You Are Building a Case Study

“You are building a case study here.”

My boss told me this. It has stuck with me. It is an explicit reminder that we do not hire people to accomplish the same initiatives as their previous employers to replicate here — copy and paste does not apply. Our growth is a different target market. The team is different than the previous company. Our values aren’t the same. The go-to-market strategy is distinct. The environment, the economics, the Geopolitical factors have deviated. Besides, if we needed someone to run a pre-existing playbook then why is our hiring strategy to bring on the best, most creative, flexible people?

Seasoned veterans do not artlessly replicate what has been, but they work together to fashion something new, under different circumstances and dynamics. Imagine being a chef and learning French cuisine in France. To learn the French style and then start your own restaurant, is it enough to simply mimic the exact dishes in the same ways with the same ingredients and same styling as your previous chef had done? Maybe.

That’s the tricky part. Sometimes it doesn’t need to be the same. Many times it needs to be different. The brilliance is knowing what worked and how it worked to re-create the splendid dishes you learned early on. Know how to incorporate ingredients in your new location for their characteristics. It’s not an either/or proposition. Many times a traditional crème brûlée suffices, and sometimes creativity calls for completely changing the entrée. It is wisdom to decipher between the two.

When building the case study, incorporate the past — the history, the successes and failures, and learnings — but not copy. Instead, your future successes depend upon your past experiences, your team’s capabilities, and a compilation of ideas. An open mind and an outlook of creativity will help administer the past to solve the challenges of tomorrow.

Copy + Paste Proliferation

Early on, I learned this magical set of features where I could take existing material, copy it, and then paste it to whatever degree required. 

That doesn’t sound that magical today, especially compared to augmented reality (AR), artificial intelligence (AI), or self driving cars! However, it’s foundational. Without that simple set of tools (cut, copy, paste), I’m not sure we’d have the modern conveniences or at least not so quickly. Think of how helpful it is to copy a URL, paste in the browser, and go!

But with all these amazing benefits from such a simple tool, we shan’t ignore how it has changed us. It has, without our knowledge, morphed our thinking and behavior. Making it so simple and easy to use has increased our use of the tool and, thus, has changed our behavior.

The proliferation of copy + paste allows the spread of information (or pictures or…) much more rapidly. The switch to digital cameras, when many started a blog, or others tweeted their opinions. We got a flood of Yosemite’s El Capitan photos, long-form opinions the environmental dangers of pollution, and snarky 140 character (now 280 character) societal remarks. These aren’t bad in themselves, but a lower entry barrier means more noise. If copy + paste were compared to television, it may be like cable TV with over 1,000 channels with nothing to watch.

Barriers can be a good thing. A rock barrier protects a lake or ocean bay from rough waters. The emotions with writing a post (this one, as an example) of fearing “that’s stupid!” Or “you missed a comma, dummy” or “how trite” can be a good thing. Writing whatever comes to mind may be your ideal, but isn’t your readers. 

In the modern world, it is so easy to send an email, schedule a meeting using Google Calendar, or send a text or Slack message. Lacking intentionality, the quality can be subpar and demand more mental energy or clarification from the recipient. What would it look like if it took me an extra 15 clicks to send an email, or if I had to draft a proposal for a meeting? What if that proposal had to be so clear that I would be proud — rather than terrified — of sharing more broadly for critique? Would I be proud of my work? Or would I find that I’m trying to move too quickly and not only creating an uncreative solution, but I’m also putting the onus and unnecessary extra work on others?

This modern world has necessitated creating strategies for Inbox Zero and we celebrate 5pm because our calendar is finally free to allow “the real work” to begin. Effectively, we create strategies to overcome the efficiencies we created. In our mad desire for even more efficiency, we’ve lost our ultimate desire: effectiveness.

I’m not suggesting good is the enemy of the perfect; however, we need to live responsibly and see the implications of our tools. The goal is the goal, not doing it faster or cheaper — it’s great that I can efficiently order dinner from an app, but the ultimate goal is to nourish my body. The easier something becomes for us, the more we use it, the more it becomes our default, and gradually it changes who we are. There are many implications like this in life. It’s up to us to evaluate our lives, examine our habits, and ask ourselves if we are who we say we are and want to be. When we confuse what we need with how we get there, we will perpetually frustrate our own objectives and apply patches of all sorts without stopping to reevaluate the real problem. As Emperor Augustus desired and ancient Romans said, Festina lente; in English, Make haste, slowly. Sometimes you need to slow down to go faster. The quickness of copy + paste isn’t always that quick.


Editorial note: I wrote this back in October 2018, but with it being January (and the main season for resolutions) I figured this is quite the opportune time to post. Quick note: though this has nothing to do with anyone’s resolutions, let me know how I can encourage you as you pursue yours!

As I was laying in bed last night, I couldn’t help but think about the cultural phenomenons that change throughout centuries. Last night was what are the cultural references to fatness?
No, this is not about gaining/losing weight but our cultural perceptions. This will go a lot deeper and, yes, get under our skin.

Up until the recent century (at least for Western Civilization?), a lot of people considered “skinny” or “slender” was a negative — as if that represented malnourishment. And, for many people in the third world today, that’s still a strongly held perception.

In 18th century England, being “plump” was a good thing. Today, we’re the complete opposite. Putting aside health concerns/risks for a moment (you can veer to either extreme), using fatness as an analogy, imagine your grandkids (or great-grandkids) reading their history books about us today and being shocked at our activities. What activities of ours fit into these cultural trend buckets:

  • Non-moral issues – something that the 1800th century prized (e.g., fatness/plumpness)
  • Moral issues – 1800th century activities that are reprehensible now (slavery, hangings, etc.)
  • Non-issues – 1800th century activities that continue today, and will continue for a long time (i.e., not issues at all such as establishing government, eating food…)

(First, some would disagree with the assumption that fatness could be a non-moral issue. I welcome the counter-points)

I can think of many issues of our day. The point of this exercise isn’t to get people riled up (though that’ll likely happen), but it is designed to engage our minds. To pause, think critically — rather than emotionally — about our situation, who we are, and what being human is all about. Here is a starting list:

  • Environmental concerns – climate change, climate deniers, marine biology
  • War
  • Abuse of power
  • Bribery (publicly outlawed in most Western Civilizations)
  • Housing
  • Healthcare
  • Technology
  • Privacy
  • Money
  • Capitalism
  • Socialism
  • Communism
  • Facism
  • Other -isms
  • Fairness
  • Equality
  • Equity funding
  • Banking

Again, this list isn’t to incite you, but to get us all thinking.

For example:

  • Most of us don’t like war but it can be necessary (e.g., WWII), so we can ask ourselves questions such as “okay, this may be necessary so how do we think about this topic?”
  • Or take Capitalism with all the flack it gets. I may say “I believe in Capitalism, but are there sure restraints or constraints that need to be put in place.”
  • Or perhaps our view on working hours where it may not be a moral issue for many, but people look back and think “that was dumb that I overinvested in work/pleasure and underinvested in pleasure/work”.

So, what are the changes today that we’ll make an about-face in 100 years?

Builder and Maintainer: Pitfalls of Handing Off The Baton

If you make statements like: “I’d lose interest in simply keeping things moving. I’d get bored.” You’re a builder.

Alternatively, perhaps you don’t enjoy “that level of risk.” You desire to work in an established company or team with plenty of structure, doing something a tad safer — there’s nothing wrong with this — you’re a maintainer. 

It is a spectrum — few people are on either extreme, with most everyone being somewhere closer toward the middle. The point is not to put people in boxes, but employ a mental model to help us through obstacles and challenges. Risk-taking/risk-aversion is not the single contributing factor; risk, creativity, personal desires, ability to invest time, money, or other resources also factor in.

That said, for builders, I’ve noticed a trend when handing off the baton. They build like they’re handing it off to another builder. 

It goes back to the mental model. If a builder creates and passes off the package or responsibility, does the person receiving that package have the desire and know-how to keep it going at that rate?

Let’s say you build a Sales team. You develop the processes, implement all the systems, and establish the reporting. Moreover, for the sake of argument, let’s assume it’s rock-solid. Then, let’s say you pass it off as you want to pursue something new. You find a maintainer, hire him or her, and pass the baton off. You’ve succeeded, right? Maybe.

At this stage, two ingredients could spoil the handoff:

  1. The builder has all the institutional knowledge, and
  2. Training and equipping is significantly underrated as a core component

Let’s address these as a potential curse.

Creator’s Curse

It’s entirely possible (and happens every day!) that someone other than the builder can approach a broken system, triage it, and get it operational. Many clever people can approach something they’ve never seen before and understand it. It can be done, but it’s not easy.

When building, keep in mind you’ll likely be handing it off. During the planning process, think about the following criteria:

  1. Simplicity over “innovative.” If you know you will pass it off, make it simple and straightforward. Complexity is the driver of dysfunction. You may understand all the complex interwoven components, but will the majority see it that way?
  2. Documentation. You will (likely? hopefully?) document your processes a lot better. After all, who wants another person to see their messy room? Some documentation is likely better than none at all. So, at a minimum, get started early. Documentation is often seen as drudgery because it’s thought of and written as something to be stored in on a shelf, never to be read, never to be appreciated.
  3. Think things through. It’s one thing to slap together a prototype. It’s another to realize that this will be a serious investment. Building a skyscraper takes a concerted effort with immense planning. Your project will be smaller, though still requires planning ahead. It’s easy to build quickly, but you’re not just building your project; you’re also building technical debt. Even with the best of planning, you’ll procure technical debt. Choose to make it manageable. 
  4. Training. You may have thorough documentation. However, what does training look like? If you know the person, what’s the best way they learn? If you were suddenly gone, could they look at it, read/watch your training, and then execute? If so, how quickly and effectively could they take over?
  5. Coaching and development. Is it possible for you to coach and develop that person to understand the way you think, the way you design systems? Develop people to grasp how it functions.

Builder’s Blessing

Lest we ignore the other side of the coin, there is a blessing hidden within.
As a builder, you have an amazing ability: the courage to create when the status quo offers you a form of stability. Without you, the world would not have as many amazing tools, inventions, and ways of living that we have now. We must celebrate that!

So build — absolutely build. You bring incredible worth to this world. To leave a legacy you’ll be proud of, take heed of the warnings: watch out for the pitfalls and navigate the trouble spots, all to build that incredible thing in your head. Make this world a better place.

High Functioning Teams: Bland and Boring Management

From reading articles celebrating company cultures, reading various “perks” in job descriptions, and seeing how companies cite foosball tables less and less, it seems like we’re making progress on creating genuinely effective teams.

Harvard Business Review came out with an article in 2016 called The Neuroscience of Trust. In it, the author states perks are not the way forward to high productivity — neither, would I add, are carrots and sticks.

He goes after organizational trust as the keystone for what’s required. Similarly, anyone who wants to study this more in-depth should read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni.

Getting back to trust, it’s not about ping pong, unlimited snacks, free-flowing booze, or other amenities (of which these aren’t bad), but what is that doing? Arguably, that’s creating the distant parent mentality of “let me just buy them whatever they want as long as they get it done, but I don’t have time for or want to prioritize relationships.”

We’re human. We can go years without foosball or ping pong; we don’t need an in-house chef, or free-flowing booze (okay, some may argue with that). What we need are relationships with one another. We live in community! Happiness may come from a fun night out or some innovative perk. Joy comes from real relationships — with other humans. If we want to grow our company’s productivity, don’t focus on those things that be solved by money but lack the heart.

Here are a few ideas, with concepts taken from the HBR article:

  1. Thank your employees. Publicly, and frequently. Recognize that they are humans and could work elsewhere, could have their minds focused on other things, but instead have chosen to work with and for you.

  2. Share new challenges. We rarely say it publicly, but we often have “stay in your lane!” mentalities. Why does that employee want to focus elsewhere? Why don’t they have 100% of their focus on their current job, duty, or responsibility? Have a conversation. Maybe they need a new challenge. Perhaps they need to hear how valuable it is to you?

  3. Discretionary working. What if your employees could choose how they get their work done, when they get it done, in what order, etc.? Sometimes that’s not possible — baking a cake that’s going to be picked up at 5 pm for a birthday party requires precision of ingredients and timeliness — but are there other ways you can give your team freedom and flexibility? Humans are not robotic.

  4. Define your role. It may not be feasible to allow employees to define or create their own roles, but what if you took the popular model of allowing Fridays to be “create whatever you want” days? Alternatively, just get started with Friday afternoons. That little bit of freedom (4 hours out of a 40 hour week) is often the spark to rejuvenate a person, not just for their projects but for the other 90% of the week!

  5. Transparency. This one is a tough pill to swallow. I’ve worked for some companies where much of the information required a prybar. The funny part? The places where I knew the overall challenges and opportunities focused me on my role much more than blindly assuming things were going well, or the rumor mill spinning up ideas on how it was the end of times.

    As an employee, I learned to pose the question, “what are the top three things keeping you up at night?” Invite your employees in, find ways to share information.

  6. Socialize. No, “socialize” does not equate to happy hour. It can include it, but it’s so much more.

    What does it look like to say hi to a coworker and ask how their day is going? What about a quick video call to someone far away? A quick Slack message? Could those “little” things add up?

  7. Personal development. Similar to freedom and discretionary working, how can you help your employees in their personal and professional development? There is one new perk that I do believe in and wish to see at far more companies: company coaches. The idea is that you can work with a company coach to help your personal and professional development. Sometimes we either don’t have access to or money for hiring an external coach — though, if you can, then do that. A coach (internal or external) can help us mature, adopt a growth mindset, and see the world differently. They can also help us see the challenges and road ahead at the company, understand how to navigate it, and help us see our future there.

  8. Vulnerability. In Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly, she goes deep into vulnerability and shame, two topics we all fear. However, as she puts it, vulnerability is a strength rather than a weakness. “Vulnerability is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” Yes, it’s fear-inducing to put yourself out there. Being vulnerable is a required ingredient for growth — as she talks about preparing to go on stage at TED, loving those around her, etc.

If you want “easy,” then go and spend lots of money going head-to-head with all the Valley VC-backed start-ups. You’ll undoubtedly lose unless you have an incredibly sexy brand and have tens of millions in the bank to entice employees to stay. However, if you want a high-functioning team, then consider what it means to relate to and know your employees. Fancy toys cannot buy trust. We build trust through relationships — real, authentic, meaningful ones.