2016 Retrospective

Previously: 2015

Each year, I set aside some time to think about the previous 365 days, everything that went right and what can be improved. Overall, I’m really proud of what I was able to accomplish in 2016. My wife and I were fortunate enough to take some awesome vacations together. I continued to grow in my professional life and tackle difficult and rewarding projects. We doubled our yearly donation at Drink for Pink.

Here’s a full rundown of what went well and what I’m going to focus on for the next year.

What did I do right? What am I proud of?

I learned a ton and shared with others.
This year, I invested a lot of time in reading and learning particularly on leadership. I finished 35 books, listened to quite a few podcasts, spoke at a conference, and blogged a lot (every weekday since October). I’m really happy with my progress over the past year, and I’m going to double down on reading and sharing over the next year.

I established better work boundaries.
For several months in a row, I had a goal of logging off from work on time each night and setting clearer boundaries between work and non-work. This has been going really well. I rarely touch work on the weekends or my off days. I’m still far from perfect, but it has been a big improvement.

Alongside these items, I’m really excited about the opportunities I was fortunate enough to tackle last year and my relationship with my wife continued to grow.

What are my biggest opportunities for growth?

I didn’t launch as many projects as I had hoped.
I set out a pretty ambitious goal of shipping four projects in 2016. Of that list, I ended up only getting one live and online. I also failed at getting a regular newsletter out the door. I’m honestly not disappointed in the lackluster performance here. I couldn’t get excited about any of the projects on that list, and my main areas of work (Automattic and Drink for Pink) did really well this past year.

Drink for Pink fell short of our goal.
We raised $8,500 for breast cancer research in the state of Colorado this past year. That represents double what we raised in our first year, but it’s still a good bit short of our $10,000 goal. This is still a huge success, but I want to see us break $15,000 in 2017.

Looking forward to 2017

I’m going to continue narrowing my focus for 2017 and set even fewer goals that I can knock out of the park.

Learn more and share knowledge with others.

Action #1: Finish 40 books and continue to publish book notes.

Action #2: Read alongside the awesome folks in the remote book club we started up. Our first focus is on marketing. We’ll be diving into a stack of books during the first part of the year.

Action #3: Blog every weekday. This simple habit has become incredibly important to me. It pushes me to learn, think, and share more.

Work less.

Action #1: Refrain from starting any new projects in 2017. Focus on excelling at everything I already have in motion.

Action #2: Track the days I take off in 2017. I don’t have a specific number in mind, but I would like to see how many actual days I take off in a year.

Action #3: Take off for several impromptu weekend adventures with my wife.

Raise money with Drink for Pink

Action #1: Hit $15,000+ in donations for all of 2017.

Learn JavaScript deeply

I got sidetracked by some other projects towards the latter half of 2016 that detracted from my coding work.

Action #1: Complete 30 pull requests in 2017 to Calypso.

Action #2: Complete the SQL and PHP courses in Treehouse.

Action #3: Apply to the JavaScript Wrangler position at Automattic.

At the end of each year, I try to remind myself that the most important part is to keep moving forward. We routinely underestimate what we can accomplish in a year and overestimate what we can accomplish in a week. Keep your head down and keep putting on foot in front of the other.

Changing Your Base Assumptions

I was chatting with an awesome member of our team at Automattic, Sarah, the other day about handling frustrated users in live chat. She has an amazing talent for staying calm (likely developed during her years as a teacher).

When asked about how she stays so unperturbed, she replied that she starts from the assumption that everyone is there to learn. Every customer at WordPress.com is there precisely because they want to build their site and establish their voice online. With that frame of mind, frustration presents an opportunity to teach.

Our base set of assumptions impacts how we interpret situations. The right assumptions can drastically impact our behavior.

For customers, assume that they signed up for your product or service specifically because they want to use it. They’re open to learning. Frustration presents opportunities for improvement. Switch from “How on earth do they not get it?” to “Where did we drop the ball? How are we letting this person down?”

For colleagues, assume that they want to do their best work. Actions to the contrary aren’t signs of malice. They’re opportunities to say, “Where did this go wrong?” and “How did I incentivize the wrong behavior?”

Regardless of the situation, here two base assumptions to operate from:

  1. Everyone is trying to do their best work.
  2. Everyone wants to have an impact and feel valued.

I don’t know how…

…should be removed from your vocabulary unless it’s followed by the word “yet.” Here are two replacements:

“I haven’t learned that yet.”

“I’m not sure where to start. Can you point me in the right direction?”

“I don’t know how” presents a closed door. The other variations present an open one instead. “I’m not there yet, but show me the path.”

Just like other parts of a growth mindset, self-education is a reaction we can practice. Instead of an insurmountable wall, we can choose to see a challenge meant to be conquered.

It’s hard to find something I’m more passionate about than self-education. There are limitless learning opportunities available to anyone with an internet connection or a public library card. We just have to take advantage of them.

Explore, read, learn, and practice. Then, most importantly, teach someone else.

Behavioral or Attitudinal Loyalty

In Customer Success, the authors breakdown two types of customer loyalty:

Attitudinal loyalty—Customers that are loyal because they love a particular brand.

Behavioral loyalty—Customers that are only loyal because they’re trapped.

If you only have one grocery store in your town, you’re going to exhibit behavioral loyalty. You’re a repeat customer because you don’t have any other choice.

On the flip side, if you drive past three grocery stores just to get to the nearest Publix, you’re exhibiting attitudinal loyalty. You have many options, but you’re picking Publix because of what they stand for, how you’re treated, etc.

Companies like Apple have the best of both worlds. As you buy more iDevices and become more dependent on iCloud, switching to Android becomes harder (behavioral). At the same time, they have millions of raving fans exhibiting attitudinal loyalty.

Attitudinal loyalty is built on amazing experiences. It has strong ties into customer support. Every interaction is a chance to reinforce attitudinal loyalty by exceeding expectations, removing roadblocks, and delivering delight.

Creating your own luck

I recently read What to Do When It’s Your Turn by Seth Godin. One chapter in particular caught my eye. It’s titled “Luck School.” The chapter mentions the work of Richard Wiseman and his book called The Luck Factor.

Wiseman dug into the science behind “luck.” He concluded that lucky individuals create their own good fortune through four factors:

“They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.”

These are all skills we can practice.

We can practice noticing opportunities and grading our predictions. Businesses provide an easy proxy. Read TechCrunch or peruse AngelList. Make predictions about which companies will survive (and why). Check back in a year and see if you were right.

We can create chance opportunities by shipping projects out into the world. Justin Jackson is a great model when it comes to this.

Listening to your intuition takes skill. It doesn’t happen when you’re frantically working. It happens during quiet periods where you have time to think. Build that time into your day.

We can create positive expectations. We can practice envisioning all the ways this can go right.

We can adopt a growth mindset and approach disappointing outcomes as learning experiences. We can practice getting back up to bat.

Effort, Tactical, or Adaptive Goals

I recently finished digging into Primed to Perform. The book emphasizes tactics for building a motivated culture.

The authors lay out three factors that influence the total motivation of your organization—Play, Purpose, and Potential. I found one bit about framing goals particularly interesting. There are three potential options:

  1. Effort goal – This is the least effective. It’s akin to saying, “Try harder.” There’s no real direction.
  2. Tactical goal – This is a step in the right direction and the form you’ll most recognize. “Sign 20 new clients” is an example of a tactical goal. The desired outcome is clear.
  3. Adaptive goal – According to the authors, this is the most effective type because it focuses on helping team members become competent while providing space for autonomy and creativity. In this example, instead of “Sign 20 new clients,” you might say, “Find three new ways to describe how two of our products create value for our clients.”

Since I read this bit, I’ve been thinking about how I would set adaptive goals within our team at Automattic. Here’s one example that came to mind:

Tactical: Increase customer satisfaction scores to 95%.

Adaptive: Identify three ways a month to go above and beyond with a customer. Share those stories with the group.

The end result (happy customers) is still the same. The presentation and perspective are changed.

What if no one shows up?

That’s always the fear when creating something right?

Variations can apply to any pursuit: Why start a blog if it might get 0 visitors? Why launch this product if no one cares enough to look? Why host this event if no one shows?

For our first Drink for Pink event, I stressed the entire time that no one was going to show. When we planned a Canvas & Cocktails event this past year, we had sold 0 tickets as of a week out. When I published this learning experiment, I worried that no one would join me (I even included a caveat at the end).

That’s always the fear, but it shouldn’t stop you from moving forward.

People will show up if you build something awesome. Excitement and energy are contagious. They draw people in.

Your initial goal is to get one person to show up, not a crowd. Someone has to be first. Make the experience amazing for that one person.

Worst case scenario: Even if no one shows up, you learned something. You delivered. You’re ready to either double down or move on.

The precursor to giving feedback

When talking about feedback, we focus on the delivery. If we phrase this better, the whole conversation will get easier.

What if team members actively were asking “What could I have done better? How can I improve?”

Giving feedback is akin to giving a gift. If you walk up to a stranger on the street and hand them a wrapped box, you’re in for an awkward interaction. There’s no relationship established. This person has no idea who you are. Why in the world would they accept a gift from you?

Marching a team member into your office and “giving” them feedback can operate the same way. Why should they care what you think?

The answer is to create an environment where feedback is invited. The receiver is eager ask for your opinion.

How do you create that environment? Three easy suggestions:

Avoid jumping to conclusions. Ask questions like “What happened here?” Don’t assume you know. Build an environment based on understanding versus catching teammates doing something wrong.

Let them bring things to the table. This is a simple, effective flip. If we’re doing a performance review, I could list out areas for you to improve. Or, I could ask you to do a self-assessment and send that over before our conversation. The latter is going to be far more effective. You’re guiding the conversation, not me.

Understand them as a complete person. What makes them get out of bed in the morning? What kinds of projects do they find exciting? Build this relationship early in 1-1s. When it’s time for feedback, there’s a deeper relationship established. You have demonstrated that you care about them as a person.

Spend time evaluating successes

Our initial reaction is to ask: What could have gone better? Why does that matter? and How can we do better next time?

We spend time looking at the red Xs on the paper and skip over the questions we got right.

It’s impactful to ask the opposite set of questions: What went well? Why did we get that right? How can we apply what we learned to something else?

The latter helps us dig into our successes, understand them, and repeat them in the future.

We’re driven to grow and improve. That’s fine but don’t forget to spend time focusing on what worked.