The patience and attention to find the right word inspires me. From Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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?”
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.
Have you ever seen an acronym in a work chat or read it in an online article — or anywhere — and immediately had to Google it?
“Like, ummmmmmm, WTH does this mean? SMH.”
“Ohhhhhhh. I see. OK. TIL.”
The utility of acronyms is proven when the resulting phrase is easier to parse. The details are abstracted away nicely, hidden from view, and the reader gains quicker understanding. If the details aren’t essential to understanding and you don’t need to know what the concept is behind each word to grasp the bigger picture, such as DNA. — Douglas Hofstadter in Surfaces and Essences
Just like we don’t know all the inner workings of a cell phone, yet can understand how to operate it. We don’t call it a “cellular transmission device” — just “phone.”
Simpler is better, usually. WFM.
If acronyms are popular enough they can become common and useful — often lowercased — words such as radar, scuba, modem, or yuppie. These are considered “dead acronyms” because most people won’t know a) that they are acronyms at all, and b) if they do know they probably don’t remember the exact words represented. Which is fine.
Insight from REAMDE by Neal Stephenson, “Among geeks, the cool-soundingness of an acronym is more important than the existence of what it refers to.” Note, case in point: SCUBAT. Fun to also redefine existing like John did with PHP (People Helping People).
My tips and guidelines for acronym usage. YMMV.
- Consider your audience. Posting for an entire company? Assume no knowledge of your team’s insider lingo. Consider both your existing coworkers plus future hires that will join later and read back in the archives.
- Expand and explain at first use.
In formal writing for a broad audience, the expansion is typically given at the first occurrence of the acronym within a given text, for the benefit of those readers who do not know what it stands for.
Define the term the first time it appears in your text using longhand, with the acronym in parentheses. Then use the acronym, the shorthand, in the remaining text of the same post or page. “This week we launched The Awesome Sauce (TAS). Since inception TAS has truly been a team effort.”
A perfect act to follow is The Economist. The magazine has a particular style that encourages an inline definition for the first appearance of a new word, something possibly misleading — not just acronyms — unknown or proper nouns, too. For example, “Automattic, a web platform company, announced today…”
If you don’t define it — ideally using expansion at its first appearance — I will have fun with it.
- Use HTML title attributes. When publishing hypertext, say on your WordPress website, take advantage of hyperlinks and tooltips to give acronyms meaning and a visual explanation. You can use the
abbrtag with a related
titleattribute. Here’s an example: WP. Here’s a good visual example of the HTML code, from Mozilla:
- Beware lazy abbrevs such as pw, ty, yw. This may save you time in the moment, yet if you’re following along you’ll already be considering others’ needs above your own. Avoid the confusing usage by either typing the words out, or use a tool like TextExpander to do that for you. You’ll be known for your helpful attitude by using clear, unambiguous communication. If in doubt, spell it out.
- If you see something you don’t understand, just ask. Fun tip: you can play with your own version of the acronym’s meaning while you wait for the author to explain. At Automattic, when I see an acronym I don’t understand I’ll ask — but sometimes I can’t resist sharing back my phony interpretations on the thread, too.
Bonus acronymivia, HTH.
A recent fun acronym seen in my hometown, Tucson: BRO (Breault Research Organization, Inc). Heh, say it out loud. LOL.
More acronym geekery on Wikipedia — my favorite in the list there is PAYGO (pay-as-you-go). I learned the word “initialism:”
“Initialisms” are words where you can’t pronounce the resulting “word.” The spelled-out form of an acronym or initialism — what it stands for— is called its expansion.
FYI: this video is a funny take on how badly acronyms could go: “Corporate Acronyms: You may not know it, but some of the world’s most recognizable apps and brands are all acronyms.” YOLO.
A quick list of all the acronyms I used in this article, in case you’re like me and still learning a new one each day. In the order they appear above:
WTH: What the heck/hell (can also have an F at the end for f***)
SMH: Shake my head
TIL: Today I learned
DNA: Deoxyribonucleic acid
WFM: Works for me
SCUBAT: Scaffolding contigs using BLAT and transcripts
YMMV: Your mileage may vary
HTML: Hypertext markup language
ty: Thank you
yw: You’re welcome
HTH: Hope that helps
BRO: Breault Research Organization, Inc
LOL: Laugh out loud
FYI: For your information
YOLO: You only live once
TTYL: Talk to you later
One of my favorite takeaways from Principles by Ray Dalio is the notion of above-the-line and below-the-line (hat tip: Matt). Dalio describes how to navigate both levels effectively in both work and life.
To synthesize well, you must 1) synthesize the situation at hand, 2) synthesize the situation through time, and 3) navigate levels effectively.
Synthesis, in my own words, means the ability to identify, understand, and combine bits and pieces into a whole. A coherent end point. As my colleague Ian Stewart says, “Keep your eye on the prize. Or, on the next step.”
You could apply this principle in many areas of work and life:
- Keeping meetings on topic with clear decisions at the end.
- Converging on a minimum viable product launch.
- Coaching and feedback conversations with peers, mentors, employees.
- Business strategy and decision-making.
- Presenting important information to a group: telling a story that sticks.
In addition to navigating the levels effectively, there’s an added benefit of shared language:
Use the terms “above the line” and “below the line” to establish which level a conversation is on.
This makes clear when a divergent or convergent conversation is needed.
Navigating the levels well means you are an effective communicator and decision maker. Able to balance inputs such as thinking, planning, and research with a clear and purposeful decision to move things forward.