I recently incorporated a series of questions in my weekly one-on-ones to generate conversation when there's not much on the agenda. A couple of weeks ago, two senior designers chose to answer the question: What is your favorite part of your role? Why is that?
Both designers gave answers along the lines of:
“Autonomy. I love having control over my work and day while also having your support. I know that if I need help, you’ll be there, but otherwise, I can hold my own. I feel like I’ve earned it, and that feels good.”
It felt great to hear this. This sense of autonomy is not a result of me suddenly handing over the keys. It is the culmination of continually working toward a culture where the team has space to make their own decisions while also having the support of their manager or mentor when they need it.
Reflecting on this topic reminded of an excerpt from one of my favorite books, Turn the Ship Around:
"SHORT, EARLY CONVERSATIONS is a mechanism for CONTROL. It is a mechanism for control because the conversations did not consist of me telling them what to do. They were opportunities for the crew to get early feedback on how they were tackling problems. This allowed them to retain control of the solution. These early, quick discussions also provided clarity to the crew about what we wanted to accomplish. Many lasted only thirty seconds, but they saved hours of time." (L. David Marquet and Stephen R. Covey)
As managers, sometimes we think we create space for "autonomy" by assigning tasks to our team and expecting them to tackle the work independently. This approach does not give the team control if they are merely taking orders. The issue is that the minute they hit a roadblock, they'll return to receive new orders rather than actively working toward a solution on their own.
People feel good working autonomously when they feel in control, and they believe in and understand the work as much as their manager. What contributes to feeling in control? Control is a product of confidence in decision-making.
We're most confident when we have the knowledge we need and can count on consistent feedback along the way. Without feedback, there's no sure way to know if what we're doing is working or not. When there's a void in feedback, we tend to create narratives about our performance and start to doubt our decisions. That doubt chips away at our confidence, and eventually, the thought of working autonomously can be pretty intimidating.
I always try to give feedback in real-time. For example, I'll make sure to take a few minutes to review feedback right after a big presentation, regardless if it went well or not. Positive feedback reinforces good decisions. Critical feedback teaches us how to make better decisions next time. When feedback about a situation comes after too much time has passed, details get lost, and we may forget why the feedback was even important.
I know my team will never feel like they have control unless we trust each other. I have to trust that they'll make thoughtful decisions; they have to trust that I'll be there to support them, no matter what happens. Support means giving them constructive feedback, helping them see a situation from different perspectives, and coaching them in their craft.
Below are three methods I've found effective in building a foundation for trust with my team.
Here are a few posts related to the topics covered in this note:
Through my experience mentoring designers, I've noticed a tendency to oversimplify a meeting's purpose. We stop at "present website concepts" then focus our preparation on explaining what we've designed as clearly and confidently as we can.
Some meetings go well; others don't. When they don’t, we feel bad. When we don’t know how to improve for next time, we feel even worse. It can be challenging to surface these insights when our only focus was what we were planning to say, missing who we were saying it to or why.
A simple practice I enjoy is taking a few minutes to collect my thoughts on what I expect from a meeting before it takes place. After the meeting, I can revisit my notes, reflecting on how it went and what I’ve learned.
This habit is a powerful tool for not only leading meetings more effectively but feeling better doing so. Below are ten questions to use as a guide:
In Playing With Movement, author Todd Hargrove shares how worry can lead to the exact outcome we're trying to avoid:
"In many situations, worrying about a bad outcome will make it more likely. Fear is the enemy, and playing with risk is a way to learn to master it."
In Stillness is the Key, author Ryan Holiday explores a similar idea:
"Whatever you face, whatever you’re doing will require, first and foremost, that you don’t defeat yourself. That you don’t make it harder by overthinking, by needless doubts, or by second-guessing."
When I was actively performing music, I could relate with this concept when playing new songs or revisiting old ones. I'd get anxious about forgetting the lyrics, so I'd do everything I could to embed them in my mind. I refused to stand on stage with my own lyrics written on a piece of paper as a guide. It felt inauthentic as a songwriter and performer. I wanted the audience to feel my relationship with the words I sang, and I thought this would get in the way.
Once I got on stage, the show would go in one of two ways:
It didn't matter how I prepared or how much time I put in; mindset was everything.
I've come to apply this concept to so many aspects of life; building new habits, acquiring skills, presenting my ideas, and truthfully, experiencing life. I remember feeling nervous when going to get my motorcycle license until realizing that there was nothing more I could do to prepare. When it came time to take the test, I took a deep breath and drove like I would any other day. I passed.
I believe that when we overthink what we're doing, it's hard to give it our best shot. We can't get in the flow because we're too focused on getting it "right." As a result, we get it wrong.
While it's unrealistic for me to think that I'll never get nervous about anything again, I've decided to trade my doubts and concerns for commitment to myself and my growth. Once I decide to go after something, I've learned it's best to go all in.
I was excited to catch up with one of my former professors today, Christine; it had been over a decade since we last spoke. Once we got on Zoom, it felt like no time had passed.
We got to talking about the books we've found valuable over the years and how we're often inspired by stories from outside our field. As we ended the discussion, Christine added: "We're all just people after all."
Regardless of our profession or industry, we're all just people working with other people. Framed this way, we're acknowledging our nature and inherent commonalities as humans. We're opening the door to learning from one another.
We all have times where we think our experience is unique and that no one else has ever dealt with the same problems in this way. Not only have countless others experienced the same problems but many are experiencing them right now and many others have overcome them.
We resist help because we can't imagine our friend who works in finance could ever understand what it's like to work in a creative agency. They may not be designing for a living but they have clients relying on them. They also have to earn their trust. They have deadlines. They want their manager to let them know how they're doing. They want to be recognized for doing good work. You get the idea.
We're much more alike than we think. When we remember that, the world suddenly becomes an open book and if we dive in, we just might learn a thing or two.
How do you describe an agency?
A group of people with unique perspectives and backgrounds working with other groups of people with unique perspectives and backgrounds toward a common goal.
What could go wrong?
I'm actually encouraged by this definition. It's the reason why misunderstandings and challenges are inevitable, but it's also the reason that I enjoy coming to work each day.
In moments of conflict, I like to remind my team of this reality. Like most things in life, collaboration takes patience and practice. When a situation gets tense, it can be easy to let our emotions take the wheel and quickly lead us off track. We forget that we all want the same thing.
We all want the same thing. Time and time again, I'm amazed at how powerful this statement can be. Even when we don't see eye-to-eye, it's a reminder that we have the same intent.
When we accept this statement as fact, conversations immediately become more productive, and resolution soon feels within reach. If we discover a disconnect in what we want, we can take appropriate action, but we're not acting on assumptions.
I was a resilient little kid and sometimes, a little reckless. I once "escaped" home, just after learning to walk, and was promptly found meandering far down the street in my diaper. As a kindergartener, I pulled the fire alarm on the school bus, and all the kids had to evacuate. When asked why I did it, I responded: "I just wanted to see what would happen."
I look back on my childhood and admire my curiosity and determination. When I wanted to achieve something, there wasn't much I would let get in my way.
One day, I decided I was ready to ride my bike without training wheels. My Dad wasn't home so, I got help from a neighbor after unsuccessfully trying to remove the training wheels myself. I then proceeded to go full speed down the hill next to our house off a skate ramp. Luckily, I landed. From then on, I was confident I could ride on two wheels. Little did I know, the momentum of riding down a hill is non-existent on flat ground.
Not long after the training wheel operation, I distinctly remember falling on the sidewalk right outside my house. I didn't cry until I looked at my elbow and saw the blood. By this point, my older brother, Nick, had already run inside to get help from my parents.
I'm not sure why this memory of falling off my bike comes to mind now and again, but it does. It's fascinating to me that while the impact of falling didn't bother me much, the sight of blood was alarming.
As an adult, I may not be as reckless as I once was, but I still relate to my perseverance as a child. I've come to embrace the fall and take the long game when it comes to success. That said, what does the blood represent in my life today?
I began writing this note to find an answer to this question. I think the blood represents a truth we tell ourselves about how failure looks. Even when the fall doesn't hurt us; we feel hurt when we see the blood. It makes our failure feel real and can be discouraging.
Similar to the saying, if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? I wonder if I fell off my bike and my elbow didn't bleed, would I have immediately stood up and returned to riding, not a tear in my eye? Would I have acknowledged the fall?
When we fail an exam, what if we never saw the grade? When we lose a race, what if no one was declared a winner?
I'm not suggesting that we stop giving grades or declaring winners. I'm more interested in what would happen if we didn't.
This trip down memory lane has taught me is that it's not worth crying over the blood. Whether it's there or not doesn't change the situation; it only serves as a distraction. All that's important is we pick up, move on, and keep trying.
I'm currently reading The Millionaire Real Estate Agent, and in it, the author, Gary Keller, shares his thoughts on failure. I'll leave you with a relevant excerpt from my reading today:
"You can’t know what you’re really capable of doing until you try and never give up. In fact, many people have said that they believe that failure is not the worst thing in the world. They believe the very worst is not to try at all. It’s been observed that many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up."
Back in September, I wrote my first-ever newsletter about adopting Webflow at Barrel. At the time, I had recently learned the platform through the design and launch of this website. I thoroughly enjoyed the simplicity and control of the experience. I ended up doing the bulk of the design work right in Webflow after some initial light concept work in Figma.
Less than a year later, Barrel has launched 16 websites on Webflow, including our own, with a few currently in the works. The previous iteration of the Barrel website was on WordPress. One of the constant challenges we faced was making design updates and adding new pages on the fly. Now, I can wake up with an idea for the website and have it done by the time I finish my morning coffee. Yes, this has happened, and it's a beautiful thing.
There's a lot to love about Webflow. We're excited to continue our work exploring all it has to offer. Personally, it's been a pleasure to see our team embrace it and push what's possible.
I recently "sat down" with the folks at Webflow and shared more insight into how we use the platform and why we find it valuable for our process and clients.
Read the case study here: https://webflow.com/customers/barrel
In team workshops centered around sharing personal experiences and challenges, I've been experimenting with establishing norms. I introduced the idea in a team-wide coaching workshop weeks ago, and it seemed to open the group up to more honest conversation.
For many, speaking openly in front of a room or Zoom full of people is not easy. Even if there's trust among the group, it's hard to be vulnerable.
Establishing norms means that the group accepts each norm as fact. It means that the space they occupy is safe and free of judgment.
Here are the norms I've experimented with so far:
The times I've done this, I've displayed them at the start of the meeting and asked for volunteers to read each one. To me, this is a special moment. It's inspiring to hear your peers commit to these statements out loud. In our first workshop, I asked everyone to follow up in the chat with "yes" or "agreed." I love seeing the responses flow in as each norm is read.
I'm looking forward to evolving this idea further in future workshops. The hope is that, down the line, these will become commonplace. Even if we continue to recite them together, they'll be an integral part of our team's DNA.
Even with the best intentions, we are not always aware of how others interpret what we say or do. In last Tuesday's note, I wrote about how a simple question made an employee feel that a co-worker was dismissing them.
Since then, I've been interested in uncovering what other responses may inadvertently elicit a similar feeling. Through my interactions over the week, I've compiled a list.
This list does not mean that we should walk on eggshells whenever we communicate with others. For me, it's simply about awareness. When I have a better idea of how I might come off, I can more proactively share context and ask questions to ensure what I'm saying is not misinterpreted.
When someone feels dismissed, they eventually feel afraid or insignificant. When someone feels this way, they either become scared to share their ideas or don't think anyone wants to hear them, so they stop providing input. When they shut down in this way, they get by on taking orders. When this happens, their heart isn't it, and that's the beginning of the end.
This morning, I re-discovered this excerpt from Tell to Win by Peter Guber (via Readwise):
“The best stories lead from the heart, not the mind.”
Initially, it resonated with me because it's an idea I revisit constantly when I write. But as I sat with the statement longer, it began to take on new meaning.
Look at what happens when you omit the best stories:
"Lead from the heart, not the mind."
Notice the word lead. It is not about acting emotionally. It is about pursuing our instincts, not second-guessing ourselves or overthinking what we feel.
Our mind is what holds us back. It worries about what others will think. It fears the discomfort of telling the truth. It sidesteps momentary pain for short-term pleasure. All along, our heart knows we are making the wrong choice, but when we lead with our mind, our heart takes a back seat.
When it comes to communication, collaboration, and just purely interacting with other humans, I cannot think of a better mantra. At home, at work, in life.
Last Friday, I shared a new essay, Building Teams with TLC. I can't tell you how good it felt to hit the publish button! The framework has been a work-in-progress throughout my time building out the design team at Barrel. Until last year, these concepts only existed in my head. While the team was living them every day, it became challenging to chart the future without visualizing the current reality.
In October 2020, I wrote about visualizing project staffing models and how powerful it was to align with the team. This exercise was the beginning of the framework.
From there, I continued my work codifying other core concepts as I planned for the next stage of my team. Through the process, I found that their application was universal, which led me to document and share them with you.
Since publishing the framework, it has been fun to get feedback from within the team and peers beyond Barrel. Just yesterday, I enjoyed hearing how one of our team members used the Best Fit Activities Diagram to help delineate roles when conducting a website audit at the start of a project. See below.
Whether you’re in the process of building a team, scaling an existing one, or even an individual contributor on a team today, I hope the TLC framework brings you new insights on the power of creating a clear team structure.
If you decide to give TLC a try or have questions/feedback, I'd love to hear! Feel free to shoot me an email.
Interested in a TLC template? I'm planning to create templates for each of the framework's components. Sign up here and you'll be the first to receive them when they're ready.
Sometimes, we miss the mark. It happens.
Unfortunately, we missed the mark with one of our clients this week. While I'm not intimately involved with the project or on calls, talking it through with the designer reminded me of a powerful lesson.
Let's take a look at the situation.
We present the designs via Zoom. We're super excited about what we've done. Luckily, the client loves the look and interactivity of the work. Check. The issue? They feel like we failed to capture the unique selling points of the product. They admit that they have some work to do in gathering the content, but at the same time, we know it's our job to guide them.
The client does not provide additional feedback. They say, "we provided all we have to say during the call."
We regroup and make revisions, focused on creating a page that clearly outlines what the product offers and why it's unique.
We present the revised designs, once again via Zoom. Within minutes of the call, the client lets us know this is not what they're looking for; it's feeling very sales-y and off-brand. We finish walking through the designs and end the call.
The internal team does not feel great, and we assume the client does not either. The team sleeps on it (some lose sleep over it) then regroup the next day.
In round 1, we nailed the visual but missed the why. In round 2, we nailed the why but missed the visual. In round 3, all we have to do is find the perfect combination of both. Right? We take a step back and revisit the structure with a wireframe. We send it to the client and ask for feedback.
As I write this note, we're still waiting to hear what they have to say before we take it back into design.
So, besides the client being unhappy, what's the issue here?
The client's feedback was reactive on our calls because that's what we asked of them. We did make room for follow-up but from their perspective, they said all they needed to say. Our process did not create space for the client to spend time with the work. Caught up in finding a way forward, we did not re-align with the client on exactly what they're hoping to see. Outcome? We're shooting in the dark.
As demonstrated in this situation, clients often see our work for the first time on calls. When they love it, this can work out fine. When they have feedback, which is inevitable, it's hard for them to give meaningful insights after spending just ~30 minutes with the work.
Many times, this means they regroup offline and send written feedback a couple of days later. In situations like this, we may not get anything more. From there, we have to jump on a second call to make sure we understand the feedback or share revised designs.
If we could do this all over again, I'd suggest we have the second meeting, first. A topic I wrote about in my newsletter in February.
Send the designs the day before the first call, outline the key ideas, and ask for initial thoughts. Give the client time to sit with it and gather their thoughts.
When they provide feedback, we may even have time to address it before the first call. Now we're that much further along. If the client is unhappy with the direction, we can cancel the meeting to revisit the work or get on a call to talk it through.
Either way, the meeting we'd typically have second is the one we have first. Not only do we save everyone's time, but we also invite more thoughtful feedback, and in the end, we're more likely to hit the mark by the first meeting.
I'm confident we'll get this project back on track. In the meantime, I'm excited to apply this thinking more actively across all current and upcoming projects.
Yesterday, I ended the workday feeling off like I might be getting sick. Dana suggested we take a walk outside and take advantage of the warm weather. After a short walk and an impromptu Pomegranate Recharge shake from Juice Press, I started coming back to life.
Whenever I'm not feeling well, I'm on the fence about working out. Unless I'm clearly ill, I usually push myself to do it anyway and feel glad I did afterward. Sunday and Monday were rest days, so I was anxious to get my heart rate up.
I decided to repeat a workout from September 15, 2020, ironically a Tuesday.
Part A, 4 Rounds of:
Part B, 4 Rounds for Time:
I increased the weight for a few of the movements. From 35# to 40# for the DB Single-Arm Kneeling Press and DB Rows. From 40# to 52.5# for the Sumo DB Deadlift.
I'll admit, there was a second there on Part B where I wondered if I should have stuck with the original weight! In the end, I powered through, and it was well worthwhile. I was feeling good until I noticed my time for Part B in September...
In September, I completed Part B in 7 minutes, 55 seconds. Last night, my time was 13 minutes, 23 seconds. What... the...? For one, I should have looked at the time ahead of the workout. I love trying to beat an old time. But more importantly, why was I so slow?
In these moments, I find it hard not to be frustrated. Annoyed, I immediately dismissed how I felt pre-workout and the increase in weight. In a group workout setting, my coach or friends would remind me of these circumstances. Without that, I needed some other way to understand the discrepancy.
So what did I do?
Here's what I gathered:
For me, tracking like this is how I know I'm staying on the right path and making progress. In a situation like this, it makes all of the difference.
Discovering that my stats in September were close and slightly better than now, I could more confidently deduce that my DB weight increase and overall physical state were the factors driving the increase in my Part B time.
One question that I wish I could answer is: what did I eat that day? I'd love to understand if my diet had any impact on my time. I used to track my diet in MyFitnessPal. Since learning what I need to maintain my weight, I've stopped. Maybe I'll pick that up again soon. More data = more insights.
Today, I repeated a workout from August and beat my time by 26 seconds. No increase in weight, but I'll take it.
I was chatting with an employee recently who shared a challenge they often face when giving feedback to others. They mentioned that when the response is "Can you be more specific about an example where this took place?" when they give feedback, they feel like their feedback is being dismissed or questioned. It's as though they have to prove that their feedback is worthy of discussion or "correct," leaving them feeling unmotivated.
I never thought about this perspective. It makes a lot of sense. I'm guilty of it myself, and since surfacing it, I've noticed it happening in conversations daily.
What's interesting about this interaction is that, most times, both people want the same thing; to work better together. However, when they communicate, their unique context gets in the way of the message.
It reminds me of a classic rom-com where the couple breaks up because of a misunderstanding, only to later realize they made a mistake. As the viewer, you know that neither of them wants the relationship to end; they just have no idea how the other is feeling. You wish you could step through the TV into their unrealistic, picturesque NYC apartment and scream, "Hey!!! She DOES want to be with you. She didn't answer your text because she thought you had feelings for your ex."
I took this experience as an opportunity to explore the possible context that surrounds each person during the exchange. In this example, the feedback is between a junior designer and an account director.
The feedback: "I find it hard to get a word in when you're in meetings. Over time, this has made me feel like my opinion doesn't matter."
Junior Designer: Giver
Account Director: Receiver
After the Junior Designer gives the feedback, the Account Director says: "I had no idea. Can you be more specific about an example where you felt this way?"
Imagine how this might go if neither shares what they're thinking? If they do?
When it comes to feedback, I find it liberating to put all of my relevant context on the table; so the other person has a chance to get inside my head. It can be hard to be this vulnerable, but the relief afterward is always worthwhile.
In terms of asking for examples, I don't think it's unreasonable when receiving feedback; it's just good to consider how the question may be received.
When giving feedback, this insight has been a welcome reminder to be as specific as possible. Come prepared with the examples before ever being asked. It's natural to want to give high-level, vague feedback in fear of discomfort, but that can be hard for others to take action on.
Here are some related posts on feedback:
Every Wednesday, I meet one-on-one with our three senior designers for one hour.
Until recently, the format has been open-ended. Sometimes, we spend most of the time reviewing designs. Other times, we go deep on themes such as role definition on projects or how to distill client feedback.
In recent weeks, I noticed a trend. If there wasn't much activity on their projects, they wouldn't prepare much to discuss. Early Wednesday, I'd receive a message: Hey, I don't have much to discuss. We can probably end early.
While we'd always end up using the full hour anyway, it was clear that the meeting structure was worth revisiting. Last week, I rolled out a new format. Here's a look:
Highlight of the Week (5-10 min)
Project Review (30 min)
Open Discussion (remaining time)
The new format is meant to uncover thoughts and ideas that may not otherwise get surfaced. While we still have time to review designs, the goal is to make sure we leave time for open discussion. If there's nothing pressing on the designer's mind, the list of questions can be used as a guide. Whichever question feels most relevant is where we start.
We're only one week in, but the questions have already proven to be incredibly insightful. With shared notes in place, I'm excited to see how their answers to the same question evolve.
Every Friday, I make time to review my notes and tie up any loose ends as I close out the workweek. A helpful tool for making sure this is not a big lift is the two-minute rule, one of my favorite productivity tips from David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done.
The rule is simple. For any new tasks that can be done in less than two minutes, complete them immediately. I practice this habit all week long, making it easy to welcome the weekend with open arms.
Here’s what I learned when I adopted it:
In the words of David Allen, “the two-minute rule is magic.”
In my teenage years, it was rare to find me without a guitar. If I wasn't in school or working, I was in my room writing new songs or practicing in the unfinished basement of my best friend turned drummer turned best man, Kyle, or performing for a room of people. We played everywhere; the local bookstore, Sweet Sixteens, the neighborhood cafe, a pottery studio, an old record store, restaurants, fundraisers, you name it.
I'm grateful to have had a supportive family who attended just about every concert. Even to this day, they'll gladly make the trip to NYC to see me perform. Before I could drive, my dad would typically accompany me on his own for performances on weeknights. Many of these were open mic nights, aka a lot of fun and a lot of waiting.
As an adult, I look back fondly on these memories with my dad. We found ways to pass the time together, and in the process, I think we formed an unsaid bond. After performing, he'd give me feedback. I'd make mental notes. Most nights, he'd also record the performance, so I'd review it when I got home. More notes. Rinse and repeat.
The more that I performed, the more comfortable I got, the more I wanted to perform for more people.
As recollections of past performances pass through my mind, there is one that always stands out. It wasn't because it was our best performance or we had the largest audience. It was quite the opposite. I can't place the venue, but the turnout was much smaller than we had expected. I had high hopes, and regretfully, I let my disappointment show on stage.
Seeing my frustration, my dad came over to talk to me after a few songs. I don't remember him saying much except this: Always perform like you're in an arena.
It was a reminder that I was performing for myself, just as much, if not more, than my audience. It didn't matter if there were two or 2,000 people in the audience; what mattered was that I gave it my all. For those who did choose to support me, why give them any less than my best?
This statement stuck with me. I still find power in its application today. Over the years, I've come to view life as one big performance. Every day, we perform for our significant other, friends, family, co-workers, clients, etc.
Performance is about being true to yourself and consistently striving for growth. For this to be true, we have to perform for ourselves before we perform for others. We have to want to get up and make a special breakfast for our family because we enjoy seeing them smile. We have to want to design an incredible website experience because we know it will take the client's business to the next level, and that excites us. The minute we stop performing for ourselves and start performing for others, we begin losing sight of why we ever got up on stage.
As I write this, I don't know who will take the time to read it. When I let that get in my way, I find that I rarely make it this far. I become focused on the stories that I think others want to read, not the stories I want to tell. The stories that I know best and make me, me.
Teams are special because collectively, they can produce work that no team member could create alone. Teams represent a range of skills, expertise, passions, and perspective.
When working on a project with a team, it is natural to get caught up in the details without ever surfacing relevant background about ourselves and our teammates. Yes, our job is to create an impact for the client or customer; we must focus on them and learn as much as possible. That said, imagine the value we could make by uncovering the connections that our teammates have with the work and we have with each other.
How helpful would it be to know that your teammate spent 15 years as a personal trainer when working with a fitness client; or that the developer on the project is studying animation?
Here are some questions to consider when starting work with a new team. Not only can these questions help uncover important context about the team, but through those discoveries, they can also create a deeper understanding of the work itself and make for more productive collaboration.
A few weeks ago, I discovered Michael Chernow's podcast, Born or Made. Michael is best known for founding NYC restaurant, The Meatball Shop. In a recent episode with guest Will Ahmed (founder/CEO, Whoop), Michael shared a ritual for handling stressful moments:
"I do something called the 'S.T.O.P. Smile' ... If I'm feeling overwhelmed, which happens often, I literally stop, close my eyes, and smile from ear to ear for 15 seconds."
S.T.O.P. stands for:
As I listened to the podcast, I couldn't help giving Michael's theory a try. He was right; smiling is transformative.
Michael describes the ritual as tapping into his serotonin. Out of curiosity, I turned to Google to learn more. According to this article (among many others), there's science behind every smile:
"When you smile, your brain releases tiny molecules called neuropeptides to help fight off stress. Then other neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and endorphins come into play too. The endorphins act as a mild pain reliever, whereas the serotonin is an antidepressant. One study even suggests that smiling can help us recover faster from stress and reduce our heart rate."
I always remind myself to take a deep breathe when a situation gets tense but I never thought to smile. I've enjoyed putting this simple ritual into practice.
Feedback has been on my mind a lot lately. It was a theme in my performance reviews at the start of the year, I just completed reading An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, and last week, we kicked off a six-month coaching program centered on building a culture around feedback and personal growth (featured in my newsletter today).
A common complaint I hear from employees is: I don't get enough direct feedback from my peers. While I'm grateful to see employees crave feedback, feedback is no one's responsibility but our own.
I love to reframe this complaint into a question: what can I do to get the type of feedback I'm looking for? If we all actively seek out feedback, they'll be plenty of feedback to go around.
We often confuse "How did that go?" after a meeting with asking for feedback. We're vague, so what do we get? More vagueness in return. The team mutters:
We leave the meeting with some interpretation of how it went and go about our day.
In the future, Jasmine is asked to do a peer review of our performance. She mentions how she wishes we took more of a lead in meetings. We get frustrated. Why didn't Jasmine share this when I asked?
The trouble is that we never asked...
Getting constructive feedback requires specificity. Specificity is taking How do you think that meeting went? and going deeper. What do you really want to know? Try: Do you think I was effective in explaining how the client's vision informed our approach?
Specificity can be challenging in more ways than one. It requires focus and vulnerability. But once you get in the swing of it, the benefits greatly exceed any temporary discomfort.
I was chatting with a freelance designer recently, and we got to talking about the creative process. I shared an exercise we do with our clients to kick off the design phase of any project. We call it the Creative Alignment Workshop. I was surprised at how interested they were in giving it a try and realized, hey - maybe I should share it with others?
Before I explain what it is and how it works, let's start from the beginning. Several years ago, we had a client who kept telling us to make the website feel warmer. After maybe... ten iterations of the homepage, we realized that we must be missing something. We jumped on a call and asked them to show us what warm looked like to them. They showed us a bunch of websites with images of people. Here we were experimenting with one warm tone after another in our designs. Wrong warm!
You may be wondering: Why hadn't we asked them this sooner? Why didn't the client ask for people earlier? That, unfortunately, we'll never know, but what I do know is that we were clearly not creatively aligned.
I learned two lessons through this experience:
The Creative Alignment Workshop was born out of these lessons. The objective is to align on a shared design vocabulary among Barrel and the client team. It is simple, effective, and clients love it.
As early as possible, before any design has begun, we take what we know so far about the client (brand book, existing website, website references) to start gathering imagery that we feel could be a good fit for the new direction. While we may have early ideas of the directions we want to explore, the goal is to gather a range of creative samples that demonstrate color, typography, imagery, illustration, and any other relevant design elements out in the world. These creative samples can include everything from websites to posters. Aim for a minimum of 30.
We add everything we gathered into a presentation deck. Don't labor over the order. Keep it random. Only include one creative sample on each slide.
When it comes to the workshop, we like to make it feel like a conversation, so the format is casual. Typically it lasts one hour. The designer on the project clicks through each slide and briefly describes what they see in their language. The ask of the client? Talk about what you see, what you like, and what you don't like. Slide by slide, the client opens up more and more. It's like some sort of creative truth serum. Everyone vigorously takes notes on what they hear.
Here's an example of an exchange:
Do you see how differently the Designer and Client talk about the same image?
As you can see in the example dialogue, it is pretty amazing what you can learn with a simple conversation. In one hour, you get a sense of where the client sees the project going creatively, any visual motifs they love or hate, and hopefully a few different areas to explore.
To be clear, the idea here is not for the client to create the directions for you. The objective is to set you up with as much information as possible before you get to designing. Maybe you decide that, conceptually, yellow is a must-explore color, and that's fine - at least you know that the client may not be so open to it.
We have done this several ways over the years, and sometimes, we change it with the client. Overall, we have had success by following up with two or three mood boards that bring together the creative samples into unique themes. We include notes from the discussion and give the client a chance to add any final remarks before we get to work.
If you decide to give this a try, I'd love to hear about it: email@example.com.
When I can't find what I deem to be the right words, I default to prefacing my thoughts with statements like:
At its core, this is a defense mechanism.
The pro is that I'm not holding my thoughts captive; I'm sharing them. An idea can be world-changing, but it is worth nothing if no one hears it.
The con? I'm getting in my own way.
Looking back, I see that these statements add no value. While they may create relief for me temporarily, they serve no purpose in delivering my message.
Looking ahead, I am making an effort to catch myself and pause. Those few seconds in silence, while brief, are powerful. It is just enough to take a breath, collect myself, and speak with poise and clarity.
In my first-ever yoga class, I remember the instructor referring to the session as our practice. I now realize that this is common, but at the time, it stood out to me. As a beginner, it made me feel welcome. So much power in the subtly of those words. I wasn't coming to the class and expecting to leave as an expert. I wanted to give yoga a try and leave equipped with more experience than when I entered.
As a participant and spectator of growth, I find it all too easy to fall into the trap of framing our growth areas as a skill we must master in a finite amount of time.
We declare that we need to:
Maybe Amazon's influence on our culture plays a role? We know we can order a pack of Gatorade today and have it in time for our workout tomorrow. We get what we want when we want it. If I recognize that I need this skill, I can attain it soon, right?
We end up working on our weaknesses focused only the outcome. We forget about the journey. We get frustrated when our package doesn't come as quickly as we hoped. Pressure builds. This mindset leads to anxiety and inaction.
Growth suddenly looks impossible. Becoming a better listener now feels like climbing El Capitan with no equipment. We can see the top, but we can't make out the trail. We get anxious at the thought of exploring unknown territory. It feels better not to worry, so we choose not to act.
The truth is that we can't expect change overnight. Alex Honnold didn't decide to climb El Capitan on Monday and get it done on Tuesday. He put in the preparation. He put in the practice.
"I talk about how much preparation goes into it, and how you take something that starts out totally crazy and impossible and turn it into something that is not only possible and likely but inevitable.” (Alex Honnold)
Our growth areas will always be a work-in-progress. Even when we progress, there will be days when we regress. Weeks. Months. Years. We have to stumble to get up again. Fail to learn, learn to grow. Even when we reach the top, we set our sights on the next climb.
Much like my yoga experience, we are all beginners in one way or another. I know I can't be perfect every day. I know that I can't expect to order a new strength for next-day delivery. However, I do know that I can practice.
By reframing our ambitions, we remind ourselves of what is important, showing up daily and giving them our best shot. We can declare to:
Our growth areas become our practice. What doesn't get better with practice?
You can be the one to speak up
...when a topic feels uncomfortable...
...when it feels like you have an unpopular opinion...
...when there's an elephant in the room...
...when you feel like context is missing...
...when someone is left out...
...when you don't understand...
...when the direction doesn't feel right...
...when the next step is unclear...
because chances are you're not the only one.
Note: In those moments when I feel like I'm on my own in a room (or Zoom) full of people, I find this to be a comforting reminder.
When we feel at our best, we immerse ourselves in the activities that make us feel good. We are on top of the world. This mightx mean cooking our favorite dish, entertaining friends, going for a bike ride, or sketching in our notebook.
When we feel down, it can feel like the world is crumbling around us. We turn to our vices. We feel bad for ourselves and think we deserve this. This might mean drinking a couple of bottles of wine, binge-watching TV into the wee hours of the morning, or eating poorly.
The truth is that if we are feeling down, our vices are the last place to turn. While we may feel some initial satisfaction, they will only bring us down, likely leaving us in a more troubled state than where we started. Our health declines, we start feeling bad about ourselves, and soon, we regret our decisions. Why not focus on the activities that make us feel good? In these low moments, I think we face two challenges: motivation to take the first step and clarity on what that step is.
While I haven't yet read Matthew McConaughey's new book Greenlights, he talks about journaling as a pathway for happiness in interviews promoting it. He believes we spend too much time analyzing our failures and neglect to understand what life looks like when we are happiest. Through journaling, McConaughey can go back in time to peel back the layers of the happiest moments in his life. How was he using his time? What was his mindset? Equipped with these insights, he can use them to get back on track.
This outlook is inspiring. I have applied it to my own life by taking stock of what a baseline of happiness looks like for me each week. What activities make me feel like I am moving ahead? What do I need to do to go to bed each night feeling accomplished? The answers to these questions are the foundation for my habits.
No matter what is happening around me, good or bad, I make it my duty to maintain these healthy habits. When I feel on top of the world, they bring me added joy. When I am feeling down, they give me fuel to push ahead.
To take this a step further, I have also applied it to the way my team operates. I believe that every team has a collective energy that can be maintained with their own set of healthy habits or rituals. Over the years, I have created of number of them. Some have evolved, others remain the same. Regardless of how busy we are or how hectic the week feels, we stick to what energizes us. Some examples:
We have a motto among the Barrel partners: no good days, no bad days, just days. Prioritizing healthy habits has helped bring some truth to this motto every day, at home and at work.
If an employee comes to me with feedback about another employee, we first unpack it together. We then discuss how to address it directly with the other person. There was a time when I would act as a middleman, taking the feedback to the person or their manager. While this approach may feel like progress at the time, it rarely leads to long-term growth.
The employees need to find common ground on their own. A candid feedback conversation is a start to doing just that. It is an opportunity to get everything out in the air. Both sides can dig deeper, understanding each other's context to improve future collaboration.
In some situations, I will mediate the conversation. I offer to do this if the feedback is particularly challenging, or I sense that there is some level of discomfort between the employees (rarely work together, junior <> director relationship). With trust from both sides, a third-party can be powerful in addressing the elephant in the room and making sure that all truths are brought to the surface.
When an outcome does not meet our expectations, it is not uncommon to generalize what went wrong, blending feedback on people with feedback on the process.
I like to look at feedback as a deck of cards. As the giver of feedback, we are the dealer. It is our job to address our feedback deck one card at a time, sorthing them out on the table.
By unloading the deck, we can get to the core of what went wrong and better understand how to address each of our cards. With all the cards arranged on the table, the next step is to deal them, to deliver the feedback to the right people.
In tense situations, we often make the mistake of dealing all of our feedback cards to one person. When we do so, that person may come off as defensive. From our perspective, it feels like they're not listening to what we have to say or making excuses.
Maybe this person is not good at taking feedback, but maybe it's on us. We haven't sorted through the deck before dealing out the cards.
This exercise helps bring calm to what can feel like chaos. It creates clarity. Without it, we risk our feedback getting lost on the receiver, overshadowed by cards that weren't meant for them.
Ad·vice: guidance or recommendations offered with regard to prudent future action.
Some people ask for advice because they think they're supposed to.
Some people don't ask for advice because they don't think they can.
Some people ask for advice without ever planning to take it.
Some people need advice but are afraid to ask.
Some people need advice but don’t know where to go.
Some people get advice they don’t need.
Some people don’t think they have advice to give so they stay quiet.
Some people have advice to give but are afraid to give it.
Some people have advice to give but no one to give it to.
Some people take advice they shouldn’t take.
Some people are afraid of the advice they know they should take.
Some people interpret information as advice.
Some people interpret advice as information.
We all know some people.
We're all some people at some point.
Note: I wrote this after a conversation with a friend who told me about a workshop they attended. The purpose of the workshop was to share and learn from the experiences of like-minded individuals. One attendee seemed to come with no intention of taking advice, dismissing any feedback from their peers. Why were they there?
With every passing year, I see my relationships with friends and family evolve. We're all dealing with different challenges. Love. Finance. Career. Etc. Life will always have its ups and downs. I wish we were more forward with asking for and offering advice. Sometimes, I think pride gets in the way. I know, in the past, it has for me. In these situations, pride will not get us very far. These days, I'm making more of a deliberate effort to break down these walls and be mindful not to put up my own.
Note-taking is known to improve writing skills, subject matter comprehension, and recall of core concepts.
Note-taking is beneficial when we read.
Note-taking is beneficial when we listen.
Note-taking is beneficial when we think.
While working in a group setting, it is key to take your own notes. It doesn't matter if the presenter will be sharing their deck or if there is a designated note-taker. We all process information differently. Thoughts are constantly racing through our heads. If we don't capture them, they are lost.
Shared notes is a recent initiative to build more of a culture around writing and note-taking at Barrel.
We centralize shared notes in Notion. We have a dashboard for the agency and every discipline. Each dashboard includes resources, references, and shared notes. Shared notes are written collaboratively or autonomously. Anyone can contribute through edits or comments.
Initially, shared notes was an effort among the partners to promote deeper thinking, share ideas, and make our "in-person" (aka Zoom) interactions more productive.
After moving the team to Notion, we started experimenting with shared notes beyond the partners. It has been just over a month and has already proven to be invaluable.
Here are some of the benefits we've experienced so far:
If you're interested in giving shared notes a try, I've created a Notion template here to get started. Enjoy.
We have all heard some version of:
“Treat others the way you want to be treated.”
I don’t agree.
The phrase suggests that we act on our assumptions, making no effort to understand each other or gain a new perspective. This is not the way for kindness or collaboration.
I'd like to propose a rewrite:
“Treat others the way they want to be treated. Ask, listen, learn, understand.”
Ray Lamontagne's songwriting has inspired me for years now. There's a specificity in every song that draws you in and leaves you searching for meaning.
Over the weekend, I was pleased to discover that Ray released a new album called Monovision last summer. This one is particularly special. Ray wrote, produced, and performed every song at his home studio. Moved by this new batch of songs, I went searching for more background and was surprised to find a rare interview with the notably low-profile songwriter.
Listening to Ray speak is as soothing as hearing him sing. In the interview, Ray likens his process to catching fireflies.
"I don't like to think about music all the time. I wait til it comes to me and asks for my attention. The other side of that is that when it does ask for your attention, you have to give it. I could be in the middle of the grocery store and a melody will come knocking ... [these melodies are] like fireflies, you see them for a second then they're gone. If you don't catch it, you won't give another chance."
When asked how Ray develops a song, he replies "I try to just get out of the way." He speaks as though the songs are in control, guiding him where to go.
As a songwriter, I cherish those moments where I sit down with a guitar and the words flow through me. Lately, as a writer, I find myself struggling to find my flow. I've had a hard time letting an idea come to life, too focused on writing and re-writing "to get it right."
Ray goes on to share his past struggles with songwriting, almost leaving it all behind years ago.
"In life in general, I was driving myself with a negative, self-critical voice. ... At a certain point, it became clear that it was not healthy. It was taking all the joy out of everything. It took me a couple of years to figure that out. No music, just being home trying to figure out what was going on. ... [It's the playfulness] that I was really quashing in the early years of songwriting. I would just crush any playfulness out of tunes because of my self-criticism."
Sometimes we look at our idols as gods. We forget that they, too, are human. I find comfort in Ray's story and a renewed energy to find the playfulness in my writing.
I curate a song, playlist, podcast, or... vibe for just about every moment of my life.
When I brush my teeth, go for a drive, step out for a walk, cook, exercise, play a board game, write... I always seek out the perfect soundtrack. Am I in the mood to relax? Am I in need of a lift? Am I in the mood to learn? Am I in the mood to think?
What I've noticed is that I'm not always aware of my mood. I've enjoyed using this as an opportunity to pause and acknowledge how I'm feeling. If Dana is with me, I do my best to capture her vibe as well. It's a fun challenge.
I hadn't thought much about this tendency until I noticed how I've subconsciously applied it to reading.
For some time, I carried the belief that I could only read one book at a time. I don't know where I got this idea from... I guess I couldn't imagine following more than one storyline and enjoying it.
After buying a Kindle Paperwhite (big fan of the easy highlights and waterproof body) at the suggestion of my friend, Max, my view changed entirely. I purchased a few eBooks to get started, and suddenly, I was reading three at once.
To make a better habit of reading, I started reading every morning for 30 minutes after waking up. Since the act of reading was non-negotiable, I found myself tapping into my mood. What story do I feel like getting into this morning? Am I in the mood to think about my role as a manager? Would I prefer to join a father and son for a ride on their motorcycle?
Looking back, I was reading less because if I wasn't in the mood to read the ONE book I had chosen, I wouldn't read. Now, I'm leveraging my DJ tendencies and loving every minute of it. Books are just another part of my soundtrack.
Today I ran our Monthly Team Meeting with the Barrel team. Each month, we use this meeting to share team changes, celebrate wins, discuss recent launches, and catch up on important announcements.
Since going remote, it's been a challenge to replicate the energy of being in-person but I've come to realize that's the wrong mindset. It's not about once was, it's about what can be.
With this mindset, I started experimenting with a few adjustments (read here for more insight on the driver of these changes). Today it paid off. Engagement was at all time high and the Zoom chat was on fire.
Below are some of the recent updates:
Here's to getting 1% better every step of the way!
"Often the only way to make a hard decision is to come back to the purpose of what you’re doing."
This concept been on my mind a lot lately. The past year has brought on a number of changes to the way we operate as a team. As we solicit feedback from the team, this is a good reminder to take a step back. It is easy to react and quickly implement changes that feel good in the moment but may not have the intended impact down the line.
I've recently found writing to help provide clarity. This means making the time to capture the purpose of every initiative in writing from the start. What to we hope to accomplish? Why are we doing it?
Later, when faced with feedback, the writing acts as a guide. Instead of acting impulsively, we can recalibrate and decide how to address next steps. Have we lost sight of our original purpose? Has that purpose changed? What can get us closer to what where we want to go?