2018 in Books

Books_of_2018_-_Google_DocsSometimes we read the book we need to solve the problem at hand. Other times we read a book and only afterwards see the situations that it has taught us to see.

2018 was a little lighter on reading than I would have liked but I did discover, and rediscover some gems.

First up was a reread of The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, Devops, and Helping Your Business Win. Five years on from its first publication and it’s starting to feel a little dated but still an excellent book with relevant lessons. Focusing on flow, and making work visible were key takeaways for me this time around.

Next up I read, and loved, Powerful by Patty McCord. Patty writes about recruiting, motivating, and creating great teams based on her experience developing the culture at Netflix.

What takes the place of rules, processes, approvals, bureaucracy, and permissions?” The answer: Clear, continuous communication about the context of the work to be done. Telling people, “Here’s exactly where we are, and here’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”

And

“You want to be a lifelong learner; you want to always be acquiring new skills and having new experiences, and that doesn’t have to be at the same company. The fact is that sometimes you’re hired by a company to do something, and then you do it and it’s done. If I hire people to rebuild my garage, when they’re done I don’t need them to rebuild the back of my house.”

The most practical book I read in 2018 was Accelerate: The Science of Lean Software and Devops: Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations by Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble and Gene Kim. This is a book crammed full of tips for helping teams achieve success, I particularly appreciated the focus on burnout that threaded its way throughout the book. Important reading.

Radical Candor by Kim Scott was my book of the year. “Radical candor is the sweet spot between managers who are obnoxiously aggressive on one side and ruinously empathetic on the other. It’s about providing guidance, which involves a mix of praise as well as criticism—delivered to produce better results and help employees achieve”. There are many, many great stories and transferable tips shared in this book. A joy to read, and a book that has changed the way I manage and want to be managed.

I ended up highlighting most of the book but this quote neatly sums up how it made me feel

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

My final book of the year was Switch by Chip Heath and  Dan Heath. Years ago I struggled through Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, enjoying the message but finding it hard to recall accurately. Switch does a great job of sharing the same message in a far more accessible format. I absolutely loved the Elephant and the Rider metaphor to describe our minds, and I found the stories in the book to be interesting and highly motivating. I can’t wait to put these ideas into practice in 2019.

How was your 2018? Did you discover any books worth shouting about?

Teach people to ask “Why?”

Why

Schools kill creativity. From a young age students are taught to listen to the “expert” and believe everything they’re told. Very few lessons focus on teaching young people to form an opinion, or question the facts being presented.

As adults we join workplaces that have strong hierarchies. Information and policies flow down from the top and everyone underneath is expected to follow along without causing a fuss.

We attend conferences, read books, and hear people tell us the right way to do things all day, every day.

But really good teams are formed of people who can work together and push each other to be better. They’re formed of people who respect each other, listen to each other, and then question the ideas. Pooling our collective experiences allows us to be greater than the sum of our parts and working together allows us all to learn and improve.

For most people having to justify themselves, and explain the thought-process they went through to drive at their argument helps them be better. So often we decide things instinctively, without examining our own biases or influences. It can be easy to design something, or build something for the wrong reasons, and it is easy to do because we generally don’t have to explain ourselves to anyone.

To change things we need to start teaching everyone to question decisions regardless of where they come from. When someone proposes a new way of doing something I expect them to present their argument with the pros and cons of adopting the change. When we reflect back on things, that have either gone well or not so well, we should take the time to think back over the pros and cons we identified. Were we right? What did we miss? How can we better next time?

Successfully changing people’s decision-making requires time and consistent expectations. As leaders we should encourage everyone in the team to question others on their thinking. Changing the format of meetings to encourage upfront prep, and discussion time before we get to the decision making can help. Making sure we have a safe space to allow everyone to actually have a voice is critical.

When we present decisions or direction we should set an example and present the options we saw and the advantages and disadvantages we can see from the route we chose. Invite others to question your ideas and tell them if they successfully help you change your mind. We should celebrate having input from others.

It can be hard to change the way people work, and we can seemingly be making our own work harder by inviting everyone to have an opinion on it, but questioning and justifying decisions is essential for team health.

Default to Good

Our behaviour is shaped by many things; our experiences, our values, the environment around us. At work we have to make decisions about things we may not fully understand. We have to explain our decisions, and convince others to join us even when we’re not sure of the way.

Sometimes things are easier, maybe you work for an ethical company that’s clearly doing things to make the world a better place. Working somewhere like this, I imagine, would easily lead to good choices.

For the rest of us things are more blurry. You might work for a fantastic company for the wrong reason. You might work for a friendly company that don’t make the world a better place. You might work for a downright bad company for very good reasons.

As you go about your job, and life, you have to make decisions. If you’re a manger some of those decisions will be about how other people should live and work. You oversee goals, objectives, promotions, and pay rises. You might make decisions about hiring or letting people go, re-locating teams or ending projects, These things can be hard. The right decision might not always feel good, maybe people are being made redundant, or you’re forced to u-turn on a hiring decision. Generally decisions like this come after a long, well-considered period of evaluating the options. There are laws and guidelines to make sure we do the right things in these circumstances even if they still feel nasty.

But not all decisions are so big.

As we go through our day-to-day life we make decisions about all kinds of things. Many of these decisions are made with little data, or even very little consideration but they can have big implications. You might need someone on your team to do some additional work, or work late in the office. Maybe they need to stop what they’re currently working on, or join a different team.

Sometimes it can feel even more minor, maybe someone wants to leave early for an appointment, or work from home. Even if we don’t have a full picture when we make these decisions we can make the right decisions by simply doing what’s right as a human. We can make sure they understand what we’re asking, and why. We can give them space and time to articulate their concerns or questions, in the format that best suits them.  We can trust them.

When asking people to do something different or new we can remove a large workplace stress by simply making the priorities clear. Adding more work to a busy workload is a common and unfair practice. We should clearly state out expectations of where this fits into someone’s work, and if we don’t know what else they’re working on we should make sure to find out before deciding to allocate more work.

As managers we will often have more context on situations and are well placed to drive direction through a team but we should treat that context as a privilege. People choose to work with us, and by taking just a bit of time to work with them we can remove so much of the work-place frustration and stress.