• The value of hard constraints

    Hard constraints can be an incredibly powerful force and incentive. Though uncomfortable, putting them in place can force you to innovate and accelerate learning. Despite the benefits, we tend to avoid hard constraints. It’s generally easier to have more flexibility in our lives. This principle applies in work and personal settings.

    Here are a few personal examples to help illustrate.

    1. Learning and speaking a foreign language. When I moved to Dusseldorf in 2016, I was determined to learn German. I started using Duolingo daily and signed up for weekly 1-on-1 private tutoring with a local language instructor. I shared an office with an Austrian woman who spoke multiple languages comfortably. During the first few months, she would start each morning speaking to me in German; nothing work related, just simple questions (“how is your morning going? How was your drive?” etc.). I sort of stumbled through and was generally embarrassed about my lack of competency. I would routinely default back to English and after a while she gave up on the German. If I went out to a restaurant or café, I would start by speaking in German. I’m clearly a native English speaker and nine times out of ten, whoever I was speaking to would start responding in English. To ease my discomfort, I’d then continue in English. As a result, I really didn’t build any proficiency in German and the limited bit I learned has mostly been forgotten. I’m confident if I had imposed a hard constraint on myself, such as demanding my colleague exclusively speak to me in German, I would have vastly improved my skill despite it being uncomfortable. In this case, I relaxed any constraints and chose convenience and comfort at the expense of learning.

    2. Mastering excel and powerpoint shortcuts. A key competency in Investment Banking is mastering excel and powerpoint. To be most efficient requires you to use keyboard shortcuts instead of your mouse. Once you’ve mastered all the keyboard shortcuts, you’re able to produce work at a significantly faster pace. When I first started in banking in 2011, I was familiar with excel and powerpoint but mostly reliant on my mouse. I started to learn some shortcuts but was progressing slowly. Then one day, a more senior Analyst in my office unplugged my mouse and told me he would return it in a week. Suddenly, I had no other option but to use shortcuts for everything. At first, it was painful. Simple tasks took forever. But after a week, I was able to operate entirely using shortcuts. The fixed constraint (no mouse) dramatically accelerated my pace of learning and forced me to master a skill I’m confident otherwise would have taken many months.

    Having hard constraints imposed is uncomfortable. It’s also often necessary to unlock improvement. Generally, if you ask someone to create something in three weeks, they will take three weeks. If you ask someone to create something in one week, they will take one week. Imposing hard constraints is often a balance between uncomfortable and unreasonable and setting those lines is an art in of itself.

  • Avoid speaking negatively about others (even when it’s deserved)

    When you speak down about a person to a third party (i.e., someone who doesn’t know them), it will often reflect negatively on yourself. The weaker the relationship between you and the third party, the truer this is. If the person you’re speaking with hasn’t formed their own opinion, they are unlikely to believe you with certainty. And if they hear you speaking poorly about someone they haven’t informed an opinion on, they might wonder, will this person speak poorly about me to others?

    Here are some common examples.

    1. Speaking poorly about another colleague. Let’s say you work on the sales team, and Dan is an ineffective salesperson. He’s sloppy. He doesn’t close deals. If you’re Dan’s colleague, there might be a temptation to speak negatively about Dan to other team members. Either the person will know Dan and already have formed their own negative opinion of him, at which point hearing it from you will only make you seem like a bully. Or they won’t know Dan, and they’ll wonder why you’re speaking negatively about your colleague, regardless of whether it’s true.

    2. Speaking poorly about a former colleague. Let’s say you start a new job in customer support. During your onboarding, you’re paired with a colleague James who is consistently talking about how terrible a former team member – Taryn – was. Because you never met Taryn, and don’t have your own opinion about her, you’re likely to be skeptical and wonder why it’s a topic of discussion. Even if Taryn was really bad at her job, James is likely to seem gossipy or rude by making it a point of discussion.

    3. Speaking poorly about a former boss or employer in an interview. If you’re interviewing for a new job, it’s likely you’re dissatisfied with your current boss or company. But spending a lot of time in the interview speaking negatively about it isn’t likely to win any favours. That doesn’t mean you need to pretend a bad situation is great. But it does mean to avoid making the topic a focus of the interview.

    P.s., I’m making some domain and hosting changes to the blog. For the next few weeks, you won’t be able to reply directly to this email. If you want to send me a note, you’ll need to send it to daveowencord@gmail.com directly. Thanks for your patience.

  • The Three T’s model for struggling employees

    Every people leader will be faced with the challenge of managing a chronically underperforming employee at some point. A lot of time and energy can be absorbed by underperformers. It can be tough to determine WHY someone is struggling. A myriad of reasons exists. Generally, it’s worth spending the time to try and identify the cause. If we understand the root cause, we can create a plan to address it. But sometimes it’s impossible to determine the why and we’re stuck struggling with what to do.

    Several years ago, I learned about a simple framework to help define a path forward for underperforming employees called the Three T’s, which stands for Train-Transfer-Terminate. The concept being, if someone is persistently underperforming in their role, in most cases you can pursue one of three options:

    1. Train them. Perhaps they are underperforming due to a lack of training and knowledge, which is preventing them from doing their job well, despite their best efforts. Investing time and energy in training is always worth the time; it’s a high return activity. Sometimes an employee won’t realize where their knowledge gap is and you’ll have to suss this out yourself. If you can tell someone is engaged and working hard, but continues to underperform, it may be a sign additional training is required.

    2. Transfer them. A very capable and engaged employee can struggle or fail when placed in the wrong role. Sometimes the problem isn’t the person, it’s the role they are in. If you can tell the person has the right attitude and capabilities, transitioning them into an alternative role can allow them to thrive. That could be a different role and accountabilities on the same team or a new role in an entirely different function within the organization.

    3. Terminate them. If training won’t solve the problem and you believe the person is in the right role, but they persistently underperform, then you must terminate them. Leaving someone who is failing in a role is unfair to them, unfair to their colleagues, and unfair to the company. Obviously, these are difficult decisions. They are not made easier by inaction.

    Because we are talking about people, situational context is critical and nuance exists. The “three T’s” model isn’t perfect. But it’s a relatively simple and easy to remember mental model to help diagnose the problem.