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another post on growth and growth frameworks
My son and I spent last week exploring Montreal together. He’s wanted to visit for quite a while, he had a week off from school, and I had a week with nothing to do. While I’ve been to Montreal many times (all for work), this was the first time where I visited purely as a tourist - and it was a blast. He’s eighteen, and living in New York for college, so I booked him a flight, gave him an address, and told him to meet me. This is not his first airplane trip by any means, but I think this was his first solo travel, so part of this trip was a learning experience for him. Short story is that he made it to our Airbnb in Montreal without any problems. We debriefed a bit over dinner and he told me he was “a little nervous about traveling internationally by himself, but got more confident as he traveled” - by being out of his comfort zone, he gained confidence and learned.
In a previous post on learning, I talked about being comfortable being uncomfortable. In a post just last week, Mako talked about the same thing. It’s a thing we have to do in order to improve and grow, but it’s critical that we balance being uncomfortable (or stretching ourselves) with keeping ourselves centered. But how do we balance growth and stability?
There’s Always a Framework
I was listening to the Supermangers Podcast recently, and Spencer Norman (VP, Eng at Privy) brought up a framework he uses called the comfort stretch panic model - meaning that some work is comfortable for you, some is a stretch, and some is so much of a stretch that it’s impossible for you to do.
In the comfort zone, this is where you’re, you’re really comfortable, you’ve probably executed in that zone before- it’s tasks that you’re very comfortable doing.
The stretch zone is things that are really at the boundary of your ability level, maybe it’s something that you’ve never done before, but you think you might be able to do, maybe it’s something you’ve done before you struggled with, but it’s something that you’re not necessarily super confident that you’re going to you’re going to be able to do.
And then beyond that stretch zone is the panic zone. This is where you’re not only uncomfortable, but you’re so uncomfortable that that you’re likely to freeze up and either to do a poor job and not even necessarily get the task completed.
Spencer doesn’t go into the balance between these zones much in the podcast, but the model makes sense…and I also like it because it’s similar to a model I’ve used for many years.
Manager Readmes and the ACM model
There was a time a few years ago when a number of folks wrote “Manager Readme’s” - a user manual to describe what kind of manager people were. Almost immediately, many of these grew into overly-aspirational documents of who some managers wanted to be. Camille Fournier (author of The Manager’s Path, and who I think is utterly awesome) justifiably shit on Manager Readme’s in a post subtly titled, I Hate Manager READMEs. It’s worth a read for context.
Being the absolute special snowflake that I am, I kept my readme despite Fournier’s hate for it. I don’t shove my readme in front of everyone in my org and make them read it, but I do try to keep it up to date, and encourage anyone in my organizations to call me out if ever don’t walk the talk of what wrote. I very much intend it to be the who-I-am and not the who-I-want-to-be. In the case of my readme, it’s just a bit on how I work, and bit about the way I work, and I include where some of my stronger principles come from. That’s it, but I will continue to tweak, adjust, and adapt it as I learn and grow from my experiences.
One thing that has not changed in my readme (and it’s in Github, so you can check) is a thing I call the ACM model to classify work that is Ambitious (or Stretchy), Comfortable (similar to the Norman model), and Mundane (the stuff we sometimes do even though we learn nothing doing it).
The idea is that if you look at the work you do over a week / sprint / quarter, some of that work is new, challenging, or ambitious, a big chunk of work is stuff that you're just really good at (comfortable work), and you may end up with some work that you're overqualified for, or is boring, but that just needs to get done (mundane).
We should work together to make sure you have enough ambitious work that you are challenged and growing, if you're not learning something new every week, that's something we should work on together. We also want to minimize your mundane work. Often, your mundane work may be someone else's ambitious work.
An exercise with this model is to simply list the work you do in a sprint (or in a 1-2 week period), and then classify it into the three categories. The list should have a balance of enough Ambitious work that you're not overwhelmed, and little or no Mundane work - with Comfortable work to fill the gap. If the balance is off, we should discuss, as there's likely a way to find balance by shifting work around, discovering new work, or stopping work on some items entirely.
My model doesn’t have the panic zone of the Norman model, but (so far) in my experience, when that happens, it pops up quickly as part of our normal discussions.
When we think about growing, we have to balance the scary stretchy stuff with some grounding in the things we do well. We can accelerate learning and growth when we make purposeful decisions about the balance between our ambitious, comfortable, and mundane work.
Designing Your Life
Since I made the ACM model, I found Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. I think the approaches from this book complement ACM well. The authors are proponents of an iterative, experimental approach to both personal and professional growth and encourage refining ideas in order to discover what works best. When I use the ACM model, I encourage people to experiment with different types of work and find their own balance between ambitious, comfortable, and mundane tasks. Both approaches also emphasize the importance of re-framing setbacks and failures as opportunities for learning and growth (which you know I love).
“Once you stop learning you start dying” - Albert Einstein
Learning, is supposed to be uncomfortable. The challenge then, for all of us, is to ensure that we’re always learning, and that we’re always a little uncomfortable. If we’re not stretching ourselves in some way, we will feel stuck. But - if we keep trying things that are scary or uncomfortable - and balance that with the things we’re already good at, we can reach beyond our wildest dreams.