October 30, 2014

Growth

A series on the Faithlife core values: Honesty. Openness. Awesomeness. Growth. Initiative. Elegance. Shipping.

We spend a lot of years preparing to be ‘all grown-up.’ Childhood is focused on learning and growth and experiences in preparation for becoming ‘an adult.’

The artificial milestones of graduation ceremonies and significant birthdays at 18 and 21 only serve to reinforce the bright-line distinction between ‘growing child’ and ‘grown-up adult.’

And all too often there is a huge distinction. After two decades of constant growth and learning, some people pass a milestone like graduation and immediately transition into a completely different life as an adult: they not only stop growing physically, they stop growing intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally as well.

Why? Why would people spend 20 years in constant growth and learning and then stop suddenly?

Because growth hurts. It hurts our minds, like how you felt your brain was being physically stretched as you tried to master a new type of math or science. It hurts our bodies, like when you fell while learning to ride a bicycle or breathed-in water while learning to swim. And it hurts our pride, like when you were laughed at while struggling with a foreign language or learning a new sport. We all suffered trauma in our childhood that shaped who we are today. We jokingly call much of that trauma ‘a learning experience’, but the strongest lesson taught is ‘avoid that pain.’

As children, we can’t avoid the pain of growth: parents, teachers, and the world-at-large all conspired to force us through an endless gauntlet of painful learning experiences. Until suddenly, one day, we walk across a stage and are handed a diploma and freedom, and realize that no one is going to daily force us through uncomfortable growth experiences any more.

And so we seek comfortable positions, in our lives and careers, where we know the rules, can get along easily, and can generally minimize the pain and embarrassment of learning new things.

And that is okay.

You don’t have to learn everything. In school you have to learn what someone else decides is important. In life you can choose what you want to learn, and can even choose to quit a job that would require an uncomfortable amount of growth.

I have chosen not to learn another language. I took a language in high school; I tried to learn a few on my own. But I was unwilling to put in the effort and pay the price in time and discomfort. So one day I explicitly chose to take it off my list of goals.

I did choose, intentionally, to learn to appreciate as many ethnic cuisines as possible. I’ve repeatedly eaten some unappetizing things. I’ve developed a taste for things I once found disgusting. But I have chosen to draw the line at insects: I am confident I could learn to appreciate the grilled skewers of insects in the Chinese food market, but I don’t want to suffer the discomfort of getting there; I don’t value the resulting growth enough.

All our fears about learning and growing are true: It does hurt. It does take time. It is uncomfortable.

But there are great rewards for suffering the pain: A sense of accomplishment. Recognition and respect from others. Enjoyable experiences. Richer relationships. Better financial compensation. Superior skills and abilities.

I travel a lot, and I know that speaking only English means that I am missing out on some great experiences. My business and personal relationships with people in other countries are not as rich as they could be. But in light of what my business is, where my travels are, and what I enjoy, I am okay with that trade-off.

I do, however, want to lead a business. From early on I wanted to be an entrepreneur. And I didn’t know how to do it. And I saw that it required skills I didn’t have. And I realized that business is something that is constantly changing, and that leading a business would require not just mastering a fixed set of skills, but continually learning and trying new things over and over. And I signed up for the hard work and the pain.

I still read and study. I attend educational events. I take factory tours, interview other business people, and force myself to grow through uncomfortable experiences like learning to speak in front of a crowd and to ask for a sale – things I was terribly afraid of at the start.

Growth is not a job requirement in many jobs. Many businesses want employees to do what they’re told, and to do it exactly the same way every day. They value consistency over creativity, and need only a small number of growth-minded individuals to staff occasional openings in management.

Faithlife is not one of those businesses. We value growth, and we are constantly growing as an organization. We need growth-minded people every day. We don’t have a business where consistency is more valuable than creativity.

McDonald’s wants the same fry, cooked the same way, with the same potatoes, every day, everywhere, forever. Faithlife is a technology business; we need to be improving constantly.

I could extol the benefits of growth in general – it really is great to enjoy a dozen exotic cuisines! Learning another language opens up a new world of experiences and friendships! But the growth that Faithlife needs and expects from you is specifically related to our business.

Faithlife is a growing business in a changing market. Next year we will need different skills than we need this year. We will need competency with tools and technologies that may not even exist yet. We will need people who understand our customers, products, and company and can lead others. We will need new ideas for products and services to offer our customers, and we will need new customers.

I hope you are one of the people who will be able to help us grow and continue to do excellent work at the next level.

Are you?

Are you growing? Are you learning new things? Are you developing new skills?

Most importantly, are you uncomfortable? Because that’s the real sign that you are growing. And once you understand that the discomfort is a normal, natural part of growing you can learn to embrace it. You know that it’s uncomfortable when you try to do or learn something new, and you know the discomfort goes away once you master the new thing. Then you can seek out a new level of discomfort in another area of incompetence, knowing that the satisfaction and relief of competence is sure to follow. It’s a virtuous set of stair-steps up towards higher knowledge and competency – and, in the workplace, promotions, advancement, and better compensation.

How to Grow at Faithlife

  1. Are you reading a book a month? If not, your career prospects are dimming. Top leaders average at least a book a week. (Seriously. See http://www.n2growth.com/blog/the-learning-ceo/ and http://lgdata.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com/docs/2215/699282/CMC-White-Letter-4-12.pdf)
  2. Write an email or blog post in which you teach something. You’ll learn, too. (That’s one reason I write these commentaries on our values.)
  3. Ask “How did you do that?” Ask how they made the sauce. Ask for a tour of the factory. Ask “Why?”

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Thank you for investing so much of your time and career here at Faithlife. Let’s keep growing together.

(See also: http://www.slideshare.net/BobPritchett/if-you-are-not-growing-you-are-shrinking)

October 29, 2014

Ask for improvements, not feedback

Your work can be better. Mine can be, too.

I want to be intentional about excellence. I want our team to decide that we are going to value excellent work and pursue excellence in our own output. And here’s the tool to make it happen:

Improve the work, not the worker. Seek improvement over feedback.

Nobody likes to be criticized, and most of us feel uncomfortable criticizing co-workers. And since we strongly associate the work and the worker, we avoid criticism of our own work and tolerate average output from those around us, even when we know we could help make it better.

We can avoid becoming a culture of mediocrity if we all agree to value excellent work. And a few simple process and vocabulary changes can make it a comfortable growth experience, not a painful critique.

Ask for help improving your work. Ask your co-workers, your supervisor, or anyone who might be able to help. Don’t ask “Is this good enough?” or “Do you like it?” Ask, “How can this be better?” Even if you think it’s perfect already.

This simple change in phrasing gives others permission to help you improve your work without criticizing you. It doesn’t assume there’s something wrong with the work. It is just an invitation for suggestions on how to make it better. And that’s no criticism at all, because everything can always be better.

And when you ask for help, you demonstrate that you want to do better work. That’s an important message to be sending out, and means you’ll get maximum help doing a better job, instead of the minimal feedback needed to stay out of trouble.

Let’s pursue excellence, and let’s not be afraid to expect excellence from each other. Let’s have the courage to say “I think that can be better,” the humility to ask “How can this be better?”, and the wisdom to know that it’s a privilege to be part of a great team working hard to be better all the time.

October 28, 2014

Shipping

A series on the Faithlife core values: Honesty. Openness. Awesomeness. Growth. Initiative. Elegance. Shipping.

It doesn’t matter how great something is if no one is using it.

We get paid when we deliver value to our customers. At the start, our idea -> implementation -> delivery loop was very short. We had an idea, we implemented it, shipped it, and got paid. Then we took the next idea and implemented it and shipped it, too.

Not only did we turn ideas into cash quickly, we rarely shipped a feature that wasn’t useful, we rarely wrote code that didn’t get used, and we were rarely beat to a new opportunity by a competitor. We had a tight feedback loop and could hear our customers clearly.

As the company grew the loop got longer and longer. The product was more complicated. We had bigger ideas we wanted to implement. We tried to anticipate needs, not respond to them. We had enough cash to take the time to do things right the first time.

This is a natural consequence of growth. And there are good things about it, and bad.

The danger is when your idea -> implementation -> delivery loop grows so long that you never complete the loop. You can discuss and meet and think about an idea so long that it never moves to implementation. Ideas that do make it to implementation can die there as they are tweaked, refined, improved, and perfected.

Companies can, and do, invest a lot of time and energy in things which are never delivered to a single customer.

And along the way there’s a danger of trading your external focus (on customers) for internal focus (on process/politics/co-workers). A short loop lets your customers tell you how good your ideas and implementation are right-away. A long loop involves a lot of investment without feedback.

Is there a danger of shipping junk quickly and damaging your relationship with your customers? Yes. There should be a minimum standard of quality. We value Awesomeness and Elegance, too. But an organization with a short loop can fix problems quickly. An organization with a long loop will suffer even more from mistakes.

How do you know when to ship something?

It can be hard to know. It takes judgment and experience, and even then it’s still a guess. There are some questions you can use to help you decide, though.

Are we trying to make this perfect? Perfect is the enemy of good. We don’t need it perfect, we need it shipped. Then we can get feedback, improve it, and ship again.

Can we split this project into phases? Are there obvious levels or stages or break-points in this project that would let us ship it in useful, but smaller, pieces? We can start shipping a commentary series with just Philippians, instead of waiting until the whole Bible is complete. Are there even smaller units? Could we start with just the most commonly preached pericopes in Philippians?

Can we test it manually? Is there a way to test the assumptions of the project using a much smaller implementation before investing in a complete one? (The first Logos Pre-Pub was administered manually, with no special code. Community Pricing was introduced and tested using Survey Monkey instead of Logos.com. The first payment plans were managed in paper file-folders long before automation was introduced. We proved the concepts before investing in implementation.)

Can we change this easily if we need to? Some decisions will be costly to change later (choosing your accounting system, hiring the right person, picking the coding language) and are worth taking the time to get right. But many decisions in design and implementation can be changed easily; don’t let those get in the way of shipping.

Is this the Minimum Viable Product? “The minimum viable product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.” The MVP is more important at start-up then during the incremental improvement phase, but it’s a useful concept to understand and keep in mind even as we incrementally improve our products.

When I first started playing with computers I experimented with software and hardware. I had a soldering iron, built circuits, and hoped to assemble my own computer. But I quickly learned that not only did I need parts to build things, but a mistake with a soldering iron could break a part in an expensive way. Software mistakes, on the other hand, were relatively painless — I just changed the code on the screen.

There’s a reason we are in the software business. It’s well-suited to short loops, quick tests, and shipping incrementally. Especially now, with automatically downloading updates and web-based products.

Let’s get stuff out the door, so we can live to ship again.

October 27, 2014

Without objection

“Without objection, I will ship the alpha Tuesday at 10 am.”

“Without objection, this ad will go live on the front page at end of workday.”

The most powerful phrase for shipping a product, a web page, or an idea is “without objection”.

We are all drowning in email. But there’s no escape; sometimes there are a lot of people in the loop. So email discussions circulate, picking up longer and longer CC lists.

If you are pretty sure the project is ready to ship… if you’re sending this so everyone knows… if you just want to make sure there’s no typos… then don’t ask for a reply.

Show initiative and tell everyone what will happen, and when, if you don’t hear back. Then, assuming things are fine, people can review and delete your email without creating more. And you’ll look like an action-oriented-shipper-of-things.

Add a deadline, so people know how soon they need to reply if they do object. It also helps to put this warning at the very start or very end of the email, so it stands out.

October 26, 2014

Awesomeness

A series on the Faithlife core values: Honesty. Openness. Awesomeness. Growth. Initiative. Elegance. Shipping.

We live in world of quality products. Where it is unusual to repair a product, because products either rarely fail, or are so cheap that when they do we simply purchase a newer, better model for less than the cost of repair.

Every business aims to provide excellent service. A 60-cent candy bar has a toll-free customer service number on the wrapper, and a call will ensure a complete refund of your expenditure and an apology for the inconvenience.

Today, doing a good job, building a quality product, and serving customers well aren’t things that set a business apart. These things are the norm.

Awesomeness still stands out.

  • When a product has a surprisingly useful or fun feature, that’s awesome.
  • When someone exceeds your expectations in service, that’s awesome.
  • When you’re surprised by something delightful, that’s awesome.

It’s awesome if it’s something people would tell other people about. It’s awesome if it makes people say “That’s awesome!”

It doesn’t have to be expensive. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t have to be extravagant. It doesn’t have to be consistent.

Just awesome.

It’s hard to be consistently awesome. It takes hard work and creativity. Sure, you could throw money at the problem, or build elaborate checklists and flow charts, and turn some mundane things into awesome things. But the best awesomeness is a surprise.

Our customers would find it awesome to discover a $100 bill in their new software package as an ‘instant refund.’ If every package had one, though, people would soon wonder why we didn’t just lower prices and reduce complexity. If it were routine, it would lose its awesomeness.

How can we be more awesome?

Go beyond what’s required once in a while. If a customer has a problem we can address with a $50 credit, give them a $70 credit. Not every time. Not every customer. Just once in a while. Because it’s awesome when you get more than you deserve.

Actually listen to people. So many people call or write with a story about why they need us to break a rule, not apply a policy, or make a special exception. It’s easy to receive this on auto-pilot, and hold to the rules. And we need to. Except sometimes we shouldn’t. Because it’s awesome when someone overrules a policy to help you.

Surprise someone. Send a thank you note after a routine transaction. Include a tiny gift in a shipment. Implement a feature that’s fun and delights people.

Is there a part of our business, product, or service that isn’t awesome? Put together your own ‘awesome brainstorming team’ and come up with some awesome ideas on how to fix it.

Is there a way we could be more awesome for our customers? Suggest it.

It’s hard to be awesome all the time. But it’s one of our core values – and one of the things that will keep our customers happy, returning, and telling others about us.

August 14, 2014

Read for Cash

Our “continuing education” program for employees can be summed up in one word: read.

Every year we pay our team to read business books. The financial incentive (15 cents / page) and requirements (the books are all pre-approved, the campaign lasts six weeks) lead people to read outside their normal interests and outside their normal job responsibilities.

In 2006 32 employees read 104 books; this year we had 151 participants read 485 books.

I encouraged everyone to contact the authors of the books they read simply to thank them for writing the book. 102 participants did, and two-thirds heard back from the author. (As quickly as within an hour, and most often with appreciation and a personal reply.)

To get paid, participants email a short review and star rating to the entire company. It can be as little as a sentence, but was often a thoughtful review with insights on how the lessons learned apply to our business. I read all 485 reports and was daily impressed with what a smart and interesting team I get to work with.

On a scale of 1 – Useless to 5 – Great Program, employees rated this year’s Read for Cash 4.5.

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