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A line to see someone is not cool, but is blocking progress

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Gridlock'd movieIt might seem cool if there is a line outside someone’s door (or an inbox full of follow-ups in Outlook or a multi-week wait to “get on the schedule”).  “Boy that person is really important” is what folks might say.  In reality this bottleneck is a roadblock to progress and a sign of a team in need of change.

Most of the time we see managers with a line outside a door, but it can also be key leaders on a team of all sorts.  Here are some tips to get out of the way and stop the gridlock.

Be sure to take the poll at the end of this post http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/QXR9WLZ Feel free to use the comments to share your experience with a bottleneck on your team–there are folks out there probably experiencing something similar and benefit from your perspective.  At the end of this post are the results from Career: Journey or Destination, which has some very interesting trends.

Why is there a line?

Managers or org leaders are busy.  But so are the members of the team that work for the manager or depend on that leader.  Unfortunately the way things go, too many folks end up as a bottleneck in getting things done. It might be a sign of importance or genuine workload, but it can also be a sign of a structural challenge.  What are some of the reasons for a line?

  • Approval.  A manager asks to approve work before it can move forward.
  • Feedback. Members of the team awaiting feedback from on proposed work.
  • Decision.  A leader is the decision maker in a situation.

On the face of it, each of these sound like the role of a manager (or leader, we’ll use them interchangeably in this post).  The dictionary definition of a manager even supports this, “a person who has control or direction of an institution, business, etc., or of a part, division, or phase of it”.  The operative notion is “in charge”.

There are several problems with this approach:

  • Demotivating.  If a job involves creativity (artistic, design, creation, problem solving, or a million other ways of being creative) then people who do those jobs well don’t generally do their best work under control.  At an extreme, highly creative people are notorious for not wanting to be directed.  The close cousin of demotivating is disempowering and very quickly creative people on the team lose the motivation to do great work and seek to get by with merely good work.
  • Scale. A manager that operates a team as an “extension” of him/herself is not highly scalable.  The line out the door represents the scale problem—it is trying to squeeze 64 bits through a 32 bit gate.  There’s simply more work than can be done.  The manager is overworked trying to do the work of the whole team, which is not sustainable.
  • Slow. A manager that inserts him/herself in the middle of the flow of work causes the flow of work to slow down.  The reaction time of the whole team no longer represents the capability of the team, but is limited by the ability of one person. Most folks are pretty frustrated by the roadblock to approval and then ultimately approval of the work as initially presented.
  • Tactical. Those who operate in the middle of the work like this often justify their style as “adding strategic context”.  This is often the exact opposite of what happens as the person is too busy to breath, take a step back, or to think long term because of the line out the door!

There are many justifications for why managers see these downsides as worth the risk.  Managers feel like they have the experience to do better, know more, or maybe the team is new, understaffed, and so on.  These are juicy rationalizations.  Like parents doing homework and school projects for their kids, the short term seems reasonable but the long term becomes problematic.

Accountability

Beyond gridlock, the deep, long term problem created by a line outside a manager’s door is the transferal of accountability that takes place.  Once the manager is in the middle of approving, providing feedback, or deciding then the very best case is that the manager is accountable for the outcome.  Wait, you say that’s always the case, right?

A manager should be accountable when things don’t go well and stand up to claim the work of the team that wasn’t what it needed to be.  When things go well, the manager should fade away and the team should shine.  This isn’t some ideal.  This is just the basics of teamwork and what needs to happen.  That goes beyond management and is leadership.

But when a manager is in the middle of everything, members of the team have a tough time feeling a sense of pride of ownership.  The further the results are from ideal, the less likely individuals feel responsible.  It is simply too easy to point to places where each person surrendered accountability to management.  And unfortunately, this opens up potential for the worst form of dysfunction which is a manager in the middle of everything stepping back and still assigning accountability to the team when things don’t go well, politics.

Ultimately, any healthy team is about everyone feeling an equal sense of accountability for the groups work and full accountability for their work.  The role of the manager is to create a team and workflow that enables everyone to contribute and grow.

Rhythm of the team

The most important thing a manager can do to create a workflow for the team is to foster a continuous rhythm of work on the team.  The world of modern products and service means things are in a state of change and adaptation all the time.  Stores roll over promotions constantly.  Web sites are always being programmed.  Social networks provide a constant dialog to contribute to and respond to.  Product feedback is available all the time.  The team that is standing on a line is not just missing all the action, but is playing a losing strategy.

In his famous book, Flow: the psychology of optimal experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about how important it is to be engaged in self-controlled, goal-related, meaningful actions.  That when you’re doing that you are in a flow and things are much better (“happier”) for everyone.

A flow on a business team or product team is about working towards a shared goal and doing so without the starts and stops that interrupt the flow.  As a manager there are two simple things you can do:

  • Never schedule your full day.  As a rule of thumb, you should never schedule more than 50% of your day in structured meetings and other required activities.  This leaves your day for “work” which is your work as a contributor (being a manager does not mean you stop having concrete deliverables!) and for keeping things from being blocked by you.  If you have time during the day you can interact in an ad hoc manner with the team, find time to participate before things reach a bottleneck, and most importantly you have time to listen and learn.  This is the number one crisis prevention tool at your disposal.  The more time you have available the more time you can provide feedback when the time is right for action, as an example.  You can provide feedback when a plan is a draft and do so casually and verbally, rather than the team “presenting” a draft in a meeting and you needing to react, or sending you an attachment that forms another line in your inbox, all usually too late for substantial feedback anyway.
  • Stop approving and deciding.  As heretical as this sounds, as an experiment a manager is encouraged to spend a month pushing back on the team when they ask for approval or a decision.  Instead just ask them to decide.  Ask them what would go wrong if they decided.  Ask them if they are prepared for the implications of a decision either way.  Ask them if they are comfortable owning and “defending” a decision (knowing you as the manager will still be supporting them anyway).

As a member of the team waiting in line, there’s an option for you too.  Instead of asking for approval or the other side of the coin, acting now and worrying later, take the time to frame your choice in a clear and confident manner.  Don’t be defensive, aggressive, or shift accountability, but simply say “Here’s what I’m suggesting as a course of action and what we’re prepared to deal with as the risk…” No choice is free of risk.  The risky path is simply not being prepared for what could potentially go wrong.

The optimal team is one that is moving forward all the time and operating with a flow and rhythm.  A line outside the door of a manager is a sign of a dysfunctional team.  It isn’t hard to break the cycle.  Give it a shot.

–Steven

The poll on this post is http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/QXR9WLZ.  Let’s share thoughts on those lines outside doors.

Thanks to everyone who responded to our last survey on the “Defining your career path: journey or destination” post.  We had an amazing response, with over 800 responses from around the world.  Here are a few of the highlights:

  • On average (mean), people have spent around 13 years in their career
  • In those years, people have held 5.5 jobs or roles; or about 2 years per job/role
  • About 26% claimed to be mostly “goal oriented”
  • About 60% claimed to be mostly “experience oriented”
  • 6% more sought to be “organization leaders” vs. “domain experts” (41% vs. 35%)
  • And about 8% more sought to be “breadth leaders” vs. “field experts (42% vs. 34%)
  • On average, we’re pretty satisfied with our careers: 3.7 on a 5-point scale

 In this survey we had a nice “response variable” to consider: career satisfaction.  If we agree that this is a goal we share, we can consider how the other “explanatory variables” contribute to overall career satisfaction:

  • Those that claimed to be more “experience oriented” tended to have a higher level of career satisfaction vs. those that were more “goal oriented”; those that reported being “very satisfied” with their careers were >3x more likely to be “experience oriented”
  • Those with longer careers tended to be more satisfied: both “career years” and “number of jobs” provided a fractional lift in the 5-point career satisfaction scale
  • Pursuing a goal of “organizational leader” tended to provide more lift than “domain expert”
  • And pursuing a experiences as a “field expert” tended to provide more lift to satisfaction than experiences as a “breadth leader” (though more consider themselves to be the latter)
  • None of the models built in analyzing this data did a great job of explaining all of the variance in your responses; we are all different and find satisfaction in our careers in different ways

 Bottom Line: There is no “silver bullet” which guarantees our career satisfaction; people are different and their satisfaction is driven by various factors, at different career stages.  That said, as leaders, we generally tend to find satisfaction based on our experiences with other people (as org leaders, experts in our field, more time in our careers/more roles over time) over the specific goals or attained knowledge we encounter through our journey. 

 Thanks for your responses!

Cameron

Written by Steven Sinofsky

April 11, 2013 at 9:00 am

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Dealing with doubt and over-confidence in building something new

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Walking the new product development tightrope between confidence and doubt.  Symbolized by a woman walking a tightrope across a big city skyscape.When you’re creating a new product or service, whether as a startup or within a big company, you’re going to be faced with doubters from every direction.  People on the team, your boss, your peers, your investors, friends, family.  Even when the first outsiders see the product they will probably be more doubtful than supportive.  The most important thing is to avoid doubting yourself.

If you thought up the idea, got funding or approval to go forward then persevering is a key part of getting the work done.  The doubting you’ll most certainly get can feel almost crippling.  In the extreme it turns into those increasing moments of self-doubt and ultimately a loss of confidence.  That self-doubt can prevent new ideas, new products, from growing to success.

The converse of this behavior is to dig your heels in and to just stubbornly move ahead as though no one has expressed any doubt.  You’re getting stuff done.  As things progress there’s a good chance you’re increasing the distance between you and your early supporters-but-doubters.  That over-confidence can prevent new ideas, new products, from making small but necessary changes that can substantially increase their chances for success.

Finding the right balance between caving in and stubborn is something everyone can work on.  There’s no right answer, but you can look for signs or signals that your balance needs some tuning.

5 ways to doubt

Doubts are going to be everywhere in a new venture.  In new products there are a few common doubts that you should be mentally prepared to hear.  If you know these are coming you can use that as a chance to consider how you are going to engage in a discussion about that sort of doubt—not how you dispense with or handle the doubt, but how you can talk about why you might have a different point of view.

  • Been done before.  Very few new products are “new to the world inventions”.  Even things that are new to the world often solve pretty well-known problems.  In reality most all products are incremental when you step back and consider the full context and landscape.  From Velcro® to the Swiffer ® to Facebook and Instagram, these products were incredibly innovative but by and large the innovation amounted to new combinations of some new technologies aimed at solving somewhat known problems.  You can get yourself in quite a spiral if you think your product needs to be an invention versus an innovation.  Thinking about your innovation and value delivered can help you through this.
  • Just a feature.  In new services in the tech industry we constantly see people saying that a new product is “just a feature”.  There’s always some truth to that, but it is because it has to do—as a consumer you don’t want every service that comes along reinventing everything around the social fiber for example and as a company you don’t want to spend resources on work outside your value proposition.  Finding the balance between your unique perspective and value and simply adding all the stuff around your value is something to work through and be clear about.
  • No one wants that.  The focus group of one is both your biggest asset and biggest liability in building a product.  If you let one person, from your best friend to your spouse to your boss, convince you that no one wants a new product then too many ideas will fail to make it to fruition.  As the person taking the risk to seek funding or get approval for an idea, you owe it to yourself to keep pushing.  When the focus group of one is yourself and you’re taking the risk that is the very definition of entrepreneurial thinking.  You saw a problem, an opportunity, or a solution.  There’s always a time to take a step back but at the early stages a focus group of one that is yourself is pretty important.
  • Priced wrong.  All new technology products are going to be either too cheap or too expensive.  If you’re building a new device, it will always be too expensive in the early stages because the industry is, as we all know, based on economies of scale.  A new service or app is always going to struggle to simply charge people or find space for advertising from the start.  Too cheap/too expensive is going to happen.  Rather than just punt or just restate the known answers (from it will scale to freemium) perhaps you can differentiate your answer to these concerns with some novel or detailed thinking.
  • Doesn’t fit with strategy.  In a large organization you are, with 100% certainty, going to run up against “strategy” as you propose your new idea.  This can be a frustrating experience to a champion of a new idea (or new way to solve a problem).  You can throw up your hands in a huff.  You can claim “innovator’s dilemma”.  You can talk about stifling bureaucracy.  The important thing to do during this doubting moment is to be informed about these strategic issues.  These are real to a large company because a strategy is a unique part of what a large organization delivers to customers—it is more than a collection of products, but the relationship and between them and reasons they are offered.

5 ways to be over-confident

While many from the outside will be doubting you, the most important thing to do is overcome your natural reaction to dig your heels in and be stubborn.  When doubt is expressed it is your chance to engage in a dialog and to calmly evangelize your idea while hearing the doubt as feedback.  We all know that when you’re pushing a new idea there are things to do better.  This is especially true when you’re in the early stages and developing your “story” as to why the idea should get turned into a product.  What are some things you might be over-confident about that the doubters might actually be saying?

  • Wasn’t clear.  In talking about a potential new product the most common challenge is a problem between your brain and your mouth or keyboard :-)  In other words, as crystal clear as the ideas are in your head, when you say them or write them down it just seems like other people are not “getting it”.  Your own excitement and enthusiasm, or your own “ah ha” moment, isn’t getting translate into a pitch or description that others can grok.  After the third or fourth person saying they are confused or your conversations are “all over the map” then maybe you should take a step back and work on the description and story behind the idea?
  • Didn’t study the competition.  When folks say an idea isn’t new or has been done before, then it could be that you are not expressing the unique attributes of your idea in a compelling way or perhaps your unique attributes are not unique enough (or valued).  It could also be that you’re not expert enough on the competition.  Maybe in your excitement you missed a competitor or you dismissed a competitor too quickly?  Keep in mind the competition isn’t standing still so maybe things have changed from when you looked?
  • Design is weak.  Software products often get pitched before the design and flow of usage are understood.  For a product that is solving a known problem in a new way, the design is a critical element of what you’re offering.  In that case it really isn’t enough to pitch the idea as “don’t worry we’ll do a better design later” because your design is integral to the offering.  For any product that is entering a commodity space with a new twist on uniqueness (branding, distribution, pricing, bundling, etc.) the design of those elements (yes pricing can be designed) need to be more than sketches since those aspects are key to what you’re doing.  Without that level of detail you might be missing the crux of the doubt.
  • Trying to do too much.  “Boiling the ocean” is a common refrain when experienced people see an idea for a product that involves touching many known areas of existing products.  If you’re service starts off with the need to build out a whole infrastructure before you can even start to show your unique value or if you have a feature list a mile long, then there’s a good chance the doubt is not focused on your idea, but on the scope of what you’re trying to do.  Everyone loves big ideas, but rebuilding the world as the pre-requisite is a sign that you can do a better job scoping the first milestone or so of work.
  • Clinging to the wrong elements.  Many times in talking about an idea and in the early stages, every single choice you make is critical.  As the one originating the idea you tend to think of your product as a finely balanced set of decisions, each carefully interrelated.  As things progress, you owe it to yourself and doubters to make sure you are revisiting some choices.  Do you really need that architecture?  Is that UI widget really that important?  Is it critical that you have that feature?  In most every new product you can see something that you know was an early choice and doesn’t quite fit anymore.  Be the person leading the charge to back out of choices that are no longer key to delivering the value proposition.  You’re in a unique position to decide what can really go.

Keep in mind

From the moment you think up an idea until the first working models/prototypes are used by potential customers you’re going to run into doubts from all corners.  It is easy to lose confidence.  It is easy to become over-confident.  Balancing these two extremes is an important part of being brave enough to keep pushing forward.  New ideas can’t get turned into products without the skills to navigate this complex and emotional stage in product development.

Two things are always part of these early stages and important worth keeping in mind.

First, validation is hard to come by.  You will get tons of support and even encouragement from those around you.  But validation won’t come for a while.  Hang tight.

And second, product development is hard.  No one said building a new product or getting a big company to break into a new business (or redo an old business) is easy.  There are no right answers.  There’s no certainty.  Doubts come from shaking things up.

–Steven

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Written by Steven Sinofsky

February 27, 2013 at 7:00 am

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Embracing ideas is how new things happen

with 23 comments

Ideas are everywhere. Embrace them. Criticizing an idea is a sport on the web—snarking. Sometimes the very web that craves innovation and newness steps on the dialog with unrelenting and utterly irrelevant snark. In practice, turning ideas into products is the amazing, miraculous, thing that is product development.

Products get developed pulling from the same ideas, tools, and even skills available to a broad set of people. Mere inches separate just products from breakthrough products. Part of a breakthrough product is about embracing new paradigms and those new paradigms should be debated and discussed, but most of all embraced. It takes a brave person to question the existing and put forth new paradigms.

Paradigm to dialog

In a recent op-ed piece a concept was put forth, a potential new metaphor for computing by the highly regarded and widely published David Gelertner. It was a thought-provoking essay. I think that is what the author intended.

In fact the essay argued for a new metaphor by establishing the importance of metaphors in the evolution of computing. Metaphors are how we interact with computing—from two digit numeric displays, to line printers, to command lines, to GUI, to the web, and now social and mobile. Beyond that, the details of these metaphors matter greatly and are worthy of much dialog and debate.

Regretfully as we have all come to expect, the comments on the post quickly devolved into meaningless snark and commentary unworthy of the packets and storage they consumed. There were even tweets about the commentary. What was an essay that could provide the foundation for an interesting dialog among those that build products became, in part, a snarkfest.

Some claimed the idea was not new. Google reader is in fact the worldstream. Some claimed that we live in a stream every day with Facebook and twitter. Some said the idea won’t work.

My read is that this was an essay about metaphor, not a spec and certainly not an app you can try out and comment on. The very “desktop” I am writing this on was envisioned in an essay in 1945, As We May Think, by then head of Office of Scientific Research. Let’s not forget that the web itself once started off as an essay on a metaphor of hyperlinking by Ted Nelson in 1965 which was not implemented until 1967 or until 1993 depending on how you count.

Would these essays have been the subject of such snark? Maybe they were and history has rightfully forgotten those expressions. We should all be clear that essays like these are what change the face of computing.

Read them. Join the dialog. Ignore them if you want. They are not all great or even good. But to criticize them in a content-free manner or to debate them as though they are product specs misses the point completely.

Dialog to product

Taking the dialog around a paradigm shift and turning into a product is magical. Few people can or do make this happen. It is very hard.

A product of a new paradigm is by definition different, but not every aspect is different in every way. In fact the most amazing part about a paradigm shifting product is how much of a derivative work it turns out to be.

Every new product and every new paradigm product are the result of taking the ingredients of the world and pouring those into the primordial soup of product development. Out comes a new product. It is never exactly the same as what came before.

What separates one plain old new product from one that changes our view of technology is a set of choices separated my mere inches. What’s the difference between Facebook and Myspace or Friendster (or a dozen other services)? Were there touch phones before the iPhone? MS-DOS was one of many command line program loaders.

I stumbled across this view of turning an idea into a feature in an app. I love how it characterizes the amount of work and number of choices it takes to do so. How Software is Built Today.

Taking an idea and turning it into a product is incredibly fun and challenging.

Picking the ideas to push to a product takes a lot of guts and sometimes a leap of faith.

Essays that challenge the status quo and push us to think about our world differently are the very source of breakthroughs that we all want.

Embracing that dialog is the start of paradigm shifting products.

Super Sunday

Today is a big football game. As Al Paccino’s character, Tony D’Amato said in Any Given Sunday one of the all-time great locker room speeches in film:

You find out life’s this game of inches, so is football. Because in either game – life or football – the margin for error is so small. I mean, one half a step too late or too early and you don’t quite make it. One half second too slow, too fast and you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They’re in every break of the game, every minute, every second. On this team we fight for that inch. On this team we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch. Because we know when add up all those inches, that’s gonna make the f***ing difference between winning and losing! Between living and dying!

Ideas are everywhere. Ingredients for new products are everywhere. It is mere inches that separate run of the mill from great to paradigm shifting. The one certain thing is that if you build products you should embrace ideas wherever they come from.

–Steven

PS: This blog is also available on http://snarkfree.com

Written by Steven Sinofsky

February 3, 2013 at 10:01 am

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