June 2, 2014

Printed books freeze the Zeitgeist

I came across this interesting criticism of a project to continually update a 1907 dictionary in a new online edition:

More importantly, and this is my real issue, the online-only presence of The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology means that we lose Zeitgeist, an important historical insight that we won’t see for decades, perhaps centuries down the line. … Being cast in stone, printed resources provide future generations with a specific snapshot of a specific age. An online-only, “ever new” resource lacks that tangibility, and with it we lose a mirror into our present-day cultural construct.

I appreciate how authoritative ‘a book published in year‘ is as a statement of exactly what people believed or knew at a point in history. This is an interesting thought about one of the (few) disadvantages of always-up-to-date content. Thankfully, we have the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

May 26, 2014

Everything changes but people

Over thousands of years we have learned that people never change but that our culture and circumstances – technology, buildings, tools, communications, transportation, etc. – change constantly.

Yet when people make big plans (or worse, write big laws or found ambitious non-profits) they get things backwards: from their good intentions and future vision they extrapolate a world in which people are wiser, nicer, and more enlightened, and from their focus on today’s problems they imagine a world where these problems will need to be actively addressed for decades to come.

It just isn’t so.

You can read the earliest written history we have and see that people are exactly the same: we love and hate, are selfish and selfless, buy and sell, and grumble about taxes. The interpersonal narrative of any ancient literature could trivially be reset in our modern world as a recognizable and relevant human story.

On the other hand, our cultural context is changing constantly. It was less than 70 years from the Wright brothers’ first flight to landing on the moon. For most people, it’s been less than 20 years since they heard of the Internet, and less than 7 years since they got a smart phone and started carrying the Internet in their pocket. And today they can’t remember life before that.

In less than a century railroads re-shaped the world; cities were redesigned, different foods and products were available for purchase, distance was reimagined and people changed where and how they lived. Just decades later the automobile century started changing it all again. Today autonomous cars, flying drones and ubiquitous mapping, sensors, and communications are about to repeat the cycle.

And still we write laws and draw up plans to address an extrapolated vision of today that will never come to be.

May 1, 2014

Advice to a young CEO

What’s the best advice for a young, first-time CEO?

Get rid of your television

It sounds silly, but you’re going to need every moment of every day, and television is a distraction you can’t afford.

Read business history and biography

Remember the old saw about how good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment? There’s only one substitute for years of experience: learning from the experience of others. Fill every spare moment with reading about others’ experience. Pay particular attention to failure stories; they are even more useful than the wisdom of those who have succeeded.

See the rest of my answer at Quora. (It contains points from my Getting Ahead slides.)

November 9, 2013

As you wish

Wikipedia, on The Princess Bride:

In a Renaissance-era world a beautiful young woman named Buttercup lives on a farm in the country of Florin. She delights in verbally abusing the farm hand Westley, whom she refers to as “farm boy”, by demanding that he perform chores for her. Westley’s only answer is “As you wish”. She eventually realizes that what he is really saying is, “I love you.”

How powerful it is to show love with humility and patience.

What would happen in my marriage, my friendships, and my relationships with my neighbors if I answered every comment and request with “as you wish” – even if only silently, in my head?

September 9, 2013

Doing something vs. owning something

From an All Company email to Logos…

Someone interviewing for a job recently asked me, “What’s the most important thing for being successful at Logos?”

My answer: ownership.

There’s a big difference between ‘doing something’ and ‘owning something.’

Doing things is very important, and very useful. When stuff gets done, we move ahead — products are created, projects are finished, things are shipped, customers are satisfied. I love it when someone gets things done.

But what I love even more is when someone owns things.

An example:

When my wife and I got married, we quickly agreed that taking out the trash was my responsibility.

We brought different expectations to this task, however. Being an efficiency expert (that’s code for ‘lazy around the house’), I believed that the right time to take out the trash was when the trash can was completely full. And not just ‘full’, but ‘full and I pushed it down a few times before adding more.’ This minimized trips from the kitchen to the garbage can and — green bonus! — minimized use of plastic trash bags.

My wife believed that the trash should be emptied a lot more often. Before weekly trash pickup, even if the kitchen can isn’t full. After disposing of smelly garbage or tuna fish cans. Any time you’d have to press it down to fit more in.

So I had to be ‘assigned’ the task of taking out the trash 100% of the time, since she wanted it taken out more often than I naturally would. And I took it out, as assigned. I got it done. I believed that my job performance was 100% satisfactory in this area. And, technically, it was.

I was an idiot, and not moving ahead very quickly in the ‘husband’ career track.

Skipping forward 20 years of marriage (and the very instructive period during which I was the task-assigner and my son the assignee), I now do things differently.

I empty the can if I can see trash near the top. I empty it after every meal prep. I empty it if fish was present or even discussed in the kitchen. I put a new bag in before the old bag goes out the door. I double-bag messy / smelly bags. I take the recyclables out too, and then I rinse any drips from cans and bottles before putting the bin back in the kitchen.

I own taking out the trash.

And as a result (of this and more) I’ve been promoted to higher-rank in the husband department.

When I took out the trash every time it was assigned, my wife could never stop thinking about the trash. Even though I took it out, I only did so in response to her. She had to own keeping the kitchen looking neat, preventing fish smells from permeating the house, etc. I was getting things done, but not really taking any of the mental / organizational responsibility away from her. I wasn’t making things much easier around the house. I did stuff, but still had to be supervised — closely!

Owning something is doing the task, thinking broadly about the task, dealing with the unexpected challenges a task presents, and making sure no one else ever has to think about that task again. When people own things, other people are freed to give more time and energy to the tasks they own. We can all get more done and grow even faster.

Everybody here already owns things. There are dozens of things you just take care of and nobody has to think about. (Thank you!) But do you own everything you touch? Do you stretch your abilities? Do you consciously work to ensure that when you’re done there won’t be a hole, a bug, an issue that wasn’t considered or an unexpected problem?

When you take on a task, are your co-workers and supervisors secure in never thinking about it again?

It’s great to get things done. But if you want to grow and be really successful — if you want to be the person called on to lead a new project, to take on a new responsibility, to get promoted and put in charge and sent to negotiate the deal all alone — then ownership is the key.

September 5, 2013

A fearless worldview

An email I sent to the whole company a month ago…

It’s been a month of fantastic conversations for me. I had some great meetings and conversations here at Logos, then hit the road and had more great conversations with people in our industry, at churches, in other businesses, at a “Code for the Kingdom” hackathon, and with Logos staff at the Tempe office.

I met people who were excited about the opportunities for the church, publishing, and their businesses and I met people who were circling the wagons in their business or personal life in fear of change and the future.

These conversations have had me thinking about the difference between an optimistic and pessimistic worldview. Or, rather, ‘work-view.’ And about what that work-view means at Logos.

While I certainly know how to be critical, in the big picture I’m optimistic: we’re an awesome team doing awesome work for awesome customers — things are only going to get better! Setbacks are annoying, but they’re just setbacks — we’re moving ahead into a brighter future. Of course we’re making mistakes — we’re doing new things we haven’t yet mastered! But we’re smart and persistent and we’re going to figure it out.

But I realize that not everyone feels this way. And things that seem positive to some people can be frightening to others.

  • I talked with someone who was uncomfortable taking advantage of the freedoms in our employee manual.
  • I talked with someone who felt that an argument over a technical point meant that I was mad at him.
  • I talked with someone who translated one of my comments on a specific project into a set of rigid rules for all future projects to ensure they’d never let me down again: I’d never again see the thing I didn’t like. I’d also never see a dozen other perfectly good things either, just to be safe…

What I found is that some people here are afraid — of making a mistake, of getting in trouble, or even of getting fired.

If that’s you, I’m sorry you feel that way. The good news is, you don’t have to be afraid.

Here at Logos, we don’t hire everyone who walks through the door. We’re very selective: we don’t just take the time to find people who can do the job, we try to find people, like you, who will grow into doing it better over time, or into an even bigger, more valuable position of responsibility. When you’re growing like we are, it’s irresponsible not to be ‘growing the bench’ of talented people who will be ready for the new challenges we will encounter.

But what about mistakes? Should you be afraid of doing the wrong thing or disagreeing with someone in leadership or spilling 20 ounces of hot tea on the white rug in my office? (It happened.)

No. There’s no reason to be afraid, because we have a culture that recognizes mistakes as a learning opportunity and a chance to improve our processes, not as a failing of individuals. (And, because all of us individuals fail, sometimes I make the mistake of reacting angrily to something. I’m working on that, and appreciate your patience with me. I can assure you, though, that it is just a temporary flare of emotion, the only consequence of which is chagrin on my part….)

If you are here, you are, by definition, someone we believe in, have invested in, and believe will be even more valuable in the future.

Stepping into that future can be scary; that’s why it’s so important to keep looking to our values: Honesty, Openness, Awesomeness, Growth, Initiative, Elegance and Shipping. If we all aspire to these, and “Endeavor to exhibit grace, and accept it” (from the last slide in our Employee Handbook), we can all have a ‘work-view worldview’ that is as optimistic and excited as mine.

And you should, because we’re facing a world of exciting opportunities to learn, grow, and make a difference!

– Bob

P.S. Bonus reading: This blog post contains an important lesson about Logos and every great company. No, not the ‘wait to get fired’… the point about how companies are schizophrenic… (This also helps explain why we try to have so few rules; that way you don’t have to break so many rules to do the right thing, which is what we want anyway.)

http://brendansterne.com/2013/07/11/do-the-right-thing-wait-to-get-fired/

P.P.S. Extra bonus reading: “Blameless PostMortems and a Just Culture” at Etsy:

http://codeascraft.com/2012/05/22/blameless-postmortems/

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