Effective feedback: Thirty Percent Vs Ninety Percent

When I was first getting started as an entrepreneur, co-founding a business with someone who I had relatively recently met, I’d consistently run into a challenge getting feedback.  I’d have built a prototype, have some ideas for what we could do with it, and take it to my cofounder to show it to her and ask her thoughts.  We’d almost inevitably get bogged down looking at and talking about details that had nothing to do with the prototype itself – this font isn’t right, why is this other part of the site interacting with it this way, etc.

This went on for quite a while, and was frustrating to both of us.  I’d just want some direction on the single item I was working on, and she wanted to clean up and polish all of the other things around it.  Alternatively, sometimes I’d have something that was just about ready to run and the conversation would veer into fundamental directional questions.  Until one day, we stumbled on the concept of thirty percent feedback vs ninety percent feedback, which I believe I first found on the 42 floors blog.

The basic idea is this – Whenever you’re asking for feedback, make clear if you’re closer to 30% finished or 90% finished.  The feedback you’ll get will be wildly different.

Thirty Percent Feedback

Thirty percent feedback is strategic, it is big picture… it answers the question ‘Am I heading the right direction?’  and because it is early enough that there is time to course correct, it has room for divergent thinking, opening up the problem domain and exploring radically different options.

Because it is early in the process, it glosses over fine details and polish, knowing those will be addressed later.  Thirty percent feedback is possibly the most difficult to ask for, because it involves putting yourself out there with work that you know is not ready, is not polished, but it is also often the most helpful feedback to get.  It can help you sidestep a lot of wasted effort, and give you truly powerful strategic insights.

Ninety Percent Feedback

Ninety percent feedback is more tactical, it is detail oriented, and it tries to catch every little issue so that nothing makes it out into production.  This is the time for closing things down, tweaking final copy, and making everything pixel perfect.

You Need Both

The place I think this is the most important is in dealing with stakeholders.  The most painful thing in the world is when you think you’re at 90% complete, you go to a stakeholder, and they’re giving you massive directional changes.  Suddenly you’re back at square one, and you’ve wasted a ton of time and energy polishing something that doesn’t end up getting used.  This is a natural consequence of skipping your 30 percent feedback checkin.

Almost as painful is going to someone for 30% feedback and having them get all caught up in the details, not able to step back and take a look at the bigger picture, and acting as if you’re delivering shoddy work.  Its not shoddy, its just only 30% finished!

So what I’ve learned to do is engage both – you engage all of your stakeholders early and often in the process, as soon as you have any sort of idea or direction, but you make clear the stage you’re at and what type of feedback you’re looking for.  That way, by the time you get to the 90% feedback not only do you have much more high quality work, but they’ve been coming along for the ride the whole time.


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Moving From Overwhelm to Breakthrough

Not long ago, I had a meeting with my boss, who also happens to be one of my mentors, and after some other discussion asked him one of my favorite open-ended questions:

What should I be thinking about that I’m not yet?

After a few moments of thought, he started drawing a diagram that I’ve roughly recreated below:

work and impact

He highlighted that I, and many of our team, are operating in the middle area on this graph.  We’re working hard, we’re efficient, and we’re getting a lot done.  We feel like we’re just barely keeping up, but we are keeping up and we’re making serious progress.  He also pointed out that some of our team members who’ve struggled, and sometimes left, got stuck in the left hand side of the graph, feeling like they were pouring work in and never able to get ahead.

Then he challenged me.

I want you to figure out how to get you and everyone on your team over into the right side of this graph.

Moving from Holding On to Breaking Through

Operating on the right side of the graph means getting more impact for less effort.  It means optimizing not just for efficiency but for effectiveness.  It means rethinking goals and tasks to create radically different strategies.  Lets take a look at what this can mean in different areas.

Breakthroughs in Software Engineering

Breaking through in engineering means finding ways of overcoming the ‘Not Invented Here’ syndrome and leveraging existing tools and libraries.  It means boiling things down to the root of the problem and creating radically less code to solve the same number of problems.  It means learning and using the most efficient frameworks and investing time and energy in your tooling.  It means automating your tests, streamlining your deploys, and biasing every project towards creating something that can be reused and repurposed.

Breakthroughs in Customer Support

Breaking through in customer support means finding ways to move from the 1 plus 1 plus 1 model of supporting customers to a leveraged and scalable one.  It means taking problems that come up over and over again and writing documentation that clearly resolves them.  It means taking a set of individual customers and creating a place where they can converse, create community, and help solve each others problems.

Breakthroughs in Marketing

Breaking through in marketing means turning your best customers into your best evangelists. It means empowering others to write your content, spread your message, and bring new people into the fold.  It means finding creative ways to connect and reuse your content and materials across multiple mediums and locations.  It is creating self-perpetuating material that engage people, causing them to interact and create new material that further engages people and spins up the marketing flywheel.

Breakthroughs in Management

Breaking through in management is successfully engaging in this exercise with each of your team members.  It is moving away from making sure tasks get done and moving towards reimagining productivity and effectiveness.  Away from keeping checklists and towards teaching and mentoring.  In essence, away from management and towards leadership of empowered team members that self-manage.

Where else can we break through?

As I’m mulling on this more and more, I find myself wondering how I can apply this perspective to other parts of my life.  What does breakthrough parenting look like?  I live my parenting life somewhere between the left and middle of this spectrum, more often on the left.  What does breakthrough fitness look like?  Breakthrough relationships?

Leave me a comment, I’d love to engage on these ideas.

Act Learn Plan – How to Think Like an Entrepreneur

We spend 12 to 16 years of our lives learning without any sense of what the reality when we finally get to acting will be like. We create an expectation that people will be able to plan their lives, and somehow know what they want to do before they have tried doing it.

This structure doesn’t work. Without the context of real things you have tried to do, there is no frame to hang all of the facts of learning.


Act first, as the basis for everything. As you push on the universe, it will push back, and from that pushing back you can then learn. From those learnings you can plan another action, but until you have encountered reality you cannot really plan for it. Does it hurt when the universe pushes back? Of course! But those are truly growing pains.

If you want to learn something, don’t study it, go out and try to do it. Think you want to become a web developer? Build a website. Not sure if you want to? Build a website. By the end you’ll have a pretty good idea if you want to become a web developer or not.


Now that you’ve spent some time pushing against the universe, you’ll be bruised.  You’ll have experienced failure.  You’ll have an intuitive sense for what is easy, what is hard, and where you need to learn.  Good.  Now learn!  Reflect!  Ask questions!  To say that acting is first does not mean that time spent learning is useless, now that you have the framework of experience to hang things on, your learning will be doubly valuable.


With the context of failure and the perspective of learning, now you have some chance of planning.  You may look at your experience and say, ‘That was great, I want more!’, or ‘That was terrible, I need to try something else’, but regardless you now will be able to base your planning on something real rather than the dream of what might be.

Your first time, you may still not be able to plan very far ahead.  You may be able to say “Yes, I want more of that, I need to look at what a career path looks like and get myself into the right job or courses”.  Or you may just be able to say “Not that!  Something new, what else calls me?”.  Whatever it is, plan as far as your vision can take you but don’t obsess, it is time to jump back into action.


Every time you go through this loop, your vision will extend a little further.  Your sight will start to go out beyond the next road and the long term goal will become a little clearer.

But please, lets stop this idea that college (or high school for that matter) students should be able to predict their future paths up to retirement.  And lets stop the idea that you need to plan out all of your next steps before you can take them.  You cannot steer a ship unless it is moving, you cannot predict your life without living it, and you won’t know what the universe is like until you try to put a dent in it and feel the pain of it pushing back.

Technical Leads

The skills that it takes to become a good engineer are not the same as what it takes to lead a team.

Let me tell you about a situation that I saw unfold before me recently. I’ve been consulting at Sony Electronics with a web software group there. The team lead was about to leave for a new position, and they had selected a successor, who I’ll call John. John is an excellent software engineer – he
regularly tackled challenging problems, was involved in architectural decisions, had demanding standards in code reviews, and was clearly the most senior full time engineer remaining on the team. Besides, except for me, and I was a part time consultant, no one else seemed even remotely ready.

John was interested in the new responsibility – it seemed like the next step in his career, not quite in management but starting to assume a leadership role – and while he was anxious about it he agreed to take it on. There were a few weeks remaining before the prior team lead was going to leave, so the plan was to transition him gradually, having him take on more and more responsibility over the next few weeks.

The challenges started almost immediately. Asked to lead a technical meeting to come up with a proposal, John faltered. He opened with a long rambling monologue that left noone in the room certain about what was trying to be accomplished. As he called for participation, there was first silence, then disjointed conversation. Eventually, his manager and myself spoke up to help guide the meeting and get it back on track. This would have been fine, had John been open to feedback about how to improve, but either due to defensiveness or due to a feeling that he had all of the skills he needed, he wouldn’t or couldn’t hear it.

The issues continued with additional meetings – when we met with the product owners to figure out details of the next release, John sat through the meeting saying very little. Questions about details, give and take about technical vs business tradeoffs, push back against irresponsible features, it all fell to other members of the room. When asked about it later he said that it was a ‘business’ meeting, and he wasn’t sure what to say.

The skills that it takes to become a good engineer are not the same as what it takes to lead a team.

This situation didn’t end well – after a few weeks of this, with the old team lead about to head out and the management feeling desperate, I was asked to co-lead the team with John. We worked together reasonably well, but it was always a little awkward and several months later he left the company for another position – purely technical – in the bay area.

With this experience freshly in mind, I’m now working to train the next team lead before I wrap up my time consulting with Sony. But it got me thinking about the skills that it takes to be an effective technical leader. They’re learnable, many of them are actually fairly concrete, but they’re not the same skills that it takes to become a good engineer.

I’ve learned them in a combination of being mentored, years of Toastmasters, and trial by fire as a startup CTO. But I wonder… where do we expect engineers to learn them? And from what I’ve seen, good team leads are even more rare than good engineers, so why aren’t we being more deliberate about training them?

Why aren’t more dads involved with childcare?

There was a recent Washington Post article about how the United State’s poor support for working parents leads to low levels of women in the workforce, and I’ve seen that first hand as I have extended family members who have chosen to leave the workforce because the cost of childcare would have been more than their current wages.

This is a huge issue, and I’m glad it is getting media attention.  But I have another question:  Why aren’t more dads involved in childcare?  

Is it because of a discrepancy in salaries?  Because women feel more attachment to their children?  I think these are red herrings, and the real answer has to do with societal expectations and role models.  Let’s look at why I think so…


One possibility is that there is a discrepancy in salaries – ie families are making the economic decision that losing the incremental income from the mother leaving work or working part time makes more sense than the same for the father.  But this doesn’t ring true to me – yes, there is a wage gap between men and women, but there is evidence that much of this is related to caregiving itself.  Studies have found between a 5% and 7% increase in the wage gap for mothers PER CHILD.

The reasons for this increase are many and complicated, but many have to do with the time taken for childcare itself.  This indicates to me that much of the wage gap is a RESULT of women being caretakers, not something that results in it.  Before children are on the scene, the salary gap is much smaller, and given the higher rates of college achievement among women now of childbearing age, I would guess that there are almost as many couples where the woman makes more than the man than vice versa.  Certainly it’s closer than the 10 to 1 ratio of stay at home moms vs stay at home dads.


Another possibility that has been raised is the difference in initial attachment – maybe mothers just feel closer to their babies than fathers do.  I think this too is mistaken – In fact nearly half of new mothers report report no genuine feelings for their child upon birth.  It can take up to 9 weeks for strong bonding to develop, a common (and unfortunate) source of guilt for the mother. It once again looks like we’re placing the cart before the horse:  Caring about a baby comes from caring for them, not the other way around!

No wonder fathers don’t feel as much attachment to their babies if they’re not being equal participants in caring for those babies.  But once again, why does that happen?


Now we get to where I think things are coming from.  We come from a past where men were the ones who earned salaries and held power, while women did neither of those things and cared for children.  Even though those days have passed – compared to men, women are now more likely to complete college, more likely to go to graduate school, and increasingly likely to compete and hold power in traditionally male dominated occupations – the expectations from those eras persist throughout our society.

We persist in holding up stereotypes of men as incompetent in the home, unable to do household tasks or take care of children.  And while it is acceptable (if not always economically feasible) to have a single earner household with a male breadwinner, families that reverse this and have a female breadwinner and a male caregiver face disrespect and even ridicule.  In fact there was even a recent study showing that father-specific programs that can create an ‘expectation’ of paternal involvement in the home result in far greater participation than generic ‘parental’ programs that apply equally to men and women.

Role Models

Finally, I want to talk about role models.  We suffer from a severe lack of visible, family-first male role models!  I’m talking men who are successful, visible, and talk openly about their involvement in their family and caregiving.  We are finally starting to get more visibility of “stay at home dads”, with a number of prominant “daddy bloggers” and mainstream media starting to pay attention, which is wonderful.  But I think we need more – Even in families with two working parents, women spend almost twice as much time on childcare and housework than men.

We need more men in politics, entertainment, and business to start stepping up and rebutting the idea that men can only have a successful career if they neglect their home life.  We need more role models showing men that taking care of their kids isn’t somehow sacrificing their masculinity or their chance at success.

What do you think?

Do you agree, does my reasoning here make sense?  Or am I totally off base?  Let me know in the comments!

7 Tricks to Kickstart Your Creativity

Kickstarting your Creativity

I haven’t always been good at being creative.  In fact, my business partner used to complain that I would “say no to everything” but never come up with any alternative proposals.  It turns out the problem was that I didn’t realize that there were two “modes” of thinking, what I call execution mode and creativity mode, and that I needed to deliberately swap between them.

In execution mode, you focus on the details of how to make something work.  What is going to get you from point A (where you are) to point B (a well defined location) in the shortest possible time with the least amount of risk.  This mode of thinking is absolutely required in engineering, finance, operations, and other detail-oriented lines of work.  The problem is that it is absolutely deadly when it comes to creativity, shutting ideas down before they even have time to germinate.

On the flip side is creativity mode.  In this mode, anything goes.  You open yourself to possibility without concern about details.  Anything is possible, or rather, the time for worrying about what is possible is sometime later.  This is the mode where all great ideas, new innovations, and creative possibilities come from.  The important thing to know is that you can’t be in both modes simultaneously.  I had to learn to deliberately swap myself from execution mode into creativity mode.

Here are 7 tricks that I use to do exactly that.

7.  Go for a run (or a walk)

This is probably the first thing in my toolbox whenever I get stuck on something.  There’s something about engaging in physical exercise that lets your brain “unlock” from whatever it is stuck on.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve been struggling to come up with a solution for a tricky problem or a creative alternative to a sticky situation, gone for a run, and then had the solution magically come to me in the shower afterwards.

6.  Play word games

Sometimes silliness is just the thing to knock me out of execution mode and into creativity mode.  With this tool I’ll start playing around with the exact words of the problem, trying to create puns with them and randomly connect other things that “sound” similar even knowing they have nothing in common.  Having to come up with a blog post might morph into a post in the ground, into a pole, and before you know it I’m doing research on the fitness impacts of pole dancing as compared to a gym membership. 😛

5.  Play “Yes And”

This one borrows from Improv Theatre, and is a technique to be used in a group or with a partner.  The idea is that you disallow yourself from rejecting anything at all, but in response to any idea you have to respond with “Yes and” with another idea that builds on it.  This keeps ideas flowing freely, each building on the other, without ever shutting down your creativity with rejection.

4.  Make a Mind Map

I use Mind Maps particularly when I’m trying to figure out content for a post or a speech about a particular subject.  They’re a great tool for getting out all of the details that are lurking around in different corners of your mind, and then connecting them in interesting and novel ways.

3.  Try a beer-storm

Probably one of the most fun things to do as a group.  If you’ve got a tricky problem in need of a creative solution, get your team together with a white board and a round of beer.  Alcohol has a way of reducing the barriers inherent in our minds, creating a free flow of ideas.  Don’t worry about ranging into the inappropriate; take a picture when you’re done and trim away the worst the next day.

2.  Meditate

Meditation is one of the areas of my life that I wish I was better at.  I’ve tried to keep a regular meditation practice a few times, and keep falling out of it, but when I’m able to it is incredible effective at helping me approach the world with curiosity and humor, which in turn makes creativity flow.

1.  Write a morning journal

Dreams can be bizarre, disoriented, and unrealistic, but that is because they are unfiltered creativity straight from our subconscious.  Writing the moment you wake up in the morning without worrying about what it is you capture on the page is a great way to tap into that subconscious and supercharge your creativity.


What About You?

What tricks or tools do you use to take your creativity to the next level?  Tell me about them in the comments!

Social Media Primer – Non-Geek Guide To Sharing Your Club Online

I had the opportunity to give a workshop today at the District 5 Toastmasters Leadership Institute.  The workshop was a basic introduction to using social media to promote Toastmasters Clubs and other small organizations.  For any who were interested but didn’t get to make it, here are the video

and slides

Any questions or feedback?  Leave them to the comments. 🙂

A Habit Formation approach to New Year’s Resolutions

According to Forbes, just 8% of people achieve their new year’s resolutions.  I haven’t kept careful track of my resolutions historically; in fact, I can’t even remember any of them, which is probably a good indication that I haven’t succeeded in the past.

This year I’m taking a radical new approach, building on ideas of habit formation to create what I hope will be a much more successful plan to create positive change in my life.

The Old Approach

The biggest challenge for me about New Year’s Resolutions is that when I think about the things I want to change or improve about myself, there are SO MANY things that come to mind. 🙂  I want to start writing regularly again, I need to exercise more regularly, I should do a better job of keeping in touch with friends.  The list goes on and on.

Once I have a list, I set out to tackle them all at once.  I think the excellent Hyperbole and a Half captures it very well.  At the beginning of the year I’m thinking

clean all the things

This lasts a few weeks, but very quickly I devolve into

clean all the things 2

And before you know it, my resolutions are out the window.

The New Approach

This year I’m doing something different.  Instead of attempting to tackle all of my resolutions at once, I’m approaching it from the perspective of forming habits, one habit at a time.  Each month I’m going to take a resolution I’d like to make and figure out how to formulate it into a new habit.  It’s hard to neglect the rest of my resolutions and just let them sit in a list, egging me on with all of the things I’d like to accomplish and am not really working on yet, but I’m forcing myself to tackle them one at a time.

This month, my entire focus is on getting myself in the habit of using a unified TODO system.  I’m using a web-based tool called GTDNext.com and working hard to build habits around capturing all of my tasks within it, reviewing my outstanding tasks every day, and making sure every day I have a 5-7 item todo list that I work through to keep myself moving forward.

My hope is that by only tackling one item at a time, and by giving myself an entire month to focus on building a habit around each resolution, I can create much more sustainable positive change in my life than I have from prior new year’s resolutions.  Since sustaining a habit is much easier than creating a new one, each month I should be able to move forward without losing the progress I’ve made on prior resolutions.

What about you?

What are some successful tactics you’ve used to achieve and keep new year’s resolutions?  What can you recommend?  Let me know in the comments!