(Source: inritum, via inblack-wetrust)
Far from being the measure of disgrace it once was, failure now seems to be a sort of badge of honor. But underlying many popular Silicon Valley failure clichés is entrepreneurs’ belief that “starting companies these days is akin to doing research in the past” — as if we don’t need research when the opportunity to fail is so readily available.
Somewhere along the way, it got to be uncool to reduce one’s risk of failure.
Part of this may be because the risk of failure is dramatically lower than it used to be. But another reason is that many people don’t actually understand what research is, and have somehow conflated concepts like “rapid prototyping,” “lean startup,” “minimal viable product,” and “[insert] other smart-sounding thing to do” with avoiding research.
That kind of thinking might be fine for entrepreneurs focusing only on their personal risk and fear of failure, but it has real financial, cultural, and opportunity costs for businesses. (The opportunity cost includes all the needs that go unmet because they didn’t happen to occur to a lone entrepreneur or narrowly focused team.)
// Dude, it’s even tougher inside agency environments where research and prototyping is not guaranteed to be part of the process. Yeah, there’s guerilla research, paper and quick-digi prototyping. But it’s rarely ‘enough’. //
Research is not about whether people “like” or don’t like something. No business should ever use the word “like.” Like is not a design word and has nothing to do with any business goal. It’s just a reported mental attitude with no necessary connection to behavior. (Same thing with “hate”: I may hate The Newsroom, but I still watch it. Why? The better to hate it.)
In market research, this is known as the difference between “declared preference” — the fruit of focus groups — and “revealed preference” or reality.
Yet focus groups are not research; they’re research theater. They tell us very little about how real people behave in the real world. The brilliant sociologist and father of focus groups Robert K. Merton later lamented their misuse in replacing research: “Even when the subjects are well selected, focus groups are supposed to be merely the source of ideas that need to be researched.”
When the research focuses on what people actually do (watch cat videos) rather than what they wish they did (produce cinema-quality home movies) it actually expands possibilities. But a common concern and excuse for not doing research is that it will limit creative possibilities to only those articulated by the target users, leaving designers devising a faster horse (lame) rather than a flying car (rad).
Worse than being limited by potential customers’ imaginations is being limited by one’s own — especially if most business leaders admit they’re not going to be the next Steve Jobs. But why should they have to imagine how the world works, when it’s possible to find out through research? Their imagination is then better spent on designing the solution.
Still, no one should do any sort of research just to tick a box or CYA (cover your ass) — that’s worse than doing no research at all. If your heart tells you to build what’s in your head, and there’s no one else you need to convince, go forth, my friend, and build that dream.
// As Creative Directors, what would happen if we worked this way more often?
Camus, dropping knowledge for us whippersnappers.
I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent — their place is the General Staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy — they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent — he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.
* * *
This actually makes quite a bit of sense to me.
Stupid and Lazy
You can accommodate unintelligent and lazy people by separating work into chunks. We do this all the time by breaking jobs down into routine tasks, creating policies and procedures that remove any need of judgment.
(My guess is this happens eventually in every organization because at some point the response to consistently poor judgement calls is to create a bureaucratic process/policy that (attempts to) remove that error.) It’s all a very McDonald’s like and these people tend to be easily replaceable.
Stupid and Energetic
von Hammerstein-Equord recognized these people cause “nothing but mischief.” To him, they should be fired immediately. I tend to agree. Despite good intentions, they often create more work for others.
Intelligent and Energetic
You want these people around. I’m guessing that von Hammerstein-Equord thought they’d be fit for middle management. Which makes sense. I imagine he saw them as company men: safe, reliable, rule following.
He likely saw them as people that didn’t challenge authority or speak up. I think this is a bit of a leap, I know plenty of hard working smart people who, occasionally, challenge authority. I think this happens for a few reasons. Perhaps they’ve grown too frustrated with what they see as absurdity. Or perhaps, and this is more likely, they put away ambitions of climbing the corporate ladder. (Depending on your organization, smart and unquestioning can be the easiest way to a promotion).
Intelligent and Lazy
An under-appreciated aspect of today’s workforce that von Hammerstein-Equord thought fit to lead “because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions.”
These people can be challenging to work with. They delegate and trust people to do their jobs. They don’t micromanage; They question. They avoid unproductive things (think meetings, paper shuffling, busy work). They don’t seek consensus because often that means more work, not less. They focus on a few key priorities. They don’t run around with solutions looking for problems.
Often they have no desire to ‘move up’ in an organization. This gives them the freedom to be different.
// Raising a glass to the ‘Smart & Lazy’ ones. And preparing the t-shirts…
"I think a lot of people see simplicity as the lack of clutter. And that’s not the case at all.
True simplicity is, well, you just keep on going and going until you get to the point where you go, ‘Yeah, well, of course.’ Where there’s no rational alternative.”
“You know, you’re going to have some big message saying ‘Scanning!’ and buzz-buzz-zzz-zzz later it says ‘Authenticated,’ blink-blink-blink, with 10 seconds of animation,” he says, as Ive starts laughing.
"Ultimately we realized all that had to disappear," says Federighi. "If it disappears, we know we’ve done it."
// The boys, discussing the new fingerprint sensor and incredibly sophisticated powerful technology that you’re almost not aware of… vs. how it might work if someone else executed the feature.
Early on, my cofounders and I agreed we would not stop short of fixing commercial real estate search world wide. We would be singularly focused on building a big, successful company—even if that meant increasing our overall odds of failure. That may sound trite, but I can tell you it has already impacted dozens of decisions. My mindset during FlightCaster was to simply not fail. Every time I could have rolled the dice, I took the risk-minimizing option.
At 42Floors, we’re okay with the prospect of failure. We’ll roll the dice every time to keep our full dream intact. Investors/employees/customers can smell the difference. We’ve said this from the beginning. And in the beginning it’s really easy to say because you have nothing to lose anyway. Now that our company is off the ground, we’ve simply gotten used to saying it.
Set a really big goal, go after it and ignore everything else.
What was so miserable about being on that tennis court as a 15 year old was that it was just me out there alone.
I’ve struggled at everything I have ever done. It took me years to see this, but I finally see that every other entrepreneur has had the same problems I’ve had. I did a YC a second time mostly because I wanted that community of peers again. As I’ve mentioned before, if you can’t get into a YC, make your own.
Paul Graham once said the hardest part about being an early stage investor is thatfounders can change. I was nervous when I applied to YC with 42Floors because I was afraid of repeating the same mistakes again. But fuck that! Those types of thoughts are worthless. Focus on the opportunity you have right now and become the person that can get it done.
I am vastly different founder in this company than ever before. I refuse to let my old weaknesses haunt me further.
I have to include the acknowledgement here that this post is total bullshit. I didn’t gain this mindset until we had already sold FlightCaster. That win gave me a ton of confidence to swing bigger this time.
Every time I hear an early stage entrepreneur talk about crushing it, I know they are fighting demons within themselves. There’s nothing worse than pretending to the world that you’re doing better than you actually are. All it does is isolate you even further. One of the most powerful parts of my blogging in the last few years is I’ve been able to share openly how hard things have been. It’s taken an immense stress off of me personally.
So, to all you founders out there thinking that other everyone else possess some genetic gift of unending courage that you lack. It’s not true. They’ve just faked it better. So can you.
- Jason Freedman
How Medium is building a new kind of company with no managers
… As one of the fiercest and most faithful adopters of Holacracy – a radical new theory of corporate structure – Medium is experimenting with a completely management-free environment that’s laser focused on getting things done.
“ Traditional management just didn’t agree with me ”
For two years, Stirman managed a team at Twitter and never felt quite right about it. There was always the tension between being their boss and being their peer. He read all the ‘right’ books on management and took the advice to heart: don’t get too chummy, shield your team from anything they don’t need to know, ask them to identify roadblocks to progress, reward them all equally. He hated it.
“Management perspective looks at reports as resources – like how can you get the maximum value out of this person,” Stirman says. “But when I think resources, I think like natural gas or coal mines. Thinking about a person’s life that way just seemed really dehumanizing.”
Frustrated with poor results, he decided to go off script. He started spending one-on-one meetings talking to his reports about their lives, instead of their tasks, and productivity shot through the roof. “When you sit across a table from someone, ask them ‘What’s going on in your life?’ That will always remove more hurdles than asking them ‘What’s blocking you at work?’” he said.
“ Whenever problems popped up, I’d totally ignore them and pay attention to the people who had them. Suddenly all these issues were just dissolving. I swear it was like a Jedi mind trick. ”
He started taking his reports out to lunch, to drinks, to coffee to see what was up. How was their wife settling into her new job? Did escrow close on their new house? This is the stuff that people bring into work with them but never talk about, Stirman says. As soon as you ask, the pressure starts to dissipate.
This more human approach starting paying off in other, less expected ways too. “I’d hear that someone on my team had a problem with someone on another team that brought everything to a standstill – just because they didn’t like each other. I thought, what if I just got them in a room together and we all talked about everything except the problem at hand? When we did, we got some casual conversation going, they discovered some similarities, and by the end of the hour they were talking about how to solve their issues. This was a conflict that literally kept me up at night, and as soon as there was space for them to connect as people, it was fixed. I thought, holy crap, this is a super power.”
Stirman hit another wall trying to shield his team from external drama and politics. “Classic management advice, and all my mentors told me that insulating your team from things so they won’t worry will make them more productive and happier,” he says. “But they just got angry, and confused, and disconnected. I was constantly censoring all this information and they were way happier when they knew everything.”
With these discoveries under his belt, Stirman wanted to test other theories of management. “No one ever challenged that there was a better way to do things, everything is so tied to who reports to whom,” he says. “But I’m too much of an engineer at heart. I started looking at management like a big A/B test, with a goal of making more data and results-driven decisions.” In his pursuit of new experiments to run, he stumbled on the book “Your Brain at Work,” which espouses what’s come to be known as the SCARF approach.
SCARF stands for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. “Basically, when a person is honest with themselves, they’re most motivated by one of those qualities,” Stirman explains. “As a manager, you can figure out which one motivates which employee, and reward them accordingly. A lot of managers will look at their team and think, ‘We should do a round of compensation increases because everyone’s been working so hard,’ but this isn’t the best incentive for everyone.” Here’s how it looks:
Status-oriented employees can be motivated by a possible title change, or having their name attached to more important projects.
Certainty-oriented employees are motivated simply by the reassurance that their job is important and they are excelling.
Autonomy-oriented employees may need the ability to work from home, or simply slip on their head phones to tune everyone else out.
Relatedness-oriented employees are energized by opportunities to socialize with their coworkers – happy hours, softball games, etc.
Fairness-oriented employees want to know the playing field is even, and they aren’t being exploited or cheated. They need to hear it consistently.
“It turns out that some people really care about one and don’t really care about the others,” says Stirman. “Once I had my team stack rank their priorities, I knew exactly how to reach them. All the little problems and personality clashes started to fade.”
This willingness to break ranks with corporate wisdom set the stage for Stirman’s arrival at Medium, where clear communication, incentives, and accountability are the invisible wires keeping the organization sailing along.
Holacracy from scratch
Medium adopted the Holacracy model about a year ago. Calling it “hands down, by far the best way I know or have ever seen to structure and run a company,” Stirman says. He’s especially drawn to the strategy’s crystal clear minimalism and logic. “It’s basically an operating system for your organization, so the engineer in me loves it. In fact the Holacracy organization just released 4.0 of its constitution, so our company is upgrading – just like you would update to a new iOS.”
Here are some of the key tenets that Medium embraces:
No people managers. Maximum autonomy.
Organic expansion. When a job gets too big, hire another person.
Tension resolution. Identify issues people are facing, write them down, and resolve them systematically.
Make everything explicit – from vacation policies to decision makers in each area.
Distribute decision-making power and discourage consensus seeking.
Eliminate all the extraneous factors that worry people so they can focus on work.
“The structure is totally built around the work the company needs to achieve its purpose,” Stirman explains. “We don’t have a hierarchy of people, we have a hierarchy of circles.” For examples, the Reading and Discovery (or RAD) circle, containing roles dedicated to the site’s reading experience, is nested inside the Product Development circle, as is the Creation and Feedback circle, which is all about the content creation process. In this instance, the Product Development circle can review the results coming out of the nested circles to steer the product in a particular direction. Every member of a circle has a purpose that connects to the broader circle’s purpose, which connects to the company’s purpose, so everyone is always pulling toward the same promised land.
“At Twitter, the purpose changed a few times, from building a cool product to making it popular to making it a sustainable business, and changing the world somewhere in there too,” Stirman says. “I ended up feeling like my job was very disconnected from the higher-level purpose, and I know others on my team felt the same way – it was hard to connect the dots.”
To help with this, instead of a focus on employees, there’s a focus on roles. Each circle has a ‘Lead Link’ who determines what roles the circle needs and how they get assigned. In fact, one person can hold multiple roles if their bandwidth and expertise allows. Stirman is both the People Operations lead and Word Master (which comes with final say on punctuation and capitalization, among other word-based dilemmas). This way, people can build versatile roles for themselves that speak to their whole skill sets - not just a single ability.
This role-centric organization also optimizes for number of ideas and strategies tried, while also keeping a tight grip on what gets shipped live. For example, there’s a single role titled ‘Product Strategy’, currently filled by Ev Williams himself, which decides which features go public. But, teams like RAD get to decide which ideas actually get prototyped and built.
Once there’s too much work for a particular role, it can evolve into a circle with multiple members to shoulder the load. “In a traditional company, the structure doesn’t change based on the work,” Stirman says. “You see a lot of companies trying to force the work they have into their existing structure, and that can get messy.”
This emphasis on organic growth has a side benefit of distributing authority. In Holacratic systems, individuals operate without managers because many of them have decision-making power in a particular area. And since everything is made as explicitly as possible, everyone in the organization knows who has authority over what. “It’s much better to have power distributed as widely as possible so more people can make more decisions to move forward,” Stirman explains. “This structure leads more toward moving fast, trying new things, and adjusting as needed. You don’t have to wait for everyone up a ladder to sign off. This can take weeks or months, when Holacracy says, ‘You know what, we’re going to hire the best people we know and trust them to make decisions for us.’ All day people make decisions, own parts of the company, and act on them. The momentum this creates far outweighs someone making a bad decision. You also have the momentum to change course quickly.”
Decision-making is further aided and hastened by airing ‘tensions’ in meetings. Stirman defines this use of tension broadly, calling it “any difference between what is and what could be.” In this sense, tensions can be negative (e.g. I don’t have time for that project, my chair isn’t ergonomic, etc.) or positive (e.g. I have a vision for a feature we should create). Tensions are resolved in tactical meetings where every attendee either shares a tension or passes. This way, everyone is encouraged to speak up if they have a problem or see an opportunity.
“The difference between Holacracy and traditional management is that when you have people at the bottom and people at the top, it’s always the people at the top trying to figure out their tensions, then they have the people at the bottom resolve them,” Stirman says. “No one takes into account the tensions, ideas, issues felt by the people at the bottom. They spend their days resolving tensions they don’t have and may not even understand.”
In tactical meetings, a trained facilitator builds a list of tensions that people throw out to the group, and the remaining time is used to resolve them as much as possible. This doesn’t mean solving major problems. It’s about identifying the next right step to a solution. “If I’m a guy who says a button should be green instead of red, in a typical meeting, that conversation could go on for hours, days, weeks without clear action,” Stirman says. “A small workable solution would be for me to schedule a meeting with our visual designer.”
For Stirman, even before he heard of Holacracy, tensions were always easy to identify, but not easy to solve. “Once you identify what a tension is, you can feel it in your shoulders, in your ears. You know you’re worried about something. Now, when I identify a tension, I jot it down. If I can’t resolve it by myself, I bring it to my circle’s next tactical meeting. With these meetings, you’re always making things a little bit better.”
How to think Holacratic
There’s a lot to like about Holacracy when you compare it to classic management frameworks, Stirman argues. He has firsthand experience. “When I think about my role at Twitter as a manager, I had tensions all the time. And my team didn’t even have that many problems,” he says. “Still, between all the teams he oversaw, my manager was constantly putting out fires. No one had the time or interest to resolve my tensions. Now, the way we use Holacracy, people are genuinely happier, they feel listened to, and connected with the organization.”
For companies looking to reap these benefits by injecting the spirit of Holacracy into their existing format, Stirman has a few key suggestions:
His focus on hearing people out about their personal lives and problems at Twitter is a prime example. It closely resembles a safe space to air tensions. In fact, he wishes he would have formalized his more personal, human approach so that people would have known they could share freely instead of carrying their issues around.
Holacracy encourages people to work out their tensions and issues one-on-one or outside of meetings if possible. Given the rampant explosion of meetings in corporate environments (so much so that there are meetings about having too many meetings), this is an increasingly important tip. Tension meetings are defined as opportunities to air issues that couldn’t be resolved elsewhere. People should only address the group with topics that actually need others to weigh in or help find a path forward.
Establishing mutual accountability can make a highly tiered workplace feel flatter, and more engaging. In addition to informing his reports about what was going on throughout the company, Stirman wishes he would have shared his own list of tasks and concerns with the people on his team. That way he would have been accountable to them too and made them feel less managed. “At Twitter, there was this common power dynamic where my reports felt accountable to me to get their work done and I felt accountable to the guy above me. It would have been good to be more forthcoming.”
Most of the time, you know your manager’s responsible for firing you and how much you get paid. I wish I would have sat down with my reports and said, “You know what, here’s what being a manager at Twitter actually means, and here’s a list of the decisions I have the authority to make. I wish I would have broken that power dynamic, and been a better leader as a result.”
Hand in hand with this, it’s a great idea to run some of your own problems by your reports to see if they can weigh in. “At Twitter, I was constantly burdened by my team’s problems, and I think most managers are,” Stirman says. “I wish I had empowered my team to solve their own problems, and mine. I wish I would’ve asked them more questions, been more creative about surfacing problems for them to solve to make our work better. I found myself scared to tell my reports ‘I don’t know’ whenever they asked me something, and in hindsight, I had this awesome team of smart, capable people who were energized by solving problems. Turns out individual contributors love to be asked for help. A lot of them want to take that buzzer beating shot. They want to be the last guy up at the plate. It gives them a chance to be a hero and to flex their muscles. And in the end, it builds more trust in me as a leader because I’m not filtering out questions I can’t answer.”
Hiring in Holacracy
Given the decision-making power of the average employee in Holacracy, you’d think the interview process would be fairly unique, or at least intense. But Stirman says it doesn’t have to be that much different than average – making it possible for more typical companies to hire in Holacratic fashion.
“When you interview someone, it’s pretty easy to tease out if they take the initiative to solve problems or take on projects – or if they’re simply better at being told what to do. Both are great kinds of people, but I’ve found most fall into one category or the other,” says Stirman. “I generally ask, ‘Tell me about a project you’re really excited about.’ The self-starters will talk about a problem they found and how they solved it. The people who aren’t will say, ‘My manager came to me and said can you build…?’ Right away you can tell. And for our kind of organization, having to be told what to do just isn’t a great fit.”
Don’t underestimate culture fit in hiring. This is something Stirman can’t emphasize enough, especially if you’re looking to adopt a more Holacratic mindset. “You want to make sure you hire only people you wouldn’t mind getting stuck in an airport with,” he says. “So many people fall into this trap of hiring highly skilled people who are bad culture fits. And I’d argue that’s the worst kind of hire – even worse than a poorly skilled person. If they’re as skilled as you think they are, they’ll gain power, influence and get more deeply enrooted in your technology, process and product. Then, when the honeymoon of your justifications is over and reality sets in, you’re seriously stuck with this person.”
The Missing Piece?
“In theory, Holacratic systems should scale much better than traditional organizations because circles can expand and divide infinitely based solely on the work that needs to get done,” Stirman says, acknowledging that this is indeed, just a theory, as Medium is only at 40 people right now.
In fact, the Medium team has already discovered something missing from the system: praise and feedback. “Managers are usually responsible for giving people feedback, directing them, telling them good jobs, and all of these things are super important to a healthy environment. You need someone to call you out or validate you when you’ve worked hard,” Stirman says.
Even so, the founding team at Medium decided to take a Holacratic approach to the problem. “We created a few roles responsible for giving people regular feedback,” he explained. “This is where we’re starting to skirt the lines of having people managers, because it certainly sounds managerial, but these roles aren’t responsible for people’s work. It’s more of a mentor relationship than a managerial relationship.”
These roles are called ‘Domain Leads’ and are filled by experienced members of various circles like design and engineering. In addition to mentoring, they’re also largely responsible for hiring and firing. They work closely with the ‘Lead Links’ who define and fill roles in their circles to assess performance. “Domain leads are responsible for the people, not the work,” Stirman says. “It’s something we’re trying out.”
To supplement this tactic on the positive end, the company also introduced a ‘High Five Machine’ – a dashboard where anyone can write in and praise a co-worker, streaming throughout the office. It’s an invention borne out of Holacracy, spun out of the unique needs this kind of system creates.
“We’ve already learned a lot, and I’m so glad we’re experimenting,” Stirman says. “No one knows the future, but now when I hear about the way things should be done, or someone saying ‘here’s how it’s always been done,’ or any Management 101, I’m like ‘screw that.’ We may be doing things differently just to be different sometimes, but it’s also allowed us to embrace so many new things.”
// We had similar experiments at Linden Lab (Second Life), back in the day… Our “Love Machine”, hooked up to group messaging and umbilically tied to very public quarterly reviews, was definitely a hit and I miss that lovely mechanism.