High Standards [Bezos]

Jeff Bezosannual letter to Amazon’s shareholders has been a regular guest in this publication.

This year’s letter focuses on some key lessons around “high standards”:

  1. They are teachable, rather than intrinsic — “people are pretty good at learning high standards simply through exposure. High standards are contagious. Bring a new person onto a high standards team, and they’ll quickly adapt… And though exposure works well to teach high standards, I believe you can accelerate that rate of learning by articulating a few core principles of high standards”
  2. They are domain specific, rather than universal — “you have to learn high standards separately in every arena of interest… Understanding this point is important because it keeps you humble. You can consider yourself a person of high standards in general and still have debilitating blind spots.”
  3. You must be able to recognize what good looks like in that domain…
  4. … and have realistic expectations for how hard it should be (how much work it will take) to achieve that result — the scope.

More than anything else (lack of skill, inability to recognize the standard, etc.), understanding how much work will be required to meet the high standard seems to be the most common culprit of not meeting it:

Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right. The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two. The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope — that a great memo probably should take a week or more.

It is therefore likely that the key reason why Bezos’ shareholder letters are so compelling, is because he fully appreciates the scope necessary to meet a high standard of shareholder letters 🙂

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High Standards [Bezos]

Recruiting: Lessons from sports drafts [Masey]

How to identify talent: Five lessons from the NFL Draft by Cade Masey

I’ve been paying closer attention in recent months to the way sports teams and acting talent agencies are handling talent, for a couple of key reasons:

  1. These industries are regularly making high-risk multi-million dollar bets on talent. Therefore, their incentives for applying cutting-edge hiring practices (and continuously push the envelope in that domain) are extremely high.
  2. On the flip side, the relative simplicity of the “definition of success” and the ability to create stronger causal links between talent decisions and outcomes make them rather attractive to study from a research perspective.

I rarely make predictions, but I suspect that in the coming years we’ll see more and more hiring practices that are currently common among elite sports teams and movie production studios propagate out to other industries in which top-tier talent plays a critical component in the success of the business.

None of these industries offer a perfect model for the more common talent market. As mentioned above, they are simpler representations. In sports, the number of “firms” competing for talent is known and rather limited (dozens), measuring overall success is more binaric (games won), and individual performance indicators are more visible, established and straightforward. Movie contracts are relatively short (several months) and this attribute makes that industry significantly different than the broader job market which usually optimizes for longer-term employment.

Masey’s post offers 5 lessons that are fairly applicable to any hiring effort, regardless of industry:

  1. Understand your goal — “People often don’t understand their decision objectives, but the most successful sports teams are clear about their goal and don’t stray from the principles and attributes they’ve established.” — build a “performance profile”/scorecard before you even start looking for the first candidate.
  2. Keep your judges apart– “Don’t let people talk to each other or see other’s opinions before providing their own, expose the candidate to judges in different ways and at different points in time, and bring people with different perspectives into the process. More independence is often the biggest improvement an organization can easily make in their hiring process.” — Easily translatable to the way scorecards, debriefs and hiring recommendations should be made.
  3. Break the candidate into parts… — “ It’s much easier to give one, global evaluation — like or dislike, hire or reject. These overarching evaluations are natural and efficient, but unfortunately, they are often biased. For a more reliable evaluation, you need to break the objective into component parts and evaluate them separately.” — this speaks to the benefit of interviews focused on evaluating just a subset of the overall criteria, and clearly setting expectations with the interview team that they should evaluate the candidate’s performance in their area of focus rather than make an overall hire/don’t hire recommendation.
  4. … and bring them back together mechanically — “ At the team level it can mean summarizing the group’s collective opinion by simply averaging scouts’ opinions. At the very least this approach provides a more systematic starting point for a group discussion.” — personally, I’d err more towards the latter — using the aggregation as a systematic starting point rather than an automatic determination of the outcome. The full algorithmic approach requires full calibration across the interview team, which is often times not the case.
  5. Keep score — “We’ve all been animated by the sense we’ve just seen the next star in our field. The trick is to capture those judgments and track them over time to learn how predictive they are. This applies to all judgments. Hiring is best thought of as a forecasting process, and the only way to improve forecasts is to map them against results and refine the process over time.”
Recruiting: Lessons from sports drafts [Masey]

Reinventing Orgs Map

This beautiful diagram was put together by the folks at the Reinventing Organizations Map Facebook group.

I covered in Frederic Laloux’s book Reinventing Organizations in a couple of posts way back in 2014:

This map, overlays 20 attributes/practices discussed in the book on top of Wilber’s four quadrants and demonstrates how they manifest differently in each type of organization (color).

Nuff said.

Reinventing Orgs Map

Conscious Actions for Inclusion [Katz & Miller]


In my previous post, I made a quick reference to a terminology that a past colleague used to discern between different levels of intensity of his intents. Curious to learn where it originated from, I discovered:

Conscious Acts for Inclusion: A Common Language to Drive Uncommon Results

The authors, Judith Katz and Frederick Miller are part of The Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group, a consulting group that’s been focusing on creating inclusive, collaborative cultures since the 1970s, way before doing DIB (Diversity, Inclusion, Belonging) work was cool.

The paper starts with a profound insight, that took me several years to uncover on my own:

What this means, therefore, is that to create an inclusive environment, you must start with inclusive behaviors. Policies, procedures, and initiatives can support such an environment, but an inclusive environment can only be created by the collective use of behaviors that foster inclusive interactions.

Underlying these behaviors is a mindset shift: from judging to joining:

Katz and Miller’s list of 12 behaviors consists of 4 key behaviors and 8 sustaining behaviors:

4 Key Behaviors

  1. Lean into discomfort — “By making the conscious choice to move out of our comfort zones, we inspire others to respond in kind. An environment of safety evolves in which we begin to trust that others have our back instead of stabbing us in the back.”
  2. Listen as an ally — “we listen deeply and with full attention, viewing others as partners on the same side of the table. We look for value in the speakers’ perspectives and build on what they say. We engage with others in the conviction that we are all in this together.”
  3. State your intent and intensity — “When we clearly state what we mean and how committed we are to the idea, it enables others to act quickly, decisively, and correctly. The clarity of stating intent and intensity eliminates second guessing, miscommunication, and the waste in interactions that results from them”
  4. Share your “street corner” — “ In order to get a comprehensive understanding of a situation, it is essential to hear different perspectives, or street corners (as in, “the view from my street corner”), of all relevant people, thus creating the 360° view that allows for better decisions.”

8 Sustaining Behaviors

  1. Greet people authentically: say “hello” — “A simple, authentic “hello” to acknowledge others, whether in a team meeting or just walking down the hallway, is a key step toward ensuring that people feel seen and included.”
  2. Create a sense of safety for yourself and your team members — “If a team wants to achieve high performance, raise difficult issues, identify and solve problems, and make decisions rapidly, everyone must feel safe enough to speak up, share their thinking, voice their opinions, take risks, partner with others, and join as full participants.”
  3. Work for the common good and shared success — “Establishing, verifying, and constantly updating a shared understanding of the organization’s common goals can help overcome divides and silos that plague so many organizations.”
  4. Ensure right people, right work, right time: “ask who else needs to be involved in order to understand the whole situation — “Even the most insightful and productive meeting can be limited if those who have important perspectives related to a project, problem, or decision are not present. Sometimes, one key person’s absence can leave an ever-so-important street corner/ perspective out of the conversation — leading to rework, delays, waste, and even failure.”
  5. Link to others’ ideas, thoughts and feelings — give energy back — “… is about connecting and letting people know they have been heard. It is a way to give “energy back” and to let people know the impact of their ideas, thoughts, and feelings on others.”
  6. Speak up when people are being made “small” or excluded — “ The assumption that people will speak up if they have something to say is often incorrect. If we want to encourage new ideas and ensure the richest and best thinking, it is incumbent on all members of the team to be allies, to make room for all voices to be heard, and to be responsible for the team’s efforts and results.”
  7. Address misunderstandings and resolve disagreements — work “pinches” — “ The challenge is to address, not avoid, misunderstandings; to explore and address disagreements and differences, not ignore or suppress them. When disagreements or misunderstandings go unaddressed — as people continue to avoid the issue, talk to others about their concerns, and work around team members with whom they feel misunderstood or have a “pinch” — it creates waste.”
  8. Build trust — do what you say you will do, and honor confidentiality — “ When people feel that sense of trust, they are willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt — and in turn, speed up the level of interaction, problem solving, and decision making. This dynamic, however, only takes place when people can count on one another to do what they say they will do, when everyone knows that each individual will live by her or his commitments and honor confidential statements.”

There is SO MUCH good, practical advice in this short 10-page paper that I’d highly recommend reading the full piece. However, it also paints a picture of interpersonal dynamics that is significantly different than the current status quo in many organizations which may lead to viewing it as unrealistic to achieve. To that end, I’d offer three pieces of advice:

  • Print out and carry with you the cheat sheet that Katz and Miller also kindly created:
  • Focus on yourself and changing your behaviors before trying to get others to change theirs.
  • Pick one key behavior to start with. Focus on it. Master it. And then move on to the next one.
Conscious Actions for Inclusion [Katz & Miller]

Disagree & Commit

I first came across the concept of “disagree & commit” in Patrick Lencioni’s books “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” and “The Advantage”, though he credits its origin to Intel:

Great teams avoid the consensus trap by embracing a concept that Intel, the legendary microchip manufactured calls “disagree and commit”. Basically they believe that even when people can’t come to an agreement around an issue, they must still leave the room unambiguously committed to a common course of action.

At the time, I had a hard time with this concept. Part of it was the stage I was at in my own leadership journey, but in retrospect, I also think that part of it was because I had a hard time seeing how I can be in integrity with myself when asked to go along and support a course of action that I disagree with.

Lencioni brought up “disagree & commit” in the context of healthy conflict:

It’s only when colleagues speak up and put their opinions on the table, without holding back, that the leader can confidently fulfill one of his most important responsibilities: breaking ties.

The arc that he draws is: team can’t reach consensus → has a healthy conflict where everyone advocates for their point of view → leader breaks tie and makes a decision → everyone disagrees and commits.

Interestingly, Jeff Bezos brought this concept up again in a different context in his 2016 letter to shareholders (emphasis is mine):

Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow… use the phrase “disagree and commit.” This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes… This isn’t one way. If you’re the boss, you should do this too. I disagree and commit all the time.

Bezos’ framing drove two major breakthroughs for me:

  1. It resolved the integrity paradox — you can commit to a course of action that you disagree with and maintain your integrity in situations where the disagreement stems from the unknown. The disagreement is not about the facts, it’s about what might happen — the 30% of information that we don’t have. Both sides are making educated bets, but either bet can turn out to be true.
  2. It offered a more powerful way to handle decision-making — not just avoiding the need for consensus, but also avoiding situations in which the “highest paid person’s opinion” (HiPPO) always wins. Even in situations when the “highest paid person” is not explicitly acting as a tie-breaker, the intensity of her opinion is often times amplified when interpreted by others: a reaction is interpreted as an objection, a stake becomes a boulder, a boulder becomes a tombstone. The highest paid person deciding to “disagree & commit” sends an incredibly strong and empowering message to the rest of the team.
Disagree & Commit

Feedback: Staying on your side of the net

A few weekends ago, I participated in a weekend-long T-Group. It is the second most impactful personal growth experience I’ve had over the past year (the first was a 10-day Vipassana retreat). This post covers one of the concepts that really stuck with me.

“Staying on your side of the net” or “avoid crossing the net” was coined by Bradford and Huckabay:

Most of us act like amateur psychologists in that we try to figure out why others act as they do. If you interrupt me (a behavior) and I feel annoyed (the effect on me), I try and understand why you would do that. So I make an attribution of your motives (it must be that you are inconsiderate)…

As common as this attribution process is, it also can be dysfunctional. Note that my sense-making is a guess. That is my hunch as to why you act the way you do. I am “crossing over the net” from what is my area of expertise (that I am annoyed at your behavior), to your area of expertise (your motives and intentions). My imputation of your motives can always be debated, (“You don’t listen.” “Yes, I do.” “No you don’t.”) whereas sticking with my own feelings and reactions is never debatable. ( “I felt irritated by your interruption just now.” “You shouldn’t feel that way because I didn’t mean to interrupt you.” “Perhaps not, but I feel irritated nonetheless.” )

Dave Kashen offered some really good examples of “crossing the net” and “staying on your side of the net” around the following scenario:

You notice that a team member who used to come in at 9:00am and leave at 8:00pm has started coming in at 10:00am and leaving by 7:00pm.

Crossing the net:

  • Stating your interpretations as facts: “You just don’t care anymore.”
  • Stating their intentions: “You’re trying to get on my nerves.”
  • Stating their feelings: “You’re frustrated about this project.”
  • Stating their observations: “You obviously realize you’re the only one leaving before 8pm.”

Staying on your side of the net: 

  • Stating your thoughts as thoughts (not facts): “I’ve noticed you’ve been coming in later and leaving earlier, and it makes me wonder if you’re less engaged.”
  • Expressing your own feelings: “I’m frustrated that you’ve been coming in later and leaving earlier, and worried about your level of engagement.”
  • Stating your intentions: “I’d like to make sure you’re fully engaged.”
  • Directly stating your observations: “I’ve noticed that you used to come in at 9:00am and leave at 8:00pm, and lately you’ve been coming in at 10:00am and leaving at 7:00pm.”

Interestingly, this was not a new concept to me. I came across it in Non-Violent Communications and the I-message structure. But something in the visual metaphor really helped things “click” for me in a deeper, more profound way. The metaphor seems to act as a visual mnemonic, helping me retain the concept better.

Feedback: Staying on your side of the net

Personal Agency

In recent years I’m learning to appreciate the critical role that personal agency plays in my personal values system. And I strongly believe that a deep sense of personal agency is a critical ingredient in any type of healthy collaborative effort, be it a personal relationship or the company you are working for. You can only have a healthy collaboration if the collaborators acknowledge their own agency in managing the health of the collaboration. But sadly, often times that’s not the case.

My own sense of personal agency was developed not under the best of circumstances, most likely as a coping mechanism for dealing with late childhood / early adolescent experiences. Today, I view it as a great source of strength, but it does have its shadow side. Just recently I learned to appreciate that I often find behaviors that demonstrate lack of personal agency as somewhat triggering.

Wikipedia defines a “sense of agency” as:

The subjective awareness of initiating, executing, and controlling one’s own volitional actions in the world. It is the pre-reflective awareness or implicit sense that it is I who is executing bodily movement(s) or thinking thoughts.

I tend to understand a term better by looking at its opposite. And we can best do that by connecting personal agency to a slightly more academic term, coined by the renowned psychologist Julian Rotter, called “Locus of Control”, explained in this lovely illustration:

Or by this more complicated table:

So a slightly more academic way to explain personal agency is to describe is as a strong internal locus of control.

I view helping people develop a strong sense of personal agency as one of the most powerful ways to enable people to grow and be part of healthy organizations. And I’m deeply curious about ways to achieve that.

The language we use and the organizational systems that we design, sometimes inadvertently reinforce a sense of lack-of-agency (sometimes referred to as “learned helplessness” or “victimhood”).

Another powerful lever, suggested by Steven Covey, and more recently by James Clear is focus. Covey creates an interesting distinction, between our “circle of concern” and our “circle of control” which Clear eloquently explains:

Circles of Concern are the things that you often waste time and energy worrying about, but that you have little to no control over. Meanwhile, Circles of Control are the things that you can influence in your daily life.

As an example, the vast majority of news stories — war and terrorism, the economy and stock prices, celebrity gossip and political scandal — fall squarely in the Circle of Concern. They can easily soak up your time and energy, but you have virtually no control over those events.

Other examples include getting angry about what someone posted on Facebook, worrying about what other people think about you, or wishing your kids would make better choices (a valid wish, but still outside of your control).

Source: James Clear blog

Covey’s advice is to shift our focus from our “circle of concern” to our “circle of control”. Even on its surface, it seems that introducing this distinction can help people see the personal agency that they already have, and hopefully, over time, start growing that circle outwards.

Personal Agency