A Higher Standard

Last week I shared Amazon’s Leadership Principles, which includes “insist on the highest standards.” Modeling the higher standard myself, and expecting it in others I work with. The concept of leaders training new leaders is on my mind a lot lately, because it’s central to my role at Automattic and in the WordPress community.

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When looking for new models to refresh my inputs and broaden my understanding, one logical source of inspiring leader is the military.

My introduction to military leadership started with One Mission by Chris Fussell, which led to Team of Teams by General (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal — see my notes here.

Now I’m pleased to discover A Higher Standard by General (Ret.) Ann Dunwoody (Goodreads), the life story and lessons from the first woman promoted to four-star general in US military history. Hat tip: Matt.

The book follows Gen. Dunwoody’s wonderful and amazing life journey through career, family, and life. She grounds the narrative with lessons and principles. Guideposts.

Here are a few guideposts that resonated with me.

Whatever you believe about the nature of leadership, true leaders never stop learning, refining, growing, and adapting—and that’s the primary focus of this book.

On setting a high standard:

Meeting the standard is the expectation, but those who strive to exceed the standard send a signal about their character and their competence.

After managing nearly sixty-nine thousand employees, one thing is clear to me: there is a higher standard that provides the foundation upon which every effective leadership journey is built. It’s the difference between the leaders who excel and the leaders who fail. It’s their thought process, attention to detail, and execution that enables them to inspire and motivate their workforce to create and sustain high-performing, successful organizations.

If you take nothing else from this book—never walk by a mistake, or you just set a new lower standard!

Putting this high standard into practice means not walking by a mistake without correcting it — at Automattic we call this “trash pickup.”

He taught me to never walk by a mistake. Far too often we let little things slide. But just turn on the news and listen as the anchors lament an auto-part defect leading to deaths and multibillion-dollar recalls or a small leak in a gas pipeline causing an explosion that endangers wildlife. Recognizing when something is wrong, big or small, and holding people accountable can save industries billions and citizens their lives. Sergeant Bowen instilled in me instantly that if you do walk by a mistake, then you just set a new, lower standard.

In my world I also think this task falls to people acting as “chief quality officers” for products and services — see my recent post on the topic of product leadership.

On energy and balance; see also my recent thoughts, On Self-Management and Energy:

…working longer hours doesn’t necessarily equal better performance. Working harder doesn’t mean working smarter. Longer hours mean less sleep, fatigue, ulcers, compromised decisions, and a lack of balance in one’s life.

On developing other leaders — what I would call “training the trainer” — finding your successor is another essential aspect of leadership.

The job of senior leaders is to develop other leaders. It requires senior leaders to weigh in on key decisions. Leaders who don’t weigh in lose their vote.

One of most important jobs a senior leader has is to develop leaders or to “build the bench.”

When leaders help subordinates overcome weaknesses or mistakes, they help the subordinate, they help the organization, and they help themselves become better leaders.

…as a lifelong skill, I have worked on developing the skill of giving people chances to improve their performance after a failure.

On diversity and inclusion:

Although the power of diversity is sometimes hard to quantify, Childs definitely got my attention. His success revealed a few points: (1) diversity wasn’t about numbers or quotas—having one of these and one of those—it was about diversity of thought, and not just anyone’s thought but the best-of-the-best thoughts; and (2) these folks had to have a platform from which their ideas could be heard and implemented.

I believe the strength in diversity comes from being able to leverage diversity of thought.

View the A Higher Standard: Leadership Strategies from America’s First Female Four-Star General book on Amazon and Goodreads.

Without Naming It

A short thought experiment to kick off Friday and the weekend. Can you work without technique? Without naming who, what, where?

Not everything we work on needs a label. Sometimes working without technique or a plan means we discover new things. Pathways emerge. Without naming it you can break free of limitations and boundaries.

Leader as Gardener, Not Chess Master, to Create the Space for Great Work

A frequent topic I talk to other leaders and managers about is how to influence change. This goes for anyone working in a team, of course — not just managers. I’d like to share how my ideas have evolved in the last year or so as I’ve scaled up my own role at Automattic across bigger teams and projects.

Starting from control

Early in my career, my mental model centered around influencing others to change. Whether by having bright ideas myself and communicating a clear vision, selling and pushing others’ best ideas, or simply wearing the other parties down by being persistent.

Through experience and mistakes I can now see that pressing my mind against others’ isn’t the most effective way to work together. I could try to convince someone to see my way by force or pressure, but it won’t last long. Nor is it a healthy environment for collaboration.

Environment is more important than control

My mental model for leadership now removes influence from the equation. Instead of convincing or controlling, I start instead by creating the right environment for change. A space for sharing insights and lessons together to build momentum. A space where change comes naturally from individuals and teams themselves. “Your job as a leader is to edit more than you write,” to paraphrase Jack Dorsey.

Creating this space is a major component of a healthy company — you could even say it’s the key to a productive and effective team culture. I’ve certainly seen it in the last year on my team at Automattic.

Finding a mental model: gardener

Last year a new way of seeing this new leadership model came to light for me when I came across Stanley McChrystal’s TED talk “Listen, learn… lead”:

I’d read McChrystal’s book Team of Teams just before seeing the video, and both carry the same message. How over his military career he evolved his leadership style, going from command-and-control to empowering. A leader as more of a gardener than chess master.

The connectivity of trust and purpose imbues teams with an ability to solve problems that could never be foreseen by a single manager—their solutions often emerge as the bottom-up result of interactions, rather than from top-down orders.

The role of the senior leader was no longer that of controlling puppet master, but rather that of an empathetic crafter of culture.

Gardener is a perfect fit for me

McChrystal calls this a “gardener” role, and it fits my mindset perfectly.

The temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization, must give way to an approach as a gardener, enabling rather than directing.

The gardener cannot actually “grow” tomatoes, squash, or beans—she can only foster an environment in which the plants do so.

First I needed to shift my focus from moving pieces on the board to shaping the ecosystem.

Creating and maintaining the teamwork conditions we needed—tending the garden—became my primary responsibility.

This is now exactly how I view my own leadership model: Create the space for great work.

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A note to my readers — if you’re new here, hello! Old time simpledream readers, drop me a line if you’re still with me in this journey. I’ve evolved the blog a bit to focus on my journey as a leader, though still connected to WordPress and front-end engineering and web standards.

Readers, I welcome your thoughts in the comments or via social media. Better yet, post to your blog and link it back here. I’d love to continue a conversation about what you’re learning and seeing as well.

Cheers,
– Lance Willett, The Sensible Leader

Decision Journals and Framing Your Bets

Decision journals are designed to create a log of the decisions you’ve made and why you made them. To both capture a snapshot of your thinking at the start, then use the notes to improve your decision making process when you review it later.

I first heard about decision journaling when Ian Stewart pointed to a Farnham Street post a few years back. Then it came up again in late 2017 via Matt on the OFF RCRD podcast. I decided to take another look.

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Screenshot of the Farnham Street post about decision journals, highlighting the need for quality control of our decisions.

“You can think of a decision journal as quality control” for your decisions — yes, that fits my mindset. A quality check in six months or a year to prevent hindsight bias.

Here’s the Farnham Street template as a downloadable PDF: Decision Journal Template.

I haven’t made this a standard practice yet, probably because it feels like too much overhead. These days when reviewing success and failure I find myself reflecting back without a full picture of where my mind was at the start. What have a I learned in between? Will I repeat the same mistakes? How can I repeat the top bets that paid off?

For example, for a given decision, what do I expect to change? What am I betting on, and how will I know if I’m right or wrong?

In 2018 I hope to be better at stating my intentions ahead — taking the time to create the snapshot of my thinking at the start. Blogging this publicly to keep myself accountable for journaling the decisions at the start.


Bonus: Two recent mental models for framing your decisions as “bets” that I’ve come across, in case you find them helpful.

  1. Mind the Product’s bet matrix, via Brie Demkiw. “I bet that [this decision] will create [this outcome]. I’ll know I’m right when I see [this evidence].

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    Screenshot of the Bet Matrix by Mind the Product.
  2. Ray Dalio’s expected value calculation in Principles (see my book review):

    Make your decisions as expected value calculations. Think of every decision as a bet with a probability and a reward for being right and a probability and a penalty for being wrong. Suppose something that has only a one-in-five chance (20%) of succeeding will return ten times (e.g., $1,000) the amount that it will cost you if it fails ($100). Its expected value is positive ($120), so it’s probably a smart decision, even though the odds are against you, as long as you can also cover the loss.

 

Stripe Connect, Frontend Experience

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Connect: behind the front-end experience is an extraordinary frontend engineering knowledge drop from Stripe’s design team — how they built engaging landing pages with next-generation technologies like CSS 3D, CSS Grid, and the Web Animations API — including the (new to me) Intersection Observer API to detect the visibility of an element. A must-read.

Via Twitter / johnmaeda.

Exclusion Example: Emoji in Twitter Titles

A thread this week about emoji in Twitter titles provided me an instant treasure trove of design exclusion lessons — broadening my perspective and building empathy for non-visual people using Twitter.


First, though, let me back up a step to explain why it’s a gem. Why it illustrates the need for first thinking about exclusion when approaching inclusion.

Inclusive design became a major learning trend for me in 2017 — starting with fresh perspectives arriving in my life via the designers and developers at Automattic, especially our Head of Design John Maeda.

In April I jumped straight in via the Design and Exclusion conference we launched in collaboration with Twitter, NextDoor, Airbnb. Listening to debiasing stories where people shared intimate details of feeling excluded rocked my boat a bit.

My mind really cracked open in August when I become aware of Kat Holmes and her work on this crucial topic. Previously with Microsoft and now via her own company, Kata, Kat presented the foundations of inclusive design internally at work over a video call. She then presented a longer, in-person version at our Grand Meetup in September; and later in 2017 Kat became an official advisor to Automattic, also. Hurray to that!

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Photo showing the Design.blog page on inclusive design.

For a great introduction to Kat and her work, see Kat Holmes: Who Gets To Play? on design.blog.


OK, back to the Twitter emoji in titles thing.

What. The. Heck. Like most lessons I’m learning about building inclusion into designs, this one hit me straight in the temple. Painfully. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? I mean, “duh.”

The author, a blind person named Sassy Outwater, not only points to something incredibly real and timely — but then proceeds to share a master class in accessibility in the reply threads that follow.

Here are a few highlights; check out the full thread for more as they come in.

Memes and GIFs are hard because the screen reader technology can’t figure out any optical character recognition (OCR) on the moving bits:

Tips and tricks for including blind people using screen readers:

Here are the current screen readers people love best:

Here’s the survey she mentioned: Survey of Preferences of Screen Readers Users on WebAIM.

Shedding the light on the fact that in today’s world, mobile devices are the most universally accessible devices because — they’re small and with you always — and they have default voice-over utilities:

And then a question I had, she answered perfectly, which in my mind was, “OK, so how does it sound when the screen reader comes across the non-text symbol?”

Hah! (smile) (laughing)

Learning, not shaming:

I don’t expect everyone to use the word please but I appreciate those who do. Common courtesy is society’s problem, not an issue to drop on developers. That’s ableist. Universal design says we are all sharing the same space. Courtesy goes a long way. — Sassy Outwater

 


Eye-Mind-opening, thank you Sassy — and Kat, John, Ashleigh, Lori, Anne, Cate, Maria, Davide, DK — and many others who’ve taught me so much about this topic.

I mentioned that this is timely — one reason is for learning and improving. The other is sharing what I’ve learned: if you’re in Arizona come to my talk about inclusive design at WordCamp Phoenix 2018 in February.

 

If You Love Being Limited

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Screenshot from a phone showing the reasons why the narrow options on Squarespace can limit your site’s potential.

Laura Sorensen — the talented designer behind Atelier LKS (and my first cousin) — explains why Squarespace might not be a great for fit for your website in 10 Reasons to Choose WordPress Over Squarespace.

First of all, their templates virtually require high-end photos to not look odd or underwhelming.

Some Squarespace sites are gorgeous, but you can bet they have a full stable of high-resolution professional photography to accomplish that, because their templates virtually require it. If you lack professional photography, your Squarespace site could easily look odd or underwhelming.

Other reasons to choose WordPress over Squarespace include: flexibility, lower cost, freedom from limitations of many kinds, and better help + community.

My favorite part of her 10 reasons list:

You love being limited. If the simplicity of being told what to use or having narrow options makes your life easier (rather than limiting your site’s potential), then Squarespace might be for you!

WordPress will grow with you. It’s unlimited, built for freedom, and you can do more with less.

The Real Reason People Won’t Change

I first heard the concept of uncovering competing commitments in a talk by Rich Sheridan of Menlo Innovations. On the topic of embracing change he pointed to the act of uncovering as a key activity when teams are blocked. And when addressing low performance.

In the Q & A of this session I asked:

When someone isn’t performing well, how do you motivate them to change in the positive direction — without using fear-based tactics around losing their job, if they don’t turn things around?

Rich answered:

For general performance issues, always check in with them as a person first. What are their other commitments? [He then referenced the HBR article about reasons for people’s resistance to change]. If it’s truly a performance issue that needs addressing, and the fear is no longer artificial, communicate that clearly as you kick it off.

Curious to dig in more, I thought: what are other possible causes of low performance, and how am I doing in my assessment of those cases to separate the perception from the truth?

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Screenshot of the Harvard Business Review article, “The Real Reason People Won’t Change” (2001).

Competing commitments are detailed in the article Rich shared: The Real Reason People Won’t Change. The authors describe concealed commitments that block change where people hold on to and hide their assumptions. To get to the truth, they suggest an exercise is to turn the questions or complaints around — rephrasing them — to find out what they are worried about and how it’s preventing their success. And more important, which part they play in resolving it.

At the team level this exercise often takes a deeper dive over a long period of time. Something I haven’t found on my teams that we take time to do, especially with large groups of people, many moving parts, and urgent deadlines. Partly because taking the time derails progress; the abstraction of examining complaints and gathering enough data to find the source of low performance. That takes precious time away from shipping continuous product iterations for customers, which is our primary mission.

One pattern I’ve seen with projects that go on too long, the responsible parties in the end often admit they didn’t know quite how to solve the problem. Or, they ran into a blocker that needed help outside the team. But they didn’t feel comfortable openly admitting it.

Based on this research, I can now say that disagreements passively held are often indistinguishable from poor performance.

A lack of passion or drive — which in turn blocks progress to follow up or complete something — could indicate someone isn’t connecting personally to the goal, or to our company culture, or their team.

Which helps answer the questions: 1) Why does someone “go dark?” and 2) Why does a team underperform?

A key point from my experience is that when you uncover the assumptions behind the low performance, you might find out that the underlying fear or disagreement is real. By pointing to something real — together — you can discover the missing alignment. The commitments made after that discovery shine the light on the truth and guide the next steps. Steps toward clarity and alignment.

A Conversation Shines the Light

When you need to find common ground, a conversation shines the light.

Talking with Group A:

“Oh, they’ll [the “others” in Group B] never go for that.”
“Have you asked them yet?”
“Well, no. We tried to get a meeting and they declined.”
“What about just quickly posting your questions?”
“Oh, OK.”

Later, talking to Group B:

“What do you think about the proposal?”
“Well, we had some alternate ideas but they [the “others” in Group A] would never want that.”
“Oh? What did they say when you brought it up?”
“We haven’t talked to them about it yet.”

Facepalm moment for me as the facilitator. It turned out the two groups hadn’t ever connected on this topic. Once a conversation shined a light on it, we saw the shared goal in plain sight. Assumptions dissolved.

Alignment is knowing versus thinking we know.

Continue reading A Conversation Shines the Light

Amazon’s Leadership Principles

Still haven’t found a better list than Amazon’s Leadership Principles. Concise, clear, ambitious. A benchmark.

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Bookmarked this in 2017, now printed it (on paper!) for a weekly read and review.

Here are my favorites.

Bias for Action
Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.

Insist on the Highest Standards
Leaders have relentlessly high standards – many people may think these standards are unreasonably high. Leaders are continually raising the bar and driving their teams to deliver high quality products, services and processes. Leaders ensure that defects do not get sent down the line and that problems are fixed so they stay fixed.

Customer Obsession
Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.

Ownership
Leaders are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team. They never say “that’s not my job.”