5 Questions for Rethinking Civilization [Edelman]

I’ve been following Joe Edelman’s writing on Medium for a few months now with mixed feelings. I’ve enjoyed seeing him explore the boundaries/future of work, often times with surprising conclusions. Yet sometimes, I found the discussions a bit too abstract or the outcome toom extreme for me to relate to.

Five Questions for Rethinking Civilization

While not perfect, it is so far the post I enjoyed the most. Questions are a powerful tool and while they’re being used here a bit more as a rhetorical tool than truly open-ended curiosity, it does not dimish their effect. Eleman questions 5 assumptions that seem deeply baked-into our current model of (western) civilization/society as a way to uncover a new path towards an interesting alternative:

  1. What can of freedom can a solitary person achieve? Edelman questions the “cult of individuality” and the limited possibilities that are available if “every man is an island”.
  2. Which is better, a society where people make moral decisions at every level, or one where moral decisions are made by “disinterested” systems and structures? The observation here is that something profound may have gotten lost by doing the latter.
  3. Is material wealth the thing to aim for? Or is it more important to create environments of meaning? Nothing new in this one. The age-old debate on the diminishing returns of wealth.
  4. What do people yearn for most: scientific knowledge, or knowledge about how to live well? The “scientific method” has not yet been applied, in all its might, towards discovering the best ways for living well.
  5. Why do we teach our children responsibility, but not integrity? This one is not that well phrased or offers a false dichotomy in my opinion. But the underlying point still rings true: there seems to be a promising upside in learning to uncover our values and living in a way that stays true to them.
5 Questions for Rethinking Civilization [Edelman]

On Equity

Henry Ward’s post:

Work @ Carta, get liquidity

Has been on my mental back-burner for a few months now.

I’m not sure that I’m fully bought into Ward’s prediction that the market will tip towards liquidity being the norm at some point in the near future, but it did make me reflect on the problem-solution fit that is equity grants.

At the core of the decision to grant employees equity, is a noble intent to give employees an upside in the future of success of the company. If the company does well — your equity stake appreciates in value. If the company doesn’t do well — your equity stake depreciates in value, all the way to the point where it may be worth nothing. I’m a strong proponent of this noble intent.

But equity also seems like an unnecessarily complex solution to accomplish said intent. Part of it has to do with the financial vehicle itself (Incentive Stock Options, or ISOs, for the purposes of this thread), and part of it has to do with the particular way that it’s being granted, which implicitly makes some assumptions on the lifecycle of the typical company which no longer seems to hold true.

Here’s a partial list of some odd “externalities” of using equity:

  • An arbitrary period of time during which equity is granted (“4-year vest”)
  • An arbitrary eligibility period (“1-year cliff”)
  • Complex tax treatment — taxes are often due before the upside can be realized
  • Cashflow constraints — options must be “exercised”, which requires a cash outflow, often times before a cash inflow is possible
  • Challenging handling of employee departure/termination (“exercise window” which further amplifies the cashflow constraint)
  • Irrelevant rights — being a shareholder grants shareholder rights that go beyond the cash value of the shares and are irrelevant to the intent stated above
  • Questionable “company success” proxy — a company’s market value is also impacted by many external factors that have little to do with the actual success or even financial health of the company
  • Limited liquidity — the ability to materialize any of the financial upside often depends on the company stock trading in a public market. An event that seems to happen later in a company’s lifecycle compared to when it used to take place, and has its own overhead and undesirable “externalities”

Maybe equity is simply the “best worst” solution. And maybe it’s time for a better solution?

On Equity

40 Days a Year

It’s been a while since I covered anything related to Paid-Time-Off (PTO) in this blog. More than 4 years to be a bit more precise. Mostly because the PTO debate has somewhat stagnated.

As evidence suggesting that “unlimited PTO” policies result in employees not taking enough time off started mounting, most companies simply defaulted to the tried and true old PTO allowances regime.

An interesting challenge with that approach is how to set fair PTO allowances across countries, where each country has its own mandated amount of national holidays.

This is another case of navigating a fairness polarity, similar to the one I covered here with regards to compensation. One pole pushes us to set policies that are fair across our employee base, “internal fairness” if you will. While another pole pushes us to set policies that are fair compared to the local market, “external fairness” if you will.

Most companies tend to go with a solution closer to the “external fairness” pole, setting a PTO policy that consists of the national holidays mandated by that country (or is considered to be the industry’s norm) + an additional PTO allowance based on industry norm in that country.

Doist, a 60-person company with employees in 26 countries, decided to go a different route, with a solution closer to the “internal fairness” pole:

A vacation policy built for a new age: 40 days off to use as you choose

The gist is very simple: every employee, regardless of country of residence gets a total of 40 days PTO a year. That allowance includes national holidays, so if an employee plans to not work during a national holiday in her country (a practice that is heavily encouraged) she needs to take a PTO day for it. This ensures, that whatever the number of days off a year the company deemed to be the healthy amount, all employees are able to take it.

One org design element that works for Doist’s advantage in this case and will likely create a challenging wrinkle in implementing this policy in other companies, is that Doist does not have any offices. This means that its staff can work whenever they please. They are not dependent on an office team that needs to operate the office while they’re there, or a building that needs to be open. However, while this is certainly a challenging hurdle, it does not seem to be an insurmountable one with some modest policy tweaks.

40 Days a Year

The Digital Productivity Pyramid [Forte]

Source: Praxis

I’ve been keeping tabs on Tiago Forte’s work over the years. I believe he’s one of the deeper thinkers in the field of personal knowledge management and productivity, and it’s been interesting to see his thinking evolving over the years.

More recently, he published:

The Digital Productivity Pyramid

An effort to organize much of his thinking into a coherent framework.

4 core principles underly the pyramid:

  1. Learning is non-linear: but more of a spiral staircase. Each level reflects a more advanced level of mastery of the same core skills.
  2. Each level is a combination of skills + technologies: the latter augment and extend the former.
  3. Each level emerges from the one below it, extending or abstracting the same principles.
  4. Information flow is captured in the order of the blocks in each level, flowing from left to right.

The pyramid consists of 5 levels:

  • Level 1: Digital fluency
  • Level 2: Task management and workflow
  • Level 3: Habit formation and behavior change
  • Level 4: Personal knowledge management
  • Level 5: Just-in-time project management

In the original post, each level is decomposed into its finer building blocks and linked to articles that more fully elaborate them.

Certainly worth checking out.

The Digital Productivity Pyramid [Forte]

Emotional reasoning and other cognitive distortions

It’s always interesting coming back to pieces that I’ve covered in the past and seeing how a few years later, I’m engaging with them in a different way.

Recently, this has happened to me with:

The Coddling of the American Mind

Which I was inspired to re-read after hearing Jonathan Haidt’s interview on the Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast promoting his new book of the same name.

Two things struck me reading the post I wrote about it 3 years ago:

1. I rarely make predictions in this blog, but boy I got this one right

Here’s an excerpt from my old post explaining my “odd” decision to cover a piece like that in an organization-oriented blog:

But why am I covering a piece about campus culture in a blog about business organizational effectiveness? I’m glad you asked:

*) Today’s college culture problems are tomorrow’s business culture problems, as current students leave college and join the workforce, with this cultural indoctrination in mind.

*) Looking at the direction that typical “office sensitivity training programs” are headed, and the way that some related incidents are handled, some may argue that this culture has already started trickling into the work place.

*) Tech companies will be affected first as their demographic tends to skew young.

*) No matter on which side of the academic debate on “whether it’s the colleges’ job to prepare students for post-college life” you fall, this piece suggests that the skills/culture gap is widening. If colleges are not stepping up to address it (and some may argue, are making it worse), workplaces will have to.

Since then, interest in dealing with matters of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging (DIB) in business has grown exponentially…

2. While back then I was intrigued mostly by the marco-pattern, nowadays I’m interested a lot more in the nuanced cognitive distortions that are covered in the article

I’m curious about those because they are part of the “so what?”, a piece of the puzzle that is a way to address this rising organizational challenge/opportunity.

So what are “cognitive distortions”? you may ask. Well, here’s a rather pithy definition:

Tendencies or patterns of thinking or believing, that are false or inaccurate, and have the potential to cause psychological damage.

It’s that latter piece about the psychological damage that sets them apart, in my mind at least, from the broader category of cognitive biases that they are part of.

Cognitive distortions are the foundation of a psychological therapy approach known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT has identified these thinking patterns as highly correlated with disorders like depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses and developed protocols for addressing these disorders through changing these patterns of thought.

In the lightweight research that I’ve done on this topic, I couldn’t find a list of cognitive distortions that is as MECE as I would have liked. But the one that Haidt and Lukianof included in their original article, is a decent reference list that I’m going to try and keep closer by from this point on:

  • Emotional reasoning. You let your feelings guide your interpretation of reality. “I feel depressed; therefore, my marriage is not working out.”
  • Mind reading. You assume that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. “He thinks I’m a loser.”
  •  Fortune-telling. You predict the future negatively: things will get worse, or there is danger ahead. “I’ll fail that exam,” or “I won’t get the job.”
  • Catastrophizing. You believe that what has happened or will happen will be so awful and unbearable that you won’t be able to stand it. “It would be terrible if I failed.”
  • Labeling. You assign global negative traits to yourself and others. “I’m undesirable,” or “He’s a rotten person.”
  • Discounting positives. You claim that the positive things you or others do are trivial. “That’s what wives are supposed to do — so it doesn’t count when she’s nice to me,” or “Those successes were easy, so they don’t matter.”
  • Negative filtering. You focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. “Look at all of the people who don’t like me.”
  • Overgeneralizing. You perceive a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident. “This generally happens to me. I seem to fail at a lot of things.”
  • Dichotomous thinking. You view events or people in all-or-nothing terms. “I get rejected by everyone,” or “It was a complete waste of time.”
  • Blaming. You focus on the other person as the source of your negative feelings, and you refuse to take responsibility for changing yourself. “She’s to blame for the way I feel now,” or “My parents caused all my problems.”
  • What if? You keep asking a series of questions about “what if” something happens, and you fail to be satisfied with any of the answers. “Yeah, but what if I get anxious?,” or “What if I can’t catch my breath?”
  • Inability to disconfirm. You reject any evidence or arguments that might contradict your negative thoughts. For example, when you have the thought I’m unlovable, you reject as irrelevant any evidence that people like you. Consequently, your thought cannot be refuted. “That’s not the real issue. There are deeper problems. There are other factors.”
Emotional reasoning and other cognitive distortions

Sacrificing or Suffering? [Petriglieri]

If you’ve been following this publication for a while, you should know by now that I love distinctions.

Our lives our nuanced and subtle, but we often seek to make generalizations and abstractions that help us reduce the complexity and see the bigger picture better. However, sometimes going the other way and adding back that nuance helps just as much. Which is why I love distinctions.

And Gianpiero Petriglieri introduces us to a very powerful distinction in:

Are You Sacrificing for Your Work, or Just Suffering for It?

The core distinction is captured in the following paragraph (emphasis mine):

Not all pain and suffering, however, amount to sacrifice. The difference is not just philosophical. It is practical. Sacrifice might be hurtful and exhausting, but it is a conscious choice. Suffering is the result of feeling that we cannot slow down or else we will be shamed and lose control. Sacrifice makes us who we are. Suffering keeps us captive. When putting our bodies through hell at work, at least for a while, is worth the rewards we get and the contribution we make, it is sacrifice. But if you can come up with many reasons for hurting at work, but see little purpose in it, then it is not.

Petriglieri argues that suffering is more pervasive than sacrifice in the business realm, and hypothesizes the causes for it by contrasting the dynamic in it and those in the realm that’s often cited as having mastered sacrifice — elite athletes:

  1. Lack of discipline in seeking of and working on our limits
  2. Insufficient respect for the criticality of pace
  3. Underinvestment in seeking out the help and support needed to improve

This ponderous note is a good place to pause and reflect…

Sacrificing or Suffering? [Petriglieri]

People as Vectors [Fishkin]

Source: SparkToro

A neat post by Rand Fishkin, expanding on an analogy from a conversation between Dharmesh Shah and Elon Musk:

Why Elon Musk’s “People as Vectors” Analogy Resonates

The most useful insight from the post is explaining what we mean by the word “alignment” using this (overly-)simplistic analogy:

We can think of the people on any given team as vectors

People vectors have both direction and magnitude

When people all work in precisely the same direction, their magnitudes are added to each other

When people have any degree of deviation, the varying directions subtract (at least somewhat) from the maximum amount of productivity that could be achieved

The original talk covered alignment in three levels:

  1. Align people with the organization’s goals.
  2. Aligning individual teams (product, marketing, sales, service, etc.) with the organization’s goals.
  3. Aligning the organization’s goals with the needs of the customer.

And Fishkin offers decomposing each further to assess the level of agreement on the following questions:

  • Why are we on this team together? (motivation)
  • For whom are we building this? (customer)
  • What are we creating? (product/service)
  • Do we have shared respect, trust, and empathy for one another?

The last one seems a bit like the odd-man-out and ties better to the next section where Fishkin lists out the things that drive/hinder getting aligned:

  • Trust
  • Agreement on values>goals or goals>values. This one was not easy for me to understand, but it seems to have to do with deeper shared beliefs that the participants have on whether “where are we going?” (goals) is more important than “how are we going to get there?” (values), or the other way around.
  • Psychological safety

Lastly, Fishkin covers the importance of emotional buy-in and why he believes “disagree & commit” hurts alignment. This is the piece on which Fishkin and I are not aligned 🙂 This may be because I support a narrower definition of “disagree & commit” which may mitigate most of the down-side that troubles Fishkin.

People as Vectors [Fishkin]