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