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A source of stress

Wanting to do two things at the same time.

If you’re on the stairmaster at the gym, you’re engaged in a workout voluntarily.

But if your job involved standing on a stairmaster all day, every day, you’d be stressed out. Because you want to stay (you need the paycheck) and you want to leave.

A volunteer fireman feels totally different about a burning building than someone who is trapped in one.

That’s because the volunteer goes in on purpose.

The distinction (and the stress) comes down to the word “but.”

I need to do this but I hate it.

I have to stay but I want to go.

The external forces might not be changeable, but our use of the word “but” can be.

If it’s what you want to do, then do it. Dropping the “but” costs you nothing and saves you stress.

Old buildings on the edge of town

“We’re not going to be here long.”

That’s because this project isn’t going to work and we can’t afford to stay, or because this project is going to work and we’re going to move up.

That’s a pretty profound thing for some real estate to say about its corporate tenant. And the employees absorb it each and every day.

Compare that to a bank in the big building in the middle of town… They’re in maintenance mode, how could they not be? It’s too hard to move—up, down or out.

Choose your metaphor, choose your narrative. It’s not just your office, of course. It never is.

 

[For those intent on moving up, consider applying to the altMBA. The last session of the year happens this fall.]

Our engineering ratchet

Quietly, over the last thirty years, engineering has become dramatically more efficient and effective.

Insulated glass, cars that don't break down, keyboards with just the right feel to them… Mechanical, electrical and chemical engineering are all moving faster than ever.

Several factors are at work:

  1. Computer aided design and engineering means that smaller teams can do more, faster.
  2. The internet shows engineers the state of the art immediately, so everyone is working off the latest benchmark.
  3. Markets are more open to levelling up… new innovations that translate to productivity are adopted more easily.
  4. There's an expectation that better is possible, so organizations are hooked on seeking out better. The ratchet turns the ratchet.

When we're in the middle of it, we don't see it. But travel back in time just a bit and you'll see that few things worked as well as they do now.

Smooth water

Everything moves better in smooth water. Engineers spend a lot of time and energy to avoid cavitation, the often dangerous bubbles that are caused by pumps or propellers. And sailors and surfers prefer to do their thing without excess chop.

As we apply pressure to an organization, the same thing happens. At first, people engage with change as an opportunity, doing their best work in the face of small shifts. But once fear sets in, so does cavitation. The cavitation, the bubbling, the uncertainty, the expansion and collapse of bubbles of doubt and disagreement—this becomes the primary problem, more than the fear that originally caused the issue.

The challenge is to avoid this before it happens. To insert pressure relief valves, smooth out the bends, and give the energy a place to go.

The stories we tell each other will lead to the actions we take.

Walking away from fast twitch

Sports gurus are happy to talk about the difference between fast and slow twitch muscles. And it resonates with us, because we fully understand the ping-pong reflexes that are so often celebrated and often fun to do as well.

On our project, it’s tempting to spend all of our time in fast twitch mode. To scan the incoming, grab the urgent, set it up and slam it back.

But if we spend all of our time twitching, we’ll never do the difficult work of the non-urgent. Important work requires a daily commitment, one that isn’t sidelined by every emergency, because there’s always an emergency, isn’t there?

Everything is an experiment

If we’re seeking to make change, to make a contribution, the outcome is part of the work. If the outcome repeatedly doesn’t measure up, we should change what we’re doing.

And evidence is everywhere. More proof, more data, more insight about how it worked…

The thing is, much of the time, we willingly ignore the evidence. When we’re the consumers of the change, we insist on evidence-based treatment. We want doctors and software and teachers that do something that works. We want to get better, we want the computer to not crash, and we want to learn things effectively and quickly…

But often, as practitioners, we ignore the evidence in favor of what feels ‘right’, or because of our attachment to a narrative or what we’ve done before. We stand on principle, not results.

So, before presenting the evidence, before assuming that people will change their work in response to the data, we need enrollment. We have to ask for a commitment. “If the evidence shows that there’s a better way to do this, are you open to changing?”

It takes guts to answer this honestly. It takes guts to say, “no matter what the evidence says, no matter how effective or ineffective this is shown to be, I’m going to stand on principle or status or tradition or belief…”

It took more than twenty years for Ignaz Semmelweis’ clear evidence about the cause of maternal deaths to be accepted. And more than a century later, it took just as long before doctors in the 1960s and 70s accepted that ulcers were caused by bacteria, not pastrami sandwiches.

What are we doing about the evidence related to incarceration for low-level drug offenses, for Head Start, for Meals on Wheels, for teaching to the test, for gun deaths, for philanthropy?

The first agreement is to look at the evidence. Or not.

Do you know enough?

When did you reach the point where you didn't need to read another research report, didn't need to absorb another scouting analysis, didn't need to stop by the bookstore… because it simply wasn't useful or efficient to learn another thing about your field?

It's not that difficult to extend this thinking. Of course, you know enough about literature to teach literature, or enough about AC engineering to do your job. But where to draw the line? Do you know enough about the arguments and goals of political movements you're not a part of? The innovations of new restaurants in your town? The impressive new music coming out of Nigeria?

Too much too choose from, too little time.

But certainly, we don't know enough. About anything.

Books worth reading

The Art of Gathering, by Priya Parker. A long overdue and urgent manifesto for anyone who has the temerity (and generosity) to organize the time and energy of a team in order to call a meeting.

The Artist’s Journey, the latest from Steve Pressfield, an essential compass, road map and kick in the pants.

Coming soon, the much anticipated Eat Their Lunch from Anthony Iannarino.

Full House, twenty years old, from Stephen Jay Gould, about variation, evolution and of course, Ted Williams.

Tom Peters’ latest: The Excellence Dividend, is classic Tom on every page.

Chasing Space, by Leland Melvin is a memoir from a real hero.

Annie Duke knows how to make decisions. You should too.

The Heart to Start is solid advice from David Kadavy. It’s not too late.

Scott McCloud‘s classic book on comics will change the way you see.

Fresh India, by Meera Sodha, is the book I’m cooking from the most lately. And everyone who eats should own a copy of The Food Lab.

And if you haven’t read Your Turn, today’s a great day to leap.

Business/busyness

Our time is worth something. Too often, though, we’re guilty of spending it foolishly or out of habit, or without intention… despite our lousy track record, though, it is possible to spend it wisely, just as we try to spend or invest anything valuable.

We wouldn’t buy medicine that we knew didn’t work, or invest in ads that never ran. It seems, though, that time doesn’t have to meet the same bar.

If you had a factory job, it wasn’t your job to worry about productivity. Somebody else was in charge. You did what you were told, all day, every day.

Now, more than ever, you’re likely to be running a team, managing a project or deciding on your own agenda as a free agent. Time is just about all you’ve got to spend.

And yet, we hardly talk about productivity.

Productivity is the amount of useful output created for every hour of work we do.

You can measure that output in money if you want to (it makes the math easier) but in fact, it’s everything from lives changed to knowledge shared. What matters is the answer to a simple question: did I spend my day producing enough benefit for all the time invested?

A teacher has a class for 160 days—an hour a day … How to spend that time, how to spend today, how to spend the next five minutes? What’s the most productive choice?

Henry Ford and the other productivity pioneers of the industrial revolution understood this to their bones. He designed the Model T to be efficient to build. As a result, each of his workers produced far more value per day than they could working at a competitor down the street on a car that wasn’t as thoughtfully engineered.

Since his workers were more productive, he could charge less for the car. Since they were more productive, he could pay them more and thus get better workers. And since they were more productive, he could invest in advertising and brand building. The end result is that the car industry went from 2,300 companies (!) to a dozen or so.

It’s worth pausing there for a second. The competitors didn’t have workers who tried less, or who took more breaks or who were weaker, less skilled or lazy. The other companies lost because Ford focused on productivity in a way that they didn’t.

The internet has opened the door for more people to organize and plan their day than ever before. And we’re bad at it.

Because we associate busyness with business with productivity.

Here are some useful ways to think about it:

1. The best way to improve productivity is to measure it. That means identifying the inputs (how much is your time worth? Is there anyone beside you who is working for free, trading favors, burning all the candles?) and identifying the outputs (what’s the worthy final output of all your effort?)

Hint: likes and friends are not an output. Social media might offer metrics that tell you if you’re moving toward what you hope to produce, but don’t confuse the map with the territory. As soon as you try to make a temporary metric go up at the expense of the real goal, you’re on your way to mere busyness.

2. Once you know what you seek to produce (not an easy task), add up all the time you spent to create it. That’s your current productivity. So, for example, if you’re a musician and you have to work 60 hours on the side to organize, prepare for and run a gig that makes you $600 in revenue, your productivity is $10 of value created per hour. Given that your time is finite, the objective is to compare time spent on that project with time spent on an alternative one. If you need 120 hours to write, mix and launch a track on SoundCloud that earns you $3 in royalties, it’s pretty clear which path created more value (if you’re using money as a metric). Of course, once you decide that being popular on SoundCloud makes those tickets easier to sell, it gets complicated again…

3. Get focused on the challenges and benefits of connection. Imagine two buildings under construction. Both have 25 well-trained, well-paid, hard-working construction workers. One building, though, was built in half the time of the other. What happened? It turns out that construction almost always slows down because people are waiting. Waiting for the waterproofing to get done (while they wait for the specialist) or waiting for parts or waiting for another part of the project. The internet is the home of the connection economy, which means that this challenge is multiplied by 100. What are you waiting for? When you’re waiting, what are you doing to create value?

4. Unlike factories (which are very special cases) our productivity varies wildly. It depends on the project, on the connections, on where we are in the process. If you’re working the same number of hours every day and getting very different amounts of output each day, it is definitely worth figuring out why. What happens to your output if you quit when you’re done, not at 6 pm? What happens if you take on more of the high-output projects and choose to walk away from the low output ones?

5. And finally, embrace the fact that trained people are more productive than untrained ones. That skill matters. That leaning into what you don’t know makes you more productive… that hiring someone who knows what you don’t know makes you more productive as well.

Busy is not your job. Busy doesn’t get you what you seek. Busy isn’t the point. Value creation is.

You only get today once. Your team does too. How will you spend it?

The time/decision gap

Six years ago, I wrote, "You don't need more time, you just need to decide."

Easy to say, but hard to embrace.

Here's what I meant:

Deciding is difficult, because decisions bring responsibility. It's better to not decide, the lizard brain says.

How to not decide?

Ask for more time.

If you have more time, you can move away from the decision. Maybe someone else will make it for you. Maybe it won't need to be made at all.

But…

That's our work.

We don't make stuff as much as we make decisions.

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