Frameworks merge

Going to keep this one short and sweet.

I was having a conversation with a friend about Ikigai the other week:


And found myself reflecting on why this particular interpretation of it feels so complete.

The 4-part framework and the distinction between aspects that had to do with you and aspects that had to do with the world/others reminded me a lot of Ken Wilber’s four quadrants model which I was introduced to three years ago in the context of culture:


Wilber argues that we can look at any aspect of the human experience through four perspectives which are the combination of an individual vs. collective perspective and an interior vs exterior perspective.

Interestingly, when I overlayed the Ikigai construct on top Wilber’s 4-quadrants model, I got a near perfect fit:

ikigai wilber.png

I believe this may partly be the reason for why this framework is so compelling.

Frameworks merge

The Likert scale is killing your developmental feedback


The Likert scale is a commonly used question structure in surveys, in which the survey taker is asked to rate their agreement/disagreement with a series of statements on a 5-point scale ranging from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree.” For the purpose of this post, I’ll expand the definition a bit to also include:

  • The more “direct” version which asks for a 1-5 rating on a certain attribute/prompt
  • The more “indirect” version which replaces the wording with a “Focus on Least” to “Focus on Most” scale,  or any other set of labels.
  • Any variation in the number ratings: 7 is the second most common variation, after 5, but some prefer an even number of ratings to force survey-takers to choose a non-neutral answer.

The Likert scale is also commonly used in feedback forms that are aimed at driving continuous improvement and development at the organizational and personal levels, such as employee engagement surveys and performance/effectiveness reviews.

To understand the challenge of using the Likert scale in that context we need to first make a distinction between three types of feedback, courtesy of the folks at Triad Consulting:

  • Praise (appreciation) – aimed at showing the receiver that you see their good work and connect, motivate and thank them for it.
  • Coaching (developmental) – aimed at helping the receiver expand their knowledge, sharpen a skill or improve a capability.
  • Evaluation (assessment) – rating or ranking against a standard aimed at helping the receiver align their expectations and know where they stand.

One of the fundamental elements of Quantum Mechanics is a principle known as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. In simple terms, it states that there’s a limit to the precision by which certain pairs of properties of a particle can be known (measured) at the same time. For example, the more precisely you’ll measure a particle’s speed, you’ll know its momentum less accurately.

It’s been my experience that a similar relationship exists between developmental and assessment feedback. The more accurate evaluatory feedback you give, the less effective it will be as a developmental feedback. And the more accurate developmental feedback you give, the less effectively it can be used to assess someone’s current performance.

With these ideas in mind, we can now make our case: the Likert scale is an evaluatory construct since it produces an absolute rating which is then compared to a standard: historical ratings, peer ratings, or a threshold (above “3.5” is “good”). But if our goal is to learn, if our goal is to help people and organizations improve and develop – we may be hurting ourselves by using it.

So what’s the alternative? Good question. Properly phrased open-ended questions can effectively be used to provide developmental feedback, but they are very costly to design, and they are very costly to answer. I suspect that some of the motivation for using the Likert scale structure, to begin with, was the fact that it’s very lightweight. A good alternative might be stack-ranking the various attributes that we may have used a Likert scale for in the past. For example: from the one we should focus the most on to the one we should focus the least on. This approach moves us from the absolute to the relative and therefore, while not perfect, does avoid some of the common pitfalls with the old solution.

The Likert scale is killing your developmental feedback

OrgHacking 2017 — Year In Review — Part II

At the beginning of 2017 I posted 7 questions that were top-of-mind for me at the time:

As I mentioned in the previous post, they were not meant to guide the topic selection process for the coming year, those were and will continue to be rather emergent, but as a way to create a snapshot-in-time of questions that were top of mind that can then serve as a point of reference for reflection on how they evolve throughout the year.

And in fact, only 20% of last year’s posts can be directly mapped to one of the questions. However, most of the remaining 80% definitely helped evolve my thinking on these issues in a more indirect way. Below are the interim answers and future areas of investigation around these questions:

1. What does the future of the firm really looks like?

The posts more directly covering this topic were Rhizomatic Organizations [Rao] and A Working Class Manifesto [Kilpi] but they were rather abstract and perhaps created more questions than they answered. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but still… Many of the other posts that in retrospect fell under the “Organizational Theory” theme also address this question indirectly. This is the most abstract question on this list so I wasn’t expecting a full answer to emerge in a year. However a strong connection emerged between this question and Question #3. More on that below.

2. How do we find and attract the best talent to our organizations?

I started to chisel at this question in A Compensation Polarity, The Psychological Costs of Pay-for-Performance [Larkin, Pierce & Gino], Reinventing top-of-funnel recruiting, and Book Review: Hiring and Getting Hired.

Some interim insights:

  • In a knowledge economy where most roles require heavy collaboration and creatively solving high-cognitive-load challenges, standard target/goal-based pay-for-performance schemes cause more harm than good. This doesn’t mean that any form of variable pay is automatically off the table, but it can only be tied to more qualitative long-term behaviors that are difficult to objectively and fairly assess.
  • We need to be deliberate and consistent in choosing our position in the compensation polarity and be able to clearly articulate it to candidates (and existing employees).
  • We need to move towards a more competency-based recruiting process from the first touch-point with the candidate. But this has to go hand-in-hand with a more thoughtful selling process that allows that candidate to better qualify the opportunity. There’s an interlocking pattern in the increased commitment of both parties involved that I haven’t fully fleshed out yet.
  • There’s a strong inertia/standard in the candidate/company dynamic, which means that there’s a cost to “breaking the mold” since it introduces increased cognitive load into the interaction. Explaining “why we do things different here” from the get-go is critical but insufficient, since this is not a purely rational process

I expect more insights on this front in 2018 since I’ll be more heavily involved in recruiting in 2018 than I was in 2017.

3. How do we effectively manage deep diversity?

The only post that directly ties to this topic is Just Like Me [Delizonna]. However, the mind-share I’ve spent on this topic this year is grossly under-represented in the number of posts on this topic.

This topic has been getting a lot of media attention this past year, but it was disheartening to see how little of it was actually evidence-based. In this short period of time “best practices” emerged despite being proven ineffective or even harmful. We desperately need a more disciplined approach to tackling this critical topic.

Some interim insights:

  • Increasing organizational diversity is the wrong starting point in this effort. Increased diversity without a real capacity for inclusion (for example, real psychological safety) will be ineffective at best and hugely harmful at worse.
  • A better starting point is increasing the “inclusive capacity” of the organization — the ability to foster a sense of belonging for a growing cohort of people without having to compromise their personal identities in any way.
  • This is particularly critical given question #1. We can’t create “communities of meaning around economic collaboration” without a strong sense of belonging.
  • Building “inclusive capacity” requires personal growth and therefore heavily tied to question #5.

I am hopeful that the signal-to-noise ratio around this topic will increase in 2018 and expect to have a growing understanding of it a year out.

4. What will we find if we start peeling the “employee engagement” onion?

I’ve tackled this question directly in Enabling Engagement: A micro-meta-analysis.

Some interim insights:

  • Charles Goodhart’s quote “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure” best describes the current situation with employee engagement. Consider this: what would you do when you hit “100% employee engagement” (whichever way you measure it)?
  • Viewed through the lens of a continuous-improvement exercise, the absolute level of “employee engagement” becomes less meaningful compared to insights on how we can improve it. More on this next week.
  • A better way to think about “employee engagement” is as a community reflection exercise aimed at identifying where we should focus next to best improve the way we’re working together.
  • This goal has some significant implications to the way we should design any employee engagement programs/exercise, starting first and foremost with eliminating the dichotomous allocation of agency around improving employee engagement between “employees” and “leadership” that’s so heavily ingrained into the current survey-based structures.
  • A real investment in personal development (question #5) is required in order to fully see the benefits of an alternative model.

5. How can we up-level development programs?

Changing Mental Models [Pfeffer] and Advise the Rider, Steer the Elephant and Shape the Path [Heath] provide some answers to this question.

This past year reaffirmed my belief that development programs that are competency-based will be ineffective in driving the change we seek. Instead they must be focused on creating and sustaining mindset shifts. I continue to noodle on this one with no clear answers yet, but a more pointed/focused question: “How can we design an environment and interventions that foster continuous mindset shifts?”. Given the critical role that personal development plays in the answers to questions #3, #4, and #7 — figuring this out will be critical for any meaningful forward progress.

6. Is there a performance-development Heisenberg Principle?

I haven’t written anything about this in 2017 but will cover it in a post next week. While I can’t prove that such principle exists, I’m growing more and more convinced that designing people programs assuming that it does will likely increase their effectiveness. Both knowing we stand and how we can get better are important. The more we can decouple efforts aimed at evaluating performance from efforts aimed at driving development — the better.

7. What are the various paths from Patriarchy to Partnership?

I tackled this topic directly in Bounded Specialization (and the limits of human collaboration) offering a piece of a path that’s focused on deliberately constraining authority dynamics across both context and time dimensions. It’s still a partial answer, but a better reframing of the challenge compared to “eliminate hierarchy” or “self-management” labels, in my opinion.

Part of the incompleteness of the answer comes from the fact that it’s looking only at the external environment. If the way we make meaning out of the world around us (our mindsets) can lead two people to act very differently under the same external circumstances, as I believe it does, that’s another part of the answer that needs to be more fully flushed out.

 An updated mental snap-shot

For 2018, my updated set of questions mostly builds on “bounded specialization” and the Heath framework.

If we view organizations as a way for enabling large-scale collaboration efforts beyond the scale we’re currently evolutionarily capable of naturally carrying out successfully, then the key questions that can illuminate our path forward are:

  1. What are the principles that are underlying and driving these collaboration efforts? (directionally — where do we want to go?)
  2. What is the professional growth required in order to more easily/naturally adhere to these principles? And how can we foster it?
  3. What are the environmental structures that can be put in place as scaffolding for future growth and as a way to minimize the risk of any reactive behavior/growth gaps from holding us back?
OrgHacking 2017 — Year In Review — Part II

OrgHacking 2017 — Year in Review — Part I

I can’t believe I’m wrapping up my 3rd full year of weekly posts (OrgHacking got started in May 2014) making this my 3rd annual “year in review” post!

OrgHacking has always been first and foremost a personal self-reflection tool. A way to bring some order and structure to my highly-associative way of thinking, cementing some foundations in place and making it easier to develop new ideas and ways of thinking on top of them. This year in particular, the fruits of that labor are starting to be more clearly visible, as evident by the number of self-referencing posts — building on top of old OrgHacking posts, expanding and evolving the ideas discussed in them.

While the process of picking which topics to cover has always been and continues to be rather emergent — based on experiences I had and content I’ve read close to the time of drafting — this year, I’ve also posted a small set of questions at the beginning of the year. These were meant to be more of snapshot-in-time of questions that were top of mind to me back then, with the intent of observing how they evolve throughout the year.

This year, I’ve decided to break my annual reflection into two separate posts: Part 1 (this post) will be the regular thematic summary of the 2017 OrgHacking posts. Part 2 will look at the content through the lens of the 7 questions and pose some new ones for the upcoming year.

It’s always an interesting exercise to get all of this year’s posts on a single Google Doc. This year it was a good reminder of how subjective my perception of time really is. Some posts felt like they’ve been written yesterday, and some posts I almost completely forgot that I wrote. While there’s some overlap between the themes and the categorization of posts is not mutually exclusive, the key themes this year were: Strategy & Operations, Book Reviews, Organizational Theory, Personal Growth, and Healthy Organizational Practices.

Strategy & Operations

Book reviews

Organizational Theory

Personal Growth and the human condition

Healthy Organizational Practices

A couple of final observations on this year’s posts and writing experience:

  1. I was positively surprised by the amount of original/deep synthesis posts I wrote this year. About a third of the posts went beyond the standard pattern of “summary and expansion” to offer a more thorough analysis or a multi-source synthesis. This is either a result of my thinking evolving and “developing my own voice” or a byproduct of my “posts backlog” becoming completely unwieldy (+100 rough ideas/links) to the point of uselessness, “forcing” me to create more original content. Either way, I’m happy with the outcome.
  2. This is the 2nd year of OrgHacking being a Medium-first publication with cross-posting on The clean writing interface is certainly the killer feature, but it doesn’t make the inability to easily access ALL historical content or the limited search functionality less annoying 🙂 Since starting to use Grammarly (yay, dogfooding!) the lack of Grammarly support made me reconsider switching back to WordPress several times.
OrgHacking 2017 — Year in Review — Part I

East Meets West

In April of this year, I participated in my first Vipassana meditation 10-day retreat. While I wouldn’t call the experience transformational, it definitely left a profound positive impact on me. Not only was it my first multi-day meditation experience, it was also the first time I got any sort of meaningful exposure to secular Buddhist philosophy.

Each day ended with a 90 minute “Dhamma Talk” which quickly became my favorite part of the day, both because it signaled the end of the day, but also because it allowed me to engage with the whole experience in the way that I felt most comfortable with — using my head.

I came to the retreat with ideas from Attachment Theory (AT) still very fresh in my head, and I was curious to see whether I’d be able to reconcile the apparent tension around the word attachment. In AT it has neutral to positive connotation, while in Buddhism it typically has a negative one. Another tension that I was working through was my initial interpretation of the Buddhist case against craving and aversion as a case for inaction, which did not sit well with my personal philosophy and experience.

The diagram at the top of this post summarizes how I went about reconciling these two tensions (and a few others) and how I ended up with the conclusion that these two points of view (AT and Buddhism) have more in common than meets the eye. It and the discussion below it not mean to meet any scientific bar of rigor. I just think it’s an interesting thought experiment to overlay some of the things that these two points of view have in common, as imprecise as it may be.

To start we need to distinguish between two important words: reaction — which I’ll use to describe impulsive behavior or action; and response — which I’ll use to describe deliberate behavior or action, following some cognitive processing and a conscious decision to act in a certain way.

I found it useful to anchor both points of view in a shared spectrum based on our Acute Stress Response, more commonly known as the Fight-or-Flight response. While this term refers to the two extreme, reactive modes of engagement with a stimulus: flight (approach) and flight (retreat), literature also often mentions the middle reactive mode — freeze. This gives us a reactive spectrum of: flight — freeze — fight.

In essence, both points of view make a case for moving from reactions to responses, or from reactive states to responsive states. They just use different labels to describe them. While Buddhism describes a flight reaction as “aversion” AT calls it “fearful avoidant” behavior. While Buddhism describes a fight reaction as “craving”, AT calls it “anxious preoccupied” behavior. The concept of freezing, reactive inaction did not come up in the parts of Buddhist philosophy that I got exposed to, but I think it maps well to AT’s “dismissive avoidant” behavior.

I’m not sure that slotting the “response” sections in between the reactive ones makes the most sense, but responses do tend to be more moderate than reactions. One thing that this doesn’t capture well is the notion of choosing not act (deliberate inaction), which is different than freezing.

In any case, this post ended up being more abstract than usual, but I hope that some of you may still find it useful.

East Meets West

Book Review: Hiring and Getting Hired

Hiring and Getting Hired: A Performance-Based Hiring Handbook by Lou Adler

Don’t let the WordArt-inspired cover design fool you! Even though it’s not offering a full solution to the top-of-funnel problem, it’s taking a worthy crack at it and several other key challenges in the process, which makes it one of the best recruiting books out there.

I came across the book since Grammarly is using it, and another all-time favorite of mine, Who: The A Method for Hiring, as the basis for our hiring manager and interviewer training. The two books have a lot in common at the principles level, but offer different tactics to support them. H&GH stands out b/c it paints a more holistic and detailed picture of the entire process, compared to Who.

The Good

There are several distinctions and frameworks that I found to be particularly useful in H&GH:

  • “Talent Scarcity” vs. “Talent Surplus” recruiting strategies: Incorrectly diagnosing the market you’re operating in leads to a recruiting process that’s unlikely to yield the outcome that you’re aiming for.
  • Before Day 1 / Day 1 / Year 1 / Beyond Year 1 decision-making criteria: There’s a big disconnect between what seems to matter for both candidates and companies before accepting a job, and what truly impacts their performance after accepting the job. The more you can orient your selling and evaluation process towards the Year 1 and beyond criteria — the better.
  • The Performance Profile: is H&GH’s version of Who’s “Scorecard” describing the job in terms of outcomes rather than a set of skills and responsibilities. This is then used for both designing an evaluation process that’s outcome-focused and crafting a job description that’s selling “year 1 and beyond” criteria.
  • Segmenting the talent market: Super passives, explorers, tiptoers, searchers, networkers, hunters & posters — are all in different stages of engagement and progress in their career change process and need to be approached and interacted with differently.
  • The 20/20/60 Sourcing Plan: 20% focused on compelling and visible postings, 20% focused on name generation and targeted emails, 60% focused on direct calling, networking and obtaining pre-qualified referrals.
  • On-site: PSQ, MSA and SMARTe: Asking a performance profile-based problem-solving question (PSQ), following up with a most-significant-accomplishment question (MSA) tackling a similar challenge in a past job, and utilizing fact-finding around the specific task, measurement, actions, results, time-frame and the environment (SMARTe) to get a full picture.
  • Closing: utilizing the candidate career decision matrix: a great tool to bring “year 1 and beyond” criteria into the decision-making process.

The Could-be-better

There were a handful of ideas and concepts that didn’t sit well with me and could potentially be improved.

  • The Hiring Formula: is on the one hand complex and on the other hand not too actionable. I wonder if a “formula” is the right analogy here and if there are better evaluation buckets that are worth considering.
  • Gap around “How?”: this may be tied to the Hiring Formula. There’s a lot of good advice in the book on how to evaluate candidates for a pattern of achievement throughout their careers and how to assess whether they’ll be able to accomplish the “What?” (results) of the role. The slightly more intangible conversation on the “How?” (“will they be able to do it in ways that are aligned with our company values and culture?”) received very few pages in the book, though this aspect of a candidate’s fit is hugely important.
  • The order of chapters: Framing → On-site → Performance Profile → Sourcing → Closing, seems out of order. A sequence that follows the recruiting process made more sense to me: Framing → Performance Profile → Sourcing → On-site → Closing.
  •  Reducing On-site bias: there’s actually quite a bit of discussion in the book around ways to reduce bias in the recruiting process. The appendix discussing the legal compliance implications of using performance-profile-based job descriptions is fantastic. But there seems to be a big gap around discussing bias as it pertains to the Problem Solving Question, on two separate dimensions: the first is around designing a PSQ experience that is as much “in-real-life context” as possible, taking into account the fact that the ability to solve a particular problem “out-of-context” and “in-context” varies greatly. The second is around developing explicit criteria for consistently assessing the quality of different answers, given that there’s no single right answer.

In Sum

While not error/gaps-free (which is an entirely unrealistic expectation), Hiring and Getting Hired is one of the best recruiting books that I’ve read to date, and I’d highly recommend it for recruiters, hiring managers, candidates and everyone else who’s curious.

Book Review: Hiring and Getting Hired

Let’s talk about burnout

Burnout is a hot button organizational topic, even outside the realm of the fast-paced tech startups of Silicon Valley. However, there are also a lot of misconceptions about it, what causes it and what to do about it. So this is my attempt to summarize the more useful and credible information I was able to find about this important topic.

Let’s start with a more accurate definition: burnout is a syndrome that results from applying ineffective coping strategies to dealing with stress. It’s most common mental and physical symptoms are exhaustion, cynicism and professional inefficacy. A recent study elaborates further:

  • Exhaustion is the feeling of not being able to offer any more of oneself at an emotional level
  • Cynicism represents a distant attitude towards work, those served by it, and colleagues
  • Inefficacy is the feeling of not performing tasks adequately or being incompetent at work.

To understand burnout, we need to start by understanding stress.

Stress is our physiological response to an environmental condition that we unconsciously perceive as a threat, often also referred to as the “Fight of Flight” response. Our sympathetic nervous system and our adrenal glands (by secreting cortisol hormone into the bloodstream) prepare out body to take action to respond to the threat:

While stress was evolutionarily designed as a survival mechanism, moderate levels of stress, often referred to as eustress, have a positive impact on performance:

Problems arise when the level of stress exceeds our physical and mental ability to deal with it. Experiencing this unsustainable level of distress for long periods of time eventually leads to burnout.

While burnout can be more clinically diagnosed using the Maslach Burnout Inventory Test, there are many leading indicators on the path for burnout. Herbert Freudenberger the psychologist who first identified burnout as a unique syndrome and gave it its name, identified a 12-stage process which, without effective intervention, eventually leads to full burnout syndrome:

Source: Scientific American

Once burnout reaches a clinical stage treatment requires clinical intervention. But often times burnout can be avoided by more gentle interventions prior to that. The interventions that can be applied once symptoms start manifesting themselves can easily be considered also as effective preventative strategies if turned into healthy habits:

  1. Make self-care your #1 priority, before work: eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, taking time off in meaningful chunks (several days) and investing in your closest social relationships. Consider adopting more of a segmentor approach to managing your work and non-work time.
  2. Proactively manage your workload: deliberately and ruthlessly prioritizing your work, which also includes learning how to renegotiate pre-existing commitments and learning how to say no the right way.
  3. Strengthen and reflect on your motivation for doing the work — do an Immunity To Change exercise and uncover the hidden commitments that lead you to overwork. Design safe experiments to start loosening the hold that these commitments have on your life. Motivation is driven by both meaning (the work that we do here matters to me) and impact (the work that I do here, matters to others) and there can be disconnects on both fronts. Build deliberate reflective spaces into your routine to identify what they are and work to resolve them.
  4. Invest in developing mindfulness and self-awareness — in the context of managing stress and burnout the benefits are two-fold: i) tactically, in situations that trigger the “fight or flight” response, identify the sensory triggers that tell you that you are in that state and take deliberate action to diffuse them, and avoid staying in that mode more than you absolutely have to. You’re essentially increasing your capacity to deal with stress effectively ii) More strategically, identify the symptoms that suggest that you’re on track for burnout sooner rather than later and take corrective action.
Let’s talk about burnout