Learning to be a Searcher in a Planner World. Speech @ Strata Data Conference

I presented a speech at the Strata Data Conference in San Jose last week to a few hundred attendees. This speech is of a particular format (called Ignite): 5 minutes with a 20 slide PowerPoint deck that auto-advances after 15 seconds. The speakers are forced to move quickly through a story and keep pace with their advancing slides.

It was a thrilling opportunity. I chose to speak on a topic I first explored about a year ago in this post, “Searching for Plans.” This time around I applied the planner and searcher dichotomies to the business world.

I’ve included the transcript of my speech below and the corresponding PowerPoint deck above. Each stanza below links to a slide in the deck. You can also watch the presentation live here:

I was born a planner. Since as early as I can remember, I’ve choreographed my decisions to achieve my goals. SATs, college, dream job, a relationship… setting a clear intention has given me clarity and peace of mind.

Yet, planning has a dark side too. Each time that starting pistol fires and I race towards my next goal, I feel blinders rise in my periphery. A wide landscape of light and opportunity tunnels to single point in the distance.

Plans are restrictive. You’re committed to a single solution to a challenge or opportunity. There are often many solutions that could get you where you’re wanting to go, but we find comfort in following a single path.  

There’s another way. I call it searching. Searchers experiment with different choices, committing to what’s working and cutting the rest. I was born a planner; I now consider myself a searcher.

On the data team at Crisis Text Line, we’ve undergone a similar transition from planning to searching. I’m going to touch on that journey and discuss how you might put on a searcher’s cap to overcome your next personal or professional challenge.

I’ve been a part of Crisis Text Line for over 2 years now – one year as a volunteer and one year as a Data Scientist. We’re a national not-for-profit that provides 24/7, free, and anonymous crisis intervention by text.

Here’s how it works; you message into 741-741 and you’re connected to a Crisis Counselor. The Crisis Counselor uses their training to help you from your hot moment to a cooler calm.

We have a thriving network of more than 4,000 volunteer Crisis Counselors. They’ve all gone through our 30 hours of online training in empathy to prepare for their conversations with texters.

Much like Lyft and Airbnb, we are a marketplace. Counselors on one side; texters on the other. Our two biggest organizational challenges are churn, keeping our counselors active, and capacity, optimizing when and how our counselors are online.

In October of last year, we went viral. Thousands of people across social media platforms shared our number with supportive messages of how they had found our support. We saw 2-3X our average daily volume for nearly a week.

The magnitude of this spike forced us to rethink how we handle unexpectedly high volume. A few hours into the surge, a group of us devised 7 tests to run in 72 hrs we hypothesized would help us better support our texters.

A majority of the tests were successful, enabling us to manage the incoming volume. Next week we tried another set of tests. And more the following. Embracing our searcher mindsets, we stumbled our way into a formalized high tempo testing environment.

We decided to run six tests every two weeks – three focused on churn and three on capacity. I’ve managed the capacity tests for the last four months; it’s been exhilarating, disappointing, insightful, and frustrating — all at once. So, let’s see three things we’ve learned.

How do you decide what to test? At first we followed our gut, investing in whatever tests we could execute on quickly. This led us to testing some ideas that weren’t impactful. Use data to prioritize pain points and optimize your resources.

Where do you store what you’re testing and what you’re learning? At first we used a slew of Google docs to track our testing process. It was a mess. We moved to the Growth Hackers software to store all our testing documentation and learnings.

Testing to product. At first our learning velocity was quicker than our product velocity. We’d validate tests than have to wait to have them productized. We’ve realigned the two so that as tests are validated they can be quickly built.

So, to recap, lesson #1: Use data to inform priorities. Lesson #2: Create documentation around tests & learnings. And, lesson #3: experiment with the right number of tests to match your learning and product velocities.

We live in a planner world. There’s another path: searching. Sporadic (or complete) failure is inevitable; progress & discovery is possible, if the willpower and resources come together just right.

It took us 3 ½ years to reach 1M conversations; it’ll take us 10 months to hit our 2M mark. We need Counselors to support those in pain. If you want to join our community of empathy superheros, check out crisistextline.org/volunteer.

66% of our texters share something with a counselor that they’ve never shared with anyone else. For all those that have felt like there’s nobody out there to listen, let me end on this: you’re not alone.

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I grew up in a small town called Orinda, about 20 minutes to the East of San Francisco. Naturally curious, eager to learn, intuitively organized and empathically geared – I strive to make conscious decisions to drive impact. My mind never stops working. Whether in the classroom, professional environments, volunteering capacities or personal hobbies, I enjoy thinking critically about my surroundings and problem solving to find solutions.

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