Some time ago I really struggled with one of my team members, let’s refer to him as Jason. Jason and I somehow just didn’t connect. As his manager, I felt I just couldn’t provide any value to him, to make any impact.
Then one day, I came up with a brilliant idea. Our annual performance reviews were coming up. Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel is one of our industry’s management legends. In his book High-Output Management, chapter 13, he mentions that the performance review is a manager’s highest leverage activity. This was an opportunity!
While I always found performance reviews one of the tricky parts of the management job to get right, I figured perhaps I just didn’t put enough effort into them. My plan was to change that this year by doubling down on them. I’d gather a lot of peer feedback. I’d put a lot of effort into writing up a nice document with elaborate observations about all the good stuff, nicely balanced with suggestions for improvement. Not just for Jason, but for my entire direct team.
To work I went. I spent tons of time gathering feedback, even conducting one-on-one interviews with team members to gather peer feedback in person. Then, I spent dozens of hours on writing up the reviews, which I decided to share the day before the performance review, so we could have a good conversation in person on anything that required clarification.
I was happy with my work. This was going to be great.
“That happened one time, why is that on my performance review!?”
“I put all this effort into this thing, and you just mention it as a single bullet point, whereas that minor thing that didn’t go well warrants a whole section!?”
“Well, frankly I’m disappointed. This is quite a blow to my motivation.”
“I bet Joe told you this, what does he know!?”
“I’m probably not qualified to say this, because, you know, I just got a Meets Expectations rating, but…”
It was that day, the day of the performance reviews that I definitively learned that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I experienced some of the worst hours of my professional career that day.
The review destroyed my already shaky relationship with Jason. While in my mind his review was overall pretty good, he responded incredibly defensive to every form of criticism. It became very clear that because of this review, he no longer trusted me at all. Another lucky target of one of my reviews would resign a few months later, clearly linked to what was in his performance review. The rest seemed less impacted, luckily.
I’m sure I made misjudgments. I’m sure I made some mistakes highlighting or “under lighted” certain events. However, how could things backfire to this level? Could all of this be blamed on my incompetence, or was there something else going on here?
I barely slept for a week.
I described what had happened to a colleague of mine. He pointed me to a book.
“This is probably the right time for you to read this,” he said. That book was No More Feedback by Carol Sanford.
I read it over the weekend and I was in shock.
There are things worth doing, even though they are hard to do well. They just need practice and iteration. There are also things that are not just hard, but where results seem to get worse when we double down on them. These are things that are worth having a closer look at. Perhaps there are deeper issues there. Sometimes the real solution may lie in the wisdom of an old doctor joke:
“Doctor, it hurts when I do this.”
“So, don’t do it.”
No More Feedback challenged so many fundamental underlying things. In this book, Sanford argues that feedback, any type of feedback is hard because it is a fundamentally broken concept. The solution is not to “fix feedback” but to stop giving it altogether.
Wow. That is quite a radical view point.
I loved it.
It has now been roughly two years since I first read No More Feedback and I’m still wrestling with it. While I buy its core premise, I struggle to see how to practically implement the feedback-free environment that Sanford envisions.
But that’s ok. The value of No More Feedback for me came from the fact that it challenged a well established concept, feedback, and questions its validity. This made me wonder: what else is out there that we practice every day, but perhaps really shouldn’t?
During the second world war, soldiers would often land on tiny islands of Melanesia in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. They would airdrop supplies there and trade with the indigenous people that had never been exposed to any type of technology before. When the war ended, the soldiers and their supplies stopped coming and never returned.
As a result, cults arose that would mimic the type of behavior they had observed from the soldiers. They created air strips, and radios out of coconuts and straw. They frantically talked to the radios, as they had seen soldiers do before. They assumed that copying this behavior would result in the soldiers returning, and goods being delivered again.
These cults are the earliest examples of what we refer to as cargo cults. Cargo cults adopt rituals without really understanding where they came from, or why they exist. They assume that by simply replicating practices they observe, associated results will replicate as well.
To what extent are we cargo culting in management?
Do we always understand why we do what we do? Or do we just do things because that’s what everybody else does, and because this is what we have always done?
And even if we understand why we do things, do we bother to check if what we do actually works?
These are the questions through which I’ve been looking at my work for the last few years. And while my journey was kicked off with the topic of feedback, I have found that there are many other things we do every day that perhaps we really should not — or at least should be much more careful about.
I started to collect them. I started to write them up. And in honor of Carol Sanford’s No More Feedback, I started to title them similarly: No More Praise, No More Advice, No More Big Bets.
As I shared them publicly, people started to reach out to me: “These are great, you should collect them in a book!”
Obviously, my instant response was: No More Books! It’s the 2020s, we have the Internet. I’ve read so many business books that essentially are nothing more than expanded blog posts. Is there really a future in books anymore?
After thinking through it some more, and going through my archive of articles, I started to think: well, actually, there may be value in bundling these.
I thought back to the moment my colleague had recommended No More Feedback. That book had hit me like a hammer, because it addressed the exact right topic at the exact right time.
What if the ideas I had collected could do the same for somebody out there? What if they’d read one of these essays at _just_ the right moment? What if I could reach more of those people when I collected these ideas in a book form?
Let’s do this thing.
What this book is
This is a book in the business of changing minds. It attempts this in the shape of essays on a range of management and people-related topics. Some of these may resonate with you instantly, some may be more of a slow burn, some will be super obvious, and some you will simply dismiss as silly or naive.
The contribution of this work is not to present unique ideas that you will not find anywhere else; the contribution is to frame ideas in such a way that you will discover them. The question is not: are these ideas new to the world, the question is: are these ideas new to you?
If you skim the table of contents you will quickly reverse engineer the recipe:
- Pick a topic, a common practice
- Prefix it with “No More”
- Say something sensible about it
Unsurprisingly, that last bit was the harder part.
This book takes a bit of a shotgun approach. It throws a lot of ideas at you in a few number of pages. I hope that some of them will hit some sort of target. However, as my story pointed out: timing is everything. You may find that if you go through this book once again in a few months, different things register.
With each of these essays my goal is simple — to make you think:
“Heh… I hadn’t looked at it that way, let me think about that.”
Then, after some thought, you may dismiss the idea, label it as naive, and move on with your life. You’d be wrong in doing so, but hey — no (more) judgment. We cannot all recognize brilliance when we see it.
All kidding aside, I hope that in a few of these essays you will find something hard to dismiss. I hope that in a few of these essays you will find that something sticks.
Something that sticks in the back of your mind.
Nagging at you.
Then, after some time, you yell out loud: “damn you, Zef!”
Then I’ll know I succeeded.
What this book is not
This book does not solve all the problems that it exposes. This may frustrate you.
Some essays point out a problem, but do not give a perfect alternative, or even a viable alternative at all. You would be right in that assessment. I’m sorry about that. In some cases, in all my brilliance, I also do not have the ultimate answer. However, that was not sufficient reason to ignore the topic altogether and to ignore it.
Let’s look at these essays as conversation starters. If we can agree on the premise that a practice is broken, we can work together to figure out a better alternative. Perhaps you have tried something, or read something on the topic. If so, please let me know.
How to read this book
This book to a large extent consists of independent essays. To remove duplication, I do cross-reference other essays here and there.
That said, you should be able to walk through the table of contents and pick something that speaks to you, jump to the appropriate page and just read.
However, ideally you just take the time to read this book front to back. I did put effort into this, you know. And let me remind you, you likely spent some money on acquiring this book in whatever form. But hey, this is your life, you should live it your way. Similarly, this is now your book, you should read it your way.