The discreet and the continuous

A workshop concludes. A website is launched. Our product is shipped. A book is published.

Our projects come to an end. We finish them, polish them, package them and send them out into the world. We are done.

No matter how many projects we finish, some things never end. Our teams keep improving. Our craft continually gets better. As we hone our old skills, we discover new ones. Improvement is continuous. It has no finish.

Our work is punctuated by destinations. But the journey of continually improving it never ends.

The trouble with teamwork

A well-functioning team is the most powerful competitive advantage. Regardless of the industry and the business model, a more effective team is bound to outperform its competition.

Yet, this goal remains elusive. Most teams are dysfunctional. This is because teams are made up of imperfect human beings. They are collections of different interests working towards a common goal. It is akin to driving a bus where each passenger has a steering wheel.

Most teams I have been part of were dysfunctional. Yet, in the handful that were the exception is where I have done some of my most fulfilling work.

Getting a team to function well is hard, but worth aspiring for. In most cases, the mission, the vision and even the quarterly goal is to merely get a team to function well.

Inspiration: The Five Dysfunctions of A Team

The aspects of reality

Our problem isn’t fear. Our problem is the expectation that there ought to be no fear.

Our problem isn’t uncertainity. Our problem is the expectation for perfect certainity.

Our problem isn’t an endless backlog of work to sustain everything that is dear to our lives. Our problem is the expectation that this backlog will disappear someday.

Phil Stutz mentions how nobody, absolutely nobody, is free from the three aspects of reality – fear, uncertainity and constant work. To wish them away is to fight reality.

On changing our expectations, we can learn to stop denying, resisting and fighting these three immutable aspects of reality. By changing our expectations, we can learn to embrace them and even find joy in them.

Inspiration: Stutz

It isn’t about us

We consider our work a reflection of our own worth, and make it a part of our identity.

But this is a recipe for self-consciousness. And a self-conscious worker is usually sub par. A self-conscious speaker on stage, a self-conscious surgeon at an operating table and even a self-concious software developer will not deliver their best work, because of part of their efforts that are directed towards being self-conscious.

The remedy is to not make our work about ourselves, but about other people – the people we seek to help, to serve and to benefit through our work.

If every public speaker thought less about ‘how do I appear on stage’, and more about ‘how can I help somebody in the audience’, they would find the task a lot easier and speak better.

Generosity is the remedy to being self-conscious.

Hand over your laptops immediately

My wife’s colleague was laid off and asked to hand over her laptop on the very same day.

She was being laid off for no fault of hers – it was a business decision. Yet, she felt bad that she had to leave her project midway. She felt bad that she was forced do do something unprofessional. She was made to feel as though she had done something wrong.

‘We are sorry to let you go for no fault of yours. This was a business decision entirely. However, hand over your laptop and leave the premises immediately.’

This is how most layoffs happen. But the contradiction is jarring. If your layoff was a business decision, why are the people affected treated like criminals soon afterwards? Why are they being asked to submit their laptops on the same day. Or even worse – why revoke their access rights in the middle of the night?

These management decisions probably stem from fear that a laidoff employee could extract revenge on their employer. They are perhaps intended to protect their company. However, the signal it sends to other employees is how management views them as vindictive and unprofessional. It sends them a signal that the emplyoer views them with inherent distrust. This manner of laying off employees hurt companies more than protecting them.

We are going through a period of mass layoffs, where most people are being fired for reasons outside of their control. Some of these layoffs might have been inevitable. But when they do happen, can companies behave with the same professionalism that they expect of their employees? Can we remember that we are laying off people rather than human resources?

The dominant emotions in a layoff (as opposed to a dissmissal) ought to be regret and gratitude, both of which are incompatible with suspicion.


The folk rock anthem ‘Hallelujah’ is among the most popular songs in the world.

It was ranked 259 on Rolling Stone’s list of ‘The 500 Greatest Songs of all time’. It featured among the top ten greatest tracks of all time in a poll of songwriters conducted by the British music magazine Q. Among street performers across the world, the song is ubiquitous.

And yet, it was so close to being lost to the world. When it was released back in 1984 as part of Leonard Cohen’s album ‘Various Positions’, it was largely ignored. John Cale heard the song and performed a version in 1991, which was moderately successful. Having heard Cale’s version, Jeff Buckley then performed the song in 1994 as part of his album ‘Grace’, whose sales were, once again, slow. Buckley accidentally drowned in 1997, after which his version of Hallelujah gained interest. The song finally became a popular hit when it was featured in the 2001 movie Shrek. And today, we cannot imagine a world without it.

That’s not all. Leonard Cohen, its original composer, wrote at least 150 draft versions of the song. The song is known to have at least 300 different versions which were performed in concerts and in recordings. Through all of this, nobody spotted its genius. Instead, they largely ignored it. Yet, Cohen stuck to it throughout.

It is a pitfall to set out to produce a hit. Instead, what we can do is to show up, do our work, and keep on iterating, falling in love with the work itself.

Why do you work?

Is it for the money? If money were no object would you not work at all?

Is it for the promotion? If you don’t have a raise, a better designation and more people to manage, would you not enjoy your work?

Is it for the praise and the recognition? If people didn’t appreciate your work, would it give you no joy?

Is it for the appraisal? If you were not given targets and a rating, would you not have contributed anyway?

Is it for the competition? Are you motivated and driven to only outperform your peers?

Or do you work for the opportunity to show up, to be creative, to make a difference, to overcome challenges and to realize your own potential?

Why do you work? Is it because of external rewards or punishments? Or an internal drive for fulfillment?

Do you work because you have to, or because you get to?

Manufacturing work

All work can be divided into creation and coordination.

Creation is the process of directly transforming matter to make it something more useful or valuable. Examples include mining, manufacturing, painting, cooking and even computer programming. Some creators can thrive without coordinators, but coordinators cannot exist in the absence of creators.

Coordination also comes in different forms. To manage is to instruct creators. Management is self perpetuating, since some managers instruct other managers. When two managers provide conflicting instructions for the same task, you have company politics.

Creation is easier to measure than coordination. The value that coordination creates is often opaque and can hide behind complexity. As a company grows, its coordination workforce can increase out of proportion to its needs. And while material waste created by creators is visible, the waste generated by coordinators is invisible.

Running a business well is the art of keeping coordination to a bare minimum.

Inspiration: Bertrand Russel

Instant interruption

I once had a manager who apologized if he didn’t respond to an instant message within 15 minutes.

While this might seem polite and courteous, it indicated that the manager thought of a 15-minute response to an instant message to be too slow. As his team, we proceeded to respond to his messages the moment they arrived.

Focused work requires long periods of no interruption – periods that are incompatible with responding to every instant message within 15 minutes. The expectation that instant messages need to receive an instant reply destroys the focus necessary for deep work.

Perhaps we need to stop calling it ‘instant messaging’.

The ingredients for job satisfaction

When ambitious people are dissatisfied with their jobs, they usually assume that the problem is one or more of the following:

  • They aren’t paid enough
  • Their boss is incompetent, or doesn’t drive them hard enough
  • They don’t have colleagues who compete and challenge them to improve

However, the actual problem is usually that their work context doesn’t offer them the following:

  • Autonomy: the freedom to work on their own terms
  • Mastery: the means to master a craft
  • Purpose: the answer to ‘why’ they are doing what they are doing

Past a point, job satisfaction is the result of intrinsic motivation – not extrinsic factors (such as compensation). We have enough research to validate this. Yet, as we move from job to job to quench our dissatisfaction, we look for the wrong things.

Most management theory assumes that people are inherently lazy, and will work only for the right incentives and penalties. But we all know how people derive innate joy from doing creative, innovative and meaningful work. As managers, we merely need to get out of their way.

Inspiration: Daniel Pink

To work hard

Who is a hard worker?

Is it somebody who ‘puts in the hours’, or ‘burns the midnight oil’?

Is it that person who has worked themselves into exhaustion, but continues working? Is it that person who fights sleep, and yet, continues to plod away? Is it that person who struggles to stay focused, but make decisions anyway? Is it that person who is too tired to detect their own mistakes?

Or instead, is a hard worker that person who is well rested and refreshed? Is it they who can sustain their focus for a long period and then make a well considered decision?

Henry David Thoreau once wrote, ‘Those who work much do not work hard’. Alas, our culture has long confused busy work with hard work.