Food For Thought : Compilation

As many of you are aware, Mind Matters started sending a fortnightly mailer to recipients with curated articles on key topics of interest. Each mail had 5 articles along with a brief commentary.

We started this exercise on 20-October 2017 and on 20th October 2018, we decided to release all the articles as a compilation on the website.

These articles are linked to the original web pages (some links may be inactive though) and have our short commentary.

You can browse the articles by the topics listed on the left menu.

Storytelling and Persuasion

Winning a $250K investment in a 40-sec elevator ride:
Salesforce wanted to select early-stage startups for a $250K investment. To shortlist the finalists, it did a cool test - a literal 'elevator pitch'. Startups had to accompany a senior Salesforce exec on a 40-second ride up the 61 floors of their office elevator. During the ride if the exec was impressed with the pitch, the startup could win the investment. Pretty cool for a 40-second conversation. This article describes the pitches of three of the competing startups.

Learning from major movie speeches:
This piece explores three famous Hollywood movie speeches (some are just powerful dialogues) and explores the storytelling lessons therein. Look out for the visceral response that Julia Roberts uses to pin down the opposition lawyers in the hard-hitting 'Erin Brockovich'.

The Chairman of Google on the one critical skill for leaders:
John Hennessy, the Chairman of Alphabet (and ex-President of Stanford Univ) states that storytelling is a critical leadership skill - "If you really want to inspire a team to action, it’s best to engage them with a story.” The article by Carmine Gallo has a few interesting examples of how Hennessy used storytelling to get a $400 Mn grant from Phil Knight.

Persuading before the moment of interaction:
The Sachin Tendulkar of the science of persuasion is Prof. Robert Cialdini. 30 years after his seminal book 'Influence', he came up with the insightful 'Pre-suasion'. It is a must read for marketers, and in fact for any senior corporate leader. If you don't have time to read the book, this interview is a good overview of the key points. Notice especially, the principle of 'unity' and how you can persuade others by creating a strong sense of belonging.

The following piece below flows well from this once, since it uses precisely the 'Unity' principle to market to its customers.

The reality TV approach to marketing:
I was intrigued by the headline of this article -really, are you telling me that the gossipy reality TV shows have something to teach us? Well, in a warped way, yes. Andy Raskin, highly respected storytelling guru, dives into the fascinating (and clutter-breaking) marketing approach used by Drift, one of the hottest tech startups. Traditional marketing wisdom exhorts us to find and communicate points of differentiation from competition. That's the standard 'logos' (logical) approach. However, this article argues, you cannot do that effectively in today's uber-crowded marketplace. To truly market yourself well, you need to showcase your true, authentic self (and hence the reality TV metaphor) - focus on building your ethos - by fostering a sense of openness, belonging and trust with your customers.

Elevator pitch for yourself:
Someone asks you 'What do you do?' at a party and you usually answer "I'm in IT"; or, "I'm a consultant" or "I'm an accountant" (If it's the last one, God help the listener). But instead of mentioning your profession, can you do something more memorable and relatable? Andy Bounds thinks so, and gives a good tip: Instead of telling people you are, say, an accountant, tell them that 'you help others pay less tax than they thought possible'. That'll be a good conversation starter (and may possibly give you some leads for new clients!).

How to introduce yourself in gatherings:
Our normal introduction in a social gathering is as follows: "Hi, I'm ABC and I work with XYZ company"; or, "I'm ABC and I'm a lawyer". But that's just your company or your profession. You can do far better, this article argues. Think about the real difference you are making in the world. For instance, this example used in the piece: Instead of saying “I’m a lawyer who specializes in X type of law,” you could say, “I think the biggest problem about the justice system is A. As an attorney who focuses on B, I’m helping find solutions through doing C”

The power of an image to propel an idea:
Pictures are worth a thousand words, but do some images have the power to move history? This fascinating article explores some examples of when images were used to mould public opinion (when words failed to achieve the same). Want to get folks at office to change their behaviour on something? Perhaps investing in the right visual might make a difference.

The story of storytelling - how it became popular:
Do you sometimes wonder - man, this storytelling has really become a buzzword! This LinkedIn post tackles the meta topic: the story of storytelling, or how it came to acquire the importance it has over the last few years. From its vantage point, LinkedIn was best placed to study this phenomenon. And using their vast data, they have identified the specific time in history when the popularity of 'storytelling' reached a tipping point - in late 2011. This article focuses on marketing, but the implications apply for other functions too.

How to identify and tell personal stories:
Nancy Duarte writes this HBR piece on how to identify and narrate personal stories. One big challenge with telling personal stories: you're unable to recall them when you need to. Nancy gives a handy technique on dredging these from your memories. Once you do that you need to record them. Finally, depending on the audience, you need to choose which stories to tell - Nancy gives some useful instances of how to make that choice.

A case study on use of personal stories:
We then move to an evocative convocation speech at a US university given by a national soccer star. What's remarkable is her use of emotion-filled personal stories to bring out the message clearly.

Creating simple slides for your presentation:
This post has two simple tips to create clearer slides. Try them out the next time you are presenting to a large audience. Especially the 'single-image'/'single-sentence' slide. It means more preparation from your side for delivery - but it would ensure higher audience attention on you and create better impact.

Telling anecdotes: How should you end it?:
Shawn Callahan of Anecdote is the last word when it comes to the use of human stories at work. In this piece he tackles an important question - once you have narrated a human story, how do you conclude it? According to him, what's definitely avoidable is to spell out the implication of the story yourself. That is something best left for the audience to reach for themselves.

Using plain English to simplify your message:
Once we start working in a company, our communication inevitably picks up the jargon associated with the organisation/function. In this insightful piece, Carmine Gallo analyses how the US Fed Chairman's latest communication was utterly simple and without any words that laypeople wouldn't be able to understand (compared to previous editions). Net message: It is possible to communicate better (without losing the nuance and detail) by using simpler language.

Using storytelling when communicating your strategy:
Shawn Callahan and Mark Schenk of Anecdote are masters at narrating human stories. Here they delve into one critical business situation - when a company has to communicate it's new strategy to all its stakeholders. Most of the traditional approaches of doing that are ineffective. Shawn argues for a story-centred approach and shares some useful nuances that need to be kept in mind while crafting such a story.

Using stories to explain complex issues:
This one on storytelling is from an unlikely source - the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The author uses vivid examples to illustrate some key storytelling tips that can make your dense technical material more relatable to the audience. The use of human stories as examples; the need to let the audience infer some insights on their own; figuring out what to leave out of the story; and painting a vivid picture in the minds of your audience.

Amazon's presentations secret: No presentations:
As one of the planet's most innoative companies, Amazon must be witnessing hundreds of presentations every week right? Wrong. As documented in the bestselling 'The Everything Store' (and many other books and articles), Bezos frowns upon the lack of clarity of the PowerPoint format; instead he prefers detailed six-page memos on new initiatives. In this piece, Carmine Gallo dissects some of the reasons why the narrative approach works. One interesting insight - Bezos' preference for anecdotes over data: "I've noticed when the anecdotes and the metrics disagree, the anecdotes are usually right. That's why it's so important to check that data with your intuition and instincts..."

Coaching CEOs to craft the strategic story:
Andy Raskin helps technology startups craft their strategic story, which would drive all their conversations with external and internal stakeholders. Initially, Andy would get all the inputs, retreat into his 'cave' and himself come up with the first draft for discussion. After the insistence of one client, he has now changed his process; he now insists that instead of him, the organisation's CEO should own the story crafting process. I completely agree. Anything coming from outside is likely to have a 'Not-invented-here' reaction; whereas something home-grown would have a much higher chance of acceptance.

Presentation lessons from IPO pitches:
Among data stories, perhaps the most critical is the IPO pitch. In this piece, Carmine Gallo (again?! Sheesh, I'm getting lazy!) unpacks some of the secrets of successful pitches: Create a Twitter-friendly catchphrase that summarises your company's appeal; deliver a memorable 'wow' moment during the pitch and practice by watching videos of your rehearsals.

How to engage a difficult audience:
Duarte (probably the world's pre-eminent presentations design, consulting and coaching firm) gives some useful tips in this infographic about how to handle difficult audience members. That bunch which won't take their eyes off their smartphones, those folks who keep talking during a session, or that team sitting sullenly with folded arms. Understand what their body language is telling you, and learn ways to engage them better.

Learning from Mark Zuckerberg's handling of the hearings:
Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook rightly got a ton of flak for their mis-handling of users' private data. However he has received grudging praise for the way he handled the tough Congressional hearings. (Proof of the pudding? Facebook shares rose 4.5% after the first day of hearings). Carmine Gallo shares the key learning from Zuckerberg's approach: rehearse in simulated conditions. Especially for extremely high-stakes presentations, exposing yourself to even a mildly stressful rehearsal would make a big difference to your performance during the actual situation.

A superb instance of how to use customer stories:
Southwest Airlines is an aberration in the airline industry. This mini-site shows how far ahead they are in their brand storytelling efforts too. The heart-warming initiative - of viewing their customers through their back-stories, and not as seat numbers - will bring a smile to your lips (and maybe a lump in your throat). It's got some short videos, so if you wish you can bookmark it for viewing over the weekend. (Check out the stories in the first row!). Meanwhile you can read through carmine gallo's evocative piece on the initiative.

Why Story is the CEO's job:
A Silicon Valley startup reached out to Andy Raskin for a 'strategic story' alignment project. He refused the assignment. Why? Because the CEO was not taking ownership of the engagement. Unfortunately some CEOs treat the company's 'story' as the responsibility of Marketing (or worse, PR), while the CEO focuses on actual 'work'. To such folks, Andy quotes Ben Horowitz: "The mistake people make is thinking the story is just about marketing. No, the story is the strategy. If you make your story better, you make the strategy better." This is a great piece on why the CEO should own the company's strategic storytelling initiative.

How Stephen Hawking used 8th grade language to communicate:
Science writing - especially Physics - is extremely tough. Stephen Hawking was among the rare academics who could talk to laypeople. A secret to his success? The words he used. When run through a writing analyser, his language was not above Grade 8 level. In addition he used humour to make his interactions fun. They don't make 'em like him anymore.

Your customers are the best source of your story:
In this evocative story, Andy Raskin describes a real-life assignment where he was working with different groups within a company. The simple (yet difficult) objective: to build alignment on what should be the company's "strategic story" - that it should narrate to external stakeholders. As expected, each functional head had a wildly different interpretation of what the company should stand for. Andy used a great tool to align these strong-headed personalities: the customer's voice. Using insights from a bunch of detailed customer calls, he rallies the disparate group under a common story. No mean feat that.

Communication lessons from Warren Buffett:
When it comes to business leaders who are great communicators, Steve Jobs leads the pack. However, Warren Buffett, while not having that charisma and stage-presence, is also a great storyteller. In this article, the author analyses Buffett's legendary shareholder letters. We learn how, Buffett-the-communicator - using a mix of wry humour, anecdotes, metaphors and honesty - does full justice to Buffett the investor.

Simple tips for presenting data effectively:
This article is based on tips from a recent book on data visualisation and storytelling (Presenting Data Effectively: Communicating Your Findings for Maximum Impact by Stephanie Evergreen). The write-up would be useful for those in data analytics or anyone who makes presentations with a lot of data and numbers. Some key tips it mentions: the importance of colour in highlighting information, crafting clear messages on slides, starting with the answer upfront et al.

Getting from good to great in business writing:
The piece starts with a great quote - 'good communicators make themselves look smart; great communicators make their audience feel smart'. Great (and popular) writers write at a simple, middle-school level of language. Of course this doesn't mean you sacrifice depth for simplicity. This simple 2x2 matrix by the author captures the difference well.


Storytelling for brand marketing:
useful article if you run a relatively small company or division and have a budget for marketing (traditional and social media). It uses vivid examples to show how you can build customer stories into your brand messaging across platforms - social media and otherwise.

The Ultimate Sales Presentation:
Don't go by the chest-thumping title. This longish article has a good set of guidelines to crank out an effective sales presentation. Using cute, eye-catching visuals, it gives a comprehensive list of tips - some of which are relatively obvious, but quite a few are insightful.

Once having made a presentation, however, comes the challenging part - delivering it! If you're like most people, you have some nerves (proper fear in some cases) when speaking in front of an audience. This article gives a good overview of the techniques you can use to calm those nerves and deliver a memorable talk.

Getting to know your audience better:
For any presentation, thorough knowledge of the audience and their needs/biases is the starting point. This article gives a comprehensive list of questions that you can ask to get to know your audience better, and tailor your output to their needs and context. Especially useful for key pitch presentations.

Influencing others better:
Many authors have written books on how to persuade and influence others. But almost all of then draw from the work of a gentleman called Prof. Robert Cialdini. Prof. Cialdini's seminal book 'Influence' (released in 1984!!!) laid out six key principles of persuasion. His latest book, Pre-suasion talks about how you can influence the outcome of an interaction, even before the interaction itself. This link is of a podcast transcript with the professor, and gives a good overview of both books.

In a presentation, slides are least important:
This is a key learning that we focus on in our sessions. Your story needs to be written on paper (or post-its/whiteboards) first. Only after you are fully clear as to your narrative on paper (and the supporting visuals that you need for each message), should you fire up your presentation software. This, and a bunch of other useful tips to create simple, visually evocative presentations.

Decoding Oprah's blockbuster speech:
A speech so good that it triggers talk of standing for the Presidential election? Oprah clearly knocked that out of the park. Storyteller Carmine Gallo unpacks the short-but-powerful speech for us, and discovers some useful storytelling lessons - especially Oprah's use of vivid detail (despite it being a short speech) so as to make her audience 'experience' her story.

Making your customer stories about your customer:
Our customer stories/success stories tend to be more about our company than the customer. Starbucks has taken a bold leap in producing a series (Upstanders) which features real life stories of courage and humanity that are moving and inspirational. The brand, in this case, is not even a part of the story - but the idea is to highlight the values that are dear to the brand.

Using scarcity to persuade:
Professor Robert Cialdini is an authority in the domain of persuasion. His seminal book, Influence (and the latest one Pre-suasion) mention 'scarcity' as one of the factors influencing persuasion. Humans are loss averse and also take scarcity as a marker of social proof. Marketers use it all the time. You too can (ethically) use it to boost your sales.

An option for PowerPoint or Keynote
Plan to make a big presentation to a key audience and would like to have more design options than those available in PowerPoint or Keynote? An interesting new option is available (for the design nerds amongst us!)

Making the most of networking events:
When we typically go to conferences, seminars and other events, we (especially the introverts among us) tend to stick with our colleagues and to the bar table. There's a better way, without feeling embarrassed, says Dorie Clark in this insightful piece. For instance: research the program attendees and the event format; find common elements when initiating conversations; capture conversation data innovatively. If you end up going to quite a few of these events, don't miss this article. Carmine Gallo offers a shorter, story-filled take on the same subject.

Controlling emotions during difficult conversations:
We all go through 'difficult' conversations. Differing points of view at times, leads to heated arguments (even among close friends) with rising voices, soaring stress levels and regrettable statements made. I've gone through quite a few myself. While there's no point in going to the other extreme (being extremely dispassionate about everything), this article gives small, actionable tips on how to recognise, label and manage your emotions in difficult conversations.

Fund raising advice for startups:
If you are (or know) a startup looking to raise funds, these tips are pretty handy, since they are derived from the horse's mouth. For e.g. eschew the boring 2x2 market map chart and look at representing it in innovative ways. The tips are useful even if you are pitching internally for a new program.

Faces instead of facts:
Facts are important, but don't move audiences. Especially if you are looking to raise money for a social cause, you have to use evocative, representative stories. This piece gives some good examples.

Storytelling to Motivate disengaged employees:
A well-known secret is that most employees get by with giving far less than 100% at work. Managers use different techniques to combat this, including - cajoling, incentivising, threatening et al. I liked this article (my favourite of the lot) for the vivid story it tells in how a restaurant supervisor galvanised a disengaged employee by simply connecting his action with the impact on the end customer. Of course this is eminently possible in consumer-facing sectors… But surely we can all do with a stronger connect between employees efforts and end customer impact. And guess what can help in bringing this connect alive? Stories.

Dashboards instead of presentations?:
The availability of rich visualisation products such as Tableau and Power BI mean that users can “play around” with data in a much more responsive and visual manner. Some might even be tempted to ditch those boring PowerPoints and instead just taking their client through the visual dashboards, moving in and out of various slices and dices of their data. Don’t do that, argues this article. The dashboards may looks visually appealing, but the data overload is likely to overwhelm the client. Instead, explore as much as you want when in your 'analysis' mode; however, when telling the story, build a clear narrative on paper and illustrate it with one simple visual at a time. Tableau is great, but PowerPoint still ain’t dead.

Critical Thinking and Decision Making

Making better long-term decisions:
This article is a book review (by superstar prof, Adam Grant) of a highly anticipated new book: 'Farsighted' by Steven Johnson. It delves into decision making on critical long-term decisions and how can we become better at them.
Long story short, the review concludes that given the multiplicity of factors, it isn't easy. A great piece of advice in the article is this quote by psychologist Ellen Langer’s: “Don’t make the right decision. Make the decision right.” Since you’ll never have enough information to make the best choice, all you can do is make the best of the choice you’ve made.

Tesla and the nature of disruption (podcast):
Andreessen Horowitz is one of Silicon Valley's most respected investment firms. They have a thought-provoking podcast - a16z. This episode offers a nuanced and thoughtful discussion on how disruptive Tesla really is. Are traditional auto-makers really doomed, or can they adapt? Who are going to be the real losers in the shift to electric? The lessons from this fascinating discussion apply even to industries other than auto.

Don't fail fast, fail right:
In today’s entrepreneur-worshipping age, failure is usually worn as a badge of honour. But not all failure is equal. This insightful article talks about the three different types of failures. First there are preventable failures – by adequate forethought you should avoid these. Then there are complex failures – difficult to identify a clear cause, but important to study nevertheless. Finally there are intellectual failures – a genuine hypothesis that you made that didn’t come right. It’s this last one, which start-up folks urge you to ‘fail-fast’ in. While it’s ok to make such mistakes, the article argues, “you should tell everybody about your failure... If we don’t discuss intelligent failures, it’s likely that other people will repeat the exact same mistakes, which makes organizations, and individuals, increasingly inefficient over time.”

The problem with metric fixation:
Almost all of us would've been part of corporate review meetings - those full-day meetings where each business/function head comes and shares their team's performance, using a series of key metrics. I have worked with a few companies on how to make such meetings more effective (and engaging!) through better storytelling (and it has been really impactful).
This article though, tells us that we may be missing something. According to the author, by only fixating on what can be measured, we tend to miss out on other important things. For instance he says "focusing on what is easily measurable, such as quarterly revenue and profits, deflects attention from what is not, such as motivation, trust, and cooperation". Intriguing stuff. Definitely makes me want to get the book.

Bad ideas as a catalyst for good ones:
You've gathered for a brainstorming meeting for a new project, and someone comes up with a really awful idea. Instead of berating, you should thank him/her. According to this article, once such ideas are taken out of the way, they open up our minds to become more creative. Using a fascinating story of an American small town's outlandish idea of building a 'dome' to heat the town, the piece posits that bad ideas can be catalysts for good ones. In your next meeting, maybe you could start off with one yourself... You'd be taking one for the team!

A critique on design thinking:
An intuitive and highly popular technique used by a wide variety of organisations, design thinking has many adherents. This provocative piece makes two claims – one that it is just a rehash of an old technique of problem solving (which is still ok I guess); and two that it actually doesn’t bring out truly innovative solutions. An important read for anyone who has practised this key technique.

Ten red flags your Analytics program may fail:
Most mid-sized/large companies are investing in launching or expanding their analytics functions (with or without external help). In this detailed, comprehensive piece, McKinsey takes a look at the signs that could indicate failure in such ambitious programs. The signs include the usual suspects ('leadership doesn't have a clear vision for the program'), but it also has some useful, actionable tips such as how to prioritise the initiatives; the need for 'Analytics Translators' (Storytellers?); the appropriate organisation structure for the Analytics team, et al. A neat aspect of the article is the use of actual (masked) industry examples.

Steve Jobs' secret for eliciting feedback:
It's an all-hands meeting for your team just before a major initiative. You lay down the plan and then go "Any questions?". Hardly a few employees speak up with their doubts/potential issues. What can you do to get them to open up? In this readable piece, Andy Raskin overhears a Silicon Valley veteran and a newly-funded CEO, chatting about how to increase employee engagement. The veteran recounts a Steve Jobs trick to get better feedback from employees at Pixar (which he was leading then). Instead of the generic "Any questions", he used to ask the folks two specific questions: What's working at Pixar and What's not working. This resulted in a far more open and insightful discussion. Especially if done with employees a few levels removed from the CEO, these questions have the potential of unearthing critical issues in a timely manner.

A neat framework on decision making:
I'm a fairly deliberate (read slow) decision maker. Unfortunately that means I tend to over-pontificate when the choices are close/equally attractive - even if the decision is a low-impact one (deciding what to eat for a snack, for example).
This neat framework (endorsed by Jeff Bezos!) makes it easier for folks like me to classify the decisions and decide faster in case of those which are low on consequence or are reversible. On the contrary for the Quick-draw McGraws amongst us, it guides you when to slow down or experiment.


Eight shifts that can super-charge your strategy:
In this comprehensive piece, Mckinsey suggests an entire overhaul of the standard annual Strategic Planning Process followed by many companies. Some thought-provoking ideas: convert the exercise from an annual to an ongoing one; move from the 'peanut-butter' (spreading yourself thin) approach to choosing one-in-ten wins; and move from fixed-budgets to a flexible, performance-based allocation. A must-read before your next strategy planning exercise.

The best problem-solving teams have these two traits:
No, it's not their average IQ or the number of Ivy League members. The two key traits, as per this HBR piece are: - Cognitive diversity: Essentially folks coming from different problem-solving approaches or behaviours - Psychological safety: This is the critical one - how 'safe' does each team member feel about contributing ideas to the group. Would they be subject to ridicule and embarrassment? Teams that score high on both the traits above, tend to be the best at problem solving.

Building your strategy to generate super-normal economic profits:
When you undertake long-term planning, what metric do you try to optimise? Profits? RoCE? RoE? Ideally it should be Economic Profits (EP) - the residual profit after paying off cost of capital. In this comprehensive, in-depth study, Mckinsey looks at EP performance across a staggering 2,400 companies, and comes up with some startling findings. For instance, a small set of companies corner a large share of EP (the Pareto principle is knocking it out of the park here). How can you reach that elite set of top performers? Mckinsey has the recommendations... and though these seem daunting to implement; Mckinsey substantiates with examples of companies which have done so.
A must-read for those interested in their business' long-term strategy.

How to think better: Go beyond your first thought:
In our distracted busy lives, we hardly get time to *think* on a problem. Often we encounter an issue and say/write/do the first thing that comes to mind. Don't, advises this article. Your first thought is rarely your best one - you need to think deeper. I liked the construct it mentions later in the post - to be "first-order negative, and second-order positive" (i.e. to consider second-order and long-term consequences).

Getting better creative feedback:
Maybe you want to get feedback from a peer or senior on a slide, or other creative output. Normally we tend to colour the mind of the audience by asking "Is that the right chart for this data?", or something even more mundane such as "Is that colour too bright?". Instead, says this article, ask open ended questions: "What do you think of this slide?". And while giving feedback, signal that it's just your opinion and not gospel truth.

The 10,000 Experiments Rule:
Malcolm Gladwell popularised the 10,000 hours rule: as the duration of practice needed to master any activity. This article makes an interesting counter-point. While Gladwell's approach of 'deliberate practice' works for some skills (music, sports, public speaking), it doesn't work in complex, rapidly changing areas such as technology and business. What works then? Deliberate experimentation. A culture that encourages hypothesis-driven, data-backed experimentation and risk-taking would augur well for most organisations in rapidly changing fields.

Healthy disagreement:
The indefatigable Adam Grant writes: 'The skill to get hot without getting mad — to have a good argument that doesn’t become personal — is critical in life.' How to do that? Four useful tips:

  • Frame it as a debate, rather than a conflict
  • Argue as if you’re right but listen as if you’re wrong
  • Make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective
  • Acknowledge where you agree with your critics and what you’ve learned from them

Objections are good:
Written by Chris Voss, a former FBI Lead International Kidnapping Negotiator, (quite a title, huh!), this article gives you a couple of great tips when you encounter an objection from a prospective client (or anyone you're negotiating with).
- Understand the counter-offer hidden in the objection
- Look for the emotional (real) driver of the objection

Learning and Development

It's not 'soft-skills', it's 'power skills':
As a storytelling trainer, I cringe when folks ask me - "so you teach soft skills"? The connotation is that these are peripheral, nice-to-have skillsets, but not as important as 'hard' technical skills. Not so in today's age of dropping attention spans and exploding data. Being able to clearly and persuasively communicate your point of view isn't a soft-skill; it is is a must-have "power skill" (a nomenclature that I love).
This MIT study actually measured the impact of training in such 'power skills' on employees at a garment factory in Bangalore. Imagine that - a garment factory. Clearly you'd assume that these folks just need good technical skills and nothing else. But according to the study, the training intervention saw a 250% RoI. Not bad for a 'soft-skills' workshop. :)

Three essential job skills in a disruptive age:
What skills would remain relevant in an age when AI is gobbling up tasks at a frenetic pace? Three fundamental skills are mentioned in this piece – critical thinking, storytelling and design thinking. (Interestingly, Mind Matters core area of training is built around the first two!). The article also gives a few simple tips on becoming better at each one of them.

Stanford professor shares his 12 best business books:
Despite crunched schedules, those who manage to find time for reading have a competitive advantage. This list of 12 business books by Stanford Professor Bob Sutton resonated with me (especially #3 - Made to Stick). I'm sure many of you would have read some (most?) of the books in the list. But you might find a few more - to download on your Kindles/pack for your next long flight.

Learning how to get better at learning:
Given the massively uncertain times we live in, we just cannot be sure what skills and abilities would be in demand in the future. In such a situation, the only killer-app we can develop is our learning ability. This HBR piece gives three specific tips to get better at this crucial meta-skill: To organise our learning goals, 'think' about thinking and set aside time for reflection.

Personal and Team Productivity

Coping with stress? Learning is a good option:
Our typical response to stress is fight or flight. We tend to power through or to retreat (take a break). This HBR article states that neither offers a good outcome. The best way to deal with stress is to focus on learning. Based on two studies, the authors learnt that "engaging in learning activities (picking up a new skill, gathering new information, or seeking out intellectual challenges) can buffer workers from detrimental effects of stress".

Timing your work - when to do what activity:
Productivity is a lot about scheduling your tasks smartly - such that you can tackle the right tasks at the right time. Building on work by authors Daniel Pink and Michael Breus, this piece argues that you need to break down your tasks, know your 'chronotype' and figure out what time during the day is best for you, for tackling different types of tasks (e.g. creative vs. analytical).
This related article about Jeff Bezos' preferred time-slots for critical meetings (mornings at 10 am) builds on the same work.

What's an additional hour of sleep worth?:
This piece by a Psychology professor quotes a research which actually puts a number to the question: apparently an additional hour of sleep every day for a year would give greater happiness than a salary bump of $60,000! Cue all-round scepticism, when this was announced in a class. Guess what, the link between happiness and money gets weaker at higher levels. Well, you always knew that didn't you. Now you have a number to cite!

Intermittent collaboration is better than always-on group-work:
Given the always-on connected nature of our work (emails, chat apps, Yammer, Slack etc), we are 'collaborating' all the time. Is that a good thing? No, according to this piece. You need to intersperse periods of collaboration with periods of quiet - when individuals are given time to work on their own without interruptions. The article is based on a study where they got 3 teams to work on a problem. One team worked solely in isolation, the second in constant contact and the third using intermittent collaboration. No prizes for guessing which team got the best results.

Motivating yourself? Give advice to others:
When we are down and feeling the need for motivation (say when we need to look for a new job, or exercise more), we try and get advice from others. Don't, says this article. Instead, advise someone else facing the same problem. You would anyway know the right things to do. Plus, we all prefer giving gyaan to receiving it. Just the act of advising a third person can act as a motivator to yourself!

The successful 4-day-week experiment:
A New-Zealand company decided to run a radical experiment: pay people the same as before, but require them to work only 4 days instead of 5 in a week. They then measured employee well-being and work outputs. The findings - predictably, stress levels plummeted and work-life balance improved. But surprisingly - there was no negative impact on productivity; and workforce engagement levels soared. The reasons could be lesser time spent in meetings, unproductive tasks and better focus. Sigh, are you fantasising already?

Open plan offices: Don't:
Open plan offices are popular with many knowledge companies, given the ostensible benefits to collaboration they are supposed to bring. This article vehemently argues otherwise. Referring multiple studies (and using some strong language!), the author makes a case to avoid these, given detrimental effects on productivity (especially on the quiet-thinker-types like me!)

Dealing with unproductive meetings:
The Economist brings its heft and quality prose to the topic of meetings. Many of the ideas are known (better preparation, clear agenda, lesser meetings, clear takeaways etc), but this piece serves as a good, short summary.

Do you have your own Maoi?:
This article talks about Blue Zones - 5 regions around the world where people live the longest and are the healthiest. One interesting practice they adopt is to have a positive social circle (known as Maois in Okinawa, Japan) of like-minded friends - who share good habits with you and have your back in case of tough situations. The piece then talks about experiments in creating such groups in various environments, with promising results. Do you have your own Maoi at work/home?

How CEOs manage their calendar:
This humungous study, conducted by Harvard Business School dons, Michael E. Porter and Nitin Nohria, delves into how CEOs manage their time. To do this, they followed 27 CEOs for 3 months each (with an EA recording minute details of how their bosses spent time at work and leisure!). The findings aren't exactly shocking - but useful to read, given they are based on actual data (instead of phone/email based surveys). But some findings are surprising - for e.g. the CEOs spent a minuscule amount of time with customers (just 3%). Those who managed to spend more had clear habits/processes in place to do so. Another important piece of advice: "It’s vital for CEOs to block off meaningful amounts of uninterrupted time alone."

Don't find your passion (develop it):
You may be confused by the contradictory title - but what this piece essentially debunks is the notion that we all have a passion hidden inside us, and all we have to do is keep looking. Sometimes as part of the 'looking' phase we end up with too much experimentation and not enough persistence with any one thing. This article posits that if you pick something you are good at and work on it with persistence and enthusiasm, you will become great at it, and the passion will develop by itself. (In other words, 'Pyar kiya nahi jaata, ho jaata hai') ;).

Why slacking off can make you more productive:
This is a theme we have explored in past FFT mailers, but I thought is it worth sharing again. We are so busy consuming information that we don't create "nothing" time - periods when we are taking no information input. Just letting our thoughts wander (maybe while taking a walk, watering plants, or day-dreaming), creates attentional space in our brains to make connections and come up with surprising ideas.

Want to improve productivity in remote teams? Communicate in bursts:
Working from home or across geographies with remote teams is an accepted fact of work life. But do such teams lose out on the serendipitous 'water-cooler' encounters in an office, that can spark creativity and collaboration? They do, but there are ways in which remote teams can be productive and connected. This article advocates 'bursty' communications - essentially there shouldn't be a time-lag between team members when communicating; instead they should get discussions over in 'bursts'. Members waiting for responses results in inefficiency. Conversely, there should be periods of radio silence when the members are deep at work on their individual modules (instead of there being a constant to-and-fro chatter).

To enhance productivity, schedule meetings together:
We all know meetings are the bane of productivity. But even within this tribe, it seems that some meetings are more evil than others - those that are interspersed throughout a workday. You see, the issue is what happens just before a looming meeting deadline - work output plummets. That's the reason why, in a day filled with 3 meetings spread throughout the day, you feel as if you just couldn't get any work done. Instead, argues this piece, schedule the meetings together (of course that is admittedly easier said than done!). The freed up chunk of time will prove to be more productive.

McKinsey advice to senior executives: Sleep more:
McKinsey consultants aren't exactly known for their stellar work-life balance, so this post came as a surprise to me. But, just as they approach their consulting assignments - relying on data and hard facts - they have studied the topic of sleep. According to their research, 2/3rd of executives are dissatisfied with how much sleep they get and 55% with their quality of sleep. This accompanying podcast conversation also has fascinating insights on how to sleep better.

You should spend 5 hours/week doing this (hint: not sleep):
This forceful piece argues for the need for continuous learning in a disruptive, fast-changing world. What you know today may become redundant or machine-led tomorrow. A key part of the solution - master the skill of learning how to learn. Books are a great source for doing so. If you aren't the reading type, try audio-books or podcasts. If busy CEOs can do it, you should be able to find the time too!

Want to improve productivity? Take more breaks:
I'm a productivity junkie - which means I read a lot of books on the subject. (Don't ask me about the implementation though!) Having said that, a recent book which I found quite useful, was "When" by Daniel Pink. Don't have time to read the book? Fret not, this interview with the author gives a great summary of all the key tips.

Better meetings with design thinking:
Meetings get universally pilloried for their time and soul-draining effects - our first article suggests applying design thinking principles to make them more effective. Especially for critical meetings (or recurring ones), it may help you to reconsider the participant list, the objective or the agenda. It may not magically transform all meetings, but any progress is useful when it comes to this area!

Achieving work-life blend (and not balance):
Work-life balance is dead, long live work-life blend. Most of us live 'blended' lives (i.e. do some work at home, get some personal work done on office time) - it's useful to get a label for the practice. Having said that, it gives some useful tips on not letting work overwhelm your life (it's rarely the other way round, is it?). The tips include setting priorities and boundaries on your time at work.

Want to improve your memory? Day dream:
As knowledge workers, I like to think of our work as composed of three stages: Information Consumption, Reflection and Production (of knowledge outputs). Frequently we end up spending so much time in Step 1 (and have deadlines for Step 3), that we give short-shrift to the crucial step 2: Reflection. This important article gives a simple technique to 'consolidate' and remember what we read: just spend 10-15 minutes in quiet reflection, preferably in a dark room and definitely without any devices. Sounds like a simple instruction, but incredibly difficult no?

Improving productivity in the last hour of the day:
A recent book which has given me a lot of surprisingly simple, yet insightful suggestions to improve productivity is 'When' by Daniel Pink. For instance, I have stopped doing 'routine/maintenance' tasks in the morning, when my mind is most alert (earlier I would just do it on FCFS basis). This article gives some useful tips to make better use of the last hour of the day. The key insights: use this time for brainstorming and creative work (rather than analytical); write down what you achieved during the day and what are the key goals for tomorrow; and take appropriate breaks.

Want to avoid distractions at work? Use these tech hacks:
Distractions at work, especially if you are working alone or at home, are a constant challenge. The tech tools mentioned in this piece may help you deal with some of them and get more work done. (Disclosure: I myself have a paid app called Freedom on my Mac, which allows me to block my most distracting sites for defined periods!)

Managing the downsides of too much collaboration:
Can too much collaboration be a bad thing? Yes, especially in large organisation with extensive matrix structures. Another Wharton study discovers that, in some organisations, knowledge workers spend 85% or more time on email, meetings and on the phone, leaving little time for deep individual work. The article gives some useful (albeit non-revolutionary) tips to manage the situation: 'time-blocking', saying 'no', good ol' delegation etc.

Enhancing productivity when travelling:
Many of us travel extensively on work. Wouldn't it be nice to use the time on the road as productively as possible, so that when we are back home, we don't have to open that laptop or check that smartphone? Dorie Clark gives a set of simple but effective tips to organise yourself when travelling and get more done. For example, having a "To-Call" list, when you are waiting in that airport lounge. Or, scheduling writing projects on long flights (ditch that slow on-board WiFi, or that random movie).

Getting to inbox zero:
A common source for many of you may be that bulging, never-emptying inbox. Though I don't face email overload, I've seen people who do, and it can be quite debilitating. This article gives a ton of specific actionable tips (including some interesting tech solutions and apps) that, if followed with some discipline, can dramatically reduce time spent attending to email.

How to worry better:
If you're like me, there's often some worry(ies) eating you up at any time. Especially bugging when it disturbs your sleep. This article first assures us that some worrying is probably not a bad thing (especially considering its evil foe, apathy). However too much of it can be dysfunctional, and so the article gives some actionable, neat tips to manage the problem. Categorising your worrisome thoughts, scheduling time for worrying and writing things down are some of the useful tips. Happy (scheduled) worrying!

Future of Performance Management:
A slightly dated article (May-16), but with some pretty thought-provoking insights. Instead of force-fitting employees on a bell-curve, it argues that companies must identify the over-performers (who generate 10x value) and compensate them accordingly. The ones in the middle shouldn't be artificially graded and rated on some scale. Instead have flexible objectives, frequent (and 360-degree) feedback, and forward-looking discussions... Its a long read, but worth the time

Want to build self-awareness: Introspect less:
You'd think those of us who introspect more are more 'self-aware'. Not likely, says this interesting article. There are two types of self-awareness - internal (how well you know yourself) and external (how well you know how others see you).


A possible negative consequence being of an 'introspector' is that you may worry too much and ascribe wrong reasons and intent, even when there was none. Such people also tend to ask the "Why" (Why did this happen to me?) question, which has a few problems. For e.g. read this extract from the article:
"As it turns out, 'why' is a surprisingly ineffective self-awareness question. Research has shown that we simply do not have access to many of the unconscious thoughts, feelings, and motives we’re searching for. And because so much is trapped outside of our conscious awareness, we tend to invent answers that feel true but are often wrong. For example, after an uncharacteristic outburst at an employee, a new manager may jump to the conclusion that it happened because she isn’t cut out for management, when the real reason was a bad case of low blood sugar."

So if 'Why' is a bad question, is there a better one? The article recommends 'What'. Self-aware people were 7X more likely to ask that question than Why. For example, if there's an employee who hates his job, instead of asking “Why do I feel so terrible?,” he should ask, “What are the situations that make me feel terrible, and what do they have in common?”

People Management

Don't use brain teasers for interviews; ask behavioural questions instead:
This provocative piece lays into folks who use such questions in interviews. According to research, these questions do little to inform you about the candidate; instead they reveal more about the interviewer's character. Apparently, those who prefer such questions, tend to be (brace yourself) narcissistic, sadistic, callous and socially inept. (Ouch). The piece argues that instead of brain teasers, one should focus on behavioural questions.

What not to do when motivating people:
Motivating employees usually involves praising them for their work. But not all praise is motivating. This HBR article lays down a quick categorisation of praise - what kind of praise fails to motivate (and can actually have the opposite effect) and what are the right ways to commend an employee. A good read for those who may be surprised that their efforts at compliments aren't having any positive outcomes.

The 5 questions you should ask an interviewer:
This article will prepare you to respond better when the interviewer's asks you "Any questions for us?" query. Some insightful ones include: What defines success in the role; what challenges have others faced etc. Asking them can give you a better idea of whether you'll fit the role, and also inform the interviewer that you are serious about the job.

How to get employees to deal with negative feedback:
Most of us struggle to accept negative (constructive?) feedback. This short but insightful piece gives a specific tip - give it time. As per research in a new book, 'Insight', it was found that employees who took days (and even weeks) to process the feedback were better off at the end of it.

For innovation, should you cut employees some slack?:
Many companies have famously used the slack-time rule (let employees free for 15-20% of time to work on personal ideas for the company) to come up with wildly successful innovations (e.g. the Post-It note by 3M and GMail by Google). However that strategy won't work in all situations, argues this article. It neatly classifies employees into 4 categories based on their expertise and (their assessment of their) innovativeness. Based on the category of employees, the innovation strategy would change. For some you would be best placed by giving supporting them with more (free) time; for some access to technology resources or access to the right expertise.

Promoting employees: Create two tracks - Functional experts and Managers:
A paradox faced by many companies in promoting high-performing employees is that inevitable question - "He's good at driving results individually, but will he be able to manage a team?". This HBR article starts its discussion with the well-known Peter Principle and then shares some useful ideas to deal with this paradox. One interesting one, which Microsoft follows - create two leadership tracks. It has a separate track for technical experts and a separate one for managers.

Compare performance with past, not with peers:
Who doesn't love performance evaluations?! (Did you say 'No one'). Well, this HBR piece has some respite. It reveals that two-thirds of employees feel that performance evaluations are unfair and a key factor driving that perception is when people are compared with their peers. Instead, recognise that each person is different and they should be compared with their past performance (or goals), when evaluating them.

On the topic of performance evals, this related post is also insightful: how to take negative feedback. Adam Grant uses the case study of (the now famous) Ray Dalio at Bridgewater Associates, who has taken critical feedback into an art form. The key tips on how to respond better to negative feedback are: Practise getting more of it; share it back with the giver and ask for constructive suggestions to improve; and try to proactively think through what could be areas of criticism to avoid being blindsided.

Want to build trust? Show vulnerability:
People normally assume that if you want to show vulnerability to someone, you need to trust them. This article argues that it's the other way round. If two people want to build trust, they need to show vulnerability. And especially if the leader shows fallibility, the team reposes greater trust in him or her.

Grow within, don't jump jobs to maximise income growth:
An enduring belief for income growth is you need to constantly jump jobs (and sometimes industries). A Wharton paper digs into some research and concludes that employees receive the greatest long-run benefits by taking different roles at their current company. “It is those internal moves that lead to advances in pay, rank and responsibility, and provide long-term gains in pay and satisfaction”, it says. Not a bad piece of ammunition for your next conversation with that hotshot looking to jump ship.

Why do good employees quit (Hint: not managers):
This piece questions the hoary old chestnut of 'Employees don't quit companies, they quit bosses'. Turns out its more complicated than that. The good news: there's plenty you can do to hold them back. Make their work fun and meaningful, leverage their strengths and invest in their learning. Seems like a lot, but the evocative examples are useful to get the point across.

When to avoid culture-fit:
When hiring, we all look for that critical culture-fit - God forbid if we hire someone from a different approach or way of working. While culture fit does have its benefits, especially when you are in a growth (and execution) phase, it does have its pitfalls too. The most critical one: groupthink. To avoid that, look for cultural diversity, argues this piece. Especially for generating creative ideas, it really helps to have people from vastly differing backgrounds.

Transforming new employee's joining day:
I read a lot of books on storytelling, communication and productivity. Arguably, my favourite writers are the bestselling duo of Chip and Dan Heath, whose books - including 'Made to Stick', 'Decisive', 'Switch' - bring out the best of social science research to help others communicate, work and live better. Their latest book - the 'Power of Moments' - is a super-insightful and fun read, packed with several useful tips to improve your work (and personal) lives. You won't regret picking up a copy.

If you are unable to read the book, just read the John Deere example (about transforming the joining-day experience for new employees) from this interview. It might give you some ideas to improve your own company's process!

Humility won't cut it; be humbly narcissistic:
If given a choice most people would work for a humble rather than a narcissistic person. The evidence of team performance however is surprising. Another category of managers outperform both the 'Humble' and the 'Narcissistic' ones: The Humble Narcissists. Adam Grant argues that you need a dose of narcissism to have the confidence that you can achieve great things. But it needs to be tempered with humility - of three kinds: relating to your ideas, your performance and your culture.

When your co-workers are a better judge of you:
In this provocative piece Adam Grant shines light on the blind spots we encounter when we try to judge or evaluate ourselves. Admittedly, we are great at assessing some aspects - such as our emotional stability. But we are lousy at judging other parameters - intelligence, generosity, bias (oh the irony). Guess who are the best placed to do so? Not our family or close friends (they may also be biased), but our co-workers. Grant concludes the article with some actionable tips on how to improve our self-awareness. In doing so, he references a couple of episodes from his recently launched podcast (which by the way, is an absolute cracker).

A more effective performance review process:
Performance reviews are stressful times for everyone. Supervisors feel guilt ("man, I gotta get those reviews done”); HR stresses out following up with said supervisors, and don’t even ask about the poor employee being reviewed. What if, instead of being treated as a hallowed annual/half-yearly event, the review is real time? What if reviews take a future-oriented view (instead of past)? And what if you could use data,
instead of gut feel and vague memories…
Another interesting piece on the area.

Other Cool Stuff

A cool German word for endurance: sitzfleisch:
You gotta love the Germans for their fascinating compound words (e.g. schadenfreude, doppelganger), which have made their way into English. 'Sitzfleisch', which literally means 'sitting on your bum', makes a strong case for wider adoption in English. It loosely translates to 'showing endurance' - i.e. the patience and persistence to focus and follow-through on a strategy (or sometimes, just wait out for the situation to unfold and become less uncertain.) A useful addition to the vocabulary, indeed!

Warren Buffett Wisdom:
A collection of 30 quotes (filled with pithy wisdom) by Warren Buffet. My pick: "The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything."

Four harsh life lessons that everyone should know:
Eric Barker is a bestselling author of 'Barking Up the Wrong Tree'. In this provocative, but empathetically written post, he gives some 'gyaan' on life-truths that would be useful, especially for folks just about starting off in their career. It's likely to re-align some of your expectations from life.

Making habitual latecomers come on time (and other tips) :
In this cheeky article, the husband-wife duo of Allison and Adam Grant share some secrets of how they get each other to adopt desired behaviours. Hm, making your spouse change his/her long-practiced habits, using behavioural-science tricks? That sounds an extremely risky proposition. Well, Allison and Adam seem to have survived to tell their tale.
One interesting tip on how to get a habitual latecomer to come on time: Instead of requesting or admonishing the person, ask them "Will you be late today?" Just that act of specific commitment significantly increases the odds of the spouse being on time! (Quick, read this article before your spouse gets his/her hands on it!)

Tim Urban on 'How to Pick the Right Career':
The internet's favourite long-form blogger, Tim Urban (He Who Musk Approves Of), is back with another monster post (a website listed it as a 71-minute read!). But the topic is something that all of us can relate to (or have someone in the family who can!) - choosing the right career. When Tim delves into something you can expect it to be a comprehensive, richly insightful, and funny take. Expect no less from this piece.

Think (better) on your feet:
Chairs have been known to have an adverse impact on physical health. A new study argues that it’s also bad for our mental faculties. In an experiment with university students, it was found that mental processing was better in some cases, when folks were standing instead of sitting. May be that standing committee meeting ought to be one.