Why Work Loneliness Isn’t Just a Personal Problem, and What to Do About It
Where do you fall on the spectrum of working alone, together?
Work is a social thing. It’s done with people, and at the very least, for people. At the same time, you are one person with a job to do. When those personal and social gears are out of alignment, when you’re not connecting with the people you spend so many hours a day with, you get lonely.
Loneliness seems like such an intensely personal, private problem, but it’s much more than that. Loneliness and isolation is a collective issue. And at work, loneliness is yet another effect of the inadequate attention paid to the human side of getting stuff done together.
Whether it’s the inertia of interacting with the same people every day in a way that’s unique from all your other relationships, there’s a prevailing sense that work is this realm where you just deal, that it’s not something that you can improve. While we understand the prioritization of personal friends and loved ones, we often miss out on meaningful interaction with the person down the hall, focus on growing our supposed professional network more than we look next to us to grow higher quality connections.
That kind of thinking is unhealthy, unhelpful, and unproductive.
The quality of your social connections impact your physical and emotional well-being, and so impact the physical and emotional well-being of the people who run a business. Cultivating higher quality relationships with your co-workers, then, requires something of a 360-degree approach, taking responsibility for how you interact with others and how you treat yourself.
The Cheese Who Stands Alone Gets Less Done
When you start feeling isolated at work, you also get demoralized and detached, perhaps even depressed.
In the first study to empirically analyze the effect of loneliness on work performance, Sigal Barsade and Hakan Ozcelik examined the experiences of 672 employees in 143 teams. They found that indeed loneliness led to withdrawal from work, weaker productivity, motivation, and performance. Importantly, the study also showed that this doesn’t happen in a vacuum, that “co-workers can recognize this loneliness and see it hindering team member effectiveness.”
Loneliness is a personal emotion, but it’s not a private concern. The effect of loneliness reverberates, becoming a concern for the group, the organization, the community.
In The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer write about one of the vital ingredients of what makes us fulfilled and flourish in our work — the nourishment factor of human connection. Recognition and gratitude, encouragement, emotional support, and camaraderie are all elements of the nourishment factor — aspects of work that so often are treated as mere window dressing, as spiritless exercises or tired, meaningless buzzwords, and as far as you can get from true priorities.
“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” French philosopher Simone Weil once wrote, and in what seems to be an ever-head-down, busily streaming life, that seems a harder truth than ever. Your wholehearted attention is how you connect to others, to the world around you, while our pragmatic attitudes about work have little room to even consider generosity.
The nourishment factor — these acts of generosity, of giving and receiving our full attention, expressing gratitude and providing support — feeds our cores, makes us more resilient and enduring, helps us to strive.
Start By Tuning Yourself
How you pay attention and act with generosity, though, starts with yourself, the way people tune their own instruments before playing a symphony.
“Your brain is tied to your heart,” explains Barbara Fredrickson, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, in one of the most poetic anatomy lessons ever, explaining the physical significance of connecting to the people around us. The more you tune into others, “the healthier you become, and vice versa.”
That heart-to-head connection exists thanks to your vagus nerve, which among many things, helps calm a stressed, scared, or anxious racing heart and attunes your ear to human voices. The strength of this friendly nerve is measured by vagal tone, the relationship between heart rate and breathing rate. The higher the vagal tone, the better your physical and emotional health — from your cardiovascular system and glucose levels to superior regulation of emotion, cognitive flexibility, and social connection with others.
Through her research, Fredrickson found that vagal tone can be strengthened like a muscle. Study participants practiced a form of Buddhist meditation called metta, or loving-kindness, cultivating benevolent feelings of goodwill and compassion towards themselves and to others. The result was increased vagal tone as well as increased positive emotions and social connectedness. Further research by Fredrickson and her colleagues uncovered how “people’s perceptions of their positive social connections with others accounted for the causal link between positive emotions and improved vagal tone.”
Taking the time to connect with and tune into yourself and others and boosting your perception of your social connections have resounding effects, improving a whole spectrum of health — physical, emotional, and social. And doing that, according to Fredrickson, creates a positive feedback loop, all starting from within.
5 Ways to Nourish Yourself and Your Team at Work
Learn how to tune into yourself and each other to be both particle and wave, to not feel so alone while working together. You are part of a team, and in turn, that team is greater than the sum of its parts, creating and resonating with a cohesive, buzzy energy.
Here are some ways you can build more meaningful, nourishing connections as a member of your working world as well as examples of how some companies are attaining that group resonance.
1. Start with yourself, and learn how to share.
If you’re feeling continual isolation or dissonance anywhere — whether at work, at home, and anywhere in between — your emotions are telling you to take another look at your circumstances. These poorer quality connections can be corrosive, eroding energy and ramping up stress, anxiety, and fear — feelings that we shouldn’t merely tune out and, it turns out, that the vagus nerve helps to soothe.
So be kind and attentive to yourself first. Often we put our heads down to get work done or to get through the day, and don’t allow the chance to listen to ourselves.
Also reach out and share with each other. The Buffer team does an amazing job of connecting every day through sharing not only their work accomplishments but also their self-improvement goals, from sticking with fitness regimes to learning to code. These points provide fodder for rich conversations and opportunities to show incredible support, helping to create a close, nourishing work life that permits people to be vulnerable yet supported and always aiming higher.
2. Meditate, and breathe deeply.
Implement some of the findings of Barbara Fredrickson’s research by practicing loving-kindness meditation to jumpstart your loop of positive emotions, connections, and health. Trade in fifteen minutes of scrolling through your Facebook connections for fifteen minutes of your mind’s connection. You can start out with some of these guided meditations.
Alternatively, take a few moments throughout the day to take some deep breaths. Deep diaphragmatic breathing — that’s from the belly, not your chest — can stimulate the vagus nerve and allow you to take a step back in times of feeling solitary or unsupported.
Even when a day is not markedly stressful, spending a lot of time in front of the computer, I find my breathing rather shallow and my shoulders beginning to hunch up by my ears. Moments of deep breathing are check-ins, a way I can get some air into cobwebby brainspace, relax my shoulders and back, and unfurl my attention to the people around me.
3. Show, don’t tell, your attention.
Being present, being available, and paying attention — even in a short interaction — can really only be demonstrated, not conjured up by saying that’s what you’re doing. Managers can’t say that they care about their team members, and then never be around to listen to them.
As a distributed company, the team at Zapier is particularly alert to the dangers of loneliness and extremely mindful of how its members are connecting. They make sure to constantly and visibly reach out, going on team trips, creating processes of daily feedback, and using connecting tools like Sqwiggle, which allows them to see each other over a continually refreshing image feed and chat with the click of a button.
4. Nourish your peers with recognition and gratitude.
The way many companies handle employee recognition is broken and counterproductive, dismissing and disrespecting the hard work that people do everyday. Not only do most recognition approaches treat feedback like a formal event, administered by managers from on high, they also fail to acknowledge how that hard work often involves helping someone else.
One solution that innovative teams have implemented are crowdsourcing and peer recognition, from the good folks at EverTrue, who use the employee recognition platform Youearnedit.com in conjunction with iDoneThis to give each other rewards to the human relations-oriented employees at Shopify, who use an internal system to crowdsource bonuses. Those who deserve acknowledgment for their efforts and support are bubbled up and made visible, all by people who have actual knowledge and appreciation and want to say “thanks” to boot.
5. Take time to do small things.
Even small gestures that are considerate and supportive can make a fortifying difference to cut through feelings of isolation and the emotional paper cuts we accumulate as the day goes by. It’s quality, not quantity, and small moments of true attention, support, encouragement, and fun can charge people up with a much-needed spark.
Take, for example, coworkers at SocialToaster who regularly connect with each other by making sure to eat together everyday at a “Hogwarts-style” table. Or look at the team at Wistia, who exude an attitude of openness and conviviality with each other that’s reflected in the verve and care in their work.
They have a ton of fun together, spending “extracurricular” time together outside work to play on a company softball league, change desks every few months to switch up desk neighbors, and share a bite at their own Hogwarts-style table.
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These days, the most interesting companies are hacking their culture, and culture at its heart is about people and togetherness despite being so often talked about as if it is about things. Dig deeper beneath the ping-pong games and the free food and that’s where you start to unearth what goes into building a culture of meaningful nourishment factors that battle loneliness at work.
Whether it’s as small and strong as the twelve-person team at Buffer or the thousands-strong at Zappos, whose internal connectedness has resonated from within its offices, out to the happiness of its customers, and even to the streets of downtown Vegas, the heart-to-brain and person-to-person links create a meaningful community, the kind that builds itself from the inside and radiates out.
What do you do at work to meaningfully connect? Share with us in the comments.
For better or for worse, bosses don’t spend much time thinking about your needs and worrying about to helping you with your career advancement. Bosses, like most people at work, are busy people with their own jobs, their own lives, and their own concerns.
That’s obvious. But the upshot is a harsh reality: your boss most likely has very little sense of what you’re accomplishing or even what you’re doing with your time. If you aren’t proactive about reporting your accomplishments, you’ll never get recognized for your good work.
The Power of One Simple Email
For many people, the thought of being more proactive about sharing accomplishments at work can be daunting and a real turnoff. Eric Barker at his blog, Barking Up the Wrong Tree, provides an elegant solution to this problem that takes minimal effort and doesn’t require you to turn into a loudmouth braggart.
Take just a few minutes on a Friday and jot down a simple description of what you accomplished that week. Your boss will be able to recognize the progress you’re making and appreciate not being left in the dark having to wonder whether you’re doing your job.
Become the Kind of Person Who Gets Promoted
To Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, making sure that your performance and accomplishments are visible to your boss is absolutely vital to becoming the kind of person who gets promoted.
As Pfeffer shares in his book, Power: Why Some People Have it and Other’s Don’t, research shows that there’s a disconnect between your performance and your job outcome, including a much smaller than expected “effect of your accomplishments on those ubiquitous performance evaluations and even on your job tenure and promotion prospects.”
Unfortunately, doing your work well isn’t enough. The missing ingredient of a job well done is that you also have to manage how that work is conveyed. In the work setting, where perception becomes reality, Pfeffer reminds us of what we miss out on when we wrongly assume that other people will know about our great work without having to tell them.
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What makes Eric’s one email suggestion so powerful is that it turns the loaded act of self-promotion into an ordinary, informative status update that perpetually builds up your credibility with your boss. While others scrabble to ramp up their lobbying for promotions during performance review-time, you’ll already be top-of-mind, without having to gather and tout your accomplishments in the strained atmosphere of a formal review.
Walter Chen is co-founder of iDoneThis, an ex-lawyer, and an amateur Starcraft player. You can follow his tweets at @smalter.
There’s probably been some time in your life when you’ve been just a touch surprised that you haven’t been hoisted upon shoulders and celebrated with cheers for your great achievement — whether you go as far back as that group English assignment making a diorama about summer reading or yesterday’s big client presentation.
Or maybe you’re more familiar with that fake almost-smile, as Joe Shmoe stood up to cheers and beers and pats on the back, leaving you amidst the ghosts of the hours of sweat and tears you put into the work.
It happens, and it stinks. But then again — we’re actually all credit hogs in our heads.
When you’re on a team, you don’t have an accurate sense of the proportion of your contribution. It’s just not that straightforward, because what happens in your very smart but usually selfish mind is that you underestimate your teammates’ contributions and overestimate yours.
Self-Inflating the Numbers
If you asked every person in your group to judge the percentage of their contribution on a project or collective task, the sum will likely add up to more than 100%.
Let’s enter some prickly relationship territory and see what would happen if you asked couples the same thing. In a famous study from 1979 by psychologists Michael Ross and Fiore Sicoly, married couples completed questionnaires on the extent of each partner’s responsibility for twenty different activities, from childcare, cooking and cleaning, planning activities, making decisions, and causing arguments.
Nearly three out of four couples overestimated their contribution, adding up to more than 100%.
Similar overallocations have been demonstrated in fundraising, academics, and in a more recent Harvard study by Eugene Caruso, Nicholas Epley, and Max Bazerman, in which MBA students estimated how much of the collective work they’d done in their study group. The sum of the students’ self-centered estimates? 139%.
I’m Always On My Mind
So what’s causing the rift between perception and reality? It’s a cognitive bias called “availability bias”, which causes you to overestimate based on what’s most striking, or available, to your mind. Personal experiences are especially salient and memorable simply because they’re yours — and this causes issues in all collaborative contexts.
Easy access to your own thoughts and knowledge about yourself, as compared to the thoughts and knowledge of others, skews your belief about the frequency and significance of everyone’s contributions. And this can have a harmful effect on how people collaborate.
While the Harvard researchers, in a related study, also saw similar overcrediting-self behavior from academic authors in shared research projects, they also found the more the authors over-credited themselves and the higher the sums went over 100%, “the less the parties wanted to collaborate in the future.”
In the initial rounds of the 1979 study, Ross and Sicoly had asked the couples to give percentage estimates of contribution, which apparently were easy to remember. Perhaps not surprisingly, this produced “a strong source of conflict between the spouses” in postquestionnaire numbers comparisons.
Unpacking the Work
The problem when it’s so much easier to remember what you’ve done than what other people have is the increased potential to provoke resentment — and ultimately disengagement if it’s a chronic suspicion — from feeling like you’ve done more than your share, or that your work isn’t being appreciated.
The Harvard researchers found that taking time to consider other people’s efforts before your own helps to align your perception closer with reality. For example, when the MBA students were asked to think about the contributions of each member in their study group as well, the sum total of their estimates was 121%. They still exhibited the cognitive bias, but it was mitigated by what the researchers call “unpacking the work.”
How to Battle the Bias with Transparency
At the heart of collaboration’s availability bias is the general difficulty in grasping what everyone on your team gets done, a natural information discrepancy that arises as a result of working with others.
Do Things, Tell People: Considering other people’s contributions is one step in the right direction. Even better is if everyone communicates about what they’ve done and showed their work for a comprehensive perspective. It’s why many teams have status meetings and standups — to not only come together to figure out how best to move forward, but in doing so, chipping away at the information discrepancies and biases that can creep into your thinking and hinder productivity.
Being transparent about what you’re getting done everyday helps prevent skepticism and suspicion among your own teammates and the skewed motivation and decreased engagement that can result from simmering feelings of isolation, resentment, and plain unawareness of what’s going on. For instance, when Michelle Sun, an engineer at Buffer — whose distributed team members share what they accomplish every day — learns what everyone has gotten done, she “understand[s] what teammates are working on, and … I feel connected with the team.”
It’s beneficial, even productive, to make your accomplishments visible, instead of hiding away keeping mental score. Understanding what everyone is doing means that you’re not worried about percentages and brownie points but focusing on getting awesome things done together as a team and aligning the points between individual and collective progress and meaning.
Janet Choi is the Chief Creative Officer at iDoneThis and keeps the wheels of the iDoneThis blog turning. She is not a morning person. Follow her tweets at @lethargarian.
I think a lot about lists (a side effect of an ongoing and enduring fascination with GTD) and I make quite a few of them. One of the most valuable lists I make is my top three priorities for the day.
I’ve long been an advocate of taking a moment every morning — after coffee, before email — to set my priorities down on paper or in pixels. This simple process that takes no more than ten minutes has had a consistently profound and positive effect on my productivity.
Why after coffee? Because part of my morning ritual is brewing coffee or steeping tea before I get down to the business of the day. This ritual is one of the highlights of my day, and it makes waking up at unreasonable hours that much easier.
And why before email? Because once you get into your inbox, you’ve handed over control of your schedule to other people, and priorities are about what you want on your agenda.
The Basic Art of the Priority List
It doesn’t matter whether you write these three items down on a scrap of paper or in your favourite notebook, or type them into your preferred text editor or mobile app. What’s crucial is that you refer to this very short list of priorities as you navigate the day to ensure you’re not getting distracted by the urgent at the expense of the important.
For me, three is the magic number. Anything more than three items devolves from a list of priorities into a generic to-do list. And priorities are different from tasks, requiring more reflection and usually filled with more meaning related to what you want to get done.
So my to-do list often includes mundane tasks like “do laundry” and “buy groceries”; my recent daily priority lists have featured items like “practice yoga”, “verify and close all outstanding QA tickets”, “review designs for [x feature]” and “call my mother”.
In fact, one of the priorities I set every Friday morning is “review weekly to-do list”. I take 30-45 minutes and go over what I’ve achieved (or failed to achieve) that week, which helps inform my to-do list for the following week.
In the vein of keeping my daily priorities separate from my to-do lists, I tend to default to writing these down in a notebook and having my to-do lists in Any.Do, which has excellent Gmail integration (if you use Chrome) and beautiful, simple apps for iOS and Android. My daily “dones” live in iDoneThis, of course.
Priorities Aren’t Goals
My daily priorities are also different from — and if I’m doing it right, complementary to — my goals. Some friends and I have a goal of running a half-marathon by December 31, which means one of my daily priorities really ought to be “run at least x miles”, depending on where I am in my training.
I also have “external” goals and targets, ones that I didn’t set for myself. These often arise in a professional context. Say you’re working towards “quarterly goals” or “team goals” or “company goals”. External goals like these tend to be set by your line manager or company founder, with or without your input.
You’re more likely to be motivated to achieve these externally-defined goals if you carve out something of your own within them. Perhaps you’re a sales person at a startup, and your company has set a goal of generating $x in revenue this year. You might set a personal goal of contributing $x to that number, complemented by establishing a daily priority of y sales calls before noon.
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We sometimes fail to achieve our goals because they are too ambitious or too vague. Breaking them down into smaller, more specific parts not only makes them more manageable — it gives us many small wins to celebrate over time.
As I keep telling myself, what is a half-marathon but a series of 30 second intervals, after all?
How WooThemes Makes Distributed Team Culture Succeed
The multi-million dollar company WooThemes started with a single email, as a small side project of Magnus Jepson in Stavanger, Norway, Adii Pienaar in Cape Town and Mark Forrester, then in London.
From that one email sprouted a bootstrapped company that produces a rich catalog of WordPress themes and plugins, serving 450,000 users. And this impressive success emerges from a distributed team of only thirty people, spanning seven countries.
Making Distributed Culture Work
Sustaining the company’s remote roots was a natural but conscious decision by the founders. “We wanted to make sure that the business was built around our lifestyles, rather than dictate our lifestyles,” explains co-founder Mark Forrester.
Ten employees work in the Cape Town office but there are no location requirements. Mark appreciates the advantage of going borderless: “Being able to pick the cream of the crop from anywhere in the world is hugely beneficial.”
Indeed, WooThemes’s hiring tactics tackle the accountability challenges of remote working by giving precedence to personality and fit before ability to ensure that the cream of the crop stays at the top in its environment of trust and enthusiasm. Mark reports, “The culture is to have lots of fun with what we’re doing and to employ people passionate about WordPress and content publishing. A strong attitude and desire to share in our success is more important to us than experience and aptitude.”
An integral part of that fun, passionate culture is the annual WooTrip — to destinations like the Austrian Alps and this year’s retreat to WordCamp in the Netherlands — to meet, socialize, and cement a sense of cohesion. Mark comments, “Even though we’re all over the place, we like everyone to feel like they’re a part of a small team.”
Overcoming Growing Pains
Especially after the launch of WooCommerce, an e-commerce engine, eighteen months ago, WooThemes expanded rapidly. The company faced its growing pains by wielding its approach of continual improvement and streamlining. Operating in accordance with agile and lean principles, WooThemes settled on its current toolbox of WordPress theme P2 “for the chitter-chatter” and Trello to track projects.
“We place heavy emphasis on keeping the team small and trying to have our systems running as efficiently as possible,” Mark says, “which is why we’re using applications like iDoneThis. It helps us strategically in figuring out our effectiveness as a team and whether we’re making the best use of our team members’ time without micromanaging them. It also helps us get to know our staff more personally to see their work habits and their day-to-day tasks.”
In fact, WooThemes had attempted minute-by-minute tracking but quickly felt it wasn’t true to their ethos of trust. With Skype simply not working as a team-wide communication tool at this size, WooThemes turned to iDoneThis to keep abreast of exciting developments on its multiple ongoing projects. Plus, it serves as a gentle way to check in: “If someone’s out for half the day and we can’t find them on Skype, at the end of the day, we can see that they had to run out to do some errands.”
The Transparency Advantage
A company built on trust demands transparency. While WooThemes sets clear expectations that visibility into performance keeps the company running smoothly, its team embraces those values in using iDoneThis. “It’s best if they leave that sort of cookie trail for us to see how effective they have been,” Mark explains. “Seeing it’s so easy to submit your daily reports by email, people do it every day. Even though it’s not a requirement, they realize the benefit to them.”
The street of accountability goes both ways, with the co-founders sharing what they’re doing every day as well. Encouraging open circulation of knowledge is especially essential for distributed companies. Now, according to Mark, “people are more informed of the day-to-day tasks. Previously emails had been on more of a global scale — what we’re working on as a team and not seeing what each of us is doing individually. Keeping everyone on the loop with a transparent communication tool is where we found the real benefit of iDoneThis.”
WooTheme’s commitment to transparency carries through from its inner workings to its relationship with its customers. “We’ve learned to be completely transparent with our customers. So we use our blog extensively to communicate with our users on what we’re doing, where we’re failing, and how we can improve.” Mark says. With that openness to customer feedback and conversation, WooThemes is making strides as a company that lets its customers into its process, decision-making, and product.
We’re so thrilled to help WooThemes build its passion-filled, customer-centric, distributed company!
8 Awesome Tech & Startup Newsletters You Should be Reading
While we’re launching our own exciting newsletter here at iDoneThis, we wanted to highlight some of our favorites from the tech and startup world.*
The common thread running among these eight newsletters is a sense of community and care, that these curators and creators want to share content that bestows value and connection. Subscribe to these newsletters not only to stay up-to-date but to help yourself, your teams, and your communities grow.
1. Technology & Leadership News
Kate Matsudaira and Kate Stull’s TLN is the gourmet grocery of newsletters, providing a luscious trove of links on subjects ranging from product to process to productivity, as well as skimmable commentary if you aren’t feeling click-happy.
TLN is like getting the best links in your in-the-know tech friends’ Twitter feeds all in one place. Subscribe if you want an intelligent, comprehensive newsletter, generally sent on Sundays or Mondays, to start your week off hip to the tech groove.
2. Software Lead Weekly
Oren Ellenbogen’s Software Lead Weekly leans towards practical pieces and lessons learned on topics of culture, managing yourself and people, and entrepreneurship.
SLW has some thoughtful bonuses for the busy reader, with time investment estimates and a 1-click “read later” integration with Pocket and Instapaper. Oren also provides a handy Trello board of newsletter issues, including the upcoming week’s edition-in-progress.
Subscribe if you want a mini-conference about tech and management held in your inbox every Friday, with a max of about 8 posts, to round out your workweek.
Curated by LaunchBit’s Elizabeth Yin, the 500 Startups Newsletter is a roundup of the best blog posts by founders and mentors from 500 Startups, a startup accelerator program and community.
This is a snack-sized, sometimes-themed newsletter, with a max of five links. Subscribe if you’d like a quick dose of entrepreneurial mentorship every Thursday.
After a short introduction to the topic of the week, the email dives right into links to contributors’ answers on their respective blogs. Subscribe if you’re eager to hear what founders, hackers, marketers, and other interesting people have to say in a Startup Townhall of sorts every Tuesday.
Sandi MacPherson’s Quibb is a new engaging way to share what you read for work, with a follower model, focused newsfeed, and a commenting feature. With initial membership limited to professionals in the tech and startup realm, Quibb will eventually expand to additional industries.
In short, Quibb is a “Reddit for professionals”, and its weekday digest, the Quibb Daily, provides a handy roundup of the top links from the people you follow. Right now, Quibb is invite-only, so ask around and keep an eye out for this useful content-sharing platform.
6. The Fetch
Kate Kendall’s newsletter The Fetch collects the best events, meetups, and conferences for technologists, creatives, and entrepreneurs. Now with 11 location-based editions (including San Francisco, London, and most recently, New York), the Fetch spotlights events like “Designing Habits with Nir Eyal” and “Writing/Content Strategy at Pinterest.”
The Fetch is your professional city guide, with startup job postings and a no-frills collection of link love. Subscribe to start each week discovering what exciting business, tech, and creative events are playing in your town.
Stacy-Marie Ishmael’s #awesomewomen newsletter provides a compact punch of commentary and links to thought-provoking content on subjects ranging from productivity to leaning in. Also included are helpful resources such as job announcements and invitations to events hosted or endorsed by Stacy-Marie.
Every Sunday, #awesomewomen provides food for thought regarding work and life for the rest of the week and reminds you to stretch a bit higher, with confidence and kindness. Subscribe if you’re an awesome woman or supporter of awesome women.
Inspired by the slow web movement, Brian Bailey has created an Uncommon community, a kind of “front porch for the Internet.” The Uncommon weekly dispatch features friendly, personal tidbits and thoughts from individuals rather than announcements and messaging from companies and brands.
Every edition brings you one story, a prompt to share your insights and inspiration, curated answers to last week’s prompt, and good reads on slowing down. Subscribe to take a breather from your busy life and hang out on that friendly Internet front porch every Tuesday or Wednesday to have a conversation about the little and large things that matter.
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Extra, extra!It’s here! We aim to deliver insightful and actionable pieces about how to work better, the best productivity and management tips, and a glimpse behind the iDoneThis scenes.
Then, share your newsletter favorites with us in the comments!
*Our roundup did not include newsletters published by individuals on behalf of their own personal blog or business. And if you’re looking for some startups that publish the kind of smart, helpful newsletters we admire, check out LoyalCX, Help Scout, Wistia, and Skillcrush!
Buffer stands out among startups not just for its success in building a great social media sharing tool but in fashioning a company culture focused on making work fulfilling, impactful, and enjoyable. What’s fascinating is that they do this as a completely distributed team, spread across multiple countries and time-zones.
Treat People in the Best Way
Co-founders Joel Gasciogne and Leo Widrich set the foundation for Buffer’s culture according to the tenets of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Carolyn Kopprasch, Buffer’s Chief Happiness Officer translates what that means for Buffer’s modus operandi: “We want to treat people in the absolute best way we can, and that includes co-workers, vendors, and customers.”
It also includes how the Buffer employees treat themselves. With a unique self-improvement program, they share their progress on anything from time management to healthy eating with their teammates, spurring conversations about different lifehacks and routines. Michelle Sun, Buffer’s growth and analytics expert, tracks fitness routines and getting up early while Leo has been making strides with learning how to code.
Co-workers become a collective accountability partner for future plans like blogging or exercising, and more importantly, they become an incredible support system. Instead of looking askance when you’re doing work to do something to take care of yourself, you receive encouragement. “If you’re trying to work on your health or your fitness or your happiness level, that affects work a lot too,” Carolyn explains.
Work Smarter, Not Harder
It’s not surprising then, that one of the company’s mantras is to work smarter, not harder — taking time to review what’s working and how to improve operations. As a remote team, Buffer needed a better way to stay on the same page. Previously, everyone would get on a daily group Skype call in which each person would take three minutes to talk about what they did, how their co-workers could help, and their improvements. With the team growing larger and the standup process proving unwieldy over email, Buffer turned to iDoneThis.
Leo remarks, “It allows us to track performance, which easily gets lost in a chat room or an in-person standup. If new people come on board, they can look through and see what has been worked on. And of course, it’s amazing to keep in sync with everyone, working as a remote team. iDoneThis is invaluable to us and has changed our productivity for the better.”
Michelle agrees, “It’s a way to understand what teammates are working on, and every time I read people’s iDoneThis, I feel connected with the team.” Where iDoneThis shines, for Carolyn, is the ability to comment and have chronicled conversations about her teammates’ work and improvement practices. “I think that’s one of the biggest things. It’s not just reporting what we’ve done. It’s asking, ‘oh tell me more about that.’”
iDoneThis is a natural fit for Buffer’s culture, but Carolyn points out that iDoneThis has helped them to work even smarter. Holding more traditional standups over video chat meant that “if you jump in and talk about something that somebody just said, you’re basically interrupting their three minutes. So what we would actually do is not ask that many questions.” Now the team can communicate asynchronously — asking, commenting, interacting — without feeling like they’re butting in.
Transparency Fosters Tight-Knit Teams
The extreme transparency that Buffer practices in terms of sharing information from sleep habits to how much salary and equity everyone gets is not without feelings of vulnerability. But what they gain is an incredible feeling of connection. In the Buffer universe, where the personal flows right into work and vice versa, it’s their collective care, attention, and support that binds and strengthens the company.
“When somebody will say to me, ‘you didn’t really get very much deep sleep yesterday. Maybe you can try taking a bath before dinner,’ and you’re like, ‘where am I? Am I at work?’” Carolyn laughs. “It’s unique. It takes a certain type of person to really like that, but having a team that’s really interested in keeping you accountable to your own self-improvement is kind of a wild thing. It’s awesome and a little bit crazy sometimes.”
Connect Your Services to iDoneThis Effortlessly with Zapier
One of the biggest pain points we’ve heard from our customers is that the vital information on what’s getting done in the company is fragmented across different systems. Changes to the code happen in Github, meetings happen in Google Calendar, and tasks are marked as done in Trello. There’s no one place to see, talk about, and get excited about everything that’s happening in the company.
iDoneThis is meant to be that place, but we’ve heard that one of the biggest pain points is that you have to enter dones again into iDoneThis, what you might’ve already entered into another system. And that means that iDoneThis is just more work to do.
That’s why we teamed up with Zapier, an awesome tool that automates tasks between two apps with “zaps”, to make it even easier to record and share what you’re getting done in all the tools you use — without any change to your current behavior, to empower you to use the tools you love. We’re excited to share some of the most popular app integrations with iDoneThis using Zapier.
Zapier’s zapping magic takes small but accumulating tasks that you do every day off your plate. By automating the recording of dones, now you don’t have to enter duplicate information into iDoneThis and you can spend more time on the things that matter.
Share Accomplishments and Build Transparency Effortlessly with Zapier and iDoneThis
— The Zapier team itself found that people who habitually didn’t spend much of their day in their email inbox, such as engineers, always forgot to enter their dones when the email came around at the end of the day. They created zaps that automatically sent GitHub commits to iDoneThis which looped the business side into the progress that the dev guys were making on improving the product and squashing bugs.
Co-founder and CEO Wade Foster loves the GTalk to iDoneThis zap. Whenever he completes a task, he just sends an IM to the Zapbot on GTalk through Zapier, and the message gets logged in iDoneThis. Ever since he started using the zap, the number of dones that he logs surged two- to threefold, simply by logging them as they happened rather than batching them later.
— The Buffer team uses Zapier to connect Trello and iDoneThis. In their pipeline of tasks on a Trello board—To-Do, Doing, Done—when an item gets moved into the Done column, it’s automatically recorded in iDoneThis. That makes iDoneThis the place where they can see what’s getting done across all of the different services that they use without any additional work on their part.
— Here at iDoneThis, we zap meetings and events from our Google Calendar into iDoneThis so that the whole team gets a better sense of who people are talking to and meeting on a regular basis. Before Zapier, the engineering team often wouldn’t know what the business side of the team was doing. This is a powerful force for creating transparency in the organization, because oftentimes business guys pass of their work as inscrutable to engineers and this creates a harmful rift in the team. When the engineers know that the business folks are taking important, valuable meetings, that builds trust in an organization.
Every zap is like a recipe, consisting of a trigger plus an action. For our particular zaps, the action is an email sent to iDoneThis.
Each automation that Zapier does for you is a task. For example, if you send your dones to iDoneThis through the Gtalk zap, every instant message you send that gets recorded in iDoneThis is one task.
Now, to get these zaps going, you need to sign up for a Zapier account. Zapier has multiple plans with four tiered pricing options, but the free plan that gives you 5 zaps and 100 tasks will get you started on all of the zaps that we offer.
How to Get Started Setting Up Your iDoneThis Zaps
Head over to our Apps page and click on the Zapier link where you’ll find our specially curated collection of zaps.
To set up a zap, Zapier will walk you through each step. We’ve pre-filled in the zaps with default settings, but you’ll need to make a couple tweaks to make it work for you. Here’s a quick run-through and some tips for each step.
STEP 1:Pick your trigger and action for this zap. This is where you pick the two apps you want to connect. Depending on the app, there may be more than one possible trigger. For example, a Trello trigger could be when there’s any new activity in Trello or the addition of a new card.
STEPS 2 & 3:Connect accounts. Here, you’ll connect your two app accounts to Zapier, one of which will be your email account which will be used to send emails to iDoneThis.
STEP 4:Filter. Depending on the app, this step is either required or optional. Filtering means you can choose the conditions for when a zap’s trigger is set off to record your iDoneThis entries. For example, you probably want to choose a specific Evernote notebook or Trello board. This way, you won’t have all your notes, cards, and lists flooding your iDoneThis.
STEP 5:Create your email. Don’t worry about filling in any optional information unless you have a very specific purpose in mind.
Now for the required steps. You must choose a destination address for the email. Depending on whether your zaps are headed to a personal or team iDoneThis account, the email address will be different. In both cases, make sure you’ve connected the same email account that you use with iDoneThis.
Unless you’d like to send the done to both a personal and team iDoneThis account, click the minus sign to delete the email address you will not be using.
Team: Your “to” email address is something that looks like [your_team_short_name]@team.idonethis.com. Check the address from which your daily reminder or digest emails are sent to find out what it is. For example, if you receive emails from firstname.lastname@example.org, enter that into the field.
Alternatively, find the last part of the web address when you log onto your team calendar (this may be different from your actual team name), and that’s the team short name that goes in front of "@team.idonethis.com". For example, if your team calendar is at http://idonethis.com/cal/elephants/, the email you use should be email@example.com.
The subject and body fields are required as well. In our collection of zaps, these fields will be pre-filled, but feel free to experiment with what information you want to include in the body, which is what gets recorded into iDoneThis.
For instance, add hashtags such as #trello or #github so you can keep track of specific zaps. Here’s how we filled out the Body field of our Trello zap to record cards that are moved into the Published column of our content board into iDoneThis.
STEP 6: Try out your zap. Give a few test runs to test your zaps. Make sure everything’s hooked up and working, and that all the fields you want are included.
STEP 7: Make zap live. Give your zap a name, and then you’re ready to go. It’s alive!
The Shit Sandwich and Other Terrible Ways to Give Feedback
Giving feedback well is one of the manager’s most difficult skills to master, because, as famed tech founder and investor Ben Horowitz points out, it’s incredibly unnatural.
If your buddy tells you a funny story, it would feel quite weird to evaluate her performance. It would be totally unnatural to say: “Gee, I thought that story really sucked. It had potential, but you were underwhelming on the build up then you totally flubbed the punch line. I suggest that you go back, rework it and present it to me again tomorrow.” Doing so would be quite bizarre, but evaluating people’s performances and constantly giving feedback is precisely what a CEO must do.
Here are three fundamentally flawed approaches that inexperienced managers take in trying to perform the dark art of giving feedback, and how to avoid them.
The Shit Sandwich
The shit sandwich, or the praise sandwich, as some ironically call it, is a technique for giving feedback that involves sandwiching critical, truthful feedback (the shit) in between two slices of praise.
The idea behind the shit sandwich is that it’s a way to ease people into harsh feedback by starting off the conversation with complimentary praise. This surprisingly results in the exact opposite of what’s intended.
In a study at the University of Chicago, behavioral science professor Ayelet Fishbach conducted a simulation in which she divided a class in half and instructed one half to give negative feedback to the other. Amazingly enough, the half receiving feedback thought “they [were] doing great.”
Why did they walk away with a positive impression of their performance when the students giving feedback set out to let their them know that their performance was unsatisfactory? “Negative feedback is often buried and not very specific,” according to Fishbach. In other words, when you feed someone a shit sandwich, they’re liable to walk away licking their lips.
Feedback conversations can often devolve into “one big pile of information” from which “data points [are chosen] almost at random,” according to Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, the largest hedge fund in the world. Dalio calls these “below the line” conversations, where it’s difficult to derive a coherent sense of what the feedback is to begin with and what steps can be made to improve.
Imagine your feedback organized in outline-form, with main points and then subordinate points organized beneath them. Below-the-line conversations focus on the subordinate points without connecting to the broader, fundamental points about an employee’s performance.
[S]uppose your major point is: “Sally can do that job well.” In an above-the-line conversation, the discussion of her qualities would target the question of Sally’s capacity to do her job. As soon as agreement was reached on whether she could perform competently, you would pass to the next major point—such as what qualities are required for that job. In contrast, a below-the-line discussion would focus on Sally’s qualities for their own sake, without relating them to whether she can do her job well. The discussion might cover qualities that are irrelevant to the job. While both levels of discussion touch on minor points, “above the line” discourse will always move coherently from one major point to the next in much the same way as you can read an outline in order to fully understand the whole concept and reach a conclusion.
According to Peter Sims, author of Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, brain scans have shown how people start holding back when they encounter judgmental language. Below-the-line feedback can have this inhibiting effect, as unfocused, disjunctive statements are bound to come off as overcritical and disapproving when they’re not tied to purpose.
One-Size Fits All Feedback
One of the biggest mistakes by managers is to take a singular approach to giving feedback. This usually originates from the misconception of the person giving feedback that it’s all about his emotional need to express himself, not the usefulness of feedback to the recipient in helping her adjust and improve.
In Horowitz’s words, “[s]tylistically, your tone should match the employee’s personality not your mood.”
A recent research paper published in The Journal of Consumer Research showed a specific type of tailoring that’s required for giving impactful feedback. The researchers found that the type of feedback that people prefer to receive is dependent on whether they’re an expert or novice. Experts are more likely to seek out negative feedback, while beginners need positive feedback and encouragement to gain confidence in their new endeavor.
* * *
As with language, mastering the art of giving feedback is a skill that gets better with practice. And when feedback is approached as a more frequent, real conversation rather than an event that becomes stilted, anxiety-filled, and unproductive, it then becomes a sharp, valuable tool for improvement and growth. Approach giving feedback the way tackle your work overall — with purpose, directness, and empathy — and you’ll start getting through.
Walter Chen is co-founder of iDoneThis, an ex-lawyer, and an amateur Starcraft player. You can follow his tweets at @smalter.
Written communication creates lasting consistency across an entire team because a piece of writing is leveragable collateral from which everyone, from marketing to sales to QA to engineering, can work and consult.
Accountability spreads as a manager’s written work product — product requirement documents, FAQs, presentations, white papers — holds the manager responsible for what happens when the rest of the team executes on the clearly articulated, unambiguous vision described by the documents.
To Horowitz, the distinction between written and verbal communication is stark and in fact is what separates the wheat from the chaff. Good managers want to be held accountable and aren’t looking for ways to weasel out of responsibility. And so, good managers write, while “[b]ad product managers voice their opinion verbally and lament … the ‘powers that be’.”
"There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking."
—Jeff Bezos, Amazon
Jeff Bezos values writing over talking to such an extreme that in Amazon senior executive meetings, “before any conversation or discussion begins, everyone sits for 30 minutes in total silence, carefully reading six-page printed memos.”
Writing out full sentences enforces clear thinking, but more than that, it’s a compelling method to drive memo authors to write in a narrative structure that reinforces a distinctly Amazon way of thinking—its obsession with the customer. In every memo that could potentially address any issue in the company, the memo author must answer the question: “What’s in it for the customer, the company, and how does the answer to the question enable innovation on behalf of the customer?”
"Reports are more a medium of self-discipline than a way to communicate information.”
— Andy Grove, Intel
Like Bezos, Grove finds value in the process of writing. The surprising thing, then, is that reading what’s written isn’t important to Grove. The main point of this self-disciplinary process is to force yourself “to be more precise than [you] might be verbally”, creating “an archive of data” that can “help to validate ad hoc inputs” and to reflect with precision on your thought and approach.
Writing, according to Grove, is a "safety-net" for your thought process that you should always be doing to "catch … anything you may have missed.”
Accountability, coherence of thought and planning, and commitment to vision and mission are amazing benefits of what too many consider a ho-hum, even old-fashioned, tool.
How do you use the management and work skills of writing?
Walter Chen is co-founder of iDoneThis, an ex-lawyer, and an amateur Starcraft player. You can follow his tweets at @smalter.
Tim Cigelske, on How to Keep Track of Interns and Think Bigger
As the director of social media at Marquette University, beer expert, running coach, writer, husband and father, Tim Cigelske inhabits many roles, and he’s accordingly found multiple uses for iDoneThisin his personal and professional lives. While he recently started using iDoneThis with his summer interns, Tim has been a member for over a year, with a personal account for his freelance work and a team account with his wife, Jess.
Along with Google Calendar, the couple uses iDoneThis to keep track of their household, their three-year-old daughter and her dance classes, and what’s going on in their lives. “There’s a lot going on outside of work so this helps keep tabs,” Tim says. And for his freelancing, he uses iDoneThis as a handy reminder system, recording published links, and using his iDoneThis emails to prompt him the next day or next week to promote his work on social media.
Though summer is traditionally a quiet time on campus, the intern team is in full force, having grown from one regular contributor to five, and hard at work on the school’s manifold social media channels and longer-term projects. “It’s the same thing, lots of social media promotion,” so Tim decided to bring in iDoneThis as a tool to keep track of what the interns get done, leave feedback and notes, provide reminders to publicize content, and show his team the overall path of their work from plan to production to promotion.
“One of the things that’s so awesome about iDoneThis is the simplicity. You don’t have to learn a new skill, you don’t have to download anything, you just have to know how to email,” Tim remarks. Yet he was still surprised when he sent his new team invites for iDoneThis, and “they got it right away! Before I even instructed what to do, I started getting emails saying what they’d done.”
Still, Tim realizes that college students tend to have a certain comfort-level with new tools. “There’s just a lot of openness to trying new things in that age group,” he observes. “We actually use a Facebook Group to discuss ideas and get to know each other on a more personal level.”
The interns are all on different schedules from each other and from Tim, another challenge that the iDoneThis/Facebook combination addresses. “It’ll change again in the fall. It’s not your traditional nine to five, and it’s another reason why this helps. They post what they’re doing when it’s convenient for them, and I can start my day with an overview of all that’s going on.”
While regularly dealing with constant streams of social media, Tim is a firm believer in setting up systems to take some of the cognitive load off your mind. “We always think willpower is what’s going to solve our problems and that’s usually not the case, or ever the case,” says the man who was on a daily run-streak of 973 when we spoke. Establishing the framework of “I’m going to run today” as a mental given helps make it happen. “A lot of people might think that that’s difficult. I mean, it’s not necessarily easy but it takes a lot of the thought process out of exercise.”
Tim — who has also eaten the same thing for lunch, by and large, for the past five years (cold meat and cheese sandwiches, in case you’re interested) — explains why such systems are so important: “It makes it easier to not have to think too much about unnecessary decisions and leaves more bandwidth for decisions that are more complicated.”
“That’s why iDoneThis is helpful,” he continues. “I’m going to get that daily digest of everything that’s going on as opposed to me having to go to Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or Pinterest to see what’s new. This gives me a system that I can rely on to make my life easier. It helps you free up that space for bigger decisions and bigger thoughts.”
We’re happy that we’re helping to make room for Tim and his Marquette University interns to do great work and think great thoughts!
The Most Engaged Employees Work at Companies of 10 People and Fewer
A recent survey published by Gallup showed that when employee engagement is broken down by company size, the smallest companies have the most engaged employees—and it wasn’t even close.
42% of employees working at companies of ten and fewer reported that they were engaged at work, a huge increase over the 27% to 30% of engaged people at larger companies.
Unfortunately, only 9% of the U.S. employees work in small companies compared with the 44% of people who work at companies with over 1,000 employees —and that’s why we’ve seen a massive push from even the largest enterprises into organizing in small, self-contained teams.
Here are three fascinating illustrations of why employees on small teams are more engaged at work and what that means for you and your company.
We’re All Social Loafers
In the 1970s, a team of researchers from UMass Amherst confirmed an intriguing social psychology phenomenon known as “social loafing.” They had different-sized teams pull on a rope, but unbeknownst to the entire group, some of the rope-pullers were only pretending to pull. What happened was that individuals on larger-sized teams pulled with less effort than their colleagues on smaller teams, even though the larger teams actually had the same number of people functionally pulling as on smaller teams.
Even when you think you’re on larger teams, you don’t try as hard.
Jeff Bezos’s Two-Pizza Rule for Autonomy and Empowerment
Teams should be no greater than the number of people who can be fed by two pizzas, according to Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com.
Bezos found that when teams get bigger than 10 people, they become subject to groupthink, the psychological phenomenon where group members favor consensus and minimization of conflict over critical and independent decision-making. Groupthink kills your initiative to engage actively in thinking through problems yourself, drawing your own conclusions, and voicing those opinions.
Falling for the Team Scaling Fallacy
A group of business school professors analyzed what they called “the team scaling fallacy,” or the recurrent misbelief in the ability of larger teams to get stuff done more quickly. They asked two-person teams and four-person teams to assemble the same Lego figure. Two-person teams took 36 minutes on average, while four-person teams took a whopping 52 minutes to finish assembling.
Worse yet, we become more overconfident as our team size increases. The study showed that large teams consistently underestimate the friction that additional team members add to communication overhead and other process losses. Larger teams were nearly twice as overoptimistic about the time it would take to complete the Lego figure, a huge margin of overconfidence compared with smaller teams.
The mere expansion of people in a company means there’s a precarious potential for people to experience less motivation, diminished decision-making capabilities, more miscalculation, and overconfidence. While most businesses revolve around growing bigger and bigger, it turns out they should look to what smaller companies do best to help prevent employees from checking out.
Walter Chen is co-founder of iDoneThis, an ex-lawyer, and an amateur Starcraft player. You can follow his tweets at @smalter.
Buzzfeed's Kismet Engine that Drives Deliberate Focus
People often hold this ideal about how great work gets done through serendipity, as if brains to stumble upon each other like characters in a romantic comedy. More often, the spark happens when we create the conditions for it to do so. If you really want lightning to strike, you don’t just mosey along empty-handed, you go out there with a lightning rod.
Jon Steinberg, president and COO of Buzzfeed found his lightning rod system, what he calls his “kismet engine.” That fateful engine is Snippets, a surprisingly simple productivity system that originated at Google.
How Snippets works at Buzzfeed is this: employees send Jon a weekly email by the end of the workday on Friday identifying what they’ve been working on and what they need help with. Everyone can also subscribe to each others’ snippets. As for Jon, he reads his compiled snippets over the weekend and then responds with feedback and questions.
He explains, this makes it possible to “connect dots and people on things I wouldn’t otherwise know about.” Voilà, facilitated kismet.
With Snippets showing Jon and the growing team at Buzzfeed where all the dots are, they get a sense of the layers of individual details and multitudes of dots that help create the big impressionistic picture. The result is that:
"Snippets … forces me to review my week and tell the whole company what my contributions and challenges were for the week. Some weeks it feels great, other weeks not so much. On the weeks it feels disappointing, it’s a great forcing function to prioritize and focus."
Depending on what’s going on, that kind of transparency may show you something wonderful or ugly or what’s sticking out. Getting a view of the picture’s composition is revealing and full of insight. And it’s a good deal better than the alternative of merely having a random, vague sense of what’s going on, only seeing some percentage of the whole.
This kind of process is essential given how — as Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, suggests with great wisdom — “if you don’t take the time to think proactively you will increasingly find yourself reacting to your environment rather than influencing it.”
Oftentimes, in the workplace, we don’t take time to think, reflect, and situate ourselves. So we try to connect the dot when it’s actually someone else calling out Twister directions and end up entangled and mired.
The ironic thing is that thinking — no matter how proactive it is — looks like you’re doing nothing. And maybe this explains people’s reluctance to put reflection and review into real, meaningful practice.
Yet embracing that appearance of doing nothing and taking the time to think is integral, psychiatrist T. Byram Karasu explains, “for previously unrelated thoughts and feelings to interact, to regroup themselves into new formations and combinations, and thus to bring harmony to the mind.” And tuning in, Dr. Karasu says, ultimately creates rather than takes away, because you build a better sense of reciprocation.
By being in touch with the internal, you establish links with the external world. Tuning in, not just on an individual but team and company level, is how you connect, sync, and plan, enable kismet instead of waiting for lightning, influence rather than react.
Janet Choi is the Chief Creative Officer at iDoneThis and keeps the wheels of the iDoneThis blog turning. She is not a morning person. Follow her tweets at @lethargarian.
While it’s tough enough to get into good personal habits, how do you get your employees to adopt good companyhabits?
Changing your behavior starts with an intention, and when you’re herding multiple human intentions, that transformation process can become tricky.
Pipedrive, a startup that makes a simple CRM that people actually like to use, is one of our oldest team customers. As the company grew rapidly, from six to twenty people within a year, overall iDoneThis usage flagged because new people weren’t getting on board. Pipedrive found a way to turn that behavior around, hacking the iDoneThis company habit with great success.
A bad habit arises
Split between San Francisco and Talinn, Estonia, Pipedrive started using iDoneThis to address the challenge of working together across the globe. “It’s been incredibly useful,” says Martin Henk, co-founder and head of customer support. “Keeping track of everyone with the ten-hour difference is pretty huge. We wouldn’t know half of the things people are doing without iDoneThis.”
But capturing the full advantage of that knowledge and conversation about what people are working on relies on full participation. A core group had continued to use iDoneThis regularly, but new people, says Martin, didn’t seem to understand the value of the tool or ever get comfortable with how to record their accomplishments, ignoring their iDoneThis emails.
Changing the habit
Since the founders had seen first-hand the benefits of using iDoneThis, they wanted to fix this problem of team buy-in. Merely telling people to do it failed to catch on. The next idea floated was administering some kind of punishment, but the founders instinctively knew that threats would not only be ineffective but damaging. “Luckily we didn’t go through with it,” Martin recounts. “We couldn’t figure out a way to do it that would end well.”
Ragnar Sass, co-founder and head of partnerships & HR, then proposed counting the number of dones and likes and rewarding the person with the most activity with a small prize, like flowers or a gift card. “I can’t believe how well this worked,” Martin reports, still sounding surprised. “In hindsight, it’s logical that positive reinforcement works, but it worked incredibly well. Now there’s so much interaction going on in iDoneThis.
“It sticks when you get into the habit.”
The positivity effect
Now that the whole team is on board with the tool, Martin says, “I can rest assured that the entire team knows what someone’s doing.”
The positive prize method has had lasting effects. People who had, just a few months ago, filled out iDoneThis on some haphazard, even monthly basis, became some of the most active users. Likes and comments have gone up six-fold. The support team started recording and celebrating impressive numbers of support cases completed in a day. An “iDoneThis report” has become a core part of the monthly all-hands team meeting.
Newcomers can quickly make sense of what coworkers do and grasp that feeling of being in the same boat, one of the hardest challenges of distributed and split teams. For example, people could immediately connect with a recently hired designer and his work and vice versa. Martin observes, “It’s rewarding for him to know that other people know what he’s doing and actually give feedback right away. So he’s not feeling alone in a new company.”
Pipedrive’s success with this company habit hack was critical for a company that found it difficult to even see each other online. What has been so surprising to Martin and the other founders is how a thoughtful change led to richer conversation and connection.
“People are actually commenting and having a discussion there.” He explains, “Otherwise something like that would be drowned in a Skype chat. The time zone difference doesn’t matter as much. You can have a conversation that’s happening every ten hours but it still gets done.
“It’s funny. So many apps now have likes and comments, but not every app actually has a reason for having them. But in iDoneThis, it’s essential, especially with the time zone difference.”
Why Pipedrive’s company habit hack worked
Dangling goodies like money or looming with threats is not effective. On the contrary, people do their best when motivation comes from within, when they simply want to. According to notable psychologists, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, people are naturally and deeply driven by needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
At first glance, Pipedrive’s habit hack of giving out a prize seems to undermine intrinsic motivation and self-determination theory. The monthly prize looks like an “if-then” motivator — do this, then get that carrot or stick — which Daniel Pink has written about in his book Drive. He describes how such extrinsic motivators fail because they focus attention away from the work itself. According to Pink, if-then motivators work fine for routine tasks, but “even with routine work, people are going to work even better if you … let them know why they’re doing it.”
Yet iDoneThis not merely an empty, routine task, nor is Pipedrive’s prize a focus of attention. A small token like a bouquet of flowers is not exactly a brass ring. Instead, it acted more like a trigger, easing the path for new employees figure out for themselves what iDoneThis was all about — to find their own meaning and value in the product.
“The coolest thing about this was the fact that we didn’t have a lecture in a meeting about iDoneThis being really important. Everyone got it by the hint of the subtle award.” Martin describes the extent of the change, “The number of dones and likes are one thing, but the feeling and fun comments are completely different.”
Pipedrive’s habit hack worked because the company approached the behavior change with positivity and a light touch, and because iDoneThis is a tool that aims to blends routine and purpose into a ritual that both builds and is built out of meaning based on hard work and interactions with each other. There: autonomy, competence, relatedness.
How ScribbleLive Powers the Moment with Liveblogging
ScribbleLive is bringing media companies and brands up to speed with software that allows them to publish, curate, and syndicate content in real-time.
Recently, ScribbleLive powered Boston.com’s liveblog coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings and even served as their homepage when the traffic surge caused Boston.com to go down. By providing tools for journalists and media companies to adapt to this era of always-on social media, ScribbleLive helps fill in context and provide reliable reporting of breaking news.
We talked with Matt McCausland, software development manager at Scribblelive, about how the Toronto-based company manages and communicates with each other.
There’s the company-wide liveblog, ScribbleLive Daily, which serves as a fun watercooler-type communication channel. Employees publish posts on side projects and Hack Days, share interesting links and photos, and celebrate good news such as positive feedback about their customers’ liveblogs.
Matt explains, “It’s an ‘eat your own dog food’ kind of thing. You’re supposed to post one interesting thing a day related to your job or not. So people will share cool things that our clients have done or an article about development or whatever their job is. You get a wide range of stuff. It’s like an internal social network.”
With the bulk of the ScribbleLive team is in Toronto and a small sales team in the UK, the Daily liveblog helps people stay in touch and build camaraderie, on top of Skype and email. “We get to know them better than we would otherwise,” Matt explains.
For their own communication needs, the dev team turned to iDoneThis, especially to help keep a record of innovative projects for a Canadian research and development tax credit program. More generally, the team can see what’s getting done and how long it takes. “It’s good to keep track and have a log of things we worked on,” says Matt. “We like it because it’s so simple — just reply to an email with what you did. If a project gets out of control, we can go back in iDoneThis.”
As a team manager at a workplace with flexible hours, Matt finds the digests especially useful. “Sometimes I leave at 4 and other people are here until 6, so I can just see what everybody worked on all day. And Jonathan [the CTO] likes [the digest] because he’s not as hands-on as I am. Within two minutes you can quickly read what everybody was working on yesterday.”
As the dev team grows rapidly — doubling every year — Matt is reconsidering how sheer size may change his management style. “We’re a startup, so we just try to get things done quickly that’ll push the business in whatever direction we need to be going in at the time. We don’t really have a project manager, we don’t have charts, it’s all pretty loose. We don’t have any software. We schedule out one project and work through it when things come up. Now we’re going to have 15, 17 people, so I might have to bring in some tools or we could use iDoneThis differently.”
The dev team does hold standup meetings in the morning, and Matt admits in regards to iDoneThis that, “Some of the developers are like, ‘I’m just telling you what I wrote the next morning.’ But the meeting is to talk about it.” With standups getting longer with team scaling up, iDoneThis could be used to make sure that those meetings stay short, by doing away with reports on what you did and jumping right into problems and issues.
All in all, Matt and the ScribbleLive dev team understand that a regular review of priorities is key to how the company moves forward. “We have a master list. We meet regularly with the exec team to discuss the importance of the top ten things on the list to make sure what we’re going to be working on in the next few weeks are the most important — not necessarily the most urgent, but the most important.”
We’re delighted to help ScribbleLive build software and share information in real-time by focusing not just on speed but on context and significance!
Talk To Your Customers to Stay In Touch With Your Product
Source: Kevin Trotman
Talking to your customers is the best way to improve your product. You already do it — but not often enough. The problem is that it’s a pain to reach out all the time and gather that feedback.
It doesn’t have to be hard. In fact, you already talk to your customers all the time and probably aren’t taking full advantage of it.
My very first job was at Gateway Computer. Though well past its prime when I started, in its heyday, Gateway took a unique approach to its customer support that helped them gather plenty of user feedback.
The stories I heard back then helped shape our own approach toward support at my current company, Onepager. Here’s one that stood out in particular:
Some Personal Attention from South Dakota
At the South Dakota factory where Gateways were built, every custom system was assembled by hand. When people finished building a computer, they took the time to handwrite a personalized note thanking the customer. At the end of the note, they provided their own phone number for customers to call in case of any problems with their new Gateway.
Building computers with one hand, taking support phone calls with another, and writing thank you notes with a third (they must have wished they had a third!) couldn’t have been easy. But it was the right thing to do in order to encourage quality and customer satisfaction.
The people who built those computers did everything they could to ensure quality by doing one more important thing. They conveyed suggestions that they heard from real users back to the product team.
Gateway’s computers were top-rated, they kept improving, and customers loved buying them.
But times changed. After much success and leadership change, manufacturing moved overseas to save costs. The quirky yet effective user feedback system was lost. Quality dropped, sales suffered, and today, Gateway is just a logo slapped on a generic computer. The company lost touch with its customers.
The Customer-Product Connection
The lesson from that story helped shape what we do at Onepager. We leverage customer support by using it as a simple way to collect user feedback with three simple steps.
1. Understand the root of problems to solve in the long-term.
People contact firstname.lastname@example.org with questions that are important to them. Taking care of their needs quickly is a priority, but to truly improve your product, view support issues as potential catalysts for important long-term fixes that benefit all your users.
2. Turn support into user research.
If you’ve helped customers with their problems, they’ll naturally feel gratitude and a desire to reciprocate. It’s the perfect time to ask for them to help you.
On our team, when we complete a support request, we often ask the customer for feedback on something unrelated. It could be, “If you don’t mind us asking, we’re doing product research and were wondering what you like most about Onepager?” or “What would you most like to see us do in the future with Onepager?”
3. Dive into detail.
Don’t be afraid to go into detail with a user. If someone is having trouble finding where to edit their billing information, you can put together some mockups of improvements and ask them for their preference. Obviously, it’s a very small sample, but it can help set you on the right path.
You can even kick it up a notch, and ask customers to set up a time to discuss your product — whether it’s a new feature or a whole new version. It’s amazing how receptive people can be to simple requests for their feedback and help. Don’t forget to say your own ‘thank you’ by doing something nice, like sending the participant a T-shirt, and you’ve made one loyal, and rather invested, customer.
Early on, we asked new customers in our automated “Welcome” emails if we could schedule a fifteen-minute call with them. This helped us learn how they found us, why they chose us, and if they had any problems getting started with our product.
You can continuously make your product better by taking easy steps to engage more with your customers. It’s easier than you think.
“Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one decision leads you to another, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which aided by several detours – long hallways and unforeseen stairwells – eventually puts you in the place you are now.”—
— Ann Patchett, What Now?
A little bit of reflection and connecting the dots can lead to insight, an honest overview of where you are, and perhaps, a clearer picture of where you’re headed!
But figuring that out is no easy matter because of the jumble of possibilities and complexities of running a business, on top of the cottage industry of abundant, contradictory, and just plain bad business advice.
These 6 pieces are the thoughtful reflection of industry leaders on what matters, above all else, in building a successful company from scratch.
“The #1 company-killer is lack of market.” When there isn’t a market, the quality of the team and product don’t matter; conversely, when your market is booming and customers are banging down your door, it’s really hard to screw things up.
Andreessen articulates this observation (citing Andy Rachleff, formerly of Benchmark Capital) concisely, as the following law to startup success:
When a great team meets a lousy market, market wins.
When a lousy team meets a great market, market wins.
When a great team meets a great market, something special happens.
What that means for the founder — and should be her singular focus —is that the only thing that matters is getting to product/market fit. Product/market fit means that you’re “in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.” You can tell by how that feels: customers are snatching up your product just as fast as you can make it, and the wind’s not in your face anymore — it’s at your back.
Before attaining product/market fit though, there’s the long slog to get there. Whether you have the tenacity to stick it out and the insight to make it there will hinge on founder/market fit.
Founder/market fit requires that you as the founder (1) understand the market with “a deep understanding of the market [you] are entering” to the point that you “personify [your] product, business and ultimately [your] company” and (2) love the market enough that you’ll stick with the journey over many years, even as your product and the market evolve.
Without founder/market fit, there’s little chance that you’ll make it to product/market fit.
Graham takes an abstract concept like product/market fit — that you know when you feel it — and quantifies it as 5-7% week-over-week growth in your key metric, the growth rate that successful startups tend to have.
The twist is that focusing on hitting your target week-over-week growth rate gives you the focus you need to be successful. It turns the “bewilderingly multifarious problem of starting a startup to a single problem” by “turning starting a startup into an optimization problem.”
If they decide to grow at 7% a week and they hit that number, they’re successful for that week. There’s nothing more they need to do. But if they don’t hit it, they’ve failed in the only thing that mattered, and should be correspondingly alarmed.
It’s absolutely vital that you define the right metric for tracking your business’s growth. The key is to identify a metric that demonstrates that people “are using the product in the way you expected and that they use it enough so that you believe they will come back to use it more and more.”
In other words, the only metric that matters answers the question, “How many people are really using your product?”
That has two components (1) people and (2) really using. For example, because pageviews aren’t people-centric, they’re too abstract. Focus on the people taking an action, not the action itself. DAU/MAU can be misleading depending on how “active” is defined and may not indicate deep engagement with and love for the product.
At Twitter, we found that if you visited Twitter at least 7 times in a month, then it was likely you were going to be visiting Twitter in the next month, and the next month, and the next month. And we decided this was enough initially to be “really using it.”
The beauty of this is that you’re forced to reflect on the unique metric and lodestar for your product, not adapt a generic, abstract, and ultimately unhelpful number that’s the product of someone else’s thinking. Then, it’s all about making that number grow.
The power of the compass metric is that it guides and aligns the whole team and gets everyone moving in the same direction, which is the extremely powerful force that’s the engine driving Shopify, a multi-million dollar e-commerce juggernaut.
Once the metric has been defined, getting everyone to be guided by it is a UI problem. “You implicitly tell your team that if someone moves this metric in the right direction they are doing a good job” by making your compass metric the singular topic of recurring reminders.
Our internal goal is to reach 3% weekly growth, a very ambitious number given our size. The user interface is simple. Monday mornings, our system sends an email to the team:
Red ✘ if we fell short, green ✔ if we made it. Everyone gets it.
That’s supplemented by a quick weekly meeting attended by people who have a direct impact on the compass metric in which everyone in attendances shares two things:
What have we learned this week
What we are going to do differently next week
The “the motor of a fast-growing multi-million dollar venture-backed business” is picking the right metric and making its growth rate the subject of focus on a recurring basis (email and meeting) according to the appropriately chosen time frame (1 week).
The startup lifecycle can go by as quickly as a fruit fly’s. When you’re amidst the thick of things, it’s easy to confuse time and perspective, zooming in too much on the short-term. Don’t get caught up in marginal thinking or on local maxima.
Christensen reminds us to “[t]hink about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.” In that way, both our startup and our lives strive to reach their global maxima.
For Christensen, his metric is “the individual people whose lives [he’s] touched.” Choose your key business metric as a subset of the metric by which you measure your life.
The most productive thing you’ll do today is practice
I wasn’t originally sold on the idea of blogging.
Even when I tried to get in the habit of posting, I found it hard to stick with. Blogging took time — time to write essays daily, put in links, clean up spam, and respond to the comments that trickled in, time that was uncompensated. Why, I wondered, would I take time away from paying assignments to put my work out there for free?
Even after my book, 168 Hours, came out in 2010, and I realized I needed to interact with readers, I still thought blogging was a side venture to my real writing. More days than not, I’d take 30-60 minutes to write a post and publish it, but I still viewed it more as a labor of love (or at least PR) than anything else.
Then something funny happened. About a year into daily blogging, I’d carve out time to write a draft of an essay for a newspaper or magazine. I’d give myself until lunch, but by 10:00, I’d be done.
What was going on? I finally figured it out while reading Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better, by Doug Lemov, Katie Yezzi, and Erica Woolway. These three educators have trained thousands of teachers over the years, and they studied patterns in how teachers improved at their craft, and how others do, too. The big breakthroughs, they noted, came from drills — discrete actions that focus on certain skills — in order to automate certain practices you’d like to improve.
Basketball players do shooting drills and passing drills. Piano players do arpeggios and scales. As they carve these actions into their muscle and mental memory, they can summon these skills almost by instinct during performances or games. That gives them the mental space to focus on bigger things — the arc of a piece, the layout of players on the court.
For a writer, blogging turns out to be a daily drill. By writing lots of don’t-need-to-be-perfect blog posts, I learned how to crank out rough drafts fast. By carving out time for daily practice, I made myself more efficient at my work. Each hour spent blogging saved me time later as I stewed less over drafts and had more time for edits.
Put in that light, blogging now seems like the most productive part of my day. Not only am I interacting with readers, I’m getting faster at what I do! Just as I accepted practice as part of studying the piano years ago, I embrace blogging as the “practicing” part of my writing work.
If you’d like to get more efficient at your work, making time every day for practice drills could likewise be one of the most productive decisions you make. To be sure, not everyone has a job where the drills are as obvious as blogging, in retrospect, was for me. But if you think about your job and how you spend your time, you can likely see certain skills you use repeatedly.
Maybe you make presentations. Maybe you deliver feedback to employees. Maybe you field hostile questions from clients. Think about how you can isolate these skills and practice them repeatedly. Ask your team members to launch a rapid-fire barrage of criticism about a proposal at the end of a staff meeting, for instance.
Most people don’t consciously practice their job. If you do, it can be a source of major competitive advantage. Keep track of your practice and how you’re improving individually or as a team by writing it down.
Most importantly, you have to actually make time for your practice drills. When you spend time getting better, you often get better. And that’s a much better place to be.
Laura Vanderkam is the author of “What the Most Successful People Do at Work" (Portfolio, April 23, 2013), "What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast”(Portfolio, 2012), “All The Money In The World" (Portfolio, 2012) and "168 Hours" (Portfolio, 2010); visit www.lauravanderkam.com. Receive a free chapter from “All the Money In The World” by subscribing to my monthly newsletter here.
The Most Innovative Employees at Google Aren't Stanford/MIT grads with Perfect SATs
Google has long had a reputation for being a place that’s near impossible to get a job if you aren’t a Stanford or MIT grad. They not only asked you for your college GPA, they even asked you what you made on your SAT as a pimple-faced high schooler.
Recently, that’s all changed.
Google’s known for being one of the most data-driven companies in the world and in the area of HR, they’re no different. They even have a department of “people analytics” whose job it is “to apply the same rigor to the people side as to the engineering side.” Google takes this extremely seriously: “All people decisions at Google are based on data and analytics,” according to Kathryn Dekas, a manager in Google’s “people analytics” team.
Their use of data is so powerful that it was able to refute the bias of the company’s founders towards those with an elite educational background that mirrored theirs — that is, top university grads with high GPAs — and it actually resulted in changed organizational behavior.
For years, candidates were screened according to SAT scores and college grade-point averages, metrics favored by its founders. But numbers and grades alone did not prove to spell success at Google and are no longer used as important hiring criteria, says Prasad Setty, vice president for people analytics.
Rather, based on extensive surveys of its work force and performance data, Google discovered that its most innovative workers "are those who have a strong sense of mission about their work and who also feel that they have much personal autonomy.”
Google’s findings have a strong congruence with bestselling author Dan Pink’s work, that the source of human motivation and our best work comes from the drive towards autonomy, mastery and purpose. This can clash with high-prestige and credentialed individuals who are driven by external recognition and rewards, not curiosity and craft.
What you might end up with is people who can follow the rules, but not necessarily those who are after moonshot innovation with extreme dispatch and verve.
Walter Chen is co-founder of iDoneThis, an ex-lawyer, and an amateur Starcraft player. You can follow his tweets at @smalter.
Almost all meetings are just power-plays in disguise.
Years of my life have been wasted in useless meetings. At a large company, meetings are standard. Get a few people together to talk about a problem. Sounds easy, right?
But instead of a quick resolution, you have to book a conference room for two days from now. Then, you invite stakeholders. Someone suggests so-and-so should attend too. More invites.
When you finally meet, what happens? Nothing, because everyone ends up in a power-play.
Let’s take a look at three common useless meetings and ways we can fix them.
Weekly Team/Status Meetings
Usually someone with direct reports runs this type of meeting. Once a week, for an hour or so, there’s a loose agenda. The manager goes over administrative stuff — stuff that’s going on at the company, stuff that’s going on in your department, stuff on product direction. You can even ask questions! Then, you go around the room to talk about what you accomplished that week.
Nothing useful ever happens in these meetings. Have you ever looked forward to this meeting? No. You surf the internet on your laptop while waiting for lunch time to roll around.
Managers are establishing their authority over everyone. They speak. You listen and don’t speak until spoken to. The danger is that this might tempt you to try to establish that you’re an important person too. You fluff up your weekly status and make it seem like you’re super busy all the time.
What’s the fix?
Try alternative forms of keeping everyone updated. Managers, do you really need to get everyone in a room for an hour? Have everyone send an email update to the team instead. It only takes a few minutes to write up updates to share for the week. Try daily updates or other frequencies that are most optimal for your team.
If you’re not the manager, suggest this method to yours. Any good manager will gladly accept feedback on how to improve the way the team operates.
Senior Executives Meeting
Here’s where you and your team have to meet with senior executives to talk about how your product is doing and next steps you’re going to take. This type of meeting takes place maybe once a month.
This, too, is a big power-play by the executives. They look at what you’ve accomplished, and they’re quick to judge what they like or don’t. Even though months of your efforts have gone towards building an awesome feature that your customers have been wanting, it gets axed because an exec didn’t like it.
These meetings usually just set the team and the product back. You now have to include what the exec wants in the product — not because they’re talking to customers every day, not because they have the data to back up their claims. It’s because they need to establish some authority.
What’s the fix?
Executives, keep your ego in check. Learn to trust your team. They probably know more about the customer than you do. You hired them because they are the best at what they do. They have pored over the metrics and have the best sense on what will result in customer happiness.
Use meetings to find out issues that impede execution. Are people short on resources? Are they dependent on someone from another department who’s being difficult? Remove the roadblocks!
For regular employees, defend your position with data. The exec can’t argue with you if the metrics show that a particular feature will increase sales by 10%. Don’t let their position of power waste your time.
Product Planning Meeting
This is my favorite useless meeting because its original purpose is quite constructive. You’re supposed to be planning out the what and when of building for your product, but what usually happens is everyone needs an explanation of features and why they’re necessary. That is always a long conversation.
Then everyone argues about what’s important. It’s the ultimate struggle to feel like you have some power. If your feature makes it into the product, you feel like you have a bigger impact.
Since everyone at the meeting does this, you’ll need to call another meeting to finish the planning. Five meetings later, you finally finish planning.
What’s the fix?
Everyone should come prepared to the meeting already! Road maps, user stories, and numbers should be sent out beforehand. The team can review and internalize the information and even have high level estimates for the level of effort needed.
This way, you’ll set a good tone for the meeting. It will be about what features you can actually fit into a sprint, based on priority and informed argument. If you don’t already use an agile development process, please consider it. It helps set a cadence for the team.
Now that I know about about power-play meetings, how can I gain the upper hand?
That really depends on what your goal at the company is.
Hope no one notices.
If you want to be mediocre and get paid, then just follow the crowd. Some people are fine with showing up and doing exactly what they need to do, especially in certain working situations and environments. There’s nothing wrong with that. You get a nice paycheck and you can continue to support your lifestyle.
Promotions and fat raises.
Learn the intricacies of the power-play. You’ll have to follow the meeting playbook to appease the people above you.
The goal here is to get recognized and impress people. Call your own meetings when you have issues to resolve and be the one to run them. You’ll automatically be known as the person in charge when you become directly involved in decision-making.
Understand that these meetings will take up a lot of time but you still need to execute on deliverables. Let everyone else know how busy you are as a result. The upside is that you can fix the common meeting downfalls mentioned above and be known for running really effective meetings.
Be the change.
This is for people who like where they work and want to change it for the better. Useless meetings is a serious cultural problem that companies face. Run meetings differently to change that culture.
Try not to have any meetings unless absolutely necessary, and if they are, keep them short. When issues arise, talk to the relevant people immediately. You can usually make more decisions in a five-minute direct conversation than you can in a one-hour meeting.
Designate no-meeting days. This will allow your team to have long periods of time to concentrate on hard problems. If you know anything about the maker’s schedule versus the manager’s schedule, then you’ll understand how meetings can ruin your productivity.
Sherman Lee is the founder of Good Sense. He writes about developers, productivity, customer discovery and marketing. He’s an entrepreneur, high-end consultant and author. You can follow his updates on Twitter.
This painting on the wall of a Zurich office building is actually an art piece called “How to Work Better” by artist duo Fischli/Weiss (that’s Peter Fischli and David Weiss).
The interesting part? As described in the Guardian's obit of Weiss:
How to Work Better (1991) is a manifesto comprising 10 persuasive but empty sentences, each with the aim of improving workplace productivity and morale… . Fischli/Weiss plucked these stock phrases from a factory in Thailand and painted them in large stencilled letters to cover the exterior of an office block in Oerlikon, Zurich, visible on the approach into the city centre by train from Zurich Airport.
Think twice about pithy motivational business quotes!
Each morning, my mother would hand me my daily Flintstones chewable vitamin before I left for school. But now that I’m an adult, she can’t tell me what to do — Mountain Dew and Starcraft all night!
Well, and less vitamins. Since moving out of my parents’ house long ago, I’ve also moved away from this healthful routine. Sometimes it takes effortful self-control to do things we know we should do. But not always. Habits can function as a force, shaping our behavior and negating the need for self-control.
So months ago, I purchased a jar of multi-vitamins and placed it in my cupboard to get back into my healthy vitamin habit.
It sat there. Unused. Lonely.
I’m responsible. I’m a grown-up. I knew I should take my vitamins. Yet it was hard to do so regularly.
So I made one small change: I took the jar out of the cupboard and placed it on the countertop. Since then, I haven’t missed a day of taking my vitamins.
The visible jar is an unavoidable reminder, a trigger to take my vitamins. Removing them from the cupboard also made it easier, increasing my ability to do so. Sometimes the tiniest friction can make the difference between action and inaction.
“[T]hree elements must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur: Motivation, Ability, and Trigger.”
By simply increasing my ability and creating a trigger, I’ve been able to reinstate this habit. Sometimes it doesn’t take all that much to change behavior that feels so difficult to start doing regularly. For example:
Google increased water consumption by 47% by simply rearranging the fridge. Water moved to eye-level, unhealthy soda to the bottom. More Googlers chose the more visible, reachable bottled water.
Leo Babauta instructs daily flossing-challenged people to start flossing just one tooth per night. This may seem ridiculous but starting out with very small habits makes large changes in behavior much easier.
What changes would you like to make in your life? Here are a few triggers and friction-reducers to start:
Want to eat healthier? Pre-prepare individual meals and place them toward the front of your fridge for maximum visibility and accessibility.
“First, the seed being sown falls on good ground, but the birds get it. Then it falls on shallow ground and can’t grow. Then on thorny ground, where it withers away. And only with the last attempt it falls on good ground and the seeds grow. So we must shift our focus. We don’t want to look for which seeds thrive and which don’t. We want to know what the rate of success is.”—
Buffer’s Leo Widrich describes Jim Rohm’s law of averages in explaining his approach to measuring success.
In many companies, your manager will know the team’s and company’s objectives, but you won’t. He may keep crucial information from you so that he can consolidate decision-making power.
Not so at Qualtrics, the extraordinary Provo, Utah-based company that did $50M in revenue, raised $70M from elite venture capital firms Sequoia and Accel, turned down a $500M acquisition offer, and grew its headcount to nearly 300 employees in 2012. At Qualtrics, transparency is perhaps the company’s most important value for one simple and obvious reason—”Nowadays, you’re hiring individuals to think.”
We took our best product guy and some of our best engineers and built a system internally to help scale our organization by knowing everyone’s objectives in the company. We have five objectives annually for our company, and everyone goes into the system each quarter to put in their objectives that play into those broader goals.
We have another system that sends everyone an e-mail on Monday that says: “What are you going to get done this week? And what did you get done last week that you said you were going to do?” Then that rolls up into one e-mail that the entire organization gets. So if someone’s got a question, they can look at that for an explanation. We share other information, too — every time we have a meeting, we release meeting notes to the organization. When we have a board meeting, we write a letter about it afterward and send it to the organization.
When everyone’s rowing together toward the same objective, it’s extremely powerful. We’re trying to execute at a very high level, and we need to make sure everyone knows where we’re going.
“Google has found that the most innovative workers — also the ‘happiest,’ by its definition — are those who have a strong sense of mission about their work and who also feel that they have much personal autonomy.”—
Google has long been known as an elite organization bordering on elitist. It’s fascinating to see how their conception of prospective candidates has changed as they’ve looked at the data over time, departing from a SAT and GPA-driven view.
We’ve seen an interesting trend at companies that are extremely culture-focused: the culture hacker. Software developers have built internal developer productivity tools since time immemorial because great engineering cultures push for automation and improving iteration speed. But now developers are turning their attention to addressing team dynamics and how the whole company functions and works together on the whole — in a word, culture.
Zappos: making values concrete with process and code
At many companies, company values are just words on a piece of paper tacked to a wall somewhere. At Zappos, they’re extremely thoughtful about giving their values bite. For example, they’re famous for paying new employees to quit. After new employee training ends, each employee is offered the opportunity to quit their job and walk away with $1,000. They do this because one of the Zappos core values is “be passionate and determined”, and paying people to quit ensures that those who remain are incredibly enthusiastic about their work and in it for the long haul.
They take it a step further by using code to reinforce cultural values in individual workflow. As Zappos has grown from a small startup to a 1,500+ employee company, it’s had to scale its value of having a tight-knit team and family-like atmosphere. It was a natural fit to help those relationships scale through technology.
Zappos has what’s called a “Face Game”. When you log into the computer system, after you enter your password, a face pops up of a fellow employee and you’re asked to enter the person’s name. Whether you answer correctly or not, you see a bio and profile – another way of getting to know your fellow workers and building culture.
During a recent visit to Las Vegas, we met Darshan Bhatt, a developer at Zappos who spends 100% of his time on building internal culture products that empower everyone in the company to make Zappos culture their own.
For instance, Zappos conducts monthly surveys to gauge the happiness of employees in the company. At another company, the survey results might be something management discussed behind closed doors to determine, at most, where in the company to deploy more pizza parties. At Zappos, Darshan builds tools that empower every employee with the data necessary to improve culture and happiness in the company.
Darshan showed us an application he was building that every employee in the company would get access to that allowed you to plot anonymized survey responses along different employee demographic information. He showed us an example where he plotted employee tenure length versus reported employee happiness. This gave insight into whether every stage in an employee’s lifecycle at the company was being properly supported and put the power of that data in the hands of every employee to make improvements.
Shopify: developers working with the human relations team to reinvent HR
Shopify is a hugely successful e-commerce software platform based out of Ottawa, Canada, that has a remarkable company culture. They have a two-person team called Shopify Labs which is focused on building internal tools. What surprised and impressed me was the tight-knit relationship the Labs team has with HR in working together to build culture products.
At your average company, you’ll likely see a sharp division between front office and back office teams like HR. You might even see a contentious relationship if HR is focused too much on compliance/CYA and running employees through an impersonal annual review process. Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke made the point to us that they call HR “human relations”, not “human resources” to reinforce HR’s cooperative, culture-focused role at Shopify.
When Serena does something great, Daniel gives her thanks by going into Unicorn, logging her accomplishment, and giving her one, two or three unicorns. Everyone in the company sees Serena’s plaudits and can pile on more unicorns if they agree that she did an awesome job.
At the end of month, every employee in Shopify gets allocated a proportion of the company’s profits that are set aside for Unicorn bonuses. Daniel’s allocation goes to Serena and anyone else to whom he’s given unicorns over the course of the month.
Unicorn gives the power of employee recognition and even bonus disbursement to every employee in the company, not just to managers and HR. The tight working relationship between Shopify Labs and HR makes the cultural value of peer recognition real and vibrant through software.
We’re seeing how company culture is becoming a huge differentiator in attracting and retaining top talent, and this is doubly true for the companies that truly walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Companies on the bleeding edge of focusing on company culture like Zappos, Shopify, Github, and Stripe are investing developer time — the most valuable resource at a software company — to make cultural values real through software.
Walter Chen is co-founder of iDoneThis, an ex-lawyer, and an amateur Starcraft player. You can follow his tweets at @smalter.
J.T. O’Donnell, CEO of CAREEREALISM Media, has an interesting to-do list of 10 items that she tries to do every day. This list isn’t made up of specific tasks but more general ones. Think family or genus, rather than species.
Read something related to my industry.
Read something related to business development.
Send two emails to touch base with old colleagues.
Empty my private client inbox by responding to all career coaching questions within one business day.
Check in with each team member on their progress.
Have a short non-work related conversation with every employee.
Review my top three goals for my company that are focused on its growth.
Identify and execute one task to support each of my top three goals.
Post five valuable pieces of content on all my major social media accounts.
Take a full minute to appreciate what I have and how far I’ve come.
It’s a neat way to think about and carry out your goals for the day!