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.

2017 Daily Reads: Dalio and Drucker

Two books made a big impact on my year in 2017, transforming my thinking. One for a massive amount of new insights and the other for improving my thought patterns.

Both books I’d buy again and give away—both are now open on my reading table each morning.

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A photo of two books that became a daily ritual in 2017.

The Daily Drucker by Peter Drucker (2004)

(Edited by Joseph Maciariello—note: Drucker died in 2005, soon after this book came out.)

Here’s an example of a daily insight I wrote about: A Decision Without Action Is Only a Hope.

This book is now a “daily devotional” for me; less holy scripture and more mindset for effectiveness in business, life, relationships. The improvement on my thought patterns was immediate: I noticed the ideas and principles coming up in daily work and life conversations, the mindset for effective time tracking and outward focus on contributions accelerated my career growth, and I deepened my understanding of business and how best to run an organization.

My all-time favorite — now well-worn and bookmarked — is September 4, “Practices of Effective Executives.” A distilled summary from his bestselling book of the same name.

The September 4 “Daily Drucker” reading details the five practices for effectiveness: 1) know where your time goes 2) focus on outward contributions 3) build on strengths 4) concentrate on superior performance and 5) make effective decisions.

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A photo of the Daily Drucker reading for Sept. 4th, with a handwritten card I used to hold the spot.

Which ties perfectly into Ray Dalio’s masterpiece where decision making is a key theme.


Principles by Ray Dalio (2017)

See a brief example of the insights I gained: Synthesis: Navigating Levels Effectively.

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A photo of the Principles book open to page 336; talking about meaningful work and relationships.

As I said in the beginning, this book hit me with a wall of new insights. I’m still processing it after 3 reads! Hat tip, Matt.

Top highlights of the book for me:

A winning formula: meaningful work + meaningful relationships + making a living. This ties in well with the freedom and mission that WordPress and Automattic stand for—a livelihood for anyone in the world with a website, blog, or shop.

Good principles are effective ways of dealing with reality.

Beware ego block by remembering that you’re looking for the best answer, not simply the best answer that you can come up with yourself.

Use pain to trigger quality reflections, learn what causes your pain and what you can do about it. This is the most effective habit Ray developed over 40 years.

Practice being open-minded and assertive at the same time, and think about your and others’ believability when deciding what to do. Find the most believable people possible who disagree with you and try to understand their reasoning.

Ideas versus decisions. Meritocracy is for hearing everyone’s voice — not for everyone making the decision.

You’ll find much, much more in the book; see also the book’s website: principles.com and social media. On LinkedIn Ray’s been sharing the most popular principles as readers give him feedback — with short audio clips.

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A screenshot of Ray Dalio sharing a top insight from his book, on LinkedIn.

I suggest buying both electronic and the hard copy. In 2018 I’ll share more thoughts and insights from the book, plus share experiences and learnings from putting the principles into practice.

What were your top books from 2017? Did anything become a must-read or daily habit?

A Decision Without Action Is Only a Hope

A decision is only a hope until carrying it out has become somebody’s work assignment and responsibility, with a deadline.

Who has to know of the decision? What action has to be taken? Who has to take the action? Make sure the people who have to take the action are able to do so.

Note—the people who have to take the action are rarely the people who have made the decision.

Source: The Daily Drucker, quoting The Effective Executive. I’m loving this daily dive into the management and leadership motherlode—highly recommended.

Be a Yardstick of Quality

Inspiration from Steve Jobs, in 1987. This is my milepost for 2017.

People judge you by your performance, so focus on the outcome. Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.

From I, Steve edited by George Beahm (2011).

 

Smarter, Faster, Better

A few findings from reading Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg (Goodreads).

On self-motivation: Ask yourself, why am I doing what I’m doing? If you are doing something you think is stupid and meaningless, you’re not going to care.

Envisioning the day: Make a habit of picturing how things will go, what goals you have from meetings or tasks—it can make you much more productive.

Distractions: We can trick our brain to ignore things by spending time visualizing what we want to occur, like going to the store for only lasagna and ignoring the special display of holiday cookies.

Tests, finances, decisions: Slow down to make better choices, called “disfluency.” Also helps with overload of data; it’s easy to let your eye slide over it without absorbing anything. Fight it by slowing the information down, make it stickier.

Internalize new ideas: Tell someone about it, interact with the idea, and it’ll stick with you better. For example, telling a colleague about a book you’re reading, not to educate them, but to lock in the ideas.

Financial life: Force yourself to interact with the data, even if it seems inefficient. Sit down regularly and see what you spent money on—is it expected? Do you need to change habits? Not only look, but write it down.

Editorial note: I published this with the WordPress desktop app, a superbly focused and native experience to write posts and manage your blog settings.

Design for Real Life

Real life is complicated.

Even after we’ve tested all the important user flows and polished the edges in our app or site, people still stumble. Why? Because we’re humans, and because our products still have:

  1. Broken flows: transition points or interactions, like a form on a site, that aren’t working correctly.
  2. Content gaps: someone needs a specific piece of content, but you don’t have it—or it’s not in the right place at the right time.
  3. Pain points: people get hung up and are likely to abandon the site or app.

Making digital products friendly isn’t enough to make them feel human.

For more on this topic, I highly recommend Design for Real Life from A Book Apart; the ebook is only $11.

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Instead of treating stress situations as edge cases, it’s time we move them to the center of our conversations—to start with our most vulnerable, distracted, and stressed-out users, and then work our way outward.

The reasoning is simple: when we make things for people at their worst, they’ll work that much better when people are at their best.

Order Design for Real Life from abookapart.com. See also the WordPress.org Flow glossary for terms inspired by this book that we use in testing WordPress.

Review: The Way of the Web Tester

This is a book review of The Way of the Web Tester by Jonathan Rasmusson. Hat tip: Alister Scott.

A beginner’s guide to automated testing, though not specific to the web, despite the title. Covering the quintessential pyramid of UI, integration, and unit tests as well as basic building blocks of HTML, CSS, HTTP and REST APIs, and JavaScript. The book also spends time on best practices for general software programming and testing.

The goal for test automation, according to the author, is to have more time to do the fun things like developing new features, and less time on boring things like fixing bugs. We can’t test everything, yet “with the right 20%, we can sure test a lot.” Agreed. In broad strokes, this book debunks many common misconceptions of automated testing.

Don’t try to automate everything. Instead, automate just enough.

I love the dual audience of testers and developers, and how each chapter addresses the goals for each to learn in the coming text. The chapter ending summaries are handy. The text flows and the examples are easy to follow. Though a quick read, the book ends up covering important topics such as organization, naming, coupling, reusable code, and avoiding flaky tests by making them deterministic.

A few minor nitpicks: I found the metaphor of armor and mobility a tad confusing, and some of the humor seemed off-putting and unnecessary. As a beginner book I didn’t like how it conflated an important concept of CSS selectors and using similar syntax with jQuery to select elements by ID; in my opinion this difference should be understood at a beginner level. The author also doesn’t mention targeting data URIs in HTML attributes for selection, which seems to me to be worth a mention as a useful technique when working without relying on extra IDs or classes everywhere—such as legacy code or HTML output from third-party templates that you don’t control—and is present in popular JavaScript frameworks such as React.

I love the concept of a Developer Productivity team at a software company—at Spotify, Rasmusson describes a squad that went around killing and fixing flaky tests. Making things run better, making everyone happier. I think of Excellence Wranglers at Automattic as having a similar goal in our work as quality advocates.

The Way of the Web Tester does a great job introducing important concepts and covers the basics of automated testing, and I’d recommend it to everyone, even seasoned developers and testers.

 

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Book review for Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.

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This fascinating book takes a deep dive into how to harness the adaptability of your brain and body to achieve abilities that would otherwise be out of reach.

Focused and concise, illustrated with research, and bringing new science to light, I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning and improving.

The main premise is to explain that what we think about acquiring abilities is probably wrong. Are gifted people at a natural advantage to become experts? Can anyone apply certain techniques to achieve the same results as others? Does high IQ play a role?

Answers abound. There is no such thing as natural ability; anyone can become an expert by putting in the time. Illustrated with exploring prodigies through history, their skills reduce down to two questions: 1) What is the exact nature of the ability? 2) What sorts of training made it possible? Traits favorable to a task help at the beginning but don’t make a difference at high levels; it all comes down to your own effort.

But not just any effort. The 10,000-hour “rule” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success is not the full story—the how long isn’t as important as how. Just practicing over and over doesn’t lead to mastery as you’ll soon plateau and stop improving. Important to know that you aren’t reaching a set potential, you are developing your potential because it’s not a fixed state. Surprising to read about many studies showing adult brain plasticity and adaptability. The brain’s adaptability is incredible.

The key piece is deliberate practice: training with expert teachers, eliminating your weaknesses by forming mental representations that drive you consistently to great performance, and spending lots of time in private practice on the right things.

The best among us in various areas do not occupy that perch because they were born with some innate talent but rather because they have developed their abilities through years of practice, taking advantage of the adaptability of the human body and brain.

Since there are no shortcuts to expertise, and you aren’t born with natural advantages, to improve you must engage with your training and stick with it, getting out of your comfort zone to reach the next level. You can control your environment, and adapt to changes by learning new skills.

Deliberate practice is knowing where to go, and how to get there.

Pragmatic Thinking & Learning

Pragmatic Thinking & Learning, Refactor Your Wetware by Andy Hunt (2008) is sensible and matter-of-fact, a gem of a book that works well both as reference and as inspiration. A science-based lifehacker manual that serves as the ultimate guide to personal productivity.

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Full of tips, tricks, philosophies, and science behind how our brains function best for learning and thinking, the book covers topics such as reading and study habits, control over context and environment, trusting intuition while questioning everything, discovery and capture of ideas, and how to pay better attention. All tied to harnessing the power of opposite sides of the brain, creative versus practical, reactive versus thoughtful. Seeing both the forest and the trees.

Since the book is too full of useful information to summarize in one blog post, I’d like to share a few of my favorite parts.

Intuition and pattern matching replace explicit knowledge.

This echoes my philosophy of The Investigative Mindset where rules are not a substitute for clear thinking while considering the context. You can trust your intuition, yet you would do well to verify it by asking questions and digging deeper and keeping in mind your expectations and cognitive biases.

If you don’t keep track of great ideas, you will stop noticing you have them. Everyone has good ideas, fewer go further to keep track, act on them, and pull it off.

So true. Keep a journal, review it often, and take action on the best ideas. Share them with others for accountability, they can improve with feedback, or someone else can run with it if you don’t have time or energy to do so.

Rewire your brain with belief and constant practice; thinking makes it so.

This idea of mastery through constant, focused effort echoes what I’ve learned elsewhere, including a new book I’m excited about, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (review to come soon).

A random approach, without goals and feedback, tends to give random results.

“You got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.” —Yogi Berra

The best efforts need a plan, because if you work on a team like mine at Automattic you’ll know from experience that starting on things without a clear goal in mind, nor a plan on how to get there, without specific metrics to track it — means it’ll be almost impossible to measure the results.

I love the concept of SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-boxed. Reminds me of Google’s Objectives and Key Results.

Read deliberately with SQ3R (scan, question, read, recite, review), which I find similar and complementary to Adler’s ideas on how to read books, as described by Ian Stewart.

You are who you hang out with: attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, and emotions are all contagious.

What does it take to stay sharp? Awareness. Learn to quiet your mind’s endless chatter, keep track of your ideas by working on and adding to your thoughts in progress, and avoid context switching.

Pragmatic Thinking & Learning is a must-read for all thinkers and learners. Hat tip: Nikolay Bachiyski.

Pride and Paradev

A book review for Pride and Paradev by Alister Scott.

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This is an entertaining and thought-provoking “collection of agile software testing contradictions”—exactly what it says on the tin.

After reading this book, I now identify confidently as a paradev: anyone on a software team that isn’t a specialist. Ever since my start in web development 12 years ago I’ve considered myself a generalist rather than a “pure” developer or designer because I don’t spend all my time building or creating new things. Software testing is an excellent fit for me because I love breaking things, finding details to make existing products better through improved flow and efficiency.

Using a quirky yet concise question-and-answer format, Scott covers such topics as “Are software testers the gatekeepers or guardians of quality?” (Yes, you can be an advocate of quality without being a gatekeeper; it all depends on your attitude, your tone, and how you present your findings.) and “Should acceptance criteria be implicit or explicit?” (Keep acceptance criteria focused on what is required, not what is obvious.) and “Do agile software testers need technical skills?” (Sometimes non-technical testers without the deep skill set see things with better eyes.)

This short and approachable book will make you think critically about software testing. Highly recommended for anyone working with software, not just us breakers.

[Available on Leanpub for iPad/Kindle/PDF.]