Savoring an Interview with Katia Verresen

If you’re joining RW this week, I’m going to try to keep us focused on a recent Charter interview with Executive Coach Katia Verresen. It resonated with me — as it likely will with some of you — because of the way Verresen so clearly seeks to support creative and meaningful work. I want to savor the interview, and I suggest you do the same.

To facilitate that process, I’m going to leave some focused notes below. (All quoted material comes from Verresen.) Give these suggestions a try or at least carry them around with you and hold them up against your day-to-day reality. You can then read the whole interview over the weekend*.

  • For meeting schedulers: Consider starting every meeting 5 minutes after the hour. In tandem, encourage attendees to use those 5 minutes to disengage from prior tasks and to take a few breaths before your meeting. This scheduling move seems important to me not only because it might slow down the pace of the day, but also because it could improve meetings by giving people a rhythm around preparing for them. I’m not simply talking about “reading the agenda” or the memo in advance; I’m talking about preparing one’s mind and body for the tasks, and team, ahead.
  • If people go back-to-back, from meeting to meeting to commitment to engagement, “cognitive drag lasts about 23 minutes.” Not good. See the previous bullet point.
  • How to use an hour (when you’re not in a meeting): “When we’re doing deep thinking work, 52 minutes is very good for us. More than that and we start to flag.” So that’s 50 – 55 minutes on-task, followed by a break. I’ve been saying this same thing for 30 years because a teacher I had in 8th grade once told us to do our homework that way. “Work for 50 minutes,” she said, “then do whatever the heck you want for 10 minutes. Then, make sure you stop your break at 10 minutes and get back to work.” For some reason I believed her, and I used my trusty Casio watch to time my splits. To this day, when I’m really in a groove, I naturally break up my hours this way.
  • Move before solving: “After we workout, we have greater focus and clarity for up to two hours.” This principle is worth considering, especially if the problem you’re trying to solve isn’t urgent or you aren’t up against a deadline. As I said at the start, the goal in savoring this particular article is to hold ideas — like “after we workout” — up to reality, especially if you’re feeling lackluster about your current processes or outcomes or both. What’s the worst that could happen? And the best?
  • On pausing, if just for 10 seconds: “We have to remember that we are biological humans and there are very simple things like moving our neck, looking around, and locating ourselves in the day that suit our social nervous system. It registers safety. It takes less than 10 seconds.”
  • On celebrating even the small wins: “When [high performers] reach their goals, they move on and completely dismiss what they’ve created. That’s disrespectful of their work and their team. It’s really important to pause, reflect, and celebrate that we went from zero to one with a journey in between so that we can capture the wisdom, the learnings, and the richness of the experience. That way, it’s easier to create and go after our next challenge.”

*Of course you can just skip my notes and read the whole interview whenever you want. But my point in designing this post in the way that I did is to work with people’s habits. If you show up here every day looking for something new, you’re going to find the same thing for a few days this week. The only way to make it new is to make yourself new.

Source: Charter

Activation Energy

I learned about the term “activation energy” in the Farnham Street newsletter. It’s one of those terms that I recognized instantly when I saw it because I have frequently seen it in the wild — as either a part of a successful planning process or, more likely, something unexpected or for which a group was underprepared. “That’s what it’s called,” I said.

Activation Energy (AE), as I understand it, is the effort and work and time and muscle and hustle — energy! — it takes to set in motion something substantial. It’s drives the launch of an endeavor, project, community, initiative, etcetera.

Ideally, if you handle the AE part of your planning well, you can reduce your energy investment afterwards. Some momentum will live on in the system.

Also if you plan your AE well, you’ll have a chance of recovering after knowingly throwing yourself, your team, and your systems out of balance.

Planning, let’s say, the first few weeks of a school year or the beginning of a specific project that will ask a team to juggle ordinary work and extra-ordinary work is helpful — physically, emotionally, and psychologically. You can prepare mentally for it. You can frame communication around it. You can work it into your leadership storytelling — i.e., AE is tough, but it has a beginning and an end; here’s an example of where I’ve seen this done well; here’s how it may feel. You can explain to your family or friends that you may have to put in a few long days or even a weekend, that you may be less available to them, that you may be tired or even frustrated.

I’m saying all of this because expending AE should be a choice, is something you can manage, and shouldn’t be something that sneaks up on you, or worse, a team for which you’re responsible.

The Offense / Defense Lens

I once asked Reshan if he preferred offense or defense. The question was random, a bit of a joke even, and I half expected him not to answer. But he said, with absolute certainty, “defense.”

While having a conversation with a parent of a player on my son’s soccer team, I was reminded of Reshan’s answer . . . and perhaps the reason for his certainty.

“On defense, you want to close space, shrink the field,” the parent said. “On offense, you want to open up space, open up the field.” He was telling me this as part of an analogy he was making about a team he was leading, or trying to lead, at his job.

And now I’m thinking ahead to the coming week, when I’ll be facilitating — I just counted — 9 hours of planned meetings. Heading into a planned meeting, I always try to think clearly and deliberately about agendas. To build them, I focus on the tasks we need to complete and any group maintenance that needs attention. And this week, I’m going to add an offense / defense lens to my planning. More specifically, I’m going to think about whether or not I need to consolidate space or open it up. Do we need to be really close and really aligned, perhaps to hold a lead, or do we need to spread out and run to space, perhaps to put some points on the board?

In-Person Time

Executive Coach Ed Batista launches his most recent newsletter with a lovely meditation about life on his farm. As is his gift, he spins that experience into fodder for his professional practice, nailing down a key choice point for practitioners in a wide range of fields.

In our own various ways, my clients and I are “re-grounding” ourselves, finding ways to live and work sustainably under new conditions. Sometimes this involves adapting to a radically different environment, as in our case on the farm. More typically it involves distinguishing between A) those pre-pandemic activities that are meaningful and important and should be restored, and B) all the others that were merely by-products of a world in which in-person time was a commodity, and not a precious resource.

For me, things feel busier than ever for October and yet I’m still feeling energized. But that’s in part because I’ve tried to fill my days with as many meaningful, move-the-dial kinds of activities as possible. I’m busier in large part because I’m engaged, interested, and drawn to my work. Or, in Batista’s useful framing, I’m feeling restored because I’ve returned to tasks that “should be restored,” not “merely by-products” of a world of work that was headed in the wrong direction long before the pandemic.

Source: Ed Batista’s October 2021 Newsletter.

The Soup Theory of Idea Generation

Yesterday morning, on the ride in to school, my son asked me why I sometimes send him emails about a certain aspect of machine learning. “All my free time goes to my math homework or soccer,” he said. “Why do you think I have time to work on some random machine learning problem?” He also may have called me weird.

I told him that I had no interest in taking up his free time; instead, I was inviting him to make soup with me.

My daughter, who was tuning the radio at the time, chimed in. “Soup or soup.” (Yes, she has a certain tilt to her voice when she she’s speaking in italics.)

Soup,” I said.

“What’s with all the metaphors?” she asked.

“All the metaphors? That’s a longer conversation. This metaphor is important,” I said, “because it connects to one of the greatest things in the world: the generation of new ideas.”

They were both glad when the ride was over before I could say more . . . and one of them may have even remarked (politely, of course), “why don’t you just write a blog post about it!” I think I will.

Here’s the soup theory of idea generation for anyone who wants to continue the ride:

I believe, based on long practice, that it is helpful to think about a topic or idea as a big pot of soup. (This is assuming you don’t need to move quickly.)

When you’re just setting out to make soup, there’s likely some intense heat involved. In terms of an idea, the “tenor” of our metaphor, we might think about this as the initial trip down the rabbit hole or the emotional experience that puts an idea onto your radar in the first place. In terms of cooking soup, the “vehicle” of our metaphor, it’s more literal: you bring the initial stock to a boil.

Once the soup / idea reaches a boil / flashpoint, you move it onto the back burner / file.

You turn the heat down. You let it bubble and gurgle ever so slightly. You expose it, in other words, to time and the lowest possible amount of warmth to keep it cooking. The slower and lower the better, in fact, and you can always turn off the stove completely and just put a lid on the pot.

And now I hear my son’s voice, if I had been explaining this concept to him: “Why the heck do you have to keep sending me emails if the soup is already cooking?”

You have to think of the emails as new ingredients — things you stumble upon while looking around in the kitchen, while maybe doing something else, while maybe traveling somewhere, all while the soup cooks. Once you understand the base, and know it’s cooking, you enter the world a bit differently. Ingredients you meet along the way remind you of the soup, and that it’s cooking. You wonder what would happen if you added those ingredients to the soup. You bring them home and approach the pot. You give the soup a stir, taste it to determine how much of the new ingredients are worth adding. Or, if you’re in a rush, you just toss in the whole bundle. You leave the soup again — and again — and go back to your life. The bundle unfurls and spreads, mixing into the soup.

More life equals more ideas, means more time is passing, means the soup is getting deeper and richer, means more ingredients to add to the soup, means, ultimately, more and more layers and flavors, more blending.

At some point, when you have the time and energy, or when the soup smell is filling up your house so much that you need to do something, you’ll finish the soup. You’ll taste it again. You’ll add some salt, some pepper. You’ll pour it into bowls, select the perfect loaf of bread to go with it, and share it with close friends or colleagues or neighbors or the world. It’s then that you’ll know what the soup is worth, what it might be good for. Or it will just be a nice meal, which is fine, too. Not all soup needs to change the world.

And the point is, you couldn’t have rushed any of that. Not the making; not the serving; not the valuing. It wouldn’t be the same kind of soup — that is, precisely your soup, a soup made of your one, true life — unless it bubbled and gurgled through time and temperature shifts and surprise ingredients and more time.

“So,” I’d be saying to my son right about now if he were listening, “don’t think of them as emails. Think of them as things you might put in a soup . . . a soup we don’t have to serve anytime soon. In fact, the longer we wait, the better the soup. Have a great day at school.”

What Game are You Playing?

A lot of people I know use MailChimp to manage their mailing lists. It’s easy to use and has good tiered subscription options. So, when I heard that the company had been acquired for 12 billion dollars, I read a few of the stories to understand how a seemingly simple company could be worth so much.

Though I’m still not sure about the economics, or what drove them, my research did yield an interesting portrait of one of the company’s founders, Ben Chestnut. I liked in particular how he seemed to know exactly what game he was playing and trying to win each day.

In an article in the Financial Times, he said: “I kind of feel like I had my head down, tweaking things, improving things, and then I looked up and bam, it’s a $12bn company.” Later, he boils it down even more: “I would look at the previous balance, and then I would look at this month’s balance, and I would want to make sure that this month was greater than last month. That’s all I ever did.”

The article also reveals what he (and his partner) didn’t do. Here’s Chestnut reflecting on early investors, which he (and his partner) seemingly swatted away while not taking their money: “It felt like they were more like alien beings from another era trying to tell me how to run my business.”

What the founder and his partner did, what they didn’t do, and last . . . how they know they won: the article focuses finally on an outside voice (Wade Davis of Zapier). Regarding the deal that finally convinced the MailChimp founders to sell, Davis said he was surprised but “there were probably other reasons they felt this was a good outcome for MailChimp, for the customers, and for everyone.”

Most of us will never sell a company for billions of dollars. But all of us can seek to approach our work in ways that draw useful, healthy boundaries around it. The advice is simple:

Know what game you are playing.

Within that scope, define what you do and what you don’t do.

Repeat the doing and the not doing and protect against intrusions that would throw off the patterns, the discipline.

And then, perhaps most important, know how you know you’ve won and that the game is over.

Source: Financial Times (behind paywall).

Filling Up My Tank (and Yours)

Since school started, I’ve been trying to post something at RW Monday through Friday. I’ve mostly hit this target, and I’d like to continue to hit it. But that’s going to take some counterintuitive planning. In order to mostly succeed over the long term, I’m going to have to commit to not being perfect. And to routinely filling up my tank so that it never goes completely empty. The latter is just bad for the vehicle, right?

So I’m going to take off the last week of every month — even if I’m feeling great and filled with writing ideas. That last part is critical. I think my contribution will last longer, and have more impact over time, if I rest before I’m broken.

As for you, dear reader, I’ll also make a suggestion.

The point of the daily post was to help us both to build a habit. I wanted to connect with you each morning or at least predictably. Many of you have told me that you like starting your day this way. Or reading RW during your first coffee break of the morning. Or wrapping up your day with it, as a way to transition between work and home.

I love all of that, and I don’t want to get in the way of habits that are helpful to you. So during each of my “break” weeks, I suggest you still show up for your RW time. Keep the appointment, because it’s not so much an appointment with me as it is an appointment with yourself. You could scroll through the archive if you want. Better yet, though, you can just leave the 5 or 15 minutes completely open and let your mind go wherever it wants to. You could think about how your actions are lining up with your values and beliefs. You could check-in on progress on those goals that are most important to you. You could take the time to actually figure out what goals are most important to you. You could jot down a quick note of gratitude and send it to the intended recipient. Just don’t try to do too much. Tanks, this week, are for filling.

I’ll see you next Monday.

Steve