Management A simple concept for an impossible job

The Metronome

Tick tock.

Morning. Sit down at the desk. Hit the spacebar and wake up the displays. Calendar first. What is happening today, and how do I need to prepare? Any last-minute edits? Conflicts? New meeting additions to the day? Ok, which meetings are unfamiliar? Look at attendees—map names to the organizational chart. Assess political machinations. Look for traps. Three to five minutes to complete. Takes more time earlier in the week.

Slack now. Anything new and unread in the Fires section gets an immediate response. Give either a calming “I am looking at this” emoji or, in the moment, considered response. Direct messages next. Everyone gets a response because this communication is pointed directly at me. Finally, glance at any channel with anything new. Scanning really. Not reading. It’s not going anywhere—ten minutes to Slack Zero.

Mail next. Thanks to obsessively updated mail rules, my inbox is mostly high signal and usually actionable. Make a call on each mail: respond in mail or bounce the thread to Slack? The latter choice sends a strong, intentional signal that is hard to ignore, but I triage and act much faster in Slack. Inbox Zero before 9am is the goal. The goal takes ten to twenty minutes because email is often an annoyingly and unnecessarily long form.

Tick.

Grab my favorite pen and current notebook. Turn to the bookmarked page and flip back the last few pages to re-cache thoughts, tasks, and important doodles from the prior day.

Now back to calendar. First meeting now. Click on the video conference link and be in the room two minutes before the start time. Every time. Smile.

Tock.

A Collective Impression

Towards the end of last week, you learned that your boss is taking this week off. She announced her well-deserved vacation in her staff meeting. My question is: describe your first reaction to learning this news. Don’t worry; I won’t tell anyone. A weight lifted, right? A decrease in perceived future stress? You respect your manager, but her absence for five days is a brief opportunity to take a breath, take your foot off the gas, and take a moment to gaze at the sky and let your mind wander.

Not delight about her absence, just relief.

I’ll explain shortly why this hypothetical but probable scenario is mostly bad news. First, let us understand that your ability to foresee how the week-sans-manager is based on your manager’s impression. Who she is. How she acts. What she values and what she’ll ignore. Her popular turns of phrases in meetings. The professional lines she will not cross.

Every leader builds a collective impression with their team. It’s different for each human as each human sees slightly different versions of a leader and values different aspects of the leader. This collective impression is not just your opinion of your leader; it’s your internal working model for how they work. In Situation X, she usually does Y. Knowing this allows you to better prepare for her. She always asks about Y, so we shall prepare by digging deep on all Y questions. The best application of this collective impression is when you can use your leader’s prior experience and learnings to address a problem without their intervention. She capably solves it like this, so shall I.

I would argue that the collective perception of who you are as a leader is as important as your daily visible leadership acts. Better said: the more the team can get the work done without you there, the more effectively you are scaling as a leader. This takes us back to our hypothetical vacation scenario.

Not delight. Just relief. Because your manager is absent.

The absence of leadership is a relief? You can see why this common perception is problematic. The absence of the human accountable for leading the team’s productivity, morale, and efficiency is giving the team relief by not being there.

Tick.

Of course, you need a vacation. The last three months have been hell. You vastly underestimated the time required to plan the project. You had no idea how many different teams would need a charm offensive to get them aligned with the vision.

Tick

It’s no wonder they are relieved by your vacation. They are getting stressed just watching you work. They can see the stress in your face. They can hear it in your words. They are stressed because they are your team, and a team listens in every direction and every manner possible for signal on how they are doing and your frantic sprint to a temporary finish line tells them, “Something is fundamentally wrong.”

Tock.

Your Hidden Job

It’s your job to show up as an effective, principled, and fair leader in every working moment so that you can teach them how they can do their job when you are not there. This takes us back to the beginning of this article: my Monday morning ramp.

Two minutes early to a meeting. As much as possible. The last act of my morning opening productivity ramp. What lessons do I demonstrate to the meeting attendees by being there two minutes early? A couple: beginning on time is respectful to attendees, and meetings are expensive affairs, so let’s invest our time wisely. There’s a more fundamental lesson I am teaching: Leaders are capable of showing up to meetings on time.

Table stakes, right? How many managers have you worked with who are apparently incapable of showing up to a scheduled meeting on time?

The value built within your company is a function of the quality things the talented humans build. They build these wonderful things with their hands, and proper building requires time. Time is like air: essential and taken for granted until it is in short supply. After hiring and building a diverse set of humans, your primary job as a leader is to give them as much time as possible to do their creative work. My small act of meeting timeliness demonstrates that I value everyone’s time equally.

Tick tock.

You’re the metronome. A metronome’s essential but straightforward job marks time at a selected rate by giving a regular tick… or tock. A leader’s job is defined by the professional means by which a thing is done via visible, repeated, and consistent actions. A mandate never defines these standards, but by actively demonstrating you understand the business value of time – precious time – with your actions.

The metronome’s job is constant. Tick. How long does he take to respond to something? Tick. Do meetings always fill the time, or are they done when the work is done? Tick. When he says he will do something, what is your gut reaction to whether or not he will do said thing? Tick. Why is he always five minutes late to every meeting?

Tock.

A metronome is a simple tool. Your job is mind-bogglingly, complex, and ever-changing. It is perhaps overwhelming to consider the responsibility of showing up as an effective, principled, and fair leader in every working moment so that you can teach them to do their job when you are not there. The more they can effectively handle complex situations themselves, the better.

A simple concept for perhaps an impossible job…

The less they need you to do effectively do their job, the better.

Rands More explode-y

Sea of Thieves: Advancing the Narrative

This is a keg.

In Rare’s Sea of Thieves, powder kegs sprinkle the lands and seas. You can find them on islands, in forts, or just floating in the ocean. Kegs explode. Satisfyingly so. You can use kegs in Sea of Thieves to kill other players, to sink their ships, to sink your own, or to detonate when it suits your mood.

Here are two kegs.

The narrative with two kegs is exactly the same as one keg except with additional bigger explosions.

Here’s your ship.

In Sea of Thieves, your ship, this beautiful beast, costs you exactly nothing to acquire. If you happen to sink your ship – say with a keg or two – a brand new total duplicate of your ship will be provided — free of cost.

That’s the start of the story of Sea of Thieves. It’s a game I’ve never seen before, and I’m obsessed with it not just because I’m enamored with explosive kegs.

Pirating 101

Developed by Rare and published by Microsoft, Sea of Thieves is a pirate game. You start by picking a pirate avatar with appropriate pirate accouterments and choosing a type of ship you want to captain. Choices are the ginormous four-player Galleon, the brittle three-player Brigantine, and the flexible two- or one-person Sloop. With these choices complete, you set sail…

Let’s start with what I consider the initial novel aspects of Sea of Thieves:

No Character or Weapon Leveling A player who starts Sea of Thieves has precisely the same unchangeable set of abilities as the player who has been on since day one. Similarly, the same collection of weapons (sword, pistol, blunderbuss, sword) is immediately available and unchangeable from an ability perspective. You can use gold to update the weapons, ship, and person’s skins, but there is no unlocking of new abilities in Sea of Thieves. Everyone starts and stays the same.

No levels? How do I know I’m progressing? What does winning mean? How will I grind? It takes a chunk of time to understand, but there is subtle leveling in Sea of Thieves. New, unexpected weapon unlocks will reveal themselves. And there is most certainly a sense of progression. More on this shortly.

Sailing is A Lot of Work Video games often drastically simplify work complicated in the real world because the real world is… work. In Sea of Thieves, the designers chose to make the process of operating your ship more laborious and complicated than you’d expect in a virtual world. Yes, you steer your ship with the wheel, but you also need to raise and lower your sails, and you also need to adjust the angle of sails (“tacking”) to capture the optimal amount of the ever-shifting wind.

Veteran sailors in the audience are giggling in their heads right now and thinking, “That’s super-simplified sailing, Rands.” I believe you, but what would you usually expect from a modern video game. Design it with me right now. Standing from a single spot and with as little clicking as possible, I would like to steer the ship, raise and lower the sails, tackle the sails, and fire the cannons.

That’s not at all how it works. You can not raise or lower the sails from the wheel. You dash over to another set of ropes. The first rope adjusts the sail length, and the second rope adjusts the angle. Oh yeah, we haven’t even talked about the anchor yet. Raising the anchor is a laborious eight-second process on the Sloop (it’s somewhere close to a minute on the Galleon) where you grab the capstan and slowly walk around in a circle 1.5 times to raise the anchor.

Reads like a lot of work. Not half done. See, you need supplies, too. (And kegs). You start at an outpost populated with vendors that will sell you re-skinned versions of everything. There are also barrels filled with essentials supplies: cannonballs, magic cannonballs, firebombs, blunder bombs, and a whole slew of different types of food. These items need to be acquired and moved from the barrels on the outpost to your ship’s appropriate barrels—more bad news for productivity. You can’t carry many items, which means if you want to get a decent amount of supplies, you’ll need to run back and forth from your ship to supply barrels to your ship twenty to thirty times before your ship has sailed an inch.

If you’re under the impression this game is a lot of work, you’re right. It’s a lot of work. If you’d like to understand why it’s a delight to master, it’s time to tell you the essential design decision within Sea of Thieves.

You Are Never Safe

Story-time. Sea of Thieves has three basic types of quests: find buried treasure, kill skeletons, and deliver supplies. There are raid-like events and other seasonal quests that show up, but those are the basics: find, kill, and deliver.

Finding buried treasure quests involve traveling to one of the many islands in the sea and acquiring chests via an X marks the spot map or other clues. I was on a buried treasure quest early in my experience with the game. Look at a map with an unnamed island, figure out a direction, find the unnamed island with the treasure on my ship’s map, and then go through the pleasantly laborious process of getting the ship pointed in the right direction. Not only do the wheel, sails, and the anchor need attention, but the only way to know which direction you’re going is by looking at a compass—no heads-up direction display. You must constantly check your compass, pay attention to local landmarks, and triangulate.

Arriving at the small island, I begin the equally laborious process of now slowing the ship down, pointing it in the right direction so that I don’t run aground. Finally, I must land the anchor at just the right time so that my travel swims to/from the island are short.

Glancing at the map, I quickly triangulate where the treasure is buried. Again, the only map I have with this information is the one in my hand, and there is no real-time indication of where I am on this map. I must look at local landmarks like clumps of palm trees and interesting shaped rocks to figure out where the treasure is buried.

Three palm trees. A big pointy rock. On the south side of the island. I jump off the side of the ship and head in what I think is the right direction. The game I play with myself is do I find the chest when I dig my very first hole? So. Dig. THUNK Success! I… wait. Is someone talking?

Other voice: There’s someone here.

It is. Someone else is on the island—a younger gentleman.

Other voice: Maybe we should kill them?

Wait, kill me? I, just, wait…

The younger gentlemen lunges for me from behind a rock, cutlass swinging, and I’m totally unprepared. This was early in my Sea of Thieves experience, and I had no expectation regarding multiplayer. I’ve seen no one until this brute, and his cutlass shows up.

I have a sword. And a blunderbuss. And food to heal, but OW OW OW.

Other voice: We’re killing him.

They sure are. Running. Trying to remember the keyboard command to attack and OW OW OW.

Other voice: He’s running.

And I’m dead.

As my ghost slowly floats away from my corpse, heading to Davy Jones’ Locker, I notice the other’s player’s ship is sitting maybe 300 yards from my ship. How’d they get there so quickly? Why didn’t I notice until I heard their voice? 1Sea of Thieves is a cross-platform game. It runs on the Xbox and PC. On the Xbox, the default microphone setting is set to hot or on. This means a slew of Xbox players are sailing the seas with their mics unknowingly on. You can only hear other players when you’re close, but hot mics make for hilarious combat.

Formative lessons we can learn from this story:

  1. Sea of Thieves is an open world. There are only six other pirate ships on a server at a given time. There are pirates on these pirate ships. And often kegs. The latter explodes.
  2. Unlike other open-world games, there is no obvious place for new players to hide. You can be a griefer anywhere in Sea of Thieves, but the word doesn’t carry the same weight as other games because… it’s a pirate game. You are supposed to pillage, plunder, and kill. It says it right there in the name: T H I E V E S.
  3. Because the game is open world and because there are no safe havens, you must remain entirely situational aware at all times. This means continuously searching your surroundings for clues. I see a sloop on the horizon. Is it heading my direction? Ok. How far away is it? What’s the wind like? How long do I have before I have to act? My choices will be to fight or run. How capable am I at each?

Recap. On top of a tremendous amount of supply prep work and the laborious maintenance required to keep my ship pointed in the right direction, I need to read maps that look like they were drawn by my five-year-old to search Kraken and Megalodon-infested seas for buried treasure while continually scanning the environment for the smallest clues of impending random doom from any direction. 2Bonus ending of this story. Once dead, I was sent to the netherworld briefly, but quickly respawned on my nearby ship, which was a convenient position for a cannon attack on my attacker. They were just as unprepared as I.

I love this game.

I mean it.

You never know what might happen when you fire up a Sea of Thieves session. For each blissfully quiet session where you calmly sail the seas and dutifully complete your pirate duties, there is another session where five minutes into your sail, a clearly armed-to-the-teeth brig is suddenly chasing you across the ocean.

Sea of Thieves is a choose your own adventure book where you randomly open the book to a page and start pirating. I’ll explain.

Discover How to Survive

As I mentioned earlier, kegs are littered across the Sea of Thieves. You can find them randomly floating in the sea, or you can go to one of the many forts and find them all over the place. I like to keep one or two kegs on my solo sloop.

There are streamers I respect quite a bit who correctly advise that keeping a keg on your ship is a bad idea. The crow’s nest is the first place streamers target with snipers when attacking because so many players (like me) stash kegs in the crow’s nest because they think it’s a safe place to store an explosive that instantly detonates when shot.

I remain pro-keg for now because, for a solo relatively inexperienced player, kegs are my great equalizer. If I’m sailing around the seas looking for a fight and I see another ship, the chances are their ship is bigger, they have more crew-mates and experience. I will lose most battles purely on a number of competently-fired-cannonball basis.

But…. But! If they are busy doing a quest on an island and they don’t see me coming, I can park my Sloop behind a rock, jump in the water with my keg, and swim the remaining distance to their ship – killing sharks as I go. I board their ship, light the fuse on the keg, drop it at the base of their mast, and jump back into the sea.

KA-BOOM Mast down. Can’t move. Ship on fire.

Griefer? No. Pirate. The most elegant way to fight? No. Pirate. Does it consistently work? No. There are other pirates on the sea who know this approach and immediately start scanning the ocean’s surface when any ship is nearby. Some smarter pirates always leave someone on their ship to deal with me and my keg proclivities.

Fun trying? Hell yes. Every time. Those last 50 yards under the ocean after swimming for twenty minutes slowly pushing an explosive in front of you with sharks nipping at your pirate boots? My heart starts beating hard every time.

The joy of Sea of Thieves is first finding the narrative you’re currently in and then shoving the narrative in whatever direction suits you.

Finding and Advancing the Narrative

I’ve played Sea of Thieves a lot since I started writing this piece. I play a lot with my pirate pal @lingnik. We play a couple of nights a week, first coordinating start times in the Destiny Slack. This particular evening, I was late to jump into the Discord, where we voice chat.

Me: Hey, too late to jump in?

Lingnik: <pause> No, I could <longer pause> use your help.

Me: What’s up?

Lingnik: I’m not sure where I am.

The narrative. He’d been playing solo. He’d found another sloop, they’d tussled, his ship was sunk, but he survived. He covertly boarded the other ship and was tossing their hard-earned loot off the ship as they sailed. He was eventually discovered and killed, which was around when I arrived.

He invited me, and I appeared not on the ship, but in the middle of the open sea. No ship. Floating. Probably where his ship had just sunk. Dense fog, and there’s a dingy sitting right here.

Lingnik: Ok, head northwest. There’s a trail of loot.

I start paddling the dingy. I can’t see more than 20 feet in any direction because of the fog, but I eventually come upon the loot. I jump off the dinghy to grab the loot when I see… the other ship… heading straight for me slowly because they are picking up their stolen tossed loot. Quickly boarding, I am ready to fight, but there is no one here because they were in the water, grabbing the loot and the dinghy. I start throwing firebombs. They figure out I’m on their ship, and I quickly sword them. Lingnik quickly arrives in his new ship, cannons are deployed, and the ship is sunk.

Did we plan this? No. Has this narrative ever happened before? Not to us. Is this one of great many random Sea of Thieves stories I could tell you? You bet.

The Next Part of the Story

This is a mega-keg.

Mega-kegs are very rare in the Sea of Thieves. They are a guaranteed drop when doing the raid-like Fort events, and every so often, you’ll find one randomly in the seas. Mega-kegs explode. Like really explode. Like insta-sink ship explode.

Here are two mega-kegs.

I don’t know what the narrative is for two mega-kegs, but I am looking forward to discovering the narrative with even bigger explosions.

The Important Thing Therapy time

The One About Charlotte

Our much delayed 42nd episode, which was recorded pre-Pandemic, we giggle a bit because we have not been giggling enough. In this episode, we discuss why Rands names his bikes and cars, which results in some helpful therapy. Also, stickers are discussed. (Recorded in February 2020)

Enjoy it now or download for later. Here’s a handy feed or subscribe via Overcast or iTunes.

Rands Facts not opinions

On Making Hard Decisions

Wildfires threatened the Rands home this last week. We’re fine, but there were a couple of sketchy days where we had the go-bag packed and the keepsakes identified.

Natural disasters bring folks together rapidly. I’m on a Messages group with a bunch of mountain folk. As word of the fire spread, this message group exploded. There were three broad categories of texts:

Category 1. “I am anxious about this development, and I want to share this worry.” I get it. I was anxious, as well. It is essential therapy to share your feelings with trusted others. A lot of first messages fell into this category.

Category 2. “I have heard or observed this development, I am sharing it, and I am speculating what it means.” Again, thanks for sharing the thing. Your speculation may or may not be valid, but it’s good to see how things are developing in a rapidly changing situation.

Category 3. “I am responding to a Category 1 or Category 2 messages with my opinion.” As the trickle of new Messages turned into a flood, there were increasing these opinion messages.

Pretty dull and clinical categorization, right? Just folks sharing random thoughts on a Messages thread. Wrong. Early in the fire, there is a distinct lack of information. Firefighters are rightly focused on getting a handle on the fire and not sharing information with the public. And what’s the rule? In the absence of information, humans make up the worst version of the story.

When you’re trying to figure out whether to evacuate your home, you don’t need opinions. You need facts. Our lovely collective set of social media tools have given the unsourced single opinion a broad platform, and that’s fine until you are trying to make an informed decision.

Frustrated and most certainly as a coping mechanism, I moved into sourced fact acquisition mode:

  • Where are the fire lines? Here.
  • Which parts of the country are evacuated? Here.
  • Where is the wind coming from? It’s coming from here.
  • What is the weather going to do? It’s going to do this.
  • Lighting is coming again. Where are the strikes? They are here.
  • What are the humans on the front lines and with the most information say? This.

I had none of the above links when the fire started. I surfed a lot of social media chatter categories to find bits of information, and then I sourced that information. Once sourced, I posted it to my Messages group. When I had an opinion, I stated it as such.

Families well outside of the evacuated areas chose to evacuate early. They were justifiably scared. The air quality by itself was often horrific. We didn’t. We defined three criteria which would cause us to evacuate:

  1. Obvious signs of a nearby fire.
  2. The fire closed a major nearby highway. (It never did. Correction: it hasn’t, yet.)
  3. We were ordered to do so.

Even with significantly constrained resources, our firefighters held the fire north of Santa Cruz, and it never significantly crossed Highway 9, protecting tens of thousands of homes. Hundreds were lost, but it could have been much worse.

A quick update from me which is most certainly therapy from stressful days. With our nearby wildfires coming under control (19% contained as of this AM!), I look forward to worrying about global pandemics and the future of democracy. I will continue to do so with an eye on the facts because sourced facts are what you use for making the hard decisions.

Management A path forward

Your Mid-Year Leadership Check-in

A satisfying aspect of the new book was I achieved the intended goal of providing actionable advice. After a brief introduction, I list the 30 specific practices you can start with today to improve different aspects of leadership. I then go onto to tell the story of how I discovered or refined that practice.

The reason this is satisfying is so much leadership advice is “it depends” advice. I’ve learned this during the Q&A sessions after a talk. I’ve just finished a 30-minute speech, and you stand up in front of 499 audience members and ask me a zinger. It’s a good synthesized question. It’s on topic. It’s specific, and about ten words in, I can tell it’s an “it depends” question.

The types of situations you’ll encounter as a leader are as varied as the humans who build them. Yes, your question strikes a familiar chord with me, but with that familiarity comes the experience that informs me that unless I understand the specifics of the situation, the value of my advice is suspect.

But I have to say something, so my advice moves to the abstract with the hope that if I describe the general problem space with equally general approaches that you’ll take those generalizations, combine them with your knowledge of the specifics of the situation, apply good judgment, and find a productive path forward.

High-level hard-earned advice and well-intentioned generalizations threaded through a good story were the first two books’ approach. I wanted to get you thinking about a problem space, and with that in mind, let’s pivot to your mid-year check-in.

It’s halfway through the year. We remain in unknown territory for most leaders as many of us continue our month-long work-from-home pandemic set-up. For me, I spent months thinking, “This is temporary. Don’t get used to it.”

I’m used to it. This isn’t temporary. It’s time to start thinking of how you will move forward as a leader in these strange times. To get you thinking about this problem space, I present ten questions.

  1. Are you a manager, manager of managers, or manager of directors?

  2. How long have you been in that role? The prior role?

  3. When was your last promotion, and what was your internal headline for that promotion? (Example: “Reliable manager finally gets the promotion to a senior manager after the successful release of X.”)

  4. Who are your credible sources of actionable feedback? What the most recent memorable feedback from one of these sources? Why was it memorable?

  5. What are your areas of strength? How do you know that?

  6. Where are you focusing on improving your leadership skills? Why?

  7. Have you identified your next role? If so, what is it, and what’s your current plan to get there?

  8. What’s your current most significant challenge with your direct reports? (A specific issue with one of your directs or an overall issue with all/many)

  9. What’s your current most significant challenge with your manager?

  10. What do you want to be when you grow up?

While I am intensely curious about your answers to these questions, that is not the point. These questions are designed to show you at least one essential truth about your current leadership role. What are you going to do with that truth?

It depends.