Don’t use your work voice at home

When you introduce yourself, what do you say?

“I am Kate Maria Artur, and I am an accountant journalist engineer at  Apple SpaceX Automattic„… Most of us will use the job title as a representation of who we are.

My mom infuriates me, and it’s teaching me a lesson about work. She infuriates me with a particular voice, a type of preachy „Maybe you should think about THIS” type of tone. I’m going somewhere with this, I promise.

See, it took me a pandemic to figure out WHY it’s so annoying.

My wife and I are living in a summer house together with my mom and a new dog. It’s a journey of self-discovery, and one of the lessons I received is seeing my mom work. She is a high school teacher and tries to teach remotely, over Zoom.

And she uses THE VOICE when teaching. The same one I hate. My mom tries to literally lecture me when we have a disagreement!

I, on the other hand, am an engineer. My default reaction is to diagnose and solve every problem. This is what I’m good at. Surely, if we address the core issue of every discussion, we can move on, right? Don’t try this at home.

Turns out, sometimes people sometimes want you to listen to them. Shocker, right? They don’t want to be lectured, they don’t want their problem solved, they just want to get their emotions out. You may not think of this as a professional behavior to have at work, but in your personal relationships, that may be a thing.

We all play our roles.

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players

William Shakespeare

Mammals are hell-bent on protecting their identity and acting accordingly. The famous, (but now under reevaluation) Stanford Prison Experiment concluded, that regular people can do horrible things when assigned a new identity. Acting against our identity and assumed roles introduces Cognitive Dissonance, which causes heavy psychological stress. Every cell in our body wants to act according to what we are.

Applied behavioral science recognizes this. Master Key System, Think and Grow Rich, and The Secret all focus on addressing identity first and letting behavior follow. Tony Robbins says that “Identity is everywhere. We do what we believe we are”.

When we tie our identity to work, we continue to perform similar functions at home, which can cause issues.

Information processing choices

When faced with a new piece of information, you can do a couple of things with it. Your reaction can be:

  1. Reflexive
    fight or flight, etc
  2. Pattern matching/ problem solving
  3. Empathy / Connection
    Seek to understand the experience
  4. Mining for potential

Most professionals’ job description will fall on the spectrum of „#2 – Pattern matching/problem-solving”.

Recognizing patterns as „another one of those” (as Ray Dalio puts it) is a cornerstone of not only Engineering and Medicine but also Law, Investing.

Modern economy rewards jumping straight into problem-solving mode. “World’s biggest challenges are also the world’s biggest business opportunities”, according to Peter Diamandis. The more problems you solve, the bigger the big shot you are. And then you get back home.

Every cell in your body will ache to do what you have done all day – solve problems and bark orders.

But at home, you are not a bigshot any more. You are an accountant journalist engineer husband, mother, or a son. Leave the bigshot voice and, better yet – identity at the door. Be human, emphatise or help somebody explore the potential.

VIPs secret weapon: the Post-It note.

In the olden days before the pandemic, there were conferences and meetings. People would gather together to discuss matters in person, looking at each other, not through the screen, but face-to-face.

Meetings, naturally, are most productive when you take notes. Without action items and concrete takeaways, there are just chit-chats between friends. So people whip out their laptops and tablets to „jot down something.”

Have you ever participated in a meeting where everybody is walled off behind a screen? I did, and it was entirely unproductive. I’m sure it had great notes, though.

Last year, during our company offsite in Orlando, I had a series of meetings regarding a feature I was responsible for. There were many stakeholders, and I wanted to use the time to discuss strategy. I met with the Head of Product, President of our product line, and the CEO of the company. And I noticed something quite interesting:

The more senior the person, the more minimalist their note-taking approach.

All the people I met used Pen&Paper. But it really clicked when we invited the amazing Stephen Wolfram on stage. He would carry a stack of post-it notes, just like our CEO!

I wanted to have something that the average theoretical physicist can use

Stephen Wolfram on why he created Mathematica. He could have been talking about post-its, too.

What is it about paper notes and post-its in particular?

Note-taking is something I take seriously. I type about 500 new notes per month and I am very fond of the search function of my Evernote account. But I have to admit – the paper is superior for note-taking.

  1. Analog (pen & paper) note-taking lets you stay present. There is no wall of screens between you and the other person,
  2. Your posture is different when you take notes on paper, making it easier for you to use body language. (With hands on the keyboard, your back is rounded, just like when your ancestors were hiding from danger. This is not the body language of successful people),
  3. It’s clear and even encouraging that you are noting things down. The other person does not have to worry, that you are playing Animal Crossing,
  4. Post-it notes are easy to carry and convenient to pull out when needed. You can keep them in your pocket,
  5. You can use them while standing, which is useful during conferences,
  6. One idea, one note is a neat, self-contained information nugget. Post-it note is big enough to note the important stuff but too small to take your bloat. Just like a tweet.
  7. You can easily re-arrange, combine, and process them after the meeting. It’s like the are made for this.

Now, that you are in on the secret, you can carry a stack of post-it notes to your high-stakes meeting. Let them know you are a professional too.

Communication, and other CIA Sabotage tactics

Communication is Oxygen. If you feel bad, breathe. If a project is stuck in a rut – communicate. So if you see fire somewhere, you just pump more oxygen into it, right?

Oh, wait.

David Perell has recently shared a page from the CIA Sabotage Field Manual:

This document was created in 1944 to help incite enemy to

“make faulty decisions, to adopt a non-cooperative attitude, and to induce others to follow suit”

In my corporate experience, I have seen genuinely well-meaning employees act in any of these ways. The bigger the organization, the more of these behaviors become defaults. You default to committees to shift risk. You insist on proper channels to be a „Team Player.”

I will not explain why these behaviors are not conducive to innovation or, for that matter, even operating of a healthy organization. Have a look at the source document.

Open communication in a bigger organization encourages most of these behaviors and that is what I marked in red.

At Automattic, we kind of take the „Apple Opposite” approach. We are distributed in 75 countries, work without a spaceship HQ, and default to open communication whenever possible. I can snoop in on all internal projects and our VIP clients, see source code of upcoming releases and chime in on a product line strategy that has zero overlap with my responsibilities.

I found our instincts to be much closer to how Pixar operates and it makes me very proud:

A company’s communication structure should not mirror its organizational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.

If there are people in your organization who feel they are not free to suggest ideas, you lose. Do not discount ideas from unexpected sources. Inspiration can, and does, come from anywhere.

„Creativity Inc.”


Unfortunately, everything in life has a downside and Open communication does as well. Every positive behavior can become a subterfuge tactic if overused:

My intentSubterfuge tactic I fall into
Async communication, by definition, can be read at any time.
I don’t know what the context of the other party is, so I will make a long-winded explanation of my reasoning, so we can skip the back-and-forth
(2) Make „speeches”. Talk as frequently as possible at great length…
When I stumble upon a thread or conversation, I try to provide additional value by looping in knowledgeable people.

Connecting people who talk to each other is great for creativity.
(3) When possible, defer all matters to committees for “further study and consideration”

This one is particularly effective as subterfuge – people I loop in will reciprocate, ensuring exponential growth of a committee.
Sometimes I try to provide additional value by sharing ideas and concerns. Did you thought about X?

Maybe they didn’t, and I just saved them a discovery in the future?
(4) Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible

Also known as Bikeshedding. Extremely powerful combined with the above (3). Random people looped into a conversation will feel compelled to provide value, sharing shallow unrelated concerns.

Since Async communication does not really have the concept of the „meeting finished”, we can hit another tactic for bonus points if we „share our thoughts too late”:

(6) Refer back to matters decided upon the last meeting, in an attempt to re-open the question (…)

Hippocrates said, that everything to the excess is opposed to nature.

Excess communication can have detrimental effects. It introduces noise for everybody, but more importantly – piles on more work for people trying to solve a problem. I am not advocating for hiding the communication but cutting on self-serving comments.

Are you making that comment to:

  • Show that you are smart? Pass.
  • To prove that you have taken action, even it is contributing very little? Pass.
  • Because you feel concerned, that „proper channels” were not used? Pass.
  • Project shipped, but you feel compelled to share a concern that should be addressed earlier? Pass.
  • You have helpful information, that will make them achieve goals faster? Go ahead.
  • You are certain a major risk was overlooked? Go ahead.
  • You have a genuine question and answer will help you or others in future pursuits? Go ahead.

Breathe and communicate. Within reason.

“Well, we have to measure something.”, And the perils of metrics.

“What gets measured, gets managed,”

Peter Drucker famously said.

The sentiment makes sense. If we are not looking at a compass, how can we know if we are going in the right direction? How can we keep ourselves honest, and how can we course-correct?

Thanks to the culture of metrics, in 2019 Amazon has surpassed Apple as the most valuable company on the face of the planet.
Indeed, what gets measured, gets managed, but at the expense of everything else. Less famously, Drucker said

Working on the right things is what makes knowledge work effective. This is not capable of being measured by any of the yardsticks for manual work.

It is very human to want a put significant round number, so we can judge it’s value. We like explicit situations, and a moral gray area is always unwelcome. Your score is 73rd percentile, and eating meat on a Friday is a sin. At least that is clear.

But life is more complicated and nuanced. It is somehow tough to measure the desired outcome accurately. So we defer to measuring the closest thing that is easy to gauge. Can’t hurt, right? At least we’re in the ballpark.

Well, it can.

In 1956 V. F. Ridgway has pioneered an area called “Dysfunctional Consequences of Performance Measurements.” In the first study of such kind (and the one that gave the name to the whole genre), a systematic analysis of the quantitative measurements in the governmental sector and found multiple examples of it going terribly wrong.

(Quantitative is a fancy term for something that has a number.)

“Indiscriminate use ( of quantitative measures) may result in side effects and reactions outweighing the benefits.”

It boils down to the fact that unlike scientifical phenomena, organizations, markets, and people are really complex. By creating simplistic representations, we leave uncomfortable stuff out, ending up with a perfect model for a world that does not exist. We develop synthetic metrics to gauge “the best we can” and start to measure the progress against that number.

As phrased in “Goodhart’s law“, once you make that artificial number your target, it stops being a useful metric. Everybody in the organization will now realign their priorities in order to “bump” the number. With no regard to how that translates into the bottom line.

  • As pictured by sketchplanations above, as a nail-making company, you want to make a lot of customers happy with your nails (a noble cause indeed). But if you are sloppy with your metric-choosing, you can get the opposite effect,
  • Let’s imagine you are trying to measure the output of support employees. If you make them answer the most support tickets, they will try to hit that number at the expense of actually helping the customer, or even worse – making the customer come back a few times with the same problem.
  • If you’re a private doctor trying to avoid lawsuits (like in the USA), you will order unnecessary expensive tests to ensure legal defense. Conversely, when incentivized to curb spending (like in Poland), you will try to guess the diagnosis to avoid costly tests.

Jerry Muller, the author of “The Tyranny of Metrics,” coined the term Metrics Fixation, which is where you replace judgment with numeric indicators.

The most characteristic feature of metric fixation is the aspiration to replace judgment based on experience with standardized measurement.

Jerry Muller

In a frantic search for performance metrics, we often grab the number that is easiest to gauge, ignoring that “Not everything that matters is measurable and not everything that’s measurable matters” (Jerry Muller).

Metrics fixation not only punishes the organization by delivering unexpected outcomes and lower performance. I would argue that it is one of the most significant risks the modern world faces today.

Broad societal problems with metrics.

1. The educational system.

Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash

Public Education is, of course, a lofty goal and a massive achievement of our civilization. It is intended to teach young people a habit of life-long learning, open their minds, and realize their full potential. But the education system has a metric: grades.

The entire school experience is designed to be measurable, controlled, and spoon-fed. You cannot take a long time getting to know algebra because it would be unfair to your fellow test-takers. You cannot skip ahead because the class is not moving at your pace. And in effect, children learn one lesson the most: Learning is not fun.

When students cheat on exams, it’s because our school system values grades more than Students value learning.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

2. Economy and finance.

Photo by M. B. M. on Unsplash

Shockingly, economists and investors are not judged by the performance of their models in real markets! They are not eager to wait decades to validate a model, so they pick metrics easier to measure – testing the hypothesis on synthetic data, ending up with a perfect model for an ideal world.

If you are a passenger on a plane and the pilot tells you he has a faulty map, you get off the plane; you don’t stay and say “well, there is nothing better.” But in economics, particularly finance, they keep teaching these models on grounds that “there is nothing better,” causing harmful risk-taking. Why? Because the professors don’t bear the harm of the models.

Colorful Nassim Taleb, best-selling author of Incerto, on Economy.

3. Artificial intelligence

Photo by Arseny Togulev on Unsplash

Unintended consequences of metrics is the core reason why Elon Musk thinks artificial intelligence is the biggest threat to the human race.

The biggest problem with AI is not that it will become wary of us giving it orders and decides to wipe us out on a whim. This is exemplified in the canonical thought experiment called the paperclip maximizer. Nick Bostrom shows us that artificial general intelligence, presented by a single metric ( number of paper clips produced ), designed competently and without malice, could ultimately destroy humanity.

OK, I GET IT! But what else can we do? Should we fly blind?

Photo by Joao Tzanno on Unsplash

Of course not!

Measuring is still the best way to keep you honest and on track. If you measure against real, tangible goals like revenue – it will help you achieve them.

But it’s hard to find those goals in other areas. If your goal is to “be healthy,” should you aim for lower weight? Body Fat percentage? VO2Max (the amount of oxygen you can consume in the unit of time)? Your maximum bench press weight?

Every single one of those numbers represents an opinionated model, and those models are in odds with each other. If you go to 10 different doctors, you will probably get 11 different answers. And each one will not be focused on you but their pet model of the world.

But you know what a great model of reality is? Real-world. It is not entirely measurable, it’s not an exact number, but it’s real. If you want to feel great, then you can use what “Qualitative” measuring is – your answer to the question “do I feel great”

  • If your goal is to learn a foreign language, then ask yourself the question, “did I just have a meaningful conversation in a foreign language.”
  • If you want to hire a great employee, don’t judge them by the diploma. Give them a trial project and see how they work, interact with colleagues, and further the real goals of your organization.

People have a natural drive to do a good job and demonstrate autonomy, mastery, and purpose. It has been proven over and over again that intrinsic is the only motivation that makes sense long-term It has also been proved, that when you introduce extrinsic one (this one big metric, higher salary, more pocket money for doing house chores), the intrinsic motivation will vanish, and your employees will stop trying to further your agenda under the singular guidance of the all-important metric.

The more a quantitative metric is visible and used to make crucial decisions, the more it will be gamed—which will distort and corrupt the exact processes it was meant to monitor.

An adaption of Campbell’s Law

Instead of putting a round number on the wall, create an organization where you can trust your people to do the right thing. At least until the advent of Artificial Intelligence.

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LearnMinder – Teaching kids how to code

LearnMinder is a SmartPhone app that blocks internet access until a homework / coding challenge is solved.

It is intended to be installed on a child’s smartphone. Parent can set up a topic that the child needs to practice. Every time the child wants to play or browse the Internet, she/he has to first solve a challenge custom tailored to current skill level. When the challenge is solved – child can use the Internet again.

The whole challenge is presented in a narrative that “the Internet is broken” and child needs to fix a bug in the software to use it. In the process, it learns, that all services it enjoys using are created by someone, maintained constantly and it is not magical black box.

Day by day, challenge by challenge the child gets more comfortable in thinking how the websites / services / games are designed and that sometimes it’s actually more fun to create these products than to use them.

Future integrations include

  • Coding lessons
  • Duolingo – foreign language lessons
  • Fintess tracker – training workouts

Current state

This application will be integrated with code.org and released under Open Source license.

I decided to re-write it in React Native to iron out some kinks.

How this app came to be – EUhackathon

In 2015 I had a pleasure to participate in EUhackathon. It was a splendid 2-day hackathon held in Brussels with a theme

Tools to help teach kids digital skills

During this event I created “Interfixer“, which I’m now rebranding as “LearnMinder

During presentations, along with a fully functioning demo, I presented:

And I won!

This was a huge surprise for me, but the Jury decided that my application was best, and as a single participants, I won the 2015 edition of EU Hackathon 🙂 (You can read more here)

I met some AMAZING people (this was such a whirlwind!)

euhackathon252520435
Me with European Commission Vice-President Andrus Ansip

IMG_4438
Me with Esther Wójcicki, Sergey Brinn’s mother-in-law

Evernote: Using Online Notes for Performing Qualitative Research

In June issue of Qualitative Sociology Review (Issue here) you can find mine and Krzysztof Stachura’s paper about using Evernote platform in the course of academic research. Please, keep in mind that paper is in Polish.

Abstract

The paper is a presentation of potential ways to use Evernote as a simple and cheap alternative to professional CAQDA (Computer-Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis) software packages, along with pointing specific limitations of the tool.
The main functions useful in research and for analytic purposes are depicted, as well as techniques that enable the application of grounded theory methodology using Evernote are. Moreover, similarities and differences between Evernote and NVivo 10 are presented, and the analytical perspectives for the near future concerning the evolution of Evernote are drawn. 

KeywordsEvernote, CAQDA, qualitative research, organizing data, NVivo

Download

Warning: The paper is in Polish

You can download paper from QualitativeSociologyReview.org [PDF]