February 16, 2020
Management in an unfamiliar domain
When I joined iZettle as the Director of Risk Engineering, I had one major concern. Even though I have a technical background, it’s not nearly as strong as my reports’.
Therefore, I set out to answer these questions:
- How can I coach someone who is far more technically skilled than I am?
- How can I gain the team’s trust without familiarity in the domain?
- How much energy should I spend on increasing my own technical expertise?
After talking to mentors who work at Very Cool Companies and who are more experienced, I’ve come away with these major learning points:
If you are on the people manager track, you will be outgrown by your reports. It’s only a question of when. Don’t worry about that fact. A soccer coach doesn’t need to be as good as her players at sprinting.
Instead — double down on the value that you do bring to the team. Dealing with stakeholders, communication, administration, alignment with company mission and goals, teaming, be a sounding board, ask questions, coach the engineers in their career development, offer them opportunities for growth, motivate them.
Lacking the technical skills to give feedback on the code, build a framework for it. Peer review every six months seem to be the standard.
Do invest in your own engineering abilities. Read technical books, take part in technical discussions, make intern level commits, follow Github PRs and comments, have active pet projects. Look at the technical stack and get a basic understanding of the frameworks the team uses. Invest at least 4 hours each week to this.
Be honest & clear with the team what you can, and can’t, bring to the table.
These mentorship calls have been really helpful, and I try to act on the above bullets almost daily. I also bring up my lack of skill with my team in our 1-on-1s and ask them if there’s anything specific they’d like me to learn. Last week I understood the basics of Terraform, and this week it’s Docker and Fargate.
I still feel stupid as a mountain lizard when I try to contribute in some of the discussions we have in the team … but now I know that the point of me being there is not to better than them at their job. It’s to do the other shit and to do it really really good.
It’s not easy, but it’s h*cking fun.
January 14, 2019
- “Recent studies have proven …”
- “In a clinical trial, more than 80% of those who …”
- “According to research …”
These are the magic words. They make us believe whatever the speaker is saying. Not only believing - we often forward the information at dinner to our friends.
Our intention is good. The scientific method is the best process we have to determine what is true and what is not. So if we hear about clinical results, we believe. And by spreading that knowledge, we are champions of light, fighting back against the darkness that is ignorance.
The more I learn about science the less I am comforted by the words “a recent study.” Especially in the field of psychology.
First example: Do you remember the TED Talk on power poses? It was huge back in the day. By standing with confidence, you gained a testosterone boost, an +4 charisma bonus, and a decline in cortisol. According to studies.
That wasn’t true.
I wish power posing was an outlier. That it was a fluke. That most studies, when checked, did not become wrecked.
Unfortunately, power posing is not an outlier. Psychology has a huge problem with replicating results. What is proven in one study can’t be found in the next.
Second example: I’ve written about meditation and mindfulness in this context. There’s a lot of shitty research out there on how these practices can make anything in life better. These studies rarely have a clear definition of the technique, no placebo controls, and can’t be replicated. And yet every week HBR posts a new study on how mindfulness improves everything from leadership to psoriasis.
But my main concern is not power posing nor mindfulness. It is rather that this is a widespread problem. And my main takeaway is this:
We should no longer be satisfied with “recent studies.” It’s time to step up our critical thinking - even on research itself. When someone comes dragging with a recent study, you should ask questions about how it was done.
How many people were in the study? How big was the difference? Has another team at another university been able to replicate it?
To be clear, if you don’t get a satisfactory answer on these question, that doesn’t mean the study is worthless. We can note the information, but we don’t have to take it too seriously. Primarily, we do not treat science as something binary.
This does not mean that whatever garbage Joe Rogan spews with a crazy unemployed archaeologist is as true as what comes out of academia. It doesn’t mean that everything is true and nothing is true. Having one study with a small cohort with no placebo controls that haven’t been replicated is still better than no study.
It does mean that we are now beyond the age when you can merge a dozen headlines from Bloomberg Newsweek into a book. Or when you can stand with confidence (no meta-reference intended) on a stage and say you have the keys to Success and Happiness, with nothing more than a few shoddy papers to back you up.
Speakers and writers: a little more paranoia will serve us well. Did we read the journal or just the headline?
Listeners: a little more skepticism will get you closer to the truth. (It might also make you seem annoying and boring. (Speaking from experience.))
I am very much writing this to myself. I have been too sloppy in my own quest for a solution tech’s increasing problem with mental illness. I will be more humble and more careful when presenting my findings. I’ll try to be more diligent when I search for research.
The good news?
If we all follow this path, there will be less bullshit to sift through. Less noise. More effective and honest information that we, in turn, can use to build more knowledge on.
And that, my friends, is a quest worth going on.
February 22, 2018
Fuck productivity hacks
When I’m out there coaching teams with Lightly, people often ask for productivity hacks.
And I wish I could give them something. This one thing that would help them get more stuff done.
But the truth is … I haven’t found any productivity hacks.
Sure, if you Google that phrase, you will find a million Medium posts. They will tell you to get up early, to write down your priorities, to not check email, etc.
These all sound great. In theory. You try them out for a day or two. And then then never do them again. A month passes, and you find yourself googling ”productivity hacks”. Rinse and repeat.
Thus, when someone asks me for a productivity hack, I don’t give them any of these advice. I ask which problem they are trying to solve.
In 99% of the cases, it’s the same: interruptions.
What they are looking for is not a productivity hack. They just want the space to get shit done.
1. The problem is not
We don’t need to read more research on how multi-tasking is less effective than single-tasking. Just like I don’t need to read another article about how sugar is bad for me.
The truth is, I will keep eating sugar pretty much no matter the information I receive. Because on some level, I think it’s worth it.
We like to identify with the smart part of ourselves, the thinking part, the modern human: the pre-frontal cortex. And from that very smart perspective, eating sugar (or multitasking) is a bad deal. You get a short high, but the long-term drawbacks outweigh the benefits. Ergo: you should never.
But in reality, I am not my pre-frontal cortex. I am my entire brain and body. That includes the mammalian brain and the reptilian brain. These regions regulate needs that me and my family have had since we were amphibians.
So. You have already received information about multitasking being bad for you. You know that you shouldn’t. And yet you keep doing it.
The questions we have to ask is: why do you think it’s worth it?
The gut reaction most people have is to say “No! It’s not worth it! I want to focus on one thing.” But why don’t you, then?
We need to dig deeper.
Let’s look at your actual multitasking. What are you doing? What are these interruptions that are stopping you from being productive?
Meetings. Email. Slack. Coworkers coming to your desk and asking questions.
You know what all these are, right? They are all methods for collaboration.
Now the question has become something else. It’s not about getting rid of interruptions: it’s about getting rid of collaboration.
It’s a more truthful question, and it will help us get to the root of this problem quicker.
To some extent, we seem to only be able to think of the work we do by ourselves as being productive. That would be like a hockey player only seeing themselves as being productive when they have the puck. But what if we frame it like this: being productive is about the value we create as a team.
Framed like that, your quest for productivity hacks will look different. It will not be about closeting yourself away. It will be about how You, as a team, can create as much value as possible. Together.
And these so-called interruptions will be a big part of that productivity. They are not obstacles to overcome anymore.
By having this mindset, you will solve a couple of problems. First, you will stop wasting time looking for productivity hacks: there are none. Second, you won’t feel a vague background anxiety about ”not being productive” whenever you are helping someone out.
The happiest teams I’ve met are those who enjoy collaborating with each other. They do schedule one or two hours every day for solo work, though. These are hours when they are not bothering each other: no questions, no Slack, no email. Even sometimes: no wifi. (Yeah.)
These solo hours are especially important for your most complicated work, the deep work. When you need to use all of your brain power to solve something.
But a big chunk of their workday will be spent collaborating, and happily so. They see being available to coworkers not as attention deficit disorder, but as being a loyal team player.
Same situation, framed differently. Now a feature, not a bug. The problem is not.
2. Eat and have the cake: XP
The sweet spot between collaboration and productivity is pair-programming. This is the most common experiment we try out when I work with teams. I suggest it more often than anything else because it has better results than anything else.
Pair-programming might seem like a waste of time: two developers working on one problem, instead of two problems. It’s hard to A/B test the productivity in any objective way because there are too many variables in place. But I can tell you this: the developers who try out pair-programming (”XP”) in my courses always come back with a huge smile on their faces. Their subjective evaluation is that they have been very productive and have had a lot of fun. (The same is true for scheduling one or two solo hours each day, by the way.)
A key incentive to look at team productivity is of course how we are measured. If my value to the organization is based on my individual contributions — code written, let’s say — then of course I will see collaboration as an obstacle to productivity.
But if me and my team are judged on our collective performance, then we are incentivized to collaborate. And naturally, I won’t see talking to my co-workers as a problem, but rather as being productive. We are trying to bring value to our end users … together.
3. The sugar paradox
OK, remember what I wrote above about that we need to understand why we are multitasking?
One part of it has already been covered: we need to collaborate, and these ”interruptions” are in fact productivity, only on a team level.
But there is another type of interruption: you interrupting yourself.
This is the phone checking, Facebook feed gorging, news junkie part of us that keeps opening a new tab every ten seconds.
For this part, I think the only way forward is to parent ourselves. Sure, we could work on our willpower, but how often does that work out? Again, it’s a good theory … but it’s better to be realistic and get some real results.
Look: I don’t keep candy in front of me while I’m working. I would eat that candy. Call me a child, I don’t care. If there is candy available, I eat it. That’s just how I’m wired. I’ve tried a million methods to not do this, but none of them work.
What does work, however, is to not have candy available.
The same thing goes for me interrupting me. If I can’t stay away from my phone, I turn it off and physically move it to another room. If I keep opening new tabs, I shut down my internet connection using the Freedom app.
This is not a productivity hack: this is basic parenting. The grown-up part of me is parenting the child-part of me.
4. Static overload
If there is one mistake most tech companies to when it comes to productivity, it is how they use communication channels.
Employees are expected to keep a channel open for everything from birthday celebration, to news, to the actual work they are trying to accomplish as a team.
It doesn’t matter if it’s Slack or email: the problem is that you are keeping an eye on a channel where it’s hard to know what’s important or not.
The simple solution — and the one I would say you sort of have to do — is to keep separate channels depending on the hierarchy of importance. It could be something like: Slack for casual conversations, and email for pressing issues. It doesn’t have to be complicated, it just have to be defined.
This might sound like a no-biggie, but inspect yourself the next time you are trying to be productive. Notice which channels you have to keep open to be a team player, and how much time you have to waste sorting the information.
So you’ve done it all: you know what’s the most important thing to work on, you’ve accepted that “interruptions” are actually a big part of collaboration, you’ve scheduled your daily solo/XP hours, you’ve removed all the notification sugars, and you’ve created a hierarchy of communication …
And you’re still not feeling productive? You’re still looking for hacks?
Then the situation might be telling you something.
Maybe you are not being challenged enough. Maybe you don’t care about this project; you don’t see the meaning and purpose of doing whatever you’re doing. Instead of trying to productivity-hack away these feelings, try to listen to them. There is valuable information right in front of you.
Maybe it’s time to switch roles. Maybe it’s time to work on a product that actually makes the world better in a tangible way.
Whatever it is, don’t try to mask it under some blind productivity keyboard frenzy.
Because typing more is not the same as creating value.
Imagine what would feel meaningful and challenging to you. Once you have an idea of what would be meaningful and challenging, start taking steps towards that. Talk to a manager and tweak your situation.
This is dealing with your productivity on the highest possible level. And it’s better to work slowly on something truly meaningful than working really hard on something that doesn’t matter, right? We often forget that when we talk about productivity — we often only talk about speed. But I would rather walk slowly in the right direction, than speed straight into a wall.
I hope I’ve managed to shift your mindset around productivity a bit. I hope you won’t be wasting any more time online trying to find the Holy Grail of Getting Shit Done. If you and your team know the most important thing you should be working on, and you are collectively working on that, and you’ve done the basic hygiene cleanup of notifications …
… then you have everything you need.
Just go get it.
February 6, 2018
Choked on a daily basis
I step out on the rubber mat. Some big, sweaty dude comes up to me and asks if I want to ”roll.” I swallow, and feel a cold tingling running down my spine. A minute later, he holds me in a vicious choke hold, and I have to struggle just to keep breathing. It’s the best form of stress management I’ve found so far.
OK, maybe that was a bit dramatic. But it’s basically true.
A couple of years ago, I was recommended to try a martial art called Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
It didn’t really appeal to me since I don’t see myself as someone who enjoys violence. Also, it just seemed a bit creepy to spend that much time being intimate with unknown people.
But then I heard about this weird sport from more and more people. A buddy started training and got hooked. It was mentioned in a podcast I listen to every week.
So I figured: why not give it a shot?
A friend and I signed up for a beginner’s class. After 30 minutes, we were laying on the floor, breathing hard. My friend went to the bathroom and puked.
He never came back.
I still do.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) is about learning to control your opponent, and then putting them in a submission hold. A submission might be an arm lock, or a choke. When you have no way to escape the submission hold, you ”tap out” — you literally clap on your opponent to let them know that you give up. The match is over.
Why would anyone want to experience this?
There is no way to think about your other problems in life when someone is trying to choke you.
If you like the idea of being mindful but don’t want to sit cross-legged, BJJ might be something you’d like to try out.
It’s a sort of forced presence. It keeps you in the moment, because it demands everything from you.
Sometimes this is called the flow state. And as with other flow activities, you only really experience it when the opposition is just right: not too easy, not too hard.
Sometimes really athletic people start training BJJ. They always look cocky, like they are ready to show everyone that they are ready to kill.
But no matter how much strength or cardio you have, you will get your ass handed to you for the first years in BJJ.
Sure, strength might keep an opponent at bay for a few seconds more. But the art of jiujitsu is about using leverage, wedges, and cunningness to control your opponent. This gets really obvious when you see a 145lbs black belt dominate a 220lbs weight-lifter.
As a beginner, it will be tempting to give up when everything hurts and everyone is better than you. Imagine what keeps people from training in general, and add that they will also get choked …
So, to progress in BJJ you need one thing more than anything else: grit.
And by training your grit, you might find that this skill bleeds over to the other things in life you are passionate about.
Tapping to a problem
One of the things I like most about BJJ is how it makes abstract concepts practical.
Tapping is one of those things.
When you tap in BJJ, you are saying: ”I can’t fix this problem. It’s too much for me. I give up.”
Giving up seems like a bad thing in other areas in life. But here’s the trick: when you tap, you don’t give up on the martial art. You don’t give up on your ambition. You don’t give up on the big picture.
You give up to that specific obstacle.
And after you’ve given up, you spend a couple of seconds disecting what happened. Why did the problem occur? What could you have done differently?
And then you go again!
This is a rewarding thing to keep in mind when you run a business. I try hard as fuck to fix something, and when there are no options left, I give up. I learn. I do something i different. I go again!
With, not against, the problem
Jiu-jitsu is Japanese for ”the gentle art.” Now, if you look at the world championships in BJJ, it might now look very gentle.
But the most effective moves are those when you use your opponents strength against them.
They are pushing forward with all their power? Trip one of their legs and let them fall face down.
They are trying to retreat from you? Use the space to get a better position.
This is an idea that of course can be applied to other areas in life.
A big project gets postponed? Perfect time to step up your learning — read more books. Got a shitty review on your work? Use that feedback to improve.
I know this sounds cheesy, but when we’re able to see obstacles as something we can use … everything becomes easier and more fun.
If you’ve read the Tao Te Ching, you recognize this way of thinking. To move with the world, not against it.
The continuous feedback loop
I was super shitty at BJJ for a long time. Longer than most, actually.
A lot of it was because I didn’t use one of jiu-jitsu’s greatest benefits: the continuous feedback loop.
See, in BJJ, we sparr every time we train. Sparring is a real match that only ends when someone taps.
And that is the most effective tool for learning I’ve every encountered.
Every training session I get to know what works and what doesn’t.
And instead of ignoring that, or taking it personally … you should of course use it.
So nowadays, I note after every session what works and what doesn’t. In the best of cases, I even do it between rounds. And then I go home and think about my mistakes and try to find new techniques to solve them before the next session.
And now, I’m not super shitty anymore. Now I’m just shitty. In BJJ terms, I’m a blue belt, not a white belt.
Heaven is other people
It’s kind of hard to make new friends when you’re an adult.
At least it is for me.
But BJJ is a great place to meet knew friends. You would imagine that there are only these super aggressive people who want to train such a gruelling sport, but the opposite is true. I’ve met everyone from military leaders to newly arrived refugees to engineers. BJJ practitioners come in all sizes and forms — it’s actually way more diverse than most tech companies I meet during my dayjob.
And you won’t have to worry about breaking the ice. If you’ve been physically intimate with someone like that, you won’t have trouble to start chit-chatting.
Also: it’s sometimes lonely to travel for work. BJJ changes that.
I’ve trained as a guest in NYC, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Barcelona, and even Tokyo. Granted, Tokyo was a bit hard because of the language barrier … but it’s still a great way to meet people in a city you’re visiting.
Talk is cheap
In the world of business, you often run in to gurus who know everything about success and happiness.
But the more you get to know these people, you see through the cracks. They’ve never built a successful product. They’ve never lead a team. They struggle with their relationships just like everyone else.
In BJJ, it’s completely impossible to talk about your skills in that way. We can just roll. It will become 100% obvious in less than three minutes what skill level you are on.
This pragmatic and self-evident skill assessment is refreshing for those of us who encounter big talkers daily. I wish more things in life were like BJJ in that sense.
I have still more to write, but this post is already longer than I planned. Maybe that conveys how much I love BJJ. Even though it fucks up my back, even though it hurts as hell, even though it’s kind of weird.
The main lesson here might not be to try out Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Rather, I would say:
It’s not obvious what will help you manage your stress. It might be something that looks super stressful that turns out to be the most relaxing.
I get way more chill after BJJ practice than after yoga.
February 14, 2017
The benefits of not being mindful
Oh no you didn’t …
Oh yes I did.
After teaching meditation and mindfulness for a couple of years now, I have realized a few benefits about not being mindful.
What’s most interesting about this is not the benefits themselves. It’s how people react to the idea of that there could be benefits of not being mindful.
This method has gained the status of being sacred, holy. Even among those who don’t practice mindfulness it seems like heresy to say that there could be any benefits to letting your mind drift, not being aware of your surroundings and state.
Which is insane.
I mean, of course there are benefits to not being mindful. You only need a few seconds of reflection to find that out.
To be honest, it’s sort of scary to me that otherwise rational humans turn off critical thinking when it comes to some areas.
Mindfulness or present-state awareness is a tool. Nothing more. You should look at it with just as much critical thinking as you do with all other tools.
So let’s get to it. What are the benefits of not being mindful?
Mindfulness kills creativity
Mindfulness is horrible when you want to think of new ideas.
The big creative breakthroughs we have come when we are not focused, when we are not deep in activity.
It comes when we take a shower. When we are out walking. When we are about to fall asleep.
When our minds drift.
The reason is that our brains contain way more than our conscious mind. The brain is working constantly, and if we were at all times aware of everything that went on in there we would go crazy. That’s why some of it is subliminal.
Try immersing yourself in inspiring thoughts, artworks, books. You will notice that your mind drifts: “oh, if I just mixed this up with that other idea …”
That is not mindfulness. Is great creative work, though.
Mindfulness is just another to-do
What if you are already swamped in responsibility? Let’s say you have a demanding career, kids, hobbies. To you really need another thing to keep track of in your life?
In fact, what would help you more is the opposite of a mindfulness practice. What would help is to throw all the self-help books on the fire.
These practices only amount to further pressure on already pressured humans.
I make my living by teaching meditation and mindfulness and I can honestly say this: most of you don’t need to start practicing this. You are fine.
Some of the most healthy humans I’ve ever met are those who don’t practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness shifts the blame
When I work with organizations, they often want their employees to be less stressed. But instead of fixing organizational issues, it’s easier to say that the employees should just be more mindful. That way, management doesn’t have to change anything.
In some cases, the problem is that a certain individual is overreacting to changes or to uncertainty. In that case, mindfulness (or even therapy!) is what they need.
But more often they need other things. A leader that listens. To be allowed to leave their phone at work. Clear priorities. Good communication tools. Time to focus. Challenges. Meaningful work.
Mindfulness courses at workplaces could even mask the real problems, and therefore allow them to grow.
First, we need to know what the problem is. Then we can apply the method. Don’t jump to mindfulness as a solution straight away.
Mindfulness is murky
This is not a real benefit of not being mindful, but to be honest with you, it get’s really hard to know what the fuck mindfulness is after a while.
It starts out with like “being in the moment” and then you sort of sneak in “impermance” and then “attachment is the root of all suffering” and all of a sudden you have bells and buddha statues and recite suttas at the office.
I’m saying this because it’s weird to see some companies jump on the hype train without understanding that mindfulness does have roots in buddhism and it tends to show itself after a while.
By not practicing mindfulness, you are not treading on that vague and murky path. You might spend that time doing an activity which helps you out in a more clear and effective way.
You can avoid any criticism of mindfulness by just bending the definition. By sometimes including morality, or thinking of the future/past, or indulging in thinking as a part of mindfulness, you can make sure that it’s bulletproof. But. Then you’ve also changed the definition. What you end up with, in that case, is something so broad and vague that it’s useless.
Mindfulness stops you from learning
When I teach mindfulness, I often ask my students how much time — so far– during the session they have been mindful.
“Most of the time,” they say.
“So what have you been thinking about?”
“Well, you talked about being stressed at work, and I remembered this one time, at my last job …”
In this example, do you really want the student to be mindful? Don’t you want her to think back on that previous experience?
I actually think that reflecting on your history is absolutely critical for learning. Even if the student misses out on a few other words, remembering the past and comparing it to a message is necessary to evaluate if the new concept makes sense or not.
I don’t want you to be mindful at all times when I teach you mindfulness.
Meditation could trigger trauma
If you have a lot of anxiety, exposing yourself to your feelings for 60 minutes might not be the best thing to do.
With a trained therapist — maybe.
With a guy that just got his certificate from McMindful Inc? Probably not.
Perhaps it’s better to start with journaling, or deep talks with a trusted mentor. Not sitting in silence and listening to your own thoughts.
Again: it’s great for some with anxiety to understand their thought patterns more. But if you dive in too quickly, or with an unexperienced trainer, this could actually be detrimental to your mental health.
Mindfulness leads to no-mindfulness
A part of mindfulness is not being judgemental of your thoughts.
If I don’t judge them as good or bad, then why do I need mindfulness?
If everything is good as it is (“meta-OK-ness”) then I don’t need to practice.
The end result of the mindfulness philosophy is therefore not to train mindfulness. You don’t need to practice anything. You don’t need to get better. You don’t need to change.
Actually, the most neurotic and stressed out people I’ve ever met are the mindfulness & yoga crowd. Why? They are always questioning themselves. Am I really calm right now? Am I being mindful? It gets you stuck in self-reflection, neurosis.
Mindfulness sets unhealthy expectations
Even though mindfulness is supposedly about not-judging, you’d be surprised of how many mindfulness teachers talk about achieving happiness and success.
This creates a weird bar for students. Is life really about being as happy as possible? Do I want to be 100% happy all the time?
When they get struck by very human emotions such as anger, frustration, sadness, stress, the blow is a double strike: first the actual feeling, and then disappointment about feeling that feeling.
“I’ve been on a mindfulness course! I shouldn’t feel sadness!”
Of course, “real” mindfulness (whatever that is!) is about not-judging yourself. This criticism is therefore more of the modern mindfulness movement and not the technique itself.
But happiness it’s easier to sell than equanimity. Most people don’t wake up feeling like they want to spend $199 on being more equanimi… equini… even-minded. They do want to spend that on being happy and successful, though.
And as things are today, they are ready to believe that mindfulness will bring them that.
There are cases where we obviously should be paying attention to what’s going on right now. Dinner with friends. Playing with your kids. But there are also a million situations where a drifting mind is alright, or even better.
I will keep on teaching both mindfulness and meditation. But I will keep in mind that they have benefits as well as drawbacks. I will remember that in most cases, the solution to a problem is not mindfulness.
I will remember not to lie to others — even if me paying rent is depending on selling something — about what any single method can achieve. I will remember to not assume that other’s need fixing, that we are fine even with our flaws.
And most importantly: I hope to never lose critical thinking, no matter if a method has been super helpful to me or not.
October 16, 2014
Dungeon Master Leadership
We did not dress up as elves or anything like that. OK, maybe this one guy brought a robe to one of our sessions. But that’s it! I swear! We were twelve, what do you expect?
I still enjoy Dungeons & Dragons from time to time. Our games have evolved through the years: from being mainly a board game, we now take great pride in trying to tell stories together. Come to think of it, it’s one of the rare situations where we meet without anything digital and instead use only our collective creativity.
From the get-go, I took on/was given the role of the Dungeon Master — that is, the sort-of-director. The dungeon master is tasked with portraying everyone the protagonists interact with as well as crafting the basic elements of the story. It’s a lot of fun, and also quite demanding. I though I’d share some things I’ve learned that I’ve had great use of as a leader in the wonderful, magical land of tech consultancy.
Never plan the outcome
The world is, as you know, a volatile place. Things change. Things get out of our control. This is a very old stoic notion, and it is as useful in role-playing games as it is in the world of apps and development. What I can do is make the best possible environment for the team/players to excel in. But the actual outcome … That depends on a whole lot of other things.
So I don’t imagine how the scenes will turn out. I make sure to write interesting characters for my players to meet, cool places they can travel to, and I lay the groundwork for drama. The rest will have to play itself out. If I hold on to an idea to tight I might miss an idea that is even better.
People > everything else
Even though I enjoy D&D, I don’t enjoy it with other people than my friends. Our chemistry and our shared knowledge make work/play efficient and the output of a consistently high quality. Some dungeon masters get caught up in tweaking the rules; I obsess over having the right people at the table.
How to do this? Make sure your players know how valuable they are. Reinforce their strong sides by telling them how much they bring to the table. And if you see someone that you think would make a great addition to the team: hunt them down and get them to do a trial session, whatever it takes.
All of our greatest moments in Imaginaryland have come as a result of us trying new things. It’s scary, sure, and sometimes you fall flat on your back. The thing is, though, that the fuckups are rarely remembered. We make sure to learn from our failures every time with a short post-mortem. But the highlights, the anti-fuckups, they live in memory forever.
Don’t stick to what you know. Abandon, try, learn, and give it everything you got. Better sorry than safe. Play unsafe.
Clues & tells
Is one of the players leaning back, crossing his arms and looking away? He’s probably not enjoying himself. What do you know about him? What gets him going? What we’re looking for here is an Archimedes leverage — if you spend a little of your energy in the right spot, that player will come alive and give the table ten times that energy.
Knowing what gets the people around you going, how to spark that enthusiasm, is a level 20 epic magic skill. A motivated developer is worth ten times that of a bored one.
Collective effort or rock star DMing
Some dungeon masters and managers want to keep secrets. They thrive on power.
Even if the team is unaware of the actual secrets, they are surely smart enough to notice that everything is not out in the open. If you send out signals that you carry important knowledge that you don’t want to share, that you have the power, your team will most likely let you do the hard work when things get rough. They will trust you to fix the situation.
Commitment necessitates trust. Involvement demands trust. Trust the team with your vision and your knowledge. Get everything out in the open and put all your collective brain potential to use. Power is so management 1.0.
Some DMs and managers can pull off the rock star style. But that puts an incredible amount of pressure on them — to consistently deliver quality to the team. This is the high road, and you are free to choose it. However, you can’t pick the rock star style and not do your (now tripled!) homework.
From the outside, killing imaginary orcs and stealing their imaginary treasure might not have much in common with leading a team. But upon closer examination, dungeon mastery have taught me great lessons in management that I would not like to be without. Who would have thought?
I’m looking forward to the next session: seeing the guys and gals gain experience points, laugh and push themselves. Both while killing orcs and writing code.