Category Archives: Hard Things

How does a MGMT team figure out what their organization does?

On its face – “what does your organization do?” – should be an easy question for a MGMT to answer.

But it’s a hard question that I doubt many MGMT teams could accurately answer.

Three Reasons for “What We Do” Failure 

First and foremost, MGMT often confuse the question “what do we do?” with the question “how will we succeed?”

Second, MGMT teams often can’t say what they do in 1-2 sentences because they have failed to achieve clarity around their core activities.

Third, MGMT teams often can’t articulate the tactics and tasks that employmees execute in the daily carrying out of “what we do.”

My Tactics Failure 

Recently, I was struggling with executing and felt that achieving my goals was at-risk.

I then tried to think of what more I could do to achieve my goals.

I then realized that I wasn’t sure I possessed the full list of tactics I could pull from.

In short, I could not articulate the tactics and tasks of what we do.

Conducting a “What We Do” Audit 

Our team of four is twenty months old. And half our team has been with us for about a year or less.

This January, we achieved clarity on exactly what we do.

But we have not yet achieved clarity on what we do each day.

In hindsight, I think we should have brainstormed a tactics list before we launched our work.

That being said, codifying what we do each day after 20 months of work is not a terrible place to be in, given that you need time under your belt to figure out what you do each day.

To ensure we’re all learning from each other’s tactics – and building out a what we do toolkit – we’re conducting a three step process.

First, we’re going to articulate the major categories of daily work; i.e., “coach CEOs” and “coordinate with other philanthropists.”

Second, we’re going to list out all the tactics that fall within these categories.

Then we’re going to pressure test our categories and tactics, and debate if / why they are things we should be doing.

Building for Effectiveness and Scale

Conducing this “what we do audit” and codifying the tactic toolkit will ideally help with efficacy (each of us is drawing from a great toolkit built with our collective knowledge) and scale (if the team grows new members won’t have to learn solely from modeling and direct experience).

Of course, it’s impossible to codify everything it takes to execute at the highest level. No team is self-aware enough to codify everything, and the work is complicated enough that new situations will require first principles analysis of execution tactics.

But efficacy and innovation are born out of deep knowledge. And codification is a way of increasing knowledge.

Forever Unequal, Immobile, and Politically Divided? Facing Brutal 500 Year Trends

Much of modern philanthropy focuses on reducing inequality, increasing economic mobility, and increasing the efficacy of government.

Three recent books, each in their own way, make the case that philanthropy will likely fail.

Forever Unequal: Inequality Persists Save for Massive Wars, Plagues, State Collapse 

In The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, Walter Scheidel argues that inequality generally increases over time unless something very awful happens: massively mobilized warfare, societal upending revolutions, plagues, or state collapses.

In short: since the advent of farming, rising inequality has been the default state of humanity across almost all cultures and economic systems.

See below for a history of European inequality. Inequality has always risen save for the Fall of the Roman Empire, the plague, the Black Death, and WWI/WWII.

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Scheidel marshalls data sets that support this argument in societies across the world.

His final take: while it’s possible that we can inequality through policy and social programs, it’s unlikely.

Yes, individual countries can tweak inequality at the margins, but since the invention of farming, policy has never been able trump long-term immutable trends of increased inequality.

Forever Immobile: The Persistence of Family Status 

In The Son Also Rises, Gregory Clarke utilizes a novel technique – tracking the status of last names over time – to solve many previous problems of economic mobility research, which usually only tracked economic shift of 1-2 generations.

Clarke’s method allows him to avoid the noise of only looking at short time horizons.

If a rich person’s son becomes a poet, it might appear that the family was downwardly mobile. However, if the poet’s daughter then becomes a CEO, the downwardly mobile trend is erased – and so on.

Clarke’s main argument is that, over multiple generations, there’s much less mobility than we thought.

Clarke’s results are stunning: the previous literature estimated intergenerational earnings elasticity to be around ~.3; Clarke’s data raises this estimate to ~.8.

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Under Clarke’s estimate, family advantages don’t disappear over two or three generations, but ten to fifteen generations.

Forever Divided: The Long Hold of Original Immigration Patterns

In Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, David Fischer argues that you can trace many of our country’s current conditions to long-ago immigration patterns from Europe (note: I have not read the book yet, and am largely relying on Scott Alexander’s review). 

Fischer tracks the migrations of the Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers, and Scotch-Irish – and shows how current inequities and culture can in many ways be tied to these 400-500 year old immigrations patterns.

In summarizing the book, Scott Alexander makes a few observations:

If this is true, I think it paints a very pessimistic world-view. The “iceberg model” of culture argues that apart from the surface cultural features we all recognize like language, clothing, and food, there are deeper levels of culture that determine the features and institutions of a people: whether they are progressive or traditional, peaceful or warlike, mercantile or self-contained.

And:

If America is best explained as a Puritan-Quaker culture locked in a death-match with a Cavalier-Borderer culture, with all of the appeals to freedom and equality and order and justice being just so many epiphenomena – well, I’m not sure what to do with that information. Push it under the rug? Say “Well, my culture is better, so I intend to do as good a job dominating yours as possible?” Agree that We Are Very Different Yet In The End All The Same And So Must Seek Common Ground? Start researching genetic engineering? Maybe secede? I’m not a Trump fan much more than I’m an Osama bin Laden fan; if somehow Osama ended up being elected President, should I start thinking “Maybe that time we made a country that was 49% people like me and 51% members of the Taliban – maybe that was a bad idea“.

Many have argued that the post-colonial country formation process led to unworkable patchworks of different cultures be thrown into single countries.

Perhaps this is true of the United States as well.

Will This Time Be Different? 

On one hand, all of the above makes me incredibly gloomy about our prospects of evolving our society into a more equal, mobile, and better governed nation.

On the other hand, the sample size is small: humans have only had post hunter and gather economies for relatively small time frame, and our current institutions and technologies are very different than those of a few hundred years ago.

Moreover, there’s one place we have improved things: we’re incredibly more productive and wealth than we used to be.

So perhaps what we need is the equivalent of the industrial revolution but for inequality, mobility, and political culture.

But, at the very least,  baseline predictions should keep us sober: it will take a radical departure from historical trends to change the trajectory of our nation.

What comes after science – religion or politics?

There is some chance that, in the future, we will interact with either (1) aliens who are so much smarter than us that we can’t really comprehend them or (2) artificial intelligence that will far surpass human intelligence.

The Rise of Science 

Over the past few hundred years, science has ascended as one of the primary mental models of humanity. So many of the ideas that we determine to be true, or whose adherence grant status, are born out of science.

This is not to say that religion and politics are unimportant; rather, it’s only to say that for most of humanity science didn’t really exist – and that over the past few hundred science has grown to be a primary mover of humanity.

As far as I can tell, the rise of science has been a generally good thing for humanity, though I’m open to the idea that the hunter and gatherer life was pretty ok – and that science may be the foundation from which we destroy ourselves.

The Limits of Human Science

The limits of human science stem from the limits of the human brain. There’s a reasonable chance that there are truths out there that we will never be able to understand because of our limited brain capacity.

On planet Earth, humans are the best there is at science, so we’ve not yet had to confront the humiliating inadequacy of our science.

But aliens or AI may understand the world in ways which we are simply incapable of mastering.

Then What?

Once we encounter entities that render our science functionally moot – in that it no longer explains the knowledge we know possess from witnessing the wonders of aliens or AI – then human science will lose its usefulness and status at a rapid pace.

At this point, my guess is that either religion or politics will increase in importance.

Religion is the practice of finding meaning in the unknowable.

Politics is the practice of finding meaning in the tribal.

Givent that aliens or AI would be knowable, my guess is that politics would trump religion and science in this new world.

Humanity, at this point, might divide itself in accordance to (1) tribal affiliation to specific alien or AI personalities or (2) tribal affiliation of how to interact with the knowledge that we are intellectually inferior to other beings.

Putting Science in Its Place

Human science is a pretty amazing thing, but it’s dominance is probably temporary.

What Happens When What Works for Children Doesn’t Feel Good?

Closing schools does not feel good: it’s painful for families, educators, and politicians.

But closing schools, and opening new better schools, can dramatically help low-income children.

Sometimes, the best thing that can happen to a child is for her school to close.

Closing Schools Led to a +.3 SD Gain for Elementary Students in NOLA 

In New Orleans, Tulane researchers found that closing schools and creating new better schools led to very significant achievement gains:

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Elementary students who attended a failing school started .1 SD behind their matched peers – two years later, these same students were .2SD ahead of their matched peers.

This +.3 SD impact is higher than the impacts of most educational interventions, and it equates to closing about 33% of the black-white student achievement gap.

You Don’t Have to Harm Existing Children for the Sake of Future Children

What’s incredible about these results is that the students whose schools were closed increased their student achievement.

Before seeing this data, my guess would have been that closing schools slightly harms existing students but is much better for future students who get to attend a better school without going through the disruption of closure.

But the NOLA data indicates that it’s possible to help both existing and future students, which should increase your belief in the benefits of school closure.

You Should Not Close Failing Schools and Send Children to Other Failing Schools 

In Baton Rouge, school closure did not lead to positive effects. This seems to be because these students enrolled into other failing schools after their original school was closed.

 

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For school closure to work, a city needs to either have open spaces in existing higher-performing schools or be opening new high-quality schools.

There are Good and Bad Ways to Close Schools

School closures are hard, but they can be done with respect. Families deserve to know why their schools are being closed; families should get support (and preference in unified enrollment systems) in finding a better school; and political leaders should ensure that empty school buildings are put to good use for the community.

Unfortunately, in many cities, political officials do not close schools thoughtfully. Instead of being honest with families about the poor performance of the school, they let failing schools linger for year until enrollment dwindles and the school folds academically and financially.

It is Difficult to Scale Something that Causes Political Pain

It is unclear to me whether or not deliberate school closure will scale. Reforms that cause political pain tend not to do well over time.

However, opening new great schools need not be politically painful, which bodes well for continued charter growth.

Of course, continued charter growth can lead to the closure of failing schools – and this is exactly why charter moratoriums have some political support.

Charter moratoriums have the potential to reduce pain for adults even as they inflict pain on children.

Can New Orleans Continue to Close Schools? Should It?

Over the past few years, academic performance has stagnated in New Orleans:

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During this time, there has also been a reduction in school closure activity.

So here is an interesting question: has the stagnation in performance been caused because New Orleans ate up most of the low-hanging fruit of closing schools, or has the stagnation in performance been caused because New Orleans has slowed down on closing failing schools?

At this point, I’m not familiar enough with the data to have strong opinions.

But I do worry that New Orleans, especially as it moves toward more local control, may stop using one of the strategies that has proven to dramatically improve the achievement of its students.

Advice -> Endorphins or Habit Change?

There are many inspirational posters on many walls across the world.

Most of these posters do not change the behaviors of those who purchase them, frame them, hang them, and look at them.

Rather, most of the posters deliver a sequence of endorphin boosts that very quickly fade.

In a short matter of time you pass the poster and you feel nothing.

Why Do People Seek Advice? 

Most people who seek advice are not that serious about changing their behavior.

They want to change their behavior, and they want to feel the endorphin rush of wanting to change their behavior, but they do not want to put in the work that behavior change requires.

People like to feel that they can change.

People like to get advice on how to change.

People do not like the process of change.

If you are seeking advice, you’d do well to be aware of why you are seeking advice.

If you are giving advice, you’d do well to clearly articulate what it will require to implement this advice.

Or, at the very least, understand an advice session for what it is: a form of human banter that makes everyone feel good at the time but has little lasting effect.

What Advice Have You Received that Has Become a Habit? 

It’s worth reflecting on what advice you have received that has become a mental habit, both to reflect if you’re doing the hard work of behavior change, as well as to understand why some advice leads to change and some does not.

Here are some pieces of advice that have truly change how I think and act:

Nobody promised us anything (my father): As my father was dying from Parkinson’s disease, I asked him if he was sad, and he responded: nobody promised us anything. I think about this phrase a lot – as well as a sister phrase that I’ve incorporated into my thinking: the world is not ordered for my own happiness. When I am feel frustrated, indignant, or consumed with self-pity, I say this phrase to myself and, in the moment, reorient my mindset as best as I can, which is often a good amount.

Workout and mediate everyday (self-help books): Basically every self-help / self-improvement book I’ve read and have hammered home the importance of exercise and meditation. And for good reason! It’s taken time, but I’m not at least 5-6 days a week for both. Working out and meditation have become long-term habits.

Lead congruent organizations / teams (Nancy Euske, NSNO management team): After a few initial failures, I am now very deliberate about leading teams and organizations that have an explicitly aligned mission, strategy, culture, structure, tactics, people management systems, and goals.

I’m sure there are other pieces of advice that have become habits – but these standout to me in that they have greatly impacted my life, five years ago I did none of these three with any regularity, and I continually track my behavior to ensure the habits stick.

The Biggest Mistake I Made with Habits

For years, I would read books for knowledge rather than behavioral change. For some types of books (novels, history, etc.) this is fine. For many other types of books (business, self-help, etc.), this is not fine.

But I get high off learning new information, which is dangerous. I used to rip through dozens of business and self-help books a year – and while this made be an interesting dinner party companion (or terrible depending on your conversation tastes) – it rarely led to behavior change.

Now, I only read a business or self-help book if: (1) I have the time to read it deliberately enough to draw out behavior change possibilities; and  (2) I have the time to practice and implement the behavior changes.

The Ability to Adopt New Habits is an Incredible Competitive Advantage

Most people will spend over forty years working.

Over the course of a career, being able to adopt a few important habits a year will provide an incredible competitive advantage over people who do not adopt important habits.

Growth mindset and intellectual curiosity are amazing mindsets – but it’s the ability to form habits that unleashes their true power.

Will America Ever Have Integrated Schools?

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All else being equal, I think it would be better if public schools were integrated. I find the individual and societal rationales for increasing integration to be very compelling.

However, I do not understand how America will achieve integrated public schools in the next few decades.

If others see a realistic path to integration, I’d love to better understand these arguments.

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Here is why I am skeptical that we will achieve school integration over the next few decades:

White Families Don’t Want to be in the Minority: As recent research demonstrates, white families want to send their children to schools where they aren’t a signficant minority. Most major urban education systems are 75%+ minority, so the math simply doesn’t work. You can’t scale schools with significant white enrollment when white families only make up a small minority of students.

White Families Won’t Send Their Children to Poor Neighborhoods: I’m skeptical that, at scale, white families will bus their children into poor neighborhoods. This means integrated schools can only really be located in either gentrifying or wealthier neighborhoods. It seems (rightfully) unfeasible that cities will stop operating schools in poor neighborhoods – yet having schools operate in poor neighborhoods will prevent integration.

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In short:

  1. If your policy solutions goes against the desires of the vast majority of white people; and
  2. You need white people to participate in your solution; and
  3. Even if you get your policy passed, white people can escape the policy through moving to a nearby town or opting-out of the public system; then
  4. You’re in for a long, hard battle.

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All of this being said, I spend most of time working on a strategy that most people think will not scale, so I’m very sympathetic to reformers trying to change the world against tough odds.

But if you’re trying to change the world you need to be able to tell a story of how you might succeed – and, to date, I haven’t been able to understand this story for school integration.

But this might simply be my own ignorance. If anyone can point me to writings that better tell the strategy story, I’ll eagerly dig in.