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.

Operations & Product Development

Going Fast Part III: Operations

aerodynamic bike helmet

[This is the third and last of a series on getting your start up to go fast.  See the first post to learn where these notes came from.]

Going Fast notes on Operations

Don’t allow process creep.  As part of maintaining a fast production culture, you should actively prevent too many processes from getting put in place.

No QA department.

10 at 10 meetings. Have a 10-minute, standing-up meeting at 10 am where everyone on the team reviews what they’ve accomplished yesterday and what they’re planning to do today.  This is a quick way to sync people surface any conflicts early in the day before too much work is done.

Spend less than 5% of the minutes you’re working per week on meetings. It can be done, and your communication will be much crisper and clearer if you hold yourself to this standard.

Engineering Task Blast. An engineer presents a task he/she needs to accomplish to the other engineers on the team.  Everyone writes down how long they think it will take.  Everyone shares their number and then talk about how the engineer might do the task it faster.  They agree at the end how long it should take, and then the engineer is held accountable by their peers.

Don’t create silos. Whenever an organization creates “engineers” or “marketing” silos, it slows the company’s progress down.  Only allow cross functional meetings.

Establish a cadence of work. Regular releases, weekly milestones, daily short meetings, monthly major releases, regular user testing and review of the report, after work drinks, etc.  Get in a grove with your team, your product and your users.

Drive batch size down.  “Continuous releases” or at least several times per day or at least once per day, has many advantages.  You can course correct easily based on user feedback.  You can avoid introducing drama and disruption to your team.  Makes it hard for your competitors to keep up. Makes it easy for users to see constant improvement.  (Google has small daily releases, medium releases every week, and large releases every 5 weeks.  They assumed 5 weeks was enough for almost anything, and that has proven to be true.)

Measure the right things and elevate those to everyone’s view. As a manager you should obsess about choosing the right metrics to measure, how you’re presenting what you’re measuring (meetings, daily email stats reports, flat panels on the wall with real time data, private emails) and then how you reward people for accomplishments publicly.

Quick, cheap, early user feedback. Put up design mocks on forums.  Put up a video of what you think it will do and ask for feedback.  One CEO told me the best thing he did in 2009 was implement a weekly program of buying 5 tests of his product by target users from and then reviewing the resulting videos on Friday afternoons.

Transparency. Having all goals and data available throughout the company allows good people at every level to make the right decisions faster.  You must make it really easy and really clear (and perhaps fun!) for people to get the data they need to make decisions.

Small teams. Google constantly breaks teams down into no more than 7 people.  Amazon has “Pizza box teams” which is defined as a group that only needs one large pizza to have dinner.  Over 300 Pizza Box Teams touch Amazon’s home page.

Communicate priorities. Create a spreadsheet that everyone on the team easily has access to that shows all the major things that need to be done in priority order with the name of the person to do them and the date they are to be done.  In meetings, argue over this list.

Create the perception of competition to motivate all external relationships.  Getting other organizations and people outside your company to move quickly (VC’s, clients, distribution partners, potential employees, users) is very difficult.  The main lever you have is to always make it clear to them that there is time urgency and competition for whatever they think they may want from you.  That’s the most repeatable and universally effective lever you have.

Ooga Labs, Operations & Product Development

Going Fast Part II: Culture & Personnel

[See the first post in this seriescheetah-running and an explanation about where these notes come from]

Notes on Culture & Personnel for Going Fast in start ups:

Get cultural DNA for speed. Make sure the people in your company want to go fast and know how to go fast.  Make it a major part of your interview process and visible culture.  Web 2.0 folks generally get it, but others don’t and they need to be cycled out.  Can you pair fast people with not-fast people and teach the not-fast people how to go fast?  No.  You can’t.  In short, get the right people.

Every engineer ships production code their first day at work. As part of building up the cultural DNA about quickly writing code and pushing it out for users to use,  you should set it up so every engineer writes and pushes live some code to the production servers on their first day of work.  If the site breaks in some way, shame on you for not having it set up avoid that.

Make shipping a fetish.  Make shipping product fast to the right customer the obsession.

Fast is not sloppy. Make sure your team knows the difference.

The best thing to do is the easiest thing to do. But do it right.  That’s speed.

Don’t own the product, own the goal. At Google, teams choose a goal to own, not a feature to own, or even a product to own.  What product solution ends up achieving a goal evolves much more in a business than the goal itself, so the goal is the better target, and gives the team more opportunity for creativity and speed.

Make decisions. Make sure you’re making decisions, not pseudo-decisions or delaying decisions.  Commit to it as a team, and have the team demand it from management.

Ship Fair or Good. Don’t ship Poor, but don’t ship Very Good or Excellent.  And when the Fair-Good is shipped, management is not allowed to send an email out noting the bugs or criticizing it. Get your team to embrace “Good Enough.”  I [heart] good enough. “That which is worth doing is worth doing poorly.”

Operations & Product Development

Going Fast, Part 1: Planning Notes & List of Resources

The Flash going fast

Speed.  The holy grail for small tech start ups.  A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sitting with 20 other entrepreneurs and talking through how we can make our start ups go fast.  Here are my notes combined with some additional notes I’ve taken over the years.  It’s divided up into 3 long blog posts: Planning & Resources, Culture & Personnel, and Operations. Many thanks to the many entrepreneurs who shared their thoughts openly that day.  I hope these notes are useful to you.


BLOG: Eric Ries

BLOG: Sean Ellis

BLOG: Dave McClure (Dave has a presentation called Start Up Metrics for Pirates)

BOOK: Four Steps to the Epiphany, by Steven Blank:

BOOK: “Getting Real” eBook by 37Signals:

BOOK: “Lean Thinking” (a book about Toyota’s management process)

BOOK: “Back of the Napkin”  by Dan Roam:

TOOL:  Balsamiq allows you to mock up ideas get the idea across and talk about it.  Very fast, saves time and hand waving.


Notes on Planning

Fast toward what? You have to define your goal well.  Often it’s worth spending a few more weeks up front not building anything but doing more research, more inexpensive testing of your assumptions, and more brainstorming to get a better idea of WHAT to build before you start building.  Who is it for?  What problem are we trying to solve.  If you change your strategy, you could lose months of time.

Fast depends on stage of business evolution. When it’s you alone, fast is checking your assumptions and coming up with the right plan.  When you know what you want to try, but you have no working product, it’s perhaps getting a usable product to some potential customers.  When you have found product/market fit, “fast” will mean something different.  When you have revenue, it’s probably different.  When you’re profitable, fast is perhaps different yet again.

See Going Fast Part II: Culture & Personnel, and Going Fast Part III: Operations.