The magic of the personal check-in: red, yellow, green

Many years ago, my coach Jerry Colonna from Reboot taught me the idea of a “red / yellow / green” check-in. In a nutshell, it’s a practice where meeting participants kick off a meeting and talk about how they are feeling coming into the meeting: happy, angry, frustrated, tired. . . . any answer is fine. “Red” means you are having trouble focusing,traffic-light-157459_640 you’re extremely distracted, and/or you’re feeling distressed. “Green” means you are feeling good, focused, relaxed, and ready for any discussion. “Yellow” is somewhere in between. Bart Lorang (founder/CEO of FullContact) wrote a great post about the use of personal check-ins in his company, which he also learned from Reboot: “Red, Yellow, Green: Bringing Personal Check-Ins to the Office.”

I’ll admit up front that when I first was introduced to this many years ago, my first thought was, “this is business, why are we doing this? but I’m game to try anything. Since then, I’ve seen it work with my own eyes and became a passionate believer in the practice (on the rare occasion when it didn’t seem to work, it was usually because one or more participants weren’t willing to be truly vulnerable — success in this practice does require expressing how you feel authentically!)

Proof that it works

Much later, I learned that there are quantitative proof points that the “red/yellow/green” practice delivers real business results. See this excerpt from a Harvard Business Review piece, “How One Hospital Improved Patient Safety in 10 Minutes a Day“:

Most modern health care improvements seem to involve expensive technology and an uncomfortable amount of change management. But clinical and nonclinical staff at the Rotterdam Eye Hospital have improved patient care and raised staff morale at a very modest cost: 10 minutes a day and a special deck of cards.

Members of the hospital’s design thinking team were inspired by something they saw when they boarded a KLM Airline flight: During a pre-flight huddle of the cabin crew, team members introduced each other and then asked each other two questions on flight safety.

When they got back to Rotterdam Eye Hospital, the managers asked themselves why couldn’t they add a similar feature to their own “team-start” huddles?

. . .

Here’s how it works:

At the start of every shift, the team members get together for a brief “team-start.” Each team member rates his or her own mood as green (I’m good), orange (I’m okay but I have a few things I’m concerned about) or red (I’m under stress). The rest of the team doesn’t need to know that you’re under stress because you’re having a dispute with your landlord or you are worried about your ill toddler. How you feel, however, is important because it affects how you should be treated.

. . .

. . . the hospital’s performance on its patient-safety audits has risen, and caregiver job satisfaction has improved substantially, moving from 8.0 to 9.2 on a 10-point scale after staff began playing the game. The nursing home and rehabilitation center reported similar results.

The staffers have observed a variety of other gains as well. For instance, the game has encouraged team members to get to know each other better, and patients are reassured when team members are familiar with each other.

Psychological safety

Still thinking this is weird or that expressing one’s “feelings” doesn’t belong in the results-oriented business world? That it’s all about being tough and hiding one’s emotions? Be sure to read Charles Duhigg’s excellent piece in the NYT Magazine: “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.” Put simply, Google — a data-driven company if there ever was one — did a huge study of what makes teams successful and this was the core conclusion: “Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.”

What is “psychological safety”? It’s “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up. It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.” (from a 1999 paper by Amy Edmondson at Cornell)

The reason that the red/yellow/green exercise is so powerful is that it can quickly create a space of “psychological safety” that helps teams do better work. It’s also quick and simple. You don’t need to hire expensive consultants or take personality tests or get a special certification. In my coaching practice, I’ve had a couple of initially skeptical CEO clients try it and the reports back have been glowing. As Bart notes in his post: “it’s not intended to be a big group therapy session. It’s intended to be a tool for us to use to note how we’re doing, understand the root cause, put that aside, and get to work!”

Yes, expressing how you’re feeling in your team meeting actually has the effect of helping you more quickly get down to business. If you’re serious about building a great team at any level, I highly recommend the practice.

(Note: I am “green” at the moment because I enjoyed writing this post. -CD)

p.s. It’s good for one’s personal life, too. Ever had a family situation where someone said, “I wonder what’s up with [mom/dad/brother/sister]?” Imagine how things would be if that person you’re wondering about said up front how they were feeling and why so you didn’t have to speculate?

Seven surprises for new CEOs

Being CEO is different than any other executive position. I’ve lived it myself.  I also work with many CEO clients in my coaching practice who are adjusting to the role and are surprised by some of the dynamics around it.

I’ve found that when I share a particular HBR piece from 2004 with them and they read it, those CEOs I work with often breathe a sigh of relief as they recognize they are having an entirely normal experience in the new role. The piece is “Seven surprises for new CEOs” and this is the intro paragraph:

Bearing full responsibility for a company’s success or failure, but being unable to control most of what will determine it. Having more authority than anyone else in the organization, but being unable to wield it without unhappy consequences. Sound like a tough job? It is—ask a CEO. Surprised by the description? So are CEOs who are new to the role. Just when an executive feels he has reached the pinnacle of his career, capturing the coveted goal for which he has so long been striving, he begins to realize that the CEO’s job is different and more complicated than he imagined. [yes, the authors need to work on their gender language. -CD]

The seven surprises are:

  1. You Can’t Run the Company
  2. Giving Orders Is Very Costly
  3. It Is Hard to Know What Is Really Going On
  4. You Are Always Sending a Message
  5. You Are Not the Boss
  6. Pleasing Shareholders Is Not the Goal
  7. You Are Still Only Human

That’s the core list of seven but the explanations of each are worth reading. Be sure to check it out if you’re a new CEO or if you work with one and want to understand him/her better.

Quantitative data on diversity and business results from McKinsey and Goldman

Note: I’m experimenting with publishing content first in my newly-launched newsletter, Fieldnotes, and then here on my blog. Aside from some minor edits, this blog post is taken from the first edition of Fieldnotes sent out earlier this week. Subscribe here or feel free to take a peek at the first issue.

Diverse boards (and executive teams) lead to better results for shareholders and there is rigorous research from reliable sources to prove it. McKinsey released a report on diversity this month that got a fair amount of coverage but I also uncovered some intriguing data from Goldman that barely got any coverage. Below is what you need to know from each.

McKinsey’s “Delivering through Diversity” report (PDF) contains an analysis of 1000+ companies in 12 countries. This WSJ story has a good summary. Key data:

  • Companies that ranked in the top 25% in terms of the ethnic mix of their executive teams turned out to be 33% more likely to outperform competitors on profits than those in the bottom 25%.

  • Companies with the most women on their management teams were 21% more likely to achieve above-average profitability, compared with those with relatively few women in senior, decision-making roles.

  • Still a LOT of work to do. Among the 346 companies included in its 2015 study, the collective share of women on executive teams has since risen only 2 percentage points to 14%, while the proportion of ethnic and cultural minorities has climbed just 1 percentage point to 13%. This is, of course, pathetic.

Research that got very little coverage but is must-read is Goldman’s detailed 40-page report “The PMs Guide to the ESG Revolution: From Article of Faith to Mainstream Investing Tool” (PDF). The report focuses purely on ESG measures that boost stock price and generate “alpha” (see this for extended definition of “alpha”) over a 3-5 year period. The key finding: gender diversity ranks the highest of all of the factors they studied as companies with higher ratios of female employees saw an average annual alpha of 3.3% across all sub-sectors. If you don’t want to read the report, listen to Derek Bingham of the GS research team discuss it in this podcast (btw, Goldman’s podcast series is quite good).

At this point, if you’re a CEO or other senior leader and you don’t have a direct hand in building a more diverse company, you’re being negligent as a business leader and working against the long-term interests of your company.

(Yet. . . activist investors are more likely to target female CEOs. Firms with female CEOs were 50% more likely to be targeted by activists and approximately 60% more likely to be targeted by multiple activists as noted in Harvard Business Review. Go figure.)

Best books for new, first-time managers

I recently asked on Twitter: “what book would you recommend most for new, first-time managers?” It’s been a while since I’ve been a first-time manager or managed first-time managers directly, so I was curious. Below is the list of what folks recommended. The categories were added by me after realizing an unstructured list of 35+ books would be too overwhelming. I certainly haven’t read all of these books but put some notes in the list next to books I have read and a few notes next to ones I haven’t read but know something about. If you have a book you think should be here and isn’t, email me ( I’ll also include this in the newsletter I’m launching (more info here).

General management & leadership

Tech management and leadership

Note: having been a CTO and CEO, I recommend reading these books alongside the more general management books. An engineering leader with strong general management chops and business skills is a rare and valuable breed. 



 Prioritization and results

Psychology and how people think

Other (literature, non-fiction with important themes)

Michael Dearing suggested taking his very well-regarded general management course, so I mention that here. Even if you can’t take the course, check out page two of the syllabus for some great readings. Thanks, Michael!

Again, if you have a book you think should be here and isn’t, email me!( I’ll try to keep it updated.

Keynote at Railsconf

I did a keynote at Railsconf yesterday entitled “Optimizing for developer happiness.” Huge thanks to Ben Scofield and Chad Fowler for the invite. It was a blast!

Below is the video and here are the slides on Slideshare.

I’ve got a longer post in me that builds on the themes in the talk — hoping to get that up in the next couple of weeks!

Update: just found a talk called “Optimize for Happiness” by Tom Preston-Werner (Github co-founder) about optimizing for happiness vs. money. Tom’s talk definitely pre-dated mine and looks at happiness from a somewhat different point-of-view. Definitely worth reading/watching.

How we manage development and operations at Etsy

I just found a new reason to love Quora: questions people ask can spur you to write about topics you’ve had kicking around in your head for some time. Such was the case with this one:

How does Etsy manage development and operations?
Etsy seems to have scaled far and fast, whilst continuing to add new features; how is all this managed – is there a strictly-defined process within which engineers operate, or is it a case of hiring clever people and letting them get on with it (Facebook-style)?

I posted my answer, and cross-posted it to the Etsy engineering blog, too.

Collecting software methodologies

I’ve always enjoyed reading about software development methodologies and approaches (my favorite essay is Frederick Brooks’ “No Silver Bullet“), probably less because I love software and more because it’s interesting to see how people, who are inherently fallible, translate their hopes and desires into instructions for an inanimate machine. When you mix the innate fallibility of humanity with the near-absolute certainty of the “right way” present in at least a few software engineers, you’ve got a very peculiar kind of theater.

Bust of George Bernard Shaw, Reading Room, British MuseumWhen people ask me what I think about various software development methodologies, I can’t say that I have a super-strong opinion except that processes that are generally “agile” are good. Recently, I was thinking about this and dusted off a copy of Major Barbara, a George Bernard Shaw play (one of my favorites) that deals with religion. Adolphous Cusins (a not-so-sympathetic character in the play) says this in Act II:

I am a sort of collector of religions; and the curious thing is that I find I can believe them all.

That’s pretty much how I feel about XP vs. Scrum vs. your-agile-methodology-here. There’s a little bit of goodness in all of them.

(Photo: bust of George Bernard Shaw in the Reading Room at the British Museum)