Chimamanda Negozi Adichie’s Brilliant Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”

Among the many interesting things that came up in my conversation earlier this week with my friend, Eugene, was his recommendation of Chimamanda Negozi Adichie’s wonderful 2009 TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.”

This line summed up the talk beautifully:

I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

A few things came up for me as I watched. First, Adichie mostly talks about the single stories told by others. I think her premise also applies to the single stories we sometimes tell ourselves. Finding that balance between honoring the truth of our experiences while also recognizing that it is just one experience is really challenging.

Second, Adichie’s complaints about the single stories many Americans have about Africa in general and about Nigeria in particular reminded me of my travels there in 2008, especially this line:

Every time I am home I am confronted with the usual sources of irritation for most Nigerians: our failed infrastructure, our failed government, but also by the incredible resilience of people who thrive despite the government, rather than because of it.

In a blog post about my experiences leading up to the trip, I wrote:

One of my best and oldest friends, Gbenga Ajilore, is Nigerian. So is one of Blue Oxen‘s advisors, Ade Mabogunje. I spoke with both of them before the trip, and they were excited about me coming here. The reaction from other friends and colleagues was quite the opposite. Most of the non-Nigerian Africans I spoke to do not think highly of Nigerians for reasons that I don’t quite understand. Several of my well-traveled friends had horror stories to share, although none of them had actually visited here. Cheryl [Francisconi] is the most fearless and experienced traveler I know, and even she had some scary stories.

I was incredibly fortunate to have many stories about Nigeria going into that trip, as it enabled me to have an open mind. Cheryl told me something else right before the trip. She thought that my week in Nigeria would be one of my most difficult travel experiences, and that I would walk away loving the people there. She was so right on both counts.

Structures that Support Good Habits

Last week, Seb Paquet and I completed the third of our four-week experiment around regular conversations, including our regular “jazz hands moments” video (above). My “jazz hands moment” was the importance of self-care and how it applied to things as simple as determining whether or not to participate in a phone call.

However, upon reflecting on it some more this weekend, I wanted to highlight a different aside that came up in our conversation. At the beginning of our call, Seb complimented me for having our meeting notes prepared once again and said, “I’ve never met anyone as consistent about it as you.” It sounds like a little thing, but it was not only a nice acknowledgement, it was validation for the work I’ve put in around developing structures for supporting good habits.

One of the most important precepts of my work is good information hygiene. This is a concept coined by my friend and Blue Oxen cofounder, Chris Dent, almost a decade ago. I have long preached its importance, but in truth, I have not always been the best practitioner.

That is, until I started working with the team three years ago that would eventually evolve into Groupaya (which just celebrated its second anniversary yesterday). We agreed as a team on the importance of good information hygiene, some of our specific practices, and the basic roles that each of us would play. This included another principle to which I hold near and dear: Everybody works the line.

We developed a set of practices around project and meeting documentation, and we held each other accountable. I feel like we achieved about 80 percent of what I wanted us to be achieving, which was light years ahead of what I’ve seen anyone else — in our business or otherwise — do.

And, it was only the third best team I’ve been on when it comes to group information hygiene. Those distinctions go to my HyperScope team (seven years ago) and to my work with Chris (ten years ago). Both those teams had a higher overall literacy around information hygiene, which enabled us to distribute the roles more effectively.

However, what was different about the Groupaya experience was that I was much more intentional around building these practices into habits, and I walked away more disciplined about some of these practices than I ever had been before.

In addition to intention, the other key to my success in this case was my role as group “teacher.” In previous instances, we were all peers, equally committed and skilled. In the case of my Groupaya team, I played more of a “teacher” role, which gave me a heightened sense of accountability. I felt more pressure to model good practices.

I’m glad that I continue to model these practices, even after almost a year away from my old team. Information hygiene is a critical part of being a high-performance team, and I hope to continue to model these practices with every group with whom I work, regardless of the specific role I play.

Projects as Experiments

99u had a nice piece last week on treating your side projects as experiments. It essentially makes the Lean Startup point that framing it as an experiment makes the end goal is learning. “Failure,” if it leads to learning, is actually success.

I had started framing things this way with clients toward the end of Blue Oxen Associates, and we refined that approach at Groupaya, both internally and with clients. It’s also how I’ve been managing my current work transition, and it’s been a super helpful framing.

I’ve found five keys to making this experimental approach work:

  1. Declare your hypothesis up-front. Be intentional, but hold it lightly.
  2. Figure out what metrics to track. Again, hold these lightly. You will almost certainly discover better ways of measuring throughout the course of your experiment.
  3. Commit to a beginning and an end. This is particularly important, and shorter periods work better than longer. (You can always have many shorter experiments.)
  4. Write-up what you learn.
  5. Track all your experiments. I use a digital kanban board (a tool called KanbanFlow) to track my experiments, but I’ve actually been thinking about migrating to paper.

This provides  just enough structure to allow you to carry out your experiments systematically without overwhelming them with process. More importantly, it forces you to create time to reflect and synthesize your learning, which increases the chances of that learning actually sticking.

Ten Years of Blogging

Today is my ten year blogiversary.  This is my 615th blog post.

In my first blog post, I wrote about the tools I used and wrote to support this blog. In my second blog post, I explained why I started blogging. I cited three reasons.

First, I wanted to understand the medium better, and I learn best by doing.

Second, I wanted a platform for carrying out some tool experiments.

Third — and this was the main reason — Chris Dent, my cofounder at Blue Oxen Associates, kept nagging me to do so. If you’re looking to blame someone for 615 posts worth of noise over ten years, blame Chris.

In that first post, I made light of people blogging about their cats and the things that they ate. My intention was to use this medium strictly as a place to share my thinking on collaboration. While I’ve continued to use it that way, I also drifted far away from that. It became much more of a personal sandbox, and yes, that has included many posts about things that I’ve eaten. Based on my analytics, people are much more interested in what I eat than they are about what I have to say about collaboration. So it goes.

In celebration of my blogiversary, I had hoped to do an extensive analysis of the things I’ve written over the past ten years. Then last week, my friend and mentor, Doug Engelbart, passed away.

I’ve been thinking a lot about him and about what he meant to my life and my career. That man literally changed my life. I wanted to write something special about him, but it’s been a hard process, and it will take me some time.

So in the spirit of old school blogging, I’ll point you to two things written about Doug by two friends: the aforementioned Chris Dent and Brad Neuberg, who worked with me on Doug’s HyperScope project in 2006.

Thank you to everyone who ever engaged with me on this blog, whether it was linking to a post, leaving a comment, or simply reading and thinking about what I had to say. The simple act of writing things down has helped me considerably, but I’ve also developed some amazing relationships with people through this blog, and that has meant the world to me. We’ll see if I can manage another ten years.

Lessons on Mentors and Mentorship

Rebecca Facilitating

My friend and former colleague, Rebecca Petzel, wrote a sweet and thoughtful blog post about mentorship, social entrepreneurship, and her experiences at Groupaya. Truthfully, I got a bit teary when I read it. I mean, she called me an “elder.” That’s just wrong. I’m still in my 30s, for pete’s sake!

In her piece, she said something that troubled me (besides calling me old). She wrote, “What breaks my heart is that most in my current town seem to look their noses down on the opportunity to learn from those with more experience.”

I often feel the same way, but I hope it isn’t true. Perhaps it simply doesn’t occur to people to seek mentorship. Or maybe they’ve had bad experiences dealing with people “with more experience.”

A few years ago, I wrote a post entitled, “Advice for (Female) Changemakers.” My second recommendation there was, “Find your people,” and I alluded to a story about forming the advisory board for Blue Oxen Associates back in 2002.

One of the people I approached was Richard Gabriel. I didn’t know him personally at the time, but I had read many of his writings, including his classic essay, “Worse Is Better,” and his book, Patterns of Software: Tales from the Software Community. It was the latter that made me reach out to him. I was interested in applying Christopher Alexander’s notion of pattern languages to collaboration, and Richard was one of the pioneers who had introduced these concepts to the software engineering community.

So I invited him to coffee. Richard turned out to be brilliant, thoughtful, eclectic, and very kind, exactly the kind of person I wanted to be around and learn from. Toward the end of our conversation, I started drumming up the courage to ask him if he would serve on our advisory board. Despite his gentle demeanor, I was very nervous. Richard was accomplished; I was not. Worse, I had no idea what I was doing, and I could barely explain what the company was supposed to be about. These did not seem to be ingredients for success.

But I was there, and he was there, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever have another opportunity to do this face-to-face. So I asked.

Richard said, “Yes, on one condition.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“That you actually reach out to me for advice.”

It turned out that others had asked him to serve in similar capacities, but that they never bothered reaching out to him. And he didn’t see the point of being on an advisory board if no one asked him for advice.

How simple and wonderful is that?

To this day, I have no idea why he was willing to say yes, and I’m not sure he knows how much that and his subsequent advice — which I asked for many times — meant to me. But I had concocted many complicated reasons in my head for why I shouldn’t reach out to him and why he wouldn’t say yes. Fortunately, I ignored those voices in my head.

Unfortunately, those voices still talk to me, even today, and it’s a constant practice for me to ignore them. So if you’re seeking opportunities to learn from others and if you’re hearing similar voices in your head, I hope you’ll ignore them too, and ask. And if you’re wanting to mentor others, don’t assume that others will come to you, and don’t get cranky when they don’t. Invite people to learn with you.

(Here’s my invitation.)

I have been extremely fortunate to have had many mentors in my (still very young) life. It’s something that I continue to seek, because it’s such a valuable and meaningful way to learn. A few years ago, my friend, Katherine Fulton, was observing the many mentors in my life, and she said, “You’re starting to reach the age where people are going to be reaching out to you to mentor them.”

That made me start reflecting on the kind of mentor I wanted to be. I’m still figuring it out, but here’s what I’ve got so far:

Be humble. More specifically, don’t assume that your experience makes you better or smarter or wiser than anyone else. Experience is a great teacher, but you have to be a great student. As much experience as I have, there’s even more that I haven’t experienced. That will always be the case. The best mentors never stop learning… from everyone, young and old.

Be open. Mentorship is not about molding an army of young people into clones of yourself. With experience often comes rigidity. I’m determined to fight it, but I know it’s a losing battle. I’ve shared a lot of my thinking and experiences with Rebecca over the years. Some of it, she’s taken to heart, and some of it, she’s rejected. That’s a great thing. Whatever she chooses to do with her life and her career, it’s going to be great, and if I’ve managed to contribute to that in any positive way, I’ll be grateful. Moreover, I’ll have the opportunity to learn from the things that she chooses to break away from.

Be caring. As much as I’ve learned from all of my mentors, the thing they did for me that meant more than any of that was to care about me. I’m overwhelmed with emotions every time I think about this. I would have failed a thousand times over without their moral support, and I’m not sure I deserved any of it. What I can do is pay it forward, to look after those around me without expecting anything in return.

Understanding the importance of caring has been my greatest lesson so far. But, I’m still learning.