The Challenge Network

Building processes and networks to improve decision making

One of the people I greatly respect is psychologist and author Adam Grant. When his book Give and Take came out, I finally found someone that was able to eloquently describe how I viewed the world. If you want the Cliff Notes version, he does a great TED talk.

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Did you get past Step #1?

It was with great interest then when I saw that Adam was a guest on the Tim Ferris Show, in an episode titled “The Man Who Does Everything”. The title seemed fitting as I often wondered how he managed to accomplish so much in such a short span in his career.

I will leave most of the interesting nuggets for you to listen to, like how he says no to requests and how he handles email. One idea however really intrigued me, a concept that was not necessarily new, but takes a unique approach.

When embarking on big decisions or reaching certain stages towards a goal, we often seek feedback. When we actually remember to do this, we tend to go about it haphazardly. Then when we do receive feedback, it is often couched in nice words and encouragement.

Ineffective feedback is often the result of two decisions. The first is we create a support network with people we are close with such as friends and colleagues. Support networks are great for motivation, however, make it uncomfortable for giving and receiving negative feedback. The second is the approach we take in gathering feedback which often lacks structure and focus.

“Huh, you know it’s funny, I thought you had higher standards than that? You couldn’t find a single thing I could improve on?”
-Adam Grant

Good feedback does not pull any punches and is specific. Softball comments that bury critiques in polite language is as unhelpful as issuing blanket statements that your work is a dumpster fire. I once received feedback from a reader on a past essay where he pointed out all the grammatical errors I had made. While highly embarrassing, it also reminded me to be more careful when proofreading and editing my posts.

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One company that not only fosters feedback but has built their entire culture on feedback is Bridgewater Associates. Their culture of radical transparency began when their founder Ray Dalio nearly tanked his young firm on some bad investments. His key learning was the need for people around him willing to challenge his decisions. No one, even executives, are shielded from criticism, which has enabled Bridgewater to become the largest hedge fund in the world.

The term Adam coined for this approach is a “Challenge Network” and it has been instrumental in refining his own work. He collects feedback in two ways:

  • Structured Feedback — Used for bigger projects where iterative feedback is useful. He schedules time with his challenge network, most often students in a current class. He gives them some of his work to review and asks for candid criticisms, even if they fundamentally agree with the point he is making.
  • Unstructured Feedback — This is for spontaneous feedback, like after a talk or a meeting. Adam will often ask people that approach him, “what’s the one thing I could have done better?”. If the person is reticent to give feedback, Adam will suggest some areas he thinks he could have improved in order to prompt feedback.

The intervals and process for collecting feedback will vary with situation and environment. The point however is to actively seek out regular and spontaneous opportunities to gather candid feedback. Then you can thoughtfully consider the feedback and act on valid criticisms as a mechanism for continuous improvement.

The other key to making a challenge network successful is to not focus on outcomes. The temptation is to drive towards a successful outcome. When something does not work as expected, we feel disappointment. Success and failure is not a binary outcome however, there are a range of results, each of which expands our knowledge. The value then is not to guarantee a result, but to accelerate learning during the creation process.

How can you build your own challenge network? Adam has a ready and willing group that is able to help because of his reach and his university teaching. I do not have Adam’s fame or reach, but I do have large network on LinkedIn and Twitter that I can tap.

The problem with large social networks is that they are noisy and quite broad. There are people in my networks spanning over a decade, intersecting many of the different things I was involved with during that time, including startup entrepreneurs, sales professionals, corporate executives, venture investors, and software engineers.

A better approach is to find a smaller and more focused network. This includes people having the relevant experience to offer useful feedback and advice on the things you care about. For me, that would be this network, all the people that read this newsletter and have been so supportive of my work and my writing 😊

“Somebody who pushes you because they believe in you and they are not willing to settle for half-baked ideas or for something that is not your very best work.”
-Adam Grant

I feel this community of readers could be a challenge network. Not just for me, but a network that we could all rely on. With over 3,000 people of varying skills, experiences, and professional credentials, there are a lot of brains that can be tapped to help each one of us to make better decisions if we took to heart the value of constructive criticism.

How could you see a challenge network being helpful for yourself or for your team? What is one thing that I can help you with this week?

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Episode #6 — Designing transformation for success with Axel Winter

Revisiting past episodes before starting on new episodes, this one is with Axel Winter of Central Group to discuss how to design transformation for success.

Quick update on the podcast, we finally recorded our first session for Season Two and have a bunch of others interviews lined up for the next few weeks with IT leaders in South Africa, New Zealand, Ireland and the US. If you want to be on the podcast and have a unique take on the state of Enterprise IT and Engineering, let’s definitely chat!

Check out past Heretechs podcast episodes on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. Please like and subscribe 😁

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Normally I only share this section in my newsletter. Given the massive disruption however in the economy and the job market, I wanted to share some resources for those looking for tech talent.

What has been awesome to see is that despite the chaos right now, various tech communities around the globe have been banding together to help aggregate lists of people laid off and companies that have laid off staff.

In Singapore, they have published a list called SEAriously Awesome People List for folks in startups that did layoffs recently due to COVID-19.

In the US, there is a new site called posting an ongoing listing of startups that have announced layoffs. From the live tracker, to date there have been 27,070 people laid off since March 11.

Despite the layoffs, there are still many tech companies that are hiring as this list by the VC firm NEA shows — Startups Actively Hiring During COVID-19. Though mostly US based, this is a global list of nearly 370 firms actively seeking talent now.

Lastly, one of the areas that has shown the most growth during this pandemic is in cloud services. When I searched the jobs pages for the three biggest cloud providers, there are THOUSANDS of job openings at this very moment across AWS, Microsoft, and Google.

If there are any other resources that are worth including here, please let us know and we will add to our global list.

We help IT leaders in enterprises solve the cultural challenges involved in digital transformation and move towards a community based culture that delivers innovation and customer value faster. Learn more about our work here.

Thoughts on developers, digital transformation, enterprise agility, community building & software engineering culture. Author 👉

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