Last week I attended the Strech conference 2020 online. I found over the years that the individual talks themselves don’t give that much useful insights, but spending focused time on learning, and taking a step back from the daily storms is helpful to put things into perspective and evaluate problems, ideas in a new light.

Compared to previous years (2015, 2016) the biggest difference was the conference’s online nature, due to the covid restrictions.

The remoteness fit nicely into the common theme of the conference: how to lead teams and organizations in a constantly changing world, how to develop ourselves as leaders to be able to enact the necessary changes and especially how to adapt communication to different situations, such as changing to a distributed model of working.

My notes

I made notes for some of the talks, and summarized them here for later reference. The conference talks should be also viewable online on the conference’s website in a few days.

Shawn Fair: Effective leadership, the antidote to corporate dysfunction

  • The expand capacity of an organization, you need to develop the people, and to develop people, you need to develop leadership.
  • If people don’t do their job properly, it means leaders don’t do their job properly. This comes in several flavors: coaching, training, keeping people accountable and motivated.
  • People can be 4 zones:
    • Dead zone: no interest in improving, no initiatives to get better, lack of interest in the future, poor work ethics, dangerous to the team. We can save these people, but we need to remove them from the team’s environment.
    • Comfort zone: want to be effective, want to continue the past successes, but continue doing the same old thing that worked before. They lack knowledge, so consistent training and coaching is needed.
    • Panic zone: people care about performance, so managers apply pressure to improve performance, as it increases quality will suffer as the people are pushed to indecision, people don’t feel they can handle what’s before them. If you have people in the panic zone, most probably the company is in a panic zone.
    • Stretch zone: Good place to live and work, people are actively involved in their work and committed to develop themselves, looking for change in major ways, and don’t look at change as a threatening thing as they believe they control their destiny by their actions. People learn best in the stretch zone.
  • How to understand where people are? “Tell me three things you enjoy in your job”, and they learn about how much of their day is enjoyable. Leaders need working on improving this.
  • How to get people out of the panic zone: have training plan for people, so they know what they need to know to be able to perform their jobs.
  • 5 lens for reports to view their leaders: positional (based on role), connectivity (based on a relationship), productivity (based on respect), identifying (based on being able to develop), pinnacle (based on yourself and the thing you did for people).

Shery Brauner: Monitoring, tracing, & enabling - how we sustained acceleration in the new normal

  • From on site to distributed work, a toolkit with four buckets: leadership, organization, myself, metrics.
  • Leadership
    • Establish a leadership brand, this gives you focus, just answer what you want to be known as a leader.
    • Know your team by going beyond 1:1s, understand culture, wishes, challenges. You need trust to do this that you can earn via leading by example.
    • Practice situational leadership to empower people and have empathy.
    • Communicate with the square of communication: self disclosure / objective content 3 relationship / their appeal. Check in than check back to make sure your intention is going through.
  • Organization
    • Strategy, vision.
    • Values: based on the organization’s founding mindset and build on that.
    • Training continuously to invest in growth.
  • Myself:
    • Self-awareness by evaluating yourself on your own values and brand. Quarterly anonymous surveys help to sanity check.
    • Delegate everything possible, this way you have time to take care of your team.
    • Knowledge exchange with peers to gather insights from their learning as a shortcut. For example monthly two hour session with a close knitted group of peers where trust and confidence is established.
  • Metrics
    • Performance and health of your team, things like lead time, deployment frequency, mean time to restore, from the book Accelerate: the science behind devops.
    • Feedback from the quarterly survey acts as a pulse check. Daily feedback is sending a morning emoji to the team channel to learn how everybody is doing, this raises empathy.

James Stainer: The spectrum of synchronousness

  • Think a lot on how to communicate the right way at the right time for the right reasons. Since communication underpins everything we do. Even direct work like developing an API, since ultimately everything we do is for other people.
  • Treat everyone working remotely even if they re not, for example everyone should use a webcam and microphone, and don’t have communication lost if it was only on a meeting. This mindset is the basis for a lot of things.
  • To model communication we can think of three aspects: synchronousness, permanence, humanity.
  • Synchronousness
    • Sync vs async: existing at the same time/location/format or no. But this is also a spectrum: sync - video call, F2F, chat, recorded video (relevance fades over time), written document (you will read it in a week), email (sometimes takes weeks to answer), wiki/ (permanent documentation) - async.
    • Formats carry some expectations on reply rate.
    • Silent meetings are a great idea to bring everyone onto the same level by starting a meeting silently giving everyone time to read documentation. From there everyone is on the same level and we can start the discussion.
    • Sync provides strong consistency. Async is eventual consistency.
  • Permanence
    • Permanent communication is the quality or state of lasting or remaining unchanged indefinitely for relevance, accuracy, usefulness. Impermanent means the same for limited time.
    • Sync communication is impermanent while async communication is permanent.
    • Communication takes energy, picking the right format gives your future self a gift.
    • For example Gitlab’s Handbook is a doc about how you do everything at Gitlab, helpful at onboarding but also later as an employee. Gitlab is a remote company from day 0.
  • Humanity
    • Too much async makes you isolated.
    • Sometimes break the rules on purpose, be inefficient to be more human to feel connected.

Michael Lopp: Leadership in a Time of Separation

  • You hear “I hate meetings” mostly since managers don’t do their job properly, but unfortunately post-covid there are way more meetings.
  • Instead of remote work call it distributed, since just calling it remote puts the person not there to a disadvantage.
  • Remember, working from home in this pandemic is a privilege, compared to people having to work in direct danger.
  • Working in remote meetings is the new reality. Most of your day is viewing people in a grid like the Brady Brunch. Also, have you ever looked at yourself this much?
  • We are missing out on things that are just gone.
    • Hallway time, so talking about random stuff and learning new and important stuff, so missing out on serendipity and sense of connection
    • No meeting rooms anymore, which in turn makes more people fit into meetings, we can invite more people. Which also means it’s easier to hide on meetings and easy to be not heard. This is exhausting.
  • Why the exhaustion in online meetings?
    • Harder to focus on who is talking.
    • People looking into random directions (you cannot decide if they do random stuff, multitask or what else is happening). In theory you can multitask better remotely, but it costs your attention, and everybody else’s energy.
    • Just harder to say who is about to say something.
    • In person there are obvious visual clues that guide the conversation, these are missing.
  • The new rules for leaders and just meeting runners in general.
    • Everything is a meeting where two or more people come together to discuss one or more topics. Discuss is the key word, anything else can be delivered in a different format.
    • Enter the room, there should be a visible, auditory arrival, and do a little chit-chat (if you are on time). Acknowledge changes with people: new hair, new background, new filters. Have new folks in the room introduce themselves, spend a bit of time on being human and connect.
    • Set rules for discussions:
      • Rule 0.: do you really-really-really need a meeting? Is there an other way to do this?
      • Rule 1.: If it’s a meeting, it’s around 10 people max. Make meetings smaller, go through bigger meetings and start uninviting people, you need all participants discussing.
      • Rule 2.: Make sure what is discussed and decided is captured and shared always. So no participants can have more context. People don’t just miss out. An extra task for meetings, but it’s essential.
      • Rule 3.: Invest in other mediums, where people can interact, for example Slack.
      • Rule 4. Be engaged in meetings. If you choose to come to the meetings, leave your camera on, smile.
    • Use these roles post covid too, these are great rules. We are not going back to the way things were, some large and hard lessons were learned here.
  • Daily standups for checking in helps a lot in the socializing part, also playing games together.
  • If you are also a maker, set meeting boundaries, like no meeting Wednesdays.
  • Camera filters are now part of your outfit. A small human thing that defines you at least for the day. Maybe also a nice conversation starter to connect.

Dave Snowden: From enlightenment to entaglement how do we make sense in a world of accelerating uncertainties?

  • How do you know you enough, and can differentiate between correlation and causality?
  • The Lean Startup method might be a good example. It’s a set of practices, methods that successful startup companies do. But also unsuccessful, and arguably more companies do the exact same practices, so in the end lean startup is just something lots of companies try at the same time.
  • So you cannot rely on inductive logic, so base your thinking on cases when figuring out what to do next.
  • 3 major facts to be aware of:
    • Inattentional blindness, a form of bias, we just don’t see things we don’t expect to see (the famous gorilla experiment). We are not looking for the best solutions that are out there, but looking for the first solution that is out there, as this form of bias helps us to optimise for speed.
    • Pattern of attraction, things we like to hear, so narrative tropes, memes. These are evolved patterns, so even if you try to counter it, they resist and only get stronger (for example Trump has been using these extensively). These micro narratives have a strong impact on how people make decisions.
    • Complexity, deeply entangled systems are what we are dealing with, plus we are beyond linear complexity make it more important to understand the present than to imagine a future. Approaches where we set a goal and go towards that will make us ignore the opportunities along the road, so we need to understand our current situation. You might still need targets, you can use vector targets, direction and velocity.
  • So we are switching from enlightenment to entanglement, since complexity brings us there.
    • The Carthusian model of leadership trained leaders to be rational or later have emotional intelligence.
    • Coaches work from outdated scientific models, for example having a consciousness and unconsciousness is not that exact, now we know the body is making autonomous decisions without the brain all the time. Beyond the body our tools, narratives are also part of us.
    • We need different methods, for example workshops from the facilitator’s cultural biases, so just bringing people together won’t make it work instantly, to change culture, people need to do things over a longer time.
  • One way forward is building more on the wisdom of crowds, for example asking everyone at a company to interpret real time their understanding of the company vision, and work from that feedback by visualizing the results.
  • This boils down to using adaptive logic instead of inductive logic.
  • In an agile environment this means using multi-method approaches and diversity, to have a variety of perspectives.

Linda Rising: Busting Myths around Organizational Change

  • Pattern is a name for solution to a problem in particular context where the solution worked in the past. Once you have many of these patterns, they form a language you can talk about.
  • So how to make change? Deal with the myths related to change.
  • Myth number 1: Smart people are rational.
    • We both think other people are rational, and ourself is rational, but this is not true. Rational (in the economic sense) would mean action in our own best interest.
    • Instead of being rational, we have a set of irrational decision making methods, also known as cognitive biases. You need to learn to deal with these by looking for small successes, running experiments, find patterns in baby steps.
    • Arguing facts just increases resistance, focus on telling engaging stories, since they make emotional connections, they involve different areas of the brain.
  • Myth number 2: Good always triumphs over evil, so the just world fallacy.
    • An underappreciated pattern is to share food, as there are very few problems that a cake cannot solve.
  • Myth number 3: You can make people to do what you want with power.
    • Threats (like firing) only get compliance and not commitment, means people slowly get back to the old ways in the absence of direct threat.
    • Power doesn’t get you nowhere, personal touch helps more, so telling people why they need to do certain things.
    • But different people accept new ideas differently, they are on the adoption curve: innovators (new is cool), early adopters (interested, needs to learn more), early majority (looking at other people’s experiences), late majority (if I have to), laggards (always done like this).
  • Myth number 4: Ignoring negative people helps.
    • Resistance can be used as advantage, by really listening and learning what other people know. What you believe about another person changes what you signal to people, and how you can deal with people.
    • Dealing with skeptics: name them champions who will ask the hard questions, being the devil’s advocate, this has high value in a change effort.
  • Myth number 5: You are smart, so you don’t need help.
    • Ask for help, show gratitude.
    • The powerful way to say thanks: be sincere, timely, detailed and describe impact.