Career Advice, Operations & Product Development

Career Advice: Show Initiative (and in the Existing Direction)

Last week I ran into one of our employees on the train commuting.  As we talked, he took the opportunity to ask me for feedback on his performance to date.  The main thing I told him was that he needed to take more initiative.  He found the advice helpful, so I’ll repeat it here.

During the conversation, I connected for him the idea of initiative in the work place, to a positive comment my mom made about my wife, which is that my wife always knows how to fold into whatever is going on in the house and help out.  In other words, when we go to visit my parents, my wife takes initiative in the right way.  And for my mom, who is in charge of her house, she really appreciates my wife’s ability to do that.

It’s similar in the work environment.  What managers most appreciate about their teammates is for them to come in, see what’s going on, think of something that would help the process in the existing direction, and take the initiative to do it at the right level of detail.  The key here is taking the initiative without being asked.

The second key is “in existing direction.”  Many people come into an organization and immediately suggest new initiatives they think the organization should be going in.  This is rarely helpful, and usually a distraction.  You might be right, but the organization has a life and momentum, and typically has to play through what it’s doing to get to the next phase.   The third key is doing it at the right level, not too detailed, and not too superficially.

Two examples of employee initiative that made a difference for me from just last week.  1) Without being asked, an engineer wrote up a list of questions he wanted answered during a product meeting that was coming up so he could know how to configure part of the back end.  I hadn’t asked him to do this, and he handed me the list before the meeting.  We ended up structuring our discussion around his list, rather than the product manager’s list, and it produced a breakthrough in thinking for the team.

2) In another case, we were having a discussion about some operating metrics and why they were moving down.  We didn’t come to any conclusion, but the next day, without being asked, one of the engineers sent us an analysis of the data to explore various scenarios.  It was the right level of analysis, not to detailed and to too superficial, and it perfectly addressed the question at hand, letting us plan our next step better.

Sure I could have asked each of these people for these things, detailing how I wanted each report or list done.  I could have given them a deadline to get them done, checking in with them to check on progress, etc.  But in any non-government job, and in a start-up in particular, there’s not enough time in the day to manage and schedule everything.  Each member of the team has to take initiative, and they have to do it in the right direction and in the right way.   If you can get a small team where everyone does that, you’re gold.  My advice is to learn how to be one of those people.

Operations & Product Development

Fast, Good AND Cheap

I’ve heard people tell me “We can build product fast, good, or cheap.  You can’t have all three.  Pick two.”  I believe this is a corrosive mindset, used by bureaucrats to justify mediocrity, or used by people who are afraid of failure to set the bar low enough so they feel comfortable in their daily lives.

I’ve often seen the reverse, that many of the best consumer products were fast, good and cheap to create.  Those products were created by people who were very talented or very focused, and certainly none of them were dragging around this self limiting belief that you have to pick only two.

Operations & Product Development

Personal Character in Product Development

The best product builders are both ruthlessly self-critical AND filled with positive faith in the product.  They have enough faith and belief to fully commit themselves to the creative endeavor.  At the same time, they have the strength of character to see clearly how their product is really quite lousy and can be so much better.  You have to have a strong character to keep the pressure on.  As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”  Great product people must believe — and be very critical — at the same time.

Operations & Product Development

Passionate Beliefs, Loosely Held

In business and product planning with teams, I love it when people have “passionate beliefs loosely held.”  What that means to me is that as you argue it out, bring passion and fire to your articulation of an idea.  Believe in that idea fully in the moment.  That will give it its best chance of being convincing and thus becoming a reality.

But also hold that idea loosely, and be able to let it go in a few minutes.  That allows ideas to flow and the best option to be adopted by the team.

For this to work, there must be trust among the members of your team, each must realize their ideas are not always the best, and each person must make the mental switch from “I want to be right” to “I want us to be right.”

Ooga Labs, Operations & Product Development

No Politics

We see politics in startups as a disease – once it takes hold, it can spread through the company until it kills.   So we have a No Politics rule.  There are really just two things we do to prevent the disease of politics.

First, don’t hire people who are political by nature.  You can usually spot them in an interview by asking what they liked or disliked about people they worked with in their prior jobs.  You can also spot them by testing how “attracted to drama” they are.  By drama, I don’t mean theater, I mean the basic interpersonal push and pull between people and their perceived interests that characterized junior high school and high school, e.g. “Did you here what she said about him??”  People who are attracted to that sort of thing will create that in their work lives as a way of entertaining themselves. One person I worked with years ago, who dislikes politics, said about another colleague in a shock of realization, “For him, if he goes a day without playing politics, it’s a wasted day.”  Some people are wired to create politics around them, and, in fact, some national cultures seem more wired to create politics than others.  Watch for it.

Second, “expose to daylight” any comment or idea that seems like it’s political.  Here’s what I mean.  The fundamental particle of politics is the simple act of saying different things to different people.  If my VP of Engineering is saying something to me that he won’t tell directly to the Director of Sales, then we have a moment of politics, and the antidote is to have the VP say it directly to the Director of Sales.

In my experience, there are typically three main reasons people don’t say something directly to one person that they will say to another.  1) I’m scared of his/her reaction.  2) It’s not going to do any good, anyway.  3) It doesn’t help me, and it may hurt me if I say something.

To overcome the fears people naturally have to be honest with each other, you have to show people that it turns out OK when they expose these ideas to sunlight.  And you have to do it over and over again, because it’s so easy for us to fall out of genuine, open communication.  Thus, having No Politics starts at the top of your organization.  Look for CEO’s who force daylight through the organization.

Some might say that you can’t get rid of politics entirely for the simple fact we all engage in politics at least a little bit (because we all have our points of view, our fears, and our ambitions).  And that’s true.  But I believe you should make No Politics your policy.  It makes a big difference in how effective and enjoyable your work environment is.