If at first you don’t succeed, consider a different approach

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See this brick wall? It’s not a political statement. It’s a realistic view of what you can expect to see when you start your new job by telling your co-workers that everything they’ve built is crap, that their babies are ugly. But you’ve been hired to make a difference, and acknowledging that things are broken is the best way to do it fast, right?

Not necessarily.

You catch more flies with honey 

To illustrate my point, here’s a quick story most parents can relate to:

When my kids were younger, they loved mac and cheese (they were very unusual, I know). I wanted them to like sushi (I don’t remember why), and I knew I’d need to be both strategic and patient to make it happen. As many parents do, I started my kids with Japanese foods that looked familiar, like rice and noodles. After that, we worked our way to California rolls, tamago (sweet cooked eggs), and crunchy shrimp. Eventually, after many months, we were enjoying hirame and uni. This year, for my daughter’s birthday, we’re looking forward to making sushi as a family. Over time, I went from buying $4 pasta dinners to $25 sushi dinners. Mission accomplished! See how smart I am?

Your new co-workers are similar to my kids, at least in one respect: if you want to move them from mac and cheese to sushi, you’ll need to be strategic and patient. Chances are good they’ve been working in a particular way for a while, and most of them aren’t eager to change their thinking just because somebody new comes along – especially somebody who doesn’t know the history behind the decisions that were made. I know from experience that, if your new co-workers are talented and smart, the “brilliant new ideas” you share your first week on the job may well be ones they’ve had before, and there are reasons they haven’t been implemented. Assuming your new team hasn’t considered these things in the past can come across as condescending. You were hired to make the company better, but you can’t do that without respecting your co-workers enough to try and understand the decisions they made in the past – even the ones you think are wrong.

Of course, the fact that the team has tried similar approaches in the past doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try again. New people, org structures, and business challenges mean new opportunity, and it’d be crazy not to take another run at making things better. At a previous job, I gave all new employees a letter, effectively telling them not to be deterred by “we’ve already tried that” thinking, not to drink so much company Kool Aid that they lost their objectivity – and especially their passion. We need you to bring new ideas, new energy, and new approaches to your new job, the note said – that’s why we hired you.

A real world example

I used to work with a super-smart, extremely entrepreneurial technical architect. He was hired to help our technology team move forward, to create a compelling vision for the future, one that would support the growth of our business for years to come. I’ll call him Tom.

When Tom arrived at the company, he was eager to make a difference, fast. He assessed the situation and realized it was bleak. When Tom had his first meeting with the CTO (his boss), he gave it to him straight. Our technology was crap, antiquated and brittle. If we ever wanted to move forward, we’d have to start over from scratch. Tom had discussed this with key team members, and they hadn’t embraced his perspective. They needed to ship up or shape out. Time was a-wasting.

Tom was surprised when the CTO got defensive, but he shouldn’t have been. The CTO had been with the company for several years, which meant he’d contributed to the “crap” Tom was disparaging. Tom was calling the CTO’s baby ugly, and it didn’t go over well. But here’s the thing: Tom was right. The baby was ugly, and it needed parenting. What’s more, the company knew it – that’s why they hired him. Still, the medicine Tom was offering was bitter. If he was going to affect change, he’d need to find a way to help it go down.

That’s not what happened. Tom was a brilliant technologist, but he lacked the patience, savvy, and stamina to get the job done. His job wasn’t to be smarter than everyone else, or to be right. Tom’s job was to improve the company, and at that he failed miserably. He was gone in months.

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Try something different

Tom didn’t fail because he was honest and direct; lots of companies thrive on direct feedback and communication, and it can be a great way to get things done quickly. Tom failed because, when it was obvious his first approach wasn’t working, he refused – or was unable – to try something different.

Very few goals can be achieved in just one way. If I’d had the chance, I might have coached Tom to focus on his goal, and to engage the team in finding new ways to achieve it. If Tom saw the shortcomings in our technology within days, others on the team probably saw them too. And if the team was resistant to the idea of scrapping our technology and starting from scratch, maybe they had ideas of their own.

You can apply this kind of thinking to any problem, of course, not just technology. Even if you’ve been hired to be a “change agent,” your company is full of smart people who’ve made the best decisions they could over time. If they fail to see the genius of your first approach, try another.

It’s a marathon, not a race

The problem with trying lots of different things is this: it’s really hard, and it takes a long time.

Coming up with various approaches means having a great attitude in the face of failure, and showing up at work each day determined to make a difference. It means challenging yourself and your team, building trust, listening, and taking partners. It means creating presentations, collaborating, and jumping through hoops. It means being creative, resilient, humble, and optimistic. It means taking chances, being open to new ideas, and risking failure. This should sound hard, because it is.

All this takes time, of course, but it’s well worth the investment. The top-down approach may seem efficient, but when the team buys into the change you’re proposing, it’s much more likely to stick. If it takes six months to get where you need to be instead of three, that’s okay; you’re in it for the long haul. And when you get it right, the rewards can be amazing.

Before going down with the ship, make sure you’re the captain

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It was 2005, but I remember it clearly. I was working for a company that was quickly making its way up the Fortune 500, and its desire to extend the business internationally was causing us to stretch in new, uncomfortable ways. A large consulting company that had “done this kind of thing before” was now running the show, and our CIO was leaving in the midst of lots of rumor and turmoil. On his last day, the CIO, who had capably led us through many other challenges in his eight years with the company, stood before us with tears in his eyes. We were a Technology team of 1000 people.

“I’ve failed you,” he said, “and now I’m leaving.”

The consultants had convinced my company that outsourcing its Technology department would both improve performance and save money. Our CIO had fought the decision with all he had, but in the end, it wasn’t enough. As we watched him leave, the reality of the situation sunk in: the rest of us weren’t going anywhere, at least for the time being. Was our CIO leaving because he was outvoted on the outsourcing decision? Was he leaving because his ego couldn’t take the hit?

Had our captain abandoned our ship, jumping into a small lifeboat and leaving us to drown?

The writing on the wall

Last December, after more than five years at my previous company, I left to join SportsEngine as VP of Product and User Experience. Leaving my job was one of the hardest decisions of my career – in partnership with some of my favorite co-workers ever, I’d built an amazing team from the ground up. If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know the team I was leaving was forward-thinking and creative, that we were lean and Agile, and that we were high performing.

When I started exploring other options, I knew that the reasons to stay were significant and plentiful: my co-workers were great, I was respected, and I had the opportunity to make a meaningful impact. For months before I left I would meet up with friends and float the idea of finding a new gig. They looked at me like I had two heads. “How could you leave?,” they asked, “it sounds perfect.” From the outside looking in, I was in an ideal spot. Each time I met with a friend I returned to my office determined to make it work. What was I thinking?

But the writing was on the wall. The company was struggling, and I was struggling to grow there. I had all sorts of ideas about how to make things better – org changes, new hires, process changes, new focus areas, and more – but my suggestions went nowhere. I’ve written in the past about people who have the wrong attitude and how toxic that can be, and I did my best to address those situations when they arose in myself and in others. I looked for new angles, different ways to approach our problems, short- and long-term solutions. Over the course of almost a year, I exhausted every path I could identify. My frustration grew. I didn’t – and I don’t – blame my boss or the company for failing to see how “brilliant” my suggestions were. My knowledge was limited in some ways, and my ideas were rooted in my own biases. It’s very possible that some of my ideas were uninformed, impossible, or just plain bad.

Through it all, my team continued to perform terrifically. At our annual offsite, the CEO told the group we were among the company’s highest performers, and the team grew as other areas in the business were consolidated and moved. Our team was highly motivated, delivering great work and usually feeling both valuable and valued. But if I couldn’t extend my influence beyond my team, I knew the honeymoon wouldn’t last. And I knew I wouldn’t last either.

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Who’s the captain?

All of which brings us back to the CIO at the start of this post – the man who left his large team at sea. Did he do the right thing?

Of all the reasons to stay at my company, the biggest was guilt. As I mentioned above, I’d built my team from scratch, and I’d played a role in the hiring of nearly everyone on it. My closest coworkers were also close friends. How could I abandon them? To make matters worse, the company wasn’t doing well. As a leader, wasn’t my job to rally the troops? If the ship was sinking, shouldn’t I be sinking with it?

I questioned my own motives for wanting to leave. For the most part, I felt listened to and valued, even as my best ideas languished on the sidelines. My relationships were strong, and I was assured that my future at the company was bright. I was frustrated, but not angry. Was my ego getting in the way of my desire to stand by my team? After some reflection, I decided it wasn’t. I was just getting my head around something I’d realized before but hadn’t really accepted: I might have been the captain of my team, but I was clearly not the captain of the company.

Months ago, in a blog post about getting fired, I wrote:

After we’ve said our piece, when the dust has settled and we didn’t get our way, our choices are clear: we can change our attitude, or we can change our scenery.

It was time.

Leaving can create opportunity 

There were lots of good reasons for me to leave my company, including career growth, opportunity, interesting new challenges, general well-being, and more. Several people on my team saw that it was also an opportunity for them. If I felt like I was stagnating in my role, looking for ways to extend my influence, there were others who felt that way too. The last thing I wanted to do was hold good people back.

When I eventually left the company, several people had the opportunity to grow in their roles, to lead bigger teams and to drive bigger decisions. The team I’d helped create continued to evolve, and was, in lots of ways, self-sustaining. It was ready for new leadership and ideas. Despite my best efforts, I had to acknowledge that my own ideas and approach weren’t working.

The CIO at the start of this post knew the same thing about his Technology team. He knew we had to become what the company needed now, rather than the thing he’d built. His leaving was an acknowledgment that the company was changing, that he was not the captain, and that he understood his own limits. He was stepping aside – at least partly – so that new leaders could emerge, and so the group could evolve and grow without being constrained by the “old guard.” I like to think that I was doing that too.

Fortune favors the bold

Maybe I’m rationalizing in order to make myself feel better. I’ve spent some time with my previous team members these past few weeks and things have been hard. The company’s going through lots of change, and the new leaders who are learning to step up are doing it in extraordinary circumstances. For some, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime, a crash course in business and leadership. It’s not easy, but that’s okay.

The decision to leave a job is a very personal one, with lots of professional, practical, and emotional considerations. The idea of a captain (or worse, rats!) abandoning a sinking ship has been so ingrained in our culture that it can be impossible to see beyond. But this is an unfair over-simplification. There’s a difference between abandoning ship and knowing when moving on is the right call for yourself and your team.

A company will do what it needs to in order to survive and thrive, and that’s a good thing; that’s what it’s supposed to do. Still, despite certain Supreme Court decisions, companies are not people, and they don’t have feelings. We need to be able to understand this, and to make decisions about our careers accordingly. Too many of us are afraid to be perceived as captains abandoning ship when we should be embracing a more relevant, empowering truth: fortune favors the bold.

The importance of being present

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Whatever you’re doing, right now, learn to focus completely on doing that one thing. Pay attention: to every aspect of what you’re doing, to your body, to the sensations, to your thoughts. (Source: Zen Habits)

Being completely, totally present is an incredibly important – and often difficult – task. My spouse and kids (and yours too, I’m guessing) will tell you it’s nearly impossible to keep my attention when work’s busy and my phone’s buzzing, and that it’s only slightly less challenging when work’s not busy and my phone’s not buzzing, because who knows what fascinating information might be delivered to me or my Facebook stream at any moment. I’d tell you the same thing about them, of course, and they’d agree.

Being present may be more challenging than ever, but distractions were not invented by Apple. I don’t know what my parents did when I was on the playground as a little boy, but I know it wasn’t giving me their undivided attention. Maybe it was reading magazines, or etching words into stone tablets.

What in the world did people used to do when they were waiting in line – just wait?

At work, being present for our co-workers requires a similar focus. I’ve gotten good at asking co-workers to “wait just a second while I finish this email so I can give you my full attention,” and it’s helped a lot. But as a leader, being present means something a little bit different, a little bit more, which I want to explore.

What does it mean for a leader to be present?

Did you ever notice how easy it is to say negative things about someone who’s not around? “My boss is completely disconnected from the business,” you might say, or “she wouldn’t make those decisions if she wasn’t so clueless.” When the object of our scorn is in another office – or on vacation, or in a board meeting – it’s easy to assume the worst. Things are different – and more complicated – when our target is around, because it’s much harder to dislike a real person than it is to dislike a caricature of one.

When leaders are hidden away in their offices, teams start talking. They assume their leaders are focused on spreadsheets or board decks or expensive trips or golf. They assume their leaders are uninterested in the day-to-day workings of their business, or in the people on their teams. They assume their leaders are clueless.

When times are good, this can be just a minor annoyance: the people in the trenches tend to feel supported, empowered, and comfortable in the knowledge that they’re working towards a larger goal. They’re less concerned about their work being recognized because they know they’re part of a winning, growing team, and trust isn’t that big a deal. They’re also likely to get better raises and bonuses, which tend make people feel better, even if just for a little while.

When times are bad and leaders are not present, it’s a recipe for disaster. Without context, workers tend to assume the worst about their company and its leaders. They assume management is clueless, focused on all the wrong things and making bad decisions. They assume their own excellent work is not being noticed, and the message that “we need to do more with less” falls on frustrated ears. They may even assume their jobs are at risk.

Did you ever notice how easy it is to say negative things about someone who’s not around?

Bad news doesn’t have to be bad

I give my team bad news all the time. Here’s why:

Context helps teams make better decisions
When business is bad, I may need my team to think differently, reprioritize work, be more creative, or collaborate with others throughout the company. Without the overall business context, they might not know how or why.

Sharing bad news builds trust 
Every company has its ups and down – pretending yours doesn’t won’t fool anybody. When we trust employees enough to give them bad news, they trust that we’re telling the truth when things are good. They may ask hard questions, and we should want them to. Hard questions give us an opportunity to address real concerns.

People rise to the occasion
Every company I’ve been at, from those with 100K+ employees to those with only 4, has had a “rise above” moment. Adversity can bring out the best in people and teams, but only if they understand the context, the goal, and what needs to be done. Most people want to help, and will work much harder when they’ve been challenged appropriately.

Get out of your office!

Being present means being seen, and that means leaders need to get out of their offices, especially when work is hard. When we’re physically present, our teams know we’re mentally present too. Even if our jobs require us to travel often, we can – and must – make our presence felt.

This is hard to do! When things are bad, we don’t want to go on a “world tour” to tell people about it. We don’t want to tell our teams that we might have layoffs, or that we might not get our bonuses. We want to retreat to our offices and avoid hard conversations that will make people unhappy. What if they’re demotivated? What if our best people get freaked out and quit?

But the alternative is much worse. If we don’t tell our teams what’s really happening in our business, they’ll assume the worst, and they’ll make things up. When we miss plan, they’ll think it means that the company is going out of business. When we go on business trips, they’ll think we’re flying on private jets and drinking champagne. When a board meeting lasts an extra hour, they’ll assume layoffs are coming.

Worst of all, our teams won’t keep these thoughts to themselves. They’ll share their negative thoughts with others on the team, and with their friends at other companies. They’ll share their negative thoughts with recruiters, and at networking events, and with their buddies and their families. They’ll post their feelings on Facebook, and Twitter, and Glass DoorComplaining can be cathartic, but a workforce of people out airing their dirty laundry in public can be disastrous.

Notice when people do good work

Finally, being present isn’t just about being there physically, it’s about truly understanding what’s going on. Sometimes that means ignoring the big picture and focusing on great work that’s happening within the teams. I used to have a boss who got so distracted when overall business was bad that he couldn’t even see they great work my team was delivering. This was extremely demotivating. Hey! Over here! We just climbed Mount Everest! We increased conversion by 20 basis points! (Mom, get off of your iPhone! I lost a tooth!)

It’s a marathon, not a race

When we’re present for our teams, we acknowledge their problems, clear roadblocks, and celebrate their successes. We’re honest about business challenges that lay ahead, even if we’re selective when sharing specifics. We trust our teams to understand and to rally around our goals. We pay close attention to the specific work our teams are doing. When the work is great, we tell them, and we connect their success to the success of the company. We make sure they know it matters.

Business is a marathon, not a race. Most employees can’t (and don’t want to) change jobs each time things get hard. They’ve already bought houses and organized their schedules, so they’re placing a bet on the company – and it’s leaders – for the long haul. The best thing you can do to honor that commitment is to show your face. That way your team knows that you’ve placed the same bet.

We need to talk about locker room talk

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Just a few weeks ago, more than 62 million Americans voted for the presidential candidate who said this:

When you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.

I don’t believe that most people think it’s okay to “grab them by the pussy,” at work or anyplace else. And yet, 62 million is a lot of votes, so there are things we need to talk about. Here’s the above quote with a small tweak that’s more real than we’d like to think:

When you’re the boss they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.

Make no mistake: “the boss” I’m referring to is a man. In today’s Fortune 500, only 4% of the CEOs are female. According to Fortune, “for women at the top levels of American business, it can sometimes feel like every step forward is followed by two steps back.”

No kidding! I recently had the pleasure of meeting with Nancy Lyons, the amazing CEO at Clockwork in Minneapolis. “I’m so sick of hearing about the glass ceiling,” Nancy said, “it’s not glass, it’s concrete.”

Grabbing them by the whatever 

As the “you can do anything” comment traveled through the media this past October, Trump was forced to explain himself:

“This was locker room talk. I am not proud of it. I apologized to my family and the American people,” Trump said. “I am embarrassed by it and I hate it, but it’s locker room talk and one of those things.”

“For the record, are you saying that what you said on the bus 11 years ago, that you did not kiss women without consent or grope women?” Cooper said.

“Nobody has more respect for women than I do,” Trump replied.

For the sake of discussion, I’m going give our president-elect the benefit of the doubt and take his comments as crass, rather than predatory. But I’ve still got questions. Can someone both respect women and say these kinds of things at the same time? And does saying these things, even as a joke, sometimes lead to doing them? In Malcom Gladwell’s terrific 2015 New Yorker article “Thresholds of Violence,” the author writes: 

What explains a person or a group of people doing things that seem at odds with who they are or what they think is right? […] Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which [Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter] defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them.

In other words, we might not jump off a bridge just because one friend is doing it, but if lots of friends are doing it, that bridge might not look so bad after all.

Consider “locker room talk” in this context. One man saying crass things is an anomaly. A group of men in a locker room saying crass things creates an environment in which people start to say things “that seem at odds with who they are.” A locker room like that would not be a safe place for a woman.

And this kind of behavior is not confined to the locker room. According to the Trades Union Congress (TUC):

More than half (52%) of women, and nearly two-thirds (63%) of women aged 18-24 years old, said they have experienced sexual harassment at work, according to a new research from the TUC in collaboration with the Everyday Sexism Project published today [August 10, 2016].

In the vast majority of cases (88%), the perpetrator of the sexual harassment was male, and nearly one in five (17%) women reported that it was their line manager, or someone with direct authority over them.

The survey says that:

  • nearly one in three (32%) of women have been subject to unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature while at work
  • more than one in four (28%) of women have been the subject of comments of a sexual nature about their body or clothes at work
  • nearly a quarter (23%) of women have experienced unwanted touching – like a hand on the knee or lower back at work
  • a fifth (20%) of women have experienced unwanted verbal sexual advances at work
  • around one in eight (12%) women have experienced unwanted sexual touching or attempts to kiss them at work.

I don’t need to find additional sources to confirm what the TUC has found; these results will surprise nobody. The show “Mad Men” is not a time capsule, it’s a mirror.

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A few more words about locker room talk

Lots of men who spend lots of time in locker rooms have responded to Trump’s claim that his comments were just the usual “locker room talk.” From Time Magazine:

Many athletes condemned Trump’s caricature of the locker room. For example Robbie Rogers, a midfielder for the Los Angeles Galaxy, wrote on Twitter: “I’m offended as an athlete that @realDonaldTrump keeps using this “locker room talk” as an excuse.” Former NBA star Grant Hill wrote, “I’ve been in a lot of locker rooms, and what Trump said is not locker room banter.” Cleveland Cavaliers guard Dahntay Jones wrote, “Claiming Trump’s comments are “locker room banter” is to suggest they are somehow acceptable. They aren’t.”

This gives me hope, especially the part about this kind of talk not being acceptable. But even if these athletes have never heard this kind of talk in a locker room, it’s not enough, because a locker room is really just a proxy for lots of other places where men behave this way: bars, clubs, man-caves, and other places we’d rather not acknowledge – including offices.

The thing about these kinds of places is that women aren’t welcome, comfortable, or safe in them. So while we need to make sure we don’t treat our businesses like lockehemanwomanhatersclubr rooms, I’m not sure why we need to treat our locker rooms like locker rooms either. If we’re serious about equity and safety, we can’t.

Here’s what we can do, for a start: We can refuse to put up with people objectifying women or making crass jokes at work. We can stop saying things we wouldn’t want our wives to hear when we’re with “the guys.” We can refuse to look the other way, even when things are uncomfortable.

If this all sounds like yet another person arguing for political correctness, I’m okay with that. I’m not naive, and I know I have my own biases and behaviors. But I’m working on these things, and I’m going to fake it until I make it. I hope you will too.

The C-suite is largely reserved for men

So far, I’ve written about women feeling safe in the office, but this is a low bar – what we really want is for the office to be fair. A fair office is safe, of course, and includes gender equality in both career opportunities and pay. According to USA Today:

A survey by consultancy McKinsey and Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn.org group found that men are 30% more likely than women to be promoted from entry level to manager.

At the entry level, 54% are men and 46% are women. But at the manager level, 63% are men and 37% are women, and at the vice-president level 71% are men and 29% are women.

By the time they reach the C-suite — which includes positions like chief financial officer and chief operating officer — 81% are men and 19% are women. Representation is even worse for women of color, according to the study.

The fact that women are more likely to be sexually harassed at work and the fact that women are less likely to be promoted than their male counterparts may not be directly related. But these facts together help tell the story of a culture in which women are treated unfairly at work, and we need to do better.

There’s so much more!

I haven’t even scratched the surface of this issue. More stats:

A woman has a right to work in a safe place, free of harassment. She has a right to be treated fairly, to have opportunities to advance her career. She has a right to equal pay for equal work.

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Equal pay for equal work

Here are a few ideas to help ensure that our businesses promote equal pay for equal work:

  • If you’re a people manager or in HR, review the salaries of your employees, their skills, and their experiences, and fix any disparities you see. If the disparity is due to poor salary negotiation, fix it anyway.
  • When it comes to promotions, go out of your way to make sure qualified women get the chance to prove their worth.
  • Consider replacing your company’s maternity leave policy with a parental leave policy. Maternity leave suggests that caring for the family is a woman’s job. Parental leaves evens the playing field, and implies no judgement.

This Quartz article  has a few more good ideas, specifically related to pay:

What the law could do
The law can mandate equal pay. For instance, in the US, equal pay regardless of gender was signed into a law by president John F. Kennedy in 1963, with the Equal Pay Act. It will be a while before equal pay for all is a reality.

What employers should do
Employers can adopt strict rules to ensure fairness, and effectively run businesses that guarantee equality of treatment. But, this is something society can’t count on. The obvious reason is that employers often perceive increasing wages beyond the minimum they have to pay someone to be against their economic self-interest, even though such a view is short-sighted at best.

What employees must do
Salary transparency is knowledge, and knowledge is the ultimate weapon to address pay inequalities from the inside. Do you know if your company pays you fairly? In that knowledge–knowing how much everyone around you makes–lies the key to know your value, and the fairness of your treatment. 

Will it cost companies more to compensate people equally for equal work? Absolutely. But what’s the alternative? Working for a company that relies on a gender discount to turn a profit? One more time:

When you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.

This kind of talk is not okay, whether it’s shared in the locker room or the board room. But it’s not just the talk that needs to stop. Whether we like it or not, we have institutionalized discrimination in the workplace. We can do better.

Ed Catmull’s “Creativity Inc.” and one of the best work things I’ve ever done

41xs4vbcTPLI’m not alone in my love for the book Creativity Inc., written by Pixar President Ed Catmull. Others have called it “the best business book ever written” (Forbes) and “the most practical and deep book ever written by a practitioner on the topic of innovation” (Harvard Business School). I read the book several years ago and have returned to it lots of times, determined to figure out how to leverage more and more of Catmull’s thinking to make myself and my team not only more creative, but better in lots of ways. (I won’t, however, be incorporating all of Catmull’s past business practices.)

Of all the great ideas in the book, the one that struck me most immediately went I read it was something Catmull calls Notes Day, a day when all of Pixar’s projects stop, and all employees share their thoughts on how the company operates – and how they can do it more effectively. The need for this arose from what Catmull describes as an environment in which “more and more people had begun to feel that it was either not safe or not welcome to offer differing ideas.” He goes on:

Increasingly, we sensed that our people, having enjoyed years of success, were under a great deal of pressure not to fail […] As a company, our determination to avoid disappointments was also causing us to shy away from risk […] One of our greatest values – that solutions could come from anyone and that everyone should feel free to weigh in – was slowly being subverted under our watchful eyes. And only we could correct it. (p. 279 – 280)

Recently, I had the good fortune to attend a conference where Continuous Delivery expert Jez Humble was speaking. Jez said that, while we tend to copy the things successful groups are doing, it’s not the things themselves, but a team’s ability to problem solve that creates real change within an organization. When Catmull looked around, he saw teams of people who were suddenly afraid to problem solve. And so Notes Day was born.

I recognized my own team and situation in Catmull’s words. We were an organization that valued transparency, debate, creativity, and continuous improvement, and we’d incorporated lots of best practices into our normal operating rhythms, including daily standup meetings for each product team and retrospectives after each release. Still, it was inevitable that we’d have to find ways to revisit and reinforce these ideals – to get people talking about the things that weren’t working well. We were widely recognized throughout the organization as high performers, and nobody wanted to mess that up. To make matters worse, although I spent lots of my days working at a table with my team, I was still missing out on too many important things. People tend to “protect” the boss.

When I read about Notes Day, I wondered if it was something that could work for my team. When I approached key leaders in my area, they loved the idea – we hadn’t yet tried a Retrospective of Retrospectives with our team, but since we were all very comfortable with post-release retros, this felt like a great way to frame up the activity. In a Retrospective of Retrospectives, teams come together to share their successes and opportunities, focusing on how to improve performance across the entire team or overall program. It was exactly what I’d been looking for.

My cohorts and I started to frame up an offsite for our team (about 65 people at the time, including developers, product managers, system architects, BAs, QA analysts, project managers, and UX engineers), knowing that if we did it right, we’d both gather critically important information and give the team a shot in the arm. What we came up with was a two-day conference of sorts. It turned out to be one of the best work things I’ve ever done.

One of our two days was spent recapping the year, discussing new project ideas, hosting guest speakers, presenting “Lightning Talks” (5 minute presentations on anything the presenter chose), and participating in a Q&A session with our CEO. The goal of these sessions was to celebrate our successes, tie our work to company goals, learn new things, laugh together, and get pumped up for the new year. Our other day was dedicated to the Retrospective of Retrospectives.

The Retrospective of Retrospectives

Preparation for the Retrospective of Retrospectives started weeks before the event itself, with some pre-work – we asked each team member to bring a list of things that went well throughout the year and things that didn’t. On the day itself, we split the team into pre-determined groups of 8-10 people, ensuring that each functional area (devs, product managers, etc.) would be represented and that none of them would dominate the conversation. Then we asked each group to conduct their own, smaller retrospective, identifying successes and opportunities, voting on which opportunities were most pressing, and coming up with potential solutions. Finally, these solutions were presented to the larger group, and team members signed up for the opportunities they were most passionate about. We were careful not to gloss over the hard things – in order to be successful, this needed to be a warts-and-all conversation. We were looking for problems to solve and ways to be better. Over the course of the next year, each group was responsible for updating the entire team on their progress.

After just two annual meetings, we’re still tweaking the formula for both the retro and the followup. For the retro, the challenges include creating a structure that allows for cross-team sharing and finding the right areas of focus. For the follow up, the challenges include trying to find the right balance between holding people accountable and giving them the freedom to change course as new, bigger opportunities arise.

I know we’ll be refining our Retrospective of Retrospectives this year – our team has grown, and we need to find new ways to engage and empower people across multiple capabilities. But it’s only September, and the team is already looking forward to the event. We’re gathering our thoughts, reflecting on this past year’s successes and challenges, refining our roadmaps, and lining up guest speakers. Best of all, we’re getting ready to have hard discussions about what’s not working well and how we can improve as a team, warts-and-all.

I can’t wait.

 

Encouraging people to stop the line with both carrots and sticks

2012-02-10-Carrot-and-stickIn my last post, I described a work challenge around delivering high quality products, noting that despite repeated encouragement, members of my team were reluctant to stop the line, even if that meant sacrificing quality for speed. I offered a few thoughts on why this was the case, including mixed messages from leadership, aggressive deadlines, our tendency to fall in love with technology, and peer pressure.

In this post, I’ll describe a few things we’re doing to try and correct the situation. Some of these things are what I’d call “carrots,” or rewards that come with stopping the line to focus on quality. Others are “sticks,” or penalties.

Carrots

Celebrating line stoppers
If someone stops the line, we celebrate it publicly. At our all eCommerce team standup this week, we discussed a project that didn’t go as planned, thanking the person on our team who stopped the line and slowed it down, helping us avoid a big mistake.

Using numbers
Products that are well-designed and well-executed tend to outperform those that aren’t. Regular KPI reviews encourage our product teams to do their best work. Sometimes this requires stopping the line.

Holding design review meetings
Last month, we instituted design review meetings with our team’s leaders (it’s a riff on Ed Catmull’s “Braintrust” idea). At first, our teams were afraid they’d be micromanaged.  But a month into the new process, they see the value and appreciate the attention. And they’re quickly becoming more detail oriented.

Showcasing great design
When something is designed well, we share it, far and wide. Being a team that focuses on quality products is becoming a point of pride for all of us. Building “good” things is boring – our products should be great. We want our people to be able to tell the difference between good design and great design, and to aspire to create the latter.

Finding evangelists within the team
I’m actively recruiting people on the team to promote the value of stopping the line. I started with our UX people, who seized the opportunity to get the rest of the team focused on the user experience. (As you’d expect, it was easy to get them on my side.) By now, the entire team has heard the message, and we’ve got lots of evangelists – and converts.

Sticks

Requiring rework
One great way to ensure someone on the team stops the line is to make it clear that the whole team will be starting over from square one if they don’t. When faced with the prospect of removing functionality from our sites and rebuilding it from scratch, stopping the line starts to feel like the much faster option.

Public shaming
This is a route we haven’t really gone down, since one of our core principles is to celebrate failure. Still, when we see poor customer experience, sloppy design, or performance issues, we let the team know. We favor blameless postmortems, but we also favor paying attention to details.

Instituting sign-offs
Our team knows that when they release code into the wild, they’re implicitly saying it’s ready to go. If we need to, we can make this explicit. This would be a last resort – sign-offs aren’t part of the culture we’re nurturing – but it’s an option if we need it.

These are just ideas, of course. If stopping the line and focusing on quality are important to you, you’ll need to work with your team to figure out how to make it happen, and you’ll likely need to revisit the conversation over time.

As leaders, we also need to model this behavior. This means there are times we need to stop the line ourselves, even when it’s our own work we’re doing and our own deadlines we’re missing. We need to make the same trade-offs we ask our teams to make, and have the same tough conversations we ask them to have with stakeholders.

What do you think? Have you had similar experiences as it relates to stopping the line to focus on quality? How have you addressed them? I’d love to hear from you.

 

Why is it so hard to stop the line?

taiichi-ohno-lean-manufacturing-1

Those of us who’ve adopted (and adapted) Lean software techniques owe a debt to Eiji Toyoda, and especially to Taiichi Ohno, who developed the Toyota Production System (TPS) and forever changed the way manufacturing – and eventually much of software development – works. According to Wikipedia:

TPS is grounded on two main conceptual pillars:

  1. Just-in-time – meaning “Making only what is needed, only when it is needed, and only in the amount that is needed”
  2. Jidoka – meaning “Automation with a human touch”

Core to jidoka is the concept of “stopping the line,” which means that when someone at Toyota identifies a problem, they’re required to stop production and resolve the issue. This ensures problems are addressed immediately, when they’re easier, less expensive, and less frustrating to fix.

Our eCommerce team has embraced this way of thinking. Our agile product teams are familiar with the Toyota story, and they understand the importance of identifying problems early. They sit together at tables, which makes collaboration easy, and they have daily stand-up meetings to make sure everyone’s on the same page. Best of all, they’re aligned around common goals, so they have the same motivation to improve the customer experience and their KPIs.

So why won’t they stop the line when they see an issue?

Stopping the line is really, really hard

Recently, my team released a couple of new features that weren’t up to our usual standard – experiences that were a little bit clunky. In both cases, after the projects were complete and the new functionality was deployed into production, we removed the new functionality from our site, sending the teams back to the drawing board. Weeks later, we’re still in the process of rebuilding these features, and we’re going through the work in great detail as a team to make sure we get it right.

Every single member of the team knew – weeks before launch – that the experience was less-than-perfect. And every single member of the team had been coached multiple times to stop the line. Even further, if you asked any member of my team if they understood the importance of stopping the line – if they agreed with it conceptually – every one of them would have said yes. And yet, nobody did it.

I asked three people why, and they all said some version of this:

Our team is working on becoming a well-oiled machine, and I don’t feel comfortable slowing things down.

The machine

Earlier this week I attended DevJam’s excellent Product Conference, and I was glad to hear its founder David Hussman discuss how product and agile are evolving. “We’ve gotten really good at building the wrong thing faster,” he said, and I couldn’t agree more.

My team was built for speed, and although I kept telling them to stop the line, I also told them a lot of other things:

  • “This new functionality is going to add a lot of revenue for our business.”
  • “You’ve got a long backlog.”
  • “If we get this done pre-holiday, it’ll be great for the bottom line.”
  • “Our Marketing team really, really wants this now.”
  • “It’d be great to get both of these projects done next quarter.”

By now you get the idea, and hopefully you see the problem. And it wasn’t just me. My team supports a lot of brands, and the brand owners, marketers, merchandisers, technology teams, senior executives – everyone, really, was in some way or other telling our product team to do more, faster.

In response, we became a machine built for speed. We got good at getting a lot of projects done, and we found a way to set and meet the goals we had before us. We implemented Test Driven Development (TDD), built automated tests, and found ways to get closer and closer to continuous delivery. And I’m convinced that every one of these things was – and is – the right thing to do.

The problem is that we did them at the expense of building great things.

In my next post, Encouraging people to stop the line with both carrots and sticks, I’ll describe what we’re doing about it.