Sharing user manuals – a team building activity

At a recent team offsite, we tested a new activity – sharing user manuals. Every member of the team created a 1-2 page user manual with some or all of the following sections (these were just a guideline)-

  1. My working style
  2. What I value
  3. What I don’t have patience for
  4. How to best communicate with me
  5. What I am trying to improve / how to help me
  6. What people misunderstand about me
  7. Anything else that’s important to know about me

We then spent time going through each person’s user manual, listening to the “why” behind some of their notes, and sharing our observations.

I came away with a few reflections. First, I came away feeling inspired to refresh my own user manual after what I’d heard. Everyone had their unique spin and some notes were very useful. For example, I hadn’t shared “what people misunderstand about me” and felt that was particularly useful.

Second, I came away with a lot of appreciation for everyone’s self awareness and the team’s shared values. It helped us all understand each other and that understanding is key to trust.

This activity is a keeper.

PS: The article we used as inspiration was an article on user manuals from Quartz.

The racket or the net

When teaching the serve, great tennis coaches know to check for where their players look as they serve.

Beginner players inevitably look at the net as they want to get their serve over it. But, these players only conquer the serve when they learn to look at where their racket makes contact with the ball.

Every beginner thus learns that the best way to influence the outcome of a stroke is to focus intensely on doing justice to that moment of contact. They’ll need to read the situation quickly, set themselves up for the stroke, hit it, and follow through. The quality of that process will determine the quality of the eventual outcome.

The question for us, then, – as we start our weeks with a list of the outcomes we want to influence, are we focused on the racket or the net?

Decisions and culture

As parents, we make many decisions on behalf of our children. We were feeling particularly stuck about a schooling decision recently.

As part of our process, we decided to pause on attempting to make the decision and solve for a different question – what shared culture did we want to create? After a bit of deliberation, we aligned on a first draft with 3 words/phrases – “hungry,” “thoughtful,” and “learning-focused.”

Hungry implies having the drive and desire to make the world better. The thoughtfulness and a focus on learning, on the other hand, hopefully balance that desire and make the journey a happy one. Aligning on this simplified our decision making – we didn’t believe this choice would help with the “hunger.”

We are still new to this and are figuring our way through. But, the lesson from this decision was to take the time to define the culture we wanted to create before we attempted to make what felt like the “right” decision.

It holds true for organizations, for families, and for ourselves.

Profitable, difficult, or important?

This weekend, I’m reflecting on a vintage Seth Godin blog post from this week – profitable, difficult, or important? I hope you take the time to go read it.

Seth talks about two talked about trillion dollar companies – Apple and Amazon – who’ve each gotten to where they are by doing work that is “profitable” and “difficult” respectively. They made a choice, stated a promise, and kept it. It is commendable.

He then goes on to make a powerful point about “important” work.

“But the most daring and generous, those that are often overlooked and never hit a trillion dollars in the stock market, are left to do the important work. The work of helping others be seen, or building safe spaces. The work of creating opportunity or teaching and modelling new ways forward. The work of changing things for the better.

Changing things for the better is rarely applauded by Wall Street, but Wall Street might not be the point of your work. It might simply be to do work you’re proud of, to contribute, and to leave things a little better than you found them.”

I’ve observed that very few careers combine profitable, difficult, and important. The best most get to is a combination of two of them.

And, it is on us to work toward the combination that fits how we will measure our lives.

Hopes and dreams – realized

Every once a while, it is worth taking stock of all the aspects of our lives that were hopes and dreams a few years back. These may be the little things – owning this or that, going for a vacation here or there – or the big things – how much we’ve learnt and grown, what we get to do everyday, the place we call home, where we work, our family.

There are always three things I find fascinating about this exercise.

First, the longer our look back window, the more we’re likely to find transformation. It is quite amazing how much we can get done in a decade.

Second, the more time passes, the faster we take realized hopes and dreams for granted. That is a shame because a hope or a dream taken for granted is a hope or a dream wasted. Happiness follows gratitude and not the other way around.

And, finally, the more we take stock of these, the more mindful we become of the strokes of luck we’ve had thanks to the privilege we’ve accumulated. With great privilege should come great responsibility and humility – so, here’s to more of that and here’s to using it well.

Wrong lessons from the Marshmellow test?

For decades, the marshmellow test occupied the popular imagination in demonstrating the effect of delayed gratification in our lives. The lesson was simple as it was powerful – more willpower = more success in every aspect of our lives.

But, perhaps we got it wrong?

Researchers from the University of Rochester ran a variation of the test with 28 children in 2012 that involved a first step in which half the kids were exposed to an adult who promised to bring them supplies for an activity and didn’t. When this half was exposed to the marshmellow test, they did far worse.

The research hypothesis was that a child’s ability to wait wasn’t just about the amount of willpower they were born with. It was also about how much they trusted the word of the adults who said they’d come back and give them more. Willpower is still important in enabling kids to be successful. But, it is likely more important for kids to grow up in an environment where they trust the adults around them.

While the test was conducted with a a small sample, the conclusion is thought provoking.

The meta learning, one that Nassim Taleb vocally advocates, is to carefully consider the results of the latest and greatest social science experiment. Far too often, factors outside the lab affect the behavior of the subjects in the lab.

The future of automation and work

Michael Osborne, a Professor at Oxford, has a great 45 slide deck on the future of automation and work. Here are a few of the notes I’m thinking about –

“If a typical person can do a task with less than one second of thought, we can probably automate it using AI either now or the near future.” | Andrew Ng

Quantity of available work: Well defined portions of retail, service jobs, accounting, auditing, and logistics – some of the highest employed jobs – are automatable. These jobs involve physical and motor skills. On the other hand, jobs that require more cognitive skills are not. However, it is the former that accounts of high employment numbers.

Quality of available work: So, what about the fact that large sections of the population moved away from challenging, industrial work to become iOS developers, Yoga instructors, and so on? To that, Osborne has a powerful stat – it took ~60 years for the English revolution to improve the life of workers. 

The 60 year stat is powerful and important. On the one hand, it signals the importance of walking into this machine learning driven workplace paradigm with caution. We don’t need sentient AI to disrupt our lives – just take the machine learning techniques available to us today and apply it universally.

Second, there isn’t a reason we won’t be able to find a way forward and adjust to the new reality. The question is – how can we work together to do it faster?