-day, both at work and in our personal lives.

The Question Behind the Question is built on the observation that our first reactions are often negative, bringing to mind Incorrect Questions (IQs). But if in each moment of decision we can instead discipline ourselves to look behind those initial Incorrect Questions and ask ourselves better ones (QBQs), the questions themselves will lead us to better results

The QBQ framework follows these three rules:

1. Begin with “What” or “How” (not “Why,” “When,” or “Who”).
2. Contain an “I” (not “they,” “we,” or “you”).
3. Focus on action.

This is a quick, skinny book that shouldn’t take more than an hour to get through. I think its strength is in its easy-to-remember format. Incorrect Questions (IQs) are bad. QBQs are what we need to ask.

While reading, I found myself thinking about all the IQs that I’ve said myself or heard from various people over the years. Things like:

  • Who screwed up on that assignment?
  • When will we finally hire someone who can do this right?
  • When will so-and-so ever learn how to do it correctly?
  • Why isn’t so-and-so coming up with the right solutions?
  • Why aren’t you setting us up for success?
  • Why is so-and-so so disorganized?
  • Why is the client so demanding?
  • Why don’t our projects have a big enough budget?
  • Why don’t we have enough time to finish our projects?
  • Why do I have to do all the thinking?
  • Why do I have to make all the hard decisions?

In the context of my work and being a manager, I came away with some thoughts for how QBQs can better guide my decisions:

Focus on myself and model the behavior I want to see.

Avoid IQs like the plague and handle all types of situations with a “what can I do” attitude. Teach through actions. By being consistent in my behavior day-in and day-out, I’m helping to establish cultural norms and expectations. It’s also worth noting that in the book, Miller is insistent that we can’t change other people. Years of managing employees has taught me that this is true. People change of their own accord, so rather than waste our energies trying to change someone else, it’s more productive to focus on ourselves.

Maintain a team that asks the right questions.

I feel fortunate to have a team at Barrel right now that subscribes to a high degree of personal responsibility and defaults to the QBQ framework. However, a series of wrong hires can undo the culture in a hurry. It’ll be of paramount importance to hire correctly and, if necessary, fire those who can’t get on board. The latter has to be done swiftly and without hesitation.

Remember that stress is a choice.

A disgruntled employee, an unhappy client, some kind of problem with finances or the office – all kinds of issues can pop up at anytime, but I always have a choice in how I deal with them. I can wallow in self-pity and blame external factors or I can just tell myself that things happen and ask what I can do to productively handle the situation.

The Pursuit of Boring

When I watch TV shows that depict the workplace, whether it’s a startup, a hedge fund, a law firm, a police station, or a warring tribe, it’s striking how often I’ll hear Incorrect Questions bandied about by the characters. Questions like “Who fucked up?” or “Why is this happening to us?” are commonplace. And it’s no wonder – these types of questions make for good drama. It introduces conflict and pits characters against each other. It’s what makes shows entertaining and interesting, the opposite of boring.

This is why I think boring is sexy, especially when it comes to the workplace. Boring means we’re focused on the work. Boring means we’ve got a process that we follow, repeat, and tweak without a fuss. Boring means we deliver for our clients. Boring means we hire good people, pay them well, and keep them productive. There’s no intrigue, there are no politics, and there’s nobody trying to undermine someone else. It’s just a team, showing up for work, putting in a strong effort, and going home.

Staying boring takes work, and I intend to continue my mission of keeping Barrel as boring as possible. I’ll end with a quote from Miller’s book which echoes a similar sentiment:

In seeking to practice personal accountability, we have to avoid the trap of thinking we’ve “arrived.” Personal accountability is not a destination. We don’t wake up one morning and suddenly find ourselves an “accountable person” forever more. Rather, it’s a daily, moment-to-moment practice of avoiding the Incorrect Questions and asking QBQs instead. I’m not a finished product. Are you?

The Fundamentals of Knowledge Workers

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Whenever I think about fundamentals, I’m reminded of an interview that basketball player Andrew Bogut had on the Bill Simmons podcast in which he talked about the Warriors and how they practiced:

I still remember the first training camp we had under coach Kerr. We were doing basic passing drills into the passing net, like left-handed passes, right-hand, overhead, and doing dribbling drills through cones, and a lot of guys were pissed because they were like, “Hey, we’re NBA guys, we don’t need to be doing this stuff.” But coach Kerr was like, “No, we’re going back to basics. You guys turn the ball over way too much. If we can limit our turnovers and just turn it over four or five times less per game, we’re going to win a championship.”

Guys were kind of like, “Ugh, we don’t want to do these petty little drills,” but after a couple of weeks I think guys understood what he was trying to relay onto us. And it was genius in a way, because it’s just instilling the little things, like making the right pass, getting to a jump-stop, hitting your teammate on the chest so that he can get a nice rhythm into his jumper, and it just worked out perfectly.

The takeaway here is that in order to better execute sophisticated plays and run a certain type of system, everyone on the team must have sound fundamentals and avoid making costly mistakes that get in the way of clean, effective execution.

I’ve been thinking about the “fundamentals” of the team at Barrel and if we’ve been giving enough attention to the things that enable us to effectively execute complex projects like platform builds and multi-channel marketing campaigns. In our line of work, it’s easy to get caught up with someone’s smooth in-meeting presence or their effortless use of technical jargon. Such feats of “performance” might be praiseworthy, but they may also mask gaps in the day-in-day-out stuff that makes projects run smoothly.

I’ve tried to come up with a more generalized set of basic skills that apply to all knowledge workers (a Peter Drucker-coined term to describe people whose main capital is knowledge). These are what essentially make up the “day-in-day-out stuff”:

  • Clear and timely communication: the ability, in speech and writing, to articulate questions, actions, and responses that convey information to team members and clients/customers without vagueness or confusion, and to do so consistently within the appropriate timeframe; also, sound communication fundamentals means checking for spelling and grammar errors and making sure vocabulary and technical terms are used correctly (the discipline to proofread).
  • Task and time management: the ability to keep track of assignments and manage one’s own calendar/schedule in order to meet deadlines and effectively plan work blocks throughout the day and week; if you said you were going to do it, you find a way to do it.
  • Resourcefulness: the ability to leverage different sources (e.g. team members, Google, past projects, etc.) and to synthesize findings in order to come up with viable solutions, especially in situations of uncertainty; the findings may not be the end-all-be-all solution, but it’s enough to make progress and to get useful feedback that’ll further move things along.

Imagine trying to “practice” these skills with a team of knowledge workers. I wonder how our team might feel about training sessions on writing good email communications, using a calendar effectively, or doing smart Google searches. Would they initially groan like the Warriors players did at the prospect of doing basic dribbling and passing drills? Would they then appreciate and embrace the training because it tightens their fundamentals and helps them be better at their jobs?

As basic as the “fundamentals” I’ve outlined may sound, I have a feeling that many business owners, if they were to evaluate their teams and rate their employees on each of these areas, may find gaps and deficiencies that are hampering the overall performance of the team.

To bring it back to basketball, think about the talented and athletic forward with the huge wingspan and killer hops who has shown great promise (flashy drives to the basket and very athletic moves in transition) but continues to make silly turnovers with careless passes, is terrible at switching on pick-and-roll defense, and is often mindless about floor spacing and getting into the right position for set plays. A player’s lack of discipline in these fundamentals can really mess up the flow of the team and nullify the strong performances of others. As a coach, you may be tempted to keep the player in because there’s so much “upside” but shaky fundamentals may erode your confidence in that player over time.

Likewise, a knowledge worker who doesn’t communicate well, who doesn’t get assignments done on time, and doesn’t make the necessary attempts to figure out problems on their own will cost the business additional time and resources to manage.

When we hire promising talent with impressive experience and credentials, we rarely question their fundamentals and take them for granted. Of course they’ll be great at communicating or managing their time. Of course they’re natural problem-solvers. Otherwise, how else would they have progressed in their careers? And in most cases, the assumptions will be true. But, as Kerr and Warriors demonstrate, it’s not a bad idea to refresh ourselves on the fundamentals every now and then and make sure we’ve got the proper zip and crispness on our chest passes.


For those who are curious, here’s a list of fundamental skills in basketball that I came across on a site for new players and coaches:

  • Shooting
  • Passing
  • Dribbling
  • Lay ups
  • Jump stops
  • Pivoting and footwork
  • Jab steps
  • Screening
  • Cutting
  • Defense
  • Rebounding

Lessons from The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker: Know Thy Time

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Effective executives, in my observation, do not start with their tasks. They start with their time. And they do not start with planning. They start by finding out where their time actually goes. Then they attempt to manage their time and to cut back unproductive demands on their time. Finally they consolidate their “discretionary” time into the largest possible continuing units. This three-step process:
– recording time,
– managing time, and
– consolidating time
is the foundation of executive effectiveness.

– The Effective Executive by Peter F. Drucker

Drucker writes that we are terrible at sensing time and are likely to over-estimate or under-estimate where our time goes. If we take the time to record how we actually spend our time, we would be surprised by the reality of how we spend our time.

Being mindful of time and being strategic about its use begins first with creating a time log and then asking the right questions. Drucker offers three questions that are used to diagnose time:

  1. What would happen if [x activity] were not done at all?
    If the answer is “nothing at all”, then it’s obvious that the activity can be eliminated.
  2. Which of the activities on my time log could be done by somebody else just as well, if not better? 
    Drucker insists that this isn’t an excuse to dump unwanted activities on someone else (“delegation”), but that the executive carefully consider and assign work that would free up time for more important assignments.
  3. What do I do that wastes your time without contributing to effectiveness?
    Executives may unknowingly be wasting other people’s time. Asking for honest feedback and acting on it can save everyone valuable time.

Drucker also offers a taxonomy of time-wasters:

  1. “The recurrent crisis, or the crisis that comes back year after year” that is the result of a “lack of system or foresight.”
    These are the stressful fire drills and last-minute rescue jobs that result from an organization’s laziness and unwillingness to develop sound processes.
  2. Time-wastes that result from overstaffing.
    Drucker believes that a bloated team in which people spend too much time sorting out communication issues and various person-to-person disputes is a big drag on time. Being lean gives people room to move and get stuff done. I’ve seen this with project teams that have too many specialists whose involvement wasn’t absolutely necessary.
  3. “Malorganization” whose symptom is “an excess of meetings”
    I’ve written about this specific lesson before. Too many meetings and poorly structured meetings are all time-wasters. I typically have 2-3 days a week when it’s nonstop meetings from 10AM to 6PM. I have tried to combat such occurrences, but it’s been a challenge. Drucker is right in saying that “too many meetings always bespeak poor structure of jobs and the wrong organizational components.” Something for me to think harder about.
  4. “Malfunction in information”
    This happens when people in the organization aren’t on the same page about what’s going on and people who need to know aren’t informed in a timely matter if at all. I know we’ve had such challenges at Barrel when on-boarding team members to projects that have already started or when we’ve neglected to give contractors/freelancers complete information about certain tasks. These often result in false starts and ineffective outputs that require time to fix.

By going through the time diagnosis and then pruning the time-wasters, the executive will have a clearer idea of the “discretionary time” that’s available for important work. Consolidating discretionary time into large blocks enable the executive to have greater control over his/her schedule. These blocks–perhaps half a day or a few hours–enable the executive to focus on important (often non-urgent) tasks that can have great impact on the organization.

Personal Lessons from Dealing with Time

I have a couple more time-wasters that Drucker doesn’t mention: passive content consumption and messaging.

Passive Content Consumption
I see this behavior everywhere at work and catch myself as well: the casual browse of the LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter feeds; the scroll through different news apps; the quick read of a few Medium blog posts; the refresh of the reddit page; the read of some newsletter that’s popped up in the email inbox. For knowledge workers who’re on their computers all day or have their smartphones on hand, I believe many of us are borderline addicts to content that momentarily stimulates and distracts our minds from the tasks that demand greater focus and cognitive energy.

Messaging
Whether it’s SMS, Snapchat, Slack, or any other messaging app, the demands that messaging has on our time and the switching costs it has on our work is probably as much or perhaps even greater than passive content consumption. Messaging offers a readily available outlet to express or vent certain emotions and get immediate feedback. It, too, is an addictive behavior and one that eats up time with deceptive velocity.

I know that on certain days, my passive content consumption and messaging activity can combine to exceed 5 hours. I would argue that many people average much more. These also seldom come in chunks but in 5-10 minute spurts that add up.

One of the most time-freeing things that I did this year was to delete Instagram and Facebook from my phone (I’ll check FB a couple times a day on my laptop, though). It’s been six months since this happened and I’ve found myself filling the time with activities like writing, exercise, and reading (books and more challenging articles that take 20-30 minutes). Of course, a good deal of my time still goes to being distracted by texts to and from friends, checking on stock market prices, reading tech and sports news, and watching movie trailers on YouTube, but I’ve begun to consolidate hours here and there for both business and personal assignments that give me time to focus and work on things that require greater mental energy.

What’s kept me motivated and honest is the use of a stopwatch (on my phone), which I start and stop for only the moments where my mind is totally focused. When I get distracted or drift off, the stopwatch is paused. At the end of the activity, I can see how much “real time” it took to do something. A few observations:

  • It’s incredible how much you can do in 10, 20, and 30 minutes of hyper-focused time. In 10 minutes, it’s possible to write 2 full pages in a journal. In 30 minutes, you can get pretty engrossed in a book. Think about how tiring it is to do continuous burpees or push-ups for 5 straight minutes. In some ways, timing chunks of time is conditioning the mind to focus on tasks singularly for longer and longer periods of time.
  • Using a stopwatch can also reveal how quickly certain daunting tasks can take. I used to think that it took me 3-4 hours to properly prep for the upcoming work week including organizing my To Do’s, updating progress of new business and accounts, and doing some outbound emails. I would block out my Sunday evenings for this and typically go from 8PM to 11PM. One week, I decided to use a stopwatch and also focus 100% on the key activities without being distracted. I saw that it took me no more than 75 minutes. I repeated this for a few more weeks and it was the same result – 75 minutes max. I realized that I had been going down the rabbit hole of reading LinkedIn posts, watching videos of various influencers in the space, and doing research on things not directly beneficial to the task at hand. It would be better, I believed, to consolidate my workweek planning to a 75-minute chunk and, if necessary, give myself a block of time to randomly consume relevant business content. This way, I would stop conflating the necessary work with the unnecessary act of content consumption, giving me a few extra hours to do something else on a Sunday evening if I so chose.

And looking at my stopwatch now, I can see that this blog post took me 1 hour and 23 minutes to write.

Process is Habits for Business

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I recently re-read “The Process Component” in the book Traction by Gino Wickman. These two paragraphs summarize the chapter nicely:

A typical organization operates through a handful of core processes. How these processes work together is its unique system. To break through the ceiling and build a well-oiled machine, you need to possess the ability to systemize. That is what this chapter is all about: helping you systemize what you’ve built. You’ll discover different ways to improve upon your processes, simplify them, apply technology to them, and, most important of all, make them consistent throughout your organization.

Michael Gerber, author of The E-Myth and The E-Myth Revisited, calls this your franchise prototype. To the degree you can clarify your systems and hone them, you will run your business as opposed to having your business run you. The culmination of identifying, documenting, and having everyone follow the core processes of your business is your Way. When you have a clear Way, you immediately increase the value of your business, strengthen your control over it, and give yourself options. From there, you may grow the business, let someone else run it, sell it, or simply take more time off.

Process, when well-designed and executed consistently by the entire team day-in and day-out, can build up and eventually compound the results of the business. I’ve come to see process as the equivalent of habits for business–by mindfully defining, tweaking, and consistently performing them, results become inevitable.

I can pinpoint the two things, from personal experience, that are most challenging about creating and sticking to good processes. The first is that designing processes feels very hard. It’s not that the actual work is tough, but overcoming the mental barrier and investing the time into what feels like non-urgent work requires a bigger cognitive load than, say, troubleshooting a project issue or writing off a rapid-fire response to a client. The discipline to focus and design processes is one that I’ve struggled with quite a bit. One way to overcome this is to work on process-related items first thing in the morning, when my mind is fresh and well-rested. I know that if I try to tackle process-related items in the evening, I’ll find myself resisting through procrastination. I’ve tried in recent weeks to schedule all process-related conversations to earlier in the day.

Sticking to process becomes tough when it feels like the process is always changing. I noticed this and let things go for a while, not bothering to ask what the underlying problem may have been. I’ve come to believe that process design has much to do with whether or not it’ll stick. If a process is too finely defined and overly prescriptive, it’s bound to become too burdensome and quickly irrelevant. Processes that are too loose lose utility because they don’t provide enough guidance. The sweet spot is process that provides just enough guidance and flexibility so that 80% of the elements are repeatable and the last 20% can be the “customized” component that allows for exceptions.

Bringing this back to how process and habits seem to serve the same purpose, I thought about the “core processes” of my life: how I eat (diet), how I exercise (fitness), how I sleep, how I learn, and how I interact with other people. These track very closely to the Foundation of Growth concept that we’ve been working on for Grove Ave and have defined as a “system of good habits.” By proactively designing, tweaking, and consistently following through on these “core processes”, it’s been possible to generate results (e.g. stay fit, feel energetic, avoid getting sick, be in a positive mood, be productive day-to-day, learn new things, enjoy time with friends and loved ones, etc.). Also, I’ve seen that when I veer away from a core process that’s been working well–say, I let things go and eat/drink things that don’t conform with the design–I don’t feel as good and I know something is amiss, which gives me a strong signal to self-correct.

It’s easy to see how things can go wrong if you don’t take processes/habits by the horns and instead let them form in arbitrary and reactive fashion. I’m hoping that as we continue to solidify our organizational habits and form robust processes across the board, we’ll confidently be able to talk about The Barrel Way and its immense value to the business.

Revisiting Good to Great and the Stop Doing List

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I spent an hour or so last night flipping through and re-reading parts of Good to Great by Jim Collins, the popular classic business book about the qualities that make companies successful. I first read the book over 5 years ago. That was a time when I began to pick up books on business with the goal of extracting lessons I could apply to Barrel.

I remember a specific part of the book that I took away at the time as a valuable lesson: Start a “Stop Doing” List

Most of us lead busy but undisciplined lives. We have ever-expanding “to do” lists, trying to build momentum by doing, doing, doing–and doing more. And it rarely works. Those who built the good-to-great companies, however, made as much use of “stop doing” lists as “to do” lists. They displayed a remarkable discipline to unplug all sorts of extraneous junk.

The big lesson here is that when you run a disciplined organization with a clear mission (“the Hedgehog Concept”) and goal (“the BHAG”), it’s possible to spot the activities that take away from what’s important. This is where a Stop Doing List comes in handy– we should question activities that do not seem to contribute directly to the mission and goal and work to stop doing them.

Five years ago, we didn’t have a clear mission or a goal. These were largely undefined, and I know that I personally lacked an understanding when it came to proactively developing an organization. Lacking the fundamentals, a book like Good to Great was bound to lead to cargo cult behavior, that is, I would replicate certain trappings of successful companies without actually understanding what made them successful in the first place.

I recently dug up a Barrel version of the Stop Doing List from early 2012 and reminisced the state of mind I was in back when we put this together. While embarrassing, I think it’s worth sharing an edited version to make the point that taking advice from a book without deeper thinking can lead to poor decision-making.

The Barrel Stop Doing List (Jan. 2012)

Stop…

  1. …running non-revenue producing media sites (sell or shut them down)
  2. …taking on website projects for under $XX,XXX
  3. …taking on large dev projects and projects with too many unknowns (custom apps)
  4. …offering social media marketing (day-to-day management, reporting, etc.)
  5. …taking on design and development of Shopify sites under $XX,XXX
  6. …working with clients who have undecided branding
  7. …working with clients who are poor at communication & do not pay on time

The first one was actually a good one. We had a number of websites that we had launched for fun but were a drag on our time. One was a gallery for Korean food recipes and another one was a review site of schools in Korea that taught English. We had employees work on these in-between client work rather than investing their time on professional development or streamlining internal processes for future client work. Shutting these down was definitely a timesaver, although that process was dragged out for quite some time.

The last one, #7, is also not too bad. We needed to vet our clients better and make sure they were both serious and had the money to engage with us. This meant having a process in place to qualify them during new business discussions and also making sure they would invest in having a point of contact who would see through projects. But once you have a good qualification process in place as well as a robust way of handling receivables, you don’t need something like this on a Stop Doing list.

When I look at #2 through #6, I can only shake my head. This is the list of someone who doesn’t want to figure out a solution but wants to make problems go away by declaring that we’ll run from them. I’ll dig a little bit deeper into these to show how I totally missed the point of this exercise.

#2 and #5 were the result of horrific project experiences where we went way over budget, the final quality was subpar, and the client was unhappy. The easiest thing to do was blame the small budget for the failure of the project. In retrospect, I think this mentality of “blame the low budget” made us less reflective about our process and the way we managed our clients’ expectations. If a project was doing poorly, it was because “the budget wasn’t high enough”, a cop-out phrase that we used to accept poor project outcomes.

#3 was also a reaction to unfortunate project experiences. We had worked on some ambitious builds that did not turn out well and resulted in cost overruns, client dissatisfaction, and team turnover. “Let’s stop doing big custom app projects” became the mantra. Instead of figuring out new processes and implementing frameworks to better scope, structure, and manage larger scale projects, we simply said no thanks and turned away a good amount of business. Perhaps the turning away was a good thing at the time in that it saved us more grief, but once again, there was little internal change that came about.

#4 and #6 came about because, rather than taking the time to experiment, codify processes, and have productive conversations with clients about how we can add value, it was easier to just say “let’s not do these things” and ignore the ways in which our clients would find value (esp. five years ago, when social and branding offered more competitive advantages!).

I only gladly engage in this self-flagellation knowing that our business has come a long way since. Here are some behaviors that demonstrate our progress:

  • When we talk about new project engagements with clients, we always discuss the goals and the value the project is expected to create for our clients’ business. This allows us to think about pricing not as a unilateral budget but as an investment through which our clients can expect a good return. This line of thinking guides our recommendations and helps to build trust with our clients.
  • We invest quite a bit of time critiquing and evolving our processes so that we can solve underlying issues that led to cost overruns, miscommunication, or any flaws in the final product. We also push ourselves to question existing processes and won’t hesitate to experiment with new deliverables that may get the job done better. What’s important is that we’re constantly in a state of experimentation and learning while understanding that what we deliver has to meet the expectations we set for our clients.
  • Speaking of experimentation, we’ve made a commitment to developing new service offerings that draw on our core skill sets and bring value to our mission of helping our clients attract, convert, and retain customers. We’ve accepted the fact that rolling out new services requires lots of work, patience, and the ability to take setbacks in stride while trying to improve for the next opportunity. In just the past year, we’ve been able to roll out a suite of services that were non-existent and are now essential in our day-to-day discussions with our clients.

When I first read Good to Great, there were many things that were foreign to me. I remember coming upon the concept of the Flywheel and just breezing past it without much thought. This time around, I found myself lingering on it for a long time. In fact, I even watched some YouTube videos of what a physical flywheel was just to make sure I got the analogy right.

The Flywheel diagram is a great summary of Good to Great and a good high-level framework for thinking about business leadership. Looking back, I think the concepts in this book helped to prepare me for other business books later on, especially books that had very prescriptive frameworks with instructions on installing an “operating system” for running the business.

Good to Great Flywheel

The Flywheel from Good to Great by Jim Collins. Five years ago, it was hard to appreciate how the full system worked, but these days, I can map almost every activity at Barrel to the diagram here.

good-to-great-flywheel-effect

 

When I think about the day-to-day operations at Barrel and what I hope to achieve as a member of the executive team, the second Flywheel diagram, The Flywheel Effect, comes to mind. The mission-driven actions, both big and small, that accumulate into visible results, and the feeling of momentum that comes from successful project launches, expanded relationships with clients, and growth of the team in both skill and size–all these things create a certain energy which then build up towards what I hope will be a breakthrough. The two Flywheel diagrams are great reminders that at the end of the day, it’s the organization’s discipline (in people, thought, and action) that will allow for the continual build-up of momentum.

Getting back to an earlier point that I had–books are wonderful in that they introduce us to new ideas and concepts and force us to think about things in new ways. And in revisiting Good to Great, it was immediately apparent to me that the person who read this back in 2011/2012 was a very different reader than the one in 2017. I know that as I read more books and also experience new challenges and successes with the business, there will be future interpretations that will make today’s reading seem quaint, if not outright naive.

Avoiding the Effort Heuristic in Client Work

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The effort heuristic is a mental rule of thumb in which the quality or worth of an object is determined from the perceived amount of effort that went into producing that object. In brief, the effort heuristic follows a tendency to judge objects that took a longer time to produce to be of higher value. – Wikipedia

When it comes to managing a team that’s producing work for clients, it’s critical that everyone working on the project understands the goals of the client and is aligned on what the client will ultimately find valuable. This, of course, means being on the same page with the client in the first place and making sure they’ve clearly articulated what’s important. In the absence of well-defined goals and a clear understanding of what constitutes value for the client, it’s very possible that your team members will resort to using the effort heuristic to judge their own work.

Here’s an example scenario:

The team is tasked with designing and building a landing page that’ll be used to collect emails from people interested in learning more about a yet-to-be-released product. The team has been told, in a vague manner, to make the landing page “exciting and dynamic” and “on-brand”.

The designer and web developer assigned to the project spend many hours over the next few days creating a meticulously crafted landing page full of visual details, whimsical animations, and fun copy. The extra effects that they’ve added to delight the client takes the developer over 10 hours of debugging to perfect. The final product is a beautiful and intricate page that took multiple late nights over the course of a week.

When the client reviews the landing page, he’s not impressed. Instead, he asks what took so long. “I was hoping to have it a few days ago. I just quickly needed a page where people could just sign up. A simple image with our logo and some copy would’ve been fine. Can you guys ditch the effects, make the background white, and swap that Photoshopped pic for the one that’s already on our site?”

The designer and the web developer are aghast and fuming. Doesn’t the client know how much effort went into this amazing landing page? It’s so nice that it can probably be featured on a website award site. How dare the client want to “dumb” it down? Doesn’t he know anything about good quality work? 

There’s a disconnect in this scenario. The designer and web developer were not aware of what constituted value for the client. The client valued quick turnaround more than any craft. He would have been perfectly happy with a barebones landing page as long as it worked and got done fast. The designer and web developer, not knowing this, defaulted to creating what they themselves valued–beautifully detailed designs with cool effects–and poured a great deal of effort. When confronted with feedback that questioned the value of their work, they immediately became defensive, feeling that their work, which required so much effort, was objectively something of high value and quality.

When I think about the effort heuristic, I can recall days when some of my employees would huff and puff about clients “just not getting it” or “not understanding design”. I used to dismiss this as “artistic temperament” or “not being a good professional”, but I can see how in many situations, there was little to no facilitation of clearly defining goals and value criteria for our clients. Pointing the finger inward, I can see how I fell short in properly briefing our team and also not fully aligning with our clients on what was valuable to them. What our team should be striving for on every client engagement is to make sure that everyone working on it is 100% clear on the outcomes that would help our clients achieve their goals and make them feel that they’ve captured maximum value by working with us.

Some Side Thoughts

  • Could the client be persuaded to value the work more if we told him that it took great effort to create it? This has worked in some cases, and the nicer clients will appreciate the “hard work” put into it. But at the end of the day, I’ve found that clients often have an internal measure for what they perceive as valuable and if we underdeliver, no amount of effort will make up for the deficit.
  • My example was an extreme case and, thankfully, rarely happens at Barrel in real life. A few tactics we employee to avoid falling into the effort heuristic are: having our team members repeat the objective of the project before any major meeting with clients and to give them an opportunity to agree or clarify (and also serves as a good enforcing mantra for our team); scheduling various workshops and check-ins with the client where we can collaborate throughout the process instead of setting up high-stakes “big reveal” presentations where we show our work after several weeks “locked up in the tower”; diving into analytics, KPIs, and other sources of data to determine success metrics and how our work may deliver a lift versus the status quo.
  • There are “designers” with artistic temperaments who, even when briefed and given all kinds of research and data, will still cling to aesthetics and place disproportionate weight on anything that is visual while dissing clients who may not share the same perspective. Personally, I don’t consider these types designers but artists who’re trying to make a living by masquerading as designers. Thankfully, we don’t hire such people at Barrel, no matter how talented they may be. We require a very high standard of skill and creativity when it comes to bringing a brand to life, telling stories visually, or laying out content in interesting ways, but these must all be in the service of helping our clients achieve their goals.
  • Check out this paper on the effort heuristic. The abstract says: “The research presented here suggests that effort is used as a heuristic for quality. Participants rating a poem (Experiment 1), a painting (Experiment 2), or a suit of armor (Experiment 3) provided higher ratings of quality, value, and liking for the work the more time and effort they thought it took to produce. Experiment 3 showed that the use of the effort heuristic, as with all heuristics, is moderated by ambiguity: Participants were more influenced by effort when the quality of the object being evaluated was difficult to ascertain. Discussion centers on the implications of the effort heuristic for everyday judgment and decision-making.”

11 Years of Barrel, Some Lessons

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Every June 1, we celebrate the incorporation of Barrel. Most years, it’s a simple toast at the end of the day. Last year, on our 10-year anniversary, we had a nice party at one of my favorite restaurants. This year, we had margaritas and ice cream. We also launched a brand new website.

What I most cherish about June 1 is that it gets me thinking about lessons I’ve learned in the past year. Over the past few days, I’ve mulled over the things I wanted to write down, and one thing I told myself is that these lessons may be valid now, but they may not hold true forever. Having said that, I think it’s worthwhile to jot them down so I can go back and read them later.

No Ego, No Drama, No Snark

For a long time, I tended to: let my sense of self-importance (ego) guide my behaviors; get embroiled in unnecessary conflict, escalating what should be a non-issue; and mutter things that add no value and only serve to put down or demean others. I think these behaviors arose from deep-seated insecurity as well as a lack of discipline.

I can’t pinpoint the exact things that got me to pay more attention, but a couple books that have been helpful are Ryan Holiday’s Ego is the Enemy and The Education of a Coach by David Halberstam, the biography of New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. As I became more aware that I caused unnecessary stress for others (and myself) and engaged in unproductive behaviors, I began to realize that I was failing my team and not modeling behaviors for success. In order to establish a healthy and well-functioning workplace, I needed to stop drawing attention to myself and instead be a positive and encouraging presence. I also began to consciously think about win-win situations and overcame my default desire to have the last word or be “right” about something.

Nowadays, “no ego, no drama, no snark” serves as a personal mantra for me when I interact with team members, clients, friends, and family. I’ll catch myself every now and then falling into bad behaviors, but having the presence of mind to pull back or change course has allowed me to have much more productive interactions. I’d like to think that this shift personally has been reflected in the people we’ve hired, the people we’ve promoted, and the way we interact with each other at work. But I’m not taking credit for this. In fact, what’s more likely is that I’ve been most helpful by getting out of the way where I should be out of the way and letting our team do their thing.

If I had to summarize the takeaways from this lesson, they would be:

  • Don’t draw unnecessary attention to myself
  • Say only what’s necessary and helpful (there is power in staying quiet, something I’ve yet to master)
  • Encourage and support others through positive words and actions
  • There’s little to gain from “winning” an argument; let it go or find common ground

Embrace Doing the Hard Things

I’ve come to believe that truly worthwhile and impactful achievements come about when I take on activities that are painful in some way. If it’s in the realm of fitness or sports, the pain relates closely to the physical and the mental ability to endure or overcome physical discomfort. At work, the pain is focused inside the head and is about overcoming distraction while maintaining concentration. Nothing craves distraction more than the prospect of doing something that requires extra concentration. This is what I mean by “hard things”. Author Cal Newport calls it deep work (and his book of the same title is excellent). It’s the stuff that “makes my head hurt”. But if the head doesn’t hurt, then I’m coasting and doing the bare minimum. Rarely does new value get created when I’m unwilling to do the hard things. And in business, the more I’ve been successful in embracing brain-draining activities, the greater the value of the output. Examples of the hard things include: proactively creating frameworks and systems for new service offerings, designing a new way to visualize sales and marketing data for our clients’ businesses, and taking the time to refine our case studies and the story we tell about how we help our clients.

I think it’ll be more and more of a challenge to make the time and create the conditions for deep work to occur. Those who can do it successfully day in and day out will vastly outperform those who engage mainly in the transactional activities of email correspondence, meetings, and repetitive tasks. This is something that I’ll continue to monitor and improve both for myself and for the talent we nurture and acquire at Barrel.

Acting with Confidence

Modesty is terrible for business. I’ve learned the hard way that you’re not doing yourself any favors by trying to be humble with a prospective client. Talking yourself up isn’t about arrogance or being “too salesy”. It’s about displaying confidence in your own skills, your experience, and your understanding of the prospect’s challenges. Sure, there may be companies who do bigger projects and make more money, but why does that matter? There may be experts who’ve written more on a particular subject or given more talks. But that doesn’t take away from any of the work we’ve done as a company and it certainly shouldn’t make us feel any less qualified. This is where I’ve learned the value of focusing on us and doing the best we can to tell our story of why we’re relevant, why we do great work, and how we help our clients succeed. The work often won’t speak for itself, especially when the work goes far beyond what’s visible in screenshots and video captures. It’s our duty as a business to make sure that our story gets told and in a manner that inspires the prospect to respect our expertise and to imagine a relationship together.

Conclusion

Much of what I’ve been learning is a combination of how to conduct myself on a day-to-day basis and how best to spend my time. I don’t think this is something that’ll ever be completely solved and in fact will probably continue to evolve. However, when I take stock of the lessons I’ve outlined above, I do believe there are some timeless takeaways that I bet will ring true even years from now:

  • Avoid behaviors that may lead you astray from being considerate, positive, and warm with others.
  • Time is precious.
  • Be proactive in telling your own story.

Pointing the Finger Inward

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This brief article in The New York Times on cognitive dissonance and why’s it’s so difficult to admit that we’re wrong got me thinking about an important lesson that Sei-Wook and I learned some years ago–that it’s always better to find fault with what we did or didn’t do rather than trying to blame someone or something else.

Over the years, we’ve gotten better and better at developing a decision tree on how to handle things that don’t go right. Here are some examples of things that have “gone wrong” at Barrel:

  • Client is unhappy with a deliverable.
  • There is a communication mixup with a client (e.g. they expected something to be done/completed but we weren’t all on the same page).
  • We (leadership team) are unhappy with the quality of an employee’s work or the employee’s attitude towards work, our clients, and other team members.
  • A project team misses an important deadline.
  • We learn that an employee is disgruntled about working here.
  • A valuable employee quits and cites specific work-related issues as the cause (or it’s obvious that this was the case).
  • A deliverable is found to have bugs or flaws that shouldn’t be there.
  • Project team members complain about unnecessary struggles they had to endure due to lack of direction or progress.
  • We lose out on what looked like a very promising business opportunity.

Here’s an attempt to articulate the principles for handling these types of situations in 4 steps. I’m writing from the perspective of an employer/supervisor who often has to make decisions and act when faced with these situations.

  1. Do nothing at first. Try to understand what’s really happening and see if you have all the information. If necessary, ask questions and don’t make any snap judgments.
  2. If the situation causes stress or anxiety, don’t express or show it overtly. If you need to blow off steam, do it with someone unrelated to the business or at the same level as you. I usually do my venting with Sei-Wook or the other partners at Barrel or at home with my wife Melanie. I believe it’s important not to express negative emotions about a situation at work, especially if you are in a leadership position. I’ve learned the hard way that this only undermines your ability to lead and establish credibility in making sound decisions.
  3. Reflect. Point the finger inward. What could you have done better? What did you not do? How, to put it bluntly, are you to blame for all of this? Even if you’re not directly involved, you’ll certainly find something. Think about these things and then ask yourself: what can I change or do differently the next time to prevent this? What are systematic and process-related improvements I can help effect in order to avoid this situation in the future?
  4. Don’t be afraid to get personal. If the situation calls for it, take it a step further and ask yourself: how can I change as a person so that I can avoid, prevent, or better face this type of situation in the future?

When you put the examples of things “gone wrong” through the process above, the output can lead to very productive behavior. It quickly filters out the negativity and the need to place blame and instead, directs all energy into some kind of action.

Personally, I think the first two steps are often the hardest. It’s very easy, and often even tempting, to react quickly and want to “fix” things right away. This can lead to unfortunate behavior like directing blame at someone, immediately putting them on the defensive and making it harder to give productive feedback later on. It’s also very easy to express impatience or frustration through body posture or speech, so I have to be extra aware in order to catch myself. If I can get through the first two steps, I find that it’s easier to reflect and ask myself the questions that’ll result in productive outcomes.

The need to be right, feeling completely blameless, and unceasing stubbornness–these are counterproductive behaviors that take cues from our sense of self-importance and our unwillingness to let our ego take punches. I don’t like the limited upside of having a protected and well-fed ego. As much as it hurts and as much as I have to bear the cognitive dissonance (“the stress we experience when we hold two contradictory thoughts, beliefs, opinions or attitudes”) that comes with admitting that I didn’t know better or that I was flat out wrong, I prefer the upside of learning, changing my ways, and doing things differently the next time in hopes of a better outcome.

Basic Decision Patterns

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I’m grossly oversimplifying what author Venkatesh Rao puts forward in his book Tempo: Timing Tactics and Strategy in Narrative-Driven Decision-making, but I liked his part on Basic Decision Patterns so much that I decided to create a more graphic representation of his 2×2 quadrant to help me remember it for later.

His quadrant shows “Information Location” across the x-axis going from Internal to External and “Visibility of Mental Models” on the y-axis going from Low to High. He says this of his matrix:

The distinctions among the four classes of basic decision patterns are not arbitrary. They are based on the distribution and visibility of situational information. Information either originates in the decision-maker’s head or in the environment, and we either consciously recognize or are oblivious to the influence it has on our behavior. 

I’ve paraphrased and summarized the four in the graphic and below:

Deliberative

High visibility of mental models, internal information location

Behaviors that arise from our ability to make predictions, inferences, and a priori computation; requires new information not present in the immediate environment.

Reactive

High visibility of mental models, external information location

Behaviors consciously selected from the situation at hand; focused on managing time, energy, and momentum; think mimicry & imitation.

Opportunistic

Low visibility of mental models, internal information location

Unconscious, improvisational behaviors that often combine and rearrange decisions due to recognition of potential for disproportionate rewards.

Procedural

Low visibility of mental models, external information location

Making highly effective and complex decisions without understanding the logic of his or her own behavior; reliant on set processes & systems.

Throughout the time I was reading Tempo, I found myself trying to relate its various topics and definitions back to my day-to-day work at Barrel. When thinking about the four basic decision patterns, I tried to think of the patterns that I found myself following throughout a typical work week and if there were instances where I could have behaved differently. In many ways, I found myself thinking that by forcing myself into a more Deliberative state, I could better set myself up for success when I defaulted into Reactive and Procedural states. As for Opportunistic patterns, I think these instances are characterized by the happy moments when I feel like I’ve found a clever way to finish an arduous task quickly or to benefit multiple clients through a single newly gained insight.

The beauty of Tempo‘s various models is that they force me to think about how the mind goes about performing its many complex functions in countless situations and how our awareness of time, space, and the various narrative and cognitive frameworks can help decode the factors that shape our decisions.