Carla, vice president of engineering at a stealth startup, was talking with Tom and Sam, also vice presidents of engineering at other local startups.
“I’m having the worst trouble staying aligned,” Carla told Tom and Sam. “This is my first time working at this level. In the past, I’ve always had someone telling me what to do, and I’d work with my directs to make it happen. This time, though, my boss is leaving everything except the “why” up to me.”
Sam pulled a grimace. “First off, my sympathies for having had horrible bosses. That’s no way to use the expertise of someone like you. Second off, I hear you. I’m having similar problems. While I’ve identified a whole new set of signals for aligning with my beliefs, I don’t know what to do with them.”
Tom clapped a hand on each of their shoulders. “I feel for you both. I remember when I didn’t understand what my signals were telling me. Luckily, I had a great mentor who helped me identify my adjustment actions.”
1) When your alignment changes, what have you just done?
“Your ‘adjustment actions?’” Sam asked. “What are those?”
“They’re the actions I take to adjust my alignment. They’re what I do when my success signals tell me I’m skewing away from my base beliefs.”
“Okay, the name makes sense,” Carla said. “It doesn’t give me any more idea how to identify them.”
“I had the same response,” Tom said. “The first step, my mentor told me, was to start tracking when I felt my alignment change. What had I just done?”
“The idea being that, over time, a pattern will build up of the effects your various actions tend to have,” said Sam. “I can see that being fruitful. Combining this with regular measurements of my success signals might highlight which actions tend to affect which signals.”
“Which tells you which actions to take to adjust any given signal,” Carla added.
“Indeed,” Tom agreed.
2) What was the effect of each action you’ve ever taken?
“So, that was the first step,” Carla said. “What came next?”
“The next step, once that first step had identified a good set of actions, was to forget everything I had just figured out,” Tom said.
“What? Why?” asked Sam.
“So I could take this next step ‘with a beginner’s mind,’ my mentor said.”
“So, what was that next step?”
“To list out every action I had ever taken, and the effects I believed each action had.”
“Your mentor doesn’t ask for much,” Sam said dryly.
“He doesn’t go easy on me very often, no,” Tom replied with a wry grin.
“Every action ever seems like a big ask,” Carla said. “Too big. But, I like the idea. Maybe scoped down to the last few years, and only the actions I can remember. Which, I guess, is sort of implied.”
“I like the idea, too,” Sam said. “I’m not going to rely on just my memory, though. I’ll also ask my colleagues and family what they remember.”
“Those are all good adjustments,” Tom agreed. “And, I certainly didn’t manage to list every action I had ever taken. But, attempting to do so ensured I included even the actions I might have considered inconsequential. A few of those turned out to be important. So, remember to include everything.”
“Noted,” Sam and Carla said in unison.
3) How have your relationships affected your alignment?
“The third step,” Tom continued, “was to draw up a life map. I graphed how aligned I had felt in my work, with my family and friends, with my romantic interests, and in my spiritual life. Then, I used those high and low points to search for more actions I had missed in the first two steps.”
“I use life maps all the time,” Carla said. “Drawing that graph of some aspect of my life always gives me a new perspective.”
“I remember when you suggested I have my team draw them during our retrospective on that horribly failed project,” Sam said. “My team thought I was a bit bonkers. But, they humored me, and we were all surprised at how much we learned. I don’t doubt they’d be helpful here, too.”
“Thank you for that idea,” Tom said. “I’d never thought to employ them that way. They’ll be perfect for my discussion with my executive team tomorrow.”
4) Make a tiny experiment of doing something completely different
“So, these are all ways to identify actions we’ve used in the past,” Sam said. “What if they aren’t our best options?”
“What if they aren’t?” Tom asked. “If they’re working well enough, isn’t that enough?”
“I guess that’s the question to start with,” Sam responded. “Have these actions been working well enough?”
“If any of them need upgrading, I know just how to find their replacements,” Carla said.
“Do tell,” Tom said, just as Sam replied with an inquiring, “Yes?”
“Make a tiny experiment. Do something completely different and see what happens. Or, something only a little different. Even a tiny change can point you to a dramatic improvement.”
“Even if things are working well enough, it can’t hurt to try some tiny experiments,” Sam added. “While good enough is often good enough, I’m also a fan of incremental improvements. Tiny steps, tiny experiments, tiny changes. The worst that can happen is we discover alternatives that don’t make a difference.”
Apprehend the actions that adjust your alignment
“I have my work cut out for me,” Carla said. “I can’t take constantly feeling out of alignment much longer, though. Thank you so much for these three steps:
- Noticing when my alignment changes, and noting what I did right before.
- Reflecting over my past actions, and noting the effects each seemed to have.
- Using a life map to help me identify any actions I may have missed in the first two steps.”
“Yes, thank you, Tom, for these steps,” Sam said, “They’re going to be helpful for me, too.”
“You are both most welcome,” Tom replied. “I’m eager to hear what you discover.”