I’m a fan of Oblique Strategies for triggering a new perspective when I get stuck. To me this method brings active questions to trigger better thinking.
This practice comes up for me frequently in product management when working on both short and long views of a roadmap. As part of any decision making process, whether by myself for reflection, or in a team working on a product change, I might ask something like:
What is the end result for our customers? Where are we going in the long term?
The purpose of active questions, like Oblique Strategies, is to trigger more questions until you get a better answer. A truer answer. An honest answer. To find the why is to find the signal that drives everything else forward.
Who is it for? How will they understand it’s for them? How will we know if it’s a success? What do we expect to see change? How are we measuring it? What would be a surprise here; something that we don’t expect? Have we considered doing the opposite? Who has the most to gain? What’s the context?
Untying the knots of language begins with seeing that whenever something is said, other communication is carried along with it. Sometimes the sender is aware of the unsaid, but often they are not… The unsaid but communicated includes assumptions, expectations, disappointments, resentments, regrets, interpretations, significance…
The message of the impact of clarity in language from the book The Three Laws of Performance by Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan hit home to me this week. I often find myself “bound by the knots of language” in work and in life.
No matter how smart or insightful people are, we are all prone to being hijacked by what is unsaid — especially the unsaid about which people are unaware.
To misunderstand or not listen or prejudge is to be human, and yet I’m frequently surprised about the assumptions and judgements I bake into my own words. Resentment is there; disappointment, too. Sometimes simply saying the words out loud, and getting feedback from other people, reveals everything.
The process starts with becoming aware of what people are not saying but are communicating. The unsaid and communicated but without awareness becomes linguistic clutter. Thinking about cluttered physical spaces offers insight into what happens in situations where people are bound by the knots of language. Such situations occur as tiring chaotic and unfinished. The key to performance is not pushing new conversations about strategy or reorganization into an arty cramped space. Instead, it is about clearing out the clutter. Almost universally, it is the unsaid that is cluttered for individuals, groups, and organizations. Before anything you can happen people need to do the linguistic equivalent of clearing out closets. This means moving issues into the light of discussion, saying them, and examining them in public. When people can address and articulate the unsaid, space begins to open up.
For the full context of these quotes, see the source: Three Laws of Performance Review (PDF) by “The Business Book Review” (Copyright 2009 EBSCO Publishing Inc.).
With a nod to my colleague and friend Ian Stewart who wrote on the wisdom of duplication this week, here’s a duplicated audio version of the context for the quotes (reading from the PDF).
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.
The altMBA is an intensive, 4-week online workshop designed by Seth Godin for high-performing individuals who want to level up and lead.
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.
Being indistractable is a super power. Nir Eyal started out his Mind the Product SF 2018 presentation by sharing that in the five years since his book Hooked came out he’s kept up with everything, gathered feedback, and learned even more about the neuroscience and behavior that drives our motivations and attention.
My main takeaway from his message is simple. You’ll know when you’re distracted by planning ahead. Using DND (do not disturb) mode to plan your time grants you freedom for what author Cal Newport calls “Deep Work” and Nir Eyal names “Traction.”
Working to your input each day rather than output to get important work done. Nir mentioned the “Forest” app to stay focused. In the few weeks after I attended Mind the Product my colleague Rachel McRoberts also mentioned this app to me. It’s a simple concept: each focus period grows a virtual green tree. If you interrupt the focus, the tree dies and you have to start over. Nir also uses the “Time Guard” app which allows you to set sensible limits to time spent on distractions.
I highly recommend watching this 28 minute video to hear and understand Nir’s latest work and pick up practical tips on decluttering and avoiding distraction.
An attendee asked why I was interested in accessibility: Did I or someone in my life have a disability? I’m used to answering this question—to which the answer is no. A lot of people seem to assume that a personal connection is the only reason someone would care about accessibility.
This is a problem. For the web to be truly accessible, everyone who makes websites needs to care about accessibility. We tend to use our own abilities as a baseline when we’re designing and building websites. Instead, we need to keep in mind our diverse users and their diverse abilities to make sure we’re creating inclusive products that aren’t just designed for a specific range of people.
This echoes what I’m reading in Tragic Design: The Impact of Bad Product Design and How to Fix It by Jonathan Shariat and Cynthia Savard Saucier: “We shouldn’t wait until we or someone close to us needs it to start caring about accessibility.”
Manuel’s post contains a lot more on getting started with accessibility. Check it out!
It serves me as a reminder that inclusive design is about creating a diversity of ways for people to participate—good design is for everyone.
The 2018 Design in Tech Report from John Maeda is alive and kicking (I’m late to sharing this as it debuted at SxSW in March.) This year’s deck places a strong focus on inclusive design and artificial intelligence.
Computers aren’t good at inclusion. They’re good at exclusion, because they’re only based on past data. The business opportunity for the future-thinking designer is in inclusion. — Fast Company
In a brainstorming exercise with my group at the altMBA, I expected to dive deep into the work, tuning our understanding of business models while working under pressure to create as many ideas as possible in a short time. We did just that, relishing our creativity and ingenuity.
Yet the most satisfying outcome wasn’t how deep or wide we ranged as much as the practice of creating the right space for it to happen. Allowing discovery, allowing the best work to shine through. The moment created by the creative space was the true prize.
In our session there grew a playfulness and a natural building up of ideas as serendipitous intersections occurred where a concept, channel, or stream could be cloned to adapt to a new business idea. Growing, it created momentum and provided a sense of space — room to roam.
The diversity of the team made for richer output as we kept exploring. Ideas born from one member cloned rapidly into new ones by tapping into our backgrounds, affinities, and environments. Though we started together pitching and editing out loud, it was slow going. The pace accelerated only after a 45-minute switch to brainwriting, writing solo to bring more life to the list. We successfully avoided the problem of “one loud voice” by taking turns narrating and typing.
Creating the space to run together started with finding a format that built enough structure without slowing us down. We later dubbed this the napkin sketch for its simplicity.
The napkin sketch technique produces a great number of ideas without too much detail. Just enough to explain a business idea or “micro” business model to a friend in plain English.
Here’s how it works:
Outline and pitch the business idea.
Detail the basics only: value proposition, market, costs, and revenue.
If you feel a spark, clone the sketch and adapt it.
Repeat until you run out of ideas.
If you freeze an idea too quickly, you fall in love with it. If you refine it too quickly, you become attached to it and it becomes very hard to keep exploring, to keep looking for better. The crudeness of the early models in particular is very deliberate. — Jim Glymph, architect
Jim Glymph (Gehry Partners, architects 1990–2007) explains the value of crude early models—what my altMBA group called “Napkin sketches.
Originally posted on Medium—and if Matt’s reading this, it’s required for the course. 🙃
If you want to be an effective strategic leader, you can’t settle for a regimen of reading board books and showing up for quarterly meetings. You must engage fully on your organization’s mission; seize opportunities to observe frontline work; and, at each board meeting, take every chance to confront the big, long-term issues by asking tough questions.
After checking the gauges, you’ll know what to do next: keep effective performers, remove laggards, and ask the tough questions and demand answers.
This advice for board members applies equally to an executive team member in a business setting, leading teams at Automattic. In short—do the work, be open to the burden of responsibility, and seek out direct connections.