The Care and Feeding of Monkeys

A fellow Automattician passed along this older HBR article that originally appeared in 1974. In the piece, the author describes how managers and leaders often take on unnecessary responsibility from teammates inadvertently. These responsibilities are referred to as “monkeys.”

An example from the article:

A fourth subordinate, Reed, has just been transferred from another part of the company so that he can launch and eventually manage a newly created business venture. The manager has said they should get together soon to hammer out a set of objectives for the new job, adding, “I will draw up an initial draft for discussion with you.”

Let us analyze this one, too. The subordinate has the new job (by formal assignment) and the full responsibility (by formal delegation), but the manager has the next move. Until he makes it, he will have the monkey, and the subordinate will be immobilized.

The language in the piece is a bit outdated (“subordinates” is an unfortunate term), but the piece is worth a read and reflection.

On High Standards (Part 2)

Yesterday, I shared two takeaways related to high standards based on a few recent podcasts.

  1. It’s okay to have high standards and to hold people to them.
  2. A prerequisite is to hold yourself to an even higher set of standards.

On Facebook, a friend pointed out an important missing piece—people are human. I think it’s worth expanding on this point quite a bit. Otherwise, one might assume that it’s okay to set a sky-high bar and act like a tyrant driving people in that direction giving no slack or breathing room for adjustments.

Let’s all agree that’s not ideal.

Here are a few additional caveats to the above takeaways:

These high standards should be developed alongside the people that will be upholding them in service of a goal we all agree on. When a team has a voice in setting the goals, they feel far more ownership than if the goals were just passed down the chain.

How you deal with failure matters. In Measure What Matters, John Doer talks about the OKR framework Google and other teams use for setting goals. They assume a 70-80% completion rate. If a team completes 100% of their work for a quarter, the goals weren’t ambitious enough.

A team/individual falling short of a goal or a standard is a critical inflection point. If you drop the hammer, it’s understood that falling short is not acceptable, and teammates will be reluctant to stretch in the future. As Steven Pressfield notes, compassion is an unlimited resource.

Extreme ownership applies here too. When a team member falls short, it’s not their fault. It’s your fault. You could’ve checked in with them earlier. You could’ve explained the goal in better detail. You could’ve offered to chip in.

With those caveats in mind, here’s how I would expand the original two takeaways:

  1. It’s okay to have high standards and to hold people to them. This works when the standards are defined alongside the people upholding them in service to a goal everyone agrees on.
  2. When people fall short, remember compassion is an unlimited resource. Don’t blame them; own the situation.
  3. A prerequisite to holding others to a high standard is to hold yourself to an even higher set of standards.

A Few Related Thoughts on High Standards

After some discussion on this post, I wrote a follow-up post here—On High Standards (Part 2). It expands on some elements this post misses.

While traveling to New York, I recently listened to two podcasts related to high standards.

First, I listened to the interview with Dave Castro (Director of the CrossFit Games) on the Pursuing Health podcast. As the host describes in the interview, Castro is a polarizing figure within the CrossFit space. He’s well-known for having exceptionally high standards for his team and holding them to those standards.

I hold people to a really high standard, and you can’t hold people to a really high standard if you don’t hold yourself to a really high standard.

Dave Castro

He goes on to discuss his time in the military, which informed many of his views on team and individual performance, which brings me to the other podcast I revisited during my trip.

Jocko Willink is well known for his podcast, Jocko Podcast, which offers leadership tactics through the lens of the military. I’ve listened to one episode multiple times in particular—“Set Standards. Aspire to Achieve Them. Become an Eminently Qualified Human.” The episode walks through the Marine Corp Overall Fitness Assessment.

This document embodies the idea of having high standards. Let’s look at the rating scale for “Performance”:

Meets requirements of billet and additional duties. Aptitude, commitment, and competence meet expectations. Results maintain status quo.

Sounds solid, right? That’s one of the lowest possible rankings. Here’s the top (bold added by me for emphasis):

Results far surpass expectations. Recognizes and exploits new resources; creates opportunities. Emulated; sought after as an expert with influence beyond unit. Impact significant; innovative approaches to problems produce significant gains in quality and efficiency.

That’s an incredibly high bar! At the end of the assessment, they provide this chart:

Courtesy of the NAVMC 10835 Assessment Form

The takeaway is clear—very few should be correctly graded at the top of the pyramid. Most professionals will fall in the middle of the pack.

Summarizing the two big takeaways I had listening to these two podcasts together:

  1. It’s okay to have high standards and to hold people to them.
  2. A prerequisite is to hold yourself to an even higher set of standards.

Four Questions Worth Asking

In a recent episode of his podcast, Tim Ferriss recounted a discussion he had with executive coach Jerry Colonna. In that discussion, Colonna mentioned four powerful questions that I feel are worth keeping top of mind:

  • How am I complicit in creating the conditions I say I don’t want?
  • What needs to be said that isn’t being said?
  • What’s being said that I’m not hearing?
  • What am I saying that’s not being heard?

In particular, the first question has been rattling around in my head quite frequently whether I’m thinking about a situation at work or when our two-year-old refuses to eat dinner. It’s helpful in framing the “extreme ownership” philosophy popularized by Jocko Willink.

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A Step-by-Step Outline for Starting a Tough Conversation

Let’s say you need to deliver some critical feedback. How do you kick off the conversation?

Maybe you get straight to the point and rip off the band-aid. Just go straight for the jugular.

Alternatively, maybe you start with a simple question, “How are things going?” Your hope is that they bring up the issue and save you a mountain of worry. Obviously they know something is wrong, right?

Critical conversations can be awkward. There’s this giant elephant in the room, and it’s tough to find the right approach to talk about said elephant.

I’m just finishing up Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott. The book provides a structure for having “fierce” conversations, which Scott describes as:

[A conversation] in which we come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real.

In a more practical sense, fierce conversations are those in which we can truthfully attack an issue that’s probably difficult to acknowledge, have an honest conversation, come to a shared understanding, and set some kind of action plan to address the root issue moving forward.

Scott describes the perfect 60-second intro to a fierce conversation. Having flubbed my fair share, I found it to be a helpful template to avoid some of the awkwardness and get into the meat of the conversation.

Continue reading “A Step-by-Step Outline for Starting a Tough Conversation”

What Does “Buy In” Really Mean?

My colleague over at Automattic, Simon, recently kicked off a discussion inspired by this talk by Janice Fraser at Mind the Product.

The talk expands on three key points related to work and life, but it was her final point that stuck out – “You Don’t Get Buy-in in a Single Meeting”.

Fraser mentions that she isn’t a fan of the phrase buy-in for several reasons.

  • Nobody knows what it is.
  • Everyone thinks they have it.
  • Once we get it, we forget about keeping it.

She then introduces an acronym “UBAD,” which stands for understanding, belief, advocacy, and decision-making – the core components of getting everyone onboard with a direction/vision.

I’d encourage you to watch the entire video, but today, I wanted to share some thoughts around generating buy-in and overcoming the hurdles Fraser identified.

Continue reading “What Does “Buy In” Really Mean?”

2018 Retrospective

Each year, I set aside an hour or two to reflect back on the previous year and look forward to everything I want to accomplish over the upcoming year. I’ve been doing this since 2015, and it’s been a helpful exercise to focus my energy heading into the new year.

This year has been pretty crazy. We had our first son; we spent several months off as a family on paternity/maternity leave; and I changed roles at Automattic. It was a fun ride!

A few Saturdays ago, over tacos and a delicious IPA, I took some time to reflect back over 2018 and set up an action plan for 2019.

(Previously: 2015, 2016, and 2017)

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Designing for the Extremes

Having worked in Customer Support for some time now, I’ve become quite obsessed with customer experience.

I’m the nerd that notices bugs in software I use on a daily basis. I also make a mental note of both confusing and delightful user interfaces. I get frustrated when buttons I expect to do one thing do something different entirely.

I pay attention to these things because they matter…a lot. As we’ve talked about before, there are far too many options available for customers to choose from. If your product experience sucks, it’s really easy to find a replacement. Boom – you’ve lost a user forever.

On the flip side, I also think there are a ton of quick wins that instantly upgrade the experience and win over customers with little time investment. The language you use in copy, the way in which you highlight key actions within your product, the accessibility of your contact options – they all play a huge role in delighting the people that pay your bills.

On a recent episode of the Tim Ferriss podcast, I was re-introduced to a thought exercise from Brian Chesky of Airbnb – designing for the extremes.

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How to Effectively Delegate and Avoid Stealing Success From Your Teammates

Time for a scary admission: I can be a bit of a control freak.

For the longest time, if I was asked about my biggest weakness, I would say just that – I have a hard time letting go of control especially if we’re talking about managing a project or a complicated task. I was the kid in school that preferred to work by himself rather than in a group (yeah…that kid). I knew I would do the project correctly. Someone else? They might screw it up.

As a result, I’d pile on tasks even if I was overwhelmed. If I took it on, I knew it would get done. That was all that mattered! If I did hand something off, I’d be sure to provide step-by-step instructions on how to get it to the finish line.

This might be a bit of an exaggeration. I’ve been steadily trying to get over this fear of letting go especially after I read Marshall Goldsmith’s What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. I’ve gotten better at handing over tasks and allowing others to run with ideas. Still, it’s an area that I’m constantly trying to work on – how to delegate effectively and allow others to crush projects on their own, without my needless meddling.

This concept of effective delegation popped up again recently as I read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. One of the habits (Put First Things First) spoke to this idea of delegating ideas. It broke down two types of delegation – Gofer and Stewardship – and described how the former steals success from teammates while the latter empowers them.

Let’s dive in.

Continue reading “How to Effectively Delegate and Avoid Stealing Success From Your Teammates”