Find a cure

Horace wrote: “Feras non culpes quod vitari non potest.

“What can’t be cured must be endured.”

It’s a useful question to ask yourself about your business (and personal life too), “Can this be cured or must I endure this?”

Often the answer is, “yes, this can be cured.” If not cured, at the very least, systems can be put in place to reduce an undesirable trait/behavior/outcome to a low level.

Leadership is direct

In 1964 Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in New York City. Despite over two dozen witnesses who claimed to have seen or heard the attack, no one helped. Psychologists call this the bystander effect.

According to Psychology Today, the bystander effect "occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation…The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is for any one of them to provide help to a person in distress." This happens for two reasons:

  1. There is a diffusion of responsibility
  2. Social influence

The more witnesses present, the more each person’s portion of responsibility is diffused across all witnesses. This diffusion prevents people from taking action because it is perceived that someone else in the group will take action. Social influence comes into play because each person looks to another person on how to behave.

Business Bystander Effect

Although not as fatal or gruesome as the Genovese case, there is a bystander effect in a business. We’ve all been to meetings where the leader asks a question or asks for volunteers and no one answers. We’ve all been part of a project where there seems to be an inverse correlation between the number of project participants and the number of ideas generated.

I believe that leaders accidentally create an environment that allows for the diffusion of responsibility. They do this through how they talk and write. In an effort to create a team environment, leaders overuse "we" to create a feeling of inclusion.

"We’re in this together."

"It’s all about the team."

Those things are fine to say and it creates a certain amount of esprit de corp. Where "we" goes wrong is in the assignment of tasks and delegation of responsibility. Some examples:

"We should research the impact of X on Y."

Or, "We should make the client is aware."

Who is the "we" that should be doing the work here? When used between two be people who have a supervisor and subordinate relationship, this may be very confusing. Will the supervisor do the work or will the subordinate do the work? When used between a supervisor and a group of subordinate—like in a team meeting setting—it’s even worse (we’ve all walked out of meetings not knowing who’s to do what).

Overcoming the bystander effect

In the same Psychology Today article, it suggests the following to overcome the bystander effect:

> "If you are the victim, pick out one person in the crowd and make eye contact."

I’ve also read elsewhere that once eye contact is made, you, the victim, should direct your request for help to that one person. "You, call 911."

Often leaders shy away from saying, "You should research the impact of X on Y" because it is too direct. To get buy-in or collaboration, language is weakened so that it doesn’t come off as too demanding or assertive.

I’ve fallen into the "we" trap but I’ve been working to catch myself and correct it in my speech and writing. Now I write and talk more like this:

"You do that and I will do this."

It’s still teamwork because we’re working on it together but the division of responsibility is very direct and clear. You’re handling that while I handle this. There’s no confusion.

Being inclusive is good. Creating a team environment is good. Leaders should strive to do those things but leaders also need to be clear and direct.

Buy the book now

I’ve developed a habit of buying a book when I see an interesting book. I don’t wait.

I used to add books to an Amazon wishlist or some other list. The problem with wishlists, for me, is that I rarely revisit my wishlist. The reasons why the book is even on the list are soon forgotten and I usually don’t buy it.

Reading is not a luxury. It’s not something you splurge on. It’s a necessity.

Ryan Holiday

It’s not an impulsive purchase. It’s not a want, it’s a necessity.

While I hold the ideas in some books in high esteem, I see books, the physical object, as tools. I am no more delicate with a book as I am with a hammer. I mark up books with pens and highlighters, I dog-ear the corners, and I put sticky notes on them. Some books look like they’ve been through hell and back. Some book covers have a certain patina that only shows when they’ve had their wisdom extracted over and over again.

There’s a shelf in my office dedicated to books waiting to be read. I call this shelf my tsundoku shelf. When I finish a book, I go to the shelf and sit in front of it. I pull a book out and sample it. If it doesn’t hold my interest at that moment, I put it back. Its day will come.

In-office work has problems too

Catherine Merrill, the CEO of Washingtonian magazine, wrote an opt-ed in The Washington Post about remote work. Her staff at the magazine didn’t like her opinion and went on strike. It seems understandable when your CEO writes: "So although there might be some pains and anxiety going back into the office, the biggest benefit for workers may be simple job security." That sounds like a threat.

Remote work doesn’t fit for every industry and every type of work or worker, but some of the benefits laid out by Merrill about in-person office work seem antiquated.

> "I’ve found a great sense of pride in how well our teams have done during the past year. However, we all started at a place where we and our employees knew one another, which made remote work considerably easier and more productive. We also could rely on office cultures — established practices, unspoken rules and shared values, established over years in large part by people interacting in person."

While an established in-person company culture may have influenced employee behavior in the first few months of remote work, to think it is the same company culture today as it was at the beginning of the pandemic is to not understand how company culture works.

Company culture is not static. It can potentially change for the better or worse with each new hire. It can change when a once highly esteemed employee turns cancerous and infects company culture. It can change with changing with societal attitudes regardless of what company leadership wants (see the recent drama at Basecamp when its leadership wanted to make their company apolitical.)

No doubt that employees have developed new cultural normals brought on by remote work and those cultural norms will return to the office with them and continue to evolve because culture evolves.

> "How will we persuade new employees to come aboard, and, more importantly, stay, if they don’t have leaders they can build solid in-person relationships with?"

The idea that you can’t build a relationship without being in person is ridiculous. My company has been remote since 2014. In that time I’ve only met one out-of-state employee (we’re based in California). Our company is not unique. Look at Automattic the makers of WordPress and Basecamp (even with all its current problems). There are probably more that I don’t know about.

> "The “Do you have three minutes to discuss X?” These encounters will happen. Information will be shared. Decisions will be made. Maybe if you are at home you’ll be Zoomed in, but probably not. As one CEO put it, “There is no such thing as a three-minute Zoom.”

There is no such thing as "three minutes to discuss X." These spontaneous interruptions are the plague of office work. "Serendipitous" collaboration is a euphemism for productivity killer.

Books I Read in 2020

I keep a list of books I read each year. In 2020, I read 17 books and listened to 3 audiobooks. Some were great, some were mediocre, some I read because I was tired of hearing about them.

Recommended books are denoted with *.

This year, I decided to link each book to Bookshop.org when possible. This is an affiliate link that supports independent book sellers. I would be lying if I told you that I buy only from Bookshop.org. I don’t. I try to buy from them as much as possible, but Amazon’s lower prices are a temptation that I can’t always pass up.

Books

  1. Atomic Habits *
  2. Sidehustle Millionaire
  3. 12 Rules for Life
  4. The 80-20 Principle *
  5. This Book Will Make You Dangerous
  6. How to Take Smart Notes *
  7. How to Be An Antiracist
  8. Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts *
  9. Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life
  10. The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing
  11. Lifespan: Why We Age—and Why We Don’t Have To *
  12. Fix This Next: Make the Vital Change That Will Level Up Your Business
  13. Clockwork: Design your business to run itself
  14. Deep Work: Rules for Focus Success in a Distracted World *
  15. Schopenhauer as Educator
  16. Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think *

Audiobooks

  1. How to Destory America in Three Easy Steps
  2. Rage *
  3. Black Rednecks and White Liberals: Hope, Mercy, Justice and Autonomy in the American Health Care System *

Tools don’t work, you do.

Task management tools are only as good as the person using them. If you don’t use the tool, it’s not going to work.

I used to chase down different tools looking for new features or innovative implementations that will help me get organized and get more done. I’ve used Omnifocus and Todoist. I’ve gone full manual mode with a bullet journal, and, now finally, I’ve been using Things for the past few years.

The reality is this: none of those tools work if I don’t work them. A tool is dumb and only the skilled craftsman can make something of value (or get value out of the tools.)

At my company, Basis 365 Accounting we use Karbon as our workflow tool. It’s a great tool (and an expensive one) that wasn’t working for me. I had hundreds of overdue tasks, notes, and emails.

It wasn’t the tool’s fault. It was my fault. If Karbon were a personal task management tool, I might have declared task management bankruptcy and deleted everything to start over or even moved to a different tool. Because it’s a tool my whole company uses, I couldn’t simply opt-out of the tool.

I had to do the hard work of doing the work over a couple of weeks. I cleaned up, cleared out, and organized all my work in Karbon. Now, I just maintain it on a daily basis.

When I was cleaning up, I kept it simple. For each task, note, or email, I applied David Allen‘s Four Ds, prioritized in this order:

1. Delete
2. Delegate
3. Do
4. Defer

I looked for opportunities to delete things, especially things that are not essential. If I couldn’t delete it, I tried to delegate it because I’m not always the best person to do a task. If I couldn’t delegate, I would do it right away if it takes a short amount of time. If something takes longer, I schedule (defer) to a time in the future where I can focus on it fully.

I did it every day until it was cleaned up, which leads to the fifth D: do it daily.

Get-up-and-go

I’m trying to read more fiction because a great writer can reveal insight on the human condition or a universal truth about being human. Maybe that’s why Neil Gaiman says, “Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.”

Here’s a seemingly “true thing” that jumped out at me when I read “The Sound of Waves” by Yukio Mishima(1):

“The only thing that really counts in a man is his get-up-and-go. If he’s got get-up-and-go he’s a real man…”

The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima

(1) Rather morbid, but interesting nonetheless, Mishima committed seppuku (Japanese ritual suicide) at age 45, after a failed attempt at a coup d’état in 1970.

On being selected

Throughout our lives we are going to put ourselves up as a candidate for selection. We are going to hope that some person or organization will select us.

Sometimes we will be selected and other times we will not.

It can be disappointing to not be selected. Some people equate not being selected as failure; as some shortcoming in their character or efforts.

Not being selected is not failure.

Not being selected is an outcome that is based on your skill, effort, and luck.

You can control skill and effort. You can’t control luck.

“I make my own luck.” No, you don’t. You enhance your skill and effort so that you could “possibly” reduce bad luck. I say “possibly” because it’s a fool’s errand to try to reduce something that will always be there, out of your control.

When you have a good outcome, it is easy to think it’s because of your skill and effort and forget good luck. When you have a bad outcome, it is comforting to dismiss it as bad luck.

Skill + Effort + Luck = Good or Bad Outcome.

True failure is in not trying at all.

HEY’s KILLER feature.

If you’ve been hanging around the right Twitter alleyways, you’ve probably heard a lot about HEY, the new email service from Basecamp.

Yesterday, I watched Jason Fried‘s video tour of HEY. The ability to annotate an email caught my eye. Hey lets you leave notes to yourself to any email thread.

This is a KILLER feature.

Even though I have not used HEY’s implementation of this feature (I’m still waiting for my invitation), I’ve use a similar feature daily in another email/workflow SaaS. At my company, Basis 365 Accounting, we use Karbon, a workflow management software that allows our team to leave notes on email threads. Again, it is a KILLER feature because it allows us to collaborate with each other to coordinate a response or seek clarity without cluttering up our inboxes with forwarded emails.

When HEY brings this feature to the business version HEY later this year, I guarantee that it will be your favorite feature.

This one feature by itself, is almost worth the $99/year price point, but HEY offers up so much more that justifies the price. As a point of comparison, we pay about $70 per user per month for Karbon.

This sounds crazy to say in 2020, but I’m genuinely excited about email again and I’m pounding the refresh button frequently just to see if the invitation has landed in my mailbox.