Talk To Your Customers to Stay In Touch With Your Product
Talking to your customers is the best way to improve your product. You already do it — but not often enough. The problem is that it’s a pain to reach out all the time and gather that feedback.
It doesn’t have to be hard. In fact, you already talk to your customers all the time and probably aren’t taking full advantage of it.
My very first job was at Gateway Computer. Though well past its prime when I started, in its heyday, Gateway took a unique approach to its customer support that helped them gather plenty of user feedback.
The stories I heard back then helped shape our own approach toward support at my current company, Onepager. Here’s one that stood out in particular:
Some Personal Attention from South Dakota
At the South Dakota factory where Gateways were built, every custom system was assembled by hand. When people finished building a computer, they took the time to handwrite a personalized note thanking the customer. At the end of the note, they provided their own phone number for customers to call in case of any problems with their new Gateway.
Building computers with one hand, taking support phone calls with another, and writing thank you notes with a third (they must have wished they had a third!) couldn’t have been easy. But it was the right thing to do in order to encourage quality and customer satisfaction.
The people who built those computers did everything they could to ensure quality by doing one more important thing. They conveyed suggestions that they heard from real users back to the product team.
Gateway’s computers were top-rated, they kept improving, and customers loved buying them.
But times changed. After much success and leadership change, manufacturing moved overseas to save costs. The quirky yet effective user feedback system was lost. Quality dropped, sales suffered, and today, Gateway is just a logo slapped on a generic computer. The company lost touch with its customers.
The Customer-Product Connection
The lesson from that story helped shape what we do at Onepager. We leverage customer support by using it as a simple way to collect user feedback with three simple steps.
1. Understand the root of problems to solve in the long-term.
People contact firstname.lastname@example.org with questions that are important to them. Taking care of their needs quickly is a priority, but to truly improve your product, view support issues as potential catalysts for important long-term fixes that benefit all your users.
2. Turn support into user research.
If you’ve helped customers with their problems, they’ll naturally feel gratitude and a desire to reciprocate. It’s the perfect time to ask for them to help you.
On our team, when we complete a support request, we often ask the customer for feedback on something unrelated. It could be, “If you don’t mind us asking, we’re doing product research and were wondering what you like most about Onepager?” or “What would you most like to see us do in the future with Onepager?”
3. Dive into detail.
Don’t be afraid to go into detail with a user. If someone is having trouble finding where to edit their billing information, you can put together some mockups of improvements and ask them for their preference. Obviously, it’s a very small sample, but it can help set you on the right path.
You can even kick it up a notch, and ask customers to set up a time to discuss your product — whether it’s a new feature or a whole new version. It’s amazing how receptive people can be to simple requests for their feedback and help. Don’t forget to say your own ‘thank you’ by doing something nice, like sending the participant a T-shirt, and you’ve made one loyal, and rather invested, customer.
Early on, we asked new customers in our automated “Welcome” emails if we could schedule a fifteen-minute call with them. This helped us learn how they found us, why they chose us, and if they had any problems getting started with our product.
You can continuously make your product better by taking easy steps to engage more with your customers. It’s easier than you think.
“Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one decision leads you to another, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which aided by several detours – long hallways and unforeseen stairwells – eventually puts you in the place you are now.”—
— Ann Patchett, What Now?
A little bit of reflection and connecting the dots can lead to insight, an honest overview of where you are, and perhaps, a clearer picture of where you’re headed!
But figuring that out is no easy matter because of the jumble of possibilities and complexities of running a business, on top of the cottage industry of abundant, contradictory, and just plain bad business advice.
These 6 pieces are the thoughtful reflection of industry leaders on what matters, above all else, in building a successful company from scratch.
“The #1 company-killer is lack of market.” When there isn’t a market, the quality of the team and product don’t matter; conversely, when your market is booming and customers are banging down your door, it’s really hard to screw things up.
Andreessen articulates this observation (citing Andy Rachleff, formerly of Benchmark Capital) concisely, as the following law to startup success:
When a great team meets a lousy market, market wins.
When a lousy team meets a great market, market wins.
When a great team meets a great market, something special happens.
What that means for the founder — and should be her singular focus —is that the only thing that matters is getting to product/market fit. Product/market fit means that you’re “in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.” You can tell by how that feels: customers are snatching up your product just as fast as you can make it, and the wind’s not in your face anymore — it’s at your back.
Before attaining product/market fit though, there’s the long slog to get there. Whether you have the tenacity to stick it out and the insight to make it there will hinge on founder/market fit.
Founder/market fit requires that you as the founder (1) understand the market with “a deep understanding of the market [you] are entering” to the point that you “personify [your] product, business and ultimately [your] company” and (2) love the market enough that you’ll stick with the journey over many years, even as your product and the market evolve.
Without founder/market fit, there’s little chance that you’ll make it to product/market fit.
Graham takes an abstract concept like product/market fit — that you know when you feel it — and quantifies it as 5-7% week-over-week growth in your key metric, the growth rate that successful startups tend to have.
The twist is that focusing on hitting your target week-over-week growth rate gives you the focus you need to be successful. It turns the “bewilderingly multifarious problem of starting a startup to a single problem” by “turning starting a startup into an optimization problem.”
If they decide to grow at 7% a week and they hit that number, they’re successful for that week. There’s nothing more they need to do. But if they don’t hit it, they’ve failed in the only thing that mattered, and should be correspondingly alarmed.
It’s absolutely vital that you define the right metric for tracking your business’s growth. The key is to identify a metric that demonstrates that people “are using the product in the way you expected and that they use it enough so that you believe they will come back to use it more and more.”
In other words, the only metric that matters answers the question, “How many people are really using your product?”
That has two components (1) people and (2) really using. For example, because pageviews aren’t people-centric, they’re too abstract. Focus on the people taking an action, not the action itself. DAU/MAU can be misleading depending on how “active” is defined and may not indicate deep engagement with and love for the product.
At Twitter, we found that if you visited Twitter at least 7 times in a month, then it was likely you were going to be visiting Twitter in the next month, and the next month, and the next month. And we decided this was enough initially to be “really using it.”
The beauty of this is that you’re forced to reflect on the unique metric and lodestar for your product, not adapt a generic, abstract, and ultimately unhelpful number that’s the product of someone else’s thinking. Then, it’s all about making that number grow.
The power of the compass metric is that it guides and aligns the whole team and gets everyone moving in the same direction, which is the extremely powerful force that’s the engine driving Shopify, a multi-million dollar e-commerce juggernaut.
Once the metric has been defined, getting everyone to be guided by it is a UI problem. “You implicitly tell your team that if someone moves this metric in the right direction they are doing a good job” by making your compass metric the singular topic of recurring reminders.
Our internal goal is to reach 3% weekly growth, a very ambitious number given our size. The user interface is simple. Monday mornings, our system sends an email to the team:
Red ✘ if we fell short, green ✔ if we made it. Everyone gets it.
That’s supplemented by a quick weekly meeting attended by people who have a direct impact on the compass metric in which everyone in attendances shares two things:
What have we learned this week
What we are going to do differently next week
The “the motor of a fast-growing multi-million dollar venture-backed business” is picking the right metric and making its growth rate the subject of focus on a recurring basis (email and meeting) according to the appropriately chosen time frame (1 week).
The startup lifecycle can go by as quickly as a fruit fly’s. When you’re amidst the thick of things, it’s easy to confuse time and perspective, zooming in too much on the short-term. Don’t get caught up in marginal thinking or on local maxima.
Christensen reminds us to “[t]hink about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.” In that way, both our startup and our lives strive to reach their global maxima.
For Christensen, his metric is “the individual people whose lives [he’s] touched.” Choose your key business metric as a subset of the metric by which you measure your life.
The most productive thing you’ll do today is practice
I wasn’t originally sold on the idea of blogging.
Even when I tried to get in the habit of posting, I found it hard to stick with. Blogging took time — time to write essays daily, put in links, clean up spam, and respond to the comments that trickled in, time that was uncompensated. Why, I wondered, would I take time away from paying assignments to put my work out there for free?
Even after my book, 168 Hours, came out in 2010, and I realized I needed to interact with readers, I still thought blogging was a side venture to my real writing. More days than not, I’d take 30-60 minutes to write a post and publish it, but I still viewed it more as a labor of love (or at least PR) than anything else.
Then something funny happened. About a year into daily blogging, I’d carve out time to write a draft of an essay for a newspaper or magazine. I’d give myself until lunch, but by 10:00, I’d be done.
What was going on? I finally figured it out while reading Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better, by Doug Lemov, Katie Yezzi, and Erica Woolway. These three educators have trained thousands of teachers over the years, and they studied patterns in how teachers improved at their craft, and how others do, too. The big breakthroughs, they noted, came from drills — discrete actions that focus on certain skills — in order to automate certain practices you’d like to improve.
Basketball players do shooting drills and passing drills. Piano players do arpeggios and scales. As they carve these actions into their muscle and mental memory, they can summon these skills almost by instinct during performances or games. That gives them the mental space to focus on bigger things — the arc of a piece, the layout of players on the court.
For a writer, blogging turns out to be a daily drill. By writing lots of don’t-need-to-be-perfect blog posts, I learned how to crank out rough drafts fast. By carving out time for daily practice, I made myself more efficient at my work. Each hour spent blogging saved me time later as I stewed less over drafts and had more time for edits.
Put in that light, blogging now seems like the most productive part of my day. Not only am I interacting with readers, I’m getting faster at what I do! Just as I accepted practice as part of studying the piano years ago, I embrace blogging as the “practicing” part of my writing work.
If you’d like to get more efficient at your work, making time every day for practice drills could likewise be one of the most productive decisions you make. To be sure, not everyone has a job where the drills are as obvious as blogging, in retrospect, was for me. But if you think about your job and how you spend your time, you can likely see certain skills you use repeatedly.
Maybe you make presentations. Maybe you deliver feedback to employees. Maybe you field hostile questions from clients. Think about how you can isolate these skills and practice them repeatedly. Ask your team members to launch a rapid-fire barrage of criticism about a proposal at the end of a staff meeting, for instance.
Most people don’t consciously practice their job. If you do, it can be a source of major competitive advantage. Keep track of your practice and how you’re improving individually or as a team by writing it down.
Most importantly, you have to actually make time for your practice drills. When you spend time getting better, you often get better. And that’s a much better place to be.
Laura Vanderkam is the author of “What the Most Successful People Do at Work" (Portfolio, April 23, 2013), "What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast”(Portfolio, 2012), “All The Money In The World" (Portfolio, 2012) and "168 Hours" (Portfolio, 2010); visit www.lauravanderkam.com. Receive a free chapter from “All the Money In The World” by subscribing to my monthly newsletter here.
The Most Innovative Employees at Google Aren't Stanford/MIT grads with Perfect SATs
Google has long had a reputation for being a place that’s near impossible to get a job if you aren’t a Stanford or MIT grad. They not only asked you for your college GPA, they even asked you what you made on your SAT as a pimple-faced high schooler.
Recently, that’s all changed.
Google’s known for being one of the most data-driven companies in the world and in the area of HR, they’re no different. They even have a department of “people analytics” whose job it is “to apply the same rigor to the people side as to the engineering side.” Google takes this extremely seriously: “All people decisions at Google are based on data and analytics,” according to Kathryn Dekas, a manager in Google’s “people analytics” team.
Their use of data is so powerful that it was able to refute the bias of the company’s founders towards those with an elite educational background that mirrored theirs — that is, top university grads with high GPAs — and it actually resulted in changed organizational behavior.
For years, candidates were screened according to SAT scores and college grade-point averages, metrics favored by its founders. But numbers and grades alone did not prove to spell success at Google and are no longer used as important hiring criteria, says Prasad Setty, vice president for people analytics.
Rather, based on extensive surveys of its work force and performance data, Google discovered that its most innovative workers "are those who have a strong sense of mission about their work and who also feel that they have much personal autonomy.”
Google’s findings have a strong congruence with bestselling author Dan Pink’s work, that the source of human motivation and our best work comes from the drive towards autonomy, mastery and purpose. This can clash with high-prestige and credentialed individuals who are driven by external recognition and rewards, not curiosity and craft.
What you might end up with is people who can follow the rules, but not necessarily those who are after moonshot innovation with extreme dispatch and verve.
Almost all meetings are just power-plays in disguise.
Years of my life have been wasted in useless meetings. At a large company, meetings are standard. Get a few people together to talk about a problem. Sounds easy, right?
But instead of a quick resolution, you have to book a conference room for two days from now. Then, you invite stakeholders. Someone suggests so-and-so should attend too. More invites.
When you finally meet, what happens? Nothing, because everyone ends up in a power-play.
Let’s take a look at three common useless meetings and ways we can fix them.
Weekly Team/Status Meetings
Usually someone with direct reports runs this type of meeting. Once a week, for an hour or so, there’s a loose agenda. The manager goes over administrative stuff — stuff that’s going on at the company, stuff that’s going on in your department, stuff on product direction. You can even ask questions! Then, you go around the room to talk about what you accomplished that week.
Nothing useful ever happens in these meetings. Have you ever looked forward to this meeting? No. You surf the internet on your laptop while waiting for lunch time to roll around.
Managers are establishing their authority over everyone. They speak. You listen and don’t speak until spoken to. The danger is that this might tempt you to try to establish that you’re an important person too. You fluff up your weekly status and make it seem like you’re super busy all the time.
What’s the fix?
Try alternative forms of keeping everyone updated. Managers, do you really need to get everyone in a room for an hour? Have everyone send an email update to the team instead. It only takes a few minutes to write up updates to share for the week. Try daily updates or other frequencies that are most optimal for your team.
If you’re not the manager, suggest this method to yours. Any good manager will gladly accept feedback on how to improve the way the team operates.
Senior Executives Meeting
Here’s where you and your team have to meet with senior executives to talk about how your product is doing and next steps you’re going to take. This type of meeting takes place maybe once a month.
This, too, is a big power-play by the executives. They look at what you’ve accomplished, and they’re quick to judge what they like or don’t. Even though months of your efforts have gone towards building an awesome feature that your customers have been wanting, it gets axed because an exec didn’t like it.
These meetings usually just set the team and the product back. You now have to include what the exec wants in the product — not because they’re talking to customers every day, not because they have the data to back up their claims. It’s because they need to establish some authority.
What’s the fix?
Executives, keep your ego in check. Learn to trust your team. They probably know more about the customer than you do. You hired them because they are the best at what they do. They have pored over the metrics and have the best sense on what will result in customer happiness.
Use meetings to find out issues that impede execution. Are people short on resources? Are they dependent on someone from another department who’s being difficult? Remove the roadblocks!
For regular employees, defend your position with data. The exec can’t argue with you if the metrics show that a particular feature will increase sales by 10%. Don’t let their position of power waste your time.
Product Planning Meeting
This is my favorite useless meeting because its original purpose is quite constructive. You’re supposed to be planning out the what and when of building for your product, but what usually happens is everyone needs an explanation of features and why they’re necessary. That is always a long conversation.
Then everyone argues about what’s important. It’s the ultimate struggle to feel like you have some power. If your feature makes it into the product, you feel like you have a bigger impact.
Since everyone at the meeting does this, you’ll need to call another meeting to finish the planning. Five meetings later, you finally finish planning.
What’s the fix?
Everyone should come prepared to the meeting already! Road maps, user stories, and numbers should be sent out beforehand. The team can review and internalize the information and even have high level estimates for the level of effort needed.
This way, you’ll set a good tone for the meeting. It will be about what features you can actually fit into a sprint, based on priority and informed argument. If you don’t already use an agile development process, please consider it. It helps set a cadence for the team.
Now that I know about about power-play meetings, how can I gain the upper hand?
That really depends on what your goal at the company is.
Hope no one notices.
If you want to be mediocre and get paid, then just follow the crowd. Some people are fine with showing up and doing exactly what they need to do, especially in certain working situations and environments. There’s nothing wrong with that. You get a nice paycheck and you can continue to support your lifestyle.
Promotions and fat raises.
Learn the intricacies of the power-play. You’ll have to follow the meeting playbook to appease the people above you.
The goal here is to get recognized and impress people. Call your own meetings when you have issues to resolve and be the one to run them. You’ll automatically be known as the person in charge when you become directly involved in decision-making.
Understand that these meetings will take up a lot of time but you still need to execute on deliverables. Let everyone else know how busy you are as a result. The upside is that you can fix the common meeting downfalls mentioned above and be known for running really effective meetings.
Be the change.
This is for people who like where they work and want to change it for the better. Useless meetings is a serious cultural problem that companies face. Run meetings differently to change that culture.
Try not to have any meetings unless absolutely necessary, and if they are, keep them short. When issues arise, talk to the relevant people immediately. You can usually make more decisions in a five-minute direct conversation than you can in a one-hour meeting.
Designate no-meeting days. This will allow your team to have long periods of time to concentrate on hard problems. If you know anything about the maker’s schedule versus the manager’s schedule, then you’ll understand how meetings can ruin your productivity.
Sherman Lee is the founder of Good Sense. He writes about developers, productivity, customer discovery and marketing. He’s an entrepreneur, high-end consultant and author. You can follow his updates on Twitter.
This painting on the wall of a Zurich office building is actually an art piece called “How to Work Better” by artist duo Fischli/Weiss (that’s Peter Fischli and David Weiss).
The interesting part? As described in the Guardian's obit of Weiss:
How to Work Better (1991) is a manifesto comprising 10 persuasive but empty sentences, each with the aim of improving workplace productivity and morale… . Fischli/Weiss plucked these stock phrases from a factory in Thailand and painted them in large stencilled letters to cover the exterior of an office block in Oerlikon, Zurich, visible on the approach into the city centre by train from Zurich Airport.
Think twice about pithy motivational business quotes!
Each morning, my mother would hand me my daily Flintstones chewable vitamin before I left for school. But now that I’m an adult, she can’t tell me what to do — Mountain Dew and Starcraft all night!
Well, and less vitamins. Since moving out of my parents’ house long ago, I’ve also moved away from this healthful routine. Sometimes it takes effortful self-control to do things we know we should do. But not always. Habits can function as a force, shaping our behavior and negating the need for self-control.
So months ago, I purchased a jar of multi-vitamins and placed it in my cupboard to get back into my healthy vitamin habit.
It sat there. Unused. Lonely.
I’m responsible. I’m a grown-up. I knew I should take my vitamins. Yet it was hard to do so regularly.
So I made one small change: I took the jar out of the cupboard and placed it on the countertop. Since then, I haven’t missed a day of taking my vitamins.
The visible jar is an unavoidable reminder, a trigger to take my vitamins. Removing them from the cupboard also made it easier, increasing my ability to do so. Sometimes the tiniest friction can make the difference between action and inaction.
“[T]hree elements must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur: Motivation, Ability, and Trigger.”
By simply increasing my ability and creating a trigger, I’ve been able to reinstate this habit. Sometimes it doesn’t take all that much to change behavior that feels so difficult to start doing regularly. For example:
Google increased water consumption by 47% by simply rearranging the fridge. Water moved to eye-level, unhealthy soda to the bottom. More Googlers chose the more visible, reachable bottled water.
Leo Babauta instructs daily flossing-challenged people to start flossing just one tooth per night. This may seem ridiculous but starting out with very small habits makes large changes in behavior much easier.
What changes would you like to make in your life?
Here are a few triggers and friction-reducers to start:
Want to eat healthier? Pre-prepare individual meals and place them toward the front of your fridge for maximum visibility and accessibility.
“First, the seed being sown falls on good ground, but the birds get it. Then it falls on shallow ground and can’t grow. Then on thorny ground, where it withers away. And only with the last attempt it falls on good ground and the seeds grow. So we must shift our focus. We don’t want to look for which seeds thrive and which don’t. We want to know what the rate of success is.”—
Buffer’s Leo Widrich describes Jim Rohm’s law of averages in explaining his approach to measuring success.
In many companies, your manager will know the team’s and company’s objectives, but you won’t. He may keep crucial information from you so that he can consolidate decision-making power.
Not so at Qualtrics, the extraordinary Provo, Utah-based company that did $50M in revenue, raised $70M from elite venture capital firms Sequoia and Accel, turned down a $500M acquisition offer, and grew its headcount to nearly 300 employees in 2012. At Qualtrics, transparency is perhaps the company’s most important value for one simple and obvious reason—”Nowadays, you’re hiring individuals to think.”
We took our best product guy and some of our best engineers and built a system internally to help scale our organization by knowing everyone’s objectives in the company. We have five objectives annually for our company, and everyone goes into the system each quarter to put in their objectives that play into those broader goals.
We have another system that sends everyone an e-mail on Monday that says: “What are you going to get done this week? And what did you get done last week that you said you were going to do?” Then that rolls up into one e-mail that the entire organization gets. So if someone’s got a question, they can look at that for an explanation. We share other information, too — every time we have a meeting, we release meeting notes to the organization. When we have a board meeting, we write a letter about it afterward and send it to the organization.
When everyone’s rowing together toward the same objective, it’s extremely powerful. We’re trying to execute at a very high level, and we need to make sure everyone knows where we’re going.
“Google has found that the most innovative workers — also the ‘happiest,’ by its definition — are those who have a strong sense of mission about their work and who also feel that they have much personal autonomy.”—
Google has long been known as an elite organization bordering on elitist. It’s fascinating to see how their conception of prospective candidates has changed as they’ve looked at the data over time, departing from a SAT and GPA-driven view.
We’ve seen an interesting trend at companies that are extremely culture-focused: the culture hacker. Software developers have built internal developer productivity tools since time immemorial because great engineering cultures push for automation and improving iteration speed. But now developers are turning their attention to addressing team dynamics and how the whole company functions and works together on the whole — in a word, culture.
Zappos: making values concrete with process and code
At many companies, company values are just words on a piece of paper tacked to a wall somewhere. At Zappos, they’re extremely thoughtful about giving their values bite. For example, they’re famous for paying new employees to quit. After new employee training ends, each employee is offered the opportunity to quit their job and walk away with $1,000. They do this because one of the Zappos core values is “be passionate and determined”, and paying people to quit ensures that those who remain are incredibly enthusiastic about their work and in it for the long haul.
They take it a step further by using code to reinforce cultural values in individual workflow. As Zappos has grown from a small startup to a 1,500+ employee company, it’s had to scale its value of having a tight-knit team and family-like atmosphere. It was a natural fit to help those relationships scale through technology.
Zappos has what’s called a “Face Game”. When you log into the computer system, after you enter your password, a face pops up of a fellow employee and you’re asked to enter the person’s name. Whether you answer correctly or not, you see a bio and profile – another way of getting to know your fellow workers and building culture.
During a recent visit to Las Vegas, we met Darshan Bhatt, a developer at Zappos who spends 100% of his time on building internal culture products that empower everyone in the company to make Zappos culture their own.
For instance, Zappos conducts monthly surveys to gauge the happiness of employees in the company. At another company, the survey results might be something management discussed behind closed doors to determine, at most, where in the company to deploy more pizza parties. At Zappos, Darshan builds tools that empower every employee with the data necessary to improve culture and happiness in the company.
Darshan showed us an application he was building that every employee in the company would get access to that allowed you to plot anonymized survey responses along different employee demographic information. He showed us an example where he plotted employee tenure length versus reported employee happiness. This gave insight into whether every stage in an employee’s lifecycle at the company was being properly supported and put the power of that data in the hands of every employee to make improvements.
Shopify: developers working with the human relations team to reinvent HR
Shopify is a hugely successful e-commerce software platform based out of Ottawa, Canada, that has a remarkable company culture. They have a two-person team called Shopify Labs which is focused on building internal tools. What surprised and impressed me was the tight-knit relationship the Labs team has with HR in working together to build culture products.
At your average company, you’ll likely see a sharp division between front office and back office teams like HR. You might even see a contentious relationship if HR is focused too much on compliance/CYA and running employees through an impersonal annual review process. Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke made the point to us that they call HR “human relations”, not “human resources” to reinforce HR’s cooperative, culture-focused role at Shopify.
When Serena does something great, Daniel gives her thanks by going into Unicorn, logging her accomplishment, and giving her one, two or three unicorns. Everyone in the company sees Serena’s plaudits and can pile on more unicorns if they agree that she did an awesome job.
At the end of month, every employee in Shopify gets allocated a proportion of the company’s profits that are set aside for Unicorn bonuses. Daniel’s allocation goes to Serena and anyone else to whom he’s given unicorns over the course of the month.
Unicorn gives the power of employee recognition and even bonus disbursement to every employee in the company, not just to managers and HR. The tight working relationship between Shopify Labs and HR makes the cultural value of peer recognition real and vibrant through software.
We’re seeing how company culture is becoming a huge differentiator in attracting and retaining top talent, and this is doubly true for the companies that truly walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Companies on the bleeding edge of focusing on company culture like Zappos, Shopify, Github, and Stripe are investing developer time — the most valuable resource at a software company — to make cultural values real through software.
Walter Chen is co-founder of iDoneThis, an ex-lawyer, and an amateur Starcraft player. You can follow his tweets at @smalter.
J.T. O’Donnell, CEO of CAREEREALISM Media, has an interesting to-do list of 10 items that she tries to do every day. This list isn’t made up of specific tasks but more general ones. Think family or genus, rather than species.
Read something related to my industry.
Read something related to business development.
Send two emails to touch base with old colleagues.
Empty my private client inbox by responding to all career coaching questions within one business day.
Check in with each team member on their progress.
Have a short non-work related conversation with every employee.
Review my top three goals for my company that are focused on its growth.
Identify and execute one task to support each of my top three goals.
Post five valuable pieces of content on all my major social media accounts.
Take a full minute to appreciate what I have and how far I’ve come.
It’s a neat way to think about and carry out your goals for the day!
The way you listen is telling, a compass that points to the true focus of your attention. For good listeners, that needle points to the person talking. For bad listeners, that needle points to themselves.
The thing is that it’s really obvious. Great listening requires you to show that it’s happening, and that it’s happening sincerely. Much of that sincere communication comes down to lighting up to show “message received”. Instead, some people fall into a bad habit of putting on a show of listening, mumbling sounds of non-contextual agreement, or interrupting with “yes, but —”, or pretending to be attentive but mishearing everything.
Listening isn’t simply waiting for your turn to say something or show off your brilliance but engaging with what’s being said, building on it, reacting with thoughts and emotions, and showing that you understand or want to know more.
While the art of listening is touted in business, it’s rarely practiced. Bad listening is bad business, and here’s why:
1. Bad listening is dismissive and ultimately disengaging.
Bad listening affects how we feel about ourselves, eventually reaching into how we feel about our existence. You know that philosophical question, “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Well, have you ever provided some insightful input at a meeting, toiled to reply to an email asking for opinions with a worthwhile response, or done something pretty great — only to be met with nary a ripple?
If nobody’s actually listening to me, then why am I here?
People who feel unheard and undervalued will understandably disengage and suffer negative impacts on their stress and wellbeing.
2. Bad listening leads to inferior information and decisions.
When you don’t take care to listen and pay attention to the people around you, you miss out on crucial information. This is especially important for managers and bosses to consider. Research by NYU Stern’s Kelly A. See confirms what many employees already know: people with more power listen less, take less advice, and are ultimately less accurate in final judgments.
In contrast, Intel’s Andy Grove understood that his position of managerial power affected his ability to make good decisions. So he chose to spend most of his time gathering information by staying out in the open, signaling that he was ready to listen. He understood that information-gathering is “the basis of all other managerial work,” and that ultimately, “your decision-making depends finally on how well you comprehend the facts and issues facing your business.”
See’s studies identifies “confidence in one’s judgment” as the reason behind the inverse relationship between power and listening skill. Powerful people are confident; their reaction is to stop listening. Keys to listening well, then, are openness and vulnerability, pointing the compass needle away from yourself and showing confidence in others.
3. Bad listening is a waste of time.
If poor listening leads to misunderstanding, disengagement, and poorer decision-making, that means more time is required to arrive at accurate information, good decisions, and a righted course.
There’s one kind of behavior in particular that is often overlooked as a form of bad listening — too many unmindful managerial interruptions. An obvious example is how meetings are a breeding ground for bad listening and inefficiency. But there are also more casual intrusions.
In astute answers to a question posed by Inc. to successful entrepreneurs to identify their biggest time wasters, Katia Beauchamp, co-founder of Birchbox, said, “Randomly bugging my team with questions about yesterday, today, six months from now.” Ben Lerer, CEO of Thrillist, responded with, “Checking in with the product team to look at work they’re doing that isn’t ready for me to see yet.”
In failing to respect your team’s schedule or space, you’re not listening to their needs or giving them a chance to formulate their contribution to the conversation. It’s an easy trap for managers to fall into, but it’s the kind of listening that points right back at yourself, making the information-gathering about you rather the team or the project at hand.
How to Become a Better Listener.
Admit that you’re not a great listener. Think everyone else around you is not good at listening but that you’re great? That’s called a delusion. Most of us could use some improvement in our overall listening skills, or in equalizing how well we listen in different spheres of our life. The first step is to recognize that everybody, including you, could use some practice.
Practice focusing. If you’ve ever gone to a place where all the people speak a foreign language that you’re trying to learn, you know how listening can take a lot of energy and focus. Without it, the words wash over you as a blanket of meaningless sound.
You have to see conversations as real exchanges, expanding your full attention on the other person in order to gain all the verbal and nonverbal cues to what she or he’s saying. That kind of focus is impossible to do while fiddling around on your phone. Practice bringing that type of watchful focus, attention, and engagement to more of your conversations.
Acknowledge and respect. Good listening signals the broader messages of respect and trust.
Acknowledge people and their work by giving rich, frequent feedback that’s broader than corrective criticism. Without encountering a supportive voice at the end of the line, people will simply disconnect.
Stop telling people what to do, and instead, ask for and consider people’s opinions. Learn the best way to get something done by listening rather than assuming.
Finally, be mindful of others’ listening schedules and rhythms. Interrupting people at random, unexpected moments co-opts their time and attention. While information-gathering is important, doing so in a respectful way ensures that you help more than you hurt.
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If people feel like they are only there to be corrected, directed, and interrupted, they’ll lose vital autonomy and motivation. More important than the business case, though, is to remember that good listening and giving quality attention is just not about you. Listening is how you build trust, knowledge, connections, and relationships. And that’s about all of us.
Company with the "World's Least Powerful CEO" Makes $2.5 Million Every Day
The popular depiction of the CEO is the titan of industry who rules with an iron fist. The CEO’s will is the employees’ command.
Not so at Supercell, a remarkable Finnish company that’s making $2.5 million dollars every day and has been described as “the fastest growing company ever.” Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen, calls himself “the world’s least powerful CEO”, and that’s not the surprising part. What’s incredible is that Paananen made himself a weak CEO by design:
As its name implies, Supercell is organized as a collection of small, independent teams called cells tasked with developing new games or building new deep features for existing games. Cells are given complete autonomy in terms of how they organize themselves, prioritize ideas, distribute work and determine what they ultimately produce. Describing himself as the “world’s least powerful CEO”, Ilkka encourages cells to exercise extreme independence and prides himself on having no creative control over them once they are constituted. The company as a whole is merely an aggregation of these cells; a Supercell.
The only thing to say is that it’s working. Their organization and philosophy is letting this team of 100 take on the behemoths atZynga, which has 30 employees to every 1 employee at Supercell.
The organizational and cultural design decision was purposeful: Supercell’s founders had witnessed first-hand “the downfall of too many companies that had turned into bloated, bureaucratic behemoths with many design studios in multiple time zonesrequiring massive management overhead and crushing hierarchies to coordinate.”
If it’s hard to fathom how an economic miracle could result under the leadership of a weak boss, consider another organization that designed its CEO to be powerless: the United States. The founders of America purposely set up the government to have a weak CEO, compared with Europe’s monarchs.
Having experienced misguided local tax policy decreed by a head of state thousands of miles away, the founders pushed decision-making authority out to a federated constellation of state governments, local governments, small groups of people, and individuals. That structure set the stage for the American economic miracle.
Walter Chen is co-founder of iDoneThis, an ex-lawyer, and an amateur Starcraft player. You can follow his tweets at @smalter.
“[T]ry picking a stubborn item from your own to-do list and redefining it until it becomes something that actually involves moving one of your limbs… Breaking each task down into its individual actions allows you to convert your work into things you can either physically do, or forget about, happy in the knowledge that it is in the system.”—
We make a lot of mistakes in life, and a lot of those mistakes take place at work. Elaine Wherry, founder of Meebo, even made a mistake diary to remember and review her mistakes, such as time management and perfectionism issues. “I wanted to be able to reflect on them later,” she explains, “so I wouldn’t beat myself up during the week … It was a way to get more sleep.” As she saw her employees make many of the same mistakes she did, the diary developed into a manual to share what she learned with others.
Luc Levesque, founder of TravelPod and General Manager at TripAdvisor, decided to guide his employees with a boss blueprint. Luc shares his particular values, dislikes, and quirks to prime new employees for great performance in short order. With swift, effective communication rather than protracted information asymmetry, employees — and the company as a whole — are able to sidestep a period of trial and error, as well as lots of trials, tribulations, and stress.
Luc’s candid approach to managing people extends to his efforts to build a transparent work environment, turning management into a conversation. Frequent feedback through daily syncing tools and monthly reviews have taken the ceremony and often fruitless, demotivating effect out of the more formal review process and normalized the discussion around setbacks and mistakes. He explains, “When something happens that deserves to be talked about, it’s so much easier to have that conversation on a thirty-day basis. It’s not a big deal. It’s just a conversation, which is what we’re supposed to be doing as leaders anyways.”
The monthly review was actually a concept recommended by Luc’s business coach. “I’m a big believer in coaching, just because I’ve seen the results,” says Luc. “Our results have been very good for six years in a row, and I attribute a lot of that to the team and the help that my coach has given me.”
When you have something like a blueprint, a manual, or people like managers and coaches to guide you along the way, you gain lessons and perspective. Too often, though, we ignore the fact that we can be our own beneficial guides and coaches, make our own blueprints. Few people take time to pause, reflect on and grow from mistakes, and take stock of the ever-evolving questions of what’s working, what’s not, what we want, what we don’t, and why.
Maybe it’s because pausing seems unproductive, too much like idleness, but the opposite is true. Your mindset toward mistakes can influence your performance. Research shows that people who think they can learn from their mistakes pay more attention and improve performance after making them. And learning, driving toward goals, and getting better at things — which are undoubtedly productive — requires quiet self-reflection
We will continue to make mistakes; the important thing is that we can stop repeating them. What’s more, we do things that are smart and magnificent — let’s repeat those. Let’s help others and ourselves grow by building a practice and culture of slowing down to review the past and contemplate how that fits into our present and future. In doing so, we arm ourselves with the confidence to try and innovate, the resilience to flourish from failure, and the knowledge and courage to make an impact.
One thing people do to “have it all”? A regular practice of checking in and reflection.
What’s happening at work and in the other parts of my life? What do I want more of? What do I want less of? What do I want to continue? They realize that the actions that keep them healthy, their career network and job skills up to date, their personal relationships strong, and their personal finances in shape won’t happen by default and are always changing.
“Although the pressures of society and work often cause us to behave differently in our work and home lives, I believe we must resolve to knock down these artificial walls and behave the same at work and at home.”—
Bill George, author of Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value, at Harvard Management Update.
We can’t really shut off our humanness at work, and indeed shouldn’t. Work is personal too. Do you agree that the walls between work and home are artificial?
Marc Andreessen’s Surprising Antidote to Procrastination
It’s almost inconceivable that somebody as productive as Marc Andreessen, founder of Netscape, Opsware, Ning, and Andreessen Horowitz, needs a way to deal with procrastination. But it turns out he’s just like the majority of humankind.
His solution of structured procrastination is rather devious. Instead of fighting procrastination, go with the flow and put that task on hold. Meanwhile, work on something else. He explains:
The gist of Structured Procrastination is that you should never fight the tendency to procrastinate — instead, you should use it to your advantage in order to get other things done.
Generally in the course of a day, there is something you have to do that you are not doing because you are procrastinating.
While you’re procrastinating, just do lots of other stuff instead.
Andreessen actually learned this technique from reading an essay written by Stanford philosophy professor, Dr. John Perry, calling it “one of the single most profound moments of my entire life.” Perry explains in his wonderful piece how structured procrastination amazingly converts procrastinators so well that they end up being renowned for how much they get done.
In 1930, humorist and newspaper columnist, Robert Benchley, publicized the same idea in a very funny piece called “How to Get Things Done”, originally printed in the Chicago Tribune. Before he dives into a demonstration of this off-kilter method of getting things done, he spells out why structured procrastination works by getting at the heart of the habitual procrastinator:
The psychological principle is this: anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.
This principle is why traditional methods of dealing with procrastination like pushing yourself harder or emptying your schedule just for the sake of focusing on that one task don’t reliably catch on. The method has certainly worked for me in the past, though I didn’t have a name for it. I noticed I produce much more writing in total, and in less time, when I have multiple ideas and projects from which to choose than when I have just one.
The elegance of structured procrastination is twofold. One, it effectively squashes the worst thing about procrastination — the crushing guilt it generates. It’s as if your failure to produce work drives your psyche to produce something else instead — a dark, weighty force of guilt that, ironically, is great at sapping any motivation that’s left in the tank. Now, you can use that motivation to not do something to fuel getting something else done.
Second, it harnesses the second nature of the procrastinator to self-deceive. We already are skilled at taking some deadline for a task and stretching it out in our head. To get started on one specific task using structured procrastination, you just have to make sure there are a number of tasks on your list that sound important and assign something else the highest importance. Priority is in the eye of the procrastinator! Then, whatever is on the apparent back burner starts to look more appealing.
With structured procrastination, your motivation doesn’t have to suffer a crippling blow. The very habit that has been holding you back can actually move you forward. You’re procrastinating and productive at the same time — your output will be magically prodigious.
“The painful and inevitable struggle remains to create in a childlike and openhearted manner, but to be un-wistful and cruel when judging one’s creation.”—
Artist Christoph Niemann writing for the New Yorker about the process of making his first app and the “most important struggle at the center of all creative pursuits: being the artist and the editor at the same time.”
“When you are overwhelmed, overworked, and overinvested in maintaining the status quo – when you find yourself resisting change even though what you’re doing right now isn’t really working – that is a sign you are not fully in charge of your life. You are letting things happen to you by accident.”—Lauren Bacon, on shifting gears, accepting discomfort, and living on purpose, not by accident.
The skills cultivated in improvisation — communication, creativity, teamwork, taking risks, and resilience — are ones you’d want to see on a résumé. Business schools are taking note and even teaching improv. Robert Kulhan, adjunct professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business explains, that at its core, “Improvisation isn’t about comedy, it’s about reacting — being focused and present in the moment at a very high level.”
One of the most fundamental principles of improv which produces that mindful reacting is “Yes, and”. You accept and agree with what someone has said, and you’re not done until you build upon it, which requires listening, understanding, and insight.
That “and” generates possibility, and as Tina Fey writes in Bossypants, responsibility. For her, “Yes, and” means, “[D]on’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.”
However, if you respond with negativity, by questioning the premise, by saying “Yes, but”, you abandon your partner and shut down the scene by refusing to engage. What’s worse is that this conduct signifies that those initiations and ideas are not worthwhile and cultivates fear of contribution.
We often buy into the impression that work is about being right, hypercritical, and steely, as if our ideal work persona were Simon Cowell. But that kind of behavior leaves people out to dry.
Often when it comes time to act, move, brainstorm, and make decisions — when it’s showtime! — it does no good to sit around the table with our arms and attitudes crossed. James Mitchell, founder of Improboost, who runs workshops in D.C. to boost teamwork and performance through improv techniques, sees this happen all too often in the workplace.
He recounts, “Many of my students work in competitive office environments, and have learned to say ‘Yes, but.’ You see this in office meetings all the time. One person comes up with a proposal, and a co-worker will immediately come up with a host of reasons why it won’t work. When ‘Yes, And’ is violated on stage, the scene goes downhill; when it’s violated at work, it leads to stifled thinking and a poor work product. People are reluctant to offer creative ideas for fear that their scene partner — or co-worker or boss — will shut them down.”
Why Stifling is Harmful
Those employees who feel stifled, shut down, or even belittled, for sharing their ideas, become unproductive, disengaged, and resentful, and those feelings are unhealthy in the workplace. Why? Our emotions affect cognitive functions like memory, attention, and reasoning. Negative emotions actually narrow our view, interfere with rational decision-making, and inhibit taking risks.
On the bright side, positive emotions broaden thinking and action and increase creativity levels. According to psychologist Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, such expansion and growth helps build up personal skills and resources. When “Yes, and” becomes part of a work culture of openness, where ideas are encouraged, heeded, and developed, both the individual and the organization broaden, build, and enrich themselves.
So put an end to your Simon Cowell ‘tude. Suspend your judgment when you don’t want close off conversation and possibility. “Yes, and” requires openness. Go with the flow and add to the momentum.
As Mitchell notes, “In a safe space for brainstorming, people build upon one another’s ideas and add their own unique flavor to the mix; it’s amazing to witness it in action.”
All too often, to-do lists end up with more things to do and less things getting done. Humans are awful at completing lists. We often convince ourselves that we can complete our to-do list if we just buckle down and try harder.
Yet tomorrow, or next week, or next month rolls around, and the list is just as bad as it has always been. Probably worse, if you are like me.
So when we found iDoneThis at Zapier it immediately clicked.
- No more over bearing to-do list? Check. - Transparency into what everyone on the team is doing? Check. - Email based? Check. - Built-in motivation to do meaningful things each day? Check, again.
I loved it.
We’re always up to date. We don’t have to constantly bother each other about what’s going on. And for a remote team, it’s an easy way to keep tabs when doing a group hangout just isn’t feasible.
But before this turns into a complete love fest, we quickly discovered two bottlenecks with our new iDoneThis routine:
1. There’s still one more thing to do. Everyone on the team has one more to-do on their list: recording their daily dones at the end of the day.
2. Not everyone is email based. I’m one of the few people on the team that spends a significant amount of time in my inbox.
For engineers who are operating out of GitHub all day long, checking an inbox at the end of the day is not exactly high on their priority list and recording dones as they go breaks their workflow. It’s not that engineers don’t want to update everyone on what they’re working on — it’s just not their habit.
So how exactly can we solve this problem?
The Psychology of Automation
Humans naturally follow the path of least resistance.
In one National Bureau of Economic Research study, researchers set out to figure out how to increase 401(k) savings. The study found that by simply adding automatic enrollment for new employees, plan participation doubled.
What does this have to do with completing our daily iDoneThis updates?
Since humans do what takes the least effort, the easiest way to record our dones would be to not have to do anything at all. If there was a way to automatically notify iDoneThis each time something meaningful is completed, we’d have a way to get rid of that last to-do item, and it wouldn’t matter that iDoneThis is mostly email based.
If automating iDoneThis is anything like automating 401k enrollment, then we wagered that the number of times we “simply forgot” to record our dones would go down significantly.
With this hypothesis in mind, we turned to the Zapier user base which is filled with automation experts. And sure enough, several Zaps had already been shared to help people automate their daily iDoneThis entries.
This type of automation solved the exact problem we were having with non-email based teammates getting into the habit of using iDoneThis and getting hooked. All it took was a couple Zaps.
Once everyone on the team could see everything happening around them, we realized the full benefit of iDoneThis. It was easier to jump in and help on a project that someone might have been struggling with for a few days. You can encourage teammates for awesome days. Or you can help build them up, if there are a few rough days in a row.
How to Automate Your Daily iDoneThis
The trick to automating your daily iDoneThis practice is to find a way to launch an email to iDoneThis when you complete certain tasks.
Many web services can trigger emails for certain activity within their app. Simply set that process to update your iDoneThis account by using the address “email@example.com”, and for personal users, “firstname.lastname@example.org”. (Find the exact address in the “from” field of your reminder emails, and make sure the service or app is using the same email address as the one that’s affiliated with your iDoneThis account.)
If a service doesn’t have email alerts for a specific activity, try using the Zapier Gmail send email action to send an email to iDoneThis from the many Zapier triggers that are already available.
Unleash the power of automation to spend more time on the things that matter and help you get more stuff done! And don’t forget to share your automation tricks and Zaps with us in the comments.
Wade Foster is co-founder of Zapier - the easiest way to automate your business and your life. You can tweet with him by following @wadefoster.