Flashover

Social Distancing and Habits

Mar 21, 2020

Because of COVID-19, we are all trying our best to switch to remote work, cancel social gatherings, and avoid public places as much as we can. What are the new habits you need to build to adapt to these current social distancing activities?

Before you can answer that question, it's probably a good idea to step back and look at what's happening around us. What's actually changing? There are obvious, immediate challenges that remote work and possible self-isolation has brought into your life such as having to take care of kids while working (this is something I have learned from my colleagues; I don't have kids myself) and not seeing your friends and colleagues in person. But there are also new things affecting your life that you might not have yet recognized.

In this post, I'll discuss some of the less obvious changes.

Physical activity

Team sports and group workouts don't go well with social distancing, and if those are your main forms of exercise, you have already had to figure out alternatives to them. However, have you noticed the other subtle ways staying indoors has affected your overall physical activity?

Some of my colleagues have seen their daily steps count drop by thousands of steps simply because they don't do their commute and walk around the office anymore. I'm personally not only taking less steps each day when doing remote work but also not standing up as often as I'm used to. Before I had to get up and walk to a meeting room when a meeting was about to start. Now I just put on my headphones and click a Google Hangouts link. Convenient? Yes. Good for my well-being? I don't think so.

Gratitude

Because of the virus, we are worried about our health and the health of our loved ones. In addition, the possible economic effects of the outbreak are frightening: businesses are already closing down and people are losing their jobs or getting laid-off. It's difficult to stay positive. These are definitely not the good times.

And because of this, it's also a great time to remember to be grateful. Instead of focusing on things that are taken away from us, we can pay more attention to the important people and things we still have in our lives. One way of turning gratitude into a daily practice is journaling or prayer.

You can read more about the research done about the positive effects of gratitude here.

Relationships

You are probably interacting less with your colleagues and friends and more with your partner. While having more time for each other is something that's generally considered a positive thing in relationships, suddenly spending more time together can easily introduce new tension and challenges.

Compare this to Japan's "retired husband syndrome": when couples that were used to spending long hours apart due to work started spending more time together after retirement, they started to resent each other instead of appreciating their new-found quality time.

It's probably a good idea for me to make it clear here that I'm not trying to compare your relationship to one of a dysfunctional retired couple. However, suddenly having more face time with your partner might not be such a blessing if your current way of interacting with each other doesn't also adapt itself to the situation at hand.

Final notes

What else has changed in your environment? What are the habits that you need to build to tackle the new challenges and prepare yourself for the upcoming months of social distancing? Remember that things like remote work are now your daily practice and not something you do every now and then – and that the best way out is through.

Tactical and Strategic Selling

Mar 15, 2020

To learn more about the differences of tactical and strategic selling, you can find a study about the subject in the context of project management services here. This study is the main source material of this post.

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In this post I'll discuss the differences between tactical and strategic selling and why you as a seller should identify if your client is looking for a tactical or a strategic relationship.

Let's start by defining the terms tactical and strategic selling. In tactical selling the focus is on features and attributes that provide quick, limited scope fixes for your client. Strategic selling on the other hando addresses problems on the business level: the focus is on results and benefits that help your client achieve their business objectives as opposed to team or project objectives.

When you align your sales to match client needs, you communicate tactical values to tactical buyers and strategic values to strategic buyers. Otherwise you risk losing the sale or entering into a client relationship that is unsatisfying for both you and the client. But how do you know whether a potential client is a tactical or a strategic buyer? And what does this alignment of sales look like in practice?

According to a Harvard Business Review article by Frank Cespedes and Tracy DeCicco, buyers tend to be more strategic the higher up you go in seniority. More senior buyers are typically looking to address market challenges or opportunities whereas lower-level buyers are often looking for solutions to operational issues.

Because of this, higher-level buyers are much more receptive for valuable insights about the key trends in their business environment. Lower-level buyers on the other hand are much more concerned if you are a good fit for their project, and because of this, want to discuss more about features. It's also possible that your first sales meetings with a client are tactical and latter ones strategic as you start interacting with more people inside the client organization.

Do all of your clients get the same sales presentation or do you use the idea of tactical and strategic selling to address the right issues at the right level?

Prototypes: Low- to High-Fidelity

Mar 5, 2020

Moving from low- to high-fidelity prototypes as your project progresses is one of the design lessons Irene Au shares in her talk The Architecture of Creative Collaboration. Too often Au has noticed software teams jumping straight into high-fidelity mockups instead of starting their projects with low-fidelity sketches and increasing the level of fidelity with each iteration.

Why start with low-fidelity? As a designer, why shouldn't you try to express your vision in as much detail as possible?

Au says that in the early stages of a software project, high-fidelity prototypes make teams focus on the wrong things and communicate clarity that's not actually there. Early stage conversations should revolve around high-level concepts like values and priorities. But when teams huddle around high-fidelity mockups, they start discussing the UI details presented to them – not vision and meaning.

Au herself learned that an architect agency who she was a client of sometimes hides high-fidelity drawings from their clients. The agency presents them instead with low-fidelity sketches in order to manage expectations and help clients focus on the right things at the right time.

I have previously touched on the subject of high-fidelity prototypes when I argued that mockups make it harder for teams to adopt iterative product development practices (here is a link to the post). In addition, when you start out with mockups, you do most of your design work up front instead of allowing the designs to grow and adapt as the team learns new things about the problem space.

Markers and sketchpads are still as important tools for designers as prototyping applications.

Final notes

A full transcript of Irene Au's talk (as well as the talk itself) can be found at 99u.adobe.com/videos/55969/irene-au-the-architecture-of-creative-collaboration.

Ryan Holiday's Notecard System

Feb 29, 2020

I used author Ryan Holiday's notecard system when I was writing a blog post about David Epstein's Range. It worked so well for me that I wanted to write this post to encourage you to give the system a try as well. I'll first summarize the system and then discuss the main advantages of it.

The notecard system starts out by underlining important passages and writing marginalia as you read through your book. When you underline or mark anything in the book, you also attach a post-it to that page in order to flag your markings and find them faster later on. I personally ripped my post-its to smaller strips to make them last longer and not take so much space inside the book.

After you have finished reading the book, and waited for a few weeks, you can start going through your markings. For this stage you need 10 to 50 index cards depending on the amount of markings (I ended up using around 30 index cards for Range). Transfer your underlines and thoughts to the index cards: First, write down a quote, a note, or whatever that captures the idea of your marking. After that, categorize the card by writing the theme or the category of the card in the top right hand corner of the index card. It's up to you to come up with your own categories but here are some categories I used with my Range notes:

  • Learning: strategies and practices for learning new things
  • Validation: the art of testing your hypotheses and ideas
  • Organizations: knowledge and ideas related to communal work
  • Me: advice and areas of improvement in my own life (I copied this category from Ryan Holiday)

Finally, store your index cards and return to them whenever you need inspiration or advice.

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I used my index cards to write my blog post about Range. In practice, this meant that I spread out my index cards on the table and started outlining my post with them. It felt so intuitive and effortless to move physical cards around to structure my writing that I actually started preparing for an upcoming presentation using the same method.

However, you don't need to write in order to get benefits from the system. Here are some other things I found extremely valuable:

  • Writing notes based on your reading requires you to also reflect your reading more. It might take you more time to finish a book with a notecard system. But you will also engage more with the text and hopefully retain more of it.
  • Waiting for a few weeks before coming back to a book introduces some automatic pre-editing when it comes to your notetaking. Some of the underlines or marginalia that seemed really important at the moment don't actually seem that relevant anymore after some time has passed.
  • It's often not enough to make a note on a page in order to remember an important idea or concept later if it's something you can't make part of your everyday life immediately. Compiling knowledge into a commonplace book, whether it's in a form of index cards, electronic notes, or an actual book, is an age-old practice that's worth trying out.

Additional notes

You can find Ryan Holiday's more in-depth description of his system here: The Notecard System: The Key For Remembering, Organizing And Using Everything You Read

Marginal Gains and Things to Consider

Feb 23, 2020

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear does a great job telling the story of marginal gains and British Cycling. During the last decade, British cyclists have dominated the sport under Dave Brailsford's management. Brailsford is known to look for small opportunities to gain competitive advantage instead of focusing only on high impact improvements. These small opportunities include things like teaching team members how to wash their hands properly so that they would get ill less often and packing your own pillow when travelling so that you sleep a little better on the road.

Brailsford's claim is that if you break bicycle races into all the elements you can think of, and then improve every element by 1%, you end up with a significant increase in performance when you add up all these marginal gains. To read an excerpt from Atomic Habits about British Cycling and marginal gains, you can visit jamesclear.com/marginal-gains.

In addition to the big effect marginal gains can have as they compound, looking for 1% improvements can help your team avoid analysis paralysis: teams are forced to let go of the idea of perfection and focus on progression instead. However, before you introduce the idea of marginal gains to your team, there are couple of things you might want to consider:

Marginal gains are not long shots

Tim Harford points out in his article about marginal gains that "long shot" innovations are also needed in our society. Long shots are breakthrough innovations that change industries as opposed to small improvements to existing technologies. Whereas marginal gains resemble baby steps, long shots are giant leaps. As Harford puts it, "Marginal gains give us zippier web pages; long shots gave us the internet."

Would Blockbuster still be operational if it had focused more on marginal gains? Probably not. As business environments change, you also have to make substantial systematic changes to your operations. Marginal gains might sustain your competitive advantage against other established incumbents but not against upstarts that operate with new technologies and business models.

Critical success factors

While Brailsford does look for improvements in areas that other coaches might ignore, he makes sure that the focus is on the core and not the periphery: "You have to identify the critical success factors and ensure they are in place, and then focus your improvements around them."

There are certain fundamentals that your team has to get right. There are also areas and improvements that are easier or more fun to work with. It might be helpful for your team to observe which areas get a lot of attention and which very little as you start working with marginal gains.

Team buy-in

Here is one more piece of advice from Brailsford, "One caveat is that the whole marginal gains approach doesn’t work if only half the team buy in. In that case, the search for small improvements will cause resentment."

People get territorial at work as they take ownership of their projects and tasks. In addition, ideas for improvements can be interpreted as criticism and therefore result in defensive behavior. As you approach others with your 1% improvements, you might face resistance unless you get others to also identify marginal gains and share their ideas with the rest of the team.

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