Continually Evolving Thoughts on Talent and Hiring

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In writing this post, I wanted to make a reminder for myself about the continually evolving nature of how I’ve viewed talent and hiring, and how it’s possible that my views will continue to change in the future.

When we first started Barrel, Sei-Wook and I were essentially a couple of freelancers who said yes to enough work that we needed to hire people to help us. We used Craigslist and that was the start of our journey as employers (not counting brief stints by close friends as part-time help). We lucked out as some of our hires turned out to be very talented and instrumental in our growth. In fact, one of our Craigslist pickups is a Partner at Barrel today and one of our best leaders.

The hurdle for hiring back then was fairly low – we were grateful that people with skills would want to work for us, even though we couldn’t afford to pay much. We didn’t screen much for things like professionalism, communication skills, or teamwork. In fact, we lacked such attributes ourselves as we were fairly inexperienced. We were, after all, just hitting our mid-twenties and high on being our own bosses.

Over time, as we began to professionalize and put in more processes, we put in a bit more structure. We interviewed for multiple rounds and did reference checks. Some hires have worked out really well. Others have not. I’ve learned to accept that nobody, even the ones that are amazing as candidates, are a sure bet. Until you’ve worked closely and observed how they perform in a variety of situations, it’s tough to truly gauge how good they’ll be.

However, one thing is certain–when we do hit jackpot on a really great employee, it makes a world of a difference. Nothing improves team morale and business momentum than really talented people doing excellent work. A great hire can instantly bring new energy to the team and elevate the output of the entire company. It’s truly a beautiful thing to see.

We’ve been working hard to mitigate the risk in the hiring bets we make. We’ve introduced a range of skills tests to accompany our interviews. Some of these tests are designed to help us gauge someone’s level of attention to detail, their ability to think on their feet, and their ability to present. I used to think these were too basic, but then I’m reminded of tests that athletes have to do for scouts at pre-draft workouts or for anyone trying out for a spot on the practice squad–they’re often subjected to skills tests that test their fundamentals as well as intangibles like in-game awareness and ability to synthesize information. A while ago, I had written about the fundamentals of knowledge workers, but it took our company a good year before we codified many of these skills into measurable tests in our hiring process.

I don’t think the testing of fundamentals satisfies everything. There’s still a great deal of work to be done to mitigate hiring risk. And it’s also important to not think of hiring solely from a risk perspective–then it’s too much of a focus on downside and not enough on potential. This is where outbound recruitment, scouting, and junior talent becomes important to an organization. Rather than solely relying on inbound applications to hopefully find our next gem of a candidate, it’s critical that we build infrastructure to proactively recruit and find talent that will represent upgrades for our team.

This could come in the form of working with an outside recruiter for specific roles or building our own in-house recruiting practice to identify and go after talent at other firms. I used to be allergic to the idea of paying recruiters, but knowing the impact that a great hire can make to the culture as well as the bottom line, I think recruitment is a very worthwhile investment. It’s no different than building up a very strong new business pipeline–when you have a strong talent pipeline, the chances of landing the next difference-maker will go up. This practice extends not only to proactively going after talented people looking to move laterally to our company, but also in building up a very strong “farm league” of junior talent.

I’m inspired by the Core Four, the legendary Yankees players (Jeter, Pettitte, Posada, and Rivera) that were signed as amateurs by the Yankees in the early 90s, developed in their minor league system, and eventually became the foundation of the dynasty that yielded five World Series Championships for the franchise. I love the idea of having a robust system of young talent–interns and juniors–who join us right out of school or not too far removed from it, and eventually emerge as superstars. The challenge for us has been the perceived overhead and required investment in overseeing such talent development. Oftentimes, we convince ourselves that it’s easier to hire someone “more experienced” and forgo the work required in nurturing talent. However, I think this line of thinking comes from being reactive to resourcing challenges and focusing too much on solving a short-term problem. If we’re to develop a truly valuable system, it means investing in interns and juniors and bringing them up in a way that allows them to make mistakes and learn. It also means being open to having a good number of such employees at once, which then means freeing up the time of seniors and managers to ensure they can provide guidance.

None of this is easy or without some trade-offs. If I was to succinctly summarize my evolving stance on talent and hiring that I’ve sketched out above, it’d be this: invest in reaching more talent; push through a greater volume of talent through our qualification process; invest in building a hiring and talent development framework that will ensure that the strongest and most impactful employees are selected and nurtured. Let’s see how this holds in the coming months and years.

 

Most Common Opportunities I’ve Observed in Growing E-commerce Businesses

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At Barrel, a segment of our clients (and prospective clients who contact us) are growing e-commerce businesses doing anywhere between $500k to $5 million in sales. They are typically run by small teams (usually less than 10 people, often just 2-5 people) and have either been bootstrapped (funded with the founder’s savings plus the profits of the business) or with a small seed investment from friends and family. Drawing from my observations and experience reviewing dozens of such e-commerce businesses over the years, I thought it’d be a useful exercise to share some the most common opportunities we’ve come across and identified for these companies.

Here’s a quick overview in bulleted list form:

  • Google Analytics Setup & Campaign Tracking
  • Email Automations
  • Product Photography
  • Image Size / Website Speed
  • Product Organization
  • Product Recommendations

Google Analytics Setup & Campaign Tracking

One of the most common issues I’ve seen over and over again is the overall neglect of the company’s Google Analytics account. Google Analytics helps you track traffic, user behavior, and e-commerce performance. It’s a great way to gauge the performance of the website and to see what kinds of marketing activities and traffic sources generate the most revenues. However, if not set up properly, data can get muddied and the analytics will become less useful.

A very specific common issue is the lack of organization when it comes to campaign tracking. Campaign tracking is achieved through UTM parameters. UTMs, or Urchin Tracking Module parameters, are “five variants of URL parameters used by marketers to track the effectiveness of online marketing campaigns across traffic sources and publishing media” (source: Wikipedia). Here’s an example in which I’m utilizing three of the parameters:

  • https://www.peterkang.com/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=welcome-email

As you can see, the source is “newsletter”, the medium is “email”, and the campaign is “welcome-email”, which signifies that I am tracking the traffic coming from my welcome email newsletter that automatically gets sent when someone subscribes to my list.

What I often see are various campaigns labeled willy-nilly, spawning different names for the same marketing activities. For example, I’ve seen traffic coming from paid Facebook ad campaigns as “facebook / cpm”, “paidsocial / fb”, “fb / paid”, etc. for the source and medium parameters. This creates issues on the Google Analytics side as it splits up the campaign traffic into several different items on the list. This then has downstream impact as it requires tinkering with Google’s Default Channel Grouping setup extensively in order to properly categorize different campaigns into the right channel types. One way to quickly see if your campaign tracking is a mess is to view Acquisition >> All Traffic >> Channels. If you happen to have quite a bit of traffic under (Other), then you’ll know right away that marketing activities are not being categorized into the proper channels.

One way to prevent this is to keep an organized system for producing UTM links. We’ve introduced many of our clients to a spreadsheet as a way to centralize and keep track of their UTM links. Here’s a Google Sheets template for anyone who needs to shore up their campaign tracking.

In addition to the campaign tracking issues, here are some common Google Analytics account issues we often see:

  • No Goals set up for newsletter sign-ups or e-commerce transactions. Goals are helpful for visualizing the funnel and seeing where users drop off. It’s fairly easy to set up but just requires testing to make sure it’s working properly.
  • Site search tracking not turned on.  For sites that carry many products and have a search function that’s widely used by customers, it’s essential that you have site search tracking turned on so you can see analytics on search terms and usage.
  • Lack of annotations. This is less of a setup issue and more of an on-going practice. We encourage our clients to always put in annotations whenever significant PR and marketing events occur. For example, if the company is mentioned in a prominent magazine or on TV, it’s important to note it in the annotations box because a lot of traffic will actually be classified under direct and organic search and the annotation will be one way to remember that it accounted for the bump in visitors that day.

There are a number of other setup details that we see missing, like stripping URLs of query parameters to avoid splintered pageview stats, setting up proper audience definitions, and getting Google Tag Manager set up properly so events like button clicks or scroll depth can be measured. These all represent some quick-win opportunities for a company that’s looking to make better use of analytics to make informed decisions about marketing and website performance.

Email Automations

For most e-commerce businesses, email is still the highest performing marketing channel. This is not surprising. The email list represents a group of people who’ve self-selected to receive marketing messages from the company. They are the ones most likely to buy or buy again. Understanding this, an obvious opportunity is to make sure that these email list subscribers are hit with relevant emails at the right times. Email automation is a feature that’s available on almost all email service providers (ESP). Two of the most common ESPs we use are MailChimp and Klaviyo. They have fairly robust email automation tools.

At its core, email automation is about sending timed emails to a specific audience based on pre-set triggers.  There are countless varieties you can put together and sophisticated e-commerce businesses have incredibly complex automations. For many growing e-commerce businesses, I often see even the most basic automations missing. When we implement these, our clients often see thousands of dollars easily convert in the course of a few months. The advantage of email automations is that once they’re set up, they run on their own.

Here are a few of the most common ones:

  • Welcome flow for new email list subscribers. When someone signs up for the list, it’s an opportunity to send one or a series of emails that introduces the brand, the products, and the story behind them. Incentivizing a new email subscriber with a promo code or some kind of incentive (e.g. free shipping, free sample) can be an effective way to convert someone into a first-time customer.
  • First time purchase. For someone who’s converted as a paying customer for the first time, it’s an opportunity to thank them and engage them with content relevant to the product or something that makes them smile. This automation can also include a follow-up some weeks later asking the customer to leave a review of the product.
  • Replenishment reminder. If the product is one that runs out or naturally wears with use (e.g. a skincare product, apparel, beverage, etc.), an automation that sends a reminder email at the optimal time can bring a customer back for a repeat purchase. Even for businesses that offer subscriptions, a replenishment email for non-subscription customers can result in repeat purchases.
  • Winback. An automation that sends a promo email to customers who have not engaged with the company in several months is one way to win them back. The timing depends on how you classify a dormant customer. For some products, it could be as short as 60 days and for others it can be 6 months.
  • Birthday. By collecting a list subscriber’s birthdate, you can set up an automation to send a special discount code to that person on their birthday. It’s a simple yet often effective way to generate sales throughout the year. As the list gets larger, this automation becomes more and more useful.

Product Photography

For many e-commerce businesses, displaying the product in an attractive can mean the difference between mediocre sales and great sales. Of course, there are other factors like the quality and look of the packaging or the form factor of the product itself, all decisions that are made before the product makes its way online. However, there are various opportunities to improve the presentation of the product on the website through strong photography.

These are some common recommendations we’ve made to clients when reviewing their product photography. Not all are going to be relevant for every type of product.

  • High-resolution and crisp quality on zoom. Every now and then, we still see product photography that’s low-res and fuzzy and looks awful on zoom, making it hard for customers to make out certain details.
  • Showing multiple angles of the product on a clean background. Another way to accomplish this is by using 360-degree capture and embedding a draggable view onto the page, but this can be overkill for many products. Depending on the product, showing a few different angles can give the customer more confidence in making the purchase.
  • Showing the product in action. For products that are better understood in context of their environment (e.g. furniture to show sense of scale or how it looks in a particular room) or through use cases (e.g. a kitchen appliance that can perform multiple functions), a photo of the product in action can help the customer visualize owning it. In some cases, showing these situations in video format can be quite effective as well. These images are useful on product pages as well as across the website on various landing pages like home and product listing pages.
  • Showing everything that you’ll get with the purchase. For products that come with several components (e.g. an electronic device with a charger and other accessories), having a photo of all the pieces that come in the package ensures that the customer is clear about what’s included and not included. In some cases, this photo can reduce unnecessary customer service inquiries.

Investing in product photography is seldom a mistake. In fact, having a great deal of product photography can be a valuable asset as it gives you additional opportunities to use them in social media posts and various paid marketing campaigns.

Image Size / Website Speed

This is a simple one we can spot typically spot by running the website through a tool like Webpagetest.org. Oftentimes, we see images that have not been properly compressed or saved at a reasonable size, and so rather than loading a 150kb JPG, a 3MB PNG might be in place, forcing longer load times and slowing down the website. Sizing down images and using a compression tool like TinyPNG across the entire website can improve website speed quite a bit.

Product Organization

Product organization is more of an issue for businesses with large product catalogs. For example, apparel or beauty companies that have more than 100 or even 1,000 products will need to be strategic about the taxonomy of the products, ensuring that the classification of different product types is intuitive for users browsing on the website.  Here are a few common issues that we come across which can be addressed by revisiting how products are organized into different categories and attributes:

  • Categories are too general and can go deeper. The original categories are not specific enough and, over time, have too many products that may require users to browse irrelevant products. An example is if an apparel brand has a category called Shirts and has a plethora of t-shirts, button-down shirts, and polo shirts. It would benefit the user if the website had one more layer of categories.
  • Categories/attributes are too specific and fragment product lists unnecessarily. On the flip side, the categories are too specific without a unifying top-level category, fragmenting the product browsing experience and frustrating the user who just wants to get a quick view of all the related products. This is also an issue when it comes to attributes and there is a Product Listing Page that has too many options. For example, on a site selling jackets, rather than having a list of the most popular colors, there are two or three dozen color combinations (e.g. red/grey, red/dark grey, red/green, etc.) with 1 or 2 results each. Unless customers are known to be very specific about certain color combinations, this can work against making it easy for them to find what they need.
  • Website needs product organization hygiene work. The product catalog has experienced an overhaul but the website does not quite reflect this. For example, a beauty brand may have phased out a certain collection of products (e.g. products that help treat acne) but the navigation still has a link to an empty collection page. We often find that websites can go many months without a general clean-up of the navigation, leading users to dead ends.

Product Recommendations

The ability to intelligently recommend products while a user browses through a website is something that doesn’t get taken advantage of enough by most e-commerce websites. This is an area where we often have a great deal of discussions with clients and where lots of opportunities to increase both conversion rates and average order values can come about. Here are some common opportunities:

  • Bestsellers. This sounds like a no-brainer, especially for sites with larger product catalogs, but we often come across websites that do not take advantage of the draw that a listing of the bestselling products can have on users. Of course, not all brands may find a bestseller recommendation appropriate, especially those with a limited number of products or those that may not find a bestseller listing compatible with the brand (e.g. ultra luxury brands that would rather not put their iconic bestseller under a “Bestseller” listing).
  • Pairs well with / Works well with. For any brands selling complementary products, we often see opportunities to push the recommendation in a number of ways. This can be done through a section on the Product Detail Page, a pop-up when one of the products is added to cart asking if the user would like to also add the complementary product, or during the cart and checkout process. Done well and in a manner that adds value for the customer (rather than obnoxiously trying to get them to buy something they don’t need), this can be a powerful type of recommendation.
  • Also purchased with / You may also like. This is similar to the pairs well with / works well with recommendation but the products recommended here may not necessarily be complementary products. Using data from past customer purchases or using a personalization engine (there are dozens of companies claiming artificial intelligence / machine learning capabilities in recommending super relevant products–not all are created equal, so you’ll have to do your due diligence), the website can display products that may appeal to someone who has been looking exclusively at a certain category. For example, think of a parent who’s only looked at high-end strollers on a baby product site getting recommendations for other high-end baby strollers and high-end accessories for the stroller.

Just Scratching the Surface

The common opportunities presented above are often the “low hanging fruit” that we can quickly act on to see some results. The harder work comes in the form of diving deeper in the analytics, drawing out insights, and designing tests we can run to see whether or not we can gain improvements. This is often not the glamorous work of fresh redesigns but incremental improvements like shaving off a second from mobile load times through code refactoring, testing out the copy on certain call to action buttons across different pages, or making sure we’re setting up proper canonical URLs for categories and collections that go by multiple names but carry the same products.

When it comes to running an e-commerce business, a great deal of the success we’ve observed in our clients at Barrel comes from the relentless work of rolling out continual improvements and the ability for brands to connect meaningfully with customers. These two types of activities go hand in hand and are often intertwined. For example, a brand that communicates often and effectively with fans through owned social channels will benefit greatly by having effective landing pages that give engaged fans an easy way to purchase or to sign up to get emails. There may be spikes every now and then with new product launches or a chance mention by a big-time influencer, but it’s often the sustained effort and dedication to the process of learning, planning, and improving that accumulates into results in the long run.

Most e-commerce businesses are a slow grind that takes patience and grit, and as more and more companies come into existence trying to make their mark online, I know many will fizzle out and fade away. For those that are willing to tough it out, our team at Barrel is eager to join you for the ride.

Exploring Daily Commitments

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I recently signed up for an online fitness program called Athlean-X. It’s a 3-month plan that requires 5 days of workouts with 2 days of rest and recovery. I haven’t been able to keep up day-for-day with the plan, especially as I like to fit in basketball and running on some of the days, but I’ve tried my best to fit the 5 workouts every 8-9 days.

The workouts themselves are not overly difficult or long. If I’m efficient, I can get some of the workouts done in 30 minutes. I’m lucky that my gym is literally across the street from the apartment, which means 30 seconds to and fro in addition to the 30 minutes, perfect for a session before or after work.

What I’ve found is that the power of a program like this is the fact that it gets me exercising almost daily. I’m hitting various muscle groups and doing all kinds of movements day in and day out, and this starts to build up–the “gains” that programs like this advertise really do start to show.

I thought about the last time I put my body through such varied daily exercises and it was probably during the summer before my senior year of high school when I had two full months of daily lifting, running, and skills work in preparation for football season. That was nearly half a lifetime ago! The intensity and duration of my workouts are nowhere near what it was back then, but the fact that it happens daily makes it that much more impactful.

Daily Commitments Are a Superpower

I hesitate to call my exercise routine a daily habit. I’ve started to think of the term “habit” as an activity that, with repetition and the right trigger & reward incentive, becomes a near-automatic behavior, like drinking a glass of water in the morning or flossing before sleep.

For an activity like working out, I like to think of it as a daily commitment. It requires overcoming various forms of resistance–fatigue, distractions, dread–and going through the necessary motions to make it happen (e.g. changing, going to the gym, warming up, etc.). When seen through this lens and knowing that daily commitments lead to progress that eventually compound over time, it’s easy to see that the ability to have productive daily commitments are a superpower. The potential to achieve great things is quite amazing. Here are just a few things:

  • Learning a new language (e.g. 10+ straight weeks of daily language study for 30-45 minutes)
  • Writing a book (e.g. 30-40 straight weeks of writing for 45-60 minutes a day and another 10 or so weeks of editing for 30-40 minutes a day)
  • Building a side online business (e.g. 20-30 straight weeks of carrying out various tasks for 45-60 minutes a day)
  • Becoming a triathlete (e.g. 12 straight weeks of 45-60 minute daily workouts)

Of course, there’s so much more. It’s possible to pick up new topics and gain some degree of mastery, like math, physics, carpentry, drawing, playing an instrument, and investing. Sure, committing to more than an hour will accelerate the learning and deepen the mastery, but given that many of us have full-time jobs, relationships, and other obligations, I’d imagine a daily commitment of more than an hour on one thing may be challenging (although not impossible if you really want it).

The sad truth is that even with this clear understanding in the power of daily commitments, I know that there are just too many entrenched habits and resistance factors that get in the way. The desire to relax and veg out after work, an alcoholic beverage in hand. The mindless tendency to scroll through YouTube videos and social media feeds. The insatiable curiosity to consume empty calorie content like news, sports scores, and celebrity gossip. Even when it comes to work, I find myself refreshing my email and filling my time with work that can easily wait, like responding to a non-critical inquiry.

Breaking Down the Resistance

When I reflect on the multiple times that my daily commitment to writing has failed, it’s been because a few stressful days at work made me immediately averse to the idea of sitting down and reflecting deeply about anything. Usually, I would want to go out or engage in a mindless activity that would require very little brainpower. Luckily for me, I’ve categorized working out as a distraction from work-related stress, so I welcome the opportunity to go lift weights or run as a way to relieve the stress. This got me thinking about how certain commitments need the right conditions in order to succeed.

When I think about an activity such as writing, I think it needs to happen when my mind is clearest. If I were to commit to writing daily every morning for 30-45 minutes, it would mean waking up early enough and giving my mind the space to focus. The biggest resistance at this point would be the grogginess I feel in the morning, which can be overcome with a better sleeping habit–going to bed earlier and avoiding excessive eating and drinking. A good night’s sleep, waking up early, and a clear mind–if I can string 4 to 5 of these a week and get my writing sessions in, then the results will start to pile up quickly.

Of course, it’s easier said than done, but it’s a worthwhile exercise to explore. I’d like to think that I can develop a framework in which I identify a concrete goal (e.g. learn a language, write 100 blog posts, pick up Python, etc.) and then design the conditions that will lower resistance and allow a daily commitment to flourish.

 

Being Short and Embracing Setbacks from Astroball by Ben Reiter

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Sig had developed a theory—a hypothesis, to be exact—about undersized ballplayers, after so many years of watching Jed Lowrie and José Altuve, and now Alex Bregman. Most players with their skills but traditional pro bodies had lived their entire lives without having ever been told no and often without suffering any setbacks. So, when faced with the prospect of failing at a critical moment, they didn’t know how to handle it, because they’d never had to do so before. Nothing was easy for a small player, and nothing was given to him. Bregman had lived on the brink of baseball failure all his life, and he no longer feared it. “He’s probably already been failure-proofed,” Sig said. That was what the scouts meant when they said Alex Bregman, allegedly six feet tall, didn’t give a shit.

Astroball: Astroball: The New Way to Win It All by Ben Reiter chronicles the turnaround of the Houston Astros under the leadership of GM Jeff Luhnow and Director of Decision Sciences Sig Mejdal. Their systematic overhaul of the roster, their melding of quantitative and qualitative data, and the way things played out (World Series winners in 2017) reads like Moneyball 2.0.

There are many lessons I took away from the book and things that got me really excited. One of themes that Reiter emphasizes throughout the book is the growth mindset–Luhnow and Mejdal prized the growth mindset of their players because it meant that they were open to feedback and willing to learn from the data and make necessary adjustments to their style of play. A big part of the Astro’s success is the collective growth mindset of the team and their ability to adjust in tough situations.

As I read the book, I kept thinking to myself–how do you screen for an employee with a growth mindset? How do you separate them from those who have a fixed mindset? It made me reminisce a number of interviews I’ve had in the past with people applying to Barrel. If you ever ask anyone whether or not they like to learn new things and grow, you will get, 100% of the time, an affirmative answer. However, that doesn’t mean the person truly embodies a growth mindset. One thing we’ve tried to look for in candidates at Barrel are extra-curricular activities–what do people do in their free time and does it align with the skills they need to develop at work? Usually, those with the strongest growth mindsets, from our experience, have shown an insatiable appetite to expand their work-related skillsets outside of work, either through classes, a side hustle, or personal experiments.

Back to the book: a big thing that stuck with me was the characterization in the quote above about undersized ballplayers whose setbacks made them “failure-proof”. I love this bit because A) I’m of under-average height as well at 5’8″ and B) I whole-heartedly believe in the value of setbacks.

My height doesn’t have the significant bearing on my professional success as it does for major league ballplayers, but setbacks are all too common in my line of work. However, with experience–as in, the experience of living through numerous setbacks over the years–it’s been easier and easier to overcome new setbacks. What used to be debilitating things that “happened” to us is now seen more as an expected bump on the long path of running a business. The response is less panic and fear and more process-driven responses and soft self-reminders to stick with our process.

What the story of the undersized players in Astroball illustrates is a bigger theme that’s repeated throughout the book. The Astros front office, in embracing a growth mindset and learning to overcome their own setbacks, were able to stop “giving a shit” about what others thought. They avoided succumbing to the pressures and anxieties that plagued those who’ve only experienced long stretches of success only to hit the rare rough patch that completely derails them. The Astros stuck with their process and continued to refine it on their own terms.

As I think about the organization we continue to build at Barrel, I’d love to see us continue to embrace and absorb setbacks like wooden logs that fuel our fire. As Reiter notes in the book, it took the Astros thousands of decisions, many of them correctly in their favor, for them to turn around a last place team into a World Series champion. While we may not have a clear-cut championship to play for, I know that as an organization, we, too, make hundreds if not thousands of decisions that impact our own scorecard. I know that like the Astros, the use of quantitative and qualitative data will be useful, as well as the implementation of key technology, in helping us make better decisions. And supporting all this needs to be an organizational commitment to a growth mindset and a belief in a process for making smarter decisions.

The Discipline of Joy & More Thoughts on Off the Clock by Laura Vanderkam

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I’ve compiled some additional thoughts on Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done by Laura Vanderkam. You can read about my time diary experiment here.

Progress is motivational, and makes time feel expansive. In the time-perception survey, people who strongly agreed with the statement “Yesterday, I made progress toward my personal or professional goals” were 20 percent more likely than the average survey respondent to believe that they generally had enough time for the things they wanted to do.

Time is elastic. It stretches to accommodate what we choose to put into it. Investing in your happiness might mean going for a walk on a beautiful spring morning, even if it means you start work a little later. Generally, the work gets done because it has to get done, but in one world you’ve started your day with a bit of bliss, while in the normal version of life you haven’t. It can mean making space for a hobby or a regular get-together with friends. Even bits of time can be used for bits of joy, like reading via the Kindle app on your phone rather than checking email. You will eventually answer the emails that require answers. You always do. But if there’s anything else you want to do, happiness comes from doing it first.

Vanderkam highlights the importance of making time to do the things that make us happy first, before the other things. It reminded me of the Eisenhower Matrix that prioritizes the Important-Urgent and the Important Non-Urgent over all other types of activities, but Vanderkam suggests that most Important-Urgent work eventually gets done so why not spend a little time on the things that can energize and motivate you?

I tend to agree with the view. I’ve found that no matter how much work has piled up and no matter how daunting a deadline may be, I’ve never regretted taking a little bit of time to go for a run, get a lift in, play around with Sidney, or grab a bite with my wife. And even when I’m in the midst of cranking on a pile of proposals or working out some messy issue from work, Vanderkam suggests that part of the key to happiness is learning to “enjoy while enduring”:

While your time is, mostly, a choice, parts of life aren’t going to be blissful. Sometimes this is because of past choices, or choices made about the future. Sometimes it’s pure circumstance. Dark moments are inevitable. On some days, time’s eternal ticking can be a blessing. Nothing lasts forever. But if it is possible to flip the switch from enduring to enjoying, or enjoying while enduring, this can change the experience of time. To do so one must become, for lack of a better phrase, good at suffering.

She uses endurance athlete Amelia Boone as an example of someone who, while toughing it through 24 hours of intense and painful obstacle courses, finds the time to enjoy the sunrise and the camaraderie with fellow athletes. This example reminded me of the few Spartan races that I endured with my friends and how, between the discomforts and physically taxing obstacles, there were many moments of joy when we reached a fueling station for water and snacks or when the sun would come out and warm us after we had been freezing from a muddy obstacle. A more daily example is my commute to work and how it’s possible to switch from enduring to enjoying as I accept the crowded subway cars and unexpected delays while losing myself in a good book or being productive in jotting down ideas for an upcoming meeting.

The ability to enjoy while enduring is a really useful skill that can lessen the trauma of a poor experience. I recall an instance when my Barrel partners and I were stranded at LAX for several hours due to plane delays. While we were unhappy about the situation, we made the best of it and had ourselves a little airport picnic with some leftovers we had packed up from the restaurant the night before. We made makeshift plates out of coffee cup covers and had ourselves a fancy gourmet picnic. It helped to pass the time, and we had a good laugh about it.

Thoughtful people naturally construct stories to make sense of their lives. It takes real work to keep one unpleasant aspect of your life from becoming your entire narrative. Many intelligent people can’t muster themselves to do this work; hence, the tendency to brood.

Similar to the importance of enjoying while enduring, the ability to understand and be aware that life is so much more than a singular, negative experience or circumstance is an important key to happiness. I remember when I had greater difficulty with this, letting stresses like money, someone else’s relative success, or a perceived slight really cloud my mind and keep me in a funk. These days, I’ve become better at letting go and moving on to the next thing, understanding that there’s no real upside in being preoccupied with negative thoughts.

The discipline of joy requires holding in the mind simultaneously that this too shall pass and that this too is good. This alchemy of mind isn’t easy, but the good life is not always the easy life. Happiness requires effort. It is not just bestowed; it is the earned interest on what you choose to pay in.

I absolutely love this concept–that joy takes work, focus, and discipline. And in the context of time, joy requires the acceptance and appreciation that time is limited and that good moments come and go. This is why I think it’s so important to continually make plans to spend time with people I love, endure a little hassle to experience things that I’ll enjoy and remember, and keep the mind sharp and nimble so that I remember to savor what’s been good, deal with what needs dealing, and discard or ignore the things that ultimately don’t matter.

Thoughts on Off the Clock by Laura Vanderkam and My Time Diary Experiment

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In Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done by Laura Vanderkam, the author writes about her study of over 900 participants in which she surveys them on how they spent a Monday in March hour by hour and how they felt both about that day and about time in general. She writes:

First, people who feel like they have enough time are exceedingly mindful of their time. They know where the time goes. They accept ownership of their lives and think through their days and weeks ahead of time. They also reflect on their lives, figuring out what worked and what didn’t.

They build adventures into their lives. They do this even on a normal March Monday, knowing that rich memories can expand time both as they are being created and in the rearview mirror.

They scrub their lives of anything that does not belong there. This includes self-imposed time burdens, such as constant connectivity, that clog time for no good reason. Indeed, one of the most striking findings of my survey was the gap in estimated phone checks per hour between people who felt relaxed about time and those who felt anxious.

People who feel like they have enough time know how to linger in moments that deserve their attention; they can stretch the present when the present is worth being stretched.

They spend their resources to maximize happiness, yet when unpleasantness cannot be avoided, they figure out how to cope with and even savor time that others might wish away.

They let go of expectations of perfection and big results in the short run. Instead, they decide that good enough is good enough, knowing that steady progress over the long run is unstoppable. Finally, they know that people are a good use of time. I found that people who spent quality time with friends and family on that March Monday were more likely than people who spent that March Monday watching TV to feel like they had enough time for the things they wanted to do.

These paragraphs sum up nicely what Vanderkam details throughout the book. She provides more examples on how to be mindful with time, the importance of building quality memories, “investing” in different approaches to time that free up schedules for valuable activities, and more. It’s a quick read with a great deal of actionable advice.

My big takeaway from this book was the use of a time diary to record what happens throughout the day. Vanderkam talks about how her time diary was instrumental in showing her that, despite raising four kids, she found that she had time for a number of activities, including exercise, entertainment, and work. I was eager to get some data insights into how I spent my own time and if there were opportunities for improvements.

Over 7 weeks ago, I began to keep a time diary, recording my life in 30-minute increments (Vanderkam suggests either 30 or 15-min intervals; I found the 15-min one a bit too difficult). I built out my own spreadsheet with my own list of categories and have been diligently keeping it updated. I came up with 35 specific sub-categories that roll up to 7 broader categories: Work, Fitness, Personal Time, Eating, In Transit, Life’s Necessities, and Sleep. Looking at 5 weeks’ worth of data (the first one was incomplete and this last week isn’t finished yet), here are some averages per category:

  • Work: 48.3 hours/week, 6.9 hours/day
  • Fitness: 5.4 hours/week, 0.8 hours/day
  • Personal Time: 26.9 hours/week, 3.8 hours/day
  • Eating: 12.1 hours/week, 1.7 hours/day
  • In Transit: 17.7 hours/week, 2.5 hours/day
  • Life’s Necessities: 8 hours/week, 1.1 hours/day
  • Sleep: 49.6 hours/week, 7.1 hours/day

I haven’t come across any major new insights or takeaways, but it’s nice to be able to reflect back on how I’ve spent my time. There are a few observations worth noting:

  • Many activities don’t take up the full 30 minutes. I feel like the 15-minute increment would’ve been much more accurate, but if I happen to do a few different activities within the 30-minute block, I might credit whichever took the longest. If they’re all roughly equal, I might just randomly pick an activity and hope it all evens out in the end. But I’m not too concerned about this time diary being perfect–I think the rough outlines of my activities are good enough.
  • The “In Transit” category includes both my daily commutes to work and any travel. During these five weeks, I flew to Seattle and to Los Angeles on separate occasions, so the numbers may be higher than what’s typical. One thing that doesn’t come through when categorizing a 30-min block under In Transit is the time spent listening to podcasts, reading books and articles, and responding to emails and texts. I feel like a good deal of my weekly reading is done on the subway, which doesn’t really get reflected.
  • 51% of my Personal Time I categorized under “Chilling” (about 1.9 hours/day) but it seems to be a mix of hanging out with Mel or my friends, texting with buddies, watching YouTube, and mindlessly surfing the web. What doesn’t get reflected here is that I tend to check my emails and text about work to my partners during this time. But since I’m in a deliberately “relaxed” mindset during this time, those interactions don’t feel much like work.
  • Life’s Necessities, in case you’re wondering, includes things like washing up, getting ready for bed, haircuts, grocery shopping, and dog walking (a necessity for my dog’s life). Walking the dog takes up about 30% of this category and it’s when I get a good chunk of audiobook and podcast-listening done.
  • I put in a good 4-6 hours of work in each Sunday, and even with that, I’ve been averaging about 7 hours of work per day. The goal is to reduce the amount of time spent on Sundays and to be more efficient with my time on weekdays. During the week, the majority of my time (55%) was spent in meetings, either with clients or with team members, and on calls with clients or prospective clients. Beyond the emails I’ll check and respond to on the fly throughout the day, I spent an additional 0.9 hours/day of more focused time trying to keep up with my inbox.
  • It’s hard to escape the close to 50 hours of sleep per week. I had days when I would get by on 5-6 hours of sleep, but this would mean that I’d probably need an 8-10 hour night later in the week to compensate. If I want to have more time on the weekend, I’ve been forcing myself to get more sleep during the week.
  • I was pretty happy about the amount of time spent with family and my friends during this period. I formed lots of valuable memories and shared a great deal of laughs. Most of these were reflected in the Personal Time and Eating.

Reflecting on the data, I can see that there are definitely opportunities for improvement. A few that I spot right away are:

  • TV: I spent 7.9 hours/week on average watching shows. This could probably be closer to 5. With the rest of the time, I should be reading or writing more.
  • Book reading: It’s hard to say what the aggregate number is because I do try to read when I’m commuting or waiting for something, but in terms of dedicated time blocks to reading, I average just 1.7 hours/week. Would love to see this rise to 5 hours/week. I’m tempted to start buying more physical copies of books because I tend to read for longer with those in hand.
  • Writing: I only averaged 1 hour a week of writing for the 5 weeks. And whenever I look back, I always feel like whatever time I spent writing was worthwhile, even if it’s just thoughts that I might never share with anyone. The disadvantage of the 30-minute increments in the time diary means that none of my journal writing (about 5 to 15 minutes on average) gets captured. I write between 4-5 times a week, so I probably get at least 30 minutes there. Still not anywhere near where I’d like to be. Ideally, I can devote a good 3-4 hours to writing each week and then keep growing from there.

The time diary exercise not only gave me some data, it also made me reflect more often about how I wanted to spend my time. Week after week, I realized that I have 168 hours at my disposal. If I plan far enough in advance, a lot of that can be controlled. I can choose not to take certain meetings at work, I can choose to spend more time with family and friends, and I can choose to get more sleep. Day-to-day, the 30-minute increments move incredibly fast and I often have to take some time at the end of the day to recall all the things I did and categorize them appropriately.

When I first started, I was uncertain how likely it was for me to keep up. I was afraid it would grow to become too much of a hassle and a couple of missed days would lead me to abandon it altogether. However, seven weeks in, I can’t imagine not filling out the time diary. There’s a sense of satisfaction to the activity and also a feeling of clarity about the decisions I’ve made. Also, if I am to believe that time is truly life’s most valuable resource, then it feels good to know that I’m treating it in a mindful way.

The Importance of Marketing to Existing Clients from Managing the Professional Service Firm

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Managing the Professional Service Firm by David H. Maister is a must-read book for anyone running a professional services business. For too long, I thought that a digital creative firm like Barrel was somehow special and played by different rules than consulting, legal, accounting, or architecture/design businesses. Wrong.

It became quickly apparent in the first few pages of the book that Barrel operates in the same way as any other professional service firm and that core concepts such as client satisfaction, skill building, productivity, and getting better business were 100% applicable to the work that we do day in and day out.

Marketing to Existing Clients

One section that I found myself re-reading a few times was the chapter on “Marketing to Existing Clients”. Maister mentions how too many professional firms, while acknowledging that existing clients represent the best source of new business, devote more attention and resources to chasing brand new clients. While it is important to add new clients in order to bring fresh challenges and new contacts, Maister points out a few reasons why winning work from existing clients is very valuable:

  1. Existing clients represent higher-probability prospects because they already trust and know the firm.
  2. The marketing costs to win new business is lower since the firm doesn’t need to spend as much time and resources researching the client or partaking in time-consuming activities to win the new client over.
  3. “Follow-on” work from existing clients are often more profitable than first-time engagements from new clients. (This I’ve seen time and time again at Barrel, where the first project is often at break-even or even a loss but the follow-on work is where we recoup.)
  4. There is a higher probability that the firm can, over time, integrate more junior talent into the delivery of services to the client by building up the client’s acceptance of the juniors, thereby allowing the firm to achieve higher profitability through greater leverage (Maister defines “leverage” in this book as the ratio of junior to senior professional staff–if a firm can have a greater number of juniors while still billing at high rates, then the firm has greater leverage.)

I can confirm that each of the four reasons above have been very true at Barrel. However, as Maister notes, it’s important to “focus and target one’s efforts on the best opportunities” when marketing to existing clients. Rather than trying to win anything from any of our existing accounts, Maister suggests picking prospects where “(a) there are additional client needs that the firm can serve, and (b) the relationship is good enough to raise the probability that a marketing effort will pay off.”

The Tactics

Once we know who the existing client targets are, Maister provides three tables that, together, act like a playbook for winning new work. Listing the three tables reveals a 3-step strategy:

  1. Making the Client Disposed to Use the Firm Again
  2. Increasing the Firm’s Capabilities to Serve this Client
  3. Finding and Pursuing the Next Engagement

Below are the tables written out in full (for my own future reference more than anything else):

TABLE 9-1: Making the Client Disposed to Use the Firm Again

  1. Going the extra mile on the current engagement
    Use new business budget to fund extra analysis
    Use budget to improve turnaround time, service

    Improve quality of presentation
    More documentation, explanations, accessibility
  2. Increasing the amount of client contact
    Telephone regularly
    Visit at every opportunity
    Schedule business meetings near mealtime
    Invite to firm offices
    Introduce one’s partners
    Get firm leaders involved
  3. Building the business relationship
    Help client with contacts
    Put on special seminars for client’s staff
    Volunteer to attend client’s internal meetings
    Offer free day of counseling on nonproject matters
    Send client useful articles
    If possible, refer business to client
  4. Building the personal relationship
    Social activities
    Remember personal, family anniversaries
    Obtain scarce tickets
    Provide home telephone number
    Offer use of firm’s facilities

Table 9-2: Increasing the Firm’s Capabilities to Serve the Client

  1. Increasing knowledge of client’s industry
    Study industry magazine/newsletters thoroughly
    Attend industry meetings with client
    Conduct proprietary studies
  2. Increasing knowledge of client’s business
    Read all client’s brochures, annual reports, other public documents
    Ask to see strategic plan
    Volunteer to critique internal studies
    Conduct reverse seminar
  3. Increasing knowledge of client’s organization
    Ask for organization chart
    Ask who client deals with most
    Ask about the client’s boss
    Ask about power structure
    Arrange to meet other executives
    Spend time with client’s juniors
  4. Increasing knowledge of client
    Find out precisely how client is evaluated inside his or her company
    Find out what he or she is unhappy with

Table 9-3: Finding and Pursuing the Next Engagement

  1. Creating opportunities to demonstrate initiative and competence
    Volunteer services of one’s partners
    Arrange meetings with one’s partners
  2. Digging out new intelligence on new needs
    Use entire project team to gather info
    Get invited to their meetings
    Arrange to meet other executives
    Spend time with client staff at all levels
  3. Assembling evidence of new need
    Conduct additional analysis
    If possible, conduct additional interviews
    Conduct special studies
  4. Creating awareness of new need
    Bring problem areas to client’s attention early (Find ways to worry client)
    Document evidence of problems
    Compare client company’s statistics to others
    Share results of work done for other clients
  5. Finding sponsor/friend/coach in client organization
    Figure out who wants change
  6. Asking for new engagement at the right time
    “Point out” opportunities early and often, with no “hard sell”
    Concrete proposal only when confident it will be accepted

I was fairly pleased that none of these were mind-blowingly new to me. In fact, I felt that we regularly engage in a number of these activities with some of our key clients. However, these tables do make clear to me that there’s always room for improvement and that we can be very methodical and organized about how we engage in some of these tactics.

My task will be not only to figure out how I can spend more time engaging in some of these activities, but to train and hire talent that can help our team to scale in our efforts to market more effectively to our existing clients. If we can smartly scale our ability to deliver great work, build trust, and continually expand our capabilities to serve our clients, we’ll be headed in the right direction.

Lummi Island and The Willows Inn in Washington

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Lummi Island Baker Preserve Overlook View of Surrounding Islands

Melanie and I celebrated our 7th wedding anniversary with a trip to Washington. We spent a couple of days in Seattle meeting up with friends and doing touristy stuff around the city. We then drove north a couple of hours to Lummi Island and stayed overnight at The Willows Inn.

We enjoyed an excellent dinner at The Willows Inn, enjoyed the amazing view from our beachfront room, and woke up the next morning to an amazing breakfast back at the inn. We then did a hike up the Baker Preserve and got a spectacular view of the surrounding islands, including the San Juan islands, from the overlook. Lucky for us, the weather during the two days on Lummi Island was perfect – sunny and in the seventies.

I thought it’d be fun to post some pics from our stay there, especially the fantastic meal that we had there.

Lummi Island Sheep Farm

Lummi Island is a 9.25 sq. mile island in the Puget Sound and belongs to Whatcom County, Washington. To get there, you have to take a 6-minute ferry from Gooseberry Point. It’s probably the quickest ferry ride I’ve ever taken.

The first thing I did once we got settled in was to go for a quick run. I ran on the very quiet main road where no more than half a dozen cars passed me during the forty minutes I was jogging.

Lummi Island Beach

Lummi Island Beach

The island is pristine and I was struck by how empty it was. Maybe it’s because we were there right before July 4th and perhaps it gets more crowded as the weather gets warmer. I was told that summer in the Pacific Northwest really begins after Independence Day.

High Tide at The Willows Inn

We stayed in a unit of The Willows Inn called High Tide (the top level one). It’s about half a mile down from the restaurant/inn base and right on the water. We had a fantastic view of the water from our bed.

Lavender growing at The Willows Inn

Outdoor seating at The Willows Inn

We went over to the restaurant at 5PM for cocktails. We sat outside and enjoyed the view of the water.

I enjoyed a couple of very herbal concoctions, one which featured cynar and another that had acquavit. Mel enjoyed a non-alcoholic mocktail. Around 6PM, the food started coming out. These were “pre-meal snacks” to get our appetites going.

Cocktails at The Willows Inn

Kale with truffle at The Willows Inn

Lettuce wrap with fish at The Willows Inn

Bun filled with cod at The Willows Inn

Smoked wild salmon at The Willows Inn

Venison skewers at The Willows Inn

Octopus and morel skewers at The Willows Inn

Once we enjoyed our snacks, we made our way into the dining room inside and the dishes began to come out one by one.

The menu was very seafood forward with fruits, herbs, and vegetables all being sourced from the island. The wine pairing, save the dessert wine, was all white wines (and 1 rosé), which made sense with all the fish and shellfish.

A ceviche-type dish with island berries at The Willows Inn

Shrimp at The Willows Inn

Oysters at The Willows Inn

Diver scallops at The Willows Inn

Smoked mussels at The Willows Inn

Clams at The Willows Inn

Razo clams at The Willows Inn

Geoduck at The Willows Inn

Asparagus cooked in skunk cabbage at The Willows Inn

Flowers on a toasted something at The Willows Inn

Sourdough bread with chicken fat and butter at The Willows Inn

One of the servers showed us the halibut and the turnips as a preview of the ingredients that would be used in the main course.

Halibut with turnips at The Willows Inn

I was actually hoping for a more generous cut of halibut, but the dish itself was quite good. The turnips had a nice wasabi-like kick to them.

One of the servers showed us the halibut and the turnips as a 

After the main course, we made our way back out to the deck where we started to see the sun begin its descent. We also enjoyed a few different desserts. The most memorable one was the candied pine cone with a pine-flavored ice cream served on a pine tree branch. I thought it was interesting. Melanie really didn’t like it.

Pine tree dessert at The Willows Inn

Rose ice cream at The Willows Inn

Birch creme brulee with a birch-flavored broth at The Willows Inn

The sunset was beautiful. And this was around 9:30PM, which made the day feel incredibly long.

Beautiful sunset at The Willows Inn

At 10PM, there was still a good amount of light. It made me wish we could have extended days like this back on the East Coast.

The view at 10PM on Lummi Island

The next morning, we went right back to the restaurant for breakfast. We started off with some yogurt and then came a really nice spread featuring buckwheat crepes.

Breakfast yogurt at The Willows Inn

Breakfast crepes and spread at The Willows Inn

I also really enjoyed the freshly pressed apple juice they served us throughout breakfast.

After the meal, we packed up, checked out, and headed for Baker Preserve where we took a leisurely hike up about 1,000 feet and close to 2 miles in distance to the overlook. The thing I love about the Pacific Northwest are the incredibly tall trees. You just don’t see trees like this back in New York.

Tall trees on Lummi Island

Banana slug on Lummi Island

We saw only 6 or so other people the entire time we were on the trail and when we got to the overlook, we were able to enjoy it privately as another couple left just as we got there.

View from the Overlook at Baker Preserve on Lummi Island

Happy anniversary to my wife, Melanie! So grateful we got to spend such a memorable time together.

I was fortunate that a friend told me about Lummi Island, otherwise I never would have found out about it. I highly recommend it as it was very easy to get to from Seattle. I wouldn’t have minded staying an extra day there to go on a bike ride or check out some other trails, but beyond The Willows Inn, the food options there seem very limited and their lone grocery store is pretty understocked. Then again, you can always take the 6-minute ferry and go buy stuff on the mainland and come right back.

Systems Archetypes from The Fifth Discipline and How They Apply to a Digital Agency

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One of my favorite parts of The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge is the topic of systems thinking and how so many of the problems inherent in organizations (and even personal behaviors) stem from being unaware of the various systems at play and how these systems, when undetected and untouched, can control and determine outcomes, often in ways contrary to what you may have intended.

In such situations, we’re likely to blame external forces for our problems, but Senge explains that this misses out on a bigger picture:

Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static “snapshots.”

…Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing the “structures” that underlie complex situations, and for discerning high from low leverage change. That is, by seeing wholes we learn how to foster health.

Senge illustrates systems thinking through systems archetypes, simple yet powerful examples that distill many of the systems at play in organizations and everyday life.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these examples in the context of running a business and the experience I’ve had at Barrel. In the appendix of the book, Senge lists out each of the archetypes. Below, I went through the exercise of listing each one and then coming up with a corresponding example inspired by the challenges and issues we’ve run into at Barrel over the years.

It’s been helpful to borrow some vocabulary and a new lens through which to view the way business works. In many of the scenarios below, I’m reminded of the dangers of short-term thinking and “quick fix” solutions that only exacerbate the underlying problems in the long-run.

Balancing Process with Delay

A person, a group, or an organization, acting toward a goal, adjusts their behavior in response to delayed feedback. If they are not conscious of the delay, they end up taking more corrective action than needed, or (sometimes) just giving up because they cannot see that any progress is being made.

Digital agency example: A spike in new business and requests from existing accounts puts strain on the resources of the entire team as engineers, designers, strategists, and project managers all seem have very heavy workloads. In response, the team goes on a massive hiring spree and increases headcount by 30%. During that time, some of the projects that were slated to start are postponed to a later time and other projects fall through. The original team is able to handle all the work while there’s not enough work to go around to the newly hired employees, creating a drag on the company’s finances.

Limits to Growth

A process feeds on itself to produce a period of accelerating growth or expansion. Then the growth begins to slow (often inexplicably to the participants in the system) and eventually comes to a halt, and may even reverse itself and begin an accelerating collapse.

The growth phase is caused by a reinforcing feedback process (or by several reinforcing feedback processes). The slowing arises due to a balancing process brought into play as a “limit” is approached. The limit can be a resource constraint, or an external or internal response to growth. The accelerating collapse (when it occurs) arises from the reinforcing process operating in reverse, to generate more and more contraction.

Digital agency example: After very slow growth the first few years, the agency went from 4 to 24 people in a span of 18 months due to some award-winning work and some bigger-than-usual opportunities that all closed at the same time. The rapid growth was a strain as the company lacked formal organization and issues such as resource management, quality control, and client communication began to fall apart. This led to unhappy clients, a build-up of poor reputation, and low morale among employees who were stressed by the lack of structure and process. Eventually, both clients and top employees began to flee and the company experienced not only flattening growth but a decline in revenues.

Shifting the Burden

A short-term “solution” is used to correct a problem, with seemingly positive immediate results. As this correction is used more and more, more fundamental long-term corrective measures are used less and less. Over time, the capabilities for the fundamental solution may atrophy or become disabled, leading to even greater reliance on the symptomatic solution.

Digital agency example: Relatively inexperienced project managers are assigned to lead projects, which results in mistakes that irk or worry clients. The senior members of the team step in to “resolve” the mistakes while berating the project managers for their errors. The next time, when a project manager makes a mistake, the default behavior is to seek out a senior team member to “make things right”. This becomes a drag on the senior team members, who’re constantly brought in to resolve even the smallest of errors.

The entire situation becomes a missed opportunity in which the company never puts in a process to properly train the project managers and to provide guidance and mentoring that may allow them to resolve issues on their own.

This example corresponds more to the special case of “Shifting the Burden to the Intervenor” as discussed in The Fifth Discipline.

Eroding Goals

A shifting the burden type of structure in which the short-term solution involves letting a long-term fundamental goal decline.

Digital agency example: Project managers are told to closely monitor their hours on website build projects. The hours are based on a profitable hourly rate. However, as the project progresses and the work drags at a pace slower than anticipated, the hours quickly add up and are on the verge of going over. Because the client will not approve budget increases, the firm’s partners and the project managers decide to lower the hourly rate incrementally to “free up some more hours”, although this is just an illusion and an erosion of the profit margin. Weeks go by again, and when more hours are needed, the rate is lowered once again. The cycle continues until the rate is so low that it’s not enough to cover the basic cost of the project and the firm would have been better off not having taken on the project at all.

Escalation

Two people or organizations each see their welfare as depending on a relative advantage over the other. Whenever one side gets ahead, the other is more threatened, leading it to act more aggressively to reestablish its advantage, which threatens the first, increasing its aggressiveness, and so on. Often each side sees its own aggressive behavior as a defensive response to the other’s aggression; but each side acting “in defense” results in a buildup that goes far beyond either side’s desires.

Digital agency example: The engineers are annoyed that the QA team seems extra nit-picky about the website’s cross-browser compatibility and its performance on mobile and don’t appreciate the number of tickets. They decide to cut corners on the code since “we’ll catch in QA anyway” and rely on the QA team to point out the egregious mistakes that they’ll get to later. The QA team feels overwhelmed by the number of tickets they’re having to write and unhappy that the website is coming to them in such a poor condition. In response, the QA team asks and receives more resources to generate an even greater number of tickets. The engineers are further annoyed and continue to produce hacky, half-finished website code for QA. The cycle continues while dragging out timelines and impacting the overall ability of the agency to deliver for their clients.

Success to the Successful

Two activities compete for limited support or resources. The more successful one becomes, the more support it gains, thereby starving the other.

Digital agency example: One designer does a stand-out job on a project and shows the leadership team that she’s an excellent presenter. She’s given the opportunity to work on a high-profile client project and also has the chance to work closely with the creative director, who mentors her and teaches her new ways to approach projects. Another designer, whose work was not as well-received by the client, is assigned to more repetitive assignments and hops around from account to account filling in for whatever resource gaps the team has. The designer has very little one-on-one time with the creative director and his skills grow at a much slower rate.

Tragedy of the Commons

Individuals use a commonly available but limited resource solely on the basis of individual need. At first they are reward for using it; eventually, they get diminishing returns, which causes them to intensify their efforts. Eventually, the resource is either significantly depleted, eroded, or entirely used up.

Digital agency example: The agency finds a very talented freelance web developer with a very favorable hourly rate who can get things done quickly and effectively. A couple of project managers have great success with him and are able to successfully complete their websites on time. As word spreads, the agency’s project managers all want him on intense, last-minute assignments and vie for his time, inundating him with communication and requests. At first, the web developer is able to handle most requests, but slowly, he becomes overwhelmed and can’t juggle all the tasks, sometimes leading to missed deadlines. Eventually, he asks that he cut back his hours and only work on 1 project at a time with the agency.

Fixes That Fail

A fix, effective in the short term, has unforeseen long-term consequences which may require even more use of the same fix.

Digital agency example: To make up for lost time on a web project, the team decides to hardcode most of the content that was supposed to be editable using a content management system (CMS). After the website is launched, the client asks for a content update of a major section with a very tight deadline which would have been possible using the CMS but must now be hardcoded again in order to make the deadline. Eventually, so much of the website has been hardcoded that the effort to put in the CMS has become very expensive.

Growth and Underinvestment

Growth approaches a limit which can be eliminated or pushed into the future if the firm, or individual, invests in additional “capacity.” But the investment must be aggressive and sufficiently rapid to forestall reduced growth, or else it will never get made. Oftentimes, key goals or performance standards are lowered to justify underinvestment. When this happens, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy where lower goals lead to lower expectations, which are then borne out by poor performance caused by underinvestment.

Digital agency example: With the rapid increase in business, the agency goes out and hires a number of junior-level talent, believing that more bodies will solve the issue of understaffing and resourcing constraints. The agency doesn’t want to take the risk of hiring more senior-level managers who aren’t immediately billable and whose work will primarily by in supervising and training junior-level team members. They decide to push forward and postpone such investments for a later time. The influx of junior talent temporarily alleviates the staffing issues, but then quickly gives rise of quality issues and unhappy clients who complain about the mistakes and lack of experience.

As in the Limits to Growth example, unhappy clients eventually lead to the loss of both reputation and new business as well as employee attrition as nobody wants to be a part of a sinking ship.

Personal Mastery from The Fifth Discipline

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Organizations learn only through individuals who learn. Individual learning does not guarantee organizational learning. But without it no organizational learning occurs.

In Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, one of the five disciplines is personal mastery (the others being systems thinking, mental models, building shared vision, and team learning). Senge equates personal mastery with personal growth and learning, espoused by those who “are continually expanding their ability to create the results in life they truly seek.”

As much as I’d like to think that I care about personal growth and learning, I sometimes wonder if I’m really as serious as I can be. Reading this section made me realize that there are some gaps for me to cross in order to get closer to personal mastery.

People with a high level of personal mastery share several basic characteristics. They have a special sense of purpose that lies behind their visions and goals. For such a person, a vision is a calling rather than simply a good idea. They see current reality as an ally, not an enemy. They have learned how to perceive and work with forces of change rather than resist those forces. They are deeply inquisitive, committed to continually seeing reality more and more accurately. They feel connected to others and to life itself. Yet they sacrifice none of their uniqueness. They feel as if they are part of a larger creative process, which they can influence but cannot unilaterally control.

People with a high level of personal mastery live in a continual learning mode. They never “arrive.” Sometimes, language, such as the term “personal mastery,” creates a misleading sense of definiteness, of black and white. But personal mastery is not something you possess. It is a process. It is a lifelong discipline. People with a high level of personal mastery are acutely aware of their ignorance, their incompetence, their growth areas. And they are deeply self-confident. Paradoxical? Only for those who do not see that “the journey is the reward.”

There’s a lot to unpack in these two paragraphs. What jumps out at me is the ability to see the world as it is and to embrace the resistant forces and constraints, seeing them as opportunities to be creative. I found the concept of personal mastery to be a very spiritual one as it entails a never-ending journey that is, in itself, the reward.

“Another and equally important reason why we encourage our people in this quest is the impact which full personal development can have on individual happiness. To seek personal fulfillment only outside of work and to ignore the significant portion of our lives which we spend working, would be to limit our opportunities to be happy and complete human beings.”

Senge quotes Bill O’Brien, former president of Hanover Insurance, who fervently believed in having managers with personal mastery and the role of the organization in fostering personal growth among its employees. This is a good reminder for me that hiring the right team members with a yearning for personal growth and investing in resources and providing opportunities for continued development will lead to happier people.

Imagine a rubber band, stretched between your vision and current reality. When stretched, the rubber band creates tension, representing the tension between vision and current reality. What does tension seek? Resolution or release. There are only two possible ways for the tension to resolve itself: pull reality toward the vision or pull the vision toward reality. Which occurs will depend on whether we hold steady to the vision.

Senge introduces the concept of creative tension which is the gap between vision and current reality that is also a source of energy. Vision is a “specific destination, a picture of a desired future” that is supported by a purpose, “a direction, a general heading.” Our ability to persevere and to embrace the constraints and challenges presented by our current reality on our path towards achieving our vision is what characterizes mastery of creative tension, and therefore, personal mastery.

Mastery of creative tension transforms the way one views “failure.” Failure is, simply, a shortfall, evidence of the gap between vision and current reality. Failure is an opportunity for learning—about inaccurate pictures of current reality, about strategies that didn’t work as expected, about the clarity of the vision. Failures are not about our unworthiness or powerlessness.

I love this point about failure. Oftentimes, we let failures consume us and push us into compromising on our vision or eroding our goals. But when failures are embraced as opportunities to learn and a data point to use for reconfiguring our strategic approach to life, we become less afraid of facing reality as it is.

Commitment to the truth does not mean seeking the Truth, the absolute final word or ultimate cause. Rather, it means a relentless willingness to root out the ways we limit or deceive ourselves from seeing what is, and to continually challenge our theories of why things are the way they are. It means continually broadening our awareness, just as the great athlete with extraordinary peripheral vision keeps trying to see more of the playing field. It also means continually deepening our understanding of the structures underlying current events. Specifically, people with high levels of personal mastery see more of the structural conflicts underlying their own behavior.

Reading this paragraph reminded me of this post by Ramit Sethi on stories we tell ourselves that may not even be true anymore but have become a crutch that shields us from facing reality and attempting change. I’ve deceived myself over the years in many ways, and it’s been an uncomfortable undertaking to identify these “structural conflicts underlying [my] own behavior.” In fact, it’s still an on-going process that never ends. I find myself blaming external circumstances (e.g. “Why did so and so mess up on this so badly?”) or placing artificial constraints on my own abilities (e.g. “I’m not good at math, so I’ll ask someone else to figure this out”) when I could be digging deeper to find structural barriers that are the root cause of many problems.

What then can leaders intent on fostering personal mastery do? They can work relentlessly to foster a climate in which the principles of personal mastery are practiced in daily life. That means building an organization where it is safe for people to create visions, where inquiry and commitment to the truth are the norm, and where challenging the status quo is expected—especially when the status quo includes obscuring aspects of current reality that people seek to avoid.

The core leadership strategy is simple: be a model. Commit yourself to your own personal mastery. Talking about personal mastery may open people’s minds somewhat, but actions always speak louder than words. There’s nothing more powerful you can do to encourage others in their quest for personal mastery than to be serious in your own quest. And keep reminding yourself, in the words of MIT Sloan School professor Edgard Schein, that organizations are by their nature “coercive systems.”

This had me thinking about QBQ! The Question Behind the Question, a book which preaches the importance of personal accountability and how, especially in an organizational setting, I ought to focus on myself and model the behavior I want to see.

These days, one big roadblock to personal mastery–perhaps the nature of the structure I find myself stuck in–is the lack of time taken to reflect and properly face current reality. I’ve been guilty of defaulting to routines, and when I do have a free moment, I’m usually putting my mind on autopilot through podcasts, audiobooks, and television. The few moments of meditating and journalling just aren’t substantial enough. I think this is an opportunity to develop a habit that places a premium on time spent separate from my immediate work and focused on exploring the many ways I can better define my vision and propelling myself towards that vision.

The Seven Learning Disabilities from The Fifth Discipline

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In Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, he introduces seven learning disabilities that largely go undetected in organizations. Only by identifying these, he writes, can an organization take the necessary steps to cure them and become a learning organization.

The Seven Learning Disabilities

It is no accident that most organizations learn poorly. The way they are designed and managed, the way people’s jobs are defined, and, most importantly, the way we have all been taught to think and interact (not only in organizations but more broadly) create fundamental learning disabilities. These disabilities operate despite the best efforts of bright, committed people. Often the harder they try to solve problems, the worse the results. What learning does occur takes place despite these learning disabilities—for they pervade all organizations to some degree.

  1. “I Am My Position”
  2. “The Enemy is Out There”
  3. The Illusion of Taking Charge
  4. The Fixation on Events
  5. The Parable of the Boiled Frog
  6. The Delusion of Learning from Experience
  7. The Myth of the Management Team

I’ve excerpted certain lines from the section on the seven disabilities along with some commentary on what I’ve seen and felt while running my company Barrel.

1. “I Am My Position”

When asked what they do for a living, most people describe the tasks they perform every day, not the purpose of the greater enterprise in which they take part. Most see themselves within a system over which they have little or no influence. They do their job, put in their time, and try to cope with the forces outside of their control. Consequently, they tend to see their responsibilities as limited to the boundaries of their position.

When people in organizations focus only on their position, they have little sense of responsibility for the results produced when all positions interact. Moreover, when results are disappointing, it can be very difficult to know why. All you can do is assume that “someone screwed up.”

Senge is writing about the lack of a shared vision and institutional structures that strip away a sense of ownership and purpose. This got me thinking about how team members at Barrel describe what they do for a living to other people. I can imagine things like “I code websites” or “I design websites” or “I put together reports for clients”. Not very inspiring stuff and most definitely a focus on the position. I do hope that many team members will talk about helping clients and working with team members to solve problems for cool brands.

I myself need to master the articulation and belief in the purpose and vision of the organization. Too many times, I’ve described my job as “I oversee this and that” or “I work on a lot of new business and hire for certain positions”.

Earlier this year, our leadership team came up with “client success through creativity and collaboration” as the way to articulate our organization’s purpose, but I don’t think we’ve done a good job in sharing this with the team.

2. “The Enemy is Out There”

The “enemy is out there” syndrome is actually a by-product of “I am my position,” and the nonsystemic ways of looking at the world that it fosters. When we focus only on our position, we do not see how our own actions extend beyond the boundary of that position. When those actions have consequences that come back to hurt us, we misperceive these new problems as externally caused. Like the person being chased by his own shadow, we cannot seem to shake them.

I think one of the most pleasing things I’ve seen at Barrel, especially over the past few years, has been the widespread sense of ownership at the company. We’ve been very good about squashing an us versus them mentality when it comes to clients and instead, framed it as “how can we be of the greatest benefit and resource to our clients”. I’ve observed team members going above and beyond to answer questions, troubleshoot issues, and work on complex challenges with patience all in order to help our clients hit their goals and look good to their bosses.

And when it comes to mistakes or screw-ups that cause issues, we’ve made it an organizational habit to own up to the error and then to unpack what happened in order to learn. A big part of this has been to create an environment in which making mistakes doesn’t result in public embarrassment or an immediate loss of trust. Everyone feels bad whenever they make a mistake, but that’s because they’re disappointed in themselves and feel they should’ve done better rather than out of fear of reprisals.

3. The Illusion of Taking Charge

Being “proactive” is in vogue. Managers frequently proclaim the need for taking charge in facing difficult problems. What is typically meant by this is that we should face up to difficult issues, stop waiting for someone else to do something, and solve problems before they grow into crises. In particular, being proactive is frequently seen as an antidote to being “reactive”—waiting until a situation gets out of hand before taking a step. But is taking aggressive action against an external enemy really synonymous with being proactive?

…All too often, proactiveness is reactiveness in disguise. Whether in business or politics, if we simply become more aggressive fighting the “enemy out there,” we are reacting—regardless of what we call it. True proactiveness comes from seeing how we contribute to our own problems. It is a product of our way of thinking, not our emotional state.

This impulse to be “proactive” in the face of difficult challenges is something we try to spot and combat. Oftentimes, it comes in the form of what seems like a “quick-fix” solution or a very prescriptive top-down “new rule” to enforce certain behaviors. In most cases, these measures are absolutely reactive and do not have lasting impact.

What this disability calls for is a deeper understanding of the various forces at play in any problematic situation and the discipline to peel back the layers until we’ve uncovered what the underlying, unseen cause may be. Only then, can we craft effective solutions. This is a skill that’s still a big work in progress for us, but I’m glad we’re at least gaining awareness around it.

4. The Fixation on Events

Generative learning cannot be sustained in an organization if people’s thinking is dominated by short-term events. If we focus on events, the best we can ever do is predict an event before it happens so that we can react optimally. But we cannot learn to create.

“We lost on too many deals this quarter so that is why we are not doing well financially right now” is a linear thought I’ve had one too many times over the years. Of course, this fixation on short-term events is a real handicap and often leads to reactive behavior, like trying desperately to take on whatever new business we can to keep the business going.

Thinking about our various activities on a longer time horizon and shifting away from a linear view of why things are the way they are can open up a lot of new possibilities. This is a big part of what Senge writes about later on in the book with systems thinking.

5. The Parable of the Boiled Frog

If you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately try to scramble out. But if you place the frog in room temperature water, and don’t scare him, he’ll stay put. Now, if the pot sits on a heat source, and if you gradually turn up the temperature, something very interesting happens. As the temperature rises from 70 to 80 degrees F., the frog will do nothing. In fact, he will show every sign of enjoying himself. As the temperature gradually increases, the frog will become groggier and groggier, until he is unable to climb out of the pot. Though there is nothing restraining him, the frog will sit there and boil. Why? Because the frog’s internal apparatus for sensing threats to survival is geared to sudden changes in his environment, not to slow, gradual changes.

…Learning to see slow, gradual processes requires slowing down our frenetic pace and paying attention to the subtle as well as the dramatic.

Similar to The Fixation on Events, this learning disability emphasizes the challenge in spotting the gradual forces that quickly shape the fate of an organization. Things like client satisfaction across all of our accounts and team engagement and morale are hard to take stock immediately and the shifts in each may be gradual so that if we’re not paying attention, we could find ourselves in a tough spot. This is why it’s so critical for us to carefully examine, have check-in conversations, and be brutally honest with ourselves on how things are going.

6. The Delusion of Learning from Experience

When our actions have consequences beyond our learning horizon, it becomes impossible to learn from direct experience.

This one I felt was a bit repetitive, especially since it’s not too different from The Fixation on Events and The Parable of the Boiled Frog. I think Senge is noting that we put too much value in learning from direct experience but oftentimes, we can’t even assess the actions we took accurately since it may be many months or even years before the consequences become clear.

This reminds me of a case in which we took on a client on very disadvantageous terms: severely discounted rate, an almost impossible timeline for the initial project, and a client team that seemed dysfunctional in their internal communications. We pulled through and delivered, with much difficulty, on the project. The client didn’t seem all that happy but also not disappointed. Internally, we wondered whether the takeaway should’ve been to never take on such work again (saying “no”). Lo and behold, some years later, this client has become a significant account and we’ve developed a great relationship with them. What’s the lesson then? That sometimes we have to bite the bullet and be patient to see if something special can emerge? See, the challenge is that even today, I don’t know if I’ve learned from the experience much.

7. The Myth of the Management Team

Striding forward to do battle with these dilemmas and disabilities is “the management team,” the collection of savvy, experienced managers who represent the organization’s different functions and areas of expertise. Together, they are supposed to sort out the complex cross-functional issues that are critical to the organization. What confidence do we have, really, that typical management teams can surmount these learning disabilities?

Senge writes about how managers often care more about protecting their turf and their egos and default into a stance that make it hard for organizations to learn. I worry about this because I sometimes do think that I’d rather seem like I know the answers and express a measure of certainty with everything I say, especially with our team. Senge writes later on about how reflection and inquiry are key behaviors to overcoming this protective stance. I know that before I expect anyone else to be open and inquisitive in the face of uncertainty, I need to work on this for myself.

The Importance of Client Satisfaction

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I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how we can best get a sense of the health of our business at Barrel. There are the usual metrics like inbound leads, deals in the pipeline, and expected revenue from signed clients. There are also in-project metrics like profitability and how we’re tracking towards meeting milestones and deadlines. But the more I’ve explored this, the more I am convinced that the most important metric is one that measures client satisfaction: how pleased are they with our service and how likely are they to recommend us to someone else?

In The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge, there’s a fictional case study about a company called WonderTech, an electronics maker that releases a high-end computer. The company grows rapidly the first three years only to decline and fall into bankruptcy not too long afterwards. When closely examined, it’s possible to see that even with strong demand, the inability for the company to deliver its products on time led to dissatisfied customers and a loss in reputation. They were never able to fully recover from this, and subsequent sales and marketing efforts became harder and harder.

The following is a “worst case” scenario of the WonderTech case study as applied to Barrel. We’ve lived variations of this over the years and I don’t think I really understood what was going on except stuff just wasn’t clicking.

  • We started small and scrappy, taking on whatever work we could. We did our best for each one, happy to be given the opportunity.
  • Little by little, we would gain momentum by doing good work for clients, which would lead to more work through word of mouth and the quality of the work we produced.
  • Not only would the client give us more work, but we would entertain many new opportunities and take on several new clients. When this happened, it would soon be hard to keep up with the demand.
  • Our team members would be pushed to their limits, often working late nights to meet deadlines and juggling multiple projects.
  • We would take some shortcuts in hiring and find whoever fit the job description with little regard given to their cultural fit or their concrete skillsets.
  • Over time, things might slip here and there. Our long-time clients, fed up with our mistakes or inattentiveness, might reduce their spend with us or take the entire business elsewhere.
  • Faced with a loss in revenue, we would panic and seek out new clients, taking on any new engagement as long as it provided cashflow. We often ignored how difficult the client was or how the work didn’t align with what we were trying to be known for as a company.
  • This in turn would lead to less desirable projects and work that we wouldn’t be proud to showcase to prospective clients, making it harder to strengthen our reputation and land more clients.
  • Even worse, we’d lose talented team members who were not happy working on such client engagements, putting even more pressure on those who were left and also forcing us to use junior talent that then would make mistakes to further disappoint our clients.
  • And of course, all this time, the leadership team is in react mode, putting out fires and not spending an ounce of time trying to think strategically for our clients.
  • The vicious cycle results in stagnant or falling revenues, diminished profitability, and overall low morale.

It’s a tough place to be in, and one that could have been avoided. The allure of fast growth and increased headcount often deluded us into thinking that we could scale linearly and avoid growing pains. A more prudent thing would have been to weigh the opportunities for growth with what it took to keep our existing clients happy. If we felt that our existing clients, due to budget limitations or misalignment in the type of work we were doing for them, would no longer be treated with the same level of care as new clients, we should have proactively helped them transition to another agency rather than trying to hold on to them in a half-assed way. This way, we could make way for the new clients to be properly staffed and taken care of or make the conscious decision to turn down new business and focus on growing existing accounts.

It all sounds like common sense when I write it out, but in practice, it’s deceptively subtle and the gradual way in which the problem manifests makes it hard to realize when we are making the decisions that will ultimately come back and bite us.

So this is why I feel that a measure for client satisfaction, taken each week, is a proactive measure for ensuring that we don’t make decisions that will hamper us in the long run and fool us into thinking we can handle rapid growth. One approach I’ve been tossing around internally is to ask ourselves: “If asked today, would a client provide us with a positive testimonial that we could publish publicly?” If the answer is yes, then we are doing what we are supposed to do. If the answer is less certain, then we know we have our work cut out for us. If the answer is no, then we need to move on from the account and learn how we messed up so we don’t repeat the mistakes again. The goal of the game is to ensure that we can maintain a roster of clients that would, on a dime, gladly provide us with a glowing testimonial showering us with praise on the way we work and the impact we’ve had on their business. If we can’t maintain this standard for everyone, then we are in trouble.

When a client is satisfied, the vicious cycle I explored above, reverses itself:

  • The client tells others about us, bringing us warm leads that convert into new business.
  • We do a great job for the new clients, which then leads to more warm leads.
  • We’re selective in who we take on and only take on the number of clients we can absolutely do a great job for.
  • This self-imposed limit to growth allows us to land even better clients who give us the most interesting projects with budgets that allow us to do our best work.
  • Our team feels incredibly motivated and produces their best work. Their happiness and quality of work is a magnet for even more talent, feeding the team with a steady stream of great team members.
  • Talented team members require less oversight and projects are completed efficiently and effectively, allowing the company to profit even while compensating the team members very well.

Even when reading through this virtuous cycle, I can see how easily things can derail. All it takes are a string of bad decisions before things spiral into a vicious cycle. Perhaps the leadership team feels ambitious and wants to grow revenues by X% and decides to loosen standards on client satisfaction. What seemed unstoppable can quickly erode.

When I think about the actions that help prop up client satisfaction, a few come immediately to mind:

  • The speed of our response and communications.
  • The ability to provide useful guidance and information that make the client’s life easier.
  • To ask thoughtful questions that help the client clarify their thinking and planning.
  • To challenge the client, to the degree our expertise backs us, when they’re making questionable decisions.
  • To be on top of our subject domain and be confident in talking about what we’re supposed to know.
  • To proactively identify and present opportunities that the client might not be aware of.

There are countless other details that I think would be useful for me and the Barrel team to explore and breakdown ourselves, but the ones above cover a great deal. Beyond this, there is the hard work of truly understanding the goals of our clients and finding the ways in which we can deliver maximum value again and again. I think this is a challenge that any business in the world shares, and one that, if done right, can lead to tremendous success.

Halfway Through My Thirties, How’s It Going?

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I turned 35 today.

I spent the day watching some TV, going for a run, doing the laundry, catching up on work, and eating delicious meals cooked by my wife Mel. It was a peaceful and restful Sunday, just what I wanted.

Throughout the day, I found myself thinking about how I’ve hit the mid-point of my thirties. I was reminded of a blog post I wrote 5 years ago, Three Things to Consider for My Thirties. In it, I wrote about wanting to be a better son and brother, about gaining depth in an area of expertise, and having more patience.

Reflecting on the progress I’ve made in the past 5 years, I feel pretty good about where things are today.

I’m very grateful that I’ve been able to see my parents and sister more often now that they all live in Brooklyn. I’ve also prioritized spending time with Melanie and my closest friends, and this has made life much more enriching and satisfying. As with anything, you get into it what you put in, and relationships are such that making the time and the plans will go a long way in creating meaningful memories.

I’ve become more focused on gaining depth in my role as business owner and as a marketing consultant. The books, the hands-on experience on dozens of projects, and active learning from various experts have all helped me to gain confidence in my knowledge and armed me with skills to provide value to our Barrel employees and clients. I’ve never been more pumped about learning and the possibilities that going deeper presents.

When it comes to having more patience, there will always be room for improvement. I am, however, quite happy that I got into distance running and daily meditation. These two habits have helped me to concentrate for longer periods of time, stay in the present, and not get rattled too easily. I find that the things that stressed me out in the past for prolonged periods of time (e.g. an upset client, issues with an employee, external forces that cause inconvenience, etc.) have become less anxiety-inducing. In fact, more and more, I see issues and problems not as crises to react to right away but as opportunities to learn and create better systems and processes to prevent in the future. And for any issues that are out of my control, I accept that there’s not much I can do and proactively shift my focus to something that is within my control.

As I look ahead to the next 5 years and beyond, I know there will be all kinds of twists and turns. There may be very big life changes that’ll require me to adapt and revisit some of my priorities. And as these things happen, I hope that I’ll have the right mindset to embrace the challenges and continue to appreciate the privilege of being alive.

Lessons from Pricing Creativity by Blair Enns

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Lessons from Pricing Creativity by Blair Enns

Pricing Creativity: A Guide to Profit Beyond the Billable Hour is a book that provides rules and tactics to help creative professionals charge more for new work and run a more profitable business. It’s by Blair Enns, the founder of Win Without Pitching, a training program that helps creative professionals win more business.

I’ve been a follower of Enns for some years, having paid for access to his materials, enrolling in his online course, signing up for his webinars, and listening to his podcast. I really enjoyed reading this book and found myself texting excerpts to my partners at Barrel, insisting that we ought to try X and Y approach the very next day.

Enns references quite a bit of the popular psychology terms that’s all the rage in business books these days, especially the different types of cognitive biases that shape our behavior. What I appreciated was how he tied these concepts to the everyday situations that creative professionals face when working with prospects and clients, and how, by understanding their biases, we can influence them into making decisions that can improve our outcomes.

This post isn’t a summary or a detailed overview of the book but thoughts on some of the takeaways that I found immediately applicable to my work at Barrel. Enns presents 6 “Rules” that make up something of a framework for pricing based on value and not by selling time. Five of those rules are represented in my takeaways below.

There’s a great deal of detail and practical advice that I don’t discuss here, including the emphasis Enns puts on “mastering the value conversation.” If you are in the creative services profession, I would highly recommend investing in the book, which you need to buy off of the website. One successful application of his tactics might net you 10X+ what you spend on the book.

Lesson 1: Price the Client and Not the Job

A principle of price negotiation is that the sooner in the sale you offer a price, the lower it is likely to be. Understanding the client’s context, and therefore your potential for value creation, takes time. If you find yourself offering prices early, you’re almost certainly short-circuiting the patient information-gathering that needs to happen in order to price based on value.

This wasn’t a revelation for us at Barrel, but it was a good reminder that taking the time during the information-gathering process to deeply understand the client and their business would help us form better ideas on the value of our services to the client.

In fact, when I think about one of the more significant changes a Barrel over the past 2-3 years, it’s been the shift away from seeing a new client as another project and instead, viewing them as a new relationship with the potential for several projects that may span from website redesigns to analytics and advertising work.

Lesson 2: Present Options in Your Proposals

One of the biggest pricing mistakes that creative professionals make is to put a proposal in front of the client that contains only one option. In such a take-it-or-leave-it proposition there are only two outcomes, 50% of which are positive and 50% of which are negative.

If you resolve from hereon to always put three options in your proposals, you will increase the percentage of positive outcomes by half.

Presenting options changes the question you are asking the client from, “Does this proposal represent good value?” to a better question, “Which of these proposals is the best value?” The brain is wired to answer the second question. In fact, it is incapable of answering the first question without first answering the second.

I’ve seen this work when it comes to our support & maintenance packages. It’s something we’ve been rolling out in more and more of our proposals.

I can recall so many conversations where I presented just a single price and the client, wanting a point of comparison, would go out and shop around only to get flustered because the prices were so vastly different from each other as was the understanding of what was and wasn’t included.

Lesson 3: Anchor with a High-Priced Option

“Anchoring is the tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information received,” Enns writes. Combined with the lesson above on presenting options in our proposals, I really like the idea of having an anchor option that pegs the value of an engagement very high in the prospect’s mind.

For a client with a budget of $20k, for example, it might make sense to begin with a $100k case study, allowing the firm to show the depth and breadth of its work while leveraging a high anchor. By comparison, a second case study at the $50k investment level will look reasonable, and a $30k option might look like a bargain.

A lazy mistake we’ve made over the years is to find out a client’s budget and to craft an option at exactly that level or perhaps a little bit higher, hoping the depth of the proposal’s details would impress and encourage more spending. This, of course, rarely happened.

What I’d like to see us doing more, per Enns’s advice, is to anchor with something high that equates to a “deluxe / the works” version, have a floor at the client’s budget that achieves the bare minimum, and present a middle tier that inspires the client to spend more while also getting more.

In terms of coming up with an anchor price, I really liked the question Enns poses in this highlight:

Whatever your answer to this question of, “What would we do, and charge, if money were no object?” it’s a great anchor option. When you present your proposal, beginning with this priciest option, you can easily explain, “We began thinking about solutions with a hypothetical exercise of what we would do if you were not budget constrained. Indulge us for a minute while we share what we came up with. It might inspire some ideas.”

Lesson 4: Say a Price Before You Show a Price

By forcing yourself to state a price before you show it, you are committing to talking about money before you retreat to write a proposal. By offering pricing guidance in the forms we’ve already discussed in the previous chapter, you allow the client to become conditioned to the investment you will ask her to make and you create the opportunity to discuss any price objections that may exist.

The key principle of handling objections, of price or any other kind, is that early objections are your friends and late objections are your enemies.

I absolutely love this simple yet effective approach. I’ve been trying it out on certain prospects and it’s helped to surface price objections much earlier in the process. It’s especially useful for prospects that don’t want to reveal their budgets. They’ll typically say something along the lines of: “We’re not sure yet, we haven’t discussed our budget / we’re still exploring options.” But when you let them know that you’ll be exploring proposal options from the $Y to $X range (Enns recommends writing/saying high to low when talking about price), there’s often a reaction that sheds more insights. “Oh, $Y is crazy, no way we can afford that, maybe half of that at most…”

Lesson 5: Keep Your Proposal to One Page

Enns recommends coming up with a one-page proposal format that presents the pricing tiers and is less of a submitted doc and more of a guiding document used in closing conversations. I know that for certain types of engagements, we need to be a bit more in-depth with our proposals especially if the prospect is dead-set on having a committee review multiple proposals side-by-side (a situation we try to avoid participating in as much as possible), but I’ve been testing a one-page format for various prospects where I know I can get on a phone call or meet in person to walk them through the options and reinforce themes about value and process that we’ve had in prior discussions.

Lesson 6: Invoke Policies

We run into policies all the time when negotiating with clients, and when they use them, we always back down. Anytime a client invokes a policy, they seem to win. But we shouldn’t let them, not always. We lose because we come into the negotiation backed by preferences and inclinations. Policies trump wants every time. We need to use more policies in our negotiations, and we need to meet policy with policy when a client uses one.

My partners and I found this one very amusing but also so true. We’ve actually been more and more eager to invoke policies, especially when there are requests or demands that are at odds with putting our team in the best position to perform well. Some policy thoughts we’ve dreamed up or actually used recently include:

  • It’s our policy not to participate in spec work unless we are able to publish it publicly and use it in our portfolio.
  • It’s our policy not to kick off the engagement without first reviewing proper intake materials from your team.
  • It’s our policy not to launch websites on a Friday.
  • It’s our policy not to start work until the initial payment has been received.
  • It’s our policy not to disclose our private financial information.

Lesson 7: Leverage Social Influence to Position Yourself as an Expert Practioner

Occasionally, you’ll be asked to sell to a prospect with requests like, “Tell me why we should hire you.” An expert practitioner should never accept such an invitation. Instead, counter with something like, “How about instead of trying to convince you, I tell you why our current clients hire us, and you can see if those reasons make sense for you?” By refusing the invitation to relegate yourself to vendor status, and instead, bringing your clients’ peers into the room, you have effectively swapped your own self-serving bias for your prospect’s bias to be influenced by others.

Oh boy, how many times have I accepted such an invitation only to fight an uphill battle? I really like the response Enns has written here, and it’s something that would play well to our strengths in most instances. In situations where I had the awareness to point at our body of work and to call out specific clients, the outcome was much more positive. When a prospect hears that you’ve successfully achieved something for a brand that they admire or have at least studied, they’re more likely to see you as capable and experienced.

What are My Deliberate Practice Opportunities?

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I recently paid for an online course called The Art of Focus (unfortunately, it’s no longer open to new students). It’s a series of videos and exercises designed to help increase my capacity for deep, focused work. In the introductory video, one of the topics is about Deliberate Practice. Here’s an excerpt:

In the early 1990s, K. Anders Ericsson, a professor at Florida State University, studied experts and amateurs in an attempt to discern why they were different. Ericsson came to the stark realization that we can improve performance. What distinguishes the great from the normal is a function of applied effort in the same direction. In his words, to become an expert, requires a “life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.” There are two components to this worth noting. The first is “specific domain,” which means we’re applying our effort not to 100 things but one subject.

Think about learning to play the violin. Have you ever watched someone practice an instrument at a high level, or done so yourself? They don’t alternate playing a scale with returning emails. They don’t alternate practicing difficult passages with checking Facebook. They sit and focus, letting their entire mind and body work on the task at hand. That is kind of focus you need to seek, because it’s the only thing that works. The second notable component here is the term “deliberate practice.” If we want to master any cognitively demanding field, it’s not enough to practice. We need to practice deliberately.

…Deliberate practice is designed to improve performance. Deliberate practice isn’t fun. It requires (1) focused attention on a specific skill; (2) immediate feedback; (3) rest. If it’s not something where feedback is obvious and immediate, we often need a coach or mentor to help guide us. In fact, even when feedback is obvious and immediate, a coach can often point out things we can’t see. 

I’ve been thinking about the areas, the specific domain, in which I can focus and improve my performance through deliberate practice. There are two that I really think are important.

Deliberate Practice #1: Making Presentations

The first is the skill of making presentations, especially with the use of a Keynote/PowerPoint deck. In my line of work, there are numerous instances where I have to make a presentation and hope that it goes well. Some are with prospective clients evaluating Barrel as a potential agency partner. Some are with existing clients who want to know what we’ve done for them lately or are expecting fresh new ideas. And others are with our internal team either in group communication settings (e.g. the monthly team meeting) or in one-on-one training sessions. It’s not uncommon to have a handful of presentations each week. So, why not deliberately practice and get better?

One thing I’ve been doing to pay focused attention on the skill of making presentations is to read books on the topic. One book that’s been really helpful is Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson. It provides step by step guidance on how to put together and present impactful PowerPoint presentations. An immediate takeaway for me was to spend more time developing the structure and headlines of my presentation rather than jumping right into creating each of the slides. Once I began to understand Atkinson’s methodology, it made me cringe at the moments when I stuffed text onto a slide and read them out loud in front of my client or employees.

I think when it comes to getting immediate feedback, making presentations is a great skill to pursue because it’s possible to get usable feedback right away. Without even asking, it’s possible to gauge audience engagement and attention throughout a presentation. With prospective clients and existing clients, I may have to go by on this. With our internal team, however, I can simply ask an employee or one of my partners for their sincere thoughts and get some data on areas I need to improve.

Deliberate Practice #2: Pricing & Closing Deals

I’m almost finished with Pricing Creativity, a book by Blair Enns, which teaches (and preaches) value-based pricing for creative firms. It’s an exciting read for me as it touches upon a lot of the things I experience on a daily basis. I’ve been live texting my partners with excerpts as I come across insights that I think are “must-try” tactics for the business. It’ll take a great deal of effort and learning to master value-based pricing (the concept of pricing not based on our effort/number of hours but charging clients based on the value we add to their business through our work; e.g. if we add $1 million of business to their bottom line, then we should price for at least 20% of that and get compensated $200,000).

The idea of focusing on pricing and closing deals as a skill makes a lot of sense. This includes a few different components: mastering conversations with prospective (and even existing) clients, persistently testing out the value-based pricing approach (not all client engagements/projects will be appropriate for this), and ultimately closing the deal, which may include the submission of a proposal and negotiation of contracts. In other words, I want to deliberately practice the art of sales with pricing as a priority concern.

Each week, I have a handful of conversations that put me in position to practice (Sei-Wook, who handles most of our inbound sales inquires, is in position to practice at least a half dozen times a week). The key will be to put in more preparation work, to consciously note the flow of the conversations, and to put into practice some of the tactics I’ve learned from reading various sources. The feedback will be quite immediate if I’m careful to pick up on the prospect’s responses. I know I’m bound to make some mistakes and lose some opportunities as I push certain conversations towards value-based pricing, but it’s something I’m very keen to try out and learn from.

The other side of making sales a deliberate practice is to carve out time to develop smarter proposals. Pricing Creativity urges firms to create one-page proposals with multiple options. This is something we don’t do regularly, so I’ll have to devote some deep work time to writing out one-page proposals that prospects find acceptable. I actually think such a format, in the long run, will prove quite successful. The challenge is making the time to explore this new format and being persistent about sticking with it even when the first few prospects might reject or give negative feedback about it.

It’s All About Communication

Overall, I’m pretty excited about the idea of focusing on these two areas in the coming months and seeing how far I can take them. Because I am not a performer in the traditional sense–it’s hard to define and measure my contributions and output like you would a basketball player or even an actor–I find that the skill sets I can focus on revolve around my ability to communicate. When it comes to selling, managing employees, making presentations, etc., what I’m doing ultimately boils down to communications. So in order to be the most effective I can be at my job, my deliberate practice opportunities, however I label them, will most likely be tied closely to communications. There are a some other areas I have my eyes on, but for now, let’s start there.

Themes from Our Partner Retreat

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This past weekend, the four Barrel partners held an offsite retreat in Old Chatham, NY to plan the company’s priorities and initiatives for 2018.

The two full days of planning were incredibly productive and we came away with a roadmap that we’re very excited to execute on in the coming weeks and months. It also helped that the AirBnB we were staying at was stunning. A barn-style home, the layout of the home, the high ceilings, the flood of sunlight, and the tasteful furnishings all contributed to a comfortable and luxurious environment (here’s the listing if you’re curious–should be great for groups and families with kids).

Throughout our sessions, a few recurring themes emerged and by the end of the retreat, we were able to articulate and agree that these were important ideas to continually revisit in both our day-to-day and in planning anything for the future. Below are the themes with some thoughts on how they’re relevant to our business.

Understanding on Fundamental Concepts and Ideas

As we discussed various areas for improvement at the company as well as potential opportunities that we should pursue, we began to come back again and again to the idea of understanding fundamental concepts and ideas. Take for example the discipline of project management. We know there are certain aspects of project management that we can improve upon, like being more prompt with client communication or being more diligent about keeping project schedules up-to-date. But when we began to discuss potential solutions, like instituting checklists or providing strict training guidelines to new project managers, we all felt that there was something reactive and prescriptive about such approaches.

We began to ask ourselves: do all project managers fully understand why constant and timely communication with clients are important? Are they aware of the impact that project schedules have on the project budget and the utilization of different team members? While some of these things may have felt to us like common sense, we also recognized that, with the unending stream of tasks people are dealt, it’s easy to forget the why behind the assignments. By reinforcing basic, fundamental concepts and aligning with the team on an on-going basis, could we better encourage team members to think more critically and to bring a problem-solver oriented approach versus a task-oriented one?

We tested this idea on a number of other areas and disciplines and found that there was a glaring absence of discussion and training on the fundamental concepts underlying the day-to-day tasks. How does e-commerce work and why is it important for businesses? What purpose does good design serve and what must we know about the user in order to create an effective experience? What is the purpose of collecting data and putting together marketing reports?

A related realization was that, as the company’s partners who interface with clients about new work and think more often about the high-level implications of projects, we internalize and intuit a great deal of the why’s and take for granted the understanding behind certain approaches we take to client work and running of the company. But this level of understanding is often not fully shared or communicated with the rest of the team, leaving a gap that frustrates both the partners and the employees. So when we identified “training” as a big area for improvement company-wide, we began to understand that a big part of it would have to be a greater effort to align on the fundamental concepts of everything we do and an understanding that goes beyond the prescriptive and into frameworks, logic, and reasoning that empower people to make smart decisions on their own with greater confidence.

Playing for the Long Term

One exercise that we do during our annual planning session is to talk about our 10-year and 3-year goals. As we contemplated what Barrel could look like in 10 years, the merits of long-term thinking came into sharper focus. We agreed that we were in no rush to supercharge growth at the company, but to grow at a pace that would be sustainable for the company and allow us to build something we could be proud of.

A long-term focus meant that we didn’t have to attain incredibly lofty and stressful goals for 2018. We set numbers that felt like a sizable increase from 2017 but one that we felt confident we could realistically reach. This would in turn allow us to focus on the task of strengthening and smartly scaling various aspects of our operations piece by piece.

There was something incredibly liberating about aligning on our long-term approach. We consciously decided to stick solely to our own scorecard and timetable rather than minding that growth rate and perceived success of other agencies out there. This reduces an unnecessary pressure and frees us to devote our mental energies to tackling things that really matter, such as the challenge of how we can continue to bring value to clients in a fast-changing business environment. I also think that a long-term view imbues a degree of confidence, allowing us to make decisions that are proactive and on our own terms.

Another exercise that we engaged in was one where we had to list out the three uniques of Barrel that help us stand out from the competition. One quality that we knew we already embraced and should do more to emphasize externally was the fact that we care deeply about building long-term relationships with clients and how short-term gains and quick-win projects are less valuable in our eyes if they don’t serve to strengthen the value we bring to our long-term partnerships.

Ask and Be Unafraid of the Answers

During one session, we talked at length about the takeaways from Radical Candor by Kim Scott, a management book on communicating more effectively with employees. As we dug into the various topics of the book, one theme that we struck upon was the importance of asking what the employee thought about things. While we were more than comfortable asking employees to talk about their performance and their contributions, it was apparent that we were less comfortable asking them for feedback, about their personal aspirations, and what they thought they should be compensated. Why was this?

We realized that we were simply afraid. What if they said something negative about projects they’re working on? What if they were critical of the way we were leading the company? What if they wanted to be paid more than we could afford. Fear, fear, fear. But is all that fear necessary? What’s the worst that could happen?

We dug into this more and realized that there was absolutely no upside in being fearful. If an employee was unhappy about something and we provided a channel for venting or voicing concerns through our questions, this is a good thing. It can lead to productive discussions and real changes. If an employee doesn’t like the way we’re doing something or has real feedback about our performance as managers, that’s information we can use to get better. Sure it might sting, but it’s nothing we can’t get over. And what about the stress that comes from an employee asking for more money? If the employee is truly valuable and worth stretching to keep, it’s an opportunity to retain that person. If the business truly can’t support a raise at the moment, then at the least, we can have an honest conversation with the employee and discuss a plan to get him/her to their desired salary levels in time.

None of these conversations are easy, but choosing not to ask or simply evading such conversations is both cowardly and a surefire way to alienate and discourage employees. The takeaway for us: don’t be afraid to ask, be honest and forward in what we say, and embrace the challenge of whatever comes as a result.

Parting Thoughts

What made the retreat so enjoyable was that everyone was so dialed-in and eager to contribute to the discussions. I’m very fortunate to work alongside a leadership team that cares deeply about our team members, is passionate about the work that we do, and brings a no-nonsense approach to showing up day-in and day-out to do their part for the business. I’ve learned a lot just by observing my partners, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue on this journey of building and growing our company.

The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence Josh Waitzkin (Quotes & Thoughts)

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The real art in learning takes place as we move beyond proficiency, when our work becomes an expression of our essence.

Josh Waitzkin grew up as a chess prodigy and competed at the highest levels of competition. In his early twenties, he left the chess world to pursue a career as a martial artist, specifically in Push hands, which is rooted in tai chi and a very popular competitive sport in Taiwan. His book, The Art of Learning, chronicles his journey through both chess and Push hands experiences while laying out the framework of learning and growth that he developed for himself to achieve world-class levels of performance.

Throughout my reading of the book, I kept finding myself trying to tie Waitzkin’s approaches to my pursuits and if his lessons would be relevant to my field of business, marketing, and client services. While the rules of my “sport” may not be as clear cut or easily scored, I found a great deal to appreciate and relate to throughout the book. Below are some of the memorable passages I highlighted and my thoughts on them.

Growth Mindset

The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity. Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety.

Waitzkin also uses the metaphor of a hermit crab ditching its shell to find a bigger, new one and how, in this transition phase of growth, there are feeling of uncertainty and vulnerability. Safe mediocrity is really easy to settle into, and despite my awareness of this, I know that I often find myself resisting the steps towards growth because I don’t like discomfort.

In my experience, successful people shoot for the stars, put their hearts on the line in every battle, and ultimately discover that the lessons learned from the pursuit of excellence mean much more than the immediate trophies and glory. In the long run, painful losses may prove much more valuable than wins—those who are armed with a healthy attitude and are able to draw wisdom from every experience, “good” or “bad,” are the ones who make it down the road.

I found myself nodding at this. I think about the “losses” I’ve suffered in my decade-plus of running Barrel–losing out on new business opportunities, losing client relationships, losing talented employees–and how, in the long run, each experience has led to new lessons learned and breakthroughs that otherwise may not have happened.

Mental Agility & Toughness

In performance training, first we learn to flow with whatever comes. Then we learn to use whatever comes to our advantage. Finally, we learn to be completely self-sufficient and create our own earthquakes, so our mental process feeds itself explosive inspirations without the need for outside stimulus.

Beyond technical mastery, Waitzkin emphasizes the importance of the mind’s ability to be flexible, resilient, and creative. I really loved the idea of “[creating] our own earthquakes” because it speaks to an internally-generated motivation and drive rather than one that comes about as a reaction. I believe the former is a more robust and lasting type of motivation and one that can become a controlled tool rather than an unpredictable stimulus.

Mental resilience is arguably the most critical trait of a world-class performer, and it should be nurtured continuously. Left to my own devices, I am always looking for ways to become more and more psychologically impregnable. When uncomfortable, my instinct is not to avoid the discomfort but to become at peace with it. When injured, which happens frequently in the life of a martial artist, I try to avoid painkillers and to change the sensation of pain into a feeling that is not necessarily negative. My instinct is always to seek out challenges as opposed to avoiding them.

This reminded me of my experience running my first marathon. The last ten miles were brutal but not physically impossible. What I found the hardest was the voice in my mind telling me to stop and take it easy while I knew deep down that I could push harder. It was a struggle to make peace with the pain and to keep going, and I found myself stopping more times than I liked. I wondered during the race if I had not pushed myself hard enough during training to build better mental resilience.

One idea I taught was the importance of regaining presence and clarity of mind after making a serious error. This is a hard lesson for all competitors and performers. The first mistake rarely proves disastrous, but the downward spiral of the second, third, and fourth error creates a devastating chain reaction…

As a competitor I’ve come to understand that the distance between winning and losing is minute, and, moreover, that there are ways to steal wins from the maw of defeat. All great performers have learned this lesson. Top-rate actors often miss a line but improvise their way back on track. The audience rarely notices because of the perfect ease with which the performer glides from troubled waters into the tranquility of the script. Even more impressively, the truly great ones can make the moment work for them, heightening performance with improvisations that shine with immediacy and life. Musicians, actors, athletes, philosophers, scientists, writers understand that brilliant creations are often born of small errors. Problems set in if the performer has a brittle dependence on the safety of absolute perfection or duplication. Then an error triggers fear, detachment, uncertainty, or confusion that muddies the decision-making process.

Performing under pressure and being able to maintain composure even after making a serious error is an oft-repeated trope in competitive sports. I found it helpful to think about this in the context of my own work. Mistakes get made when we create deliverables for clients or make presentations, and I’ve had experiences where I’ve felt flustered and out of sorts, going down that disastrous spiral, and I’ve also had experiences where I’ve been able to brush off mistakes, keep my cool, and come through okay. I think cultivating mental clarity and toughness, coupled with preparedness and mastery of our domain, help us to overcome mistakes and improvise more naturally.

Depth vs. Breadth

It is rarely a mysterious technique that drives us to the top, but rather a profound mastery of what may well be a basic skill set. Depth beats breadth any day of the week, because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential.

Waitzkin notes that by going deep and truly understanding every aspect of a basic skill set, the mind can better internalize and build a foundation from which other, more sophisticated forms and skills can develop. He mentions how he began learning chess by playing only with a king and pawn, forcing himself to learn the most fundamental moves and truly internalizing this before adopting more complex tactics. He also mentions his Tai Chi training and how he spent hundreds of hours refining movements and learning nuances in even the slightest motions, opening the door to greater control and understanding of Tai Chi’s virtues.

This notion of “profound mastery” of basic skills got me thinking about my line of work and how so much of our discourse is often on the new shiny thing–new tools, new tactics, new technologies, new frameworks–and how basic skill sets like communication, planning, and observing are often overlooked or seen as boring. Depth is hard and takes repetition and patience, and so it makes sense that most people will opt to expand the surface area of what they know and do little to dive deep and truly learn something.

When I turned 30 years old, I wrote that gaining depth was a major consideration. I still feel this way, and hope to cultivate more of it.

Presence

The secret is that everything is always on the line. The more present we are at practice, the more present we will be in competition, in the boardroom, at the exam, the operating table, the big stage. If we have any hope of attaining excellence, let alone of showing what we’ve got under pressure, we have to be prepared by a lifestyle of reinforcement. Presence must be like breathing.

I really like how Waitzkin captures the importance of being present in our lives. I’ve given a fair amount of thought to the perils of mindless living, and I think there’s a lot of work for me to do especially at work, where I know that I don’t always bring my A game to every meeting or conversation. This type of “cruise control” behavior doesn’t lend to excellence.

Not only do we have to be good at waiting, we have to love it. Because waiting is not waiting, it is life. Too many of us live without fully engaging our minds, waiting for that moment when our real lives begin. Years pass in boredom, but that is okay because when our true love comes around, or we discover our real calling, we will begin. Of course the sad truth is that if we are not present to the moment, our true love could come and go and we wouldn’t even notice. And we will have become someone other than the you or I who would be able to embrace it. I believe an appreciation for simplicity, the everyday—the ability to dive deeply into the banal and discover life’s hidden richness—is where success, let alone happiness, emerges…

To have success in crunch time, you need to integrate certain healthy patterns into your day-to-day life so that they are completely natural to you when the pressure is on. The real power of incremental growth comes to bear when we truly are like water, steadily carving stone. We just keep on flowing when everything is on the line.

I absolutely love this passage, and it’s in line with why I think mindful cultivation of good habits is so key to happiness and growth.

2017: Habits That Stuck

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As another year comes to a close, I like to take stock of the habits I built and also think about new ones I want to develop.

I’m a firm believer in building a strong system comprised of good habits that promote healthy living, meaningful relationships, and continual stimulation for the mind. This also means being conscious of bad habits and finding ways to curb them, usually by replacing them with an alternative habit.

In 2017, it felt as if my system of good habits began to compound and build upon each other. I felt more focused, energetic, and productive than I’ve ever been in my life. I also felt less stressed out and generally happier than I could ever remember. Of course, that isn’t to say there weren’t stressful moments or wasted opportunities, but I rarely let myself feel too bad and generally progressed forward. I also realize I was incredibly lucky in 2017. Business was good, I stayed healthy all year long, and I got to spend quality time with family and friends. There’s no guarantee that I’ll always be this lucky, so it’s worth noting and being grateful for such luxuries.

2017 New Habits

Journal Writing

I started writing in a journal towards the end of 2016 and hoped it would continue. A year later, I’m happy to report that it has. I’ve consistently written in my journal every weekday morning. On some mornings, I’ll only have time to write for 5-10 minutes, but I especially enjoy the 15-20 minute sessions where I can use the time to document a dream, work through a problem at work, or expand on big goals and plans I want to carry out. It’s been a real treat to look back on previous entries and to read about books that were on my mind at the time or problems that were stressing me out at work.

Daily Mobility Exercises

I believe my mobility exercise routine allowed me to train for the New York City Marathon injury-free. The mobility exercises come right after my morning meditation. I give myself 15-20 minutes to roll out my feet, upper and lower back, and calves/ankles. I also stretch out my hamstrings and shoulders. In recent months, I’ve mixed in push-ups in-between sets. While time-consuming, I believe my mobility exercises help me maintain good posture, avoid injury, and develop flexibility. I’ll have to continue to challenge myself and mix in some new and challenging movements to the routine.

Tea Instead of Coffee

I decided to stop drinking coffee in July. It first started out as a ban on coffee past 2PM in an effort to give my body enough time to clear out the caffeine before bedtime. Then, I found myself drinking coffee even when it didn’t make my stomach feel so good and also sent me to the bathroom several times each morning. I decided to cut cold turkey and transition into teas. I’ve been drinking an even mix of green and black teas in the morning and switching over to caffeine-free teas after 2PM. While I miss holding and smelling coffee every now and then, I actually don’t miss drinking it at all.

Weekly Newsletter and Writing Blog Posts

I started sending out a weekly newsletter called Consumed/Created in May. I’ve stuck with it and have sent out 32 editions. It’s a highlight of things I read/watched/listened to during the week and also anything I personally created. The “consumed” part has been fairly easy to filled out, but the “created” part has been more challenging. It’s definitely forced me to write more blog posts than I’ve ever had to (including 28 for this blog and a handful a posts elsewhere). It’s also helped me to build a much atrophied muscle of being able to sit down for more than an hour and thinking hard about a single topic, distraction-free. I had become so used to rapid-fire text messages and emails that even an hour or two a week of quiet writing time was a rarity. With the newsletter and my blog posts, I made such moments a recurring weekly activity.

What Happened to Habits I Picked Up in 2016?

Did my new habits from 2016 make it through 2017? And if not, what happened?

Weekday Meditation

I’ve continued to use Headspace every weekday morning. I credit the practice for helping me to better handle stressful situations and to keep my daily existence usually drama-free.

Tuesday Date Nights

Mel and I continued to enjoy our weekly ritual of meeting up at a Brooklyn restaurant after work. We’ve rarely missed these and look forward to our time together.

Weekly Basketball

I had to take a hiatus from basketball for a few months leading up to the New York City Marathon to avoid injury, but I’ve started to play again more recently and can’t wait to hit the courts more in the coming months. I’ve become addicted to watching YouTube highlights of NBA games (basically a condensed 7-10 minute video of all the shots made in a game by both teams), so I’m eager to imitate some moves and chuck up a bunch of threes.

Breakfast

I’ve continued to eat a complete breakfast on most mornings. Even if I’m in a rush, I’ll usually grab a bowl full of blueberries along with a couple of dates and a cup of green tea. During the warmer months, I made a lot of smoothies (bananas, mangoes, kale, spinach, cocoa nibs, flax seed, and dates) and during the colder months, I usually go for English muffin with peanut butter and chopped nuts or oatmeal with blueberries, nuts, and maple syrup.

Habits for 2018

Lifting Weights Twice a Week

One thing I regret about my marathon training was not doing much weight training. I wish I had supplemented the running with more heavy weightlifting. A Crunch gym opened literally across the street from our apartment, so I decided to join. I’m hoping to put in at least two days of lifting there each week and build up some strength. If I can mix this up with running and basketball, it’ll be a fairly active weekly schedule.

Monthly Dinner with My Parents

One of the biggest changes that happened for me this year was that my parents moved to Brooklyn from Atlanta. This means they’re just a 10-minute car ride away from me and Melanie. It’s been wonderful to have them live so close, and it makes me happy to know that instead of seeing them only once or twice a year, I’ll get to see them more regularly. I also know that unless we make the time, even close distances can feel like an obstacle, so I’m going to work on pre-planning a monthly dinner with my parents so that at a minimum, we can look forward to hanging out once every four weeks.

Parting Thoughts

There are a number of other behaviors that I wouldn’t necessarily call habits but have been critical to my well-being this year.

I swapped out my memory foam pillow for a Purple Pillow. This was perhaps the smartest move I made in terms of getting better sleep. My only wish is that it wasn’t so damn heavy so I could carry it with me whenever I travel.

I deleted Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn apps from my iPhone early this year. While I still find myself checking Twitter and LinkedIn via web browser, my use of Instagram and Facebook has drastically decreased, opening up more time for reading and those NBA highlights on YouTube.

I’ve slowly moved away from being gung-ho about finishing books and have become more comfortable with reading parts and moving on to new books. This means less books listed on my Reading List, but I’ve come to understand that a book’s value is not in finishing it but in what I get out of it. To that end, I’ve become better about checking the table of contents before diving in, highlighting passages, and reflecting on the writing via my journal and blog posts.

Overall, in 2017, I tried my best to be conscious of my behavior and activities, never letting my mind go on autopilot for too long. I love routines but I avoid doing them mindlessly. Whether it’s running, working, hanging out, or any of my fairly simple habits, the ultimate underlying habit has been to stay aware and view my decisions with a critical eye. It’s been a wonderful year, and I’m looking forward to the opportunities in 2018. Happy New Year!

See previous:

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.