Lessons from Sports #738: Alignment and Long-Term Planning

Balancing short- and long-term strategic planning is hard largely because they often conflict. A great example of this is when the Green Bay Packers drafted Aaron Rodgers in 2005. It was a shocking choice, because the Packers already had a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Brett Favre, and they had short-term needs at other positions. Furthermore, Rodgers was far from a sure thing. The Packers were sacrificing their immediate effectiveness for a potential Favre replacement 3-5 years in the future.

In sports, part of how you enforce the discipline of balancing the short- and long-term is by separating the roles of coach (short-term) and general manager (long-term). Andrew Brandt, the Packers former vice president of player finance, described how this dynamic played out when choosing to draft Rodgers:

We get to 24 and we got one name staring at us, and it’s Aaron Rodgers. We know we have the most durable quarterback in football [Favre], so I can just sense [in] the room to my right were the coaching rumblings where you could just sense they’re like “Oh my God, are we really going to do this? We’re going to take a player that can’t help us this year, maybe not next year, maybe not the year after, maybe never.” There was some rumbling. And I sense what was going on to my left side, which is more management oriented, and it was the same thing they always say, which is trust the board. We put in all our scouting, we’re going to take the best player available. And obviously management won out over coaching. It was one of those ultimate best-player-available decisions. But you look at the Green Bay Packers that year, that’s the last thing you would think that we’d pick.

It turned out to be the right choice. Rodgers replaced Favre three years later (while Favre was still good), has been two Super Bowls (winning one), and is almost surely a future Hall of Famer.

What would it look like if more organizations (especially smaller ones) had separate roles responsible for short- versus long-term planning?

(The article above is also an excellent case study on the imperfect science of decision-making.)

In other sports news, the historically great Golden State Warriors eliminated the Portland Trailblazers from the NBA playoffs, 4-0. Afterward, the Blazers star point guard, Damian Lillard (who had an outstanding series), commented on how “together” and “on the same wavelength” the Warriors play.

It’s extraordinary commentary coming from a great basketball player on a very good team. At this level, every team invests heavily on getting everybody on the same page, and all good teams achieve that. But there are clearly different levels of alignment, and when you reach higher levels, you play at higher levels. I think it speaks powerfully to the importance of alignment, which most organizations in other fields do not value as highly as professional sports teams.

(As an aside, my friend, Pete Forsyth, wrote a great article about Lillard, free licenses, and Wikipedia in 2014. I recently helped make Pete famous in the Oregon sports world this past week when the above, Creative Commons-licensed photo I took of him sporting his Lillard jersey at a Warriors game appeared in this Willamette Week article this past Monday.)

Recommended Readings on Doug Engelbart’s Ideas

Earlier this month, someone asked me for the best resources to learn about Doug Engelbart’s work. Doug didn’t publish prolifically, but he wrote quite a bit, and some of his papers are must-read classics. You can find most of his writing and many other great resources at the Doug Engelbart Institute, which is curated by his daughter, Christina.

Start with his classic paper, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework”, which he published in 1962.

For Doug’s own historical overview of his work (published in 1985), read, “Workstation History and the Augmented Knowledge Workshop.”

For a deeper understanding of his conceptual framework for high-performance teams, knowledge work, and the role of technology, read, “Knowledge-Domain Interoperability and an Open Hyperdocument System” (1990) and “Toward High-Performance Organizations: A Strategic Role for Groupware” (1992).

I’ve written a lot about Doug and his work over the years, and it represents only a fraction of what I learned from him. For a high-level overview of his work and why I think he’s so important, start with my tribute to him when he passed away in 2013 (“Inventing the mouse was the least of it”) as well as my more personal tribute.

Brad Neuberg also wrote an excellent overview of Doug’s ideas. There are also short video clips of me, Brad, Jon Cheyer, and Adam Cheyer at a memorial service for Doug that I think are worth watching.

Luisa Beck did a great podcast earlier this year for 99% Invisible on Doug’s design philosophy, featuring Christina and Larry Tesler.

For more down-and-dirty essays about and inspired by Doug’s thinking, read:

For more on Dynamic Knowledge Repositories (DKRs) and Networked Improvement Communities (NICs), read:

Finally, for a detailed repository of notes and recommendations from when I first started working with Doug in 2002, see this list. Sadly, many of the links are broken, but most are probably findable via search.

If you have others to recommend and share, please post in the comments below!

Faster Than 20: My New Website on High-Performance Collaboration

Last week, I quietly launched a new website called Faster Than 20. It’s a place where I can share stories more intentionally about high-performance collaboration. It’s also a place where I can share my tools, frameworks, and lessons from my experiments.

Why a new website? Isn’t that what this blog has been about?

Yes and no. I’ve written a lot here about my work over the past 10 years, and I will continue to do so. But the primary goal of this site was never to build an audience. It was to capture whatever happened to be clunking around in my head.

If I had a thought that I wanted to make sure I captured somewhere, I could blog about it here. Most of those thoughts were about my work, although I’ve diverged more and more from that over the years. I never worried about being coherent or concise. I never worried about blogging regularly (or too frequently). I never worried about staying “on topic.” I just wrote what was in my head.

It was a liberating way to frame this little experiment of mine, and it’s been incredibly generative. I’m proud of the good stuff I’ve written, and I don’t worry about the less good stuff. Perhaps the most surprising and delightful thing has been that I have unwittingly built an audience, despite my best intentions. It’s small, and it’s largely (but not entirely) built around existing relationships, but it’s wonderful, and it’s made the whole experience much more fulfilling.

Earlier this year, as I was ruminating about how I could be making a bigger impact, I started trying to find great, well-organized resources on the web for actionable, meaningful information on how to collaborate more effectively. I was shocked to realize that there really aren’t any. There are plenty of websites like this one, but you have to wade around to find the nuggets. That’s a problem, and it’s one that I feel like I’m capable of addressing. But I didn’t want to address that here. I like having a place where I can ramble about anything.

So I started Faster Than 20. It’s not a new company, just a home for my thinking, my experiments, and lots of stories about high-performance collaboration. I’m being very focused about my audience — practitioners wanting to learn more about collaboration — and about meeting their needs. That means making it easy to follow in terms of content, frequency, organization, and channels. I’ll also be exploring lots of different ways to share stories more effectively through visuals and other media.

If you’re a practitioner looking for a great resource on collaboration, I’d encourage you to follow Faster Than 20. You can subscribe via emailTwitter, or RSS. There are three blog posts right now, with many more to come:

I would especially love to hear what you would find valuable. Please share your ideas below in the comments.

Finally, I’ll continue to post rambling thoughts here, not just about collaboration but about all the other things I’m interested in. If you’re interested in that too (and I love you if you are), many thanks, and please keep coming back!

The Art and Importance of Giving and Receiving Negative Feedback

My senior year of high school, I became the editor-in-chief of our school newspaper. For a variety of reasons, I had a huge chip on my shoulder about it. Most of the founders of the paper had graduated, and very few of my classmates were active participants, leaving me with an inexperienced staff. Furthermore, the previous editor-in-chief had publicly declared that he did not think we would be successful.

Unfortunately, for the first few months of my tenure, I was proving him right. I was a horrible manager, and that chip on my shoulder made me ten times worse. No one was living up to my expectations, and I made that brutally clear to everyone. I knew that people didn’t like hearing from me, but I didn’t care, because I felt justified in how I was feeling.

One day, a classmate contributed an article that I didn’t like. I can’t remember exactly what I said to him, but it was something along the lines of, “This article sucks,” only meaner and less constructive.

My friend — who had never dealt with me in this context before — blew up at me. He said, “If you want people to contribute to the paper, you can’t treat people that way.” Then he stormed out of the room.

This all happened over 20 years ago, and I still remember it like it was yesterday. It was a defining moment for me, because I realized that I was being a total asshole, that being an asshole was not a measure of good leadership, and that I generally did not like the feeling of being an asshole.

I apologized to a lot of people that day, starting with that friend. If I could do it all over again, I also would have thanked him. Without his clear and specific feedback, I would not have had the self-awareness to turn things around. It put me on a path to becoming a better leader.

It also made me empathetic toward people who behaved like I had. People who behave like assholes might not realize it or might not be doing it on purpose, and they might appreciate getting that feedback so that they can work on correcting it. I’ve met a lot of leaders who are honestly surprised to receive this kind of feedback, because no one has ever offered it to them before.

It’s risky to be on the other side of that, because it’s safer to assume that someone behaving like an asshole already realizes it and doesn’t particularly care either way. If that’s the case, then offering that feedback might have negative consequences. But if you stay silent, then no one wins. No one has any chance of improving, and the situation will likely perpetuate itself.

A friend of mine who works in tech recently related a story where she felt slighted by another member of her team. It’s possible that it was unintentional, and it’s also possible that it reflected a pervasive culture of sexism. Regardless, I encouraged her to have a conversation with that teammate and to explain how his actions made her feel. I encouraged her to be specific and non-accusational (e.g. “Your action made me feel slighted because of this”). I explained that if I were in the position of her teammate, that I would want that kind of feedback.

I also understand that offering that feedback puts her at risk. Her teammate might not care, or worse, might ridicule her. It might affect their long-term working relationship.

Not saying anything only guarantees that the working relationship will remain damaged, and it increases the likelihood that these incidents will happen again. Furthermore, this particular friend is both strong and relational. I know she’ll find a way to communicate this clearly and compassionately.

That said, it’s easy for me to offer this advice to someone else. It’s a lot harder to do. It requires a lot of courage.

As a leader (especially one who can be intimidating to others), how do you make it safe for your teammates to give you this kind of feedback?

First, make it an explicit team norm. Whenever I form a new team, I make time to discuss how we want to work together and to come up with a set of shared groundrules. If the team makes it a shared goal to give this kind of feedback to each other, it becomes about enforcing shared norms rather than being some kind of personal beef.

Second, invite feedback. If you’re not constantly asking for feedback and making it clear that you welcome it, don’t expect to get it.

My recent forays into photography have really underlined this point for me. Before, when I would share pictures, most of the feedback I got was superficial — “great photos!” or perhaps a like on Facebook. Now, I make it clear that I’m trying to get better and that I want feedback, especially critical. When I get positive feedback, I also ask people to get specific, so that they’re not just telling me they like something, they’re telling me why they like something.

It’s been an incredible process. I’ve gotten feedback I never would have gotten otherwise, which has made me a better photographer. I’ve discovered that most of my friends are actually quite sophisticated in evaluating pictures. And, some of my friends have discovered the same thing about themselves, which has been a cool revelation for them! I’ve had friends say to me, “I’ve never really talked about photography in that way before… and I like it!”

Third, model giving and receiving constructive feedback. This is always the hardest thing to do. I’m pretty good at choosing my words carefully, so that I’m describing what I’m seeing and feeling as opposed to projecting. I’m not good at managing my emotions through my body language. If I’m frustrated or angry, I may use safe language, but my body language often sends a different message. It requires a tremendous amount of self-awareness and centering practice to master those emotions so that you can communicate more effectively.

As for receiving feedback, here’s how I see it. I know that I am sexist, racist, and prejudiced in a thousand other ways. We all are, even if that’s not our intention. I work hard to treat people fairly, but I am not going to be successful all the time. So the best I can do is to be clear about my aspirations, recognize that I will make mistakes, be accountable and compassionate when I make them, and try my best to improve.

Grant Achatz, Small Business, Worldly Impact

Life, on the Line is the remarkable story of Grant Achatz, chef/owner of Alinea in Chicago and widely acknowledged as one of the best chefs in the world. It’s a compelling play-by-play of the commitment, vision, and tenacity required to be the best. It’s also a beautiful tale of the mentorship (from Thomas Keller), partnership (with Nick Kokonas, co-owner of Alinea and coauthor of the book), and friendship (with Keller, Kokonas, and many others) that kept Achatz on track. There’s even a bad guy (Charlie Trotter).

Oh yeah, and then there’s the tongue cancer.

In 2007, barely into his 30s and shortly after reaching the pinnacle of the restaurant world, Achatz was diagnosed with Stage IV tongue cancer. The prognosis was horrible. Most people with this form of cancer lose their tongue, half their face, and part of their neck. Only 50% survive after surgery. Achatz didn’t see the point of living this way and was ready to give up. Then he got lucky and found his way into a clinical trial at Northwestern. He managed to survive, tongue and face intact, but he also lost his sense of taste for many months (a story well-documented by the New Yorker in 2008).

The book was a page-turner in so many ways, and it’s a great read for anyone into food, high-performance collaboration, design, or new media. It’s a well-told story overall, but in my current state of exploration around impact, there was one brief, throwaway line in the Epilogue that caught my attention:

Alinea is a small business run by a small group of people.

After reading all of the great things that Achatz accomplished, and knowing the broader context for his story, it was remarkable to see his restaurant described this way. I was somewhat incredulous, so I ran the numbers using hints from the book. Sixty covers a night at an average of $200 a cover, five nights a week, 51 weeks a year for the flagship Alinea (not counting his other two restaurants, book royalties, appearances, etc.) — about $3 million in annual revenue. Given the downtown Chicago real estate, the cost of sourcing countless top-quality, often obscure ingredients, and 60+ salaries, it’s a miracle that they make any money at all.

So yes, it seems quite accurate to call Alinea a small business. Somehow, I found this comforting and inspiring. I want to live comfortably and joyfully, and I want to make an impact. I think it’s easy to get into the mindset that you have to create some sort of global, financial monolith in order to achieve that kind of success, but I don’t think that’s right. I like small business. I’ve started two of them, and I’d like to be part of another one. You can do that and make an impact.

Achatz’s story offers somewhat of a playbook for doing that. (It’s not the perfect template. Work-life balance is clearly not important to him. Maybe that’s an inevitable trade-off, but I haven’t quite succumbed to that belief yet.) I think the basic formula is simple, reminiscent of Steve Martin’s career advice to young comics:

Be so good they can’t ignore you.

There are lots of things that have to happen in order to scale your impact, but it starts with constantly working on your craft, constantly striving to be the very best you can be. Do that, be a good person, and all that other stuff will eventually fall into place. This book was an excellent reminder of that.