bridge leading into a tropical forest

Photo by Tim Swaan on Unsplash

This post is part of the series Notes to Self.

Welcome to the jungle

Let’s start with a natural system. Enter a forest for example. It is comprised of many plant species that can thrive at different levels: trees, shrubs, heather, grass, moss, etc. Within each layer, there are types of plants that like: more or less light, more or less water. And each plant has devised a system to meet its needs: it grows roots of a certain length, it reaches up or crawls low, its leaves are a certain shape and size so they can do the right amount of photosynthesis. All these different layers and sublayers of the forest come together to create a complex, beautiful, and harmonious ecosystem.

Our own personal and professional ecosystems are also complex, often as complex as we think them to be. Especially if we do not proactively strive to keep them simple. Simplicity and structure are key. They bring efficiency and harmony. If your systems are streamlined they can accommodate the production of ever more complex products without straining. However, in practice, complexity is often forced on us by circumstances like the speedy addition of new features or add-on products.

The question is: can we find a simplified framework to wrap our heads around our routines, systems, and processes so we can keep them efficient and harmonious, while we inevitably make them more complex? A simplified way to think about what we do and why we do it can help us be more effective.

“Value creation is never the result of individual action, but inter-action: it is a team-based process… Informal group structures emerge out of human interactions. This happens in any social group. In crisis, especially, the unofficial collegial networks take over.” Organize for Complexity by Niels Pflaeging.

The things we do, to keep the wheels turning and well greased, are the building blocks of our multilayered routines. There is power in routine. In fact, I dare argue it is the only way to build something meaningful. Because within the framework of routine we find the peace to discover creative solutions for complex problems. Hence, its importance and the importance of the layers that comprise it.

Layers are the structural foundations, carrying columns, and beams that when optimally welded together create a multi-dimensional network of materials, individuals, systems, and products. Think everything from a layer cake to a skyscraper. Think social, economical, and cultural layers.

Family & health

The macro layers that comprise our lives are more often than not:

  • Family
  • Health
  • Work
  • Friends
  • Hobbies

Within these, there are sub-layers that can go several levels deep. The family layer consists of meaningful activities that create and reinforce our emotional bonds. These can include:

  • Daily dinners
  • Walks in the park
  • Movie nights
  • Games
  • Help with homework
  • Goodnight reads
  • Holiday gatherings
  • Trips

Health (physical, mental, and spiritual) layers may include:

  • Jogging or yoga
  • Apple in the morning
  • Cup of tea after dinner
  • Meditation
  • Keeping a journal
  • Reading

The family, health, work, friends, and hobbies layers and their sublayers create an ecosystem that when optimal allows us to thrive.

And then there is work. We will focus mostly on work-related layers that enhance culture and empower teams.

We will use the layers model to describe things so we can turn the abstract into tangible actionable bits. This way of thinking can help us add structure to the chaos so we can have the optimum creative freedom to build. This is a model that can help you find the optimal state of flow for both you and your team.

Personal layers

Here are a few mantra-like personal layers that speak for themselves and can help us configure our compass so we can build up.

  • Always do the right thing (in most daily crossroads this is a clear-cut choice)
  • Lead without leading (use example and love rather than authority and fear)
  • Estimate yourself justly
  • Set your goals within your compass
  • One step at a time
  • Keep your mind still
  • Let calmness guide you
  • Learn with a humble mind
  • Build your house on solid ground
  • Never seek or expect gratitude
  • See beyond yourself
  • Every breath shapes you

These are mostly self-explanatory. Take the last one for example – every breath shapes you. What does that mean? Think of every breath you take as your smallest influence. It fills up your lungs several times each minute. The quality of the air around you defines the health of your lungs and your overall well being.

If you live at sea level there is more oxygen in the air than if you live on a mountain. This affects physiology. The higher the altitude the thinner the air and your body is forced to produce more red blood cells to compensate. That is why athletes often train at higher altitudes. Their body produces more red blood cells that they can later use to absorb more oxygen at lower altitudes and get a competitive edge. 

So in essence, their high altitude training reshapes their physiology. The breath is the smallest denominator, the smallest thing that shapes and influences our being. That is why every-breath-shapes-you serves as a reminder that everything shapes us. Next, come what we drink, eat, listen to, read, watch, experience – every moment of our entire lives. All these are layers of the human path that happen all the time and knock us about, and usually, as we grow older and hopefully wiser, we start manipulating them for the better. And so we should.

We should because outer order contributes to inner calm. And within this calm, we can build beautiful things while enjoying the process itself. Our goal should always be to extract the simple pleasure from the execution of a task well done.

The same principle applies for systems and processes – they are bent and shaped by everyone that uses them and the best of these continuous adjustments should be integrated within them.

With that in mind let’s get to work. Let’s talk about systems, processes, and their beauty.

Systems & beauty

antelope canyon page Arizona

Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash

Creating something beautiful

Think Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona (pictured above) and how it was created. It was formed by the erosion of sandstone due to flash-flooding and monsoon rains that pick up sand and speed through the narrow passageways. So the layers that made this possible are:

  • Sandstone (which is relatively soft)
  • Monsoon rains
  • Flash-floods (landscape dependent)
  • Sand availability
  • Patience (thousands of years)

Through these conditions and processes, nature has carved a place of beauty that the Navajo call the Home of the Wind. This is a place that was created by a combination of the right layers. Antelope Canyon is the product here and is not created any differently than any other product. Think of the layers that made your product possible.

Let’s look at another natural system that works a little faster.

Creating a system

Think of an oak tree and how everything it needs to know in order to grow and live for 250 years is packed within a tiny acorn. The internal compass that governs a tree consist of the following key layers:

  • Grow roots to get water and nutrients
  • Grow branches to catch light
  • Grow leaves to photosynthesize
  • Shed leaves in fall and hibernate to survive the cold

Similarly, a company starts with a seed – an idea, a knowledge base or a business model. And very much acts like a tree, it grows its roots and branches in order to catch a larger market share and grow thicker.

Organizations are complex and are governed by many intertwined layers. In some cases, if a layer is broken, it directly affects operations – the problem is visible and can be addressed quickly. Say, if your QA process is not thorough your clients will sooner or later complain and you will adjust. 

In other cases, like in a company culture, when a layer is broken, missing or bad, the group can function but efficiency is negatively impacted. Think cultures that encourage finger-pointing. 

Organizational layers

children pulling on a rope on a green field - 1 (1)

Photo by Anna Samoylova on Unsplash

Cultural layers

“It is often the spirit of the legion, not its technical preparedness that wins battles.” Unknown

Let’s break that down and see how you can empower your team. The layers that govern a company culture act in subtle ways that can be hard to detect. Issues often get noticed when a broad disaster strikes and a gap in values and cohesion becomes evident. Cultural layers may include:

  • Safety
  • Respect
  • Team first
  • Openness 
  • Engagement
  • Continuous improvement
  • Being proactive
  • Embracing the spirit of challenge

A company can function if one or more of those are broken but companies that continuously reinforce their cultural values tend to outperform, in the long run, those that let toxicity creep in.

The key that helps build great cultures and brings teams closer together is open deliberation in as wide forums as possible. This feeds conduciveness and efficiency by creating and reinforcing safety, trust, support, and proactivity. Which in turn creates an environment where cohesion and creative thinking flourish. 

A good example of proactively created and continuously maintained cultural layers is Zappos and its 10 core values:

  1. Deliver WOW through service
  2. Embrace and drive change
  3. Create fun and a little weirdness
  4. Be adventurous, creative, and open-minded
  5. Pursue growth and learning
  6. Build open and honest relationships with communication
  7. Build a positive team and family spirit
  8. Do more with less
  9. Be passionate and determined
  10. Be humble

Zappos is famous for its culture, for maintaining it and using it as a foundation for everything the company does. Its business and brand successes rest on the strength of its culture.

Keep in mind, it is not enough to pen down a few catchphrases and file them away. Understand that culture is ever-evolving and needs to be continuously looked after and moderated. Culture rests very much on leadership and its components.

You can learn more by reading Tony Hsieh’s autobiography called Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose.

Also, here are a few other must-read culture books:

Leadership layers

Empower your team by embracing the art of leading without leading.

The leader’s responsibility is to maintain an optimal environment for their team to flourish. This includes everything from safety to growth. Leaders are the engines of the organization and should have a selfless concern for the well being of others.

Action expresses priority. Leaders have to strike the right balance between how and why. They have to chart an actionable plan but also get everyone behind why this is the best direction. Some of the layers that define today’s top leaders are:

  • First listen and understand
  • Discipline
  • Ownership
  • Safety
  • Empathy
  • Clarity
  • Openness
  • Vulnerability

I want to emphasize listening. In a world that cannot stop talking true listening can be your greatest advantage. A great read on the topic is a book called Motivational Interviewing by William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick. This book is targeted to psychiatrists and therapists whose job is to help people change. But the strategies and techniques within apply just as well to everyday listening. One of the key techniques of Motivational Interviewing is OARS which stands for Open questions, Affirming, Reflecting, and Summarizing. The goal here is, through acceptance, partnership, compassion, and evocation, to help people reach their telos.

Telos: Mature end-state or purpose toward which you grow given optimal conditions.

A leader’s responsibility is also to keep their team engaged both with the group’s cultural values and with production and service quality. The tools to accomplish this should be continuously refreshed and analyzed as we are creatures that need continuous belonging cues and a good nudge every so often. The magic sauce here is love – not fear or more often indifference.

Think in terms of a spectrum. For example, Augustus, the first Roman emperor was a builder of systems and culture that reinforce the mechanism of government – systems that can outlast him. On the opposite side of the spectrum is Alexander the Great who was a conqueror that held his empire together by the sheer force of this will – and when he died everything promptly fell apart.

Ask yourself:

  • Where on this spectrum do you fall?
  • What values do you hold dear?
  • What other core values define your culture?
  • How do you engage your team with your organization’s core values?

Here are two awesome books that every leader should read:

Team engagement layers

Creating the optimum environment for teams to be at their best and build better products is a continuous all-hands effort. Top-down implementation of new layers can be faster but like most quick fixes can be disruptive and less effective than the slower integration of solutions thoroughly deliberated by all stakeholders. Leaders should encourage teams to put ideas forward on a regular basis and nurture the good seedlings. Let things develop organically.

Change is the only constant but it can also be tough and should be paced.

Give people the opportunity to make their own choices. Talk less and listen more. Nudge: Tell me more! What would you do? Now it’s up to you. Let your team arrive at creative solutions on their terms. 

Team layers may include:

  • Growth opportunities
  • Training and skill development
  • Regular one-on-ones
  • Regular huddles
  • Creative reviews
  • Anything goes gatherings
  • Continuous improvement challenges
  • Catchphrases in line with values
  • Radical openness

These layers nudge us ever closer to more harmonious, open, and productive relationships.

Human nature likes order: we all like structure, regularity, and predictability – it is safer that way. We should create this safety so we can build within it.

The right combination of layers fosters engagement, familiarity, and playfulness which in turn give birth to comfort, cohesion, creativity, thoughtful risk-taking, and better group flow.

Do not underestimate playing, it is important, as it establishes the social bonds later needed to better hunt together as a team. It allows your team to deliberate tough decisions in the most casual of ways. Which in turn produces the most opinions and the optimum collective perspective. Ultimately leading to better culture, customer service, and products.

It is through play and through the furnace of challenge that lasting bonds are formed that lead to optimal flow. Daniel Coyle gives a few great examples in his book The Culture Code. One is Log PT (Log physical training) – a brutal exercise that navy seals go through on a regular basis. Another is The Herald – a group improv performance that is immensely difficult to get right. In both cases, amazing team cohesion results.

Product development layers

How to build better products or provide exceptional services? Whether you offer products or services the rules are the same. Lean has become mainstream and radical openness will soon be the norm. You either keep it frosty and follow some combo of the following layers or else:

  • Focus your development strategy
  • Listen to your team
  • Listen to your clients
  • Keep improving
  • Stay agile
  • Simplify processes so you can build more complex products
  • Have multiple QA layers
  • Keep your customer service fresh (talk to Richard Branson or Tony Hseih)
  • Keep all doors open

I like how Zappos treats its vendors the same way they treat their customers. This should be the norm.

Inevitably, complex problems will arise. But if you have the right leadership, cultural, team, and product development layers in place your team will be able to resolve them with optimal swiftness.

Every time we got stuck and I thought our process was complex, I stepped outside and looked at the construction site next door. We were lucky to witness the rise of a brand new office building from the start in the neighboring plot. We are in digital marketing so our problems live on computer screens. All we have to do is work together well enough, while sipping tea, to resolve them.

The guys outside, which to me from afar seemed like a well-oiled machine, have to work in the cold, sometimes at night, with tools and machines that can kill people if not handled properly. The coordination of land preparation, construction, plumbing, electrical, drywall, roofing, windows, flooring, and landscaping teams coming in and out of this process always puts my mind at ease about ours. Looking at completely different systems can be insightful and help you solve your complex problems.

Complex problems sometimes require multi-layered solutions but there is often a key layer you should start with. Take global warming for example. It is caused broadly by a plethora of activities related to demographic and economic expansion. Each activity is responsible for increasing carbon emissions or reducing nature’s capacity to process carbon dioxide. It is the ultimate problem.

The solutions would be a symphony of layers that include everything from stopping the burning of fossil fuels to going vegan and planting more trees. But this solution is made times more complex by political, ideological, and economical layers that are at the foundation of our societies. So a good starting point might be better communication.

Communication layers

Empower your team and build better products by promoting optimal communication, honest relationships, and productive interdependence.

It matters not what you are building – you are likely wasting a lot of time because of sub-optimal communication. Simplifying communication, and with it – boosting productivity is positively correlated with how much you trust your team. The communication layers are founded on the team layers and open and honest relationships. You should have these elements at the minimum:

  • Open
  • Serious
  • Clear
  • Kind
  • Timely

The number of interactions and hand-offs within your team are not at the front and center and are often considered a fixed part of the game. They are not. And they should not be taken for granted as they touch everything you do. They can always be better, kinder, and timelier – and that will make all the difference. Streamlined communication is the magic glue. When done well it enriches everyone’s perspective and nurtures family-like cohesion.

Keep in mind, there is always another perspective to be considered. You should always fine-tune your communication, processes, systems, and products. And you should always fine-tune your own perspective.

“I am a man, and as foolish and weak as most men… and never presumed to find much more strength and wisdom in myself than I found in another.” Augustus in John Williams’ book by the same name.

Layers in classic business book

7 Habits of Highly Effective People

In his classic book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey describes seven layers that can make an individual or a group be more effective:

  • Be proactive
  • Begin with the end in mind
  • Put first things first
  • Think win-win
  • Seek first to understand, then to be understood
  • Synergy
  • Sharpen the saw

These are a great starting point and can sprout more specific ideas and practices that any individual or organization can implement.

Good to Great

Similarly, in his classic book Good to Great, Jim Collins describes key principles that can transform a company. These principles are founded on disciplined people, disciplined thought, and disciplined action and can be considered as organizational layers that lead to success:

  • Level 5 leadership
  • First who, then what
  • Confront the brutal facts
  • The hedgehog concept
  • Culture of discipline
  • Technology accelerator

If you dig a little deeper you will find these are keenly transformational. Take the Hedgehog Concept for example. It explains how much more successful we can be in our endeavors if we are focused and specialized rather than being a jack of all trades.

To recap

The key is to aim to simplify and to introduce or remove layers in a non-disruptive way. We should not sacrifice our team’s comfort for the sake of expediency. We should strive for consistency of alignment via a more gradual and organic integration of layers.

You likely have layers that are solidified like one-on-ones, huddles, all-hands, creative reviews,  continuous improvement sessions, etc. And layers that are not so solid and could use a brush like your office space arrangement, growth paths, shared values, etc. You may even have some toxic layers like finger-pointing, poor cohesion between creative and marketing groups, and even backstabbing. The goal should always be to remove the toxic layers, improve and solidify the ones in flux, and reinforce the good ones. This last bit is not to be taken lightly, we all need constant reminders that we matter and can never get enough belonging cues.

Happy layering!