The “What?” Stack [Davies]

Credit: Charles Davies

A wonderful piece by Charles Davies called “Why Your Purpose is a What not a Why

Charles makes a pretty compelling case of getting rid of a hefty portion of business jargon captured in terms like: mission, vision, goal, outcomes, etc. and replace them with one simple word: What

They all attempt to capture the same thing: what we do. The only thing that changes is the timeframe we’re referring to. Two additional terms allows us to traverse various timeframes: Why (to what end?) expands the timeframe, and How (by what means?) shrinks it.

You can navigate the stack from any starting point moving either up (longer timeframe) by asking “Why?” or down (shorter timeframe) by asking “How?”.

An example from my current domain, demonstrating the edge cases:

What: Enable all children to reach to reach their full potential

How: By making the best education the most affordable one

How: By creating a networked school system with a strong network effect

How: By building a digital platform which enables progressive education practices

How: By creating a capability for educators to perform in-line, competency-based assessments (rather than rely on standardized tests)

How: By building a feature that enables an educator to capture a student’s work in real-time

What: Build a feature that enables an educator to capture a student’s work in real time

Why: To create a capability for educator to perform in-line, competency-based assessments (rather than rely on standardized tests)

Why: To build a digital platform that which enables progressive education practices

Why: To create a networked school system with a strong network effect

Why: To make the best education the most affordable one

Why: To enable all children to reach their full potential

The “What?” Stack [Davies]

From Lean Startup to Domain Mastery Startup

First came the “I have a great idea” startups. A heroic founder will come up with a great idea on how to go about solving a particular problem. A few years and a few millions of dollar later, the team emerges with a product, only to find out that nobody thinks their product really solves the problem; or even worse — that nobody thinks that the problem they have attempted to solve is a real one.

Then came the Lean Startup movement, fully embracing the fact that a startup is an organization meant to search for a sustainable business model, and the best way to do so, is through a disciplined application of the scientific method:

In a nutshell, a startup is a hypothesis testing machine.

While a massive step in the right direction, I believe it is an insufficient one, since the methodology ignores a critical ingredient in this process. To extend the machine metaphor a little further: similar to other machines, the quality of the output (validated/invalidated hypothesis) is not just a factor of the quality of the machine, but also of the quality of the inputs (hypothesis formulated). If you’re making coffee with the best espresso machine out there, but using low quality coffee beans — you’re still going to get bad coffee. The quality of the coffee (output) is constrained by the quality of the beans (input). Or to use a different metaphor: you’re still throwing darts at the dart board turned-around and blindfolded, you just gotten very good at throwing the darts quickly and lifting the blindfold after every throw to see if you’ve hit your mark.

Talking to your customers is the simplistic solution to this problem. Your customers can be incredibly useful in helping you validate your problem hypothesis (after all, it’s their problem you’re trying to solve), and on rare occasions, they can also help you formulate a better problem hypothesis. But more often than not, they will not be able to help you in formulating your solution hypothesis. Just because you have the problem, doesn’t mean that you have any idea how to solve it. To use an intentionally extreme example: just because you have cancer, doesn’t mean that you can help me find what might be the cure. This logic also applies for the people who are part of the startup: just because you suffer from the same problem you’re trying to solve, doesn’t necessarily make you any better than your (future) customers in formulating hypotheses around solutions that might work. Sure, you may get lucky in your guesses, but there’s a better way.

So what is that missing ingredient? I’d argue that it’s true mastery in the problem domain. Deep understanding of the root causes behind the problem, what’s already been tried and worked/didn’t work and under which circumstances, where the ecosystem as a whole is heading and why, etc. You get the point. And if you, dear founder, are not the master of the problem domain in which you operate — find someone who is and get them on your team. Not as a board member. Not as a part-time adviser. But as a full-time member of the team, in there with you, in the trenches, informing and refining your hypothesis testing machine on a daily basis. This is, in my opinion, one of the most critical ways to de-risk your search for a sustainable business model, and one that is well worth investing in.

It’s time to move past Lean Startups, and start moving towards Domain Mastery Startups.

From Lean Startup to Domain Mastery Startup

Unlocking human potential — proactive practices for individual elasticity [DCE]

Unlocking human potential — proactive practices for individual elasticity by Deloitte Center for the Edge

As the punny name might suggest, the “center for the edge” is not your typical Deloitte business unit. As big corporation skeptic, I found their research, specifically on future of work and human potential topics, to be surprisingly progressive and though-provoking. This piece is no different. Once you peel off the over-frameworky-ness (pretty sure this is not a word), you end up with a pretty powerful idea.

The core thesis

If we take as our goal sustainable, long term performance, the practices of slowing down and speeding up can be seen as complementary rather than contradictory.

We nourish our minds, spirit, and bodies through growth and exploration as well as through rest. When both sides are understood to be complementary and pursued deliberately to reinforce each other, the effect on unlocking potential is greater.

Roots and shoots

They define two type of practices, roots and shoots, and make the case that by adopting both and going through cycles of learning and unlearning, an individual can discover purpose and passion.


Entail slowing down and making space to discover and connect with the fundamental values that drive us. Roots can counter increasing stress and make us more open to exploration. A set of practices for connecting to our roots can can provide a foundation for speeding up.

  • Rest — taking time to pause — not only as a stopgap or a reaction to a constant pressure, but also, to break the busyness cycle and as an antidote to the increasing inefficiency of incremental work… Rest allows us to replenish and rejuvenate, which in turn allows us to be more effective, creative curious and resourceful in our efforts.
  • Reconnect — connecting to our core values and principles provides a touchpoint and affirmation of what truly matters. The communities that surround us provide safety and stability, as well as avenues for dialogue, reflection and reframing.
  • Reflect and reframe — in times of rapid change the past may no longer predict the future. The very things that made an individual successful may actually be his or her downfall when underlying assumptions and contexts fundamentally shift. In such times, we need practices that help us adopt new perspectives to see what is no longer working, and that help us muster the courage for unlearning old patterns and learning new ones.


Feed creativity and empathy, can stoke commitment and a sense of purpose, and involve exploring, expanding, and accelerating learning. Speeding up in the absence of rest, reconnection and reflection will likely lead to temporary, isolated learning.

  • Act — by participating in flows and gather data and experiences, we learn about ourselves and our environment. Being proactive and deliberate rather than reactive is a key differentiator of actions in this context
  • Amplify and accelerate — isn’t about doing more or staying busy. Instead, it means deliberately looking for relevant flows in order to connect with more people in areas related to one’s goals, get more data and feedback, and learn more rapidly about ways to have more impact
  • Adjust and align — learning cycles need to be rapid and iterative. With each exploratory action, in the shoots, the experience and information gathered is used to assess and adjust the short term learning focus.


Roots and shoots practices tend to map into one of six critical objectives (meta-practices) that are aimed at feeding and sustaining the learning cycle.


  1. Explore core values — proactive explore what lies beneath the surface:
  • Practice deep introspection
  • Journal and tell stories
  • Engage in deep discourse

2. Replenish and re-energize — take time to slow down and fight the epidemic of constant “busyness”

  • Practice mindfulness
  • Engage in energy and attention management
  • Implement digital detox
  • Say “no” — conscious decision to forego some potential opportunities

3. Cultivate community — seek external validation of reflection and reframing

  • Join communities of interest
  • Join communities of practice


  1. Shape serendipity — make space for the unplanned to surprise you
  • Take a sabbatical
  • Plan open time in your schedule
  • Say “yes” to random opportunities that are outside the norm

2. Explore edges — cultivate a sense of curiosity, possibility and imagination

  • Maintain a broad social network
  • Explore new topics

3. Be uncomfortable — expand your comfort range — emotionally, mentally, and physically — and cultivate a growth mindset and a beginner’s perspective

  • Practice failing
  • Shift parameters/repackage risks
  • Focus on process and practice, not outcome
  • Undergo voluntary physical discomfort
Unlocking human potential — proactive practices for individual elasticity [DCE]

What makes teams of leaders leadable? [Wageman and Hackman]

Senior leadership teams: what it takes to make them great by Ruth Wageman

What makes teams of leaders leadable? by Ruth Wagerman and Richard Hackman

Definition of leadership team

A leadership team is a group of individuals, each of whom has personal responsibility for leading some part of an organization, who are inter-dependent for the purpose of providing overall leadership to a larger enterprise… members of such team also have a collective responsibility for aligning the various parts of the organization into a coherent whole and fostering its overall effectiveness.

The 4 types of leadership teams

  1.  Information sharing (alignment) teams — these teams exchange information about various organizational matters and bring together in one place external intelligence that may be useful to other parts of the organization or to the enterprise as a whole. They also hear about direction and initiatives from the team leader, which helps make the individual leaders on the team better informed, better aligned and more able to do their individual jobs well.
  2. Consultative teams — aim to make the team leader better informed and better able to make his or her own decisions. In contrast to informational teams, consultative teams actively debate key issues, giving members the chance to learn from one another — but the final call is made by the team leader.
  3. Coordinating teams — are those whose members come together to coordinate their leadership activities as they execute strategically important initiatives. Members of coordinating teams are highly interdependent, have shared responsibilities, and must work together frequently and flexibly to accomplish their shared purpose. Coordinating teams also serve info-sharing and consultative functions.
  4. Decision making teams — make the small number of critical decisions that are most consequential for the enterprise as a whole.

While these types are listed in order of growing value to the organization, without proactive management to the leadership team as an entity, there’s a natural drift in the opposite direction (from “decision making” to “info sharing”).

The ironic features of leadership teams

  1.  Leader teams are composed of powerful people — yet they tend to be undersigned, under-led and under-resourced.
  2. Membership is important and coveted — but members often don’t know who is on the team, and they do not really want to come to team meetings.
  3. Members are overloaded — but they tend to waste enormous amount of time in team meetings.
  4. Authority dynamics pervade leadership teams and complicate team process — but members won’t talk about them.

The 3rd irony in particular deserves a deeper look. Leadership teams waste their time in three ways:

  • They focus on surprisingly trivial matters. They do make decisions together but often about issues that are not consequential for the team’s core leadership work.
  • When they do address important matters, leadership teams tend to become caught up in seemingly irresolvable conflicts. Conflicts in senior team often stem from members’ views that their main responsibilities are to maximize the effectiveness of the unit they lead.
  • They cut short potentially vital discussions by agreeing to disagree and then moving on.

The 6 enabling conditions for an effective leadership team

1. A real team

  • Bounded — clear who is — and who is not — on the leadership team.
  • Stable — membership is kept in tact for some period of time.
  • Interdependent — members share accountability for a common purpose.

2. A compelling purpose

  • Clear — can imagine what it would look like if we achieved it.
  • Challenging — a stretch of capability to achieve it, but not impossible.
  • Consequential — important impact on the success of the organization and on the lives and work of others.

3. The right people

  • Members are people who can take an enterprise perspective.
  • Members have the ability to work collaboratively.
  • All the “derailers” are removed — those who undermine others, bring out the worst in others, exhibit lack of integrity, are unable to see other’s perspectives.

4. Solid structure

  • Right size — keep it small.
  • Meaningful team tasks — the work members do together is vital and connected to the strategy.
  • Norms of conduct — members understand what must always be done, what must never be done.

5. A supportive context

Rewards do not themselves create collaboration, they can be a powerful negative; they can divide (status, fairness).

  • Information — what data the team needs — in a form they can use.
  • Education — training and technical consultation to build expertise.
  • Material resources — the space, time and “stuff” for working together on hard decisions.

6. Expert team coaching

  • Team coaching — as an entity.
  • Coaching and participating is often too hard — consider an external coach.
  • Demand of yourself the same work ethic about leading the team as you would have about every other professional responsibility.
What makes teams of leaders leadable? [Wageman and Hackman]

LCP + ITC = ♥

The “destination” and the “path”, the “where?” and the “how?”, the “vision” and the “strategy”.

When it comes to the science of change, my personal experience suggests that good resources on the topic tend to fall into one of two major categories:

 They either paint an exciting end-state which makes the hardships of change worthwhile, or introduce you to an effective tool for driving change (regardless of your destination).

While some attempt to do both, the focus is significantly on one category, paying a bit more than lip service to the other. Pick almost any business book, and 9 out of the 10 chapters will be dedicated to one category, leaving a single chapter for the other. Even if the division of focus is more equal, the ground-breaking idea will fall squarely in one category and not the other. It is up to you, change-maker, to be the sommelier: pairing the exciting end-state with the tool that will help you get there.

Personal and professional growth and development, a favorite topic of mine in recent months, provides a perfect example:

The Leadership Circle Profile (LCP) provides an extremely exciting and detailed “end-state” of what shifting from “reactive” to “creative” might look like:

But in terms of giving me actionable guidance on how to improve “my interpersonal intelligence”, for example, it falls short. A single chapter of this fantastic 13-chapter book takes a stab at the specifics of change and stops at suggesting these 6 high-level practices:

  • Discern purpose
  • Distill vision
  • Know your doubts and fears
  • Engage in authentic, courageous dialog
  • Develop intuition, open to inspiration
  • Think systematically

 To my rescue comes Immunity to Change (ITC):

I can start with my commitment to improving my “interpersonal intelligence”, and follow the process all the way to uncovering the big assumptions that are holding me back, allowing me to then design safe experiments that will enable me to start making real progress towards that objective.

Note that ITC in an of its own does not prescribe any sort of desired end-state —  I can use it just as well to work on improving my “interpersonal intelligence” as improving my ability for “arrogance” if that was ever my goal…

The “destination” and the “path”, the “where?” and the “how?”, the “vision” and the “strategy” — pair them well, and great things await!

LCP + ITC = ♥

Culture and Revolution [Horowitz]


A short talk by Ben Horowitz on what culture is and how do you go about changing it:

Culture and Revolution

Ben’s simple definition of culture:

  • The collective behavior of everyone in the organization
  • What people do when left to their own devices
  • The organization’s way of doing things

Ben offers 4 keys to changing culture, drawing parallels between Toussaint L’Ouverture , the leader of the only successful slave revolution in human history (Haiti, 1791), and modern Silicone Valley leaders:

1. Keep what works

  • Toussaint: use music (a strength of slave culture) as a communication technology.
  • Steve Jobs @ Apple: when coming back to Apple, did not copy Microsoft’s strategy (saparte OS from device, let clone manufacturers deal with the hardware), and instead double-down on Apple’s strength building integrated systems. Severed connection with clone manufacturers, made it even more vertical and build even more hardware.

2. Create shocking rules

  • Toussaint: officers cannot cheat on their wives (rape and pillage being an expected benefit of the “winning” side). Break away from low-trust/loyalty attributes of slave culture.
  • Mark Zuckerberg @ Facebook: “Move fast and break things”, completely opposed to the software engineering mindset of fixing things rather than breaking them…

3. Incorporate people from other cultures and insert them at high levels within the organization

  • Toussaint: Incorporated soldiers from French and Spanish armies that he defeated as officers in his army.
  • Larry Page @ Google: bringing in Diane Greene, who was the CEO of VMWare and on the Google board at the time, to run Google Apps (G-Suite) to infuse Google with the enterprise culture that it desperately needed in order to be successful selling that product suite to enterprise customers.

4. Make decisions that demonstrate priorities 

  • Toussaint: after abolishing slavery, decided not to kill the slave masters, and instead let them continue to run their estate, while lowering their taxes so they can pay their workers.
  • Reed Hastings @ Netflix: forbidding the members of the DVD business unit to come to executive staff meetings (in order to drive the culture shift towards streaming).
Culture and Revolution [Horowitz]

Reinventing top-of-funnel recruiting

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

… is one of the 7 Questions I challenged myself to develop better answers for at the beginning of this year.

Most of the writing on this topic, including in this publication (1, 2), has been mostly focused on the later steps of the recruiting process. Especially, how to create an engaging and insightful on-site interview experience, and how to close candidates.

The purpose of the top-of-funnel part of the recruiting process is to qualify candidates 

This is a two-sided dynamic:

  • The company needs to quality the candidate: be interested enough in the candidate to invest a full day of an interview team’s time, further assessing the candidate’s fit.
  • The candidate needs to quality the company: be interested enough in the opportunity to invest a full day, during work hours, interviewing with the company, further assessing the opportunity’s fit.

These earlier steps in the process typically consist of:

  • Sourcing/cold-call email — inviting the candidate to check out the position and express interest / apply
  • Review of the relevant job posting — typically describing the company at a high level and listing the responsibilities that the position include and skills needed in order to handle those responsibilities well
  • Resume submission
  • Phone interview with a recruiter

Various permutations of these earlier steps exist, alternative the order, subtracting or adding steps, but this is the gist of it.

Little attention has been given to these earlier stages in the process, which is surprising given that:

  • At a high level, if you have an ineffective top-of-funnel process, no matter how awesome your bottom-of-funnel process is, you’re going to be wasting a lot of time on poor fit candidates. AND many great fit candidates will not even go through your awesome bottom-of-funnel process.
  • Specifically, more evidence surfaces that the pervasive use of resumes is marginally more effective than a coin flip

A better top-of-funnel process

The remainder of this post is a rough outline of an alternative top-of-funnel recruiting process, which I believe is likely to be significantly more effective than the default one. As always, feedback is most welcomed.

Sourcing / cold-call email

Should invite a prospective candidate to:

  • Check out the company’s website (see below)
  • Join an “Open House” hosted by the company (see below)

Company website 

  • Should be less about benefits, fringe benefits and a cribs-like video of how amazing the office space is.
  • Should be more about the purpose of the company, its values, and employees sharing why they chose to work for this company

Job descriptions

  • Should be less about skills and responsibilities
  • Should be more about outcomes and description of the real work. If it’s an existing role, list out the projects that a current employee has been working on in the last 6 months. If it’s a brand new role, list out what a person in the role should accomplish in the next 6 month (side note: if the answer to that latter question is unclear — don’t start the hiring process).

Open Houses

Are meant to give a candidate a more tangible sense of what working for the company will be like. These can range from simply inviting candidates to work out of the company’s space for a few hours, to a mixer with company employees or an info-talk + Q&A given by a company leader. Companies that are large enough to hold stand-alone open houses for a particular function/department can replace the more generic info talk with a more topical content (“tech talk”, etc.).

Work sample test (WST)

A work sample test is an assignment which fully replaces the resume, and is aimed at mirroring the kind of work that the particular role will entail. A typical WST can take somewhere between 30 mins and 3 hours to complete. The most common (but not necessarily best) example is giving a software engineer some type of coding challenge. A WST can easily be used outside of software engineering: creating a fictional travel itinerary given certain constraints can be an interesting WST (or part of one) for an Executive Assistant. And a WST is useful not just for assessing problem-solving, it can also be used to assess “softer” and/or interpersonal skills: salespeople can videotape themselves pitching a product, designers can submit their portfolios, HR Business Partners can leave a voicemail delivering difficult news to an employee.

Reinventing top-of-funnel recruiting