Meeting hack: avoid solutions

If I hold a meeting to solve a particular problem, most will show up with a potential solution. Suggestions will be proposed early in the meeting, followed by plenty of nodding, skeptical murmurs and healthy debate. In a productive meeting we’d eliminate a series of proposed solutions then align behind one in particular.

So what’s wrong with this scenario?

Well, we may have entirely missed a superior solution by fixating on those proposed too early:

Norman R. F. Maier noted that when a group faces a problem, the natural tendency of its members is to propose possible solutions as they begin to discuss the problem.  Consequently, the group interaction focuses on the merits and problems of the proposed solutions, people become emotionally attached to the ones they have suggested, and superior solutions are not suggested.

Here are 10 ideas for avoiding solutions:

  1. Simply prohibit propositions. Cut off any sentence that starts “I think…”
  2. Provide an artificial barrier to devising a solution. “I’m going to send around a pertinent article—make sure you read it before you make your mind up”. Then wait some time before removing the barrier.
  3. Brainstorm facets of the problem. If we wanted to hold 20 followup meetings, what would be on each agenda?
  4. Pretend that the problem might be illusory. “I’m not 100% sure we need to even address this, but…”
  5. Go around in a circle and have everybody ask a question. Do this for 10-15 minutes. After the first couple of circuits, participants will find themselves competing to find the most interesting or pertinent questions, rather than the most convincing answers.
  6. Pretend that the problem is high-risk. “We need to be absolutely sure we understand what’s happening here, otherwise our approach could really backfire”.
  7. When it comes time to propose solutions, get everyone to write anonymously on a piece of paper and read them out yourself. This should reduce emotional or political attachment to proposals. It could also reduce dumb remarks.
  8. Play to ego by asking for each participant’s particular expert concerns. “Alice, why don’t you run us through everything we need to be thinking about from a legal perspective, then Bob can run through all our customer relations considerations.”
  9. Pretend that you already have in mind and that you just want to make sure you’ve “considered everything we need to on this one”.
  10. Be an outright dick in response to the first solution, no matter how good it sounds. “That’s just stupid!” This will give other suggestions a fighting chance and dampen enthusiasm for poorly-formed suggestions. If it ends up being the best solution after all, it won’t be hard to backtrack.
Let us know if you have any good solutions here. Better yet, come up with some good questions!

Hierarchies Kill

Flat, hierarchy-free structures are both idealized and analyzed among those who think about work. Jason Fried of 37signals, at the top of our blogroll, recently wrote an article about why and how he keeps his company flat. Perhaps the primary argument against hierarchies, however, is that they actually induce stress, and stress kills. This blog has and will frequently refer to well-being and stress, so it’s worth taking time to outline the negative physiological effects of stress, how hierarchies cause stress, and offer ideas to eliminate or mitigate hierarchy-induced stress.

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When to quit

If you’re bored and there’s nothing you can do to increase the difficulty of your job, you need to quit. Try to take on more responsibility or set higher standards for yourself, but if context prohibits this you’ll drift too far right on the skills vs. challenges chart. Quit now and find a harder job.

If you’re stressed and there’s nothing you can do to increase your relevant skills, you need to quit. Try to set aside time for training or avoid responsibilities outside your realm of expertise, but if context prohibits this you’ll drift too far up on the skills vs. challenges chart. Quit now and find a job that better suits your skills.

Five minutes to lifelong job satisfaction

Is it hard to increase somebody’s job satisfaction? It certainly seems that way, considering how much effort companies put into mitigating dissatisfaction.

But such measures—pay increases, benefits, even respect and recognition—are red herrings. For those with chronically low job satisfaction we call these things “compensation”—reparation for being forced to do undesirable work. For those with high job satisfaction we start to call the same things “perks”, recognizing that they become increasingly trivial for truly fulfilled workers. Either way, they do not substantively improve somebody’s experience at work.

So how do you dramatically increase job satisfaction (rather than mitigating dissatisfaction)? The single biggest step you can take is to ensure that the individual’s skills match the job’s challenges.

Flow theory tells us that inadequate skill leads to anxiety, inadequate challenge leads to boredom, and parity between skill and challenge leads to optimal experience. This applies as much to work as any other potentially flow-like activity—if your professional skills improve enough that you find yourself at A2 (below), you ought to increase the difficulty of your work to reattain flow, for instance by seeking greater responsibility or setting higher standards for yourself. Similarly if increasing demands at work place you at A3 you ought to refuse any increased responsibility and focus instead on training and professional development.

Skills vs challenges

Skills vs Challenges (from Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience)

Take five minutes at the end of the day to ask yourself “was I a little bored today?” “Am I somewhat anxious?” If the answer to either is “yes”, then make an appropriate adjustment. Do the same thing every day, and you have a lifelong plan for ensuring job satisfaction.

If you’re a manager, do the same exercise on behalf of those you manage. “Does Alice seem somewhat bored?” “Might Bob be out of his depth?” If you’re giving increased responsibility to those who have “earned it” or providing generic training to multiple individuals, then you’re misapplying your tools—you should be doing whatever it takes to keep every employee within their respective flow channels. Do this every day for a few months and I bet you’ll feel like cutting back on a bunch of dumb compensatory perks.


Here is John Lilly, former CEO of Mozilla, on the difference between leadership and management:

For me, leadership is imagining the world that you want and figuring out how to go make it that way and how to get other people to help you… CEOs can be leaders and leaders can be CEOs but they’re hardly synonymous. Same thing with managers–managers can be leaders and leaders can be managers but it’s not a one-to-one relationship.

On this blog, both Ash and I have found ourselves writing about management while generally ignoring matters of leadership. Perhaps this is because we feel unqualified to write about leadership—after all, while we do plenty of “imagining the world that [we] want”, we have only just begun “figuring out how to go make it that way”. Or perhaps we write more readily about management because management is such a thoroughly studied and theorized field, to which it is easy for us to provide incremental commentary. Above all, we probably feel that having a bold, singular vision for the world is not something toward which one can strategize. Whatever the reason, we’re unlikely to provide to write a leadership field guide any time soon.

Nevertheless, it’s useful to be able to distinguish between leadership and management (and other leadership-like characteristics). Here is my attempt at an ostensive definition:

  • Scheduling team meetings, planning team outings, ensuring team harmony, productivity and happiness—this is simply competent management. Just because a team is involved and someone is making decisions doesn’t mean that there’s an act of leadership (unless of course friday afternoon beers play an important part in executing on one’s grand vision for the universe).
  • Leadership requires one to present a consistent narrative, however outlandish it may be. If the narrative changes slightly to suit the listener, that’s not leadership—that’s pandering. If the narrative changes substantially to suit the listener, that’s probably lying. Either way if that person then buys something, we just call that sales. If they like you but don’t buy anything we’d probably call it marketing.
  • To hire in accordance with some formal process or following best practice is not leadership, it’s merely recruiting. Leadership involves convincing one’s friends to quit their jobs, take pay cuts and make life-significant sacrifices in order to work on a project that everybody else thinks is crazy.
  • Seeking out the absolute best is tenacity or perhaps just optimism. Leadership means being able to hire them, despite the fact that they’d probably be more successful outside of one’s organization than within it.
  • The issuing of short, sharp directives is merely assertiveness. Much like the act of pointing vaguely at the horizon, say, or walking briskly with elevated elbows, it is an occasional artefact of leadership and nothing more. Pay no attention to such practices and certainly don’t engage in them, otherwise you will have succumbed to cargo cult leadership.
  • Any act performed on the basis of good advice is not leadership. It is diligence at best and plausible deniability at worst.
  • Making an effort to work longer hours than one’s colleagues is not leadership. It’s ineffectiveness.
  • Hustle is not leadership, obviously. It’s just hustle. There are still door-to-door salespeople in this world, the best of whom hustle admirably. They are not leaders.
  • A member of management who does not understand the company’s core competency can not possibly be leading. Most likely, she is executing a responsibility. This is why most executives aren’t really leaders—they merely execute.
  • The act of fixating on a solution is somewhere between advocacy and evangelism. Fixating on a convenient solution, such as a “market opportunity” is even worse—that’s evangelism motivated by opportunism. Leaders fixate on problems, not solutions.
  • Using underhanded tactics to achieve one’s outcome is not leadership. It’s being a dick.
Most of the terms in bold represent useful characteristics (even “being a dick” has its place). If you simply want to be successful, you could do so with a handful of these traits. If you want to be a great manager, you need just one or two. But to be a leader… that requires something else.

The Tragedy of the Interruption Junkie

You just found out that your friend has a gambling problem.

What do you do?

If you’re like most people, you would feel compelled to help. You might remind her that gambling is unlikely to deliver long-term happiness. Or, perhaps you might emphasize the cost of her addiction to her loved ones and the broader community. Either way, you would intervene in an attempt to correct her behavior.

So, why sit by while your colleagues are afflicted with an addiction to interruption?

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Hire based on interest, not credentials

People tend to avoid costly errors rather than aim for finding the truth when making decisions [1]. Applied to recruiting, employers might tend to avoid hiring someone based on their lack of credentials or previous experience, rather than aiming to find if the employee really wants to solve the problem the business is attacking.

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