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!

Hockey is life #1: keep your stick on the ice

Hockey is a great source of life lessons, and making arcane references to hockey is often a good connecting point for people I meet from the Great White North (hoser).  So forgive me a few posts that draw lessons from hockey as we enter a new season on the ice and wonder who will be hoisting the cup when it’s all over.

Hockey is a fluid, fast paced sport with lots of changes in direction and unexpected breaks emerging from what seems like chaos.  Lesson number one to all young players is to keep your stick on the ice.  This helps make sure you are ready for the unexpected, and can capitalize on it with a will timed pass or shot on goal.

photo from Hockey USA

photo from USA Hockey

It’s simple to say, but takes years of practice to keep your stick down while skating fast and mixing it up with other players.  You always want to lift up and rest your back, which gets very sore after an hour or so of drills. And during games you find yourself cruising along with your stick up while your not directly in a play. I had a coach who used to make us “take a lap” if he found us with our sticks across our knees during a scrimmage.

Eventually it sinks in if you keep practicing.  But it really clicks after you get a goal or an assist in a game because your stick was in the right place at the right time.  You get a lot of credit for being smart, but really your stick was “just there.”

So this lesson is about being prepared, and training yourself to be ready BEFORE the situation demands you to respond.  How do I “keep my stick on the ice” now?

  • Have a well prepared elevator pitch for what I’m working on and why I’m doing it.  This helps me connect with others and get spontaneous “random acts of assistance”.
  • Have regular touch base meetings with close colleagues even when we don’t have an urgent agenda item.  This helps us share ideas, intelligence, and feedback that improves our work.
  • Mystery shopper or Freaky Friday experiences.  Empathizing with clients or customers by walking in their shoes brings unexpected ideas and opportunities for performance improvements.
  • Twitter and Facebook.  Staying connected in social networks brings unexpected ideas, connections, and opportunities that I could never have found without these social exchanges.

Leadership is a group outcome

I’m not a big fan of competency models.  They can be interesting as a measuring stick for basic performance, but they tend towards generic “best” practices and don’t seem to be very useful to the people I’ve worked around.  I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a successful person dissect his/her performance along the lines of an existing model.  abe_lincoln

It’s troubling to me that “fixing” yourself up according to an ideal set of competencies is a path towards success.   But the really big flaw in this approach is the focus on individual competence.

Bob Sutton echoes this thought in his recent post of Flawed, Suspect, and Incomplete Assumptions about Managing People .  I trust his instincts and value his persistence in defeating these types of assumptions.  I think they are a big problem for businesses today.

I’ve been watching people perform in a wide variety of settings for quite some time and I’ve come to believe that leadership development is a waste of time.  And I’ve wasted lots of time on it, trust me!  Instead, I’ve shifted to relationship development.  Helping people function better together has way more impact than teaching people insights about themselves that they can generalize to better behavior in the future.

Also, consider the idea that leadership is not a competency at all.  It’s really an outcome.  When I behave successfully with others to solve something, start something, finish something, we’ve accomplished leadership.

Most great leaders are actually collaborators in great actions that change the course of events and create big impact.  Consider Abraham Lincoln… (read Team of Rivals) how much time do you suppose he invested in leadership development versus improving his connections with others?   Next time you consider spending training dollars or valuable time on leadership training, spend that money, time, and energy on improving the performance of your relationships with others instead.

Some tips for better (team) interactions:

1. Spend more time together.

2. Improve your dialog, building on ideas instead of “winning” with the best one.

3. Compare the number of questions versus statements you make as a group.

4. Connect with advisers outside of your team.  Invite them in to your team to give their perspective.

5. Ask someone on your team to give you advice on your own participation.

Work successfully with others and leadership will happen!

Tasting air

Naive minds find new possibilities

Naive minds find new possibilities

I’m often inspired by my kids.  They are my innocence goggles. When I’m stuck on a problem, I can put them on to get truly unbiased views of things I take for granted as an adult.  You’ve probably heard the quote from Einstein, “My secret is I remained a child. I always asked the simplest questions. I ask them still.”

The other day I asked my son what air tasted like and he responded by sticking out his tongue to try it.  Certainly such innocence can have a down side, so it must be supported and protected.  But it is essential as a basis for discovery.  So much of what we do as adults leads us to edit or dismiss ideas before they have a chance to be properly “tasted”.

Here, I’m reminded of the great book, Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert.  In it he describes all kinds of cool research and experiments about how the human brain works.  One thing that stood out for me is that we have to gloss over many details of the world just to function.  That is, there’s so much going on around us, that our brain has filters that automatically fill in some of what’s real with existing assumptions in favor of more efficient sensory processing.

That works great when you are trying to be efficient, but when you are trying to discover something new, you must look with new eyes and uncover not only your assumptions about what is real, but overcome your perceptions of what’s real.

Try this little experiment that demonstrates how your brain fills in things your eyes can’t see:

Place your mouse pointer on the screen to the right of the JFX logo at the top of my blog (right in front of the word “playing”).  Now cover your left eye and look at the JFX logo with your right eye.  Gradually move your head closer to the screen until the pointer disappears.  Move a little forward and back… see the pointer appear and disappear?

The pointer disappears because there is a blind spot in your eye at the point where your optic nerve is attached.   You don’t walk around with empty spots in your field of vision because your brain uses information from around the spot on the retina to construct an appropriate image.  Your brain automatically “assumes” what is there and makes you see it. This happens in your memory too.  Read the book for more fun examples.

So the point is, our brains are constructed to help us fill in missing information because most of the time that’s a great strategy for us to function successfully in the world.  But when you need to solve a difficult problem, it’s better to keep a naive mind.  That way you don’t miss the answers that are sitting right in front of you because you are assuming they’ve already been found.

This is not difficult to do, it just takes practice.

Or just hang around a bunch of toddlers and taste some air!

Another kind of team

The conventional wisdom on how a team should operate

The conventional wisdom on how a team should operate

I’ve been around a lot of teams… and a lot of team building.  Enough to be cynical about the whole topic.  But something about the potential of people working well together keeps me coming back to explore further.

The famously successful Netflix contest awarding $1 Million to anyone who could solve their movie recommendation problem is a great case to illustrate how creative teams are different than traditional work teams.

The leader of the winning team credits their success to blending different approaches to the problem and coming up with something better.  This is one of the things that powers successful design teams at IDEO.  That is, teams comprised of diverse perspectives and styles are better  at solving complex problems than teams of like-minded, similarly trained members.

One quote in a NY Times article about the Netflix Prize really got my attention:

The sort of sophisticated teamwork deployed in the Netflix contest, it seems, is a tricky business.  Having these big collaborations may be great for innovation, but it’s very, very difficult. Out of thousands, you have only two that succeeded. The big lesson for me was that most of those collaborations don’t work.

Tricky maybe, but that’s because much of the conventional wisdom about running a good team is wrong under conditions of uncertainty, not because it’s inherently hard to accomplish. Most people think of teams as a group effort where you divide the workload among a cohesive band of players, led with clear directions from a focused leader.  Under this model of teaming, diversity is bad and discontent worse.  So with this dominant mindset, it’s no wonder the concept of multidisciplinary teams is so hard to handle.

Given the value created by multidisciplinary teams, there’s a growing body of insights developed by people like Jeff Polzer and Daniel Wilson that show us some of the tricks multidisciplinary teams employ to overcome the barriers of their diversity.

And, if you are working on a creative task or solving a complex problem, the effort pays off.  Just ask IDEO.

Here’s some keys to getting multidisciplinary teams to work (pardon the academic lingo, but you’ll get the point)

1. Proactive Self Disclosure: teams effective at solving complex problems must thrive in uncertainty.  It’s more functional to share when you are stuck or “don’t know” than it is to pretend you do.  Daniel Wilson studied adventure racing teams and found that the “best of the best” quickly share their needs, issues and concerns so the others on the team can rally around them with proper supports and solutions.

2. Conditional Statements: Instead of stating ideas as facts, certainties, or “THE” answer; members of successful problem solving teams share statements with soft edges like, it might be…  I’m not sure but… and could it be that? These statements invite others to disagree or add to the comment versus attempt to be persuasive, conclusive and to convince others to go along.

3. Interpersonal Congruence: This means that members of a group view each other the same as they each view themselves (strengths, weaknesses, intentions).  Jeff Polzner’s research shows that groups can achieve harmony and produce effective work processes by expressing rather than suppressing the characteristics that make them different.

4. Clarity of Purpose: when all members of a team are clear about the reason they are together, it’s easy for them to “triangulate” away from polarized opinions and use the common purpose to discern the best of each side’s argument.  Rather than compromise to reduce conflict, this common purpose (like the Netflix Prize) pushes people to breakthrough ideas.

What’s your story?

Stories are a natural way to explain who you are and what you need; and your story helps others connect with you and provide support.  In exchange, other people’s stories help you understand what they need and decide if you can help them out.  So stories are a great source of connections between people.

As such, you should take great care in sharing your stories and spend time reflecting about them. If you go around saying everything is fine, you are not likely to get a lot of support from others because they’ll assume you don’t need anything.  On the other hand, if you are always saying everything is all messed up and you are overwhelmed, it’s like “the boy who cried wolf,” and you will not get much help because people assume their efforts won’t really make a difference for you.

Your story should have gradually more specific versions

Your story should have gradually more specific versions

Before you lump this post into the “it’s all about me” category of pop culture, consider this:  it’s pretty selfish to assume that others will know your story without you offering it.  We all know hundreds of people, and keeping track of all of their stories is a complex task.  You can make it easier on others by having your own story worked out and sharing it appropriately. And you have to listen and respond to others or you will be seen as a taker, not a partner.

Knowing and sharing your story is not the same as bragging about yourself, this is more about being interesting.  I love this blog post by russell davies, where he suggests, to be interesting, be interested.

To get your story together, start by answering a few simple questions:

  • What are you doing now and how is it going for you?
  • What have you done in the past, and how did it help form you?
  • What lessons have you learned along the way?
  • What do you want to be doing next?  And next after that?
  • What are your hopes for your life and the world around you?

Think of your story as a nautilus shell with the whole shell being a high level version of you and each compartment being a gradually more specific situational version of you.

Even if you are not sure how to answer one or more of these questions, that tells a lot about who you are and what kind of support you need from others.

Share the answers to these questions in small bits and weave them through your conversations with others… few people really want to hear a long monologue.

Pay attention to how your story comes across to others.  Are you always overwhelmed, or frustrated, or stressed out?  Over time, people will perceive your self-talk as your personal brand.  Be careful that it represents the real you.

An authentic story makes it easier for others to work with and around you, and produces a lot of serendipitous goodness that helps you along your way.

Get some grit

“Setbacks don’t discourage me” is the best single sentence I’ve read in a long time to describe why people succeed.  This quote comes from an article about Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who is studying grit. It comes from extensive research exploring traits other than intelligence that are good predictors of future success.  Despite much evidence to the contrary, we are culturally stuck on the idea that intelligence is critical to success (it’s not really that important!).

I don’t know about you, but I associate the word grit with John Wayne, and the movie True Grit.  Grit, according to the University of Pennsylvania “grit study” is defined as passion and perseverance for long term goals. Gritty individuals have consistent interests over time and pursue goals even in the face of failure.  I guess the long term goal in the movie was justice, but John Wayne is surely the epitome of “set backs don’t discourage me.”

The persona of grit

The popular persona of grit

Grit isn’t just about stubborn perseverance – it’s also about finding a goal that can sustain your interest for years at a time.  According to the UPenn study, grittier people are more satisfied with their lives. The article mentioned above goes on to connect grit with the work of Carol Dweck describing the importance of a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset as it relates to one’s own talent.

After many years fumbling around with leadership development, learning & development, organization development, and early childhood development, I can say that I’m pretty comfortable with the idea that growth is a critical component of success. Growth is not magic, it’s a process that takes time, energy, and support.

Keys to Grit:

  • Commitment to clear, long-term goals/vision/future state.
  • Constant connection with other people for ideas/input (to overcome setbacks).  That’s right we’re back to feedback again!

Ready for some feedback?


UPDATE: for more tips on feedback check out the JFX Feedback category.

Last week we held the first session of the Rypple Learning Collaborative over at Mozilla in Mountain View.  We had participation from Method Home, Pixar, The Federal Reserve Bank, Kiva, Littler Mendelson, Electronic Arts, the Stanford d.School, Facebook, IDEO, and Mozilla.

We hope this effort generates some new insights and ideas that help people do a better job asking for and giving feedback.  So, we spent much of our first time together  sharing our direct experiences with people giving and receiving feedback and generating a list of observations about what seems to work and what doesn’t.


Feedback involves 3 roles, not just 2

Feedback involves 3 roles, not just 2

We framed our discussions with the idea that feedback involves not only the person asking/receiving and the person giving/providing, but a “crowd” of people around that pair.  Traditionally, much of the attention given to this topic is on the mechanics of the interaction between the two obvious players.  We included the third role to push our assumptions with a social systems view.

We all shared stories describing real feedback situations to help us recognize some patterns in real behavior.  Once we get a good picture of how people actually behave (not how they should behave), we will try to uncover what works well and what causes people problems.

An early insight from our shared stories is that it makes a positive impact on a feedback exchange when a person is ready for it.  That is, when a person is asking for feedback, they seem to be more able to handle it well than when a person gives it.  So this prompts the question, “What makes someone ready for feedback?”

Our next step is for LC members to begin conducting feedback experiments within their organizations.  From these experiments, we will expand our observations and gather more ideas to push our thinking.   We’ll start posting them on the Rypple Effect blog in a few weeks.

The costs of a bad reputation

When you say you are going to do something and then do it, you build trust, and trust is a value creation platform.  When you say you are going to do something and then don’t, it can get expensive.  Usually in soft, hard to track missed opportunities.  The immediate costs are often quite low… sometimes you even feel a small gain.  But with a slightly larger lens of time, not having people trust you can cost a lot.  So it pays to say what you’ll do, and do what you say.

I experienced this at a store this week.  I got a card for $80 off at Lens Crafters from work… seemed like a good deal and worth giving Lens Crafters a try although I would not normally go there.  Check out the card below, it seems like a pretty open deal.  It even mentions “designer eyewear.”

Bait and Switch?

Bait and Switch?

Upon arrival at the store, I learned that Oakley products were excluded.  Oh, and not Maui Jim either.  I came to order a set of prescription lenses for my Oakley frames, so I pressed the issue after reading the card again.  There’s no mention of any kind of exclusions, although I can see that it says “complete pair”.  So I ask if I have to get new frames to qualify.  “No, Oakley doesn’t let us give discounts on their products.”  I ask her to read the card and show me where Oakley is excluded.  She can’t find that anywhere.  I press further, and she gives me a corporate business card and suggests I call there.  I find out this is not a toll-free “help” number, but the main line to the corporate headquarters.  I get to a Service Representative and he asks if I’ve spoken to the General Manager of the store.  He sends him an email and I get a call back.  He says, “Sorry, Oakley is excluded.”  I let him know I think this is a “bait and switch” and I don’t want to do business with a company that isn’t good for their word.  We conclude the deal and I am done with Lens Crafters… probably for life.

Let’s estimate what the costs might be:

1. I buy new glasses every 2 years x 40 years= 20 $300 pairs they won’t get ($6000).

2. I tell all my friends that this is not a good store.  Let’s be conservative and I affect one person for one visit  at $300.  Or, say I affect 5 people for life = $30,000.  Hard to say what will really happen here.

3.  I go to YELP and give them a bad rating.  Could be hundreds of people who check that before shopping.  Lets just say 100 x $300= $30,000.

This is fuzzy math, I realize, but it’s easy to imagine that instead of an advocate they’ve created an enemy.  They put the card together, sent it out, and then refused to honor it.  They could have said $10 discount on any frame, with some exclusions.  But they didn’t.  I’d call that poor execution in this promotion.

The cost of poor execution and then refusing to honor it is much higher than simply honoring it.  Sure, if they honor it, they risk me telling my friends to go get their Oakley lenses for $80 off.  But that’s a very small number of people, and the card has an expiration date of September 2009, so the exposure is limited.

Ambiguity kills feedback

I hear from lots of people that it’s hard to get feedback. The top five reasons I’ve gathered:

  1. They don’t have time
  2. They don’t want to hurt my feelings
  3. They weren’t paying close enough attention to give me details
  4. They’re afraid to be seen as a critic (or bitchy) (or mean)
  5. They don’t respond to my request (usually by email)

Sound familiar?  Seems right to me… why would anyone want to give you feedback with all of those great excuses?  The risks involved for people to help are pretty big because most requests for feedback involve a great deal of ambiguity.   Ambiguity means that the potential downsides to getting involved with you outweigh the benefits of helping you, and their social radar starts going off, “avoid, avoid, avoid!”

People are more likely to give you feedback if you remove ambiguity from the situation by doing two things:

1. Share your intentions. This is about being transparent, but also about being super clear.  For more on this distinction, check out John Maeda’s post at What were you hoping to accomplish in the action you are asking about?  Say something like, “I was hoping to get everybody on board for this project today.  Do you think I was successful?  What worked?  What didn’t?”  This gives your feedback partner an invitation and a point of focus for a useful response. Sharing your intentions allows them to be short and sweet, and dispels fears of being out of tune with your needs, or thinking too hard, or getting bogged down in a long emotional debrief.

photo by Andreas Sundgren on Flickr

photo by Andreas Sundgren on Flickr

2. Ask for help, but be specific.  Being seen as a helpful person is good for someone’s reputation.  But according to social proof theory, people are more likely to respond if you ask them individually, in a specific way.  Otherwise, they will wait and see if someone else will give help, leaving you with no help.  Studies show that people will walk by a seriously injured person on the street simply because others are walking past him.  The ambiguity of the situation stuns them into no response.

“Is he a homeless man sleeping?”  “Is this man dead?”  “Is this man injured?” (I really can’t get involved with this!)

When the injured person breaks the pattern by pointing to a specific passer-by and saying something like, “Hey you, my leg is broken, can you call 911?”  The response rate is above 90%.  Again the source of confusion for potential helpers and their lack of response is ambiguity.  When there is not a clear call for help, people will general take cues from others around them before risking a response.  When nobody is helping, nobody will help.

Use these two tips together and you make it much easier for someone else to give you valuable feedback by removing ambiguity from the situation.