Anti-Glossary

Clarity and humanity live at the center of our vocabulary when we talk about people. Automattic prefers a friendlier approach to the typical jargon for talking about staffing, hiring, and moving people. We avoid ambiguity by using a specific word or phrase to communicate the exact need.

Automattic’s “Expectations” page excerpt

I contributed to the public anti-glossary because I believe words matter. How we talk about people in a group, company, organization frames — and reveals our values.

My favorite example is “replace” instead of “backfill.”

Backfill — Simpler and more clear to use a verb such as replace. A common reason would be to hire or move someone after a departure.

A friendlier, more clear approach to how we speak about each other.

Manage During a Crisis: Deliberate Calm + Bounded Optimism

Enjoyed this timely and practical organizational leadership guide from McKinsey.

Key elements include priorities, roles, time, and energy.

Deliberate calm: How to steer into the storm.
Bounded optimism: How to mix confidence and hope with realism

As human beings, we can practice integrative awareness before, in, and after the moment.

Screenshot from the McKinsey study on personal operating models.

Six steps:

  1. Adapt your personal operating model.
  2. Set your intention.
  3. Regulate your reactions.
  4. Practice reflection.
  5. Reframe your perspective.
  6. Manage your energy.

Leadership in a crisis like this is an enormous responsibility, yet it can also be seen as a great privilege. Integrative awareness keeps leaders centered in the storm, giving them the focus they need to take care of themselves and the people and organizations they lead.

Lead with purpose!

Deal With Unresolved Grief By Looking Outward

Grief is inevitable. Unresolved grief doesn’t have to be. To overcome grief, leaders must become consciously aware of the problem; accept the pain of the loss; and take actions to first let go of the past, and then to find new meaning from the experience.

Via The hidden perils of unresolved grief (McKinsey)

The outward shift described here resonates with me as an action I can take every day. Under my control to break the inner gaze — the running loop of emotions in my mind — with frequent pauses to stop the cycle. Like an athlete would: train, play, rest, and recuperate to replace depleted energy. Same thing, but mentally.

Opening up emotionally allows those who have suffered from unresolved grief to restart the process of bonding with other people. As their focus shifts outward, their internal dialogue shifts from defensive to positive. This brings calm, clarity, gratitude, and even playfulness.

Thought-provoking prompt from McKinsey for anyone feeling overwhelmed, grief-sick, and exhausted: Hidden perils of unresolved grief. Food for thought for leaders and our teammates alike. “Grief can be a creative force that turns loss into inspiration.”

Kathleen Eisenhardt on Simple Rules To Unblock and Make Faster Decisions

When analyzing my work with teams, projects, and my own contributions I often try to find the bottleneck in the system. What’s blocked? How could we move faster? What’s are the important decisions?

Kathleen Eisenhardt is a professor at Stanford University who dives deep into these questions, and more. Below are two examples that share insights from her work around complex systems, decision making, and how simple rules can make all the difference.


Kathleen Eisenhardt: What Are Simple Rules? — We’re more likely to remember and act on 2-5 simple rules.


Kathleen Eisenhardt: Effective People Think Simply — You can make decisions faster when the rules are simple.

Start from both ends — open versus closed, and structured/complex versus chaotic.

What are the likely scenarios?

  • Product development teams that are highly complex might launch the wrong product very efficiently.
  • Product development teams that are highly chaotic — and anything goes — have a great time launching nothing.

Questions to ask:

  1. What are we trying to achieve?
  2. What’s the bottleneck in the process? What keeps us from achieving our goals?
  3. What are the rules? For example, understand your own data while also bringing in outside experts.

You can make decisions faster when the rules are simple.

“Stopping” rules are the hardest to learn. People are good at starting! Bad at stopping.

One of the biggest mistakes business people make is staying in something too long. A stopping rule helps you get out of that.

Kathleen Eisenhardt

Involve people around you to determine the rules — they shouldn’t just be from the top.

I hope you learn as much as I did from Kathleen Eisenhardt’s work.

One Foot Higher Each Year

Phil Knight: “We have so much opportunity, but we’re having a terrible time getting managers who can seize the opportunities. We try people from the outside, but they fail, because our culture is so different.”
Mr. Hayami: “See those bamboo trees up there?”
“Yes.”
“Next year they will be one foot higher.”

I understood. When I returned… I tried hard to cultivate and grow the management team we had, slowly, with more patience, with an eye toward more training and more long-term planning. I took the wider, longer view. It worked.

Nike founder Phil Knight describing a learning moment in his memoir Shoe Dog.

Love this view of better results from growing leaders up from the people already around you, slowly and surely building a strong bench. Not simply expecting new faces to show up and solve everything.

Read my Goodreads review of Shoe Dog by Phil Knight of Nike (4 stars).

Automattic Engineering Culture on Key Values

Automattic is hiring engineers across mobile and web, frontend and backend. Recently we partnered with Key Values to highlight our top values, from open communication and open source all the way to flexible work location and a focus on teams.

Listing of Automattic engineering values on the Key Values website.

Top values include:

  • Open communication: As a distributed company, communication is our oxygen.
  • Open source contributor: We believe open source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation.
  • Committed to personal growth: The first line of our creed: “I’ll never stop learning.”
  • Flexible work arrangements: Set up remotely in a way that works for you — and take the time off you need.
  • High employee retention: Automattic employees tend to stay at Automattic: Our retention rate for Code Wranglers and JS Engineers is 86% over the last 5 years.
  • Heavily team oriented: Teams are how we organize our work, communication, meetups, and impact.
  • Engages with community: We are more motivated by impact than money.
  • Engineering-driven: First and foremost, we are an engineering company. Engineers are the ambassadors of our company and community.
A view of Automattic employees.

Check out the full list of Automattic engineering values here: https://www.keyvalues.com/automattic. And, if anything matches your interests and passion, please apply!

An Advice Process Paves the Way for Clear Decisions

In Brave New Work Aaron Dignan describes a wonderfully clear way to use an “advice process” to make better decisions.

Watch a short video on YouTube where author Aaron Dignan illustrates the advice process (at minute 4:45).

Start with consent by asking for agreement. Get buy-in and move things forward. This not consensus or everyone is 100% happy with it, instead it means it is safe to try.

Use an advice process. Whenever you’re about to make a decision that’s irreversible or could damage things, go seek advice from those who’ve done it before. And, seek advice from those affected by it.

This replaces the waiting and expectation for a leader to do something—top-down decision making—with your own judgement and responsibility.

Aaron Douglas: Being Mindful During Video Calls

Tips from my coworker and prodigious mobile app maker Aaron Douglas on being mindful during video calls. Great tips, not just for remote workers, either. “I’ve come up with a bunch of little tweaks to help with attentiveness and mindfulness during the call. It is important to show you’re listening.”

The Dangling Pointer

Working remote means I’m on a lot of video calls. I’ve come up with a bunch of little tweaks to help with attentiveness and mindfulness during the call. It is important to show you’re listening.

Look at the camera often

When you’re in person you look at people’s eyes to show them you’re listening. Doing that on a video call requires a bit of counter-intuitive body language by looking at the camera. You won’t be looking at the person but they’ll see you looking directly at them. It’s a subtle difference but I’ve found it highly effective.

Also try to place the video call window up the screen towards the camera. Also decrease the size of the window so the person’s eyes are naturally closer to the top of the window (closer to the camera). When you’re not looking at the camera while the person is speaking it’ll still look…

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Kerry Liu on Team Leadership: Three Important Things

Insight on team leadership and management from my colleague and technical team lead extraordinaire Kerry Liu.

Remember these three things: don’t fall into the safety of your old job, listen, and provide useful feedback.

These are the three most important insights I gained from working as an Engineering Team Lead at Automattic. 

Read the full article: Three Important Things.

Lance Willett: My altMBA Roundup

I took part in the 20th altMBA group, April–May 2018. A wonderful experience! I highly recommend it for folks looking to challenge themselves, grow into leadership, and meet motivated folks with a similar mindset.

Screenshot from the altMBA info page.

The altMBA is an intensive, 4-week online workshop designed by Seth Godin for high-performing individuals who want to level up and lead.

AltMBA website

I found the course a larger time commitment than expected, much more than 2-3 nights a week and all day Sunday. Ended up being every day for me, at least a few hours of homework, if not more. The main task of the smaller group you’re assigned is to review each others’ work—three to four homework assignments a week. My altMBA experience, like many things in life, gave me back much more when I put in more.

What I didn’t expect was that shipping my homework wasn’t all; I also reviewed and commented on my group members’ work, then had two more steps for each assignment: rewrite mine again based on the feedback, and then publish it publicly.

The small group cohort style and tools are familiar to those working remotely at a company like Automattic: Zoom, Slack, WordPress. There are coaches that help out at various times, but most of it is self-study or a small group effort. The altMBA team sends you a box of books ahead, and if I had to do it over, I’d read them more carefully. I referenced them a ton during the coursework and group sessions—and have continued to use many of the books as a reference.

Overall, the course was worth the investment in my case. I still keep in touch with my small group, including on the alumni website, and made a few great friends there. People still connect with me on LinkedIn to share stories, ask for advice, and check in on the work I shared—much of which related to taking bigger steps in my career. Indeed, the “forced” growth via the exercises and homework became essential to taking a bigger leap at work last year. I’m grateful.


My shipped projects are on Medium: medium.com/@lancewillett — the platform and format were required; otherwise I’d prefer publishing on WordPress. Here’s an article that made it back to this blog: A Napkin Sketch is Enough.