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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