Noticing + Contextualizing + Sharing

A friend of RW recently started a new job. He’s in a major leadership role, and when he began to add events to his calendar, he made sure to schedule a near-daily “walkabout.”

As he walks, he pops in and out of classrooms and conversations and works hard to simply notice what and how students are learning.

When he returns to his desk, he writes down a few details about what he noticed.

Later, he evolves some of his noticings by connecting them to quotations from relevant educational research.

Even later, he polishes the newly formed pairing of noticings and research tidbits.

Last, he shares back whatever he has polished with the community that hosts his near-daily walkabouts.

I think this is good practice for a leader:

Walk around on-site.

Notice and then capture what you notice.

Contextualize what you notice.

Polish the above.

Share the above.


How Will You Decide?

Lately I’ve been getting a lot of mileage out of a simple question.

When I’m meeting with people and they are trying to solve problems, rather than jumping in to tell them how I might solve them or even asking them how they themselves are planning to solve them, I take one giant step back and ask, “What will your decision-making process look like as you attempt to arrive at a solution for this problem?” (Of course I try not to sound like a robot when I’m asking this question, but you get the idea.)

Each time I’ve used this question, it has led to some modifications in the proposed decision-making process. Often, that process needed to involve more input from more people, to move more slowly, to take into account more data, or simply — to end.

And talking about decision-making has some added bonuses.

It helps people to make better decisions not just once but many times. It helps me, as a “coach,” to know why people might be stuck in a certain performance pattern. And, last, it helps me to make my organization more transparent to the people whose daily decisions help it — hopefully — to thrive. On this last point: When you help to inform or upgrade someone’s decision-making process, you end up having to talk about all kinds of institutional stuff (for lack of a better word). This stuff could include information flow or architecture, politics, power dynamics, unspoken tension, relationships, competence, incompetence, money, meeting agendas — all the things that make a difference while not being written down in any manual.

The Grateful Farmer

I was very pleased with the results of the first homework assignment for my English class. I asked students to:

Email me a Quicktime video introduction that includes: your full name, your preferred name or nickname, the name of your favorite writer or filmmaker (or book or movie), and anything that I need to know about you as a learner or human being.      

I’ve been watching a few of these videos each day since I received them and taking notes (even if they are short). Besides learning the answers to each question, I am also learning about the ways students communicate (both orally and in terms of their body language), the fluency level of their speech, and their eagerness (or lack thereof) to connect with me.

Since I don’t know these students personally, and I’m trying to figure out how to connect with them as quickly as possible, all data is useful. To close the loop with each student, and hopefully open a new one, I’m replying to each of them with an email that acknowledges that I’ve watched their video, comments on something I’ve noticed about their video, and asks any followup questions that seem necessary.

As a teacher early in the year, I try to hang onto the mindset of a grateful farmer — happy to be planting seeds in even the smallest plots of land

How to Produce like a (Really Productive) Professor

Reshan and I recently interviewed Aswath Damodaran.  He’s both a giant in the field of finance and valuation and a standing-room only level professor at NYU Stern.  Our published piece revolved around his passion for teaching — and offered an incredibly refreshing perspective from a professor of his stature.  

During the interview, Aswath was kind enough to digress at one point and share some of the secrets of his productivity and his subsequent reach.  We couldn’t include these thoughts (or, really, tactics) in our published interview, but we wanted to share them nonetheless.

In short, he encouraged us to avoid unnecessary compartmentalization.  Instead of turning from thing to thing to thing, he suggested that, perhaps, much of what we do is really just one thing — turned, considered, and altered slowly. In his own words . . . 

If your work needs to be compartmentalized, you need a lot more time everyday, right? 

Right now, I’m writing a blog post for a company I value every year. It’ll take me about six hours to do the entire post with the valuation. I will put it up probably late this evening, and then make a 15 minute YouTube video right after I finish the post, because that’s not a big deal. I’ve already written the post; I know what I’m going to say. It’s just an extension of it. 

I’ll put it up, and it will then get watched probably by a couple hundred thousand people over the weekend; it will then get picked up in 15 different places; it will take off somewhere. That valuation will then go into my material that I will use to update my valuation notes for next semester. It will become part of the next edition of one of my 12 books. It’s going to serve multiple purposes. 

My first Uber evaluation, June of 2014, gave birth not just to a part of my class, it gave rise to a book called Narrative and Numbers. You never know where a post is going to go.

So you see that I can be more productive with a lot less time than if I compartmentalized everything. 

Later in the interview he added what we have begun to call the “Two Minute Rule.”

When you’re done with something, you just want to move on. I say, look, take the extra two or five minutes to make it usable on another front.  

For example, when I write an email which is a long email that answers a question that I’ve been asked before, I copy and paste it into a document, which then helps me create something that I can put on my website as a “frequently asked question.” 

It takes an extra two minutes, and I don’t want to do it. I’d rather move on, because I have other things to do, but that extra two minutes saves me god only knows how many questions I’ll get in the future on that particular issue.

Jazz / Pizza

I’m a fan of innovative process because it often gets the mind, body, or team moving in ways that, by habit or default, it has not. Often, new process yields new energy and creativity — and sometimes groundbreaking new products.

Here’s how Makaya McCreven makes music, in his own words:

We improvise, then I edit and rearrange and recontextualize that source material into a new distillation of ideas. Then I can take it and pass it to a DJ, who can remix those ideas. Then [we] take that remix and get a live band to learn the remix, then we can perform it as a live band and use it as a catalyst to improvise over that form or create something [else]. Then we have an additional piece of music that doesn’t resemble the improvisation but is a representation of an electronic-sounding remix of that first reimagination. And if we record that live band, we can chop it up all over again and continue the process. It’s a regenerative process of composition—using what was there to reimagine something new.

Source: Downbeat

And here’s how Tomasso Colao, the best pizza chef within 25 miles of my home, makes pizza:

It won’t be apparent to your naked eye that the dough Colao rolls out is made with powder-fine “00” flour from Naples, into which he’s mixed his 23-year-old natural yeast culture (Colao calls it “my baby,” and he feeds it with flour and water every day to sustain it). That dough — with various toppings — gets a 90-second ride in the oven. 


Listen for the distant rhyme — the “regenerative process of composition” — in the way both masters approach their work.

Hacking Reflection

The idea of hacking reflection seems counterproductive. Reflection, after all, is supposed to be a slow and thoughtful and even meandering process. Hacking implies something else entirely.

But I have found that, due to its very nature, reflection often takes a backseat to activity. You can race through your entire workday until the last moment — when you often have to hustle to a personal responsibility (picking up children, meeting someone for dinner, cooking dinner, etc.). Thinking about thinking (or systems, patterns, habits) feels like a distant luxury — costly and out of reach.

I hack reflection, therefore, because it is both important and impractical. I know it could probably help my future self find new meaning and purpose (and pathways), but my present self finds it difficult to schedule.

Without a hack.

Here’s mine: I don’t schedule reflection, but I do schedule small activities that require or drive it.

For example, writing a near-daily blog post is (a) easy to schedule, (b) fun to cross off a list, and (c) requires reflection. Since blogging is the sole writing activity in my life for which I refuse to take notes in advance, the activity is usually entirely backward looking. I sort through my memory to see what stuck with me — what made an impact or impression — from the day that has passed. Then I write about it until I’ve captured it clearly, publish it, and return to it later for further polishing if I have time. Regardless of the quality of the final product, the memory crawl is a form of reflection.

“Tidy up (physical world)” and “Tidy up (digital world)” are (a) easy to schedule, (b) fun to cross off a list, and (c) require reflection. You can’t organize your things without thinking about them, moving them, turning them over (i.e., reflecting on them); you can’t file documents without matching them to a category (i.e., reflecting on them).

“Read folder names” or “Read file names” is (a) easy to schedule, (b) fun to cross off a list, and (c) drives reflection. Even just a glance at certain documents reminds you that they exist, which reminds you to reach for them at the right moment, which helps you to make use of them when they can have an impact on a project or decision.

“Read your notes from _____” is (a) easy to schedule, (b) fun to cross off a list, and (c) requires reflection. Many leaders with whom I speak are very good at writing things down during meetings; actually looking at what they’ve written down, actually making sense of it by reading it, actually converting scribbles into fuel into motion, is something that frequently gets lost.

I’m a big fan of making sure that the important things aren’t lost. Tactically, this means assuring that they do not become insurmountable or rare. In fact, I try to make them easy and regular, falling in line with the conventional wisdom about fitness — if the best exercise is the one that you will actually do frequently, the same holds true for reflection.

Frequently, then: Adding reflection-rich action items to lists ensures that reflection will take place in your daily workflow. Crossing things off lists adds to a sense of momentum and wellbeing. And the reflection that can happen, even upon the completion of simple tasks, will feed your future plans and actions. That’s why you should hack an activity that, on its surface, defies hacking.

The Email Tortoise

Whether I like it or not, email is a big part of my job. (And I’d guess this statement holds true for you, as well.)

In the past, the biggest email innovation that I had experienced was the ability to use keyboard shortcuts in my mail app to quickly read and sort emails into folders.

As the saying goes, though, first you use the tool and then the tool begins to use you: processing email quickly, via keyboard shortcuts, only made me want to process email more quickly. Whenever I entered my inbox, I measured the quality of my engagement by using a quantity-based metric. In short, a good email session meant that I removed emails quickly.

As I worked to increase my processing speed, every email session felt like a sprint, my digital lungs burning as I lapped the digital track.

And then I maxed out and, frankly, burned out. At a certain point, I couldn’t go faster. Measuring quality as quantity meant that I was as good as I was ever going to be. Which is when my mail app, serendipitously, crashed.

A colleague advised me to use the web version of email while the app sorted itself out. He assured me that everything would return to normal in a day or two. The backend, as is sometimes the case, was out of whack.

As I started using the web version of email, I was forced to work very slowly. I didn’t know my way around the interface. My old tricks — for speeding up the process — didn’t work.

Working slowly, something strange happened. My joy for the medium returned. My intentionality turned up a notch — and then another notch. I was slower, yes, but I found myself asking questions like:

  • Is this the best time to send this email, or should I schedule it?
  • Would the contents of this email be interesting or informative to someone other than the primary recipient?
  • If I send this email, is it going to generate another email? And would that be a good thing?
  • Should I save that email I just wrote in case I have to use parts of it again in a different venue or in a separate message?
  • Should I just walk down the hall or pick up the phone?
  • If I reply to this email right now, quickly, will I be training this recipient to expect quick replies from me from here on out? Do I want to be beholden to that expectation?

Another thing that happened during my slow emailing is that, ironically, deeply so, I reached “inbox zero” for the first time in three years. Tortoise-like, I beat the hare I had been.

By moving slowly, I found that I never — okay, rarely — needed to pass over an email to solve it later. Solving later, it turns out, is only a problem for someone trying to move very quickly in the moment. In my old system, emails that would take four minutes to process were massive roadblocks. Four minutes was an eternity to someone who prided himself on crushing emails in mere seconds. As a result, they remained “unread” which meant I glanced at them again and again — and passed on them again and again.

The new me, emailing slowly and steadily, sees email as an opportunity to be connected to others, to be responsive, to demonstrate engagement, and to sound like a human being. I give each email the time that it deserves. I still favor short responses — one word if the message permits — but that has more to do with my acknowledgment, regained in slowness, that there’s a colleague or friend on the other end of the send button. And their time is important. My old way of emailing was designed as a response to a more selfish instinct — my time is important. Both are true, but the former is more true in a communication exchange for which I am responsible.

Machines are built for speed. That’s one of the things that they do best. Humans are built for context and nuance and connection. As a human emailer emulating a machine, my upside was limited in that I would only ever be able to increase my speed up to a certain point. This meant that every time I entered my inbox I was destined to fail; worse, in some corner of my mind, I know now that I was keeping score and worn down by losing a run here, a run there. On the other hand, as a human emailer emulating a human, my upside is unlimited because I can always connect with others more deeply, more thoughtfully, more intentionally; I can always raise my awareness of context and tone and the needs of others.

To round out the story, I won’t be returning to the mail app I was using, even though it resolved itself and seems to be working perfectly fine again. I’m sticking with the web-based version of email for a simple reason — as a toolkit, it amplifies and extends aspect of my personality and ability that I want to amplify and extend. I can still email quickly, but speed is now a choice rather than a default. (I choose to email quickly when I’m sitting at the center of a bottleneck and my input, via email, is the only thing that can allow work to flow.)

Best of all, when I open my email now, I don’t see it as a mountain to crush; I see it as a mountain that, climbed slowly and steadily, will offer up the joy of human connection . . . and a great view. It’s not a grind anymore. It’s an interesting daily ramble.