Exceptional Performance

In an old interview at Tesla, Elon Musk shared some insights into his highering practices:

“There’s no need even to have a college degree at all or even high school. I mean if someone graduated from a great university, that maybe an indication that they will be capable of great things, but it is not necessarily the case… we are looking just for evidence of exceptional ability, and if there’s a track record of exceptional achievement then it’s likely that that will continue into the future.”

Elon Musk

So, what is exceptional?

Exceptional:
1, Forming an exception; not ordinary; uncommon; rare
2, Better than the average; superior due to exception or rarity.

Wiktionary

When searching for ‘Exceptional performance’, I found this interesting appraisal quote from the University of California, Davis’s HR pages:

“Exceptional Performance: Performance consistently or far exceeded expectations.” UC Davis

And ability and achievement?

Ability: possession of the means or skill to do something.

Oxford Languages

Achievement: A thing done successfully with effort, skill, or courage.

Oxford Languages

Can you define what exceptional ability and achievement look like in your field? If not, the Global skills and competency framework for the digital world (SFIA) is a good place to start.

10 Actions For New Managers

My team grew in February, and three new members became line managers for the first time. As a newly graduated MBA with over ten years of line management experience, I wanted to give them some immediate actions to help them in their first six to 12 months. I have previously written about my approach to leadership and management, but I wanted something simple and practical that would allow each person to begin developing their management style. I went through my MBA and undergraduate texts and collected together some resources, three of which I share below:

5 things new managers should focus on first‘ by Anthony K. Tjan, from the May 2017 edition of the Harvard Business Review, suggests the following:

  • Establish a leadership philosophy
  • Focus on the day to day of management and leadership
  • Be clear about your communication and your top priorities
  • Set common values and common standards
  • Remember that it’s okay to be scared and vulnerable

I firmly believe in setting common values and standards and being clear about your top five priorities. Establishing a leadership philosophy, however, might be challenging while establishing yourself in a new role. The best takeaway from this list is to focus on day-to-day management and leadership, organising your resources (people and funds) to achieve your objectives. This organising can be done simply by listing your deliverables and their due dates and, working with your team to allocate tasks and monitoring them, adjusting task allocations to ensure you hit deadlines and quality expectations.

The book ‘The Making of a Manager‘ by early Facebook employee Julie Zhou has a great definition of the job of a manager; “Getting better outcomes from a group of people working together.” The book suggests a great manager is someone whose team “…consistently achieve great outcomes.” Zhoe recommends managers arrange their tasks into three buckets: 

  • Purpose (what): ensure your team knows what success looks like and cares about achieving it.
  • People (who): Ask yourself: are the team set up to succeed, have the right skills, and are motivated to do great work? Build trusting relationships, understand their strengths and weaknesses to make good decisions about allocating work, and coach individuals to do their best.
  • Process (how): set out how the team works together.

The famous productivity book ‘Getting Things Done‘ by David Allen suggests six horizons of focus to define work:

  • Ground: Calendar/Actions
  • Horizon 1: Projects
  • Horizon 2: Areas of Focus
  • Horizon 3: One-to two-year goals and objectives
  • Horizon 4: three to five-year vision
  • Horizon 5: Purpose and principles

This list presents a valuable hierarchy of activities for new managers from day one, compiling a complete inventory of actions and dates and capturing this into a shared calendar and to-do list to identify multi-task projects and assign areas of focus and accountability. Once these things are working correctly and everyone is producing consistently good work, focus can expand to thinking about annual objectives and a three-year vision to guide which work to priorities and set the direction for the team. After the first year or two, once the manager is established, experienced, and has work under control, they may prefer to take a strategic approach, start from horizon five, and work backwards. However, trying this from day one might cause missed commitments and poor outcomes.

Ten actions for new managers

I settled on the following ten actions for the new manager’s first six to 12 months. The steps start from immediate one-to-one activities and gradually move out in scope and from individuals to the team. You can quickly fix many problems by talking to your direct reports 1:1 and face to face each week and tracking the resulting agreed-upon actions in a to-do list and calendar. However, developing trusting relationships at a team level may take a long time with many shared experiences. Each step should be satisfied before moving on to the next.

  1. Have a 1:1 for 30-60 minutes every 1-2 weeks​
  2. Track all agreed-on actions using a shared to-do list​
  3. Co-create achievable quarterly and annual objectives with clear successful, strong, and exceptional performance targets​
  4. Create a detailed development plan for each role and personalise it based on the strengths and weaknesses of each team member and their long-term career goals​
  5. Cultivate psychological safety​
  6. Spend time planning as a team​
  7. Have a mixture of shared outputs and personal responsibilities​
  8. Develop a clear vision for the team supported by key performance indicators​
  9. Create weekly, quarterly, and annual cycles​
  10. Develop trusting relationships​

This list will evolve and change as these new managers develop and as new line managers join my area. I will detail some of these actions and how I teach them when they come back into my work focus, and I may justify the list and its order at some point with the detail I share with new managers on my teams. 

If you are a new manager or supporting a new manager with their first direct reports, I recommend reading ‘The making of a Manager’ and then ‘Getting Things Done’ to support this list or to develop your own.

Managing Oneself

Peter Drucker is arguably the most influential thinker on management. One of his best-known works is the 18,000-word book ‘Managing Oneself‘ published in 2008 from a 1999 Harvard Business Review article. The article now be found in HBRs ’10 must Reads: The Essentials’, the collection of the 10 most important articles published in their 100-year history. The book’s core idea is that you need to cultivate a deep self-awareness to achieve ‘true and lasting excellence.

Drucker presents a series of questions you can answer about yourself to gain the self-awareness needed to ‘build a life of excellence:

  1. What are my strengths?
  2. How do I work?
  3. How do I learn?
  4. What are my values?
  5. Where do I belong?
  6. What can I contribute?

The most difficult of these questions is the first. With over 180 cognitive biases that affect our ability to process reality, such as confirmation bias where we look for evidence that justified our existing beliefs, how do you truly know what your strengths are? Drucker’s recommended method is feedback analysis; each time you make a key decision write down the outcome you expect and then return in a couple of months and compare the actual results with your expectations. By assessing patterns using this method you will be able to assess your strengths from where you can create desired outcomes. You can then spend time improving these strengths as the most effective route to high performance. Creating a series of feedback analyses can take two to three years for meaningful patterns to emerge, so what can we do immediately while collecting these experiments?

Success in the knowledge economy comes to those who know themselves-their strengths, their values, and how they best perform.

Peter Drucker

How do I perform?

My current focus is on the second and third questions of Drucker’s questions. A set of sub-questions are presented to help us get to:

  • In what ways do I work best?
  • Do I process information most effectively by reading it, or by hearing others discuss it?
  • Do I accomplish the most by working with other people, or working alone?
  • Do I perform best while making decisions, or while advising others on key matters? 
  • Do I perform best when things get stressful, or in highly predictable environments?

By answering these questions you can start to understand what kinds of productivity techniques and tools might suit you best. I know for instance that I can consume and process information through listening. I am often able to recall things I have heard better than those I have read, although this means I often have to avoid listening to things like the radio when I am driving home from work and processing the day’s information and decisions. I have set up techniques to support this including preferring listening to audiobooks over reading them or listening to the week’s economist rather than reading the paper version.  

An interesting point though is how much of overall performance is improved by foundational skills and how much is open to preference and styles? Time blocking for example, where blocks of time, usually in 30-60 minute intervals are allocated to specific tasks, is widely seen as the best method to organise a day. Many methods of note-taking from GTD to Zettelkasten, and the ‘Building a Second Brain’ method all base themselves on the premise that the brain is built to process information rather than store it. Which of these ideas are universal for improved performance that forms the starting point for developing exceptional ability?

How do I learn?

I did not enjoy school nor did I develop any good learning habits or achieve anything exceptional academically. I did however get obsessive with other pursuits such as music production, where I did much better. Drucker suggests that people that excel at learning through writing tend to do poorly at school as most classes are not set up to exploid this approach. One of the reasons I set up this blog is I have a google drive full of documents I have used to organise my thoughts and when learning something new, I usually reach for a pen to organise the idea in my own way. Drucker suggests that there are multiple ways to learn including readers, listeners, talkers, and writers and says that most of us know how we learn best but rarely act on this, and so do not reach high performance. 

As a teacher, I know there are definitely foundational skills and techniques that everyone can benefit from using more. Encoding, spaced repetition and active recall are all seen as highly effective methods of rote learning. Kolb’s cycle presents four stages of experiencial learning; planning, doing, reflecting, and learning but perhaps the most effective way we do each of these stages can vary from person to person and within different contexts. Bloom’s two sigma problem suggests that 1:1 and very small group tutoring produces results two standard deviations better than other methods and John Hattie’s invisible learning presents a meta-analysis of the meaningful research on teaching methods.

 My actions for gaining self-awareness for excellent performance

With my MBA graduation over and the immediate actions complete for my new job, it is time for me to refocus on my performance. I am working on a number of methods to improve my understanding of my strengths but what can I do to improve my ways of working and learning? 

First, I need to work on my foundation skills and update my productivity and learning systems. Then, I need to build on these foundations with more advanced personalised methods that fit the way I work and learn best. Finally, I need to use these two sets of skills on a daily basis. 

Some resources I am using:

Thoughts from 200 days of blogs

Today I hit 200 days straight of writing and publishing this blog. I was inspired to do the challenge by a Seth Godin interview on Modern Wisdom, Chris Williamson’s podcast, where they talked about the importance of process in your work. For 200 days, I have sat for an hour at my laptop each evening and shared my thoughts in 500 words.   

Here are the lessons I have learnt: 

1, Just write what you are thinking – the beauty of focusing on the process and the daily deadline is you remove the need for the work to be perfect before you publish. I sit down at the end of the day and write what is on my mind. I was always terrible at writing at school, from special 1:1 English lessons with learning support at primary school to poor marks on essays during GCSEs – I could do maths and science, and I could talk for England, I just did not get writing. It took me years and a lot of work before it clicked, but I still feel self-conscious about producing extended writing for work. The beauty of writing for its own sake is you have space to learn and develop a style – and connect your thoughts with the words you put on the page.

2, Consume with intention – A side effect of writing what is on your mind at the end of each day is that you start to look out for things that make you think, challenge your assumptions, or inspire you. Life becomes a little richer because you pay more attention. My mum instilled a habit of reading through example, constant trips to the public library, periods of no TV growing up, and paying for my first-years subscription to the Economist when I started at the LSE. With a constant flow of input, producing a daily output becomes easy. 

3, Challenge your thinking and make connections – If I got my reading habit from my mum, I inherited my memory from my Dad. I am not a fast reader; I like to read, reread, and spent time deep in thought when something strikes a chord. My wife often catches me in these deep contemplative moments where I stare out the window vacantly, making random connections from something I learned six years ago. When she asks what I am thinking about, as a running joke, I tend to reply ‘football’ (apparently the second most common thought for an Englishman) or, if that fails ‘The tension between utilitarianism and free will’ (an essay question from my ‘Modern political thought’ module at uni). These periods of contemplation allow me to pull up related memories of something I heard on an audible book while shopping in Tescos, from a random article, or a conversation over coffee many years ago. I try to capture these connections in my writing, spending a bit of time finding the source of the memory and adding it to the essay.

4, turn comments off and write your authentic thoughts – I decided that I was writing for the process and not the outcome at the start of this journey. I would be lying if I said I did not care if anyone reads my posts, I have an ego like anyone else, and I am humbled that 184 people worldwide follow my blog and get 20-30 views per day from every corner of the world. It is unbelievably satisfying when someone in a conversation mentions they have read the blog or that something in a post connected with them. However, in the podcast that started my practice, Seth says that he turns comments off so that the anticipation of people’s reactions will not colour what he writes. I wanted my writing to be authentic, so I turned them off too. I have the link to my social media at the top of each page, so I know if there is a fact check, something accidentally offensive, or someone wants to connect, they can; it is just not directly accessibly under my writing. The Economist famously does not include bylines on their articles for a similar reason, and I think it is a great way to remove some of the fear of putting your thoughts out into the ether. 

5, Technology is incredible – Grammarly might just be the best invention since the printing press for writers who lack confidence. I use Grammarly with the assistant turned off as my word processor, then turn the assistant on for edits. Grammarly has a clean interface, the editing tools in the premium version make a substantial difference, and the immediate feedback is teaching me to be a better writer. We do, however, disagree on the use of the Oxford comma, but no technology is perfect. I publish using WordPress.com as its reader tool provides an instant audience. I save articles to Instapaper to read later and highlight key ideas, and I link it to Readwise to automatically save the highlights and send me collections of these daily. I do most of my book reading with a Kindle for the same reason. I link Readwise to Roam Research which allows me to find anything I have ever highlighted with a particular word to supplement my memory making connections. I automatically post links to everything I write to my Twitter account, link to my blog via my Instagram, and post a link to anything I write related to Learning Design to my Linkedin profile.

My life now

I drove down to the south coast a few days ago, and my wife put on a podcast with Alan De Botton, who made a brief comment on how religions all seem to understand that the effectiveness of learning is highly related to the architectural environment where you learn. That observation got me thinking, while driving, about learning spaces and the vast investment universities make in beautiful campuses. The seed was watered today when I visited the Canterbury Cathedral – how much easier it must have been in 1000 AD to understand the idea of an all-powerful God when you were sat in an incredible, gigantic, and ornately decorated space. The idea will continue to percolate while I stare out of our Margate Airbnb’s third-floor window overlooking the sea. Tomorrow I will find the podcast again and listen to the clip to note it down accurately before searching out some research on how our learning is connected to the environmental context. I will then sit down in front of the sea-facing window and write 500 words on the importance of learning spaces.

Beating existing hierachical systems

I just got my pre-ordered book from Dan Bigham, Start at the end: How reverse-engineering can lead to success. Dan is the brain behind one of the most exciting and innovative sporting stories in recent memory; how four friends from Derby took on the world’s national teams at track cycling’s individual and team pursuit, and won.

In the book, Dan argues that…

‘Every hierarchical system based on performance contains some element of complacency, of lazy thinking and of vested interest. That means these systems can be beaten.’

Dan Bigham

Dan suggests taking the reverse engineering approach of committing to an ambitious goal, identifying precisely what it takes to achieve it, identifying where you are now, and creating a plan to bridge the gap.

Reverse engineering

Reverse engineering is a process that can be used to learn anything given enough time. The goal is to make a big jump in performance based on a target endpoint. 

  1. Set a goal
  2. Take it apart – know precisely what it will take to achieve that goal
  3. Assess your resources – what you have and what is missing
  4. Develop your tools needed to bridge that gap
  5. Set the plan into motion – creating positive feedback loops
  6. Deliver the performance

Once you have achieved your goal, and if you choose to stay in the same environment and team, you need to move to continuous improvement.

Continuous improvement

Continuous improvement is the pursuit of minor incremental improvements to keep you at or above your previous goal. A famous example of this approach is Masaaki Imai’s book Kaizen (Kai = ‘change’, Zen = ‘for good’):

  • Teamwork
  • Discipline
  • Organisation
  • Standardisation
  • Quality cycles

To make continuous improvement work, there needs to be a feeling of psychological safety. A culture of risk-taking and creativity is developed through the freedom for team members to make mistakes. This fearless culture empowers employees to contribute ideas and feedback, knowing they will be taken seriously.  

High-rep kettlebell snatches

Photo by Taco Fleur on Pexels.com

Lockdowns over the last year have made kettlebell training a central element in my daily routine. I write this on a seaside holiday in the southeast of England, to which I brought a 24kg kettlebell in the car (no joke). Working from home means I risk spending all day sitting down with little reason for any meaningful movement, so I have a couple of kettlebells in my conservatory for quick access between meetings. I know that each day, with just 10 minutes, I can get 10×10 swings with a 40kg kettlebell or if I am swamped and only have 5 minutes, I can do 10×10 single hand swings with 24kg.

I think every household should build a collection of kettlebells as a home gym or a ‘Courage corner’ as the Russian Military calls it, according to Pavel in The Russian Kettlebell Challenge. Kettlebells are cheap, will outlast you, require no additional equipment, and the techniques are easy to learn from Youtube. 

Progression on Kettlebell swings

  1. Two-handed swing
  2. One-handed swing
  3. Clean
  4. Snatch

High rep kettlebell snatches are hard; they test your mental resilience, conditioning, grip strength, and shoulder strength and mobility. High rep kettlebell snatches will highlight and fix problems and asymmetries in your swing technique. As a ballistic movement, it is a great way to build a powerful hip snap that will carry over into other activities like running, and it will burn fat at the same time.

Before trying high rep or heavy kettlebell snatches, it is good to build solid technique on the push press and the more accessible swings. Once you start to train the snatch, think of it as a one-handed swing that goes all the way up and swing from the top – pauses with the kettlebell overhead and let your bell drop into the swing movement. 

Start with a 16kg Kettlebell (if you have one) and spend time learning the groove of the movement before you move to a 24kg kettlebell. Until you have mastered the movement, treat it as a practice rather than a workout, take your time building up the reps and weight. Use heavy swings, cleans, and presses for your strength and conditioning work until you feel confident with the snatch.  

Milestones

The first big test is the StrongFirst snatch test that forms part of the entry-level certification. Dan Johns rep recommendations of 20/15/10/5 (per hand) starting with your weaker hand is a great way to approach the test. As Dan points out, by the end of the first set of 20, you can smile as you have completed the most challenging part.

  1. StrongFirst Certification Snatch Test: 100 snatches in 5 minutes with a 24kg kettlebell
  2. The US Secret Service 10-minute snatch test: 200 snatches in 10 minutes with a 24kg
  3. Tactical strength challenge: max snatches in 5 minutes with a 32kg kettlebell
  4. Girevoy national ranking: Snatch a 32Kg kettlebell 40 times with one arm, then 40 times with the other back to back 

Training

High rep snatching with a kettlebell can be tough on your hands, and once the skin on your palms rips, it will take time without training to heal. Only snatch 2-3 times per week to avoid over breaking the skin and supplement with other types of swing and presses that are easier on the grip.

I like to use a combination of Pavel’s rite of passage method, including the clean and presses from Enter the Kettlebell and the progression ladder from Jason Marchall’s TSC prep plan.

Monday: 5-10 snatches per side on the minute every minute for 7 minutes with competition weight based on the milestone you are working towards.

Wednesday & Thursday: 3 sets of 1-10 snatches with the weight above your Monday workout weight followed by 3 sets of 5-10 heavy swings with 3 minutes rest between each set. 

Start with five snatches on each arm, and each week add a snatch on each arm until you get to 10 reps on each side, then start the ladder again but with a heavier kettlebell or add a minute (e.g. 5/5 for 8 minutes with 28kg). For the snatches on the mid-week workouts, start with three sets of one rep on each side and add a rep per side for each subsequent workout. Progress to a heavier kettlebell once you reach 10 per side for three sets.

So, if you haven’t already, buy at least a decent 24kg kettlebell (cheaper bells can have uneven and rough handles) and work through the progression of the swings, training most days based on feel. From there, get a 32kg and then a 40kg kettlebell and build your ‘Courage corner’. 

Getting to Zero and Building Back Better

Zero: Building back greener

The UK released around 600m tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2) into the atmosphere in 1990. As signatories of the Paris Climate Accord that aims to limit average temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, they have committed to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, Since 1990, the UK has reduced its emissions by 40%, a faster reduction than any other major developed country, and aims to get that number to 78% by 2035.

The UK achieved this reduction in large part to cleaner electricity production, moving from coal to gas and renewables. Other factors include the reduction of energy use by both industry and homes, few total miles being driven and more efficient vehicles.

2019 UK Carbon emissions produced by sector:

  • 27% transport
  • 21% energy supply
  • 17% business
  • 15% residential
  • 10% agriculture

In 2020 The Government released the ‘Ten point plan for a green industrial revolution’ that included an investment promise of £12 billion by 2030 to be directed to green technologies including hydrogen, offshore wind, nuclear, electric vehicles, heat, and buildings.

By 2030 the UK Government has committed to:

  • 600,000 heat pump installations per year (2028) to replace gas-based heating systems
  • 40 GW from Offshore wind, including 1GW of advanced floating rigs 
  • Capture 10Mt C02 per year using Carbon Capture Usage and Storage (CCUS)
  • 5GW of low carbon hydrogen energy
  • Ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans and accelerating EV charging rollout
  • Building net-zero ready homes

Read the full Build Back Better paper on the UK Government’s website.

What gets measured gets managed

“What gets measured gets managed — even when it’s pointless to measure and manage it, and even if it harms the purpose of the organization to do so.

Peter Drucker

And…

Goodheart’s Law: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Because…

Campbell’s Law: The more a metric counts for real decisions, the greater the pressure for corruption, the more it distorts the situation it’s intended to monitor.

And…

“Quantitative measures of performance are tools, and are undoubtedly useful. But research indicates that indiscriminate use and undue confidence and reliance in them result from insufficient knowledge of the full effects and consequences. Judicious use of a tool requires awareness of possible side effects and reactions. Otherwise, indiscriminate use may result in side effects and reactions outweighing the benefits (…) The cure is sometimes worse than the disease.”

V. F. Ridgway

So…

“It’s Not About the Result, It’s About Awareness.

The trick is to realize that counting, measuring, and tracking is not about the result. It’s about the system, not the goal.

Measure from a place of curiosity. Measure to discover, to find out, to understand.

Measure from a place of self-awareness. Measure to get to know yourself better.

Measure to see if you are showing up. Measure to see if you’re actually spending time on the things that are important to you. (Make sure to measure backward, not forward.)”

James Clear

People want economic security and to be left alone

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

In a recent interview, Chamath Palihapitiya said, “people just want economic security and to be left alone”. The ‘left alone’ part needs no explanation, but what exactly does economic or financial security mean? 

Economic security or financial security is the condition of having stable income or other resources to support a standard of living now and in the foreseeable future. It includes:

– probable continued solvency.

– predictability of the future cash flow of a person or other economic entity, such as a country.

– employment security or job security

Wikipedia

To have economic security, you need to have and maintain a reasonable standard of living. Beyond the basic needs of shelter, warmth, and food, this standard tends to be heavily comparative and determined by the living standards of those around you. Someone who has a standard of living near or above the average of those they interact with will feel like they have economic security. However, this standard of living must be sustainable through continued solvency, a predictable future cash flow, and job security.

Continued solvency means that you have more assets over time than you have liabilities, so the total value of equity in your house and car and the amount you have in savings and investments is greater than the value of your mortgage, loans, and credit card debt. The predictability of cash flow means that you have a good idea of your income over the next few months to a year, either through a reasonable promise of continued employment as an employee or entrepreneur and/or a stable investment income from stocks, bonds, or a pension. Employment security refers to the confidence that if you continue to do your job, you will keep it and that you have control of your continued employment.

Anything else?

Beyond a comfortable living, what other factors are essential in living a happy life? Since early 2019, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has been identifying and tracking metrics that the government can use as a measure of prosperity separate from the financial measurement of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). 

According to this well-being study, you are happier in Britain if you have a high level of perceived health, are married, employed, own your home, and earn slightly above the average household income of £29,900 per year. You are also happier if you are female. Multiple studies show that self-reported life satisfaction is heavily age-dependent following a U shape, with a dip in happiness in your late thirties and early forties. 

So if you want a safe bet at happiness, you need to find a stable job that pays just above the national household average, live below your means, avoid unsecured debt, build security with additional income streams, stay healthy, get married and buy your home. 

If you are a government, you should focus your efforts on getting as many people as possible to the situation described above and then leave everyone alone. 

The Student Futures Commission

To mark the launch of the Student Futures Commission, the UPP Foundation, using Cibyl as a research partner, sent out a survey to 1.5 million students at over 140 institutions to understand their university experience during the pandemic. 2,147 students responded between 14th-19th May 2021. Like the rest of us, students miss face to face community. 

Students want universities to prioritise a return to in person teaching and are missing face-to-face interaction around their wider student experience, according to a major new survey.

Student Futures Commission

The key findings: 

  • The preferences for study structure next year: 
    • 45% mostly in-person with online teaching once or twice per week. 
    • 29% fully face to face
    • 21% mostly online
    • 6% fully online
  • The majority of students did not participate in any extracurricular activities this academic year
  • 63% believe the pandemic has negatively affected them academically
  • 48% do not believe they have missed any aspect of teaching despite disruptions to delivery
  • 72% are neutral or satisfied with changes to academic assessments
  • 65% believe their course will still help them find a job. 

The full data set can be downloaded from the UPP Foundation website.