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The Definitive Guide to Google Snippets
I knew nothing about Google Snippets before I moved to Silicon Valley. But when I was out there, I kept hearing that successful company after company — like Google, Facebook, Foursquare, Buzzfeed and more — used the snippets system to power a flat and decentralized management structure, enabling autonomy, transparency, and happiness in the company.
This guide tells everything you need to know about Google snippets, from its inception at Google to how it’s used at top tech companies today. You’ll learn why snippets is so useful and how to get snippets going in your own company.
Table of Contents
- Introduction: Silicon Valley’s Productivity Secret
- How Snippets Enables Flat Management
- Do Away with Meetings and Standups by Working Asynchronously
- The Power of Tracking Your Progress
- Why You Should Build a Transparent Company
1. Introduction: Silicon Valley’s Productivity Secret
The wonder of Silicon Valley has been its rich history of producing incredibly capital efficient companies operating at massive scale. No doubt part of that achievement lies in the capital efficiency of software engineering itself, where technology gives incredible leverage to create and disrupt established industries. Nevertheless, as a company scales, individual engineers need to work together in concert, which results in the industry-agnostic problem of people management.
Unique from other industries, Silicon Valley’s natural inclination isn’t simply to find an individual solution to people management but to create a scalable management model. Of course, technology is the natural place to turn.
During Google’s growth stage, Larry Schwimmer, an early software engineer, stumbled upon a solution that was deceptively simple, but it’s one that persists to this day at Google and has spread throughout the Valley. In his system called Google Snippets, employees receive a weekly email asking them to write down what they did last week and what they plan to do in the upcoming week. Replies get compiled in a public space and distributed automatically the following day by email.
A number of the top Silicon Valley startups have similar processes. At Facebook, they have a system called Colbert where weekly check-ins are logged. Square employees send their weekly snippets directly to the COO Keith Rabois. The elite engineering shop Palantir requires a weekly email to managers detailing what got done last week and what’s planned for the upcoming week.
The Google Snippets process at any scale is a compelling productivity solution, and companies of all sizes have adopted it — and some, like SV Angel, rich in Google DNA, do daily snippets. The process forces employees to reflect and to jot out a forward-looking plan for getting stuff done, all while requiring a minimal disruption in the employee’s actual work.
Setting aside time on a daily or weekly basis to reflect on the day is a powerful productivity hack. In The Progress Principle, Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer showed the counterintuitive conclusion that progress toward a meaningful goal is the #1 motivator for employees at work, not financial motivation or downward pressure. Professor Amabile prescribes 5 minutes per day of reflection, religiously protected by bosses, centered around the progress and the setbacks of the day. Simply put, employees connected to their work and its progress are happier and more productive.
On the flip side, Google Snippets works because it’s minimally disruptive to employee flow, working asynchronously and without facetime. This allows for a maker schedule — large blocks of time dedicated to concentrated progress on work — rather than breaking up an engineer’s day into a manager’s schedule to suit a manager’s needs. At Palantir, they do email snippets because they have a very strong culture against meetings. In addition, email as an interface avoids the issues with, for instance, CRMs, where employees spend valuable time logging into a system and entering highly structured information or they don’t use it at all.
Google turned periodic email updates as a process into a scalable management solution, leveraging technology, through automation, data storage and data retrieval. An individual’s Snippets are transparent across the organization and are linked to an individual’s internal resume in its MOMA system which connects individual employees to the work of team members and others within the company. It can kill political squabbles, the core problem of people management, by providing a record of what’s been done.
Put differently, Google Snippets is a management process that scales because transparency means that individual engineers can manage themselves and individual engineers can manage each other without having to go through a middleman. It’s the disruptive power of peer-to-peer management centered around atomic units of work.
Silicon Valley’s focus of work around the work itself is still an ongoing competitive advantage. Being work-centric means focusing manically on how to formulate process to eliminate all the cruft. Most engineers at Google, Zynga, Palantir, Square, etc. do often end up finding the process of Google Snippets and OKRs (objectives and key results) to be annoying and unnecessary. At the same time, many of them admit that they were their most productive when they closely tracked their Snippets and OKRs and that much of the autonomy and freedom that’s characteristic of top software engineering shops in the Valley could be attributed to Google Snippets doing its work of people management, in silence.
2. How Snippets Enables Flat Management
Flat management is a massive trend in Silicon Valley. It gives autonomy to employees to do the work, and that’s a powerful driver of productivity and happiness at work.
Snippets is an important part of a set of practices that help make flat management and self-organized teams work in companies. In this chapter, we take a look at how top tech companies empower individuals to manage themselves and get stuff done.
2.1. The Art of Getting Stuff Done Without Bossing People Around
The availability of seed-stage funding today means that there are a ton of first-time entrepreneurs out there assembling teams and building companies without any experience running a team or managing people. Building a team in this environment is especially difficult because funded companies typically grow teams prior to sustainability or product-market fit. It’s hard to steer the team in the right direction when you yourself don’t quite know what to build.
Naval Ravikant at AngelList has blogged about “Building a team that ships,” describing his assembled team as “self-managing people who ship code.” Naval calls this peer management: one person per project (with help from others as needed), no middle managers, and individual choice on what to work on using accountability is the rudder. In his words: “Promise what you’ll do in the coming week on internal Yammer. Deliver – or publicly break your promise – next week.”
As work gets automated and outsourced, self-directed, creative work is required in ever-increasing degree. Peer management not only makes us more efficient, but it builds a workplace that enables — as Dan Pink describes — autonomy, mastery, and purpose that makes work fulfilling and joyful.
At iDoneThis, we’ve seen peer management as an effective approach to take for the young startup CEO. We’ve worked closely with many first-time entrepreneurs like Danny Wen at Harvest and Tobi Lütke at Shopify who have succeeded in building unique, quirky, and profitable companies by empowering individuals at their companies to manage themselves and each other to build out great products exceeding a high standard of excellence. Here is how snippets enables effective peer management and other keys to building a flat management culture in your company.
Individual Data Tracking with Snippets
“Do things, tell people. These are the only things you need to do to be successful.” When individuals are CEOs of objectives, goals, and projects, they need a way of measuring the intermediate progress and activity of themselves and their peers. As with the quantified self movement, tracking progress — writing it down — leads to reflection, knowledge, and betterment.
In old-school, hierarchical companies, information that passed down to employees or up to executives had to travel through middle managers and that created a single-point of failure anti-pattern. You had to rely on your manager to get information and also to market your accomplishments upward to upper management and the executive team.
Where individuals manage themselves and each other in a peer management environment, it’s vitally important that everyone gets the requisite information flow they need to do their jobs and that they have channels to market their own accomplishments and results.
Google snippets is an example not of Big Brother monitoring, but of empowering individuals to see everything that’s happening in the company so that they can find their niche in the company and contribute. The power of snippets is in gathering data to demystify the black box of the notoriously fuzzy production process — in which raw material turns into output with the application of labor — and makes progress possible to measure, analyze, and recognize. It makes sense then that peer management environments tend towards transparency, meritocracy, and individual professional fulfillment.
Systemized Accountability with OKRs
Skillshare uses a system called Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to systemize accountability. Every individual is responsible for company objectives, which are broken into measurable bites in the form of key results, resulting in alignment within and accountability throughout the team. At the end of every week, month, and quarter, individuals measure themselves against their OKRs to evaluate performance.
OKRs have a rich history in building great tech companies, going back to Andy Grove at Intel in the 1980s and what he called “Management by Objective.” Drawing a fundamental distinction between output and activity, Grove’s use of the word “objective” involves dual meanings. Output is both the objective and something that’s objectively measurable, while activity is a black box. An engineer at heart, management by objective was Grove’s way of bringing scientific and engineering principles to management.
OKRs have since been embraced by tech giants like Google and Zynga and spread throughout the Valley and to the broader tech world. At Salesforce, they do V2MOMs (vision, values, methods, obstacles, and measurement); at Yammer, they do MORPHs (mission, objectives, results, people, and how did you do); others use KPIs (key performance indicators). While the acronyms may vary, the general principles hold true.
To Mark Pincus, OKRs are the solution to the basic problem that’s at the heart of many a founder’s anxious and sleepless night: how “to keep everybody going in productive directions when you’re not in the room.” Every individual has one objective, and they are the CEO of that objective, entrusted with authority and accountability for their objective and the key results necessary to get there.
Fit as a Deal Breaker in Hiring
In company cultures of extremely high personal autonomy, fit is paramount because it reduces friction in every interaction.
While fit can be tested by hiring a candidate first as a contractor, fit often amounts to guesswork based on intuition and impression during interviews. Peter Thiel said PayPal once rejected a top-notch engineering candidate because he said during an interview that he liked to play “hoops,” and a PayPal engineer does not play basketball, much less “hoops.” The wisdom of that decision is unclear, but that decision process no doubt solidified a sense of self in the team.
Fit is about an ever-solidifying sense of self as much as it is about bringing on like-minded people, and that sense spawns canonical stories and processes. Carwoo is a company that’s a little weird, so they ask every interviewee how weird she thinks she is on a scale of 1 to 5. There is a right answer. 3-4 is the sweet spot a weird person who is self-aware.
Wistia is a company that highly values its culture and the unique identity it has built. Co-founder and CEO Chris Savage finds that combination of autonomy, culture, and fit becomes “a competitive advantage.” As Wistia hires more people, “the culture of the company should get stronger because we’re hiring for values that the company believes in, and people with those values should make it stronger.”
2.2. Case Study: Non-Hierarchical Feedback at Foursquare
Most corporate reporting systems force underlings to report up to management and executives. That made sense in the command-and-control management framework, but it’s totally out of date in the flat, decentralized way nimble tech startups are organized.
Because snippets asks everyone to account for what they’re working on, it’s a system that’s unique in that it flips the way company reporting is typically organized. Instead of employees only reporting to managers, managers report to employees as well. When Dennis Crowley, co-founder and CEO of Foursquare sends out his snippets, he’s reporting to the team as any other member of the team would:
When I send out mine, the first heading is, “Things I’m Psyched About,” and the next is, “Things That I’m Not So Psyched About” or “Things I’m Stressed About.” The next thing is usually a quote of the week — something I heard from one of our investors or maybe overheard from an employee — and then I have my snippets below that.
In response to his snippets, employees will send him feedback on how he can improve, which inverts the typical reporting-into-feedback power dynamic. “I get a lot of feedback from employees,” Crowley says. “It only takes them a minute or two to read, and it’s like a bird’s-eye view of what I think is going well at the company and areas where I think we could improve.”
2.3. Case Study: How Shopify Crowdsources Its Company Bonuses
I’m sure we’ve all worked at companies where the loudest guy gets the biggest bonus. In most companies, compensation is determined by a cabal of execs — people you may never have met — evaluating work that happened up to a whole year ago. Bonus compensation ends up being a function of politics, not performance.
51% of employees feel that the performance reviews upon which bonus compensation is based are inaccurate according to a 2011 survey by Globoforce. A 2010 literature survey in Psychology Today concluded that 87% to 90% of employees hate performance reviews because the feedback isn’t useful, the whole process is stressful, and they’re left demotivated as a result.
Incredibly, despite widespread recognition of its failure, a recent Wall Street Journal article found that 99% of companies still go through the process of ritualized demotivation.
At Shopify, an e-commerce software startup, they’ve reinvented the process and turned bonus compensation on its head. They distribute bonuses every month — not once a year — and that compensation is determined by peers, not by the management team on high.
Shopify crowdsources their company bonuses.
We spent a week with Shopify at their headquarters in Ottawa, Canada, after the company began using snippets via iDoneThis. We learned that their use of iDoneThis was a small part of a bigger philosophy — to put power in the hands of employees, the ones closest to the ground, to make consequential decisions, crowdsource business intelligence, and build their own unique company culture.
To crowdsource company bonuses, the Shopify team built their own internal system called Unicorn. Here’s how it works.
When Serena does something awesome, 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. In other words, Serena’s bonus is determined by the gratitude of her peers for a job well done.
Whereas traditional bonus compensation schemes assume that management knows employee performance better than employees themselves, Shopify’s system seeks the wisdom of the crowd to determine who the top performers are. The upshot is that Unicorn isn’t merely an administrative tool that doles out bonuses, it’s a business intelligence platform for employee performance.
It’s the difference between management hindsight on the one hand and data and genuine insight on the other. CEO Tobi Lütke told me that Unicorn discovered top performers among employees who might otherwise have been overshadowed by more charismatic colleagues.
Snippets makes all of this possible, because it’s the place where employees learn what their fellow employees are getting done in the company. They put those dones into Unicorn, which is the starting point for sharing recognition and crowdsourcing bonuses.
Perhaps the most amazing fact of Unicorn is that Shopify has transformed the process of workplace feedback, performance evaluation, and compensation from a source of fear and dread into a fun way to recognize a colleague’s good work. The power of crowdsourcing is that it can take a back office function like traditional HR and put it into the hands of every person in the company. The result is that Shopify’s culture of performance, gratitude, and quirkiness is baked into everyday life at the company.
3. Do Away with Meetings and Standups by Working Asynchronously
To Zach Holman, early employee at GitHub, one of the best parts of working at GitHub and a reason for its massive success is that they work asynchronously. The reason why working asynchronously is so effective, is because it empowers people to get stuff done, not have to address distractions and requests for time from managers and colleagues.
It turns out that working asynchronously and ruthlessly cutting out synchronous meetings is a hallmark of top tech companies, and here’s why.
3.1. Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Software
Business software’s increasing focus on real-time collaboration, activity streams and consumerization threatens what Paul Graham called the “maker’s schedule” in the workplace. Makers need long blocks of uninterrupted time to concentrate on ambitious, creative work. The result of always-on availability, random notification, and constant information deluge is a work mode of interruption-driven multitasking that’s antithetical to a maker’s needs.
Digital connectivity empowers managers to collaborate with makers in creating, but without regard to when. Because modern collaboration tools flow so neatly within their kind of schedule, managers often don’t realize the costs to the maker. At iDoneThis, we use a bunch of awesome collaborative tools including Asana, Github, Hipchat, Hackpad, Google Hangouts, and Trello, and we’ve observed how those tools can disrupt a maker’s schedule.
For instance, in Github, we noticed that creating a bug ticket and assigning it to someone will often result in that person switching tasks to kill the bug, regardless of its urgency or assigned priority level — all because the ticket assignment triggers an email notification. We decided to avoid assigning tickets during work hours unless the ticket needs to be resolved immediately. Similarly, Asana’s comment threads are a great way to discuss projects and action items, but we try to batch these toward the end of the day. Otherwise, email notifications of comments get triggered and they disrupt and add to the multitasking that pulls your full attention away from the task at hand.
Group chat is important for our distributed team, but we saw how a scrolling chat format can be a visual distraction and group chat can devolve into one long, endless meeting. So instead, we have quiet time during the day when we work away from chat in order to focus without interruption.
In contrast, snippets offers a quieter frequency for non-urgent, unstructured communication at work. We’ve found that having such a communication channel is essential to creating a bubble that protects and enhances maker’s schedule without sacrificing open and transparent communication within a company. Pesky status updates aren’t randomly interspersed throughout your day, they occur on a rhythm that bookends the day — reflect and jot down your dones in the evening and scan your morning digest to get up to speed.
Your snippets become the place for recording the reflective thought that’s vital to evaluation and improvement but often gets ignored in the hustle and bustle. A valuable repository of nuggets of learnings, notes, emotions, appreciation, and thanks build up, bit by bit. You can record any non-urgent communication during the day, and you know that you won’t be bothering anyone with it — they’ll see it the next morning when they’re sipping a cup of coffee.
We’ve learned that this type of asynchronous, thoughtful channel for communication is extremely useful in replacing the meetings and standups that can interrupt our flow and are generally extremely inefficient.
What’s at stake in developing business collaboration software is building and reinventing the modern office into the type of place we’d all like to work in. For us, that means ensuring alone time, maker’s schedule, and the quiet time we need to do our best, most fulfilling work.
3.2. Case Study: How Sourceninja Gets an Extra 7 Hours of Productivity Every Week
Sourceninja is worry-free open source management made simple. To explain how they find snippets useful, they told us an early lesson they learned from an early investor, Thomas Korte.
What Korte impressed upon us was to maximize every minute of every meeting, because time spent in meetings has a multiplier effect. Every meeting costs the number of minutes it takes multiplied by the number of people in the meeting.
For the Sourceninja team, this used to mean 20 minute standups for their four-member team on a daily basis. 20 minutes five days a week for four people multiplies out to close to 7 hours per week spent in their daily standup.
The guys at Sourceninja have found snippets to be a huge a time-saving tool. Instead of spending time in meetings, they’re getting stuff done. Brett, one of Sourceninja’s founders, told me that using iDoneThis for snippets is “the easiest method I’ve found to have open communication in a team.”
Brett and his co-founder Matt have been around the block. They worked together at PGP, a startup, and stayed together through PGP’s acquisition by Symantec, the largest maker of computer security software. They’ve gone through many different companies’ attempts at solving the hard problem of communication: how do you stay focused and communicate what you’re doing? Besides standups, they’ve used wikis, sat in other kinds of meetings, and written weekly email rollups.
Snippets succeeds where other methods have failed, because it gives visibility into the entire company and provides a record of everything that’s getting done, but it doesn’t force people to waste time listening to information that’s irrelevant to them. They’ve used those extra 7 man hours every week to make incredible progress.
3.3. Case Study: How Crashlytics Doubled Its Headcount in 6 Months
The Twitter-acquired company Crashlytics provides real-time crash reporting for mobile apps, down to the exact line of code that caused the crash. Current mobile performance management options run thin due to a knowledge gap that arises after somebody downloads an app. Engineering director Rich Paret recounts, “When [our] founders talked to developers about what they were doing to manage the quality of the stuff once it hit the app store, we found out that some software companies were paying an engineer to read the reviews in the app store. Any review that was under 3 stars, they would try to reverse-engineer from the reviewer’s comment what was wrong with the app. That’s a crazy sort of situation to be in.”
With Crashlytics, developers are no longer blind to how their mobile apps are performing in the wild. It has been so successful at doing this that it powers many top apps like Yelp, OpenTable, HBO, PayPal, and Square, and is deployed on hundreds of millions of devices.
In its earlier days, the Cambridge-based startup doubled in size in six months, and with the sudden growth, the Crashlytics team wanted to avoid the problem of what Rich calls “islands of information,” where some people know certain bits while others don’t know what’s going on. So instead of daily standups which can get unwieldy, Rich thought using snippets would fit the bill for making sure that “everybody is aware of what’s going on, in a lightweight way.”
Experienced in thinking about, building, and managing great collaborative teams, Rich tells us about the challenges of having to pay coordination costs as groups scale up. “Investing in the right tools and taking advantage of things like iDoneThis allow me to pay a lower coordinating cost than I would otherwise have to at this stage.” In turn, Rich has observed “a general awareness of what’s going on, how things are going, that sometimes you don’t get at a startup that’s growing this fast.”
Rich emphasizes recruiting people who are both self-directed and collaborative and plugging in tools for them to work that way. “Then you could step back, I don’t need to be mediating every relationship, I don’t need to be scheduling a meeting to make sure everybody is talking. We use iDoneThis as a tool to encourage the behavior that I want to see and that I’ve hired for.”
Crashlytics is gung-ho about building awesome solutions for developers, who “have a lot of pain and a lot of need,” to help them spend “more time on doing things that matter, like building new features, and differentiating their product in the marketplace.” Snippets similarly provides a way for Crashlytics to spend more time on doing things that matter, serving as “a good base layer, sort of substrate for a bunch of collaboration and communication that might not otherwise happen,” Rich comments. “It makes it easy to focus on the work but also stay in sync.”
3.4. Case Study: Buzzfeed’s Kismet Engine
People often hold this ideal about how great work gets done through serendipity, as if brains to stumble upon each other like characters in a romantic comedy. More often, the spark happens when we create the conditions for it to do so. If you really want lightning to strike, you don’t just mosey along empty-handed, you go out there with a lightning rod.
How Snippets works at Buzzfeed is this: employees send Jon a weekly email by the end of the workday on Friday identifying what they’ve been working on and what they need help with. Everyone can also subscribe to each others’ snippets. As for Jon, he reads his compiled snippets over the weekend and then responds with feedback and questions.
He explains, this makes it possible to “connect dots and people on things I wouldn’t otherwise know about.” Voilà, facilitated kismet.
With Snippets showing Jon and the growing team at Buzzfeed where all the dots are, they get a sense of the layers of individual details and multitudes of dots that help create the big impressionistic picture. The result is that:
“Snippets … forces me to review my week and tell the whole company what my contributions and challenges were for the week. Some weeks it feels great, other weeks not so much. On the weeks it feels disappointing, it’s a great forcing function to prioritize and focus.”
Depending on what’s going on, that kind of transparency may show you something wonderful or ugly or what’s sticking out. Getting a view of the picture’s composition is revealing and full of insight. And it’s a good deal better than the alternative of merely having a random, vague sense of what’s going on, only seeing some percentage of the whole.
This kind of process is essential given how — as Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, suggests with great wisdom — “if you don’t take the time to think proactively you will increasingly find yourself reacting to your environment rather than influencing it.” Oftentimes, in the workplace, we don’t take time to think, reflect, and situate ourselves. The ironic thing is that thinking — no matter how proactive it is — looks like you’re doing nothing. And maybe this explains people’s reluctance to put reflection and review into real, meaningful practice.
Yet embracing that appearance of doing nothing and taking the time to think is integral, psychiatrist T. Byram Karasu explains, “for previously unrelated thoughts and feelings to interact, to regroup themselves into new formations and combinations, and thus to bring harmony to the mind.” And tuning in, Dr. Karasu says, ultimately creates rather than takes away, because you build a better sense of reciprocation.
By being in touch with the internal, you establish links with the external world. Tuning in, not just on an individual but team and company level, is how you connect, sync, and plan, enable kismet instead of waiting for lightning, influence rather than react.
3.5. Case Study: How WooThemes Makes Distributed Team Culture Succeed
The multi-million dollar company WooThemes started with a single email, as a small side project of Magnus Jepson in Stavanger, Norway, Adii Pienaar in Cape Town and Mark Forrester, then in London.
From that one email sprouted a bootstrapped company that produces a rich catalog of WordPress themes and plugins, serving over 450,000 users. And this impressive success emerges from a distributed team of only thirty people, spanning seven countries.
Making Distributed Culture Work
Sustaining the company’s remote roots was a natural but conscious decision by the founders. “We wanted to make sure that the business was built around our lifestyles, rather than dictate our lifestyles,” explains co-founder Mark Forrester.
Ten employees work in the Cape Town office but there are no location requirements. Mark appreciates the advantage of going borderless: “Being able to pick the cream of the crop from anywhere in the world is hugely beneficial.”
Indeed, WooThemes’s hiring tactics tackle the accountability challenges of remote working by giving precedence to personality and fit before ability to ensure that the cream of the crop stays at the top in its environment of trust and enthusiasm. Mark reports, “The culture is to have lots of fun with what we’re doing and to employ people passionate about WordPress and content publishing. A strong attitude and desire to share in our success is more important to us than experience and aptitude.”
An integral part of that fun, passionate culture is the annual WooTrip — to destinations like the Austrian Alps and to WordCamp in the Netherlands — to meet, socialize, and cement a sense of cohesion. Mark comments, “Even though we’re all over the place, we like everyone to feel like they’re a part of a small team.”
Overcoming Growing Pains
Especially after the launch of WooCommerce, an e-commerce engine, eighteen months ago, WooThemes expanded rapidly. The company faced its growing pains by wielding its approach of continual improvement and streamlining. Operating in accordance with agile and lean principles, WooThemes settled on its current toolbox of WordPress theme P2 “for the chitter-chatter” and Trello to track projects.
“We place heavy emphasis on keeping the team small and trying to have our systems running as efficiently as possible,” Mark says, “which is why we’re using applications like iDoneThis. It helps us strategically in figuring out our effectiveness as a team and whether we’re making the best use of our team members’ time without micromanaging them. It also helps us get to know our staff more personally to see their work habits and their day-to-day tasks.”
In fact, WooThemes had attempted minute-by-minute tracking but quickly felt it wasn’t true to their ethos of trust. With Skype simply not working as a team-wide communication tool at this size, WooThemes turned to snippets via iDoneThis to keep abreast of exciting developments on its multiple ongoing projects. Plus, it serves as a gentle way to check in: “If someone’s out for half the day and we can’t find them on Skype, at the end of the day, we can see that they had to run out to do some errands.”
The Transparency Advantage
A company built on trust demands transparency. While WooThemes sets clear expectations that visibility into performance keeps the company running smoothly, its team embraces those values in using snippets. “It’s best if they leave that sort of cookie trail for us to see how effective they have been,” Mark explains. “Seeing it’s so easy to submit your daily reports by email, people do it every day. Even though it’s not a requirement, they realize the benefit to them.”
The street of accountability goes both ways, with the co-founders sharing what they’re doing every day as well. Encouraging open circulation of knowledge is especially essential for distributed companies. Now, according to Mark, “people are more informed of the day-to-day tasks. Previously emails had been on more of a global scale — what we’re working on as a team and not seeing what each of us is doing individually. Keeping everyone on the loop with a transparent communication tool is where we found the real benefit of iDoneThis.”
WooTheme’s commitment to transparency carries through from its inner workings to its relationship with its customers. “We’ve learned to be completely transparent with our customers. So we use our blog extensively to communicate with our users on what we’re doing, where we’re failing, and how we can improve.” Mark says. With that openness to customer feedback and conversation, WooThemes is making strides as a company that lets its customers into its process, decision-making, and product.
4. The Power of Tracking Your Progress
You can’t improve what you don’t track. Many companies often don’t have a culture of writing things down and tracking them, and they pay the price in lost information, the inability to analyze the data and come up with a plan to improve, and failed team communication.
4.1. The Progress Principle — How Recognizing Small Wins Drives Growth
Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer wrote a whole book about the secret to happiness and motivation at work called The Progress Principle.
They found that a massive 95% of managers are wrong about what the most powerful motivator for employees at work. It’s not financial incentive or stress. The number one driver of a positive inner work life, the key to motivated, engaged, and productive employees, is making progress on meaningful work, even if that progress is a small win.
In a recent 99U conference talk, Professor Amabile shared the best way to achieve those small wins and leverage the progress principle in our daily lives: keeping a work diary — which is essentially what snippets is. We’re so pleased that she suggested using iDoneThis as an online work diary tool, basically Google snippets but for each individual, and we thought we’d break down how snippets contributes to the four benefits of keeping a work diary she identifies:
1. Capture progress that may have been lost in a busy workday and celebrate the small wins.
Professor Amabile notes that even on frustrating, seemingly unproductive days, you can almost always find one thing on which you made progress. Note it. Celebrate it. “This is the best way to leverage the progress principle,” Professor Amabile says. Next stop: more awesomeness.
Snippets via iDoneThis helps you see your workday through the lens of accomplishment because it asks, “What’d you get done today?” In taking a moment to reflect on this question, you make a habit out of focusing on the progress you made and your wins, however small. Writing and recording wins in your snippets is a quiet affirmation and celebration.
2. Plan next steps, think things through, and overcome setbacks.
Professor Amabile also suggests using a work diary to consider the causes of setbacks you experience and create a plan of action if a similar problem rears its head again. The Progress Principle encourages learning from negative experiences and counts those valuable lessons toward your overall progress, turning negatives into net positives.
Snippets contributes to such positive growth, because it keeps a record of all your daily doings. You can go back into your log and see what decisions, actions, and efforts led to the setback. In short, you can pinpoint where things started to go wrong. This record gives you the information to form a plan of action to resolve similar setbacks. Down the road, your snippets becomes a map to which you can refer back and see how you overcame obstacles.
3. Nurture your own personal growth and work through difficult events.
In her talk, Professor Amabile provides an example of one engineer struggling through the experience of massive layoffs at her company. While grappling with the stress of watching her team members being laid off and her own uncertainty about the future, the engineer turned to her work diary to center her thoughts. She recognized that because she had no control over her position at the company, instead she would focus on the one thing that she did have control over — her work.
Snippets with iDoneThis is about you, you the captain of your work. It’s not a task-specific or project-oriented tool in that it isn’t interested in micromanaging questions like: “How far did you get on Project X today?” or “What did you do for Team Y?” No, it asks, “What’d you get done today?”
This is a question that matters when the going gets tough. Your progress is what matters, not that of a particular endeavor. If you need to center yourself and regain control of a situation by focusing on work, iDoneThis allows you to see evidence of your control and progress. If you need to focus on your emotional and cognitive processes, iDoneThis provides an outlet for that as well.
4. Spot patterns in your reactions and behaviors. Identify your greatest strengths and weaknesses.
In The Progress Principle, Professor Amabile recommends asking yourself at the end of each month, “Do I notice trends over time in this journal? What are the implications?” She also describes how research participants would change their behavior based on recognizing unwarranted and unconstructive behavior patterns.
Patterns of behavior and trends are easy to spot with tools like snippets. Because snippets records all your entries in an easy-to-read monthly calendar, you can see at a glance the ebb and flow of your inner work life, day to day, week to week, month to month.
5. Find patience.
Professor Amabile adds a bonus benefit to her list of four, noting that keeping a work diary “can help to cultivate patience.“ Why? Because you can always look back and see how you persevered and survived much worse days.
It’s especially true if you’ve kept your work diary with iDoneThis. Every day that you make an entry, you’ll see a blue check mark appear over each calendar day. Over time, you’ll see from the number of blue checkmarks in your iDoneThis calendar that there are no unproductive days. Even on the worst days, you achieved accomplishments worthy of note. Don’t believe it? Click on that day and see for yourself. There’s always something in each of your past days to be proud of that contributed to the successes that came later on.
3.2. Case Study: Reddit
Reddit, the popular social content site and community, hands power to the people to decide what’s important and what’s not. Snippets likewise hands the reins to Reddit’s team to use how they see fit.
With the Reddit team scattered, from San Francisco to New York and in between, the challenge may be to get a remote team on the same page. Yet, the main use of snippets for the Reddit team is as a personal record, and then by extension, as a reference for the team.
Reddit’s general manager Erik Martin explains, “We all wear a lot of hats. We’re only about twenty people. All of us do a bunch of different things, so it’s hard for us to jump around. It’s nice to be able to track how that’s going, maybe not what we’re spending time on as much but what we accomplish on any given day.”
So Erik’s team members use snippets as a simple way to keep track of what they have done and what hat they wore that day. It’s not used to check in on people in an oppressive way nor is submitting entries absolutely mandatory. “I don’t want people to wake up and go, oh, I forgot to do my thing, that’s not the point. I don’t want it to be a chore.” The team’s individual spirit extends to the various ways people interact with iDoneThis, whether it’s on the web, e-mail, or phone. “I like how lightweight it is. It’s simple and flexible,” comments Erik who uses the web interface so that he can toggle between his team and personal calendar.
What’s especially useful for the Reddit team is the ability to see real progress. “It’s nice to see what you’ve accomplished especially when a lot of the work we do is vague. It’s not like building something with your hands where you see the progress, so it’s nice to look back and see what you’ve done and what other people have been working on.”
Erik’s team used to have a weekly email thread to keep an eye on people’s progress but it’s difficult to remember that much for that long. Most of us know that five days in a workweek can go by like Dali’s melty clock — that’s pretty hard to capture. Snippets takes care of keeping a record for Erik and his team.
5. Why You Should Build a Transparent Company
To be a leader, trust is paramount, but it’s also the biggest hurdle to overcome. One of the best ways to build trust is through transparency.
Effective peer management relies on individuals having accountability and autonomy, and none of that can happen without trust. People stuck thinking of the traditional hierarchical structure as the gold standard, or even a necessary evil, once a business has aged sufficiently enough to be “established” are buying into a system of a lack of trust, which drives the need to control. Instead, peer management works by entrusting and empowering individuals to control themselves and that can only happen with transparency.
The result is the autonomy, information, and agility to carry out initiatives, and because of that freedom, those initiatives are very often creative and help mold the stand-out success of a company. And it turns out that one of the easiest and most fundamental ways to have transparency in your company is with Google snippets. It shows everyone, from top to bottom, what everyone is getting done in the company.
5.1. Case Study: Qualtrics
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.”
For employees to think for themselves, they need information — and that comes from transparency. At Qualtrics, not only can every employee see the company’s objectives and every employee’s objectives, every employee can also see what every employee has gotten done recently, performance reviews and ratings for all employees, meeting notes from all meetings that have taken place, and even the office’s security camera footage.
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.
Qualtrics is taking to an extreme what many tech companies have done to eliminate the manager-as-a-single-point-of-failure antipattern of corporate organization. Transparency gives the power of self-determination to every employee in the organization.
5.2. Case Study: How Transparency Drives Buffer’s Remote Team
Buffer stands out among startups not just for its success in building a great social media sharing tool but in fashioning a company culture focused on making work fulfilling, impactful, and enjoyable. What’s fascinating is that they do this as a completely distributed team, spread across multiple countries and time-zones, powered by radical transparency on everything that’s happening in the company.
Treat People in the Best Way
Co-founders Joel Gasciogne and Leo Widrich set the foundation for Buffer’s culture according to the tenets of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Carolyn Kopprasch, Buffer’s Chief Happiness Officer translates what that means for Buffer’s modus operandi: “We want to treat people in the absolute best way we can, and that includes co-workers, vendors, and customers.”
It also includes how the Buffer employees treat themselves. With a unique self-improvement program, they share their progress on anything from time management to healthy eating with their teammates, spurring conversations about different lifehacks and routines.
Co-workers become a collective accountability partner for future plans like blogging or exercising, and more importantly, they become an incredible support system. Instead of looking askance when you’re doing work to do something to take care of yourself, you receive encouragement. “If you’re trying to work on your health or your fitness or your happiness level, that affects work a lot too,” Carolyn explains.
Work Smarter, Not Harder at Buffer
It’s not surprising then, that one of the company’s mantras is to work smarter, not harder — taking time to review what’s working and how to improve operations. As a remote team, Buffer needed a better way to stay on the same page. Previously, everyone would get on a daily group Skype call in which each person would take three minutes to talk about what they did, how their co-workers could help, and their improvements. With the team growing larger and the standup process proving unwieldy over email, Buffer turned to snippets and iDoneThis.
Leo remarks, “It allows us to track performance, which easily gets lost in a chat room or an in-person standup. If new people come on board, they can look through and see what has been worked on. And of course, it’s amazing to keep in sync with everyone, working as a remote team. iDoneThis is invaluable to us and has changed our productivity for the better.”
Where iDoneThis shines, for Carolyn, is the ability to comment and have chronicled conversations about her teammates’ work and improvement practices. “I think that’s one of the biggest things. It’s not just reporting what we’ve done. It’s asking, ‘oh tell me more about that.’”
Snippets is a natural fit for Buffer’s culture, but Carolyn points out that snippets has helped them to work even smarter. Holding more traditional standups over video chat meant that “if you jump in and talk about something that somebody just said, you’re basically interrupting their three minutes. So what we would actually do is not ask that many questions.” Now the team can communicate asynchronously — asking, commenting, interacting — without feeling like they’re butting in.
Transparency Fosters Tight-Knit Teams
The extreme transparency that Buffer practices in terms of sharing information from sleep habits to how much salary and equity everyone gets is not without feelings of vulnerability. But what they gain is an incredible feeling of connection. In the Buffer universe, where the personal flows right into work and vice versa, it’s their collective care, attention, and support that binds and strengthens the company.
“When somebody will say to me, ‘you didn’t really get very much deep sleep yesterday. Maybe you can try taking a bath before dinner,’ and you’re like, ‘where am I? Am I at work?’” Carolyn laughs. “It’s unique. It takes a certain type of person to really like that, but having a team that’s really interested in keeping you accountable to your own self-improvement is kind of a wild thing. It’s awesome and a little bit crazy sometimes.”
Check out our eBook to learn more about how to track small wins.
Google photo: Carlos Luna