Read: Think Like a Rocket Scientist

I could see why this book has nearly a five-star rating in Amazon. I pretty much enjoyed it and I finished it sooner than I was planning to (which means trouble for me if I end up buying another book this month). Maybe I’m also a bit hung over from watching Star Trek (Picard and Enterprise) so I enjoyed the mention of “interplanetary” in a nonfiction book far more than what might be normal. Overall, I liked the anecdotes and the tips that didn’t feel too abstract (i.e., another way of saying they didn’t make me do a lot of head tilts with an accompanying “Whut?!”).

As usual, I’m posting my notes for my future self, and for whoever is interested enough to check this out. The book is by Ozan Varol, and the title is Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life.


Stage One: Launch

  • Chapter 1: Flying in the Face of Uncertainty
    • “Our ability to make the most out of uncertainty is what creates the most potential value.” In uncertainty lies opportunities. Also it’s inevitable. One way to safeguard ourselves is through backups and buffers (redundancies and margins of safety). It’s important to just get started–even with unknowns–you’ll figure it out as you go along.
  • Chapter 2: Reasoning from First Principles
    • First-principles thinking is “systematically doubting everything you can possibly doubt, until you’re left with unquestionable truths.” This involves challenging assumptions and invisible rules. How it always has been done doesn’t mean it’s the only way it should continue.
  • Chapter 3: A Mind at Play
    • This is about curiosity, allowing our minds to explore, and applying combinatory play–“exposing yourself to a motley coalition of ideas, seeing the similar in the dissimilar, and combining and recombining apples and oranges into a brand-new fruit.” Allowing your mind to be exposed, together with exposure to diverse things and people–these lead to diverse and more creative ideas.
  • Chapter 4: Moonshot Thinking
    • Dare to have moonshot ideas. Exercise your mind through divergent thinking, imagining what a science-fiction solution would look like. The other half of it though is convergence, pragmatism, and backcasting to realize that moonshot idea.

Stage Two: Accelerate

  • Chapter 5: What If We Sent Two Rovers Instead of One?
    • Important to differentiate between strategy and tactics. Maybe the problem you’re trying to solve is tactical rather than strategic, or you’re trying to solve the wrong problem.
      • “A strategy is a plan for achieving an objective. Tactics, in contrast, are the actions you take to implement the strategy.”
    • Some tactics to try when solving a problem:
      • Against the Einstellung effect, look beyond the default answer
      • Think beyond the question to ask what’s the real problem
      • Against functional fixedness, look beyond the default uses of the thing or tool, separate function from the form
      • Try the reverse or a different angle or approach
  • Chapter 6: The Power of Flip-Flopping
    • Be open to being wrong. You can change your mind. Ask what am I missing? Challenge your own working hypotheses. “Our goal should be to find what’s right—not to be right.”
  • Chapter 7: Test as You Fly, Fly as You Test

Stage Three: Achieve

  • Chapter 8: Nothing Succeeds Like Failure
    • “It’s as dangerous to celebrate failure as it is to demonize it… A moratorium on failure is a moratorium on progress.” Instead of fail fast, it should be learn fast. Instead of sweeping them under the rug, document failures (or the lessons) so you can use that as a reference.
  • Chapter 9: Nothing Fails Like Success
    • The danger in success is that it can cause people to feel too complacent. When we succeed, there’s a tendency to overlook the near misses, bad decisions, failures that we went through along the way. Without addressing them, “The bad decisions and the dangers will continue into the future, and the success we once experienced will someday elude us. Foster a never-complacent mindset. “You have to disrupt yourself or others will do it for you.” And similarly, “If you’re not humble, life will visit humbleness upon you.” Regardless of outcomes, do a retro (or postmortem).

Epilogue

I close with a quote from the book which in turn is a nested quote of Jeff Bezos: “In every annual letter to Amazon shareholders, Jeff Bezos includes the same cryptic line: “It remains Day 1.” After repeating this mantra for a few decades, Bezos was asked what Day 2 would look like. He replied,”

“Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”

Unexpected section on testing

I was just at Chapter 7 of Think Like a Rocket Scientist, and that section was literally about testing. And of course, I couldn’t help but draw parallels or find links of what he said to software testing.

“The test must run forward to shed light on uncertainty, rather than run backward to confirm preconceptions.”
>>> Tests are for finding information, not just to confirm positive test cases, but also to see what happens with negative test cases.

“Experiments on Earth must mimic, to the greatest extent possible, the same conditions in flight.”
>>> This hinted at the importance of having our test environments closely resembling our prod environments.

“The best way to determine an object’s breaking point is to break it… This objective requires exposing every component, down to the screws, to the same type of shocks, vibrations, and extreme temperatures awaiting them in space.”
>>> It initially sounded like stress testing to me. And with the mention of components, down to the screws, made me think of unit tests and integration tests.

“It’s not enough to test the reliability of individual components. Without systems-level testing, you can unwittingly unleash Frankenstein’s monster.”
>>> What he said.

“When you make a last-minute change to a product and ship it out the door without retesting the whole thing, you’re risking disaster.”
>>> This just shouted impact analysis and regression testing to me.

“Instead of creating artificial testing environments disconnected from reality, we’re better off observing customer behavior in real life.”
>>> This, and one of the other anecdotes, reminded me of User Testing and A/B Testing.

“Treat your testing instruments like your investments and diversify them. If you’re building a website, test it using different browsers and different computers.”
>>> Again, what he said, nothing to add there.

Lines that resonate to me as a tester

I’ve started reading this recently published book by Ozan Varol called Think Like a Rocket Scientist. I’m only at the first chapter which is about uncertainty, and I came across these few lines which I found interesting. As a tester or reviewer, you come across bugs. While it can mean a little more work for the team, sometimes you can’t help admit that some of the bugs–or whatever little things that trigger them–are cool or fascinating. Maybe it’s just me. But say hi in the comments if you appreciate cool bugs once in a while.

Anyways, here are those quotes. Those three blocks below are from the book:


“Discovery comes not when something goes right,” physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn explains, “but when something is awry, a novelty that runs counter to what was expected.”


Asimov famously disputed that “Eureka!” is the most exciting phrase in science. Rather, he observed, scientific development often begins by someone noticing an anomaly and saying, “That’s funny…”


Einstein’s younger son, Eduard, once asked him why he was famous. In his reply, Einstein cited his ability to spot anomalies that others miss: “When a blind beetle crawls over the surface of a curved branch, it doesn’t notice that the track it has covered is indeed curved,” he explained, implicitly referring to his theory of relativity. “I was lucky enough to notice what the beetle didn’t notice.”

Read: Agile Conversations

I’ve previously told myself that I’d ease up on somewhat work-related reading, and shift to something lighter instead. Well, that was a quick break. I came across this newly released book and I ended up checking it out, and finishing both books today. The book is Agile Conversations: Transform Your Conversations, Transform Your Culture by Douglas Squirrel and Jeffrey Fredrick. I feel like I expected too much from the book; maybe it was just too soon for me to read stuff like this again since what I picked up from it are like echoes of recent readings.

It’s not altogether for naught. On the upside, I did pick up the origin story (one sentence, people might expect an elaborate story) of that familiar “Trust but verify” statement.

Anyways, sharing below my summarized bullet points which aren’t really as informative as the actual book or my actual notes, but hopefully, they’d give me a hint on where to find what in case I want to read back on it.

  • Change your conversations, change your culture. It’s like their “Save the cheerleader, save the world” statement.
  • In adopting something codified, there’s the tendency to take in the superficial process changes (e.g., having daily scrum, WIP limits, tool selection, etc). But more than just the processes, it’s the shift in mindset and view towards people as drivers of the success (over processes) that are needed. That Taylorist factory mindset needs to be dropped.
  • There are two theories of action. And we’re unfortunately we’re naturally more inclined towards the counterproductive, defensive behaviors of Model I. But the good news they say is, through regular effort and practice, Model II (behaviors of transparency and curiosity) can be learned.
  • Conversational Analysis can be used to heighten your awareness for where you lack genuine questions (you ask, but not really), when you have unexpressed thoughts/feelings, or when you encounter certain triggers or exhibit tells and twitches.
  • Trust Conversation – Be vulnerable. Be predictable. Use the Ladder of inference in discussions where there’s misalignment (i.e., step back, find safe common ground, before you move deeper into the discussion).
  • Fear Conversation – Watch out for Normalization of Deviance (that process wherein we become somewhat immune to the red flags and fail to raise them). Use coherence busting to step back and refrain from jumping to conclusions or assuming the worst.
  • Why Conversation – Why you don’t start with why is because you need to address Trust and Fear issues first. Distinguish between interests and positions; step back to understand the reasoning and the interests that lead to the possibly conflicting positions. Advocate your position, but be inquisitive on what the other side has to say. Work with a joint design for increased stake of people in the Why.
  • Commitment Conversation – This brings up the “It’s done, but…” example. Agree on meaning. Walking skeleton i.e., strip down to the bare essentials and progressively add in (as the bandwidth would also allow).
  • Accountability Conversation – Adopt Theory Y (or People Positive as mentioned in Brave New Work) mindset. Use Directed Opportunism for communicating plans and intentions up and down the chain of command. Radiate intent and information (e.g., current state, plans and intended outcomes, alert to obstacles) using Agile Radiators (e.g., ceremonies like Planning, retrospectives, demonstrations; and tools like information radiators).

I also had a bunch of knee-jerk reactions to some stuff.

Reaction to 9 leadership mistakes

I came across a post in Medium entitled New managers: 9 leadership mistakes you don’t know you’re making. I’m not a manager—and not even considering a managerial career path—but that really hasn’t stopped me from reading about leadership and organization. And after having read it, I don’t think the content is just for new managers anyways. Regardless of being old or new or even just about to be in a leadership role, it’s good to be reminded (or warned) of the possible mistakes you might be making so that you can do something about it.

I was initially going to react on a couple or so points, but ended up writing what Medium estimated as a 5-minute read. So below are the mistakes shared in the post. For each, I supplemented with my own points and, for some, reiterated points I wanted to highlight.


Mistake #1: You think building trust is about team-building.

While it is an opportunity to make a connection (but it’s still up to you to make the most out of it), it’s not enough. The post author shares this link giving the three most effective ways to build trust as a leader: (1) Show vulnerability as a leader, (2) Communicate the intent behind your actions, (3) Follow through on commitments.

Try to think about how your own leaders built trust with you (or maybe how they didn’t), and use that to amplify your own trust-building experience with your own teams.

Mistake #2: You think your team members generally know what’s going on.

We’ve heard of over-communication, or even “hyper-communication.” But this quote says it best:

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

So how would you know if your message gets through? One is that you’re getting the right actions out of it, but that might take time. One other way is to maybe talk to some members of your team—include the ones who people usually talk to—and ask for feedback.

Communication is such an exercise of empathy. Try to put yourselves in your audience’s shoes, and then ask yourself what would you (as them) get from hearing what you (as them) just heard.

Mistake #3: You believe being busy as a leader is good.

Don’t wear busyness as a badge of importance or of being effective. If you’re too busy, you’re time-poor. When you continuously work like you are so pressed for time, that has high chances of taking its toll on quality. It could be on the quality of the actual outputs since you might miss some details. Or it could be on the quality of your interactions—you might leave people feel like they’re not heard or seen even if you have squeezed a whole one hour for them.

I guess there might be some who feel exhilarated with busyness. And it’s OK. Just don’t let that diminish the quality of your interactions with the people you work with.

Mistake #4: You sort-of prepare for your one-on-one meetings (when you have the time).

Nothing says you have their best interest at heart better than putting in the work to actually show it. And that includes setting aside some time to look into what you’ve previously discussed, what news can you share that’s relevant to them, what concerns have reached you that relates to them, given whatever’s happening recently what would be the right questions to ask them. Check out the link that was shared how to prepare for your one-on-one meetings.

And as you go into that one-on-one, remind yourself that the meeting is not about you or your causes or your agenda. It’s about them.

Mistake #5: You try to solve the problem yourself, because you’re the domain expert.

Sometimes people will approach you asking how would you attack a certain problem they’re experiencing. I think I’ve been lucky because folks who ask me usually have already given the problem a lot of thought and would just like to have an nth opinion. So just be there to hear them out, and give your two cents if asked. But ultimately, solving the problem will be up to them.

Being in your position though, there’d be things you know—that they might not—that could help them like certain contacts, or references, or other available options outside of what they may be privy to. So be a means to connect them. You don’t necessarily have to go out of your way setting up all the needed meetings or doing POCs yourself. Again, solving the problem will be up to them.

Check out the link that was shared on the most counterintuitive leadership tip for more insights.

Mistake #6: You think transparency all the time is good.

When things aren’t clear or when intentions aren’t communicated well, there’s clamor for transparency. But as she mentioned, “transparency can backfire if you don’t hold two concepts in view: Transparency requires context, and transparency is on a spectrum.” The link she shared on how transparent should you be as a leader is an elaboration of this. Check it out, and here’s a quote from it that I wanted to highlight:

As a leader it’s important to ask yourself: In what cases is transparency appropriate and helpful, and in what other cases is it distracting or a burden? Are you being transparent, just for the sake of being transparent, or are you truly trying to help people make better decisions, and feel a greater sense of trust?

Mistake #7: You think you communicate the vision in your team well.

Again, I’m reminded of the single biggest problem in communication quote. Although not quite about management or leadership, a webinar I took mentioned how high level decisions influence low level ones. And it’s pretty similar. The vision or intent that you share to the team would create the actions that would push for that vision to be realized. Say the wrong thing, or don’t say it clearly enough, you get misalignment and what you get may be results that do not support the vision at all or as effectively as you wanted.

In terms of something actionable, I guess verbalize the vision in the context of your team. It’s possible that there’s some grand vision handed down to you, and if you can, distill it so that it’s more relatable and understandable for your team. And see Mistake #2 regarding communication.

Mistake #8: You think you’re giving enough feedback.

You recognize when recognition is due with “Thanks!”, “Good job!”, “Well done!”, and so on. But I think feedback that’s more helpful are the ones that will help people improve. But it’s hard when you’re not working on the same project together. You get some high level input that the project is doing fine, but you have no idea how well your team mate is actually faring.

Maybe that’s it—maybe you should work on something together.

Maybe you can look into the available structures at work that will allow for feedback to be openly and safely shared.

Mistake #9: You’re nice.

No, this is not a mistake. But I guess “nice” means different things to people, easy to talk to at the very least. But more than that, nice to me means being kind, being considerate, having empathy, playing fair, not being an asshole, and upholding respect for others and myself.

If you want only the easy, positive, fluffy conversations, that’s NOT nice. That could do a disservice to your team. To have honest, fair and helpful conversations, that’s nice.

If you’re always people-pleasing at the cost of putting your team members on a difficult spot, then that’s NOT so nice. Throwing people under a bus is not cool. Coming up with something workable IF you can and being able to decline IF you can’t — that would be nice.

You’re buddy-buddy with your team, that’s nice. But as their leader, are you helping them find opportunities where they can flourish? If not, that’s not nice. That you do your job as a leader effectively—and that includes upholding respect for the people you lead and letting them flourish—that’s nice.


That was long. If you’re here, thanks for reading this far!

What I’ve been reading, and what to read next

Yesterday, I was shopping in Amazon for the next book to read. I was having a bit of a hard time since I couldn’t really pinpoint what I was looking for. Maybe it’s a mix of quarantine blues, and this feeling that the books I’ve been reading have quite recurrent themes just differently stated.

This 2020, so far, I’ve gone through a few titles. There were topics I read in line with product management:

There were books about leadership, evolutionary organizations, and maybe somewhat about driving change:

  • Brave New Work (2019) by Aaron Dignan – At USD5.99, this feels quite sulit!
  • Reinventing Organizations (Illustrated, 2016) by Frederic Laloux, illustrated by Etienne Appert – This one is available in an option the author calls “pay-what-feels-right.”
  • Going Horizontal (2018) by Samantha Slade – Among the three, I think this is the only one aimed with individuals more than the leaders in mind.

Still on leadership:

  • Essentialism (2014) by Greg McKeown
  • The Culture Code (2018) by Daniel Coyle
  • Fast Times (2020), a perspective from leaders at McKinsey & Company – This one was available at Kindle Unlimited which I had a discounted subscription of $0.99/month but only for a limited period back then.
  • Art of Action (2011) by Stephen Bungay – Not available in Kindle

Then on leadership with focus on communication:

Then there’s this one that’s a bit out of place, but quite relevant in these quarantine times:

  • Remote (2013) by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson – (but I like their newer book more)

The leadership books and organizational change books especially are really more intended towards leaders (as it should be, I suppose) than individual contributors like me. But that’s not to say I don’t get anything out of them. The insights are very interesting, the anecdotes mostly enjoyable, and the examples give you an idea on how to possibly be better. It just takes a little extra layer of processing of how can this apply to me, or how can I apply this in my own capacity, or how do I get THEM to apply this. So back to my shopping… I guess one other reason why I was stuck was because I felt like reading similar books will only be like the author preaching to the choir, and I’m not really the one who needs convincing.

So I’ve decided on a much lighter reading on a topic that I also enjoy (because of course). Next read is: Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.

Read: Leadership is Language

I stumbled upon this book, Leadership is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say–and What You Don’t in Amazon while I was looking for a book by the same author, L. David Marquet. I was initially curious about Turn the Ship Around!, but then I saw this more recently published title (just this Feb 2020) and it had a 5.0 out of a 5.0 star rating out of only 26 reviews (but still!). The title also got to me because I like language. When I read and the author chips in some tidbit on certain word usage or history, I’m more than likely to be appreciative of that info.

After having read it, what I like the most is how it brings to light some of my usual tendencies and offers better alternatives. Say, for instance, I like showing appreciation towards my colleagues, and I might say something like “Cool! Good job!” A better approach would have been to say something more specific and descriptive, Another example is how we’re inclined to give instructions over providing info e.g., “Be back by 10AM” vs “We’ll start at 10AM.” The difference feels so subtle but it’s there.

Now, I doubt my language patterns would change overnight. But awareness is a start.

Sharing here the rest of my notes…

We’re continuously OSCILLATING between thinking and doing

  • Like in PDCA (plan-do-check-act), we shift between action and reflection, doing and deciding.
  • Before action – what are we going to do? what are we going to learn?
  • After action – what have we learned?

DIFFERENTIATING between embracing variability and reducing variability

  • Thinking benefits from embracing variability
  • Doing benefits from reducing variability
  • Big mistake example: “Often, leaders driving toward consensus are reducing variability when they should be embracing variability and driving away from consensus. Then they wonder why they’re not hearing new ideas from their team. The problem is they’re calling the wrong play. They’ve brought a reduce-variability playbook to an embrace-variability game.”

6 NEW PLAYS

  • Starting in redwork… Transition from redwork to bluework with:
    • CONTROL THE CLOCK, not obey the clock
    • COMPLETE, not continue
  • While in bluework
    • COLLABORATE, not coerce, with the goal to:
    • IMPROVE, not prove
  • Transition from bluework back to redwork with:
    • COMMIT, not comply
  • And use the enabling play:
    • CONNECT, not conform

CONTROL THE CLOCK, not obey the clock. This highlights importance of introducing and allowing for PAUSES to address something wrong or to get into some collaborative work; and that this is responsibility of leadership (to create space for it, or to initiate this himself as folks might not feel empowered to do so).

COLLABORATE, not coerce. This highlights a funny point: ‘Often “collaborating” is really coercion in disguise.’ So we need to be mindful that we really are collaborating, rather than just subtly getting people to agree or validate our own ideas.

  • Vote first, then discuss – If the boss goes first, others might not be inclined to share own ideas.
  • Interesting language shift: Avoid binary yes/no question. Shift towards asking how, tell me more.
  • 7 sins of questioning and their corresponding alternative
    • instead of question stacking, try one and done.
    • instead of an attempt at a teaching moment with a leading question, try a learning moment (asking how would that work, tell me about that)
    • instead of a “why” question, try “tell me more.”
    • instead of dirty question (subtly holds biases and anticipates a particular answer), try a clean question (asking what do you mean by… or what do you want to have happen?)
    • instead of a binary question, start the question with “what” or “how”
    • instead of self-affirming questions, try self-educating questions (like what am I missing, what could we do better?)
    • instead of aggressive questioning jumping to the future, reset, start from a place where they feel secure (known, present, past), and move gradually toward areas of uncertainty and vulnerability (unknown, future)
  • Interesting language shift: Give information, not instructions. Instead of saying “Be back at 10AM,” say “We’ll start at 10AM.”

COMMIT, not comply. This highlights that commitment is more than a decision, it entails action that is attached to the decision.

  • Interesting language shift: From using “don’t” rather than “can’t” to express commitments e.g., “I don’t miss deadlines,” rather than “I can’t miss deadlines.”
  • Apart from committing to ACT on a decision, also commit to LEARN.
  • Escalation of commitment “means that once we select a course of action, we stubbornly stick to it, even in the face of evidence that the course of action is failing.” It’s like sunk cost fallacy, and is something to watch out for.

COMPLETE, not continue. This highlights the need to make completion a part of the process of doing work. Upon completion, apart from the mental reset (and possible celebration), you put in some reflection to see what you’ve learned and to see whether it makes sense to still follow through the actions for a decision, or if the decision itself still makes sense.

  • Provides the critical pause for self-reflection and improvement, and celebration
  • “To celebrate with, not for: appreciate, don’t evaluate; observe, don’t judge; and prize, don’t praise.”
  • Interesting language shift: From something that gives judgment (e.g., Good job!) to something specific and descriptive (e.g., Thanks! I noticed that you structured the document really well, making the points really come through.”)
  • Interesting language shift: From recognizing characteristics to the specific behavior. Instead of saying “You guys are a great team,” say “It looks like it took difficult cross-department coordination to deliver this product.”

IMPROVE, not prove. This highlights the need to drop the ego and be open to think about what or how we could be better, or how we can make the work go better.

  • Resist the temptation to be good idea fairies. Use the team backlog and process the ideas in the next scheduled bluework pause. But this requires the right support framework to be in place. No backlog, no process, no scheduled time to process mean the good idea fairies will continue to be at it.
  • People’s own egos are the blockers of the improve play. Solution is not to blame; but to acknowledge that people can get defensive, and so the right mindset and language needs to be used when initiating this play.
  • Focus forward – don’t dwell on the mistakes, emphasize the potential
  • Focus on others or on the process – don’t play the blame game. Shift focus on how to help the team, how to help customers, how to improve workflow.
  • Focus on achieving excellence, not avoiding errors.

CONNECT, not conform. This part is about caring and trust — that you can’t connect without these two.

  • A flatter power gradient allows for more open communication that feels safe to say truth, tell it like it is, admit mistakes, and deliver bad news. But to achieve this rests on the hands of those who are in power.
  • Interesting language shift: From judging to observing e.g., instead of saying “You wrote that ugly report poorly,” say “I noticed a couple of typos, and paragraph 3 missed a few points that we covered in the review.”
  • Be open, trust first, assume positive intent
  • Don’t shut people down from participation or voicing out ideas by thinking you are/know better.

Reads on Evolutionary Organizations

I read Aaron Dignan’s Brave New Work: Are You Ready to Reinvent Your Organization? last January, and in the past week I read the illustrated version of Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations. As I read the latter, a lot of the stuff mentioned — terms, concepts, examples — felt so similar and consistent with BNW which made me think if Dignan just made a spin-off of Laloux’s work. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Either way, I found both books interesting and they were both easy reads.

As for differences, I think RO elaborated more on the evolution of organizations throughout our history. It also promotes the metaphor of organizations as living systems. There were some enumerations on management structures and practices that need upgrading, but not all items were discussed in the book (but maybe they’re covered more in the non-illustrated version). The book does have companion resources including a crowd-sourced wiki that has elaborations on the stuff not elaborated in the book.

BNW focuses more on the organization’s Operating System — elaborating on the different domains or parts that make us the OS canvas. Examples of the domains (there are 12) include purpose, strategy, meetings, membership, etc. Each domain gets covered with examples and you get ideas or suggestions of what you can consider applying to your own organizations. I think BNW also offers more guidance or aides e.g., sensing tensions (78 tensions that can be used as conversation fodder), proposing practices (deck of practice cards), conducting experiments (experiment worksheet).

I made a lot of highlights in both books, and I saw several instances of me saying “interesting…” in my notes. I guess one of my favorite ones (might be trivial) is on the use of the word “fractal” in BNW.

“Like organizational purpose, strategy is multidimensional and fractal—it’s happening on many fronts at many levels. Which means coherence matters.

Say fractal and images of geometric figures with repeating patterns come into mind. A definition of fractal is “a curve or geometric figure, each part of which has the same statistical character as the whole.” To describe something consistently happening at all levels at all fronts as fractal is such a cool word choice.

Read: The Culture Code

Just finished reading The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Dan Boyle. I read it even though I pretty much think the key to highly successful groups is having great individuals rallied together by a clear purpose and a selfless leader. That’s no secret — it’s just that getting that right mix is what’s elusive. Anyways, the book was a quick and easy read peppered with Ideas for Action (that’s literally the title of 3 chapters) on how you (but ideally your leader) can help in 3 things: (1) building safety, (2) sharing vulnerability, and (3) establishing purpose.

Actionable ideas

Be mindful of 3 basic qualities of belonging cues — Energy, Individualization, Future Orientation. So in your interactions with your team mates, invest energy by giving attention and being present in the interaction. Acknowledge the individual, don’t make him or her feel like he’s just another random person. Hint at a future, don’t make it feel like it’s just a hello and goodbye interaction.

Build Safety — We are safe and connected.

  1. Overcommunicate your listening – Start off with actually trying to listen, and hopefully your posture, expression, and whether you give a steady stream of affirmations (yes, uh-huh, gotcha) or encouragement to the speaker to keep going would shine through. If not, watch out for whether your posture, expression, reactions are conducive towards the speaker continuing to speak up.
  2. Spotlight your fallibility early on–especially if you’re a leader – Radiate humility and actively invite input with simple phrases like “This is just my two cents,” “I could be wrong here,” “What am I missing?”, “What do you think?”
  3. Embrace the messenger – When someone shares a truth especially bad news or tough feedback, don’t chew off their head. You have to make it feel safe for people to speak the truth.
  4. Preview future connection – Hmm… similar to above on future orientation. Maybe share some vision of the future that you have for the person (like if you see him or her as possibly the next great thing) or with the person.
  5. Overdo Thank-yous
  6. Be painstaking in the hiring process
  7. Eliminate bad apples – Bad apples like jerks, slackers, and downers just aren’t good for the psychological safety of the team.
  8. Create safe, collision-rich spaces – By “collision” he means serendipitous personal encounters. I guess this is about trying to increase the chances of interactions among the team. Could be as elaborate as setting up an extremely nice team area to something as simple as the team having coffee.
  9. Make sure everyone has a voice – Not just the loudest person gets heard. Everyone gets heard, and I guess what follows through is more important i.e., when it actually converts to change or action.
  10. Pick up trash – “Muscular humility”–a mindset of seeking simple ways to serve the group. Other examples could be allocating parking places, picking up checks at meals. “These actions are powerful not just because they are moral or generous but also because they send a larger signal: We are all in this together.”
  11. Capitalize on threshold moments – It’s not just in day one. In successful groups the author visited, they also paid attention to moments of arrival. “They would pause, take time, and acknowledge the presence of the new person, marking the moment as special: We are together now.” Think about it: A warm greeting to a team mate when he arrives versus not even batting an eyelash.
  12. Avoid giving sandwich feedback – Separate handling of negative and positive feedback — negative through dialogue, positive through “ultraclear bursts of recognition and praise.”
  13. Embrace fun

Share Vulnerability — We share risk here.

  1. Make sure the leader is vulnerable first and often – Recommended 3 questions for leaders to ask their people:
    • What is one thing that I currently do that you’d like me to continue to do?
    • What is one thing that I don’t currently do frequently enough that you think I should do more often?
    • What can I do to make you more effective?
  2. Overcommunicate expectations – People aren’t psychic and things don’t just magically fall in to place. “[Be] explicit and persistent about sending big, clear signals…”
  3. Deliver the negative stuff in person
  4. When forming new groups, focus on two critical moments – “At those moments, people either dig in and become defensive and start justifying, and a lot of tension gets created. Or they say something like, ‘Hey, that’s interesting. Why don’t you agree? I might be wrong, but I’m curious and want to talk about it some more.’ What happens in that moment helps set the pattern for everything that follows.”
    • The first vulnerability
    • The first disagreement
  5. Listen like a trampoline – Not just about nodding attentively, you add insight. “The most effective listeners do four things:…”
    • They interact in ways that make the other person feel safe and supported
    • They take a helping, cooperative stance
    • They occasionally ask questions that gently and constructively challenge old assumptions
    • They make occasional suggestions to open up alternative paths
  6. In conversation, resist the temptation to reflexively add value – Don’t try to end the conversation with your own solution. Let the discussion flow (except maybe if time-boxed or if the folks are going in circles).
  7. Use candor-generating practices like AARs, BrainTrusts, and Read Teaming – AARs are After-Action Review done by Navy Seals — It’s like our Retrospectives. BrainTrusts are by Pixar. Red Teaming is a way for exposing risks by creating a team to purposely think of ways to make you fail. One good AAR structure is to use five questions:
    • What were our intended results?
    • What were our actual results?
    • What caused our results?
    • What will we do the same next time?
    • What will we do differently?
  8. Aim for candor; Avoid brutal honesty
  9. Embrace the discomfort – “One of the most difficult things about creating habits of vulnerability is that it requires a group to endure two discomforts: emotional pain and a sense of inefficiency. But as with any workout, the key is to understand that the pain is not a problem but the path to building a stronger group.
  10. Align language with action
  11. Build a wall between Performance Review and Professional Development
    • Performance evaluation tends to be a high-risk, inevitably judgmental interaction, often with salary-related consequences.
    • Development is about identifying strengths and providing support and opportunities for growth.
  12. Use Flash Mentoring – Hours, instead of months or years
  13. Make the leader occasionally disappear – Not to be confused with toxic absenteeism. Given the right foundations and having set them up to know what to do, the team should still be able to perform.

Establish Purpose — This is what matters.

  1. Name and rank your priorities
  2. Be ten times as clear about your priorities as you think you should be – “Leaders are inherently biased to presume that everyone in the group sees things as they do, when in fact they don’t.” It doesn’t help when all the leader sees are nodding heads. Overcommunicate priorities.
  3. Figure out where your group aims for proficiency and where it aims for creativity – “Building purpose [for proficiency, machine-like reliability, usually for service] is like building a vivid map: You want to spotlight the goal and provide crystal-clear directions to the checkpoints along the way…. Generating purpose [for creativity, for empowering groups to build something that has never existed before] is like supplying an expedition: You need to provide support, fuel, and tools to serve as a protective presence that empowers the team doing the work…. Most groups, of course, consist of a combination… The key is to clearly identify these areas and tailor leadership accordingly.
  4. Embrace the use of catchphrases – No way, Jose. Corny. “They aren’t gentle suggestions so much as clear reminders, crisp nudges in the direction the group wants to go.
  5. Measure what really matters
  6. Use artifacts – “Their environments are richly embedded with artifacts that embody their purpose and identity … they all reinforce the same signal: This is what matters.
  7. Focus on bar-setting behaviors – Example given what about a hockey team that rallied their culture around a specific behavior they called “Forty for Forty” — it’s something that they do as part of their play and I guess it captures who they are in some way. I guess the closest analogy I can think of is for testers, we often said “Trust and verify.” Because that was really what was happening and what needed to continue happening. You have to take care of the relationship between you and the devs where you show them you trust them and you can be trusted; and that it’s not about distrust towards them when you do your checks or tests on their work; it’s because you have to do what you have to do i.e., to test.

That’s it. Summarized the 3 chapters (and I guess pretty much the whole book). Of course, the book can provide better context. Go buy it if you want, or buy me a hardcopy which I’ll gladly leave lying around in the office for sharing. Thanks for reading this far (or skimming this far, it’s ok), now maybe you can go over the list of actionable ideas again and this time look for what you can apply or explore further.

Read: Fast Times

I lucked out on getting a $0.99/month subscription to Kindle Unlimited (but only for a limited time–ironically). And earlier today, I found a new title that was just published quite recently. Coincidentally, it felt relevant because of some recent strategy/planning discussions that I’m hearing about. So I went ahead and read it.

The book is “Fast Times: How digital winners set direction, learn and adapt” by Arora, Dahlstrom, Hjartar, Wunderlich. It’s a short, easy read — finished it within half a day.

Some takeaways:

  • Speed is an outcome of deliberate actions and behaviors.
  • Emphasis on learn-and-adapt — ABL: Always be learning.
  • Bold aspirations must be matched by corresponding commitment. Tentative measures will not deliver.
  • Chapter 5 shows a few numbers illustrating how fast looks like (e.g., normal product launch is in 6 months, fast is in 2 weeks).
  • We’re inundated with how important it is to be safe to fail, BUT it’s not an excuse to say it’s OK to fail all the time. Chapter 6 supports that with its mention of “Failing is not always acceptable” with an enumeration of when it’s plain wrong.
  • “You’ve got to make sure that if you make mistakes, you learn from [them].”
  • Chapter 7 revisits the all familiar Tribe-Squad-Chapter-Guild model.
  • Chapter 13 just brings to mind how security needs to be integrated in development.
  • Chapter 14 shares the Digital Transformation Office’s (DTO) many roles — in injecting coherence to how squads are structured, in implanting importance of learning, in having visibility on what’s working (and not), in capturing, codifying, disseminating best practices, etc.
  • All that learning –especially from failing– isn’t worth much if no one can find it.