What I’m reading: Good to Great

I’m halfway through Good to Great. I’m a bit embarrassed I haven’t read it yet, considering how many business leaders recommend this book. There are quite a few surprising insights in the book. I was very surprised by the research finding charismatic leaders can lead to worse firm performance (because people are less willing to bring problems to them).

I really like the parts that emphasize open debate to find the truth. That’s definitely something I want to cultivate at Latchel.

Book Summary: High Velocity Edge

I just finished High Velocity Edge and want to write down the key points and frameworks I found useful in the book.

Question the book answers
If all companies know and perform the best practices from lean manufacturing, six sigma, and other quality frameworks, why is there still such a huge disparity between the top performers and everyone else?

What differentiates high velocity organizations from everyone else?
High velocity organizations have two characteristics and four capabilities that distinguish them from their lower performing competitors.

The characteristics are their structure and their dynamics.

  1. Structure – High velocity organizations insist on the primacy of process, not function. The company may have functional orgs (sales, marketing, engineering), but workstreams are managed by process (e.g. generating a lead to fulfilling customer request spans many functions and is managed holistically).
  2. Dynamics – High velocity organizations continuously improve pieces of the process.

High velocity organizations also develop four specific capabilities.

  1. Design and specification – Before processes are rolled out they are well designed. This helps operators understand when the process isn’t performing as expected.
  2. Solving problems quickly and building knowledge – For most organizations, work-arounds, fire fighting, and heroics are commonplace. In contrast, high velocity orgs invest in solving problems quickly and addressing the root causes.
  3. Sharing knowledge across the organization – When a problem is solved locally, the entire organization is able to benefit.
  4. Leading by developing capabilities 1, 2, and 3 – Leaders grow their team by improving their team’s skills along the top three capabilities.

Continue reading “Book Summary: High Velocity Edge”

What I’m reading: High Velocity Edge

I’m only one chapter into High Velocity Edge and I am having trouble putting it down. The book seems like it will answer the question “If all companies know and perform the best practices from lean manufacturing, six sigma, and other quality frameworks, why is there still such a huge disparity between the top performers and everyone else?”

In chapter one, it seems the differentiator is a continuous learning and continuous improvement mindset. The top players have a mindset that questions “How can we learn more and get better at creating our product or service?” and aggressively pursues wherever that question leads.

Technology companies (like Latchel) often feel their innovative capacity is bottlenecked by technology and engineering bandwidth. I think that’s a dangerous mindset to have. Innovation is not just technology. It’s process, structure, and the methods for generating and sharing ideas, too.

What I’m reading: The Effective Landlord

Currently I’m reading The Effective Landlord. I think I’ll post a short summary of the book after I finish it. It’s a refreshing read–the author sees the key way to add value to a property is by making it more attractive to renters (duh!).

I think it can be very transformative to a business to a) see their job as to add value for their customers and b) be customer obsessed. In property management, your are tending a property for yourself or a client/owner. Your job is to manage that investment to create the most value for the owner. I think creating a great customer (renter) experience is likely the surest way to do that–it attracts higher quality renters, increases potential rents, and reduces damages.

I think there is a lot of opportunity in this industry to apply these simple concepts–it’s why I’m confident my background in supply chain, logistics, and operations will serve Latchel well.

How to run more effective meetings

Meetings don’t have to be bad. There are a few simple ways to make meetings better and more productive.

  1. Know the meeting’s purpose
  2. Have a clear agenda
  3. Clearly document action items
  4. Follow-up on action items
  5. Publish meeting notes

Know the meeting’s purpose
Before scheduling a meeting ask yourself if it’s really necessary or can an email, Slack message, or phone call resolve the issue right now? Every meeting needs a clear objective.

Sometimes people think a “status update” is a good use of a meeting. They’re wrong. That’s a terrible purpose for a meeting. The status update can be communicated via email or a wiki. Meetings should be used to identify and resolve blockers (or create public accountability that a sub-team will resolve a blocker). Status updates should not be done during a meeting. You’re wasting everyone’s time.

Have a clear agenda
Whoever owns the meeting should publish an agenda before the meeting. I like to keep my agendas consistent across meetings. This is my preferred format:

  1. Follow-up from last meeting’s action items [10 minutes]
    1. Action item 1
    2. Action item 2
  2. Meeting topic 1 (e.g. Operations Blockers) [15 minutes]
  3. Meeting topic 2 (e.g. Technology Blockers) [15 minutes]
  4. Summarize action items, owners, and dates [10 minutes]

Also, I strongly recommend having a time keeper separate from whoever is running the meeting.

Clearly document action items
At the end of each meeting the action items, owners, and dates go directly into the agenda for the next meeting so the information doesn’t get lost. The owner needs to be someone in the meeting (or at least someone who can be accountable for the action item).

Follow-up on action items
This is the only way progress gets done. There are certain issues blocking progress. The meeting’s job is to resolve those issues. As I said earlier, those items should be at the top of each meeting’s agenda. Ideally the meeting owner gets those action items resolved before the next meeting. You want to avoid getting a status update in the meeting. Save the meeting time for something more valuable.

If someone who owns an action item isn’t able to provide an update before the meeting, they’re wasting other people’s time. Be prepared with the updates before the meeting.

Publish meeting notes
Many people like to attend meetings to get a sense of what’s going on. Meetings should include the minimum number of people necessary to reach a decision or resolve a problem. To fight the impulse for people to attend meetings to understand what’s going on, publish meeting notes.

Back at Amazon, my preferred method was threefold — 1) publish notes in a wiki so there is a permanent record for all to see. 2) maintain a mailing list with key decision makers who are actually attending the meeting. 3) maintain a separate mailing list for people interested in status updates and meeting notes. This allows people to maintain “situational awareness” without having to be directly on the meeting invite to get meeting notes.

Book Summary: The Happiness Advantage 

Last weekend I raced through The Happiness Advantage. I think it’s a great book if you’re new to positive psychology. UPenn’s Positive Psychology Center defines the field like this:

Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.

I can’t remember where I first heard or read this anecdote, but the field was explained to me like this: most psychologists look at outliers in datasets and throw them away as noise. Positive psychologists look at those outliers and try to understand what makes them different.

I found The Happiness Advantage to be a bit heavy on anecdotes and stories. I felt like a summary would suffice. That’s just my preference, though. If you like the summary and want to learn more, I recommend checking the book out (as well as checking out the other books and topics it references).

The Happiness Advantages’ Thesis (in my words)
Success is caused by happiness–not the other way around. Focus on making yourself happy and success will abound. If you think success will bring you happiness, you’re wasting your energy.

Invest in personal relationships

The greatest single factor to predict happiness in individuals is the strength of their personal relationships. This point is extremely important and the book devotes an entire chapter to this.

Simple tactics to increase your mental well-being and happiness
The following are scientifically validated methods you can use to increase your mental well being.

  1. The undoing effect — If you have a negative experience, counteract it with positive thoughts. It will make you happier.
  2. Meditate — Meditation increases positive emotions.
  3. Find something to look forward to — A friend of mine gave me a suggestion that works well for me: plan trips two at a time so you always have another trip to look forward to. You can apply this to all kinds of things to look forward to, lunch or dinner dates with people you love.
  4. Perform conscious acts of kindness — The key is to do the acts of kindness deliberately, not think “oh, that was kind of me” after the fact.
  5. Create a positive environment — Go outside. Be positive. Positivity is infectious. For more on using the environment to influence positivity, see Pre-Suasion. Mixergy had a great interview with the author, Robert Cialdini.
  6. Exercise
  7. Invest in experiences — Things make you happy temporarily. Memories of experiences make you happy forever.
  8. Exercise your signature strengths — You can learn more about signature strengths at the VIA Institute (free survey).
  9. Remember the Losada line — Research finds that effective teams need a minimum ratio of positive to negative interactions of 2.9013. I know it sounds crazy and ridiculously precise. It also finds that 6:1 is where the best work happens.

You can improve performance by improving your Mindset
This is best captured by Mindset, by Carol Dweck. There are a lot of material and interviews online and I highly recommend the book.

Humans are amazing pattern matching machines

  1. If you’re trained to find errors, you’ll find error in everything. If you focus on positive patterns and opportunities, you’ll find more.
  2. Simple exercise: every day for a week write down three good things that happened in the last 24 hours. People who did this were significantly happier after up to six months.

Resilience is the key to success 

  1. Grit probably says it all. I need to read this book. I also borrowed a couple of books from the library on just this topic. (Related, Dan Pink says the new ABCs of sales are Attunement, Buoyancy, and Clarity. Buoyancy is the ability to bounce back from rejections).
  2. Post traumatic growth — A fraction of people reach greater levels of happiness and success after suffering from trauma.
  3. Denial isn’t a river in Egypt — When faced with a setback or challemge, don’t deny the problem. Face it head on. (Wow. So simple yet so hard to practice. Even the poster child of positive affirmations struggles with this)
  4. What happened isn’t what’s important, it’s what you can do about it — Don’t focus on what happened. Focus on what you can make out of what happened. Here’s an example from Latchel. In December we lost 75% of our customers. Focusing on that setback would not have helped make our product better. Instead we dug into the failure and used it as an opportunity to greatly improve our product. We talked to the customers we lost and tried to understand their reasons for leaving. We also talked to their vendors and tried to understand their resistance to working with us. As a result of these learnings we rebuilt our product, improved our messaging to our customers  and are now stronger and better at selling and retaining customers than we were before.
  5. Beware of learned helplessness –Here’s a great primer on learned helplessness. A cruel experiment on dogs did provide a lot of insight into the human psyche. Definitely watch the video.
  6. Your explanatory style affects performance — Is your explanatory style optimistic or pessimistic? The Happiness Advantage talked about a study of sales agents and how their explanatory style affected performance. Agents with more optimistic explanatory styles sold 37% more than those with pessimistic styles. The most optimistic agents sold 88% more. After learning this, the firm hired a sales force picked exclusively based on explanatory style. In  year 1 this team outsold their peers by 21%. In year 2 they beat their peers by 57% (I do wonder if this is related to the Pygmalion effect–but if you’re looking for more sales, does it matter?).
  7. Are you naturally pessimistic? — Overcoming pessimism can be taught. Try the ABC technique.

Limit your focus to small, manageable goals

  1. To be happy you need to feel in control of your own fateDan Pink’s Drive covers this well: People are motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. We must feel like we are autonomous decision makers in our own lives. We must feel like we’re mastering a useful skill. We must feel connected to a greater sense of purpose to feel fulfilled. It seems like this only applies once the rest of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs have been fulfilled (i.e. Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose are about self-actualization).
  2. To control your own fate, first you must control yourself — After you have control over yourself, you can expand outward to other areas in your life you have control over. The Happiness Advantage heavily references Thinking, Fast and Slow in this section. I think that book is great for being aware of your own cognitive blind spots and how to compensate for them.

The power of habit

  1. Humans are bundles of habits — This is very true. I think most human behavior is explained through habits, routines, and learned behaviors. This NYTimes article on shopping habits was my first glimpse into the science behind habit formation and how to interrupt bad habits and create  good habits.
  2. Common sense is not common action — The book references this truism. Just because something is common knowledge doesn’t mean people follow it. I found this 10 minute video on how your perspective of time influences your behavior and decision making very interesting.
  3. Willpower is a finite resource — We have limited cognitive bandwidth. It takes cognitive energy to resist temptations. Over time, this reservoir of willpower will be drained. If you’re trying to meet your goals, try to engineer your life to make meeting that goal take the least effort possible. This could include simplifying other parts of your life.
  4. Stay focused — If you regularly work more than 9 or 10 hours a day, stop bull shitting yourself . You aren’t working. Your day is filled with distractions. You’re confusing busyness with productivity. Plan your day and stick to the plan.
  5. Humans are supremely lazy — Want to quit an idle habit like watching TV or playing on your phone? Increase the “activation energy” required to do it. The book suggests adding an extra 20 seconds to the task is enough. The author had a TV habit, so he stored the batteries to the remove control exactly 20 seconds away. He kicked his habit.

Invest in your social safety net

  1. The happiest 10% of people have only one thing in common — The happiest 10% are distinguished by one and only one factor: the strength of their social relationships.
  2. Social support and happiness are strongly linked — The author’s study found the correlation between social support and happiness was 0.7. For the stats nerds that means roughly 49% of the variation in happiness can be explained by social support. It feels pretty simple: the strongest indicator for happiness is social support. Being happier leads to better life outcomes across all sorts of metrics. If your employer wants you to perform better, the highest leverage activity they can do is encourage you to strengthen your social bonds (I presume both inside and outside of work).
  3. Teams need to like each other — Jeff Bezos hated social cohesion on teams. He was afraid people would stop doing the hard work of seeking the truth and instead compromise for the sake of social cohesion. I had heard  that Bezos wanted team meeting to be run like homeowners association meetings: many individuals each with a vested interest in the outcome arguing about the best path forward. This metaphor misses a critical point: You still have to come away from the meeting liking each other. The Achievement Advantage cited a study that found the greatest predictor for a team’s achievement was how they felt about each other. One big flaw I see in that study is the measure of “achievement” isn’t objective. It’s peer and superior based. I believe people are too biased to get this right and are most likely to get this wrong. (“Johnson just looks like a strong leader, so he must be!”  “That group just loves working together, they must be doing great!”). The book did also cite a more quantified look at the value of social connectedness. The question this left me wondering was, how do you get teams to like each other and also deliver results?
  4. How to strengthen social bonds — I was surprised to learn that when it comes to quality of a social bond, support during good times is more important than support during bad times. Maybe the brain stupidly associates the bad times with bad feelings? Either way, the research shows that sharing and celebrating life’s victories is where the deepest bonds form.
    The book gives a guide on the best way to show support. The best response is active and constructive. Show enthusiastic support, provide specific comments and ask relevant follow-up questions (e.g. “That’s amazing you got a promotion! I’m glad management recognized all the hard work you put in to close the Fukusaki account. What are your new, expanded responsibilities?”). Just think about the last time you shared news that excited you and you were disappointed when your friend or partner didn’t ask you more about it. Also, passive responses (“Oh, that’s cool”) can be just as harmful as negative ones (“You got the promotion? Kim deserved it way more than you did. This is the Peter Principle in action!”). The worst response is to ignore it entirely (“I’m hungry, when’s lunch?”).
  5. Back to teams liking each other — I think the strength of social bonds gives better insight into team effectiveness than simple social cohesion. I think it’s more about being listened to and being valued. When you hear other people’s ideas, truly listen. Ensure you understand their idea. Demonstrate genuine appreciation for their input. Improve your own understanding and improve plans based on their feedback. If you disagree with someone’s opinion, seek to understand rather than tear it down. This is all hard to do. Difficult Conversations is a great book with practical advice on improving your ability to listen while discussing sensitive issues.
  6. Be physically and mentally present — When talking with people, stop checking your watch or your phone. Close your laptop. Being engaged and present goes a long way.
  7. Expressions of gratitude strengthen bonds — Try writing an email every morning expressing praise or thanks to a friend or colleague. You’ll make two peoples’ days better 🙂