The score takes care of itself [Walsh/Rekhi]

Continuing the accountability/collaboration arc of the past few months, today I’m building on Sachin Rekhi’s insights from reading Bill Walsh’s The Score Takes Care of Itself.

A key motivation for implementing a traditional organizational goal-setting/OKR system is often to use it as a mechanism to drive accountability. Therefore, the push-back for eliminating or overhauling such system is often the concern that if we don’t ask people to set goals, what is it that we will hold them accountable for? 

Walsh, via Rekhi, offers a compelling alternative: a Standard of Performance.

The Standard of Performance clearly delineates what excellence looks like in each role. It includes each of the skills that someone who is excelling at the role is expected to have. And even beyond job skills, it includes the attitude that’s expected of each individual as well as interpersonal dynamics.

In a sense, I’m thinking about it as an expanded/modified career ladder that focuses on those three elements: skills, attitude, and interpersonal. Under such system, people are held accountable to the behaviors that eventually lead to long-term success, rather than to a defined outcome with a fixed time horizon

The one aspect where my views differ from what Walsh/Rekhi advocate for is around who defines these Standards of Performance for each. In their opinion, it should be the coach/manager who does that, but they also acknowledge that this approach poses a real challenge: 

Bill expects leaders to be functional experts in the roles on their team in order to develop the Standard of Performance. These leaders are not just people managers. They are the very best at what they do… But Bill admits that to do this well, you need to posses incredible knowledge and develop expert intuition in your domains of expertise. And this takes a lifetime of experience to hone and develop. There are no shortcuts in Bill’s leadership approach.

In my opinion, this falls into the “unicorn manager trap”: so we’re looking for people who are not only highly competent and motivated people managers, but they’re also functional domain experts capable of defining the standard of performance in each of the roles that report into them? Good luck finding them…

The good news is that I don’t think this is a hard requirement, and an alternative can actually move us on the path of unbundling the managerial responsibilities package: the skills piece of the Standard of Performance is a function, well, of the function (or role). I believe it should be identical for people doing the same role in different organizations and there’s no need for each organization to reinvent the wheel here. I do expect inter-org (but not intra-org) variability in the attitude and interpersonal pieces since those should be reflecting the company values/culture. However, those should be defined at the company (not team) level and co-created in a participatory process. 

Is this the end-all-be-all solution for humanistic accountability? No. But certainly a piece of the puzzle. 

The score takes care of itself [Walsh/Rekhi]

The Silent Meeting Manifesto [Gasca]

Continuing another arc that I’ve previously explored here in previous posts, first in 2014 and more recently, at the end of last year, I recently came across David Gasca’s The Silent Meeting Manifesto

The get the meta nerd-out out of the way first, this arc is a really cool example of the evolution/adoption of an organizational practice: from “here’s this unusual practice that Amazon uses and seems to be working really well for them” (2014) through “we’ve tweaked and adopted this practice in our company and it seems to be working well for us as well” (2018) to “here’s the manual/playbook for how to implement this practice in your company” (now). 

Since Gasca’s post is a bit verbose (Medium estimates the reading time at 26mins) here’s a quick summary/teaser that’ll hopefully convince you to commit the time to read the full thing: 

Silent meetings aim to address these 10 challenges with the traditional (“loud”) meeting format: 

  1. No agenda
  2. No shared reading material for the whole group
  3. Unequal time-sharing
  4. Bad presentations — too slow, too fast, and meandering
  5. Most meeting attendees don’t comment
  6. Reading is faster than listening
  7. Favors native speakers
  8. Bad for remote attendees
  9. Rambling questions
  10. Comments from the meeting often get lost and aren’t captured in any doc

Silent meetings address these challenges by making 4 key changes to the way meetings are typically run: 

  1. Ahead of the meeting, create a basic agenda that defines the meeting goals, non-goals and format and explicitly appoints a meeting facilitator and a meeting note-taker (two different people). 
  2. Create a “table read” document, that will be read during the meeting in order to provide all participant with the shared context needed to accomplish the meeting’s goals. This differs from a “pre-read” in that there’s no expectation that the document will be read ahead of the meeting. 
  3. Read and comment on the “table read” — this is done during the meeting. Participants read the doc and post comments and questions in the doc. Then they read other participants’ comments and questions. The facilitator monitors the process and tags specific individuals that are best equipped to answer particular questions. 
  4. Facilitator synthesizes comments and leads discussion — identifying the themes in the comments, the facilitator triages them and leads a discussion on the themes that will make the best use of the attendees’ time. 

The silent meeting format has its boundaries. It will not work well the meeting aims to address interpersonal dynamics, be an inspirational talk, or cover a broad/multi-issue agenda. It also doesn’t address more systemic meeting issues such as having a true need for a meeting, to begin with, the right attendees, and a clear decision-making process.

A good “Table Read” is a vertical document (Word/Gdoc) rather than a horizontal one (PPT/Keynote), often covering the following topics: 

  • Meeting agenda
  • Problem/Situation background
  • Solution principles/parameters
  • Options identified that can solve the problem
  • Recommendation
  • Discussion questions
  • FAQs
  • Appendix/ add’l info

Lastly, a silent meeting is not without pitfalls, particularly around the key interventions/format changes that it introduces: bad facilitation, low-quality table read, or ineffective handling of comments (including lack of follow-through) will likely lead to a silent meeting not accomplishing its goals. 

The Silent Meeting Manifesto [Gasca]

Goals Gone Wild [Ordóñez et al.]

Stumbled upon an interesting 10-year old paper by Lisa D. Ordóñez et al. 

Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting

Their core thesis (supported by academic references and case studies) is that the beneficial effects of goal setting have been overstated and that systematic harm caused by goal setting has been largely ignored. Rather than advocate for getting rid of goals altogether, they use a medical metaphor to convey their recommendation and suggest that the practice of goals setting should not be used as a benign, “over-the-counter” treatment for motivation (the way it’s used today), but rather as a “prescription-strength medication” that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision.

They group the systemic “side effects” of goals into the following categories: 

  • Goals that are too specific: narrow goals lead to narrow focus often at the expense of the “big picture” and other important non-goal objectives. The specificity can also lead to an abundance of goals, which in turn lead to overwhelm and a focus on a single goal as a coping strategy. Finally, specificity around the time horizon increases the likelihood of getting it wrong and making the goal either too hard or too easy to have the desired effect on motivation. 
  • Goals are too challenging: overly challenging goal often leads to counter-productive behavior in an effort to achieve the goal by all means necessary — from excessing risk-taking, through unethical behavior, to dissatisfaction and the negative psychological consequences of failing to achieve the goal. 
  • Friction with learning and cooperation: (performance) goals can create a dynamic where the stakes are too high to engage in activities that promote learning: from exploring different ways to achieve the task, through setting time aside for reflection to “playing it safe” in fear of making mistakes. Furthermore, individual goals can support and reinforce a culture of competition and individualistic focus.
  • Crowding-out of intrinsic motivation by the extrinsic goal 
  • In a multi-person context (read: organizations) a calibration challenge also emerges: using the same goal for different people ignores their individual capabilities, and will result in different outcomes on motivation and in turn, performance. Yet idiosyncratic/personalized goal-setting is not without its challenges either, especially around managing perceptions of unfairness. 

The authors advocate the use of goals in the narrow context outlined by King and Burton (2003):

The optimally striving individual ought to endeavor to achieve and approach goals that only slightly implicate the self; that are only moderately important, fairly easy, and moderately abstract; that do not conflict with each other; and that concern the accomplishment of something other than financial gain.

Lastly, they offer a set of reflection questions for people who consider the use of goal-setting in a particular setting to determine whether goal-setting can be effective in that setting and mitigate the side-effects to the best of their abilities: 

  1. Are the goals too specific? Narrow goals can blind people to important aspects of a problem. Be sure that goals are comprehensive and include all of the critical components for firm success (e.g., quantity and quality).
  2. Are the goals too challenging? What will happen if goals are not met? How will individual employees and outcomes be evaluated? Will failure harm motivation and self-efficacy? Provide skills and training to enable employees to reach goals. Avoid harsh punishment for failure to reach a goal.
  3. Who sets the goals? People will become more committed to goals they help to set. At the same time, people may be tempted to set easy to reach goals. 
  4. Is the time horizon appropriate? Be sure that short-term efforts to reach a goal do not harm investment in long-term outcomes. 
  5. How might goals influence risk-taking? Be sure to articulate acceptable levels of risk. 
  6. How might goals motivate unethical behavior? Goals narrow focus, such that employees may be less likely to recognize ethical issues. Goals also induce employees to rationalize their unethical behavior and can corrupt organizational cultures. Multiple safeguards may be necessary to ensure ethical behavior while attaining goals (e.g., leaders as exemplars of ethical behavior, making the costs of cheating far greater than the benefit, strong oversight). 
  7. Can goals be idiosyncratically tailored for individual abilities and circumstances while preserving fairness? Strive to set goals that use common standards and account for individual variation. 
  8. How will goals influence organizational culture? If cooperation is essential, consider setting team-based rather than individual goals. 
  9. Are individuals intrinsically motivated? Assess intrinsic motivation and recognize that goals can curtail intrinsic motivation. 
  10. Consider the ultimate goals of the organization and what type of goal (performance or learning) is most appropriate? In complex, changing environments learning goals may be more effective.
Goals Gone Wild [Ordóñez et al.]

A deliberate, short hiatus

I published the first “Hello World” on on May 19th, 2014. I quickly settled on a 1 post/week cadence and was able to sustain it for more than 5 years and 275 posts with a little bit of planning and thoughtful queuing. 

Sometimes I had several posts already lined up in my head and writing just flowed, and sometimes I had to push myself to figure out what to write about next and then to sit down and write it. Regardless of what was going on inside my head or in my life at the time, I remained committed to the 1 post/week pace. 

This month I’m making a deliberate decision to do something different. 

When this post will get published, I will already be on an almost month-long adventure, backpacking the John Muir Trail. But this time around, I deliberately haven’t queued up anything for the weeks I’ll be away from civilization and with no internet connection 🙂

I’m excited to see what insights emerge from deliberately stopping (and observing), and remain committed to resume posting again in August.

See you soon,


A deliberate, short hiatus

An Executive Curriculum

While “new managers” programs are becoming more and more popular these days, I still see a big opportunity in developing programs that are tailored to new executives — people who are going to be on the executive team for the first time, and actually, if we’re being honest, will most likely benefit many existing executives. And being a business school grad, I’m definitely not talking about what’s typically offered in their “executive programs”. 

I’m making a conscious decision to stay within the existing hierarchical paradigm in my framing here, but in many ways, this is an advanced “How can we work better together?” curriculum. Cross-functional work is becoming more and more the norm in organizations but remains the exception rather than the rule for many people in many roles. That changes when members join the executive time, and for many, this is the first time where their primary, long-last peer team is truly cross-functional. 

If I were to ever design a curriculum that’s meant to prepare people for doing this type of collaborative cross-functional work, these are the primary sources that I’d draw content and inspiration from: 

An Executive Curriculum

Leveling Transparency

I get excited when I notice that I’ve changed my mind about something. As is the case for me here. 

Having a thoughtful career levels system (which ties to a compensation levels system) is often an important ingredient in creating both a clear roadmap for professional growth and a fair compensation structure. 

A key question in designing such a system is which of its components should be made transparent to all member of the organization. In this post, I’ve explored the spectrum of transparency around the compensation component. Today, I want to focus more on the leveling itself. 

We can envision a transparency spectrum around levels with the following milestones (multiple in-between stages can exist as well): 

  1. The member’s manager knows their level but the member doesn’t.
  2. The member and the manager know the member’s level but anyone else (outside the reporting chain, finance, and HR) doesn’t. 
  3. Everybody knows everybody else’s level. 

Google is a good example of an organization that’s on one far end of the spectrum (#3). 

About three years ago, I used to believe that a more middle-ground position (#2) made more sense, for the following reasons: 

  • Full level transparency will result in less equitable/meritocratic conversations, giving more weight to the opinions of the more senior participants, given that their seniority is known (this has been an issue at Google).
  • Full level transparency will result in counter-productive social-comparisons and encourage a more promotion-centric culture (also an issue at Google). 

While both arguments are probably true to an extent (positive correlation between cause and effect), I’ve since then changed my mind and now leaning a lot closer to #3. Here’s what my experience since then taught me: 

  • Seniority can still be inferred and/or established in many other ways. Thoughtfully managing power and its implications requires much deeper cultural work.
  • People who assess their self-worth and sense of accomplishment by social-comparison/external validation will continue to do so. Hiding levels won’t make them stop. Real investment in helping them grow out of the way they currently make sense of the world might. 
  • Creating a “knowledge imbalance” where some individuals have access to some information when others don’t, generate a trust deficit and a tax on the culture. 
  • Maintaining the “knowledge imbalance” has a real operational tax: complex permissions, data anonymization, double-checking data before sharing it broadly, etc. 

I expect my opinion to continue to evolve as I continue to learn, but it’s nice to pause and notice the change. 

Leveling Transparency

Improving Comms [Merlino]

How we think communication works
How communication actually works

Alice Merlino’s 3 reasons you fail at communication in the workplace and how to improve is, in her own words: “A no-BS guide for people who suck at communicating with coworkers. Which means you. Also, me.” Do I need to say more? 

She identifies three key reasons why we all struggle with communication: 

  1. We think we know how communication works, and we’re wrong (first image above)
  2. When communication fails, we blame everyone but ourselves
  3. The way communication works is fairly-complex (second image above)

She illustrates the latter with a good example: 

Thought: I have a vague feeling of hunger and a desire for something tasty.

Encode: I write a message on Slack, “I’m so hungry.”

Transmit: I drop that message with a Cookie Monster gif into my team’s Slack channel.

Receive: People on my team get a message indicator on Slack.

Decode: My teammates read it and see my gif.

Interpret: One person thinks I want cookies. One person sees it’s 11:30am in San Francisco and assumes I’m ready for lunch. One person thinks I’m obsessed with Cookie Monster gifs because it’s the fourth one I’ve posted in three hours.

Understanding: One person thinks I have a sweet tooth. One person thinks I should probably eat a bigger breakfast. One person wonders where I find all of these amazing gifs.

In between our thoughts and the way they are eventually become someone else’s understanding, many things shape and morph the signal: 

The emotional state of the participants (e.g., angry, happy, sad).

The relationship between the participants (e.g., siblings, married couples, coworkers).

The expectations of the participants (e.g. you assume positive intent, they expect bad news).

The context of the participants (e.g. confused, busy, distracted, impatient, underprepared, biased).

The language abilities of the participants (e.g., you don’t know the language of the speaker).

The capabilities of your transmission medium (e.g., unreadable handwriting, bad wifi for video calls).

Literal noise (e.g, the cafe where you’re talking is crowded and loud).

And finally, she offers some strategies to improve our communication in the workplace (of varying quality, imho): 

  • Expect communication breakdowns and view them as opportunities to refine your message
  • Feel responsible and accountable for your communications being successful
  • Tailor your message and your medium to your audience
  • Tell a story
  • Ask for follow up
  • Ask for feedback
  • Get curious
  • Listen
  • Stop interrupting
  • Be tenacious
Improving Comms [Merlino]