Friday, July 17, 2015

Be the best at what you can be?

This morning I was reading an article by James Altucher in which he was talking about what it takes to become as good as you can be at something.  It was an interesting article, I find a lot of what Altucher writes to be pretty interesting.  But there was one thing in it that took me off onto a tangent that I found of particular significance.

If you're in the top 1% of any particular ability on this planet that really only means you have to be as good as 70 million other people.  His statement around it was, 'that seems doable.'  On one level I can't find anything to fault with his argument.  Then I started to think about it some more.  What am I better at than 99% of the rest of humanity?  What am I better at that I can say six billion, nine-hundred seventy million people don't hold at candle up to me?  That's where my mind boggled.

You see, I'm really quite good at a lot of things. Really I'm an excellent all-around-er.  But I don't really know that I'm incredible at any one thing.  If someone comes to me and asks me what my absolute best skill is I don't think I could come up with a good answer.  I could list off some of the things that I excel at:  I'm quite witty and come up with good comebacks really quite fast on a very regular basis, I lead my teams pretty well into being high performers who like their job, myself their company, I am quite good about focusing on quality in process and software, I'm a really good cuddler....  See the list is a little sad when you start to put it down.

I know that there are a lot of you out there that have a skill that you've found and nurtured and worked on and while you may not come in first all the time when you compete, even if you're top 5 on a regular (or hell even irregular basis), you're likely in that 1%.   I applaud this and you should really consider it in this fashion before you get depressed that you don't win more often.  Realistically, if you run in iron-mans and come dead last each and every time, you're in the 1% because there aren't 70 million people out there doing iron-mans and you've got to be better than most of the people who've never done one.

But to be better than over six billion other people at something?  I don't really compete on a wider scale on anything so there's not really any meaningful measuring stick with which to gauge myself.  The closest I really come is in my career.  I'm pretty damned good at what I do.  Am I the best?  Heck no.  Could I improve, heck yes.  Do I try to improve on a regular basis, of course, but certainly not with the single-mindedness that gets someone like Serena Williams to the top of her game.  Do I need to be in the top 1% at something?  I'd like to be for sure.   In order to be able to claim that and back it up, I'd have to either prove it in some way or just decide that that was something I could say and argue reasonably.  That takes some level of ego that isn't really me.  It also probably relates to my QA brain, if you make a statement you're serious about, there'd better be some factual basis for it.

One of our core values at Hootsuite is 'leading with humility.'  I think that this means that you don't have to think you're the best at something or even say you're the best.  Instead what it means, I think, is that you strive to be the best in what you do and put yourself out there while doing it.  Everyone watching you can learn from the things that you do that work as well as learning from the things that you do that don't work.  If you work in a manner that allows for the notion that you are always looking to find a better way, then that's really the only example you need to provide.  If you're not doing it the best manner and you've embraced leading with humility and always looking for a better way then the people following your lead will be willing to form a community that can help you improve.  Respect is definitely a merit based system. Earn it in all you do but being the best is only one path to respect.

It helps if you're pretty good at what you do when you start so that people do look to you to lead.  It helps even more if you're in that top 1%.   Everyone wants more successes than fails so when we hire we really try for that 1%.  I'm not sure that when we hire, though, that we try to hire people that think they are in the 1%.  Reducing ego's in our work culture is another of our strong goals.  So am I the best of the best at what I do?  Maybe I am, maybe I'm not.  It really doesn't matter when you come right down to it.  Best is simply the demonstrable goal.   I'm still daunted by the 1% though.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Scrum Challenge - In a Pickle

Today's Scrum Challenge was a fun little game that I derived from the board game In a Pickle.  In the game you are given some cards with nouns on them and on the game board are four piles of similar cards.  You must play one of your cards, and justify it as necessary such that it either fits in the smallest item on the stack or that the entire stack fits in your item.  It's pretty fun and really stresses creativity and the ability to argue and sway people to your way of thinking.  As might be expected I excel at this game. 


  1. Leader picks an object of some sort.  Should start fairly large. 
  2. Next player must list the objects that come before them and add another item that will fit in the smallest item in the list. 
    1. As necessary the player must justify to the team and the leader that their chosen item does indeed fit inside. 
  3. Each player has approximately 3 seconds to come up with the list and item or they are out. 
    1. Missed items in the listing will also kick you out. 
  4. The game continues, going around the team circle, the list growing longer and smaller, until there is only one person remaining.  That person wins. 

The Results

I'm including the results of our first game. 

  1. Empire State Building
  2. A whale.
  3. A large plastic bucket
  4. A small dragon
  5. A small shark
  6. A muffin
  7. A pencil.
  8. Lead in the pencil. 
  9. A bug in the lead. 
  10. An amoeba in the bug. 
  11. A cell in the amoeba (entire team missed that an amoeba is already single celled)
  12. Martin Short shrunk microscopically as in 'Inner Space' in the cell
    1. We quickly realized that it was Dennis Quaid shrunk in 'Inner Space' into Martin Short but it didn't matter much for the game. 
  13. A Bucky Ball inside Martin Short
  14. A neutrino inside the Bucky Ball. 

This game was hard for some people because thinking fast isn't always easy, especially when you're doing something so outside of the norm.  In general however it was a lot of fun with much laughter.  Even the people who went out took it well.  The largest challenge ended up being maintaining the list. 

What Went Right
Eventually everyone got the game and how it was played, but thinking fast was often challenging.  Keeping the list going might have been the most challenging and fun part of the game for the team.  If we hadn't done the list part, I don't think that there would have been as much involvement and laughter. 

What Went Wrong
Start with a good 3 entry example so people know how it goes before they have to start.  Let people participate as a team in the justification discussions.  As the leader, go with the majority opinion about appropriateness of any particular entry.   Being creative in coming up with your smaller item might be just difficult enough that it's difficult to pick strategic entries that benefit your future team members.  ie - pick something just a little bit smaller than the last item so there are valid, non-difficult choices open to your teammates. 

Lessons/Team Benefits
I think that this is a pretty good team building exercise.  I witnessed team members helping each other to remember things for the list.  Good, lively, laughter filled discussions about entries and whether they were valid were numerous.  From the team perspective this is a very good thing, it teaches your team that they can disagree on items, have some discussion around these items and things still end positively.  As always laughing and succeeding together always help build the team. 

I will definitely use this exercise again.  I believe it is a very good little team building exercise to use on a brand new team.  You don't need relationships or to know people well to still have a good spirited result. 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

A shower moment of clarity, about, well, clarity.

I get a lot of ideas in the shower.  I won't really call them epiphanies, most of them aren't really worth much but it is good to stay amused wherever you are. The best I can generally hope for is a little clarity.  Today's idea gave me some clarity around clarity in communication.   How you say things can be every bit as important as what you say. Today's shower thought, I think, is worth considering and maybe even a little discussion. 

Let's start with a little story about my shower.  We have a pretty standard bathtub shower with a shower curtain and a curtain liner.  The liner is waterproof and functional and the curtain is pretty and not so very functional.  About a month ago or so it was decided that the  curtain liner was getting dirty and needed to be cleaned or replaced.  After more complications than need to be discussed, we cleaned the curtain liner and I put it back up.  

Let's fast forward to this week.  I've been noticing that the ends of the curtain liner have been curling back from the wall a little, not producing as effective a water seal as I would like.  I've been fiddling with them a bit to little success and today I found myself wondering if maybe it's because the liner used to be reversed.  I don't know that I put it up in the opposite direction to the way it spent the first 15 months of its installed life but looking at it in the shower, I couldn't see any particular reason it should go one way versus the other.  

Knowing that my wife bought and installed the curtain and liner originally I figured that asking her if she knew if there was a 'right' and 'wrong' way to have it up might shed some light.  As I started to holler out a question from my shower I stopped myself.  I should have stopped myself regardless because you can yell out questions from the shower all you want but you can almost never hear and understand the response but this time I stopped myself for another reason.  

Here's the question I was going to yell out, "Hey sweetie, is this shower curtain liner reversible?"  A pretty innocuous question all-in-all you might think but in reflecting on the question I realized that there lies within this statement an onus of assumption that my wife is supposed to have this knowledge.  I grant you that she could simply say, 'I don't know,' without any real problem and not think anything of it.  But, if moods aren't as good at that particular moment as they might be, this tone, or onus of assumption, might feel a little presumptive and accusatory.  ie, if she doesn't have this knowledge she might slip into defensive mode.  Defensive mode can all too quickly escalate into some sort of fight.  Suddenly an unimportant question might put us on the outs.  If I had, with pretty much exactly the same amount of energy and thought input asked this question instead, "Hey sweetie, do you think this shower curtain is reversible?" that onus simply wouldn't exist in the same way.  It's obvious in the second form of the query that I know that I'm simply asking for an opinion. 

A little later, when out of the shower, I asked my wife the question, the second way.  Turns out she doesn't know.  Then we talked about the different possible forms of the question and she readily agreed that there is an implied onus in the first form.  Both of us also agreed that in a committed and successful relationship there is already tacit agreement to give a person the benefit of the doubt in most situations that the partner is coming from a place of caring and understanding and that they expect the same in return.  So the conversation ending up being defensive is less likely and even if it does, we're more likely going to come to an amicable conclusion. 

Turn this around though to the relationships you have in the workplace.  There is no particular need for any one person to take the things you say or ask in their most generous interpretation.  (I recommend that you live your life coming from that viewpoint but I do find this to be the rare and wise individual that is capable of this)  Indeed it is more likely, in my experience, that one in three people is more than capable of reading any statement in a way that will leave them negatively impacted. 

Yesterday I was talking with one of my guys.  His sprint team is having some issues, mid sprint, and it looks like they might not accomplish their goals.  In bringing up the fact that there might be some challenge in reaching their goals for demo day there was some negative blow-back.   If you know that you're a person who is more responsible at that particular point for success in the sprint, you're more likely to become defensive when it comes up as a point of discussion.  Again, this is human nature, it takes a wise individual to not jump to the defensive stance.  In this type of situation the words that you use to bring up the topic are incredibly important.  There are defusing ways to tackle the subject that help everyone staying in the productive 'how will we fix this' mind-set rather than the defensive, 'this isn't my fault, leave me alone' mind-set. 

By example, you could say the following, "If you don't get me this feature until next week we won't be able to finish it in time for demo."  This phrasing is particularly fraught with challenge because it also provides the semi-justifiable out that it was delivered to someone else before end of sprint therefore the blame belongs to the person who got it last and didn't finish it.   If, however, you said it like this, "I see that things aren't moving as quickly as we'd anticipated, what can I do to help move things along better."  Both phrases accomplish the necessary task of starting a dialogue about getting things done but the second will start in a more productive space. 

To come back around to my shower and the title of this post, I had this moment of clarity about how being clear in what you're saying isn't just about using words that mean the right things, or even in just in being succinct in what you say.  If you want to be an effective communicator you need to understand your audience, their context and the way that they're going to listen to what you say.  The way that you say it can combine with the way they're going to hear it to produce an effect that you never intended.