Bring game day to your work

Pre-game focus and energy. Image from LA Times

There’s nothing like getting up for a big game. This is true as a fan, but even better as a player or coach.  Game Day is a source of inspirational and motivational energy you can tap into for super powers and unbridled passion.  Things happen on Game Day that you never thought were possible in practice. Players who prepare carefully and focus their energy on an upcoming game tend to have a sharper physical, mental and emotional state than they do on a practice or rest day.

This is all true for regular working folks too.  People who put a red circle on the calendar around events like a proposal meeting, or a sales call, or a product launch, and prepare for those events as a Big Game, show up far more ready to do their best than those who see every day as the same old grind.

The key here is to make sure everyone around you knows about your upcoming Big Game and are involved in getting you prepared, building enthusiasm, and holding you accountable for your results. Wouldn’t it be great if people working around you cheered and gave you high fives when you walked into the office on Game Day?  And what if people stuck microphones in your face afterwards for a quick download on how the game went?  Now that’s effective performance management!

There is more risk involved in this transparency (that’s the whole point). If nobody else knows about your Big Game, how will they cheer you on?  More importantly, if nobody else knows about your game, you can simply write it off as “no big deal” if you don’t win. If there’s no risk, you won’t have the same intensity and focus.

Winning: Very few teams win every game.  Even Michael Phelps doesn’t win every race.  But every team or individual athlete competing in an elite category is expecting to win every time. The desire to win and keeping track of your record are essential elements of high performance. If you don’t keep score and you don’t know your W-L record, you won’t achieve the intensity and focus of Game Day.

Losing: I saw a great interview with USC Quarterback Matt Barkley after they lost their second game in a row in the last second of the game. This kind of loss can devastate a team and ruin their season. Or, it can be seen as a step in the process of getting better. His response was to compare the losses to a dropped pass or getting tackled. It’s part of the game, and you have to overcome adversity and use each experience to grow stronger and get better.

Pacing: I had a game day experience putting on a big event at Hulu this week, and it was emotionally and physically draining for our team. I remember driving to work that day with U2, Led Zeppelin, and The Who blasting the whole way in. You can’t get pumped like this every day, it’s got to come in cycles and leave room for recovery.  The Olympics come every four years… the NBA and NHL play over 80 games in their seasons. You have to design a game strategy that fits your business and keeps you at your best. But beware, there is no off-season!

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Simple rules of good feedback

Signal to others you are open to feedback by asking for it.

Based on 3 years of close observation at IDEO and Hulu; and with perspective from my friends at other companies like Rypple, Facebook, Pixar, Mozilla, and Lucas Film; I have distilled these simple rules of good feedback.

1. Ask, don’t tell. Feedback works best when it is delivered to someone who asks for it.  Being invited reduces the social risk of the giver being viewed as too critical or harsh.  And reduces the challenge of finding the right time to deliver it.  Asking for feedback is like putting out a welcome mat that signals you are open to input from others.

2. Focus on the work not the person. People are complex and very difficult (and resistant!) to label with statements like “high performer” or “lags peers.” Add in specifics about a work product/outcome and the context surrounding it, and it’s much more valuable.

3. Cast a wide net. Successful people manage a broad and diverse set of perspectives to discover patterns and develop insights about their own behavior.  If you ask a small set of people who know you well, you will probably get a biased and less trustworthy answer.

4. Don’t believe the first answer. Even with an invitation, remember that good feedback requires the giver to think deeply, and work a bit to provide something useful.  Press the first response, with further invitations like, “Can you tell me more about that?” or similar open ended probes.  If you receive generic responses like, “fine” or “I love working with you” don’t be satisfied.

5. Synthesize and iterate. Once you gather broad and diverse perspective, look at the set of opinions and find patterns across the set.  Then share the whole set with a close advisor and discuss it together.  It may prompt you to ask a more targeted question to get more actionable or focused feedback.

6. Tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This works both ways for the giver and the receiver.  You are simply wasting time if you don’t share your whole perspective as a giver or disclose that you know there are areas to explore as a receiver.  Being open and honest is what divides successful players from posers and wannabes.

Remember the whole point of feedback is personal growth, higher performance, and living a more fulfilling life!  Have fun with it.

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Make better decisions

There are some people who are naturally gifted at understanding a group vibe. These folks always seem to know the “right thing to do” and are often rewarded well for their savvy. And, kind of like the old LIFE cereal commercial, other people begin to depend on the few that have a sense of right and wrong for decisions.  When pondering a difficult decision they say, “Let’s get Mikey!” and run off to seek direction as if that one person really knows the answer by some divine right.

In this manner, many people rely on their boss for direction.  “We’d better get Jim’s input on this before we proceed!”  While Supervisor Jim may have a good sense of what won’t work, it’s doubtful that he will be able to provide much insight on some new idea or direction.  Of course his opinion matters and his experience helps, but he probably has no more perspective on a new situation than you (sometimes less).   This is a huge threat to innovation, because most controversial decisions are “kicked upstairs” and new ideas are almost always killed.

In reality, great decisions come from being connected to an appropriate set of stakeholders who provide diverse and independent input on a situation.

The magic 8-ball says…

A great boss should say, “Well, I’m not sure about this… who else have you asked?”  This attitude leads people to check things out more broadly before coming to a conclusion.  You’re probably thinking, sure I can ask a lot of people and get 20 different opinions, but I’ll still have 20 opinions… there’s no way to please everyone.  That might be true, but it’s no reason not to proceed.  Since we already know that deciding in a vacuum leads to bad decisions, how might we overcome the problem of having too many opinions?

Ask the Magic 8-ball! (this is a very retro post)  Not that Magic 8-Ball… create a new kind of organization chart that helps you magically determine who to ask and what to ask in order to get better decisions.  It works like this:

1. Clarify your question  (anything can be decided this way, from small to large issues).

2. Determine who cares about this issue (think broadly) or will be impacted by your decision (commonly known as stakeholders).

3. Gather their thoughts on the issue via a series of short 1-1 discussions (build an evolving, proposed solution as you move from person to person, and share it as you go).  This approach is better than a group meeting because it avoids group think or an information cascade that bias the outcome.

4. Test your proposal as you gather input (i.e. ask what they like/don’t like, how they would change it and assure them that you’ll share the “final” proposal before you move forward).

There are two valuable benefits of this approach:

1. You get better insight based on the various perspectives and independent reactions.

2. You build support for your issue as the stakeholders get better context and understand your constraints more deeply by participating in the process.

Here’s one way to chart your stakeholders.  Each “orbit” around you is an existing group (e.g. “sales team” or “senior leaders” or “women in our company”).  Use the orbit to help you identify specific individuals in each stakeholder group and test your breadth and diversity of input.  Tap the wisdom of this crowd by sampling a small set (2-3) of people from each orbit, for a total stakeholder group of  12-20 people.

An atomic organization chart

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The (new) wisdom of teams

The Wisdom of Teams by Jon Katzenbach and Doug Smith is one of the most useful books I have ever read.  It provides a clear framework for team success based on sound research. That plus the memorable: Form, Storm, Norm, Perform stages of team development by Bruce Tuckman helped me diagnose and facilitate teams for over 20 years.

Key to these models is the distinction between a “real team” and other small working groups that don’t exhibit complementary skills, commitment to a common purpose, shared performance goals, and mutual accountability for their approach to the work at hand.

Over the years, I’ve come to find that team development as Katzenbach, Smith, and Tuckman observed it depends on a stable surrounding environment, which is becoming less and less common.  Today’s work place is fraught with complexity, ambiguity, and overlapping priorities.  Speed and confusion are facts of life, not the result of a poorly run organization.

photo from blog.jaciclark.com

Often teams have a hard time functioning as suggested in The Original Wisdom (choirs sing here) because the demands to perform start immediately, and there’s no time to go through the team development stages.  And I have to admit that many business leaders in my career have argued that the time it takes for team building is unnecessary.

Today’s successful teams seem to skip some of the stages and get right to work, much as people can jump up and start dancing together at a wedding with little planning or communication.  They just know what to do when the music starts. I’ve shared some of the insights about this “new” kind of team in an earlier post on teams, and it was so popular I thought I’d add some more on the topic.

Here’s some of the new wisdom emerging from my observations conducted at IDEO with my research partner Daniel Wilson:

3 Degrees of Team: we’ve noticed performance differences in teams can be correlated to various “degrees” of team complexity.  A “client-embedded, extended team” seems to out perform the other types.

1. A “core team” has 3-5 people with different skills working closely on a project.

2. An “extended team” can have 20 or 30 people who identify themselves as members of the team, but do not participate fully in all team activities.  Sometimes they offer a quick assessment of the work, while other times they make a specialized contribution to the overall work product.

2. A “client embedded” team has representatives of the sponsoring agency actually on the team versus reviewing or supporting the work from afar.

Team fluidity: one commonly held belief of a team is that it forms with an original set of members (like a rock band) and keeps those same members for the life of its work.  We’ve seen that successful teams are more fluid and can easily accommodate the arrival and departure of members over the life of their work.  This is managed with the use of project artifacts, boundary objects, and a continuing project narrative that keeps everyone up-to-date and connected to the current state of the team and work.

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Stories create impact

Storytelling is a powerful mode of human interaction.  Consider what a storyteller looks like when presenting versus how someone looks when reporting the news or reading a report.  There’s emotion, action, passion.  Reports are dry and neutral.  Stories are alive and engaging. Steve Jobs is a master storyteller, and the photos of him presenting the new Apple iPad today demonstrate this well.

Kimberly White / Reuters

I’ve heard very few facts about the iPad.  Instead, I’ve heard this “magical device is a more intimate personal media experience.” Not a computer without a keyboard or an over-sized mobile phone.  These phrases might sound like “spin” if we didn’t believe the story teller to be authentic.  Perhaps many people are skeptical of Steve Jobs, and for them his story will not be compelling.  This is the challenge of incorporating stories into your everyday life.

How do you become more engaging and compelling without overdoing it and winding up as a spin-doctor?

Know your audience: Adjust what you emphasize depending on the needs of the people around you.  Consider the story of the Three Pigs.  When talking to a five year-old, you might point out the concrete details of how each house is constructed and inject humor into the interactions with the wolf.  But for a 10 year-old, you might focus on the symbolism of the big bad wolf and play up how big problems arise from misplaced priorities.  The characters, facts and sequence are the same, but the tone, tenor, and supporting elements are very different.  In either case, a neutral outline of the facts or PowerPoint bullets about what happened will leave an audience underwhelmed.

Understand your venue: Is it live? Email?  A blog?  Are you in a business or family setting?  Friends or colleagues?  Short or long-term relationships?  All of these factors should affect how you tell your story and what you say.  Do you have one chance to make an impression or will there be many days/weeks/months for someone to learn it?  I did not find a press release or message of any sort about the iPad on the Apple website today.  I learned about it weeks ago in a “leak” about what might come (foreshadowing) which created some buzz and speculation.  Then I saw the building on the news this morning and an interview from a national news show where it was mentioned.  Finally, it appeared on the Yahoo! home page as reported by someone who was there to hear the announcement.  This is great storytelling, it gets you curious and pulls you along, and leaves you wanting more.

Get to the point: All of the drama and craft in the world will be for nothing if there’s not a relevant “point” to your story.  In sales it’s called the “WIFM” (what’s in it for me?) statement you provide to answer your listener’s question.  Do you have a question to ask, something to teach, a request?  Your story should engage and inspire someone to act, so you need to be clear about how/what/when you want the action to occur.  Even stories used for entertainment (think movies, books, and songs) have a point.

Unless the point is to not have one, but that’s another story.

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Feedback starts with you

For the past several months I’ve been closely observing situations where people give and receive feedback, and I’m starting to get some good insights.  It’s still a puzzle to me why feedback feels like a punch in the gut to so many people, when it is an essential component of learning and growth.  So we’re still keeping an eye on that.  In the mean time, here’s some of the latest musings and suggestions:

1. ) You First! People who ask for feedback by disclosing a concern get better results.  Let your providers know that you know you are not perfect and give them an opening like, “I think I talked way too much in the meeting today, do you think I was effective?”  Disclosure reduces the social risk that others feel when asked to tell you something could be better about your performance.  Without disclosure people will take the safe route and give you very little useful advice.

flickr image by redcrashpad

flickr image by redcrashpad

2.) Ask for Help. It is human nature to help each other, and this natural desire seems present at a very early age.  Framing your request for feedback as a need for assistance makes it easier for others to jump in.  It also signals that you are on an authentic mission of growth, which inspires others to act on your behalf.

3.) Be Persistent. Most opening requests for feedback go unanswered or get a generic response like, “Oh, you were fine.” This could be because the person has not formed a useful opinion, or because they aren’t sure you really want to know what they think (the real truth).  So you have to ask again (and again) and help your providers develop their advice for you in the process.

4.) Be Ready! You know feedback is good for you, but so far as I can tell, nobody really likes hearing the specifics of how they could do better.  So you have to be ready when someone uncovers a blind spot or gives you a critical opinion.  Take deep breaths, respect their perspective, and include it in a larger pattern of input you are receiving from several other people, over time.  It’s just their opinion, don’t over react.

Growth is a process, it takes time, and learning how you could be better at anything isn’t usually the easy way out.  Take a cue from elite athletes who have direct, specific, and repetitive feedback on every move they make.  After awhile, it’s just part of your routine and you realize you’re not going to lose your job, friends, and family just because you got some room to grow.

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The toughest job

In our community of friends, my family is well known for a weird trait.  We put our kids to bed very early.  Not just very early, jaw-dropping early.  I give total and complete credit for this to my wife.  And, I used to subtly side with the sometimes curious, sometimes judgmental friends and family members who found our habit odd.  But not any more.  I’ve noticed over time how our routine has become a non-issue and our children usually go to sleep happily.

flickr photo by jose777i

flickr photo by jose777i

Some people look at us like we’re crazy, and say straight out that we were missing out on “quality time” with our kids in the evenings.  Some people express envy over the “couple time” we have in the evenings while the little ones are asleep.  Most say, “well, they must get up pretty early then, huh?”  Not really.  As we learned early, from Dr. Marc Weissbluth, “sleep begats sleep”.  Hard to imagine with an adult mind.

Did I say my wife is a genius?  It’s very counter-intuitive, and sometimes logistically an incredible challenge, but the discipline of getting our kids to bed at 5:00 PM is the only piece of parenting advice I’ll ever give.  That’s 5:00 until they are in Kindergarten, then up 30 minutes each year.   Our third-grader goes to bed at 6:30 most nights (a bit of a peer to peer issue!).

We are not militant in this approach; there are sleepovers and evening activities mixed into our routine.  But as a normal course of action, our kids go to bed an hour or two before most of their peers.

For me, this is the toughest job as a parent. Bedtime can be such a nightmare!  There’s always something else to do before bed, including such important things as homework and brushing of teeth.  But apparently every 10 minutes count.

Turns out, there’s a growing body of research indicating that serious public health issues and education performance issues are highly correlated with the loss of sleep over the past few decades.  That’s right, ADHD, obesity, and lower academic performance are highly correlated with a significant downward trend in sleep.

There are significant developmental processes that occur in a child’s brain and body that depend on long, uninterrupted sleep.  And this developmental stage lasts through adolescence.

Yet, only 5 percent of high school students get 8 hours of sleep, with the average being 6.5 hours per night, according to studies by Dr. Frederick Danner at the University of Kentucky.  This loss can be traced to higher automobile accident rates and a recent movement to start school later to give kids a chance to sleep longer.

According to leading sleep scholars like Dr. Avi Sadeh of Tel Aviv University loss of one hour of sleep is the equivalent to losing two years of cognitive maturation and development.  That means a slightly sleepy six-grader is performing in class like a fourth grader.

This is not an isolated finding, studies conducted by Brown University, Penn State, the University of Virginia, and the University of Minnesota all point to the same thing: loss of sleep has serious effects on children’s performance and health.

I know you want to see your kids at night, and I know they don’t seem that tired.  But when you are considering the best things you can do to help your kids succeed, or find yourself at school hearing about attention problems, or at the mall watching your fifth-grader behave like a 2 year old, perhaps you should reconsider your bedtimes.

Read more about this and other cool new insights about raising kids in Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.

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Hockey is life #4-get in the corners

I could go on forever, but I’ll make this the last installment of this series (at least for this season!).  This lesson is about never forgetting about the core of your business.  In hockey, that means gaining control of the puck so you can have the opportunity to score goals.

There are many times when a play breaks all the way down the ice for a dramatic shot on goal.  This is such an exciting aspect of the game, the NHL decided to implement the “shoot out” as a tie breaker strategy.  But the real game takes place in scuffles where the puck is loose and nobody is sure where it’s going to go.  If you want to be in on this action, you have to get in the corners and mix it up.

Photo Yahoo! Sports

Photo Yahoo! Sports

This lesson is about staying in touch with the basics, getting your fingernails dirty, and never being above the play.  You have to be in the real action, to get the real insights.  Real insights lead to innovation and competitive advantage.

In hockey, gaining control of the puck in a corner can lead to a sudden shift in play, often with dramatic results. In your own end, you play defense in the corners to gain control of the play and shift momentum to the wings for a breakout.  In the offensive end, you play for control of the puck so you can pass to a player in scoring position.  Control comes from great body position, full contact, and great stick handling.

It’s often smelly and sometimes painful.  But that’s the front line and you can’t win the game if you don’t win the corners.

Ways to get in the corners in real life:

  • Take a shift on the front line of your business.  Pour coffee, move bags, make sales calls, answer phones.
  • Engage in the tough issues during meetings.  Don’t hang back and let others define the outcome in a way you don’t think is right.
  • Jump in to help during an unexpected problem.  Often times this is where a new idea emerges that can change the course of your business.
  • Change diapers, give baths, play on the floor.  You connect with your kids in ways you’d never imagine!

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Hockey is life #3: win the short races

As I continue pondering life lessons from hockey, I hope I’m not losing all of my non-Canadian readers, but I must press on!  Those of you who know me in person are probably still wondering how/why I would pick hockey as my sport to play growing up.  Frankly, I’m not very big and most people associate hockey with big bruising guys smashing into each other.  This part is true, but there’s a better aspect of hockey that the media, and often the NHL underplay.  Speed.  Hustle.  Quickness. Lacrosse is called “the fastest game on foot” but hockey is even faster because it’s played on skates.

A little guy in hockey learns to be faster than everybody else or get crushed.  Win the short races in hockey and you don’t have to worry about being bigger or stronger (or smarter for that matter).  This lesson is about quickness, and it builds on the first two lessons, keep your stick on the ice and keep your head up.  When you see an opportunity in hockey, you have to act immediately, and with great speed, or the opportunity is gone.  The game flows right around you, and you end up standing around watching it go back and forth (this would lead to being “benched” but we won’t address that here).

image from USA Hockey

image from USA Hockey

My high school coach used to say, “It’s a game of short races, and you have to win most of them to win the game.”  You may have heard that every journey is made of thousands of little steps.  That’s essentially the same advice.  Nobody was ever successful in hockey without getting to the open space or getting to the puck before everybody else.  That’s what creates opportunities and provides control of the game.

You win small races by being in extraordinary shape.  Hockey practice is as much about physical conditioning as it is about developing skills and scrimmaging.  Great players spend hours each week sprinting up and down the ice to strengthen their legs, build their lungs and improve their skating technique.  Many of our best practices did not include a single puck.

Ways to win short races in real life:

  • Make cold calls.  If you don’t ask, they can’t say yes!
  • Get your daily chores done first thing in the morning to create space in your afternoon.
  • Experiment with ideas, don’t just think about them. Fail quickly and move on.
  • Reach out to friends, associates, and colleagues to offer praise or gratitude.
  • Be the spark.  Do something that inspires others to join you in a collective effort that pays you back later.

Last thing: sometimes being first puts you in a risky position, so you also have to be quick to move on for the next opening.  It’s a series of short races, not just one.

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Hockey is life #2: keep your head up

Hockey is fast-paced and always in motion, so nothing stays in one place for long. Once you get a solid sense of yourself on skates, you quickly learn to pay attention to what’s going on around you. If you don’t, you get a teeth jarring reminder of this lesson to always keep your head upWatch this example of a professional player getting caught with his head down for the “worst case scenario”.

hard hit But keeping your head up is about more than staying safe, it’s the key to great timing and pattern recognition.  When you pay close attention to what’s going on around you in hockey, you find opportunities to take control of the game and score points.  When you aren’t keeping an eye on the whole game, you are relegated to following the play and chasing after the other team.

When you keep your head up in regular life, you notice things that others don’t see, and make stronger connections with others.  Most people I know really appreciate a good listener or someone who understands and empathizes with them.  You have to be outside of yourself and look for signals from those around you to time your interactions well.

Some ways to keep your head up in daily life:

  • Make eye contact with people you pass in the hall.
  • Pay attention to metrics and indicators of your performance.
  • Ask what others think in every conversation you have.
  • Don’t text while driving!

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