Jeff Bezos’s Peculiar Management Tool for Self-Discipline
The modern workplace’s vogue is informal information exchange. We sit in open floor plan offices so that we can spontaneously collide, chat, and collaborate. The office setup for a meet-cute of ideas can be fizzy and energizing, though when sparks aren’t flying, the colliding can be noisy and distracting.
Jeff Bezos takes a totally different approach to management far from that madding crowd. He has a contrarian management technique that’s peculiarly old school — write it down.
In Amazon senior executive meetings, before any conversation or discussion begins, everyone sits for 30 minutes in total silence, carefully reading six-page printed memos. Reading together in the meeting guarantees everyone’s undivided attention to the issues at hand, but the real magic happens before the meeting ever starts. It happens when the author is writing the memo.
What makes this management trick work is how the medium of the written word forces the author of the memo to really think through what he or she wants to present.
"Full sentences are harder to write," [Bezos] says. "They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking."
In having to write it all down, authors are forced to think out tough questions and formulate clear, persuasive replies, reasoning through the structure and logic in the process.
It makes sense that Amazon executives call these six-page memos “narratives.” There’s a conflict to be resolved and a story to reach the company’s happy endings of solutions, innovation, and happy customers. Specifically, the narrative has four main elements.
[The six-page narratives are structured] like a dissertation defense:
1) the context or question.
2) approaches to answer the question - by whom, by which method, and their conclusions
3) how is your attempt at answering the question different or the same from previous approaches
4) now what? - that is, what’s in it for the customer, the company, and how does the answer to the question enable innovation on behalf of the customer?
Legendary CEO of Intel, Andy Grove, takes Bezos’s view on writing up a notch. Grove considered written reports vital because “the author is forced to be more precise than he might be verbally.” In fact, he considered the whole exercise of writing “more of a medium of self-discipline than a way to communicate information”, so much so that his ultimate conviction was that “writing the report is important; reading it often is not.”
Bezos and Grove’s imposition of writing as a medium turns self-discipline and personal reflection into a distributed process. Reflection is a fundamental way to think through and give yourself feedback on your work, where feedback can be otherwise rather scarce in the workplace but integral to improving the quality of your thought and action. Encouraging reports to engage in the reflective process of writing helps each and every individual autonomously work toward becoming a master of their craft.
So reflect and write it down, verbs and all. You’ll be better prepared and excited to present, share, collide, collaborate, and lead at work!
Walter Chen is co-founder of iDoneThis, an ex-lawyer, and an amateur Starcraft player. You can follow his tweets at @smalter.
10 Socially Conscious Startups on How They Find Happiness and Motivation in Changing the World
What’s the secret to happiness at work? Recent studies show that it’s not how much money you make, but how much progress.
We’ve written before about the progress principle, an idea developed by Harvard Business School Professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer, who found that the greatest indicator of happiness and motivation at work is incremental progress toward a meaningful goal.
Meaningful goals can be anything from the team’s stated objective, to a personal goal. It can be tangible and specific, like tackling the bugs in a program, or more general, like ensuring customer happiness.
We were curious about the progress principle in action, but meaningful goals are so personal and variable that we didn’t know where to begin. So we approached startups that served a social good. For these companies, their meaningful goal was collective, explicit and already built into the job description.
We asked each of these startup founders:
Your startup works towards a meaningful social good everyday. How does your goal motivate your team’s hard work and happiness daily?
Here are their responses:
"I think everyone here stays in this because they know that it has a shot of really mattering to the world, and because that potential pulls some of the best work out of them and the people around them that they’ve ever seen."
"Many people are tired of deciding whether to do good or do well — here we get to do both. Having a higher mission beyond revenue brings the team together, lifts us up when times are tough, and motivates us to move faster and farther. We’re reshaping civil society through innovation, and that sort of higher mission is hard to escape. When profits and social good go hand in hand, it’s magic."
"We’ve built our ‘meaningful goal’ into the DNA of our company. We provide a meal to an American in need for every new member who joins. One member. One meal. That means when we’re doing statistical analysis of our cohorts, it’s not just numbers on a page of what our average daily CPA is, it’s real impact that we’re analyzing and the more effective we can be with our job, the more social good we will create. And it’s the social good that gets our team excited and keeps them passionate during the long hours that a startup can require!"
"At BetterDoctor, we always ask whether the task at hand is driving our mission ‘Make healthcare simpler and more transparent.’ At the simplest level I believe that happy employees are made of these three elements:
1. they have meaningful goals
2. they can make independent decisions
3. they belong to a group of likeminded people.
For me and my team the best validation of our hard work is the feedback we get from consumers who were able to find a great doctor via BetterDoctor. This always make us happy!”
"Our work helps to bring increased electricity and clean water to those who haven’t had access to it regularly before. Receiving a positive email, phone call or photo from someone that we’ve helped reminds us every day that we are working on something meaningful. I’m passionate about developing a solution that benefits others, and I hope to share that passion with my team."
"Our goal at DoGoodBuyUs is to change consumerism because we believe the world can’t change until it does. With that goal in mind, our employees understand that in everything they do, whether increasing our partners, or producing an event, they are bringing awareness to our charity’s causes. Knowing that your work is directly impacting others in a positive and tangible manner is an amazing feeling. We’ve been lucky to combine passion with career."
"The giving component of Pubslush is the heart and soul of our operation, and much of our team has been involved specifically in education philanthropy for years. Whenever we face a challenge, we collectively remind each other of our ultimate goal to alleviate children’s illiteracy. Considering in this moment that over 100 million children worldwide don’t have access to literature, our goal really helps us keep perspective.
We often reminisce about our favorite childhood books. How they affected us. I think that provides the greatest reminder of the power of books and why achieving our goal is so incredibly urgent.”
"There is nothing more important than having purpose in your life as one of the critical elements of true happiness. We are on a mission to give people a strong voice to show that their healthy lifestyle matters. Employees get up for that in the morning. They overcome obstacles for that. They care about something that is much bigger than themselves.
We can rally around this purpose as a team and feel great about it. All companies face their own rollercoaster of business ups and downs. True purpose allows those swings to create less whiplash and distraction for the team.”
"At Greenling, we have a BHAG (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal). Ours is to change the way ten million people source their food. Our company works towards sustainability in everything we do and deliver. That goal is one of the primary reasons all of our team works here. On a daily basis, the team gets to interact with products they believe in and customers they care about."
Mason Arnold Co-Founder & Cookie Monster, Greenling
"On a daily basis we update a display in our office of total acres of affordable drip irrigation sold. Seeing this number grow every day is a tangible motivation that keeps everybody focused.
We also have various customer success stories posted in our office which remind each employee of the impact of their hard work. During our monthly company-wide meetings all team member share their achievements and how they relate to the overall goal of improving the livelihood of millions of small-plot farmers. Field staff and office staff get to share and represent their different work experiences, allowing each employee to see the different sides of the business that are required for overall success.”
Goals drive your employees’ sense of purpose and progress. While these 10 startups set their sights on achieving a social good as a meaningful goal, any other personally and professionally gratifying objective can be just as rewarding in terms of happiness, motivation and productivity at work.
Show your team that they’re making progress, however incremental or slow it may be, and remember to celebrate yesterday’s achievements — it’ll be the fuel for their happiness and hard work today.
Ginni Chen is Chief Happiness Officer at iDoneThis. When not striving for the happiness of iDoneThis members, she’s a rock climbing instructor, skier and collector of first edition books. You should follow her on Twitter at @GinniChen.
“'The longer you work, the less efficient you are,' said Bob Kustka, the founder of Fusion Factor, a productivity and time-management consulting firm in Norwell, Mass. He says workers are like athletes in that they are most efficient in concentrated bursts…. Working energy, like physical energy, 'is best used in spurts where we work hard on a few focused activities and then take a brief respite,' he says. And those respites look an awful lot like wasting time.”—
Lisa Belkin explores how we are both working harder and wasting more time. Whether you consider it wasting time, or productive “jell time”, she concludes that it’s the end result that matters.
By now, participants of NaNoWriMo are more than halfway through writing 50,000 words. That’s about 1,667 words a day. Not necessarily that many good words. But the point of it is to get you to start, so that by the end of November, there’s a novel. A whole novel!
I’ve never been able to do NaNoWriMo. The thought of all those words the first day — 1,667 probably pretty stinky words — is enough to make me run to the sofa and turn on the TV instead. I know I’m good at that.
The Starting Challenge
The blank page of any project — writing, exercising, making, learning, doing — is paralyzing. It’s the weight of great expectations and unmet aspiration. It’s the fear of finding out that you’re no good, of failing, of looking stupid. It’s laziness. It’s the specter of busyness that looms over your shoulder saying you don’t have the time and energy for this, to do it “right” — and you listen.
Facile advice like “Just start!” is no weapon in the struggle against those negative feelings and the heavy inertia of inactivity. It’s not merely by getting to point of “just do it!”, but by getting in the right place first. Merlin Mann reminds us that getting started requires acceptance, not struggle:
It’s not that successful and productive people don’t … feel that same fear—it’s just that most of the good ones have figured out how to either accept the fears as a natural part of the process, or they just choose to ignore each fakey barrier the second it appears.
In the same vein, Cheryl Strayed would bestow two words upon you, sweet pea: humility and surrender:
You loathe yourself, and yet you’re consumed by the grandiose ideas you have about your own importance. You’re up too high and down too low. Neither is the place where we get any work done.
We get the work done on the ground level.
How to Get to the Ground Level
Lindsay Zoladz struggled with starting to write in her early 20s. She sat around, “not-writing" a lot. She figured out how to get to the ground level by taking up the practice of one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characters in The Beautiful and the Damned, Gloria, who keeps a “line-a-day” diary.
This is how Lindsay recommends keeping your own line-a-day diary:
Write one sentence a day. It can be anything — a quote or an observation from your workday or a one-sentence-short story or a very plain summary of what you did that day. Play with the drooly elasticity of sentences; experiment with colons and semicolons and run-ons and grammatical inaccuracies. If you are going through something that makes it difficult to write even one sentence, just write the date, or a period with no words before it, or maybe just the word, “Nothing.”
Gloria isn’t a writer, but Lindsay, line by line, page by page, becomes one — from not-writing, to sometimes-writing, to full-fledged “I’m a writer.” She has written at publications, including Pitchfork, Washington City Paper, Salon, Slate, and The Believer. That’s pretty awesome.
Write something every day. Anything. One line. One line is easier. And then another.
How to Keep Going
Alexander Chee also became a writer. He learned, through a nonfiction writing class at Wesleyan with Annie Dillard, that talent was nothing without work:
Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science, it’s habits of mind and habits of work.
Once you’ve overcome the hurdles of starting, you have to keep going, with good work habits. One habit that Chee practices is a daily writing journal for his novel. It gets him in the right place to start every day:
I keep a journal of my novel that is just about the novel–any ideas, questions, thoughts, lines, even just entries like “page 77 is still a problem!” or “return to page 13!” I make the entry, even if it’s just a few lines, every day of work on it as I close the day’s work, and I also put scraps in there, deleted sections and lines I want to save. If I’m working on an edit like I am now with a master copy, I include the page number from the master.
When I return to work the next day, I reread that entry first and I return to where I was and what I was thinking about the more quickly.
Maintaining a writer’s work diary like Chee is a great way to leverage the progress principle to keep motivated and moving. Record your progress, plan your next steps, think things through, and focus on the work of writing.
We’d love to know how you got started writing, making, and doing, and what methods you use to keep going!
The Sprawling Guide to Content Marketing that Made Us $10,000
We’ve experienced modest success with our content, to the point where people ask me for tips on content marketing. We went from $0 to generating $10,000 in revenue almost purely with content marketing. With what I’ve learned along the way, I’ve boiled how I think about content marketing down to one key approach.
Think distribution first.
What’s true for your product is true for content. The hardest part of starting a company most likely is acquiring your customers. The hardest part of starting a blog is acquiring your audience.
Distribution is the limiting constraint. Start there.
Thinking distribution first means framing all of my thinking with respect to content around distribution. Here’s how I think about content marketing viewed through the lens of distribution.
Is the distribution channel democratic or does it have a gatekeeper? Reddit and Hacker News are two great places to start distributing content, because they are democratic. Compare that with getting published on Forbes where you have to go through a gatekeeper like an editor or a PR firm to get written up.
One trick that I’ve used successfully is simple but effective: prove your success elsewhere, then go waving it around to everyone you can find. Here’s an example of a pitch I sent to Alyson Shontell at Business Insider that resulted in the publication of a guest article about bossless startup company cultures.
Would you be interested in a guest post on the topic? I’d tighten it up and add more examples from top startups like Skillshare and Stripe.
It’s a hot topic in the startup world, as startups aren’t only disrupting industries, they’re reinventing how companies are built and organized.
Let me know what you think.
Here’s a related trick that plays off of the same dynamic: When you write a successful post, it will inevitably get tweeted by other tech journalists and the content of the post will make its way into other pieces. I reach out to those journalists with “(iDoneThis)” or “(iDoneThis founder)” in the email subject with just one thing to say—”Thank you”. Later, if I think I have something of interest to them, I’ll send them a followup email using the same email thread.
This works because I am sincerely incredibly grateful to have people mention us and share our articles, and their sharing of the article qualifies their interest and knowledge of who we are and what we’re about.
Finding a relevant distribution channel that’s democratic can help the no-name founder bootstrap these processes.
Will the distribution channel give you a one-time boost, or can you turn it into a repeatable process? PR is often denigrated because it’s often either expensive or not repeatable. In other words, it only becomes repeatable by spending money in amounts that are likely per customer greater than customer lifetime value. The main reason for this is because PR is based on personal relationships.
There’s a place where the distinction between content marketing and PR blurs, and that’s what I would call the “business development” approach to content marketing.
The idea mirrors the distinction between sales and business development: either sell one widget at a time, or make a distribution deal for someone to sell widgets for you. You can either pitch one journalist and get one story at a time, or you can pitch the editor and make a single deal for them to publish your articles for you.
Once you get knee deep in this, you see how content publishing on the internet works. Business Insider publishes Inc articles. SFGate publishes Business Insider articles. And on and on. There is nothing these machines crave more than content, especially content that’s qualified as being the stuff that their audience will like.
In my experience, a business development deal in this context takes one of two forms: a guest posting gig or a republishing agreement.
A guest posting gig means that you have to write original content and you may have to get approval for it, but you have a relationship with the editor and the publication so that your content will get published on a reliable basis. Nevertheless, a word of caution: this is not for the faint of heart. Leo Widrich of Buffer, who is basically the god of guest blogging, got Buffer to 100,000 registered users almost entirely via guest posting but he did that while producing 1-2 blog posts every day for months.
Republishing means not having to create new content and possibly not having to submit the articles for approval if the republishing process happens programmatically.
To make these deals happen, it’s helpful to think like a biz dev person. How do I get a warm intro to a decision-maker? What’s my angle/edge? What’s their interest? What’s my value prop? What’s my social proof? What’s my success story?
Who is my audience, and how do they consume content in this channel? Know your audience, as the old adage goes.
Focusing on distribution forces you to think about who you’re writing for—potential customers, potential partners, potential investors, etc.
Thinking about your audience will help you to choose the appropriate distribution channels. Looking at the intersection between who the audience is and what kind of content succeeds in that distribution channel is vital to crafting content that will also succeed in that channel.
There are a few dimensions along which content can be crafted in accordance with how the audience consumes content within that channel. For instance, images do really well on Facebook while quotes do really well on Twitter. Longer thought pieces do well on Metafilter and Hacker News, while skimmable articles (tools posts, tips posts, etc.) do well on Inc.
On a more basic level, you can’t leverage Pinterest as a distribution channel unless you make your content an image; you can’t leverage YouTube unless you make your content a video; you can’t leverage Slideshare unless you make your content into a slide deck.
A mistake that we’ve made that I often see is using automation to crosspost the same content to multiple channels. When Twitter posts get crossposted to Facebook, what you’re left with is Facebook posts with Twitter syntax that’s nonsense to most Facebook users and looks horrible because of the lack of syntax highlighting. Twitter posts on Facebook don’t make use of the ability of Facebook posts to be longer than 140 characters, to share links without having the short URL clutter the post, and to have images appear as images on the Facebook wall, not as links.
Sincerity and authenticity under this frame of thinking happens at the intersection of fidelity to the distribution channel and your company’s/product’s soul.
When content isn’t tailored to the channel, what ends up happening is that you have a presence, but you don’t thrive. You don’t get much for your trouble.
It’s not enough to exist in various distribution channels, it’s vital that you understand what content does well, how it does well, and why. It’s obvious that on Tumblr, for example, if you’re reblogged, more people will see your content because another person’s reblog means that they’ve reposted your article in their feed. Another basic of social media distribution is that if you have more followers, more people will see your content.
What’s less obvious is that on Tumblr, in the sidebar, if you hit “Find Blogs”, it will take you to the Spotlight page. (Perhaps, as well, you’re more likely to be a suggested follow if you’re a Spotlight blog.) Apparently a lot of people use this to find blogs to follow, because after being put on the Spotlight page, we went from having a few hundred followers to our current count: 34,000+ followers. We’re extremely grateful to Tumblr for that.
There are endless opportunities to be featured—to be above the fold—and it can make a huge difference. In my experience, this involves figuring out the site mechanics that elevate content and connecting with the right gatekeepers.
How do I capture my audience and build my own distribution channel? You have it best when people come straight to you for content, and you aren’t reliant on any channel for distribution. Part of the point of this article is that writing the content is probably less than half of the job in making content work for you—the other half of your job is getting distribution. When you’re able to distribute your own content, you have it good.
One a basic level, this may mean putting a Twitter follow button and a Facebook like button on your blog. When you build up a following, you may get as much juice by pushing your content through your social media distribution as you would by getting the article published on Forbes.
Another tactic that I’ve heard is effective is requiring an email address to access certain pieces of heavy duty content (like an e-book), and then using that email to push content. Also, I’ve heard that email newsletters with relevant, high quality content like Wistia’s newsletter do very well. When a site has gotten enough backlinks with relevant anchor text, your blog becomes a search destination.
The harder part is building a real community. Hacker News is an example of a community that emerged out of a set of content’s shared themes. I started as a reader of Paul Graham’s essays and bought into the hacker ethos, and so I naturally became a member of the Hacker News community. Now Hacker News is a powerful platform for publicizing Y Combinator companies. They leveraged an audience into building a community.
A community is much more powerful than an audience, because a community grows as it grows, but an additional audience member isn’t likely to mean an additional audience member.
How do I create high quality content in a scalable way? When distribution as a constraint begins to loosen, the hardest problem is producing great content over and over.
One easy way to start is by taking a storyline that has proven to be successful in the past and rewriting it to suit different distribution channels. Take the interesting thread from the successful article and make it interesting in a number of different contexts. You can get pretty fast at this and produce content that you are certain is of interest to a lot of people in only a few hours.
A related tactic that companies like Buzzfeed and Business Insider have turned into an art form is taking content that you’ve observed is successful elsewhere (e.g., Reddit), boiling it down to its essence (ie, taking the most interesting thing out of it and making it the whole article), sticking a killer title on the post, and watching the visitors roll in.
Another tactic that I’ve observed (but haven’t tried) is what companies like Yipit and Seatgeek have done really well with. They use data from their platform to produce industry research that the fact-hungry press picks up. The press cites your stats over and over, and all you had to do was do research once. The bonus is that pulling the stats sounds like fun.
However you accomplish it, the thing to be avoided is creating a hit-driven content strategy. We still experience considerable variance in the results of our content strategy, but it’s far less than when we first got started. Reliable distribution is the foundation to a repeatable model for effective content.
Walter Chen is co-founder of iDoneThis, an ex-lawyer, and an amateur Starcraft player. You can follow his tweets at @smalter.
Perhaps you’ve heard of this “Bosslessness,” the latest pre-existing corporate substructure The Internet has now decided is trending. Perhaps you’ve heard it mostly involves de-titling everyone, then allowing intra-office relative strengths to organically emerge around compelling projects. And perhaps you’ve heard it’s profitable.
I call Shenanigans. “Bosslessness” is just a terminological shift that allows companies to convince themselves they’re not stifling innovation with sluggish bureaucracy. Do you remember the implementation of Casual Fridays? At least back then, something — your inseam, maybe — actually changed. “Going Bossless” is the equivalent of declaring a Casual Friday, then forcing everyone to go Full Victorian Steampunk, while telling them to RELAX.
Look, the most difficult thing about organizing anything, companies included, is figuring out who’s in charge. It doesn’t always have to be the same person, for the same amount of time, and they don’t always have to be in charge of everything at once. But they have to be.
At least, they do if you want to do well. Projects and companies profit more, after a certain saturation point, from a good boss than from another good worker. Professors Lazear, Shaw, and Stanton found in a 2011 study that bosses — essentially, people in charge of managing people — have outsized effects on their company’s productivity. Apparently, replacing a bad boss with a good one is worth more than adding another worker; a good boss makes good workers even better; and even a bad boss produces more, in direct proportion to their compensation, than a worker.
Sounds like when there are no bosses, you’re the boss. So when you show up to Valve, or to Github, or to Gore, you’re going to serve somebody. Or you’re going to be that somebody. Or you’re going to be a combination of both, nimbly, as the day goes on. Just like the rest of us.
A few people have been skeptical about this stuff. They’ve raised concerns about decreased motivation, the relative suckiness of group decision-making, calculating compensation, and the general difficulty of fitting the concept into a preexisting company that hasn’t grown it from the start. But these criticisms miss the point. Essentially, they’re just attacking the logistical challenges that accompany any organizational shift — changes in payroll, culture, etc. All they’re saying, ultimately, is “bosslessness can’t work because companies can’t work hard enough to make it work.” That’s silly. Plenty of companies have.
These critics aren’t saying “bosslessness can’t work because bosslessness doesn’t exist.” And that’s what I’m saying. “Bossless” is just the hip new jargon companies have invented to explain how they invert the troubles of managing a company hierarchy. Their bosses emerge from within their culture, instead of descending into it — and, at least for a few companies like Valve, being bossless is far less troublesome.
The Trouble with Bosses
When your company has bosses, it’s committed to a hierarchy of intention — a smaller group of people has a large amount of control over a larger group of people and their smallest actions. Your company’s productivity flows downwards. From a good boss comes good ideas (even if they’ve received them from somewhere else along the chain), followed by good planning, ending in good management of good execution.
Everyone has experienced the problem here. Today’s market is mercurial; windows for corrective adjustments and competitive advantages get smaller as their implementations get faster. If only a few people at a company are “bosses,” there’s an increasingly greater chance that the ever-expanding scope of modern business challenges will outgrow their expertise. And a “boss,” almost by definition, is not supposed to have a challenge exceed their expertise.
From this tension a company will strain. Bosses will resist new challenges, stunting company growth; they will shut down vertical communication, not wanting to risk exposing inexpertise. As Valve correctly summarizes in their Employee Handbook, “[boss] structures inevitably begin to serve their own needs rather than those of [our] customers.”
The Trouble with Bossless
When a company is bossless, it’s committed instead to a hierarchy of invention — a larger group of actions have small amounts of control over the company’s people. Valve’s workers vote with their wheels, and its productivity flows outwards — from a good idea, to a good project, encircled by good workers.
The problem here is less obvious. Think herding cats, but harder; like herding cats without a herder.
Today’s workers are, allegedly, mercurial: the half-life of an software engineer is bending towards that of an undersized NFL running back. Companies fizzle, explode, contract, leaving noxious gasses and labor forces behind. With no one “in charge,” there’s an increasing chance that the stresses pulling away at workers will shred their morale and direction; there will be no incentive beyond the immoral, and no hazards, including the moral.
Did those problems sound different from each other there for a second? Sorry, I got stuck in corporate rhyme-speak. They are just mirror images of one another.
Again, everyone knows a bad boss is bad primarily because “badness” is what only the boss is allowed to assess. It follows that a company with bosses risks losing its edge, not just because it has bosses, but because their bosses are not actively growing their skillset; not actively seeking out comments and criticism up and down the line; not actively assessing and improving their own worth.
But replace “bosses” with “coworkers” and voila! All of a sudden you might as well be quoting from Valve’s Handbook again:
We all need feedback about our peformance…to provide information that will help [us] grow.
You were hired to constantly be looking around for the most valuable work you could be doing.
If you’re thinking to yourself, ‘Wow, that sounds like a lot of responsibility,’ you’re right.
Valve and other bossless companies have simply inverted the HR/staffing challenge, from “find a capable manager who can master this business” to “find a master businessman who can develop capable management.” It’s why hiring, as they note, is “the single most important thing you will ever do at Valve.” After all, it’s hard to coherently list “openness” and “tenacious self-assessment” alongside “proficient in Unity and C++” on a resume.
A Change in Culture, Not Process
I get it, though. Companies, like people, love to look lean. Any excess is waste; in the wake of exhaustive and increasingly sleek new technologies like iDoneThis which are designed for a hierarchy of invention and to help individuals in a workforce optimize and manage themselves, and after Webpocalypse 1.0 [b. 1997 - d. 2000] dissociated an office’s performance from its appearance, it’s increasingly difficult to justify a labyrinthine corporate substructure.
But there’s really no obvious evidence that companies without titled bosses perform tasks any differently than those with them. In either instance, value/production/sales opportunities (or deficiencies) are discovered, workers capable of addressing them convene, solutions are floated, and the best are adopted. Even strategies for optimizing the performance of those tasks in a bossless company don’t sound all that new - increase communication! increase accountability!.
These companies and their approaches haven’t changed, nor have their incentives or ultimately their mid-project behavior. If anything, most of these bossless companies seem to be doing to hierarchy what has already been done by globalization to supply management — extract the values and optimalities a boss brings (overarching vision, daily motivation, general/vertical competency) and discard the old-world husk of elitist baggage (unnecessary reverence, communication/culture gaps, sluggish adaptation).
But it’s not clear that “bossy” companies always have — or have had — that baggage.
“As the Romans are supposed to have said: solvitas perambulum - ‘solve it while you walk.’”—
Harry Brennan, who found that a good walk turned on his mind’s light bulb when it came to his game development project:
You never know what you can come up with - and it may even help you avoid some deep technical problems altogether and save large amounts of time, simply by allowing you to take a different design decision.
When people don’t take enough breaks, their creativity and productivity decline. Humans are not designed to be sedentary. We come with our own mobile application. They’re called legs. Use them to jumpstart your brain!
"First, do no harm"—it’s a fundamental principle of medical ethics and constant reminder to every medical professional that intervention carries risks just as inaction does. In Latin, it’s Primum non nocere:
Another way to state it is that, “given an existing problem, it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good”. It reminds the physician and other health care providers that they must consider the possible harm that any intervention might do. It is invoked when debating the use of an intervention that carries an obvious risk of harm but a less certain chance of benefit.
It’s something that’s easy to forget for doctors, because they view themselves as healers and they’re capable of tremendous good. But it’s an absolutely vital to check the behavioral tendency that Abraham Kaplan called the law of the instrument: “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” What’s important is the health of the patient, not the dilemma between intervention and inaction.
In The Progress Principle, Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer discovered a surprising fact about what motivates people at work that every manager should know. The most powerful positive motivator for people at work is making progress in meaningful work, but it pales in comparison with the negative impact of hitting dead ends and encountering setbacks which has the greatest effect on motivation.
Professor Amabile and Kramer analyzed the language used in nearly 12,000 employee diary entries for accounts of progress and setbacks, and they compared appearances of those events to self-reported emotional levels of happiness and frustration, and what they found was alarming. Setbacks were greater than three times as powerful in increasing frustration than the power of progress to diminish it.
What comes next should be embarrassing to managers but not surprising: the frustration, deflated sense of accomplishment, and diminished happiness that results from setbacks and obstacles at work often came straight from managers themselves. Stories like Lucas’s were all too common:
During our new product review meeting, the MT basically told us what our top priorities were [for] new product development. [ … ] It was discouraging that our “freedom” to choose our direction / priorities was taken away from us as a team and we were given our direction, rather than being allowed to make more decisions on our own. [Lucas, 6/30]
Amabile, Teresa; Kramer, Steven (2011-07-19). The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work (p. 15). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
Where setbacks can have a disproportionately deleterious effect on an employee’s happiness, and motivation fed by managerial intervention is the not-uncommon cause, "First, do no harm" should be the manager’s mantra. This is all-the-more important when you consider just how vital employee autonomy is to happiness at work.
Doing no harm requires awareness that the people you work with are human, with lives, feelings, concerns, depth. In his book How Will You Remember Your Life?, Harvard Business School professor and founder of a company called CPS Technologies Clayton Christensen described an epiphany he had about what makes us tick when he observed Diana, a scientist in his lab, with her family at a company picnic:
Seeing her there, I began to gain a perspective of Diana in the full context of her life. She wasn’t just a scientist. She was a mother and a wife, whose mood, whose happiness, and whose sense of self-worth had a huge impact on her family. I began to think about what it must be like in her house in the morning, as she said good-bye to her family on her way to work. Then I saw Diana in my mind’s eye as she came home to her family ten hours later, on a day that had gone badly. She felt underappreciated, frustrated, and demeaned; she learned little that was new. In that moment I felt like I saw how her day at work negatively affected the way she interacted in the evening with her husband and their young children.
This vision in my mind then fast-forwarded to the end of another day. On the one hand, she was so engaged by the experiment she was doing that she wanted to stay at work; but on the other, she was so looking forward to spending time with her husband and children that she clearly wanted to be at home. On that day, I saw her driving home with greater self-esteem — feeling that she had learned a lot, having been recognized in a positive way for achieving valuable things, and played a significant role in the success of some important initiatives for several scientists and for the company. I felt like I could see her go into her home at the end of that day with a replenished reservoir of esteem that profoundly affected her interaction with her husband and those two lovely children. And I also knew how she’d feel going into work the next day — motivated and energized.
Christensen, Clayton M.; Dillon, Karen; Allworth, James (2012-05-15). How Will You Measure Your Life? (pp. 26-27). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
When you take that fleshed out, three-dimensional perspective on the lives of your colleagues, the imperative behind the manager’s oath is simple but profound: we’re human beings whose mood, happiness, and self-esteem is hugely affected by what happens at work. And so first, and above all, do no harm.
Being a manager is difficult because it feels unnatural. Your job isn’t actually to get work done. You’re doing your job as a manager when what you’re doing doesn’t resemble work at all.
To Andy Grove, legendary CEO of Intel, a manager’s fundamental work of information gathering can be among the most unnatural and that awkwardness is a necessary part of being a leader. Information gathering is the bread and butter of a manager’s work, but doing it effectively can mean making yourself vulnerable to looking and feeling like you’re doing nothing.
Grove instructs managers that “[t]here is an especially efficient way to get information, much neglected by most managers” that is underutilized “because of the awkwardness that managers feel about [it].” That is, be out in the open in your company, doing nothing.
Why should you do this? Think of what happens when somebody comes to see a manager in his office. A certain stop-and-start dynamics occurs when the visitor sits down, something socially dictated. While a two-minute kernel of information is exchanged, the meeting often takes a half hour. But if a manager walks through an area and sees a person with whom he has a two-minute concern, he can simply stop, cover it, and be on his way.
Making yourself available to casual information exchange is vital to information gathering, because it lowers the barriers to conversation and takes ceremony out of the exchange. Grove suggests a stroll around the office, “walking through an area without a specific task in mind.”
Ironically, this is sometimes why the most driven people struggle as leaders. They’re so focused on setting an example for their team of getting stuff done that they’re totally unavailable for conversation. Their team members are afraid to interrupt them, and information exchange becomes more of an event or more of a report.
Verbal sources of information, to Grove, are “the most valuable,” so it’s absolutely vital that leaders make time for it, even if it means doing what’s akin to standing alone at a party, phone in pocket, open and vulnerable.
It’s awkward because it’s plain uncomfortable, and counterintuitive to a busy manager because being open, out in the open, seems more of a passive attitude rather than an action to be done. But ultimately, without first gathering information from all possible sources, it’s impossible to be an effective leader. Take a note from Grove:
It’s obvious that your decision-making depends finally on how well you comprehend the facts and issues facing your business. This is why information-gathering is so important in a manager’s life. Other activities—conveying information, making decisions, and being a role model for your subordinates—are all governed by the base of information that you, the manager, have about the tasks, the issues, the needs, and the problems facing your organization. In short, information-gathering is the basis of all other managerial work, which is why I choose to spend so much of my day doing it.
Walter Chen is co-founder of iDoneThis, an ex-lawyer, and an amateur Starcraft player. You can follow his tweets at @smalter.
[A]fter a year of practice in my parents garage I came to suck a lot less, and by the time I gave up the instrument I had risen to the ranks of the “Merely OK.” But I didn’t feel “Merely OK.” I felt like a king, because I knew from whence I came. I knew that great distance (and it is great) between “Utter Suckage” and “Merely OK.”
— Ta-Nehisi Coates, comparing learning the djembe as a child to learning French and the awesome that comes from “becoming good at something which you kind of naturally sucked at.”
Check out our post about breaking down your perspective on progress by recognizing the small triumphs that happen every day and tracking that great distance on the road to feeling like a king.
Corralling brilliant and creative individuals to work together as a team is incredibly difficult. That’s why every successful company where people are both productive and happy feels a little magical. The harried, stressful environment or the disengaged, sullen office are both far more common sights.
You might think that creative and productive individuals easily combine to form creative and productive teams, but I’ve noticed that the opposite happens more often than not. An individual’s creativity and productivity are extremely fragile things that are liable to fall apart when individuals are put in a room to work on problems that are complex, time-constrained, and flat-out hard.
A well-intentioned response that I often see out of productive people is to get frustrated when not enough is getting done and go 100% into heads-down mode, but that just exacerbates the problem. What ends up happening is embitterment, disengagement, and finally, attrition. Preventing all that from happening is the other half of everyone’s job.
Tom Sachs is a contemporary artist famous for his sculptures which are elaborate DIY recreations of modern engineering and design masterpieces (like the space program) who has a surprising take on how to get creative people to work together and get stuff done. In his studio, if you’ve done your work, you’ve only done half of your job.
'[S]ent does not mean received' is a profound thing. Half of your job in this studio is doing your work, the other half of your job is communicating that it’s been done. Because if you do it, and I don’t hear about it, how do I know what’s going on? I’m not trying to control everything, but in an intimate work environment, where we’re really trying to develop something complex, a nod, saying, ‘I got it,’ helps moves things along.
Focusing too hard on getting stuff done just produces more stuff that needs to get done, and that’s a trap. This is most poignant to people who’ve worked on projects with lots of moving parts. Communicating that you’ve gotten the work done is another half to your job that’s absolutely vital.
Ultimately, we as humans are extremely sensitive creatures and the moments when we do our best work can quickly become fleeting. In Tom Sachs’s understated words, “Working with 15 people is very difficult.”
To me, this is what people talk about when they talk about company culture: it’s the entire other half of everyone’s job to make the company run smoothly. What Sachs says about artists rings true for anyone involved in creative work.
The artist’s creative process is a very fragile thing. Nowhere else do you find people who are as brilliant and self-motivated as in the arts and yet as fragile and insecure. Working with 15 people is very difficult. We’re trying to cultivate the indulgences of the creative process and, at the same time, eliminate creativity as a capricious gesture. In other words, a little creativity goes a long way. It’s like chili pepper. A lot of artists are filled with caprice and silliness. Finding that balance is the key to everything.
Walter Chen is co-founder of iDoneThis, an ex-lawyer, and an amateur Starcraft player. You can follow his tweets at @smalter.