Noticing Change

Human nature is amazing when it comes to adjusting. We get used quite rapidly to changes and forget how we initially felt about things. Now, six months into the pandemic mode for most of the western world, I’m already talking to clients who had forgotten how they were thinking and acting when this thing started. We tend to roll with the punches and “average out” most of what happened.

I’m assuming this is mostly for the better, and evolution has made us this way for a reason. Perhaps similar to the way many women forget what going into labor felt like. When discussing bad experiences, my wife frequently would say, completely serious, “I’d rather give birth again.” I was in there with her. In no case where she had said this would I rather even be present in the delivery room than just have the bad experience she thinks is worse than delivering a baby. But I digress.

Where this affects executives from becoming great is that it makes it harder to learn.

Improving How You’re Improving

I say “improving improving” way too often when talking to my clients, but that is only due to the fact that I believe this is a crucial capability for creating outstanding teams. That’s why I push for things like meta-reviews, postmortems, and similar tactics. You have to know your history to avoid repeating it in the future (or repeat it, if you found out something that works).

However, it’s hard to do these reviews when our mushy brains make us forget what actually happened. That’s why I encourage everyone in leadership positions to start putting in place ways to notice the change as it is happening.

Evidence of Change

It’s hard to gather proof of things that are not hard numerical factors, but don’t give up. There are steps that can provide you a better hunch and trust your conclusions better:

  • Gather data: Sometimes, you can get numbers, even if not easily. For example, I often go back with clients to count how many meetings they had to dedicate to specific issues every month. You can also put in place metrics for your team, so you get indicators of trends (e.g., the cycle time is starting to get longer).
  • Document decisions: Both for technical aspects and managerial aspects, I recommend creating a culture of writing down medium-to-large decisions in a format that would allow you to recall them better later. For technical decisions, using formats such as ADRs is quite common. The same should be done when you are deciding with your management team about changes in your processes or plans. Having half a page of context from a year ago can be invaluable. It only takes a few minutes to write, and sometimes the mere act of writing improves the decisions you make.
  • Personal journal: Unfortunately, this habit is by far the hardest to get others to follow, even though I can attest it has been incredibly valuable for me over the years. Writing down the thoughts, fears, opportunities, and decisions that are on my mind is actually a personal productivity hack: by doing it, my monkey mind calms down a bit. But the long term advantage is a nice perk. I regularly go over records of decisions I made after a few months to consider my thinking and what I had learned.
  • Outsiders: Just like the frog in the water that’s slowly boiling, you might not be noticing the change around you quickly. An outsider’s perspective is often less clouded and can help you realize what happened. Most of my clients fill out a self-assessment on a few traits. When I bring these traits up again three or six months later, they rarely remember how they rated themselves and tend to assume they didn’t make a lot of progress. As I read back to them my notes on how they determined the self-rated marks, they are surprised time and again.

There are those good leaders who go with their intuition and foggy memory—they often manage to get by. Then there are those who are collecting evidence to make their future decisions better because they understand that even small improvements compound. Want to take a guess which eventually lead the best organizations?