Process Is Not a Bad Word

Anyone who has worked at a big company knows the danger of too much process. You have to get consensus from 7 different people before taking a step; if a feature isn’t on the 6 month roadmap, you can’t do it, even if 90% of your customers are desperate for it; you lose a great hire because the person who needed to sign your paperwork was on vacation. Process can definitely slow things down, and one of the beauties of a startup environment is the absence of process, and being able to pop over to your colleagues desk, propose an idea, write some code, call a customer, and get things done.

But process isn’t all bad. When you’re 2, 3, or 5 people, you don’t need much process—any bigger than that, and the lack of proces becomes dangerous.

Some benefits of having process:

  • Everyone is on the same page about company objectives, and can work towards a similar goal and feel like part of a competent team
  • Customers know (generally) what will come out when, and can plan accordingly and feel like you know what you are doing
  • You don’t duplicate work
  • There are clear swim lanes for employees, which reduces land grabbing and frustration
  • When you collect information in one place, you can see patterns and reduce time waste of searching or recollecting info

Process is like a stake for your tomato plant or agar for your bacterial culture. It’s something that helps you grow. The real trick is getting the right amount of process in place. If you’re at a startup, remember that the right amount of process will constantly be changing, and it may feel uncomfortable, but it’s totally OK.

How you know you have too much process:

  • You’re not releasing features
  • You spend more than 50% of your day in meetings (and you’re not in sales)
  • More than one person has to sign off on things that don’t matter very much

Embrace process. Just keep an eye on it, and be willing to alter it (up or down) when you’re feeling uncomfortable.

Stocks, Gambling, and Taking Risks in Small Doses

I like investing in stocks, and I have two methods. The first is to carefully research a company, its financials, its team, its market competition, and make an educated guess about future growth potential. The second is to get excited about something, like Netflix sponsoring new Arrested Development Episodes, J Crew’s new stadium cloth fabric, Design Within Reach’s fabulous furniture and penny-stock price, or Tempur-pedic’s insane stock crash, and just say, what the heck, I’m buying it. I like being risky, I like action, and I like taking chances.

With the first strategy, I’ve done pretty well in almost all cases. With the second, I’ve had some major wins and some catastrophic losses, and in the end probably broke even. I know the first way is the way to go, and the way to end up with a solid exponential growth retirement, but I have so much fun with the second, and end up learning a heck of lot along the way.

So the way I’ve dealt with this conflict is to invest the majority of my account the first way, and to set aside a certain, much much smaller chunk for the second. I fully realize that it’s entertainment money, and money I better be able to afford to lose. A weird, volatile, Israeli-founded tech stock? I’ll buy just a few shares so I can watch it and feel invested, but not lose my shirt. When it goes up 50%, great. It may head back down to -40% next week anyway. Obviously this isn’t the “right” way to do things, but if it keeps me away from my own retirement savings, then so be it.

Does anyone else have a taste for risk? Do you take steps to mitigate it, and if so, how?

Hire People Who Are Better Than You

My grandfather was a lifelong chemist at Miles Labs, the makers of Alka Seltzer. At his funeral, a colleague got up and told a story about a job candidate who they called a “rocket,” someone who was so talented that they would most likely stay a short time and then shoot off to a higher position elsewhere. “I don’t care,” said my grandfather. “If you can get her for even a year, it’s worth it.” Sure enough the candidate was hired, did great work, and left a couple of years later, and sure enough, everyone thought it was a good hire.

There are many reasons hiring managers are wary of candidates who seem more talented, experienced, or credentialled than they are. One is the concern above, that you’ll invest in them only to have them move on. Another is that the candidate will outshine you.

There are a couple of reasons why you should not hire someone better than you:

  • They are a difficult personality, uncollaborative, or otherwise a bad culture fit
  • They will be bored at the job, not learn anything, and consequently not do a great job
  • Their skills and interests are exactly the same as yours and there is no way to divide the work that will make you both happy

But otherwise, hire them. Don’t let fear or your ego stop you. It’s your job as a manager to hire them, train them, and then get out of their way so they can do great things. And in the end, their success will reflect on you.

Why Gay Marriage Is a Women’s Issue

I like being a woman. I like wearing dresses and earrings, and I like babies and romantic comedies and talking about my feelings and hanging out with other women. But I don’t think being a woman matters that much to my legal, moral, and career identity. When women are identified as women before they are identified as scientists or doctors or Marylanders or Republicans, they generally get the short end of the stick.

There are a lot of reasons why gay marriage should be legal, but this is one of them: Gender shouldn’t matter that much. I don’t care who you want to marry, as long as they are a consenting adult – their gender is really a non-issue, the way it should be if someone applies for a job, or pays taxes, or goes to church.

There’s an argument against gay marriage that goes: if two men/women can get married, where does it stop? What about three people getting married? People marrying their dogs? Well I would hope that the difference between a man and a woman is far less than a person and a dog, or an individual and multiple people. Another argument is that you need a man and a woman to procreate. Fair enough, but what about people over child bearing age? Infertile people? People who never intend to have children?

I believe that marriage has personal and social benefits beyond child raising, and that we no longer need to adhere to all past religious restrictions — both things that benefit women (like me) who are interested in participating in a more modern, less gendered lifestyle. And if you believe that too, then you should see marriage equality as important to all women, including heterosexual ones.

Write Like a Normal Person

Growing up, I read a lot of British victorian novels, and so I thought every decent sentence had at least two semicolons. Then in high school I took a summer English class at my local college, I wrote a paper that analyzed the meaning of the plant life in the novel Rebecca.* My professor, the delightful Jane Ashworth, pulled her glasses off her nose, stared at me, and said, “Why don’t you just write like a normal person.”

The next paper I wrote was about Disney heroines, and why people like them even though they are completely unrealistic. I wrote it pretty much the way I would talk, with straightforward sentences, basic vocabulary, and a solid pruning of adjectives. I got an A, and I never looked back.

There are times when you don’t want to write like a normal person – when you’re obfuscating meaning, when you’re writing something emotionally awkward, when you’re transmitting a gift to the Sultan of Brunei on behalf of the Queen of the United Kingdom and the other Commonwealth realms. But in general, you shouldn’t put on your business-speak hat, or your academic hat, or your Thomas Hardy hat. Don’t use “utilize” when “use” will do. Don’t try to sound smart. If you want to get meaning across, just say what you have to say, and say it like a normal person. Your readers will thank you.

* I am not kidding. These are the kinds of things I did for fun.

Make Your Last Words Count

No, I’m not talking about your dying words, I’m talking about the last words in a sentence, paragraph, or piece of writing. Your last (and first) words carry the most weight, but they so often trail off into “etc.,” “and so on,” or “for customers.” Here’s an example from a randomly chosen digital ad company’s About page:

It’s the one thing that every advertiser, publisher, and agency in our industry is seeking: Audiences. They want to know where they are. How they think. What they buy. And most of all, how to reach them.

Read it aloud to yourself, and you’ll hear that “them” is pretty anticlimactic ending.

To demonstrate this further, I looked at the most popular Bible verse on BibleGateway.com:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

“Life” is a pretty powerful word to linger there at the end. The next four most popular verses end in: Future, Purpose, Strength, and Earth — all great, emphatic words. By contrast, here’s the last sentence of the popular Book of Jonah:

And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?

That’s it. That’s how that exciting sentence, and the whole exciting book, ends—with “also much cattle.” No wonder you don’t hear that Bible quote very often.

Using great last words is one of the easiest and most powerful ways to improve your writing. It’s most important in marketing-type materials, but it will help you seem more eloquent and competent in your business writing too.

Is the Long Island Medium For Real?

I’ve been watching TLC’s the Long Island Medium, an enthusiastic middle-aged lady who “talks to the dead.” Theresa Caputo does paid readings in her home, and also approaches strangers in restaurants, gyms, grocery stores, etc. and passes on messages from their relatives and friends, who she says are present nearby. Here’s a typical interaction.

“There’s a young male that passed – a brother or a husband?”
“A close friend.”
“Is there a picture of him standing like this? Arms like this?”
“I was just mimicking him to my mom the other day – the picture like that.”
“He asks that you use the word admiring instead of mimicking!”
[laughter from both parties]
“What’s in the month of September?”
“That’s the month he passed.”
“And you did not get to say goodbye to him?”
“No, that’s right.”

And so on. . .

She’s generally accurate, and sometimes interestingly so, for example correctly asking a man if his wedding ring used to be his dad’s, which isn’t such a common thing. But sometimes she’s off the mark, for example asking about the significance of the number 27, which the client can’t associate anything with, or else making a vague comment (“Something about the chest area?”) which the client then gloms onto (“He had a heart attack!”).

I haven’t considered that this is real – for one thing, I don’t believe in an afterlife, and for another, I can’t imagine a system where a ghost could, say, pop over to a private board meeting, and pop back to tell Theresa to sell her Google stock. But what I do wonder is if she believes it herself.

My answer is yes. I think she’s very intuitive, picking up on facial expressions, reactions, and environmental cues. (Three people who look alike working at a bakery? Yep it’s a family business. And yep, it uses family recipes. An obese woman whose mom died? Yep, it was heart disease.) And I think she has always been intuitive, and she interpreted her own mostly correct guessing as messages from the other side. She has several times mentioned seeing ghosts as a child, and not realizing it wasn’t a common thing, and when she talks about this she is so earnest that I really do believe her.

She could be taking us all for a ride, but I’m using my own powers of intuition to say she’s legit – in her own mind at least. What do you think?