How We Tell the Story

I sat beside my six year old son in his hospital bed. It was 2 am. He was wide awake. From his perspective, the day had been a long nap followed by the euphoria of pain medication. He was hungry. Twenty-Four hours since he had anything substantial. But with digestion still on hold from the anesthesia, he was only allowed Sprite. 

My son has never been one for moderation when sugar is involved. He kept slamming back the Sprite as fast as he could get the nurses to bring it. His third glass in, the nurse slowed him down. I knew something wasn’t right. His little belly was distended. Giving him fluid had not started his system processing again as hoped. I held his hand as he went from giddy to woozy. 

And then, he erupted. I’ll spare you the worst of the details. Let’s just say I had no idea how much would fit in a six year old’s stomach. I grabbed the nearby trash can to try to hold back my little Mt. Vesuvius. It did little good. His bed, his gown, his mom… we were all victims of  pyroclastic Sprite spewing from his belly.. 

And now, finished with the event, he looked up at me. It was the briefest of moments in which the volume of questions on his face matched the volume of destruction in the room.

“Am I in trouble?”

“Did I do something wrong?”

“Are you mad?”

“Am I alright?”

All translating to the one question his six year old self needed help with.

“Mom, what story do I tell about what just happened.” 

I smiled. “Wow, you just made a Sprite Volcano!” He laughed. I laughed with him as I began cleaning him up. He mimed the performance again for the nurse who came to help. Over the next three days it was the story he recounted for everyone who visited him. Not a story of pain, or of fear, but one of Sprite everywhere.

"How we tell the story matters" Kintsugi

Things happen in life. But we don’t live in discreet objective facts. We live in the stories we tell ourselves and each other. Stories help us make the meaning. Stories help us remember what we shouldn’t forget. How we tell the story matters.

 For the challenges happening in your life right now, tell the story to yourself again. Only this time, you’re the hero. You’re the one on the journey. You’re the chosen one. You won’t believe it at first. You’ll slip back into “yeah buts” and negative self talk. That’s okay. It’s part of the story. The part where the hero loses hope. 

But now, you get that second wind. You find the deeper truth inside you. You turn the tide. This is your story. You get to tell it. The facts are the facts. But the story is everything else. 

How you tell the story matters. My son is 14 now. He works to become an adult, and to write his own stories. But still, I can smile at him and say “Sprite Volcano” and we laugh at the story again.

Success:Fail

I’m on my longboard and for the first time, I can slow my pace by cutting hard back and forth. The graceful symbols I draw as I coast down the hill are the very essence of flow. I feel powerful. I look beautiful. I’m a 40+ year old woman. I’m not “supposed” to be able to do this.  People see what I do and ask in disbelief, “How do you do that?” 

“How” is simple. I fell down. 

You didn’t see the time I was cruising on my board, and saw the pothole. An error in my path finding, I couldn’t avoid it. It was going to stop my board. A heartbeat set aside for the recitation I learned from my falls in Roller Derby, and my long ago study of Judo. “Pads down first, let them take the blow. Tuck your head. Roll.” Now it’s time. Just like the plan, the pads take the brunt of it. The asphalt takes is cut, a little from my elbow, and a bruise to remember this moment by on my hip. I got back up.

In the pursuit of the hustle, people say you’re only as good as your last success. 
But that’s not right. Successes are great experiences. But failures are our educators. 
You are only as good as the last time you failed. 

The last time you failed a test, didn’t get backing for a project, got shut down in a meeting, bombed a presentation… these are all parts of the success you will inevitably achieve. Just as long as you keep getting back up.

It’s easy to see the success of others, even your own success as that spotlight moment. But that’s the refrain of the song, pleasant, but meaningless on its own. 

The failure isn’t when you weren’t successful. The failure is when you built the success.

What was the last thing you failed at? What was it in pursuit of? Right now it may hurt. You learned. 

Now, we have work to do. Get up. 

Who in here Likes Chocolate?

“Fun” with Statistically Valid Sample Sizes

Say you’ve been asked to order enough chocolate for a room of 100 random people. But, you’re getting the good chocolate, so it’s important not to order more than will be needed.

How many people in the room want chocolate? You can ask, but only one at a time. How many people do you need to ask before you know?

If you ask just one person and they want chocolate, do you order chocolate for everyone? What if that one person you ask says no. Do you order no chocolate? This may not go over well.

If you ask 50 people, and 30 of them said they wanted chocolate, and 20 said “no thank you”, how much would you order for the whole 100 person group? 60 pieces? Maybe a few more in case you’re a little off. How confident would you be that you were going to have enough?

These questions actually have industry standard answers used in many different scenarios.

Statistics tells us:

To be 80% certain that you know how everyone will answer your question. How about that buying a little extra just in case? That’s a good idea. Buy 5 extra pieces, to be exact. With this table, the best you can do is +/- 5% (Error Bands).

Can’t get that many people to respond? That’s okay. It just means there is more guesswork involved for you. If you only need to be 75% certain your right, to within +/- 10%, you only need 25 people to respond.

The conversation around what’s “Statistically Valid” can get technical very quickly. But as a quick reference, tables like the ones above let you know if you’re having a conversation about a single person’s issue or an issue that they share with many others.


Want to know more, check out these great resources from Qualtrics, a leader in Customer Experience.

More About Sample Size – https://www.qualtrics.com/experience-management/research/determine-sample-size/

Need a specific number?: – https://www.qualtrics.com/blog/calculating-sample-size/

Machiavelli had it Right

Machiavelli had it right.

You may have heard the Machiavelli quote before:

“There is no other way to guard yourself against flattery than by making others understand that telling you the truth will not offend you…”

It’s a good quote, and it fits right in with a lot of modern, warm, optimistic management.

But that little ellipses leaves out the risk and outcome of this approach.

The full quote is:

“There is no other way to guard yourself against flattery than by making others understand that telling you the truth will not offend you, but when every one may tell you the truth, respect for you disappears.”

You know how this feels. You have complained to a friend about how everyone feels like they have the right to comment on your job. Everyone tells you what to do even though they have nowhere near the training, expertise, and hours spent on your project.

Let’s take a page from Machiavelli, and update it for today. How do you walk this line skillfully? How do you hear the truth you need to hear, but maintain respect for what you bring to the table? With three principles.

  1. Listen to everyone.
  2. Be clear about boundaries and when people are overstepping.
  3. Do as you please.

1 – Listen to everyone.

In today’s multi-disciplinary world, a critical perspective often comes from unexpected places. Answers to problems cannot always be identified within the perspectives of your own discipline. Further, and speaking from the perspective of customer experience, there is always another emotional context to consider.

People are going to give you their opinion. You can’t effectively shut them down without wasting political capital. And since people have a deep need to be heard, listening to them will often gain favor that you can use.

So listen to everyone, but limit the time and energy you spend on everyone’s opinions. You’ll need the time to…

1.5 – Consider carefully the opinions of a few.

While this idea does not stand on its own, it’s a nuance that the first principle needs to work.

You need to have a few people on any large project or decision whose input you weigh against your own. You need to be open to changing course because of what they offer.

Be certain to get these perspectives from sources that won’t just tell you what you want to hear. Consider a trusted friend who is unafraid to tell the truth, an expert on the subject, an outsider with no stake, an opponent who has different motives.

Whose advice you need to seek depends on the circumstances, but your decisions will be better for the insight you receive.

2 – Be clear about boundaries and when people are overstepping.

This takes tact.

“John, I appreciate your input. There are several factors I am looking at, including the ones you mentioned.”

“Yes, Lisa, I can see why you would say that. Alternatively, I want to make sure we are attending to …, which is why I went this way.”

Here, the use of “I” and “We” is very important. Use “I” when you are establishing your authority in the matter and setting bounds. Use “We” in conjunction to build bridges and remind everyone of shared priorities.

Setting boundaries is never easy. But good boundaries are the difference between realizing your own vision and merely implementing the vision of others.

3 – Do as you please.

You are in your position because you are the expert at it relative to everyone else. Your mandate is to take the risk and make the call. At the end of the day, no one else’s advice matters if you didn’t deliver, so make the decision that you believe will let you accomplish your vision.

Listen, be clear about boundaries, do as you please. You’ll hear the perspectives to sharpen your own insights, and establish yourself as the leader in your role.

Discipline Won’t Take you That Far

It’s a new year. With that comes resolutions and new intentions. And with that comes the tendency to think of ourselves as fundamentally different than we are and to over-leverage the idea of discipline to get us to where we need to go.

Look, you are a disciplined person. You’re reading a blog on leadership when you could be looking at kitten videos. (Don’t do it, stay here a moment longer. The kitten videos will be there when you get done.)

The thing is, discipline is in extremely limited supply for all of us. There is a lot of cognitive psychology and neurobiology behind this, and it’s an interesting study. But the short version is every decision you make and every time you stay an impulse of yours, it taxes you. You are depleting a limited reserve of decision-making ability. It will be a little harder to make that next decision well. It will be a little harder to resist that next impulse. And that stacks up through the day with only food and sleep recharging your capacity.

If on December 10th, you had the capacity to make 100 quality decisions per day, then on January 1 you don’t have the capacity to double that. Much less the 10x required to meet the list of things you set up for yourself for the perfect year.

Rely on discipline and you ensure your failure, building a habit of failure around your intentions.
So what do you do? You know you want to make improvements in your life, but discipline won’t get you there. There are alternatives.

Passion – People do all sorts of hard things because they are passionate about them. Most of us know someone who is a long distance runner. We think of them as really disciplined people. But if you are really close to them, you know it’s not just that. They are addicts. They’ll run when it’s cold and when they are hurt, facing additional injury. Discipline doesn’t get you there. Passion does. Finding your passions is one of the hardest and most vulnerable pursuits you can undertake, but the rewards are unparalleled.

Habit – Do you remember your drive into work today? The way you put on your makeup? How you made the coffee? All these items don’t typically require you to use your decision-making ability because they fall below the cognitive threshold. You just do them. New habits are hard to form, and the difficulty is compounded when trying to learn many new habits at once. But the good news is we’ve got this one down to a science, more or less. A good place to start is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Use a little discipline to turn something into a habit and you can keep it up without all the downsides.

Design – Do you keep your phone on your nightstand beside your bed? Is it one of the first things you look at in the morning? There isn’t a right or wrong answer to that question in my opinion, but the two go together. If your phone is close to you when you wake up, you’re going to take a look at it, and that’s how your day starts. How would your life change if you put your phone in your top dresser drawer or left it in the kitchen when you went to bed?

People – When you are trying to change your behaviors, other people are dangerous and unpredictable influences, but they can be very effective allies. If you are a part of that “book” club that mainly drinks wine and no one reads the book, that’s fine. But be prepared to have a glass of wine…or four. Sign up for a volleyball team and now you’ve got 5 other people who are going to be upset with you if you bail and make them forfeit. The people you surround yourself with have a significant impact on your accomplishments. Choose who you spend time with.

These are four ideas to get you started. If you try all four, you’ll fail. Choose one. Start there. Set yourself a reminder to come back to this article in 90 days. Review how things worked for you, and pick another.

I’d wish you good luck with your 2019 goals, but you don’t need it. You need good design, good habits, people that help you improve, and passion.

feeling is first…

During a discussion with my wife about an issue at work, she dropped one of the touchstones we share. All she said was, “Feeling is first,” from a poem by E.E. Cummings.

But why am I talking about a poem in a space about leadership and customer experience?

Because you will never be a better _________ than you are a person. You can fill in that blank with any role you play. You will never be a better leader, boss, spouse, parent, coach, or teacher than you are a person. You have to invest in yourself, and in your whole person, to be the best you can be at any other role.

And I do mean a whole person. Granted, you get to define what a whole person means to you personally. But it’s pretty easy to agree that a whole person is more than just their corporate role and more than just their trade. I have met plenty of individuals who are well-steeped in the business books of their field. But their knowledge is almost entirely comprised of other people’s ideas in a limited domain. They are robbed of the cross-interactions of ideas and the synergy of different perspectives.

...although he had never sought power, he had always had it... it was a power born of excellence, not manipulation. 

-Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

I read and watch a lot of science fiction. To me, good sci-fi brings us face to face with a “what if”. That “what if” has helped me to be open to new ideas. While it’s hard to draw a line from a sci-fi book to a specific business initiative, it’s easy to draw the line to the perspectives I hold that shape the way I lead. I learned the power of excellence from Ender’s Game. I learned that unpredictable outcomes are a result of complex processes from Asimov’s Robot series. I don’t just know these concepts from a textbook–I feel them.

So, to be a better ______, invest in yourself. Be a better person by resisting the need to tie your specific pursuits to a business pay off. Accept that you are worth the investment in yourself. No one can prescribe what that investment in yourself looks like for you, but I can give you a few of the things that helped me.

  • Art – I am fortunate enough to live in a city with a great art museum. I make it a point to get immersed there several times a year. To be honest, much of the art I view is beyond me, but I never walk out of a gallery quite the same as I walked in. For a quick dip, check out: Google Arts and Culture
  • Literature – It’s important to read for business, but it’s important to read for you too. I alternate between the business book I’m currently reading and something to feed my person. Audiobooks are a great alternative if sitting still and reading doesn’t work for you.
  • Activity – Do something you enjoy that is active. But I’m serious, enjoy it. Many of our greatest thinkers have been advocates of long walks. Skating keeps me sane. Find your active passion.
  • Media – Watching YouTube videos gets a bad rap. While you can certainly waste time there, some of the best and most intriguing material is on Youtube. If you are not watching Crash Course, well, you should be.
  • Sleep – If you aren’t getting adequate sleep, and you can only do one thing from this list, sleep is the priority.

Strive to be the best person you can be and to continue to improve yourself. The rest will fall into place.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/emdoyle/4885068759/in/photolist-8rFfKr-8uAvyu-pkzUfr-8EzG3X-6wXtpo-9pX56q-azD89r-naEHF1-9mwEnZ-8uAr4G-8uxGjv-5pE9vx-7hhZ2K-8uAv5s-adP8Ju-pkAQi7-aCtGnh-5pDPcK-a5N4oS-8uAvob-pkBtiX-5uJAiQ-nMcqWM-8uArTo-9HHssZ-f6Kxc7-8EzFcz-8Cpt72-2Wibov-8uAtGY-2WfWZR-J7rTVd-8uxGon-7c7yB5-8zaUS2-kKtc6C-8uxsc2-6mXjt1-5pCJxR-9ihYfi-6wTqwc-8uAt5q-WuZ2bU-djcCNb-8uAQfj-9mzL9b-9mAkoq-9vsgpp-fMFZU1-8muG6g

Yeah, You Can Train That.

I laced up my new skates. It wasn’t the first time I had ever been on them. I had shuffled and wobbled around my local skating rink a few times, and I had been on roller blades for about two years. But this was different. These were quad skates. And this was the gritty sports track of a derby floor.

I stood up gingerly, pushed off, and encountered the first major challenge of my derby life. Taped neatly to the floor was the rope that defined the derby arena, and I needed to skate over it. Gently, carefully, I judged my speed. I shuffle-stepped up to the rope, lifted one foot, and promptly fell on my butt.

Fast forward less than a year later. It’s a warm, humid day in Boston, and I’ve taken my skates with me on a business trip, because that’s how I roll. I left from my hotel and skated to Harvard Square on unknown roads. Urban skating had become one of my favorite things to do. I loved the challenge, the thrill, the uneven ground. I loved the risk of falling, though I rarely ever did.

How did I go from Bambi on Ice to Mad Max? There is no secret here. I got training. I practiced. I screwed up. I got coached. I practiced. I lost my motivation. Coaches found ways of motivating me. I was propelled by desire. I practiced.

And then, not all at once but eventually, I put my skates on outside and just flew.

We have an amazing capacity to learn anything. I’ve learned to skate, ride a bike, juggle, and do algebra. I have a working understanding of a car engine and can tell you more than a little bit about Newtonian Mechanics. None of that came preloaded.

And you have your own portfolio. Things you learned, odd bits of trivia. That weird dance move only you can do. Your passable Spanish that you learned back in high school.

Why am I going on about something obvious? Because people keep telling me, “You can’t train that.” Yes, you can. You can train everything, or at least so much that the exclusions don’t matter. Anything you know, you learned. Sure, you might have a predisposition to like or be good at something, but you still have to learn it.

people keep telling me, “You can’t train that.” Yes, you can. You can train everything

Leadership is a skill until it becomes an art. Customer service is a skill. The skills can be taught to and learned by anyone. You don’t get to write anyone off. In a world where employees act as free agents and have the power to move from job to job, you simply cannot afford the luxury of waiting for just the right ones. You’ll pay for it in time, you’ll pay for it in salary, you’ll pay for it in opportunity.

Another way of thinking about it as a leader: our people are the agency by which we get work done. It’s a poor craftsman who blames their tools for defects in the results.

Of course, have good hiring practices. Look for the best-qualified candidates. Use unbiased and inclusive processes to increase your hiring pool. But be objective about the level of skill and skill sets you can acquire in your market for your budget, and prepare to train what you need but can’t get on Day One.

Leadership isn’t merely finding great people and setting your ship on autopilot, it’s continually investing in your opportunities to get bigger payoffs. Your biggest opportunities are always your people.

That rope boundary on the derby track? It’s not an obstacle for me anymore.

Train and coach your people, and the insurmountable obstacles of Day One will become afterthoughts.