During my PTO, I was playing around with a side-project. About 8-12 hour in, I realized I had made a classic mistake. I was focusing on building a thing, but I hadn’t spend enough time working through a design process. It’s easy to do, building is fun, it’s exciting, it feels tangible – but it’s a time sink.
So where should I have started? Problem Statement, Lean Canvas, Personas, User Stories. Do you know what you’re building? Who you’re building for? Why? Unless you answer these fundamental questions, you’re working on a hack — not a project, not a business. After working through the tools, I have a concise understanding of what is and isn’t part of the MVP.
This clarity may have delayed building by 4-8 hours, but it cut 20+ hours of development time out of my scope.User stories in particular helped me understand my scope and architectural needs.
One of the hardest things for senior managers to maintain Situational Awareness across their entire organization. Ego and averaging often obscure the reporting up through your hierarchy.
Mid-level managers don’t ask for help because they don’t see how their team’s problems are impacting the organization as a whole. This lack of reporting or “the blame game” can hide the root causes of cross-functional problems.
Whenever I face uncertainty, I collect and visualize data to gain a deeper understanding of the problem.
Capturing Data Efficiently
Every week, managers are required to report their individual team members “stress load” in a shared google sheet. In aggregate, over-time, this Employee Heatmap data becomes immensely valuable in understanding your teams’ performance.
This quick report (~2 minutes for a team of 5) allows both you and your managers to visually see changes in employees status across your entire organization. This insight allows you both to determine where to focus your analysis and assistance as leader.
The Employee Heatmap is built on a quantitative value that we call “Stress Load”. “Stress Load” is defined as Workload + Familyload.
As a Human-First leader, I view my employees capacity as the combination of two things. The 8-hours they spend on the clock and the issues they’re facing during the 16-hours a day that I don’t pay them for.
My managers collect these data points during their monthly 1-on-1s with their direct reports. They adjust the monthly self-reported “stress load” number based on their direct observation when reporting it in the management review weekly.
What is Workload?
Workload in the Employee Heatmap is quantified on a scale of 1-10. 1 being almost completely unsaturated to the point of boredom and 10 being complete saturation at an unsustainable pace. 4-6 is the Goldilocks Zone.
Depending on your team composition, you may regularly see 6-7 . Challenging workloads tend to keep Type-A employees more engaged and therefore might not be a negative indicator. Sustained values in the 8-10 range usually indicate an underlying issue that needs attention.
I encourage my managers to restate the number and ask “What does that mean to you?”. If the self-reported number is out of the Goldilocks Zone for that employee, I instruct them to ask “Why do you feel this way?” It’s important that the direct manager understands what is driving the stress level of their employee’s workload numbers.
Qualitative reasons often drive higher workload numbers. Employees doing work that they don’t enjoy or having to work with someone they dislike is more often the culprit than being overwhelmed by volume. Managers tend to be better at recognizing tasking issues than rooting out qualitative drivers.
My astute friend Mike Canzoneri solves this problem by breaking down his version of this process into 3 values: Workload Emotional, Workload Quantity, Family Load.
What is Family Load?
Family Load is also measured on a scale of 1-10. 1 being almost completely stress-free to the point of boredom and 10 being overwhelming stress that detracts from the employees quality of life.
We respect our employees’ privacy as a cultural value at my company. Managers are instructed to not ask for the “Why?” with this number. If their employees volunteer the information, they are told to keep it in confidence. This qualitative input can help the manager to bias the monthly number appropriately for the weekly reporting as the employees life-situation continues to develop.
Long Term Value of the Employee Heatmap
If you graph the data in the Employee Heatmap, you can start to determine leading and trailing indicators as well as recurring trends in your team’s functioning.
I’ve used this data to make staffing plans, deconflict teams before they were in a negative feedback loop, and change how we schedule work. It’s pound-for-pound the most powerful tool in my personal management toolbox. I highly encourage you to try it, modify it, and share the results.
Questions of the Day
What’s your favorite tool for managing your employees? Do you have any other tricks for keeping a pulse on in-direct reports?
Micro-contracts are one-line agreement with yourself. They are used to short-circuit decision making process for recurring events. The goal is to increase compliance with habits you’re trying to install in your life. A micro-contract is the building block for a habit.
A micro contract takes the form:
If <recurring decision point>, I will do <behavior>, so that I <reason> .
e.g.) If I am going to eat out, I will eat the healthiest option on the menu (or default to a salad with dressing on the side), so that I can live a long and healthy life for my family.
The way that I’m currently programming them into my life is by adding them to my lock screen on my phone. According to the app, “Quality Time”, I average around 100-120 unlocks a day. That’s a lot of reinforcement to internalize my current micro-contracts. If you’re not as heavy of a phone users, you can reinforce your micro-contracts by hanging them next to the mirror in your bathroom or setting your desktop wallpaper to your current list.
Why should you use Micro Contracts?
“We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.” -John Dryden
Research shows it takes up to 90 days to instill a new habit. For comparison, this is about as long as it takes to close on a house. Which is the largest, longest, and most complex business deal most people will participate in during their life. When I’m teaching sales to people, I reinforce the mantra “Old deals die.”, meaning that if you don’t close the deal quickly, something will go sideways and the deal will fall apart.
If “Old Deals Die”, how can we keep them young? By focusing on action. In sales, we follow up and keep the process moving. Checking in with the decision maker, answering questions they have, and educating them on the process. In our home life, we can revisit our goals daily or weekly, evaluate what’s working and take action on the things that are putting the behavior at risk.
For instance, How many times have you started going to the gym regularly for a few weeks only to miss twice due to work or travel? What happens next? You fall completely out of the routine and it takes months to get back to it. It’s happened to me dozens of times. In quality management circles, we’d refer to this recurring problem as a “failure mode”. We’d document it as a risk and determine an approach to mitigate the impact on the project.
Micro Contracts: Controls to Prevent Failure
In our gym example, we’ve documented the failure mode of “Missing Twice”. Now we need to put a control in place to stop it from happening. A control is a guideline that we use to evaluate an occurrence of an event and instantiate a corrective action if it falls outside the desired range. This sounds like the perfect place create a micro-contract or two.
Let’s look at two variants, an affirmative micro-contract and a negative micro-contract. The affirmative micro-contract should reinforce the “why” for doing the behavior you’re trying to install. It’s the “carrot” method of coercion. The negative micro-contract should be the “stick” that escalates the stakes in order to bring yourself back into compliance with the habit when you’ve gone out of control.
Affirmative Micro Contract
If I missed the gym today, I will go to the gym first thing in the morning, so that I continue to improve my health and maintain my mental wellness.
Negative Micro Contract
If I missed the gym two times in a row, I will not <do my favorite thing> until I go to the gym, so that I don’t break my habit, get fat, and become depressed.
Implementation of Micro Contracts
My current approach is to add a new micro-contract or two to my life each week. I use them to reinforce the current habit I’m building. I try to only install or uninstall only one habit at a time, I make them quarterly goals so that they have the full 90 days to become entrenched. My hope is that by adding micro-contracts each week, I will be able to increase my success rate for forming habits. These simple statements will help me to control for failure modes and encourage me to refocus on my goals weekly.
Do you have any ideas that could improve micro contracts? Where do you think they would provide value in your life? Let me know in the comments below.
Violence of action means the unrestricted use of speed, strength, surprise, and aggression to achieve total dominance against your enemy. – Cade Courtley
A Strategy for Startups
Founders, internalize this concept and apply it to your startups’ strategy. Startups can operate in ways that established businesses cannot. Adapt some of the principles of asymmetric warfare to your business.
Startups can release new features to market before larger competitors could even schedule the initial meetings. You can adapt to changing market conditions and respond in real-time to current events. In a 5 person company, a change in strategy requires a 15 minute meeting with everyone in attendance. In a 5,000 person company it takes a quarter of planning and a quarter to execute.
Startups by their very nature operate in relative stealth. Most likely you lack the budget for extensive PR and Marketing. Therefore, your competitors have limited information as to your existence, intent, and strategies. Use this advantage strategically and only come out of stealth when you’ve got your product, marketing, and sales process honed. You want to gobble up market share before your competitors have time to actively respond to your offerings.
You’re unable to overpower your competitor in a toe-to-toe slugfest, but you can use a precision assault to overpower their weak links. Startups can do things that don’t scale, over service your initial accounts, provide concierge support and custom development for your initial customers. Large companies can’t compete with the level of personalized service a startup give to their customers due to the amount of overhead they have to pay for and their larger customer base. So use the fact that you have lower overhead and a small initial group of customers to wow them into word-of-mouth referrals.
“Fight through the objective” by setting challenging weekly goals. Don’t stop short of whatever you planned, exceed it week to week. In your first weeks of existence, your objective might be completing a pitch deck or doing a certain amount of market research. Once you’re building your product, it might involve completing a certain number of story points in a sprint. As you ship MVP, you should set a challenging cadence for how many leads you call or follow up with each day. Pick a key performance metric that will drive the success of your business at its current state of maturity and CRUSH IT.
Building something from nothing is a no holds barred fight. Be relentless and capitalize on any advantage you have over your competition. Most importantly, don’t quit – you will fail a thousand times during the creation of your business – but as long as you get up and try again, you’re not out of the fight.