Learning Fast

Malcom Gladwell had it wrong. It doesn’t take 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. (Practicing something the same way over and over doesn’t make perfect.) Great At Work by Morten Hansen asserts that a key component of learning fast is deliberately creating learning loops. 

To do so, you need to:

  • Meticulously assess outcomes,
  • Solicit feedback,
  • And correct any flaws, no matter how small, that the feedback has uncovered.

That is a terrific outline for a learning loop.

Hansen uses the example of being a better public speaker; his job was to deliver keynote speeches. To improve, he spent 15 minutes a day deliberately improving this skill. Of course, he couldn’t give a keynote every day. Instead, he recorded his presentation, and then watched short 10 or 15 minute segments daily. He would then ask someone else to also watch those segments and provide him specific feedback on a behavior that he was trying to improve.

This example not only demonstrates exercising a learning loop, but doing so to learn fast.

Quantified Nutrition

Over the past four months, I've increasingly spent time putting a system in place to monitor my nutritional intake - and by extension my health. Simplistically, my goal has been to gain strength while losing fat - with a focus on improving overall health.

I've worked out a nice system using three tools: Cronometer, Apple Watch, and Fitbit Aria.

  • Cronometer is used as a food diary to log consumption. Beyond tracking caloric intake, it also helpfully breaks out food into both macro- and micronutrients. For example, you can see your protein intake, but also see the percentage of Isoleucin, Leucine, and Valine consumed (important for muscle gain).

  • Since my focus is on strength gains, I have macronutrient targets set to Protein @ 35%, Carbohydrates @ 45%, and Fat @ 20%. That's working well for me, but you should choose for your own goals and body. 

  • Since my secondary focus is on losing fat, I have Cronometer set to lose 1 pound per week as my Weight Goal.

  • Another critical component of this setup is my Apple Watch - which logs Active Caloric burn. I use it throughout the day, and log every workout using it. Then, at least once a day - at the end of the day - I open Cronometer on my iPhone which syncs with HealthKit.

  • Cronometer takes the Active Caloric burn from Health and adds that to the Base Metabolic Rate calculated based on my current weight. Active + BMR = Total Caloric Burn.

  • Lastly, I use the Fitbit Area smart scale which uploads my weight and (rough) body fat % to the cloud which syncs with Cronometer. As a consequence, Cronometer updates my BMR daily (and thus caloric intake goal).

In summary, I use a food log for daily food intake and to calculate a target daily caloric intake. I use a smart scale to automatically update my weight which correspondingly updates my caloric intake target. And I use a fitness watch to capture additional calories burned throughout the day which are additive (burn more, eat more).

It's working great for me. Now, the real trick: can I turn 4 months into 4 years of sustained progress.

Conversations vs Presentations

Why the focus on meetings?

In the prior post, I shared thoughts on guidelines to more effectively run meetings. But in further conversation, it became clear that there are other styles of meetings.

Importantly, these discussions helped crystalize why deliberate thinking about meeting management is so important.

Spoiler: Meetings mirror your culture.

Meetings as a Measure of Culture

Meetings, by their nature of people getting together for a common purpose, are microcosms of an organization’s culture. Is there one person who makes the final decision? Does everyone have to agree on the idea? Do you say you agree, but silently undermine the agreement after the meeting? And so on…

In this context then, you can examine your culture by characterizing how meetings are run. For discussion, there are at least three types of meetings: Presentations, Ad-Hoc, and Conversations.

Presentations are often designed to gain agreement of a direction or idea. And the best way to gain agreement is to generate an emotional reaction. Thus, we often use these as opportunities to tell a story. This is a great approach where we want the audience to agree with us. It's Less great when you want to engender conversation and new ideas.

Ad-hoc meetings include stand-ups, or quick opportunities to get together to share camaraderie and status. These are chosen when we prefer the higher-bandwidth format of communicating in-person (or via video); and when we’re hoping for serendipitous ideas, thoughts, and decisions to occur.

Conversations are meetings where the express purpose is to have all perspectives shared, potentially to air and hear disagreements, to brainstorm new alternatives, and to gain consensus on approach. These are harder to engineer because you need to bring everyone up-to-speed prior to the conversation, and you often need a strong moderator or process to ensure the meeting doesn’t devolve into an Ad-Hoc format.

(It’s this last one where the Meeting Guidelines I shared earlier are to be used for most efficient use of the time together.)

Each meeting format has its purpose. However, in a learning culture, I would expect to find more Conversations and fewer Presentations.

On Meetings

Often, we create a powerpoint, and then, slide-by-slide, we spoon-feed the meeting participants bite-sized information - encouraging them to ask questions as we go, but usually hoping they wait until the end (since what they’re asking might be on the next slide). The grim truth is that only the presenters know what’s going to come next.

It’s inefficient, and doesn’t get at what we really need - informed discussion with decisions

I’d like to explore changing this with a few guidelines:

  • Information should be shared ahead of the meeting. For most topics, 1 or 2 pages will suffice. No more than 7 pages of information total.
  • Expectation is that people will have read ahead of time. Ask at the start of the meeting if everyone read. If not, we hold back a few minutes for them to get caught up.
  • Purpose of the meeting is clearly stated in the agenda with both a desired outcome along with the decisions that need to be made.
  • Meeting is then discussion-oriented. Questions are encouraged.
  • If the meeting is informational, consider whether we need a meeting at all.

Any additional considerations or thoughts I should incorporate?

Learning Loops

This past week, I had the opportunity to participate in a half day workshop with Tom Chi - co-founder of Google X - who shared terrific thinking around Rapid Prototyping (more on that later). There was one idea in particular that caught my interest: what if you could improve 10% every week? The concept sounds deceptively simple - the obvious question is, how?

One answer is to treat these initiatives as short, thoughtful learning loops. This idea is consistent with what's evolving to be common wisdom:

  • I’ve long studied and practiced Lean Startup (along with many of you) and in particular, considered how best to deploy the Learning Loop espoused there: Build -> Measure -> Learn (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lean_startup). Note: Not as easy as it looks.
  • Perhaps, not coincidentally, I’m reading Great at Work which shares a similar loop: Do/Redo -> Measure -> Feedback -> Modify. Great start to the book, I'm halfway through and fast closing on the finish.
  • Tom Chi endorses a method of Rapid Prototyping to get feedback and learning from an idea - and to do so in minutes, not days or weeks (or months). You can see this here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DkyMCCnNI3Q

These sound great in theory, but actually doing is really quite difficult. Here are a few things that I’ve learned can help:

  • You need a goal. Learning for the sake of learning can be fun, but if you want to improve through a learning loop, then you need a clear objective to focus your energies into.
  • You need to measure. This has always tripped me up. In sports, the rules are well-understood by all participants and the objective is clear. Life isn’t as clear. Great at Work shares some examples on how to do this.
  • You need external feedback. Tom Chi said, “Thinking is a terrible way to think. Doing is the best kind of thinking.” The concept is to spend a little time creating an experiment that gives you feedback from people other than you (and possibly other than your company) to guide you in the evolution of your idea.

Lots of stuff to unpack here, but I’m excited to try.

Merrio: better understand your team

I'm proud to share that Merrio is now used every week by companies and managers to help them better understand their teams. Over the past seven months, I've received incredible feedback from the beta users on what they need to help them gain insights into the needs of their teams. This has resulted in great additions to the offering. Here's a couple listed below.

Quick and Informative Surveys

Merrio takes almost no effort to get useful feedback from your team - by first preselecting survey questions for you, followed by delivering the survey in a way that works best for your team, and then making it astonishingly easy and fast to answer. 

 Weekly Question - one click and your team is done.

Weekly Question - one click and your team is done.

Creating Conversations

By design, surveys in Merrio are not anonymous. This affords an opportunity for you, as the manager, to understand who is challenged on a particular spectrum. And most importantly, for you to then follow up with them to help resolve the concern.

Survey questions are aligned to one of nine categories to help you better understand your team. In aggregate, and over time, these single question surveys paint a picture of the health of your team. If the charts are left-shifted (larger volumes of answers), then your team is feeling pretty good about the particular topic. And if right-shifted, then you likely have some work to do.

Survey Results - aligned To critical categories

Get Started With Your Team

Merrio will help you detect problems before they become a crisis, help you identify issues affecting your teams, and help you better understand your teams.

Ready to get started? See more at: https://www.merrio.com.

Mindfulness and Rest

 Ferris Jabr, writing for Scientific American:

In one of the few controlled eco-sychology experiments, Berman asked 38 University of Michigan students to study lists of random numbers and recite them from memory in reverse order before completing another attention-draining task in which they memorized the locations of certain words arranged in a grid. Half the students subsequently strolled along a predefined path in an arboretum for about an hour whereas the other half walked the same distance through highly trafficked streets of downtown Ann Arbor for the same period of time. Back at the lab the students memorized and recited digits once again. On average, volunteers that had ambled among trees recalled 1.5 more digits than the first time they took the test; those who had walked through the city improved by only 0.5 digits—a small but statistically significant difference between the two groups.

It's okay to take a break during work and go for a walk through your local park. You'll be smarter afterwards.

Via Hacker News

How China's government can help support AI efforts through access to big data.

Mark Bergen and David Ramli, writing for Bloomberg:

DeepMind, the AI lab of Google’s Alphabet Inc., has labored for nearly two years to access medical records from the U.K.’s National Health Service for a diagnostics app. The agency began a trial with the company using 1.6 million patient records. Last month, the top U.K. privacy watchdog declared the trial violates British data-protection laws, throwing its future into question.

Contrast that with how officials handled a project in Fuzhou. Government leaders from that southeastern Chinese city of more than seven million people held an event on June 26. Venture capital firm Sequoia Capital helped organize the event, which included representatives from Dell Inc., International Business Machines Corp. and Lenovo Group Ltd. A spokeswoman for Dell characterized the event as the nation’s first "Healthcare and Medical Big Data Ecology Summit."

The summit involved a vast handover of data. At the press conference, city officials shared 80 exabytes worth of heart ultrasound videos, according to one company that participated. With the massive data set, some of the companies were tasked with building an AI tool that could identify heart disease, ideally at rates above medical experts. They were asked to turn it around by the fall.

This is data on a scale that the US and UK seemingly would never agree to data owners sharing with any private corporation. Though I wonder if university researchers could do so.


If you don't do it, somebody who cares less will.

Tom Bartel, writing on the top 10 reasons you should become a manager. Here's my favorite:

"The only reason there’s so many awful managers is that good people like you refuse to do the job.”
You might have doubts if you are the right person for the job. You might wonder if you are the one who can settle conflicts, who can guide people, whom people trust to lead them. You might wonder if you deserve the position, and if it is justified to put you in that role.

Management isn't easy. But the adage that the best leaders are the reluctant ones has consistently proven true.

Via Software Lead Weekly