Trying to trust

I was brainstorming with BDT’s coach (yes, we call her Coach), and she mentioned the importance of feeling like you can trust everyone in your group. And that totally reminded me of a bunch of stuff I’ve learned about trust over the past years! So this week’s post is about Trust.

Ross Smith, a Director of Test at Microsoft, took a bunch of theories about trust and now regularly puts them to the test. I had the good fortune of working in his organization for a short time, and it was pretty amazing to see the transformation he achieved in a short period of time. Ross is tricky. He uses crowd sourcing and game techniques to improve results. In other words, he turns things into games that encourage people inside and outside his organization to play and compete. The genius of it is that people end up spending extra time on projects that they aren’t even responsible for–because it’s so fun and personally rewarding for them.

Here’s an article about when Ross first created a game framework that encouraged trust behaviors inside his group. Click the link, and then first scroll down to Benefits and Metrics and read that dense paragraph. Here’s an example of some of the results:

“Our retention numbers were 20% to 50% higher than our historical numbers”

“We saw between a 10% to 60% improvement in productivity, as measured by a number of different metrics”

Okay, now go back and read that dense article to learn the specifics. Since we’re talking about software here, it was all done in a systematic way that he could measure. Out of the process, his group came up with a list of 150 trust building behaviors that they would track and turn into a game.

In another interview, Ross lists the sources of his inspiration on Trust. Scroll down to the very bottom of the interview for the list of sources.

So as musicians in a band with a couple members, we probably don’t have to be all systematic and scientific about it. My only reason for linking to those interviews is to build the case that organizational trustworthiness has been measured and it’s a huge pile of awesomeness. You can even take the next logical step: an increase in productivity should help make an increase in income. Of course income doesn’t matter so much if you’re stressed out and burned out–but again the numbers show that happiness increases just as much on average.

So it’s pretty clear that Trust is going to make a significant impact on the success of your band.

And by the way, back when I was working for Ross, he created the environment that produced a tool called the Conversation Analyzer. It analyzes your IM conversations (using a communications program called Lync) for trust building language, and gives you a score. You can track how you progress toward being someone who is trustworthy and encourages trust building.

Now, go back to that list of 150 trust building behaviors and actually take a look at it. It’s something we could spend the rest of our lives working on. So, in addition to everything else we’re working on, let’s just spend the next year focusing on maybe one or two off that list. And then move to the next, and so on. As the data shows, we’ll be happier and more productive.

Trying to estimate the cost, part 3

This is a continuation from part 2.

So previously, I ruminated on how valuable costing is with planning. As you gain experience in calculating the costs of time, resources, and money, you can be more trustworthy and more productive. Your ability to calculate costs improves your ability to make quick decisions and act on them.

But there is one more benefit from costing, and that benefit is personal growth.

When you are well versed in how long it takes to do something, then you can start thinking how to do it faster. Or you can think about what it would take to do it better. You can start asking questions about why it went so quickly or so slowly, why it cost more than you thought, or why you needed more help than you expected. Thinking about these things can reveal some of the basic assumptions we tend to make or some of the details we forget to think about.

In Shiplosion, we learned that we can record 2 or maybe 3 songs in a session, end to end. But we only expect 2 songs. We are a special case because we record everything (but the vocals) live. Then we finish up the vox. It just takes another session to mix it all down. But we know that we have to be able to play the songs flawlessly, and so that becomes a checkpoint before we can go in and record. But we learned this process by trial and error. When we started, we went in and recorded one track at a time. It took several sessions to get everything recorded for a single song. So, we had that baseline. Then we asked ourselves, how can we improve on this? How can we keep the quality of music that we want, but reduce the amount of time in the studio? So, we were in a lucky situation by being a three-piece. This resulted in a pretty major gain in productivity, and we didn’t have to sacrifice quality. And it’s a great feeling to know exactly how long it takes to record a song, and how much it will cost–without having to think about it.

In my previous post, I brainstormed some questions to ask when thinking about what it will take a learn a song. There are a lot of factors! But armed with this information, I can start asking myself how to be more efficient with song learning. For example, one thing I do is get a recording of the song and then listen to it on repeat everywhere I go. It takes a certain amount of patience, but I subconsciously learn the song while I’m getting other things done. I also work on the specific techniques on a practice pad while watching hulu. But other improvements may not have obvious benefits, and so that’s why it’s good to always be measuring your time and resources. You need to know if there’s a real benefit to a new strategy. For example, I learned that I can learn material faster if I just play each song on repeat one at a time, instead of an entire playlist on repeat.

Paying attention to costing can teach you valuable lessons about time buffers. They’re really important! We get so optimistic about what we can do, that we start to feel invincible. But things can and will go wrong. At one Shiplosion recording session, I already knew how long it would take to drive to Guitar Center, buy some new heads, and then drive to the studio. And I totally nailed that, and even showed up 30 minutes in advance to change out the heads. But what I didn’t plan for was the Guitar Center chaos effect. Sure, they gave me the number of heads I wanted, but then by the time I was ready to take them out of the boxes… I discovered that I was given the wrong heads. So, I had to kill that 30 minutes to race back and get the right heads (which actually, they didn’t have, so I had to settle for a mixed set of heads). Obviously not enough buffer.

In Bucharest Drinking Team, when we recorded our first album, we did a lot of planning and baselining to estimate how much material we could record. Those kinds of estimates are important when you’re recording live, because you have to rehearse the material in advance. And you have to rehearse in a very special way, knowing that you will have an unusual setup (unlike any show), and may not have any visual queues. We came up with a range of songs to record, and were able to get through the bare minimum. But we didn’t record everything we wanted, and we had to leave some things out–because we didn’t account for the Herding Cats Syndrome. When you have 12 people in a room, totally having a blast and amped up with energy, it’s very difficult to stay on schedule. But fortunately we had planned time buffer for the “unknown unknowns”, and we had prioritized the work so that we could just skip the lower priority things.

I’ll end with another brainstorm. Do you know the answers? I’ll actually need to figure some of these out for myself. :)

  1. How long does it take to break down your equipment? And to set it up?
  2. How long does it take for the whole band to break down equipment, load it, unload it, and set it up? What if someone is missing?
  3. How long does it take to record a song? How much does it cost?
  4. How long does it take to write a song? To learn it? To have it ready to perform? To record it?
  5. How long does it take to do a line check? Full sound check?
  6. How long does it take to drive to the next city over?
  7. What does it cost to play a show? To play a show a city over?
  8. What’s the monthly cost of being in a band?
  9. What’s the monthly cost of playing your instrument?
  10. What could go wrong with any of this?
  11. How can you improve on all of this?

Trying to prioritize

One of the metaphors I keep running across is the 80/20 rule. I’m pretty sure it comes from the Pareto Principle. Much like any number combination, I started seeing it everywhere. Actually, I first encountered it in the business world, relating to something only partially related: learning. If you search online you’ll see articles like Pareto Principle, and 80 20 Life, and 80 20 Learning. It’s pretty common. Of course, most simple number combinations are pretty common. Search for 70 30. You’ll find a new list of sites advocating the 70/30 ratio in life. Number pairs are everywhere in nature, and we humans just can’t help but try to seek out patterns in them.

I am more attached to 80/20, simply because it’s got an old dude’s name attached to it–and there is a long tradition of the rule in the software business. You can pick another rule. But here’s the point: it’s useful to devote resources toward more of one thing than another. Or conversely, it’s useful to expect results from more of one source than another. Not always useful, but useful maybe 80% of the time. See what I did there? The rule applies to itself. Meta.

Anyway, here are a few ways that I think it might apply to music.

Writing music by inspiration, not consensus

In the business world, you have 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work on a specific project. Then everyone gives feedback, and that completes the remaining project. Of course, the original 20% choose what feedback is included, and politics can play a role there I guess. Hopefully, the good feedback is mostly taken and, more importantly, the original vision stays in place.

In music, you often have a different hierarchy, but I have found that it’s similar. If just 1 person in the band works on 80% of an arrangement, then the rest of us won’t mess up the source of inspiration.

The reason for this, is that a consensus is only best for finding the common denominator. Consensus is where everyone overlaps. It’s not interesting. It’s not provocative or inspired. It’s safe. It’s watered down. It’s already understood. It lags behind. It’s conservative. Music by consensus isn’t going to create something visionary and exciting. If you are a kind of band where all are creative equals, then consider each of you individually writing your own songs–and then getting feedback to polish each song a little. This is already understood in business.


There’s always something to work on and improve. It never ends. So do you work on everything at once? I would argue that you focus on one thing, knock it out, feel good about it, get that burst of inspiration of accomplishment, and then move to the next. On the other hand, you don’t want to go soft on what you already know. So… 80/20. Search up how to get rid of debt–you’ll see the same advice. Pay off one card at a time, but pay the minimum payment on the rest.

Last minute rehearsal

I was asked at the last minute to sit in at The Them’s final show, at the Funhouse in Seattle. So, I applied the 80/20 rule to make sure I was optimizing the resources I was putting toward the project. I think it went really well. That show rocked! Anyway, rather than memorizing and practicing 100% of all the songs, I put 80% of my resources into 20% of the songs–focusing on how songs start, the key transitions, and the end. I had a short amount of time to prepare, and I knew I could read my notes and look for cues on stage that would help me fake through each song… and it worked out really well! Oh yeah, and I also spent 80% of my time rehearsing alone, so that I didn’t waste the time of my bandmates who already knew the songs.

Cool stuff. Have you used this rule? What other rules are out there?

Trying to finish things

I went through a phase where I would spend a lot of time perfecting grand opuses or highly complex beats before sharing them with people. Or grand collections of grand opuses or rhythms. But the problem was that, during the long process, the music would start to feel outdated, or I would improve as a musician, or my interests would change, or I would get better hardware, and on and on. So I would have to change course mid-stream, and that would be a set-back. The art was a struggle because I was racing to keep up, and yet never finishing anything.

I mentioned in a previous post that I’m trying to finish things more regularly now. Part of the reason is because you just have to finish sometime! But here’s my main point: No matter how quickly you create a piece of art, you will have changed by the time it’s done. Because it’s changed you, and hopefully you have matured. At least this is what happens to me. It changes me as I work through the process, and I grow. So, art should never be good enough to the artist, if the process runs its natural course. I now accept this, and I am trying to record as much as possible. As long as I can look back in the long term, and see the trend of each recording getting better and better, then I figure I should be content. If I just look in the short term, I only see something that feels outdated.

In the software world, it’s often said “shipping should be considered a feature”. Or there’s the saying, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” I think both apply here. Just keep creating and sharing, and try to keep up with yourself.