2020 is off to a raucous start. I don’t think any of us would have predicted things to play out quite this way. Even when I wrote about the shift to remote work a few months ago, I didn’t think the need for all of us to move quickly to remote work would happen so fast. But here we are.
As social distancing becomes the norm and teams, organizations, and entire companies move quickly to remote work, there are several things we can all do to smooth the transition and make it seamless for our teams, customers, roommates and family members. While I mean this to be helpful during the quick transition to remote work, the same principles apply for any transition to remote work.
As individuals, there are several steps we can take to stay productive, keep things moving along for ourselves and our businesses, and help everyone around us keep their sanity.
Physical. Defining some physical boundaries will make the transition to remote work easier for you and roommates/family.
For those of us fortunate to have dedicated offices or work spaces, this is easier. But even with a dedicated office, you may need to redefine the physical boundaries now that you’ll be home more often. I know that my office gets used frequently for building marble mazes and other games, so now that I am working from home, my office has to be dedicated to work.
If you don’t have a dedicated office, defining a place for work will be helpful in establishing a routine and creating space and separation for work. If that’s a corner of the apartment or bedroom, or even the kitchen table during the day. It will be important to define the space for work, get it set up so you can be effective, and get everyone on board.
In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about the power of establishing the right context by establishing predictable circumstances:
“Habits thrive under predictable circumstances like these. Focus comes automatically when you are sitting at your work desk. Relaxation is easier when you are in a space designed for that purpose. Sleep comes quickly when it is the only thing that happens in your bedroom. If you want behaviors that are stable and predictable, you need an environment that is stable and predictable.”
Temporal. Creating boundaries around your time will also be critical. Working remotely, especially if it’s new, can be a big change. It’s easy to lose yourself in things going on at home since you’re there, but it’s just as easy to let work bleed into your home life since there is no longer a boundary.
So setting up a schedule for your time “in the office” is just as important as it was before. It can be flexible, and likely will have to be since you’re also dealing with lots of other things (and during a pandemic, there’s a good chance you’ve got kids at home and many things to worry about). But keeping a good schedule will ensure you can continue to get important work done and also keep your home life somewhat normal.
Mental. Mental boundaries will probably always be the most difficult. It’s hard enough to define mental boundaries between work and personal life as it is, right? How do you not take your work home with you when it’s right there, all the time? How do you not take the stress of home to work when they are in the same place?
Creating physical and scheduled spaces will be helpful in getting some mental space. But allowing yourself some head space will also be critical. This will be a time for change. Give yourself some time to adjust! Take breaks. Take a walk. Be sure to clear your head regularly and find the right mental balance. Creating a routine, which we’ll discuss next, will also help with this.
Create (or maintain) a routine
If you’re shifting to remote work, either temporarily or more permanently, create or maintain your routine. As someone who has worked from home frequently, the most productive days I’ve had are the ones I’ve maintained my standard routine for work. That means getting ready like usual, even getting dressed like I’m heading to the office, and then stepping into my office and starting my work day.
I’ve even heard of people “commuting” to work by leaving their house, walking around their neighborhood, and then arriving back at work. I think it’s a great idea. Creating a ritual to get you in the habit for work will set the right tone. It is critical for success, especially as you transition from being in the office to being remote. I’ve found that transition periods are usually times when my routine slides, and that is when my productivity also slides. So maintain your routine if you want to stay productive.
We take communication for granted when we are all in an office together. We can always pop in whenever we need or schedule a quick time to catch up or meet. When we’re not all in the same space, that becomes more difficult, so we can’t take communication for granted.
Fortunately, the tools are all readily available. We just have to use them. That may mean changing some of our habits. But it is very doable. While we can’t just pop in for a quick chat, we can pick up the phone for a quick call. And we should do Zoom calls or video chats to keep face time.
We also need to keep records of discussions we’re having. So posting Slack messages, keeping meeting notes updated, and keeping everyone in the loop frequently is key. Over-communicating, especially in the early phases of the transitions, is critical. It is better that everyone feel like too much communication is happening than to feel like too little is happening. So don’t be afraid to communicate frequently.
Focus and Prioritize
So much of our work today has become urgent, lower importance items that take up tons of time. From emails to meetings to low-value tasks. As you shift to working remotely, especially if it is for a short period, take some time to seriously assess the high value items you can do. Prioritize that work.
The unfortunate fact is that many businesses will suffer as the economy turns. So we all need to focus our efforts on the highest value tasks we can perform and ensure that we are delivering value for our companies, our customers and our users. The more we focus, the more value we can deliver. And the more non-essential we can cut out.
As managers and leaders, we are now in the position to manage remote teams, whether or not we were ready for that. Hopefully, if you’re a leader, it is something you’ve been considering or have experience with. If not, welcome to the party!
Communication with your team will be the single biggest success factor through all of this. Communication about ongoing work, expectations, changes that are happening, etc.
As a leader or manager, you need to stay apprised of what is happening with your team. It won’t be as easy as walking around an office to get a feel for what is going on. Your team members can’t just pop in either. It will require effort on everyone’s part. And as a leader, you set the tone for the team. So set a standard of communication, especially early on by having regular chats with team members. They need not be long or comprehensive, but just ensure that you’re staying updated.
You will also have to strike a balance. You’re not trying to manage every aspect of your team’s work either, at least hopefully that won’t be the case. So you’ll likely need to find the right cadence. Communicate that to your group. Let them know that you will be finding the right balance and you’ll all be working together. You’re all in this together.
Next, be sure to set clear expectations with your team. When will you be having meetings? When will you expect people to be available? What will communication look like? How will you handle issues as they arise? You may not have all the answers immediately, but starting to set clear expectations will avoid so many issues down the road.
In past teams, we set the expectation that we do video calls, video on for everyone so we can all see each other. That set the tone for the team so there were no questions.
In our current situation, we’ve set the expectation that team members have kids at home and that we are okay with that as a group. If kids pop into calls, that isn’t a surprise or issue for us.
As a leader, have these conversations with your team. Outline expectations and then document them so everyone is aware. You can keep documenting things as you go.
And that’s a great segue to documentation. Documenting discussions, decisions, meetings, etc., will be even more than ever before. If you haven’t been in the habit of documenting things, this will be quite the change. But it will be a good change and a good habit to create.
Taking notes doesn’t have to be onerous. You can rotate the responsibility around the team so it isn’t a burden on any one person, or have someone dedicated to the task. You’ll want to ensure you note important decisions and action items so you can follow up in the future and so anyone who wasn’t able to be part of the conversation can catch up quickly.
Creating team documentation is an important key. With everyone remote, even for a short period, there is less ability for the regular interactions and so it is even more important to write down team norms, helpful hints, and other useful bits of information. Product management, for example, is learned much more by apprenticeship. But when everyone goes remote, there is obviously much less opportunity for that in a traditional sense. So we have to communicate more and write down as much as we can to help newer members of our team continue to learn their roles.
With the turmoil and chaos surrounding everything right now, it would be wrong to expect performance of teams and organizations to be unaffected. As leaders, we should acknowledge that there is so much more happening than we can fully get a handle on. It is tough and may get tougher still. So let’s help our people do the best they can. That is our main purpose.
With that said, we all still want our companies to be successful (I hope). As leaders, we can’t manage by butts in seats. Hopefully that isn’t how you’ve been doing it, but that won’t cut it in a remote world. Therefore, we need to focus on the metrics that matter most. How can we ensure that our teams are delivering value? Find those metrics, make them obvious, and work with your teams to align your goals against them. And measure your success by them. Hint, it won’t be hours worked, lines of code delivered, or emails answered.
One ongoing practice for my team has been to set a few goals at the beginning of each week for the most important things to accomplish and then report back on those goals. I also do the same. More on that in another article. But it helps keep the focus on what is most important and ensures accountability.
Moving to remote work can be a huge benefit for many people and organizations. As part of a larger strategy, it is great. When it happens suddenly because of sudden events such as pandemics, it can seem like a strain initially. However, with the right steps, it’s not only manageable, but can be just as effective as being in the office. By creating the right boundaries and expectations, focusing on the right priorities, and communicating relentlessly as individuals and leaders, we can continue to be successful as teams and companies.
And as we manage the transition, hopefully we can incorporate remote work as part of our larger strategy going forward.
Hopefully, your team or company won’t ever get hit by the “blizzard of the century” that keeps you all out of the office for a week, but you never know.
Years ago I was scheduled to fly to the east coast just as a superstorm was about to blow through. I wisely postponed that trip and dodged what was a nightmare for weeks. Many people couldn’t travel to work, and many office buildings were without power (or running on backup generators) for days. I’m glad I wasn’t stuck in a hotel room without power for a week.
Those kinds of events can shut down teams, companies, and even industries. A major storm, a natural disaster, an outbreak, or just life. A few storms like that have inspired us to prepare our home with things like a backup generator and emergency supplies so we’re prepared for a snowpocalypse.
But what about getting our teams and companies ready? Fortunately, we don’t have to be doom and gloom about it, because the benefits are massive, and we can have them today.
The future of most knowledge work will be distributed and remote. As companies become more global and as connectedness shrinks the distance between people, going into an office to do the same thing you can do at home or at the coffee shop down the street will become an antiquated notion. In many places it already is. But this trend will continue to speed up and engulf organizations that have been slow to move.
And this future may come much sooner than you think. While the culture of an organization may not change overnight, you never know when some unforeseen circumstance may force everyone in your group or company to be remote for some period, like the superstorm that hit our team years ago. Or like the major disease outbreaks that are causing huge issues today. The coronavirus has caused tens of thousands of workers in China to work remotely as it has spread rapidly across the world.
Having been at organizations and offices across the spectrum of remote work, I’ve learned some key lessons about how to make your team or group the most effective no matter where you are on the spectrum. Whether your work is primarily or partly remote, you’re in the main office and interact with remote workers, or you’re part of a remote group far from the company headquarters, there are several steps we can all follow to improve the productivity of our teams and prepare ourselves and our groups to be remote friendly.
1. Define Your “Why”
As an organization, clearly define why you are shifting to more remote friendly work. Is it to remain competitive and attract the best local talent by allowing flexibility? Is it to expand your talent pool by hiring beyond the local market? Is it to lower costs? To diversify talent? To expand globally? Some combination? Those are all good reasons, so you should be able to articulate among them why you are becoming more remote friendly.
You need to have a clearly defined “why” and be transparent. There are likely benefits to your current employees, but it may also unnerve if you don’t communicate what you’re doing. With adding global talent, existing employees may wonder if their jobs will go away. You need to address that. Besides addressing concerns, if you don’t have a clear strategy, you won’t know if you’ve achieved your goals. If lowering costs is the goal but you never define that, how will you know you’ve been successful?
By having a defined “why”, you can incorporate this into your ongoing practices. Your employees shouldn’t be thrashed around by whims of new leaders or changing environments, so defining your remote working strategy ensures that everyone — from employees to leadership — understands what to expect and can get on board. Remember, many people make important life decisions based on company policies, so we should be thoughtful about how and why we do things.
2. Change Your Mindset
The next key is to change your mindset. If you are a manager or team lead, this will be a critical step.
Way of Working
While we once considered remote working a perk, we need to look at it as a way of working and a way of life now. Remote work is a requirement, not a fringe benefit. It’s not just a bonus which also means that it isn’t something that we can give and take away like a ping pong table in the break room. This is especially true for workers who are transitioning fully to remote work. And this trend will only continue. While not every employee will work remote full time, most employees will work remote at least sometimes.
Value over Outputs
Being in the office has long been a proxy for measuring productivity. That may have made sense 50 years ago when much of the work you needed to do had to be done in the office because that is where the documents were or the computer was. But with the connections we have today, everything is accessible everywhere, if we like it or not.
Rather than managing to perceived outputs such as time in the office, we need to shift to managing to outcomes and value. You’re right that measuring how much time someone is in the office is easier. But it may have zero correlation to the value being delivered. Someone could easily be in the office for 10 hours per day while delivering no real value. Likewise, someone could be in the office for 1–2 hours in a week and deliver significant value to the business or customers.
Watch Your Language
“Sh*t.” — Iron Man
“Language.” — Captain America.
That’s not the language we’re referring to here, though you may want to watch that as well depending on your work environment. What we mean here is watching how you talk about work. It's easy to forget how different it can be for our remote colleagues, especially anyone who is remote full time.
Be sure to be inclusive. It's easy to talk about how great it is to be together in the office, or how great face-to-face communication is. However, that can feel hurtful, especially if someone is remote full time. These kinds of comments are especially difficult if they come from leaders. If someone is remote or part of a remote office, they already feel somewhat isolated. Therefore, comments from leaders that further exclude them only widen the divide. As leaders, especially with remote workers, we need to ensure that everyone understands that we value their work and their contributions regardless of where their desk is located.
Being a remote friendly organization will be a cultural shift. This will probably take some time. But being transparent about it and shifting your mindset will make the transition much smoother for you, your team, and your company.
3. Think Remote First
In recent years there has been a shift in software development to “mobile first.” This has meant that design and development should focus first on making an excellent experience on mobile devices and then take that to the desktop.
The reason for this is twofold: First, it is much harder to get something right on a tiny screen. There is not a lot of real-estate to work with so you have to be very conscious of what you do and what makes it onto the screen. Second, people have shifted to using mobile devices as their primary source. Since we’re no longer tied to desktops for most of the functionality we need, we expect to do everything on our cell phones and tablets. And rightly so.
We need to take the same approach to remote work. We need to think remote first. The reasons are very similar to the thinking with mobile first: First, it is harder to get it right. In-person is easier, so shifting to remote first is a challenge. Second, many people are shifting to this mindset for their own work. Similar to being able to access anything on our mobile devices, the expectation for work is following suit. We should be able to expect the ability for people to be mobile.
Make Every Meeting Remote Friendly
At one company I worked for, I was in the main office and we had a few remote team members. At first, this was challenging since most of us were in the office. We defaulted to focusing on the group in the office. But this didn’t allow for broad participation. So we shifted our focus.
We started by ensuring that every meeting had a dial-in and I started bringing a camera to connect the room and remote folks. As we got comfortable with this format, I realized that getting people into a conference room was unnecessary. We could shift our meetings to be entirely remote for everyone. That meant that team members could stay at their desks if they needed, or work from home without having to worry about meeting schedules for the day.
Make it a regular practice to make meetings remote friendly, and you’ll see a big change in your ability as a team or department.
Get the Tools
A key to making this shift work is ensuring that your groups have the right tools. Today, there is no shortage of excellent tools to use for communication. Slack for chatting. Zoom for online video calls. Microsoft Teams for either of those. A host of other options exist. There is no excuse not to leverage these tools, whether on a small scale or across an enterprise, to allow everyone access to team collaboration.
One of the key benefits of being in a conference room is often the white boarding or brainstorming that can take place. However, I’ve found excellent tools that allow for that same collaboration done across offices or remote employees. My favorite is Lucidchart, which allows many people to edit at the same time. I’ve used it as an online board for writing ideas in real time, and a board for sticky notes that an entire team can contribute to. This has been awesome as we’ve created user story maps, brainstormed ideas, or gone through similar exercises as a product or development team.
Document Discussions & Decisions
One of the biggest changes to remote friendly work is documenting meetings, discussions, and decisions. This is critical because you need to ensure that everyone is aware of decisions being made whether or not they were present. And when teammates are remote, whether full time or just on and off, you need to have good documentation that everyone can refer back to.
I’ve found that this is just good practice. Whenever I’ve gotten away from the habit of documenting discussions, meetings or decisions, it has come back to bite me. Several months ago we were in discussions on team structures. The conversations were all in person and were moving quickly. Unfortunately, we didn’t write much down. So when some questions arose later on, we had nothing to refer back to other than our memories of what we had discussed. Which were an imperfect record. I kicked myself for not writing the decisions we were making as we went. This would have been even more difficult if some of the team had been remote and wouldn’t have been available to talk in the office. Don’t make the mistake I did. Write things down.
4. Ensure the Right Fit
Hire the Right People
Hiring the right people is a key to anything, and that holds true here as well. If you’ve got a team of people that you can’t trust to work remotely or unsupervised, you likely have bigger issues.
So hiring folks who you can trust is critical. Teams should think about that in making hiring decisions, from the managers to the team members. You should think through the questions:
Ideally, a team should be able to function whether or not everyone is in the same place. But even if your ideal is complete co-location, be prepared because not everyone will always be in the office. If you plan around that, especially with having the right people, you’ll be able to continue to deliver quality work as a group, even if the situation isn’t ideal.
Find the Right Balance
We also need to understand that remote work isn’t for everyone, and to be successful we need to properly support teammates who will work remotely or in remote offices.
Jessica Pamdeth a staff engineer for WGU, recalls her time working for IBM when they shifted to remote work for the engineering teams:
“When IBM sent us all to work remote, about half the folks started looking for new jobs right away. Not everyone has a good space in their home for working. Perhaps they have young kids at home every day, or their place is just too small for a dedicated workstation. Maybe they can admit to themselves they don’t have the discipline. Or they just prefer the interaction with coworkers every day.”
Regardless of the reasons, full time remote work may not be for everyone, so it is important to understand that. Everyone seems to have varying degrees at which they can productively work remotely. As a manager, it’s important to understand that and find the right balance for your team and your organization.
5. Set Expectations
Once you’ve created your remote friendly workplace, it’s important to set the right expectations for your team and organization. The level of formality will vary depending on the situation, but it is important for your employees and their development to help them understand how they can progress, especially if they are remote.
In one of my previous roles, one of the most senior members of the organization was a remote employee. And she was a phenomenal employee. But because she was remote, they limited her in moving into a VP role. While she essentially ran the entire department in that capacity, they refused to give her that promotion, which was unfortunate.
It’s important to be clear how far employees will advance and be promoted in remote roles. Will they be excluded from management roles? Should they be? You may not have all the answers to these questions yet, but think through them. If you will exclude remote employees or expect them to move to your main office for big promotions, you may end up losing out on some of your best talent. Is that something you’re willing to do?
How do you expect employees to communicate? This is a broader question and is often overlooked when most employees sit in the same office or in the same time zone. But it gets more difficult as employees stretch across offices and time zones.
Allowing employees to have focus time is critical, especially in knowledge work. So setting the expectation that most communication (except for urgent matters) will be asynchronous may be a great idea. That way everyone can handle communication when it fits their schedule rather than when the Slack notification hits their phone or laptop.
No Second-Class Citizens
When we were setting up the Salt Lake office for Goldman Sachs, many people in New York and London viewed it as a second-tier office. A place where they could send crappy work they didn’t want to do so they could focus on sexier projects. It took some time to get everyone away from that idea, but we eventually did.
If you’re setting up a remote office or remote workers, don’t do it with the view of second-class citizens or a place to send your shit-work. That will be a way to get a lot of disgruntled employees quickly. You want full teammates. It will be better for your team and your company in the long-term. Even if they are less expensive in other locations, that doesn’t mean they are less valuable.
6. Give Teams Autonomy
Once you’ve got the mindset, the tools and the people in place, it’s time, especially as a leader, to give teams autonomy to find their cadence. Not every team functions the same. Humans are complex, and our interactions are complex. Leaders at high levels should allow their teams flexibility to find the right cadence. Allow the leaders within groups and teams to find the right solutions. Let go of some control and let your people find the solutions that work!
For people to do their very best work, it often means they need the right environment, free from distractions, to immerse themselves and perform at their peak. Modern offices are notoriously bad environments for this type of work. They are full of distractions, from meetings to phone calls to quick questions. By focusing on value delivered and allowing employees to work wherever they can deliver that value best, we can continually move in the direction of becoming remote friendly.
For team leads and team members, it is critical to show the value that you’re delivering to your organization. If you will not be measured by the hours you’re in your chair in the office, you need to make it easy to show the actual value you’re providing.
7. Promote Face Time
None of this is to say that face-to-face interactions aren’t important. Humans are social creatures. It’s in our nature. We will not change hundreds of thousands of years of evolution with modern technology and we shouldn’t pretend to. We need time together as a group. So it is important to bring remote people together periodically to create those uniquely human bonds.
This is especially important if most of the team is located in an office with a few remote members. In one of my roles, I was in a remote location while the rest of the team was (largely) in New York. I made a point to travel out there every few months to work in person. Most teams I’ve worked on have had a similar policy, but it’s important to make sure that remote teammates join the team periodically, especially during important events such as product launches or celebrations. This is particularly important for teammates who are the lone remote members of the group, or in the minority. It is easy to feel isolated when you’re the one far from the team, and it is easy to forget how difficult that can be when you’re not the one who is remote.
To make face-to-face time more meaningful, you can maximize the usefulness of your team’s time together by focusing on shared experiences. This means rather than continuing with business as usual, ensure that you’re taking time as a team to build relationships by solving problems together, cooperating on shared goals and maximizing interactions.
8. Make the Effort & Commitment
Ultimately, it comes down to making an effort and commitment. Many people think co-location, especially of development teams, is the only option. I disagree. I’ve seen high-performing teams that are largely remote. And poorly performing teams that are co-located. It comes down to the team and the effort. I wrote about this in another post, Co-Located vs. Remote/Distributed Teams: What Works and Why. While it takes more effort to reduce the social distance of a distributed team, with the right leadership and the right tools, the team can bond and perform just as well as a co-located team.
On teams that are remote or have remote members, it takes an extra effort to keep everyone involved. But that effort becomes second nature with some practice. Calling folks up to chat for a few minutes may seem strange at first, but becomes normal quickly. By changing the mindset of the team, remote work can quickly become a default that is easy to manage and easy to execute.
Becoming remote friendly will be critical for businesses and teams to succeed. But the benefits will be huge. Businesses will access a global talent pool, or at least a far larger talent pool than just the local one. For many companies, this will mean great employees and lower costs.
The benefits to employees will be huge too. As we shift from the mindset of being tied to a particular location to do all our work, we will be much more free to find the time and place that best suits our productivity and passion.
Like any good product person, I have a lot of whiteboards for writing out ideas and brainstorming. That includes a big whiteboard in my office at work. It also includes two whiteboards in my home office — one on the wall and one I can move around as needed. Excessive? Maybe a little. But it comes with the territory.
When I’m not using the extra whiteboard at home, I set it behind the door and let my kids color on it. They enjoy that. I try to convince them to draw out lean canvases of product ideas too, but they’re not there yet. Baby steps.
Often the whiteboard will get filled up with scribbles and artwork and I’ll just leave it for a while because I think the drawing is pretty cute, either intentionally or unintentionally. Like one that my daughter drew on the left below. I’m not entirely sure what it is supposed to be, but she was really feeling her inner artist when she was drawing it and it kind of speaks to me in a cute kid way, but also in a deep, existential way.
So I kept it around for a long time without erasing it.
Likewise, my son loves to build. So Legos or marble mazes or other contraptions of different sorts will often occupy the table in my office. His most recent marble maze is pictured above on the right.
He’s pretty proud of that one, so it, too, has been up for quite some time.
The problem with leaving marble mazes fully constructed or whiteboard pictures un-erased is that there isn’t any room for new pictures to be drawn or new mazes to be constructed. Sure, the ones that are there now are great. But what about the new ideas? We don’t know what great new thing might come into existence if we give it some room! And even clearing some space just for the creativity to happen is critical.
So much to my kids’ dismay, I took down the marble maze and erased the whiteboard. Some tears were shed, it’s true. But now there is room for something new. Which is incredibly exciting.
We often get stuck in the same rut regarding our own creativity, and we rarely even realize it. This is especially true when things are going all right. It’s easy to see when you’re in a rut when things are going poorly, but it’s much more difficult to see you need a change when things are going okay.
Maybe you’ve reached a local maximum. The best you can expect given certain inputs. But is that where you want to settle? What about the global maximum. Why stand on the tallest hill that’s close by when there are much higher points not that far away?
Erasing our Own Whiteboards
I think we’ve all been a similar situation. So what can we do to get our creativity flowing again? How can we stretch beyond what we’re doing now to something much greater? How can we take ourselves, our jobs, our products to new heights?
One of the lowest cost, lowest effort options is to simply broaden your reading list. From books to articles to newsletters. I’d even include podcasts in this category.
Find material that broadens your thinking and challenges you. The key is to read both inside and outside of your field.
In one of my favorite books of the year, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein addresses this at length. The entire book is a deep dive into the importance of getting out of your field to expand your vision (and well worth your time if you haven’t read it yet), but I’ll use the example of Johannes Kepler here to illustrate the point.
Kepler had accepted the Copernican model of planets orbiting the sun, but there was little else to explain motion in the heavens. So he drew on ideas from other areas such as boats in whirlpools, magnets pushing and pulling, optics of lenses, etc. There was no field of astrophysics until Kepler invented it, so he drew on lessons from other fields to guide his thinking.
“In an age when alchemy was still a common approach to natural phenomena, Kepler filled the universe with invisible forces acting all around us, and helped usher in the Scientific Revolution. His fastidious documentation of every meandering path his brain blazed is one of the great records of a mind undergoing creative transformation. It is a truism to say that Kepler thought outside the box. But what he really did, whenever he was stuck, was to think entirely outside his domain.”
I’ve found that reading extensively is one of the best ways to think outside my domain and get exposure to areas that I may not otherwise see. It helps to erase some of barriers I put in place with my professional experience, and allows me to see things through different lenses.
Get out of the Office
Nothing curbs creativity and narrows our vision more than spending all our time in the office. You may not even notice it until you finally pull yourself away from your desk and actually get out.
If you’re a product manager or UX designer, you need to be getting out of the office to meet with customers weekly. If you’re in another role, especially creative roles, you should be getting out of the office weekly as well. Make it a habit. Make it a priority.
Meet people. One great way to get out of the office is to simply go have lunch regularly. I try to schedule lunch with former coworkers or other people I know at other companies at least a few times a month. It’s nice to catch up with old friends and it helps get perspective on things happening outside of your company.
Find mentors. It’s also a great idea to have some mentors. If you don’t already, I suggest putting in some time to find some. And then have a chat with them periodically. I’ve had a group of both formal and informal mentors for some time, and as I’ve taken on more leadership roles I’ve worked to expand this group. It helps to have people you can turn to for advice and insight outside of your company.
Go to conferences and meetups. I love conferences and try to take my teams to at least a few each year. Not only is it a great chance to get out of the office as a team, but you get to hear from industry experts, meet lots of other professionals, and turn your mind to something other than the immediate issues you’re facing in your day-to-day role. And that is such a huge key to being able to bring new thinking to your challenges. Meetups can often be a “mini-conference” where you can listen to a presentation and grab lunch, with some of the same benefits as a longer conference without the same time or financial commitment.
Do things other than work
One of the best things you can do to “clear the whiteboard” and open up your mind is to do something other than work. This includes taking time both during the workday and ensuring that outside of work you have hobbies and interests that allow you to engage your creativity.
Personally, I make it a habit every day to take a walk outside to clear my head and stretch my legs. It gives me a chance to get away from my computer, email, Slack, etc., and just think for a little while. I’m fortunate now to have a nice little pond by my office that I can walk around. For several years these walks have been around parking lots and some neighboring streets since that’s what was available, but that hasn’t deterred me.
Outside of work it’s also incredibly important to have interests and hobbies that engage you. Referring back again to the book Range:
“Rather than obsessively focusing on a narrow topic, creative achievers tend to have broad interests. This breadth often supports insights that cannot be attributed to domain-specific expertise alone.”
“Compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates are at least twenty-two times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician or other type of performer. Nationally recognized scientists are much more likely than other scientists to be musicians, sculptors, painters, printmakers, woodworkers, mechanics, electronics tinkerers, glassblowers, poets or writers of both fiction and nonfiction.”
Challenge Assumptions and Processes
It’s easy to put processes in place and then allow them to stay in place for a long time, if not indefinitely. That’s why it’s critical to constantly be challenging our assumptions and processes, both personally and professionally.
I’ve been woodworking for years now. One thing I make and sell is shaving sets, which I’ve linked if you’re interested in seeing more. I finish each item with multiple coats of super glue, which I polish to a nice glossy finish. I created a process early on where I put on a coat, sanded it, polished it, and then repeated the process about 10 times. I did that for a while. Until one day I questioned my process. Could I do it better? Did I need to sand and polish between coats? I experimented and found that I was wasting time and material and should just be putting on 10 coats and then doing my polishing. It sped up my process significantly. But I never would have made that change if I hadn’t challenged my process, which had been working just fine for me for a long time.
How many processes are like this in our organizations? How many times do you hear things like “that is how we’ve always done it” or “this works for us, that other thing wouldn’t work here.”
We should, as a habit, periodically reimagine all of our processes and assumptions from the ground up. If we were to start over, how would we do it now? Over the past several years as I’ve come into several new roles, this is where I’ve always started and it has yielded tremendous, if difficult, results. We won’t always have the luxury to start over, or implement every change, as I know firsthand, but this is the mindset that will help you continually drive innovation for yourself, your team, and your organization.
We build good product development on experimentation. To understand what will work and what isn’t, like scientists, we have to constantly be running experiments. When I was a product manager responsible for specific products, this was a huge part of my role.
In one of my products, we theorized that we could improve the user experience by simplifying the flow and the design of one of our products. So I created some working prototypes and we set out to test that assumption. Unfortunately they didn’t work the way we expected. But we learned some valuable lessons on what might work, which informed the next set of experiments and decisions, just as you’d expect. And eventually we got to a better design and user experience.
We should take the same attitude toward experimentation in our companies and individually. Eric Ries, in his book The Startup Way, talks about taking many of the startup principles he discussed in The Lean Startup and making them part of general business culture.
“Continuous transformation — an organization’s ability to test and learn from experiences related to its own structure and processes, promoting the best proven techniques across the enterprise, limiting or discarding the rest — is what will give this organization the ability to thrive in the modern age.”
It’s this kind of ability to adapt and evolve that allows modern companies to keep pace with competition, especially startups that are doing the same. But it is not an easy thing to do, especially at a company or organizational level. Erasing the whiteboard — reimagining the very things that got us to where we are — can be difficult, if not impossible. But that’s often the difference between companies that thrive (or survive) and those that don’t.
Individually, we can adopt the same mindset. Continuous transformation is the goal, and ongoing experimentation is the key. We have to disrupt ourselves, our routines, our comfort to find what will work and what will bring success.
This is often an easier mindset to have early in life, when we feel like we may have the freedom to explore a bit more and experiment with our talents and things we like. But eventually we lose that mindset and feel that we have to have everything figured out and determined. Which is why continually experimenting individually is critical.
For example, when it comes to fitness, experimenting with different workouts and routines is critical to progress. If you’ve trained or exercised, you’re likely familiar with “the plateau” — the time when you no longer see progress. It’s easy to hit a plateau by sticking with a familiar routine because you’re constantly working out the same muscles. Your body adapts and you no longer need to get stronger to do that particular exercise. That’s why you need variation. Often it may take some experimenting to find what will work best, but breaking out of the routine is key.
This is the same idea for cognitive and professional pursuits. We’ve got to break out of the routine, experiment with the new, and break past the plateau.
Make a Big Switch
Ultimately, erasing the whiteboard is the goal so we can unleash our creativity. And that may mean we need to make a big switch.
In one of my favorite books about creativity, Creativity Inc., there are numerous stories about creativity (obviously) and unleashing creative potential. One story about Finding Nemo is particularly relevant.
In the creation of Finding Nemo, Andrew Stanton pitched the entire story which everyone loved initially. The movie would have a series of flashbacks from Nemo’s father, weaving the story of Nemo and his father. But when the storyboards were put together, it was confusing. The braintrust at Pixar lobbied for the story to be more linear, and when Andrew did that, making a big switch to the movie, it became not only much clearer, but Marlin (Nemo’s father) became a much more sympathetic and likable character.
Sometimes we have to make a big switch, tossing out a big portion of our ideas to get to something much better, like the case with Finding Nemo and almost every other Pixar movie.
Years ago I witnessed the benefits of a big switch in my family. My dad had been working the same job for a long time. He was very good at it, and it had become comfortable and familiar. He liked the fact that it was comfortable and familiar, so it took some prodding for him to make a change, but I remember as he moved into a new role there was a massive shift. He was much happier at work, and it made him happier everywhere. It brought a renewed engagement that comes with a new role, and a new excitement. It cleared the whiteboard of everything he had been doing and started things anew.
Sometimes it takes a big shift to get things started again. I’d argue that it’s even necessary to plan on big shifts periodically. In your career, you’ll be best served by reimagining your role periodically, whether that means moving to a new job or simply changing positions or taking on massive new projects or responsibilities. But even within our roles, we can make these big shifts as we challenge the processes we have in place, experiment with what works and learn about new and better ways of doing things.
One of the best ways to foster creativity is to start with a blank slate — erase the whiteboard and start fresh.
This can be a hard thing to do. At our companies, we often face a myriad of entrenched processes that have often served us well. Individually, we may be in a similar situation. What we’ve done so far has worked well. Why should we abandon it now?
But often the best thing for a system, whether an office or ourselves, is to inject a little randomness, cut things down to their core, and start to reimagine. You’ll be surprised with what you come up with.
Every year I like to look back at some products that had the biggest impact on my life. As a product person, I just can’t help myself. It’s also become a standing tradition to look back at some of the most impactful gadgets, apps, and other products that made life better.
I do a lot of writing. I’ve been doing a lot of articles and blog posts, working on a book, doing an MBA, and just enjoy writing for work and for fun. ProWritingAid is a grammar checker, a style editor and writing mentor (pulled that from their site). I checked out a bunch of writing tools and it was the one that most closely aligned with what I wanted and needed. And it has been excellent. I’m amazed how I got along without it for so long. I don’t think I could go back to not having a tool for editing my writing, whether emails or documents or blog posts. It is worth every penny.
I was fortunate enough to get to beta the new Echo Auto, which puts Alexa in your car in a nice little package. I was super impressed by the whole setup. It syncs seamlessly with my phone, is unobtrusive in my car, and allows me to use voice commands and other things that I didn’t have available in my not-smart car. I’d say it even works better than the integrated system we have in our truck, which is pretty cumbersome. I imagine newer cars and infotainment systems won’t need Echo Auto, but it’s been amazing to get into my car and have it just work to play music, podcasts or audiobooks.
Daylio is a daily micro journal and mood/activity tracker. I started using it at the beginning of the year and have been pretty religiously using it every day since. I love keeping track of activities and how they impact my mood. I also love jotting down some notes about each day. I’m a journal keeper and it has been amazing to scroll through each day to look at the highlights from the week.
Eufy Smart Scale
I mentioned getting a smart scale at the end of last year, and it has proved to be a key life changer this year. Being able to track weight (and other metrics) over time has made it so much easier to understand the impact of choices and to monitor health. It’s become part of my fitness routine and has made me a healthier person. Looking back at various times in my life, I realize how much I wasn’t controlling my lifestyle and the negative impact that was having on my. This has been part of a big change that I’ve made, and it has made it easier.
Along the same lines as a smart scale, my wife gave me a Fitbit Versa this year, and it has continued my fitness progression in a significantly positive way. I’ve been a Fitbit user since they came out with their first wristband, so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. But the Versa has almost taken the place of other smartwatches. The only problem is that it doesn’t fully take the place of a smartwatch yet, so that leaves me with my Fossil smartwatch and my Fitbit. I don’t mind it, but it leads to many people asking questions.
We invested in a Ring Security system late last year. It was dead easy to set up and install, which was a good start. It went well with the doorbell we already had and gave some extra peace of mind. We added a floodlight camera to the backyard as well. Later in the year, there was a string of car thefts happening all around our city. There were a couple in neighborhood, and it was right about the time we got a new truck and had to park it out on the street for a few weeks before we could rearrange the garage to get it to fit. So we added another Ring security camera to our driveway, both as a deterrent and a way to catch anyone who broke into our cars if it happened. Fortunately, it didn’t, but we’ve become huge fans of Ring for how integrated it all is, how easy it is to set up, and that you don’t have to buy into a long-term security system to get what you need or want.
So that’s the list for 2019. There were several other products that almost made the cut as well. The ones above I use almost every day in some way. But there are others that are just as good that maybe don’t quite see as much use. The Echo Show 5 is a great little device. I’d probably take that over Echo Dots now, and I’ve got one in my office. It’s the perfect size and has all the functionality you need. If you enjoy making ice cream, a Whynter upright ice cream maker should be on your list. We’ve been using one for a few months and are making far better ice cream than Cold Stone. I also got the new Galaxy Note 10+ a few weeks ago. It’s been amazing so far, but since I’ve only had it for a short period of time I kept it off my 2019 list.
It was a great year for apps and gadgets. I’m excited to see what 2020 will bring.
I began 2019 with the goal of reading a book a week. And here in the final week of 2019, I’ve finished reading 52 books (see the full list below). So this is, first and foremost, a humble brag post about that, as are all articles on favorite books (we won’t kid ourselves, right?). But secondarily — a very, very distant second mind you — I populate a lot of my own reading lists with recommendations from others. So I find these articles really useful personally.
This year’s reading list included everything from history to science fiction to product management and business books. Some classics, some new releases and some new favorites. But I wanted to highlight the best books of the year, some of which I’ll add to a few of my upcoming lists on must-reads for product managers and product leaders.
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
Since I was young, I’ve been torn by my varied interests, but also the need I constantly felt to specialize. I remember this becoming especially acute in high school where I was very good a range of things, but didn’t feel that I was the best at any particular thing.
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World is a kind of vindication for my younger self, putting into words what I always felt: that exploring a range of opportunities and becoming good at a variety of things would ultimately be a successful path. There was no need to give up every sport to focus solely on one. Or give up every interest to become the best at a single venture.
“Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is the ability to integrate broadly… In the wicked world, with ill-defined challenges and few rigid rules, range can be a life hack.”
Specializing early can be extremely detrimental in most areas, excluding a few well-defined skills like golf or chess. Gaining broad experience, and this book was a fascinating look into why that is. I could go on and on about it, but the best thing you can do is go read it.
The Three-Body Problem
We probably don’t realize just how fortunate we are to be in a stable orbit around our sun. This book explores an alien world that faces a three-body problem as it orbits two stars, constantly facing periods of stability and instability, and the adaptations they have to make to adjust to that.
Of course, Earth becomes intertwined with them eventually. It is set against the backdrop of the Chinese cultural revolution, which admittedly I was not that familiar with, so the whole book is fascinating and one of the best science fiction books I’ve read.
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
Cutting out distraction and focusing on the most important tasks has been a critical theme for me over the past few years, and Deep Work is one of the best books on the subject. It has become a book I reference often and one that I will go back to re-read to keep the lessons fresh in my mind. Because I drift back into my distracted habits when I know I want to focus on the most important things, especially since I know that they will pay off the most for me.
“The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare are exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”
Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder
I had read Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan while I was still working on Wall Street, but I took some time this summer to read them again and then finally read Antifragile and Skin in the Game.
Antifragile to me was the best book of the group. It brought together all the ideas and showed why they are so important.
Basically, we live in a complex system. Each of us is a complex system. The number of variables in a complex system is almost infinite. The more we try to control that type of system and manipulate it, the more we mess it up. That’s why simplifying is often the best course. If nature made things a certain way, we should think hard before we change it. And we should also seek ways to make ourselves antifragile, often by allowing (and injecting) randomness and uncertainty rather than trying to eliminate and control it.
“Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”
The whole book is really a revelation on complexity, randomness and embracing uncertainty in our lives.
The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
I didn’t read as much history or as many biographies this year as I normally do (I have a long list waiting for me in 2020, so next year’s list will probably have quite a few). But this book was excellent.
It walks through the history of the digital revolution, discussing the main players and companies and how they all built on each other. It is a fascinating history, especially for those of us who didn’t live through it.
Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration
I find myself referencing this book more and more in articles I’m writing and in conversations. It not only gives the history of Pixar, which is fascinating but also gives a great look into the Pixar process and what they do to make such great movies.
Pixar is probably one of the most creative companies there is, and they’ve created an amazingly creative culture. As a product leader, I pull lessons from Pixar regularly as our teams need to also create amazing products and user experiences.
“Making the process better, easier, and cheaper is an important aspiration, something we continually work on — but it is not the goal. Making something great is the goal.”
The Gods Themselves
This is another classic science fiction novel by Isaac Asimov. It again involves worlds intertwining, aliens, scientists, twists and turns. Earth seems to have found the answer to its energy problem, and almost no one wants to ask any questions.
“It is a mistake,” he said, “ to suppose that the public wants the environment protected or their lives saved and that they will be grateful to any idealist who will fight for such ends. What the public wants is their own individual comfort. We know that well enough from our experience in the environmental crisis of the twentieth century. Once it was well known that cigarettes increased the incidence of lung cancer, the obvious remedy was to stop smoking, but the desired remedy was a cigarette that did not cause cancer. When it became clear that the internal-combustion engine was polluting the atmosphere dangerously, the obvious remedy was to abandon such engines, and the desired remedy was to develop non-polluting engines.”
Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win
I’m a sucker for Navy SEAL stories. I’ll admit it. They are just so badass. So you couple that with leadership principles and I’m all in.
Even if you’re not a diehard fan, this is a great book. The core message of extreme ownership is one that leaders need to take to heart. Anyone in a leadership position, formal or informal, needs to feel extreme ownership for their product and team to produce the best outcomes.
“Leaders must own everything in their world. There is no one else to blame… the most fundamental and important truths at the heart of Extreme Ownership: there are no bad teams, only bad leaders.”
What You Do Is Who You Are: How to Create Your Business Culture
As I’ve been focused the latter part of this year on building a new product organization, I’ve been thinking a lot about team and culture. This book is an interesting look at various cultures and how they were built. From gangs to samurais to slave uprisings. I don’t know that you’ll get more eclectic examples than this book, but it makes for a good read and comes together nicely.
“Your culture is how your company makes decisions when you’re not there. It’s the set of assumptions your employees use to resolve problems every days. It’s how they behave when no one’s looking…Culture is a strategic investment in the company doing things the right way when you’re not looking.”
Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World
Leadership needs to take a systems thinking approach in our complex world. And that is what this book is about. Rather than try to control everything, leaders need to empower teams to make decisions. We need to push the authority and tools down to those closest to the decisions.
“The temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization, must give way to an approach as a gardener, enabling rather than directing. A gardening approach to leadership is anything but passive. The leader acts as an ‘Eyes-On, Hands-Off’ enabler who creates and maintains an ecosystem in which the organization operates.”
Full list of books from 2019:
If you’re like me, you’ve probably experienced a variety of terrible one-on-one meetings.
As an employee, maybe you’ve seen the calendar reminder pop up and you’ve rolled your eyes, hoping that your manager will cancel or something else will come up. Or when the meeting actually happens, it quickly devolves into a boring status update. Or maybe you’ve been in a different situation where you really need to talk with your manager and are looking forward to finally getting a chance during your one-on-one meeting, only to have it canceled for the umpteenth time.
As a manager, you’ve probably maybe you’ve viewed these meetings as good opportunities to get status reports or “touch base.” Or maybe a quick chance to check in and then check it off the list so you can get onto other things, without giving it much thought.
Given how ubiquitous one-on-one meetings are, why are they so bad? And what can we do to make them not suck?
The Purpose of One-on-One Meetings
But before we can dissect why these meetings suck, we need to better understand the true purpose behind the meetings. Why are we having them in the first place? Or why should we be having them?
Why They Suck
I’ve already touched on a few of the reasons, but let’s dive into why these meetings suck.
All of these things can be fixed, and I’ll discuss how we can address them below.
How to Make One-on-One Meetings Rock
I originally was going to say “how to make one-on-one meetings not suck”, but that felt like a low bar that, even though it kept with the theme of the article, really didn’t get us to the point I want to be at. So let’s make these meetings rock. Let’s make them something to be excited about and to look forward to. I love them as a manager. I’ve loved them (at times) as an employee. It would be great if everyone could look forward to them as an opportunity to grow and develop.
Make Them Regularly Scheduled
One-on-one meetings should be regularly scheduled. Most of us get that already. You must find the right cadence for your group. It may be every week, it may be every other week. You should meet with your direct reports that often. If you can’t, take a hard look at whether you have too many direct reports or other responsibilities and need additional help.
For non-direct reports, it’s a great idea to also regularly schedule some time.I’ve done this with folks and also had managers a few levels above me schedule time with me monthly to check in. It is highly appreciated. It is very helpful.
Finally, while you can’t always get out of the office, take time occasionally to move your meeting out of the office. Grab lunch or coffee or simply go outside. It’s nice to get a change of scenery and it helps make the conversation more personal every once in a while.
Show Up and Fully Focus
As a manager, now that you’ve got your meetings scheduled, show up on time and don’t make a habit of canceling them. Most folks understand if you need to move things occasionally. But if you make a habit of it as a manager, it will give the impression that you don’t care about your employee.
I had a manager many years ago who not only wouldn’t regularly schedule one-on-ones, but whenever I would schedule a meeting with her, she wouldn’t show up. No notice or anything. So I’d have to reschedule and reschedule to even get her to acknowledge it. It was more exhausting than you can imagine. And when I gave up trying to get time with her, I got in trouble for that too. Don’t be like that.
In the meeting, both as an employee and a manager, focus your attention. That may mean closing your laptop and putting your phone away unless you need it for your agenda or notes. But if you do need it, close down Slack or Teams or Outlook or whatever else might call your attention. Because it is too easy to get consumed if you don’t. This is time to focus attention, not to answer emails.
Have a Loose Agenda
Create a shared agenda and keep it in a place where you both can edit it to prepare for your meeting. I’ve used a variety of tools for this, so anything from OneNote to Evernote can work. You just need somewhere you can both access it and make changes.
As an employee, you should be driving these meetings. Your manager is there to help and guide you, so take advantage of that. As a manager, you should be letting your employees direct. They may need some help, so establish an outline if they need. It can follow something like below.
Life Updates: Some might view this as small talk, but I mean it to be actual real talk. Take time to actually get to know each other and what is going on. This goes both ways. Remember, this meeting is about establishing rapport. It’s a two-way street.
Status Update: I know I said these meetings aren’t about status updates. To avoid devolving into a status update, I suggest actually posting a status update somewhere else. Maybe wherever you’re storing your shared agenda. That way the manager can have visibility into what is going on without having to take up too much time in this meeting. But we all know that it will likely be a topic of discussion here. So let’s just add it to the agenda, time box it, and get it out of the way.
Career Focus: This should be much of the meeting. This is a chance to review goals, check progress, and talk about next steps for progression. Remember, this is a strategic meeting. It should be focused on the long-term. Way too often we set goals at the beginning of a year or quarter (since we’re required to in whatever HR system we use) and then forget about them until we have to review them for annual reviews. Sound familiar? Of course it does. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It shouldn’t be that way. We should be setting meaningful goals and then we should review them regularly together to see how we’re doing. This is a great opportunity to do that.
Feedback/Coaching: The one-on-one meeting also offers managers the opportunity to regularly coach and mentor their employees. However, feedback should be ongoing and real-time. These meetings should be more of a chance to review feedback from the week and see how it’s gone. As a manager, I shouldn’t save my feedback from last week’s meeting until my one-on-one. I should give it immediately, good or bad. And then we can talk about it again when we meet in our one-on-one to see what progress has been made.
Jam Session: Finally, one-on-ones offer the chance to bounce ideas off each other. As an employee, it gives me the opportunity to get feedback on ideas I may have. As a manager, it gives me the opportunity to get feedback on ideas for the team or organization from individual employees. The setting is perfect because everyone can be much more open than they otherwise may be in a bigger team setting. We can talk about important changes that may be coming up or other items that may be on our minds.
Prepare and Take Notes
To make these meetings meaningful, it is important to prepare ahead of time. Having and creating and agenda is one key part of this. The one-on-ones where I’ve had agendas have always been more organized than the ones where I haven’t. Why? Because it has forced me to prepare beforehand. So prepare an agenda.
Give yourself a few minutes to get ready before as well. This is just good advice for any meeting, but especially for one-on-ones. These aren’t meetings that you can bluff your way through or just show up to. You need to put in some time, look over your agenda and notes, and be ready for. That goes for both managers and employees.
As I just mentioned, you also need to take some notes. Take notes during the meeting. This goes for managers and employees again. You’ll both likely have takeaways and to-dos. So write things down. Put the to-do list in the agenda so you both have access to it and can see it! That way you won’t be starting from scratch in the next meeting. You can pick up from where you left off and have a meaningful conversation.
As an employee, I’d suggest you prepare to share some success or win. It will start the meeting off on a great note and get the energy up. Even if you’ve got some bad news for the meeting, sharing wins is a good place to start. It can be personal or professional.
As a manager, I’d also suggest you prepare something to share as well. I had a manager who always had an interesting story to share when I met with him. It usually had nothing to do with work, but was just an interesting fact or story that he had learned that he wanted to share. It was a nice way to start a meeting. Find something that fits your personality and go with it.
Ask Good Questions and Ask for Feedback
Ask good open-ended questions. This goes throughout the meeting. It may help to kick things off by asking a question to start. There are a number of sites that offer good questions. But it is helpful to have a number of questions ready to ask throughout the meeting as well. Some examples include:
Finally, wrap things up by asking for feedback. Both as an employee and as a manager. There are always areas to improve, so be open to ways to improve them.
To make this successful though, be ready to offer feedback. And that is where it gets difficult. So you need to think of ways that your employee or your manager can improve. And then be willing to share. Which can be uncomfortable. But is so necessary.
I had a manager who would always ask for feedback at the end of every meeting. He was a great manager, and I rarely had anything to offer. But he would always press the issue. It was tough because he only would occasionally let me off the hook without giving feedback. I’ve adopted that same practice now. I know that I have many areas for development, and I expect others to offer candid feedback.
One-on-one meetings have the tendency to suck if you don’t put some effort into them. But they don’t have to. We can make them awesome with a little work. It just takes some preparation, thoughtfulness and feedback. But by putting in the work, we can get so much more out of the time we put in. We can grow as employees and as managers. And in turn, we can see incredible returns within our teams and organizations.
A Few Analogies to Help Demystify What Product Managers Do
Like many of you, I’ve struggled at times to describe to friends and family what I do for a living and what product management really is. It is especially hard to describe to anyone outside of technology. And to kids. Which can be frustrating, especially since I’ve been doing it for over a decade (whoa) and certain folks (hey mom!) still have no idea what I do. But for those of us who’ve been here a while, we should really be better at simplifying what we do.
Some of you may be here to better understand product management in general. Others may want to better describe what it is to friends and family, or to simplify it to start the conversation for other reasons. Or maybe you need to present what you do at career day and need some ideas. Regardless, I hope this helps.
Product Managers Are Builders
For our 6-year-old, a simple example that has seemed to work well has been the example building a home. Especially since he got to see our new home as it was being built from the ground up. I’m simplifying a bit here, but it let’s go with it for a moment:
The builder is a key person in the construction process. He works with the family to understand the kind of home that they want. Where they want the kitchen, where they want the bedrooms, etc. He works on understanding their needs and then helps build a home that is great for them. That’s his job.
Once he understands the family’s needs, he then works with the teams of people who build the home to make it all happen. The cement truck that pours the foundation, the guys who build the walls, the people who put in the kitchen cabinets, the people who put in the carpet to make sure it is just what the family needs.
That’s very much like what a product manager does as well, except rather than with homes, she does it with software — applications on computers or phones. She works with users to understand their problems and then she works with teams of engineers to create features to address those problems or needs. All of the cool games on your phone or tablet have a product manager that works on them. She is the builder who understands what makes them fun to play. Then she works with the engineers (those are the people who know how to write the code to tell the tablet how to make the monkey swing on the branches and how to make the music play) to build the application so you have a game to play.
Product managers, like builders, work with customers to understand their needs and create solutions to problems. There are certainly some nuances to that we miss, but I think the builder analogy gets to the heart of the idea.
Of course, we’re not 6-year-olds, so we can take this a few levels deeper (though hopefully that is helpful in any conversations you may have with your kids). And while the analogies are not perfect, as no analogies are, they illustrative of product management in many ways.
Product Managers Are Architects
Let’s stick with our building analogy for a moment, but take it a step further and make it a bit more technical. Let’s talk about architects.
If you’re like me, the first thing you think of when you think of an architect is a big table with drafting paper and rulers where they can sketch out a detailed drawing of their next skyscraper. They’ve got the big vision for a grand building. Maybe the next Empire State Building. And that is certainly part of their job.
But another part of it is all the details. Because that skyscraper or house or school has to have ventilation and plumbing and electrical systems, and all of that has be taken into account in the architectural design. They also have to think about the building codes and fire regulations and zoning laws, etc. So while the architect certainly has to think about the big picture and beautiful end result they want to achieve, they also have to go through all the details of how to get there.
Product managers are architects in the same way. They have a big vision about the software product (or products) they are building. They want their app to be the next Instagram or Fortnite. They have a long-term roadmap that shows the way to get to something big. But they are also focused on all the little details as well. Things like “adding better error handling” to timeout messages. Or speeding up the login page so it shaves a second or two off the time it takes you to log in. All while building out the experience within the building that will eventually lead to the bigger vision.
Product Managers Are Small Business Owners
Many people have written about product managers as CEOs of their products. I even dove into that debate a while back with 6 Ways the Product Manager is the CEO. I like the analogy of a product manager as a CEO, but I like the analogy even more of a small business owner.
A business owner isn’t nearly as lofty as a title, which makes it more apt for a product manager. A business owner often has to be scrappy, especially when you think about a small business owner. If you own the local bakery down the street, there is a good chance you wear a lot of hats. You probably have a team of people working with you in various roles, especially as you’ve grown, but you know the business inside and out. You are ultimately responsible for its success. You’ve delegated responsibilities and trust your team to execute, but you know the buck stops with you.
As the business owner, you are also keenly aware of the financial impact of the decisions you make and how they impact your business. Opening an hour earlier has certain costs and certain benefits, and you analyze both sides. Adding items to the menu as well. Maybe you’d love to expand your bakery and offer a wider array of services to your customers based on their feedback, but you’re always carefully analyzing the feasibility and desirability of doing that, experimenting continuously before committing significant resources.
These characteristics tie in nicely to product management. Product managers own their products just like a small business owner owns their business. Product managers generally aren’t the boss or manager of the people on the team, but they own the experience of the product.
If customers are having issues or requesting features, the product manager analyzes why that is and what the solutions might be, never stopping at simply “adding something to the menu” because someone wanted it. They work to understand why they wanted it to address the underlying issue. And like a true owner, they have to understand the cost associated with adding features. Because everything they do has a costs and benefits associated with it, and they understand that.
Finally, product managers wear a lot of hats in their roles, just like small business owners. They are scrappy, often moving from talking with customers one minute to checking on their teams the next minute to making sure that their application is functioning fine the next minute. They are truly small business owners, entrepreneurs within their own worlds.
Product Managers Are Guides
If you’ve ever booked a trip somewhere with a guide, you likely know of some benefits you get. First, they are experts in areas you are not. Second, they allow you to maximize your efficiency. They put in a lot of work for you, so you can focus on the areas you’re more concerned about, like seeing the sites. Finally, they create the plan and can adjust as needed based on the needs of the group, the conditions at hand, and changes that arise.
A good tour guide is an expert in the area they are taking people. They can communicate the map and itinerary so that everyone is clear what the plan is. They also understand the group they are working with. Each group is different. A tour group of 30-year-olds differs immensely from a group of 70-year-olds and a good tour guide will adjust accordingly.
My mom has worked as a tour guide in southern Utah for several years now, and I can attest that anyone who is fortunate enough to go on a tour with her is getting all the above-mentioned benefits. Few people are as avid about the outdoors as she is, and she knows all the national parks like the back of her hand. That includes all the hiking trails, which ones are easiest, which ones are hardest, where the crowds are most likely to be at what times, etc. So whenever one plan doesn’t work, she can adjust to another without missing a beat.
We were recently on a family vacation to one of the national parks and availed ourselves of her expertise. We had young kids in our group, so we wanted some easy hikes to see some things. She pulled out the map and laid out a plan for us, showing us a couple things we could see along the way and then what we could do if it parking was a problem. It was great. We could do a couple easy hikes that everyone enjoyed and quickly move from one area to the next without trying to figure out what we should do next. My mom knew what we wanted to do and got us to it so we could get to enjoying the park.
Like a good tour guide, a good product manager is an expert guide for their product.
A good product manager is an expert in their product area. Like a tour guide, a product manager has to know the terrain to guide others through it. So product managers have to become deeply familiar with the software they work on, whether that is applications for phones or software for computers, etc. While that doesn’t mean product managers have to be as technical as software engineers, it means they often have to be technically fluent depending on the product and area they work in.
A good product manager minimizes the time to value. Like a good tour guide, good product managers bring efficiency to software development. Yes, you can travel to a foreign country and find your way around on your own without a guide. And yes, you can build software without a product manager or someone in that role. But chances are you may end up wandering around quite a bit more than you need to. If you’re on vacation, that may be fine. If you’re building software on a budget in a business, that may not be the route you want to take. A product manager reduces the time to learn what is the right thing to build for your customers and your business.
A good product manager can create a plan and adjust that plan as necessary based on the needs of the product and the needs of customers, stakeholders and the business. Just like a guide builds an itinerary and adjusts it based on the group and what happens with the weather and the crowds, a product manager builds a roadmap and a strategy for their product based on their outlook for the business and customer needs. Then, as the product evolves, along with the business and customers, the product manager also evolves the roadmap to account for those changes. It is an ever-evolving and ever-changing strategy. The plan we put in place will never be the plan that we fully execute.
Product managers, like architects, business owners, and guides, wear many hats in their roles in software development. They help create the vision of a product, they own it from start to finish and the have responsibility for the team that is delivering it, and they help guide customers, users and the business all along the way.
Product manager is not an easy role to describe because it is always evolving and changing. But that is largely what draws so many people into product management — the fact that is always moving and changing.
Ultimately, a product manager coordinates the many moving pieces, ensuring that the overall experience remains cohesive and ultimately solves the right problem for the user in a way that makes sense for their business.
Our son (coming up on age 6) has always seemed to speak our daughter's language (she recently turned 4). It has been an adorable thing to watch as a father as they've grown up together.
Even when it has been pretty incoherent babble to our adult ears, our son has seemed to understand fairly well what his little sister was saying. Often my wife and I would struggle to interpret some of the
requests of our daughter as she learned to speak. As we'd focus really hard on what she was saying, we'd try and repeat back what we heard only to completely miss the mark. Nonsense things like "you want bow tie gains?" Only to have our son sigh at us exasperatedly and say, "No, she wants a bowl of Teddy Grahams." Of course, Teddy Grahams.
Recently, I got to watch as our son took this concept to the next level.
Both of our kids love to create artwork of every kind. No piece of paper or Amazon box is safe in our house as everything gets quickly claimed for either an invention or artwork.
In this case, our daughter clearly had a vision for something she wanted to create but was struggling with some of the pieces. She threw down the cardboard. “It won’t stick!” she screamed.
Our son asked her what she wanted. “I want it to stick!” she replied.
A common response in our house to this might be to use more tape, or to ask to borrow the “sticky tape”, which is the packaging tape my wife and I use for our Etsy shop packages. But in this case, he kept digging in a bit more because it wasn’t clear at that point what our daughter wanted to do. Some of her artwork is, after all, quite modern in its aesthetic and often turns out to be a giant ball of paper and tape and cardboard.
So our son asked our daughter to show him what she had in mind. “I want it to look like this,” she said as she held up one of the pieces of cardboard. “Oh,” our son replied, “kind of like a wing?”
“Yes!” was her reply. “I want it to be an airplane. And I want it to stick here and here. And I want to some more cardboard here.”
Our son was able to get to the heart of what our daughter was trying to do. It wasn’t just about taping pieces of cardboard together like what it seemed initially. Or even taping cardboard to a box. It was really about creating an airplane that they could take turns “flying” in around the kitchen.
It’s easy, especially as product teams (whether product managers or designers or developers) to jump into problems and try and solve them. Sometimes it may seem like all we may need is some stronger tape to hold the cardboard together. Or more tape in certain spots.
Those tend to be the easier or clearer solutions. Users are having problems, and we can solve them through certain new features. But if we don’t take the time to really dig into the problem, we’ll likely miss the real issue.
In one of the products I worked on in the past, there was a tendency to add lots of “tape to the cardboard”. If you are familiar with Salesforce, you may be familiar with this scenario. If you are not familiar, Salesforce is a pretty powerful client relationship management tool. We were using it to manage clients, including interactions both inbound and outbound. That included calls, emails, chats, etc. If a user called in, for example, the reason for that call was selected from a list of possible options and then these reasons could be narrowed more specifically as needed by the customer service agent on the call.
The data from Salesforce was utilized to understand problem areas within our products as well within our customer service, so it was constantly being monitored by a lot of people. And a lot of eyes on it meant a lot of people wanting to make changes. Managers would request features such as additional fields or dropdowns within their forms in order to better classify data. This may have seemed like the right option initially, but it was often missing the bigger picture. When too many changes were made, the quality of the previous data became useless. And at an even higher level, the overall hierarchy of the data wasn’t good, so continually adding more options wasn’t going to help. In fact, it was only going to exacerbate the problem and cause future problems down the road.
Fortunately, we spoke the language of our customer service team. Whenever we heard that we needed additional fields or there was a request for a “small tweak”, we knew it was time to dig into something. We needed to really get to the heart of the issue — understanding the need to appropriately group and classify data — in order to get to the right solution. This was definitely not the easy solution. It wasn’t simply adding more tape to make things stick better. Ultimately it led to reworking the architecture of Salesforce and reimplementing different parts. It took a lot more time and effort than simply adding fields. But it was the right solution and the right thing to do.
The best way to do this is to learn, over time, to speak our user’s language. For my son, this has come from a lifetime of understanding my daughter. For the rest of us, we have to really take the time to develop an understanding of our users. So that when they say “this won’t stick” we can have the ability to not only to understand the meaning behind the frustration, but to also dig into the problem in the right way in order to get to the right solution.
Years ago I worked as a consultant to small businesses seeking funding. Most of the companies and individuals I worked with were looking for business loans, but a few were also seeking equity investments primarily from angel investors.
Among other things, I helped them prep their company information for loan applications as well as their pitch decks for investors when needed. As part of this, we always created a business plan. This included information like market size, strategy, competition, etc.
But here’s the funny little secret. Very few people, especially anyone at a bank, would ever look at the business plan. I should know. Prior to working in my consultant role, I had worked at a bank in the small business loan department. I can tell you that a business plan was a required document for every applicant, but I may have been the only person there who ever looked at them, and it was mostly out of curiosity rather than necessity. No one ever read these business plans.
So if no one was ever going to read these documents, why even ask for them? I’m sure plenty of business owners would have asked the same question.
But in my time working with businesses both at a bank and as a consultant, I’d say that the single best thing they could do would be to write out, fairly extensively, their business plans. Even if no one read it.
The ability to articulate an idea, especially in long-form writing, is one of the best exercises there is. Whether it is a plan for a new company, a business case at your job, or how to lose weight successfully, writing out your ideas creates a deeper understanding and a deeper reality to them.
Writing is Thinking
One of the most popular posts I’ve written, Product Thinking vs. Project Thinking, came out of the need I had to really think through a problem.
At that point, things at my job had come to a head. Every meeting was a battle and I was feeling pretty beaten up and bruised. But I couldn’t put my finger on the problem. It felt like all sides involved were at odds and looking at the problems we were having in opposite ways.
I wanted to really get to the root of the issues. So I sat down to write. This writing was all about me thinking through the problem and trying to get to the heart of the issue. And I did. I realized that the mindset of each side was completely different. We were constantly battling because we really were looking at the problem in opposing ways.
After writing and refining this post, I finally had clarity about the issues we were facing and some ideas about how to resolve them. It was one of the biggest “aha” moments (and reliefs) I’ve had professionally.
Writing about a topic means really thinking about it. And not just superficially, because all of us can tell within a few sentences if someone is bullshitting. Hopefully you can tell that about yourself even quicker. To write something out helps to drive thinking about the topic.
I’ve continued to use writing as a way to think more deeply about topics. Even if a post or article or paragraph never gets shared, it is a way for me to think much more deeply, and drive the next phase of writing: understanding.
Writing is Understanding
If you can’t concisely and clearly write about a topic, you don’t understand it.
A long while ago I embraced the idea of writing at work. It is one thing to have a nice presentation that you can speak to, it is another thing to write out a proposal or business case in a way that clearly articulates the value and reasoning.
Jeff Bezos has popularized this idea and it is core to Amazon’s culture now. PowerPoint presentations were long ago banned, and all meetings are accompanied by 6-page memos.
I’ve worked with several former Amazon executives, and I can attest to how ingrained this practice is. I can also attest to how much a fan I am.
In a previous role, I had the idea for a completely new product that would take the company into a new line of business. We had experimented with it at a tiny scale, but my idea was to go all-in and create what could potentially become the largest business in the industry for this particular segment. It was a big ask and a big commitment.
As part of my pitch, I created a “future press release” as well as a 6-page document outlining the details of the proposal and opportunity. It was a massive undertaking because I came to realize that I didn’t fully understand the existing market as well as I had thought. As I wrote about the current state and competitors, I quickly saw that I needed to dive deeper and get a much better understanding.
Fortunately the research I did and the document I prepared opened the door for all of this. I presented everything to our company’s executive team. We reviewed my document (by reading it all together in a meeting, Amazon style), and then had a very good discussion. Not only was the executive team open to the opportunity, but it spurred the creation of a new process and team to help with analysis of these opportunities so that we could more easily pursue them in the future.
The future press release — where you think about how you will announce your new initiative or feature when it is launched — is a great tool to ensure you understand what you’re doing and why. Marty Cagan, in his book Inspired, also proposes a future customer letter as another option. Both are great. The key is to look into the future and write about it.
Another great tool for writing in order to understand is what I call a “Feynman Notebook” where I take random topics and write about them. The idea for this comes from Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, who was a master at taking very complex ideas and explaining them in a way that anyone could understand. In my Feynman notebook, I simply take a topic that I want to learn more about and start to make notes. I then work to explain and clarify it until it is at the point that I think I could successfully explain it to one of my kids. It is a difficult yet exciting exercise. And an early work in progress for me.
By writing things out, whether business cases or press releases or notes about quantum mechanics, we can truly start to understand the topic as well as the reason it matters.
Writing is Teaching/Sharing
One of the great things about writing is how easily it can be shared with others. And by sharing your writing, you can share your learning and help others understand new topics or think about things in a different way.
Sharing My Fitness Experience
I’m not a fitness fanatic by any stretch. But I’ve been very successful over the past while at getting into much better shape than I have been in the past decade. Because of that, I wanted to share some of my experience. In particular, there was someone close to me that wanted to understand what I did to reach some of my goals.
So I wrote it all down and shared it here.
Frankly, it was far more personal of a post than I usually do. I don’t like talking about that sort of thing. But I had found success, at least what worked for me, and it felt like I should share that in case anyone else might find it useful. Part of going through the writing process, as described above, was for me to actually understand what I did as well. I’ve tried a lot of things, so writing about it ensured that I could actually articulate and understand what it was that I did and how I did it. Then I could share and teach someone else.
Writing can also be an excellent way to achieve shared understanding when done correctly.
As I’ve written out various articles and posts, I’ve had the chance to share them with others. The great thing about clarifying my thoughts in writing is that it then allows others to see them much more clearly as well. So when I’ve shared a post, other people can really get a good picture of what I mean.
That helps in creating shared understanding. Because people who’ve read my writing have then been able to give their feedback, both in writing and in conversation, that has been much deeper than we may have otherwise gotten too.
For example, as I’ve shared some of these posts with my wife, we’ve often had the conversation where she says something like “I understand what you’re saying about XYZ, but have you considered ABC? I tend to like ABC because it has worked for me in this other context.” She understands where I’m coming from because I’ve articulated it, and then I can better understand her perspective without getting defensive or jumping to incorrect conclusions. Shared understanding.
This is part of the reason why using documents in meetings can be so powerful. Not only does the writing have to be thorough and well thought out, but it allows everyone to get to a shared understanding and then have meaningful conversations quicker than may have otherwise been possible.
I have long had a love of writing. But you don’t need to be passionate about writing in order to reap the benefits. Whether it is simply an idea you need to flesh out or a story you want to remember, writing it down will help you not only clarify your own thoughts and ensure that you understand it, but will allow you to share it with others when the time comes. So pick your favorite way of writing, whether a pen and paper or a computer, and start writing out your ideas and stories. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you’ll clarify your own thinking and help others as well.
In February 2013, Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo, decided to put an end to remote work at the company. In the memo, the company stated “to become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.” All Yahoo employees were expected to give up any remote working arrangements and get back into the office.
I had a similar experience several years ago at a company I worked for when a new executive came on board. After a short period of time, he introduced a similar policy to the one above. We were much smaller than Yahoo at the time, but had been an extremely remote friendly organization up to that point. He described his motives as much the same (though he did let slip a few times that what he wanted was to look out of his office window and be able to see everybody in his department, for whatever that is worth).
So is it true? Do co-located teams truly perform better? Are communication and collaboration truly better when physically close?
The conventional wisdom today seems to believe that co-located is significantly better. I’ve been personally told that all the research points to that. But having experienced both poorly performing, co-located teams as well as high performing distributed teams, I wanted to take a closer look at some of the research as well as experiences of others.
Some of the Research
There have been a number of studies that have taken a look at co-located and remote teams. While there could still be significant research done in this area (and I look forward to more of it), there has been quite a bit written and there are some key points we can glean from these studies.
How organizations support distributed project teams: Key dimensions and their impact on decision making and teamwork effectiveness
In this study, the researchers looked at how organizational support impacts project teams both in the decision-making process and the overall effectiveness. Ultimately, it found three key contributors to success:
While the primary focus of this study is on the agility of distributed teams, and the difficulties presented by remote work, it also has some key takeaways for the success of distributed teams that I found helpful.
This study took a look at leadership in partially distributed teams, analyzing the different dimensions of distance such as geographic, cultural, and temporal.
The key conclusion was that leaders must assist the team in bridging the distances. It took a different kind of leadership to make this happen on the teams, and ultimately took effort from leaders and team members to be effective.
Supporting the development of shared understanding in distributed design teams
Shared understanding is a key measure of communication effectiveness, especially on distributed teams. Reaching and maintaining shared understanding is critical, both perceived shared understanding as well as actual shared understanding.
For teams to reach this level of communication and effectiveness, they need appropriate training and support. The tools that teams have access to are also very important in their ability to communicate, work on tasks, and reach a shared understanding.
This study also highlights the difference between homogenous and heterogeneous teams, noting that more diverse teams (diverse in background, experience, location, culture, etc.) will require more support initially.
Project Risk Differences Between Virtual and Co-Located Teams
It shouldn’t be taken for granted that there are different risks in creating and managing virtual teams as opposed to co-located teams. This study looked at 55 project risk factors that other studies have identified as important to project success.
Of the 55, seven were identified as greater risks for virtual teams as opposed to co-located teams. These included insufficient knowledge transfer, lack of project team cohesion, cultural or language differences, inadequate technical resources, inexperience with the company and its processes, loss of key resources, and hidden agendas.
Effects of team member psychological proximity on teamwork performance
Some studies have claimed that as team-member physical proximity increases, the frequency and quality of communication increases, resulting in better team performance. More recent studies have found that there is no effect of team-member proximity on team performance. The missing factor may actually be the idea of psychological proximity, which takes into account all the aspects of proximity for a team.
This study analyzed the psychological proximity factors (spatial, temporal and social) and their impact on teamwork quality factors (communication, collaboration, coordination, and cohesion). Ultimately, reducing social distance helped overcome spatial and temporal distance, and was the most important factor in team quality. Social ties are incredibly important among team members. The spatial distance can be overcome with the right tools and coordination, especially when supported by the broader organization. And some sort of synchronous interaction is needed for overcoming both social and temporal distance.
Most studies I reviewed showed that there are hurdles to remote/distributed teams. But these challenges can be overcome with certain adjustments. We’ll take a closer look at some of those below in addition to a few examples from other teams.
Some Team Experiences
I personally have had the opportunity to work on successful satellite teams as well as high-performing distributed teams. The success of these teams wasn’t by chance.
At one company, I worked for several years with a highly functional, and highly distributed, development team. Our lead developer was remote as well as our UX designer. Two other team members were primarily remote, and everyone else on the team was partially remote on any given day. As the product manager, I shifted my mindset from an “in-office” focus to a remote focus. Even being in the office, we utilized the tools for effective collaboration across the entire group. It gave everyone the chance to either be present physically or dial in, whether from their desk down the hall or from their office across the country.
This type of mindset was across the team. We often took time to call other team members regularly, even just to chat. This mirrored the kind of discussions that often happen sitting together. Our developers pair-programmed on the phone and shared screens regularly. Our UX designer and I regularly brainstormed and prototyped over video calls.
Our team was intentional in our effort. We had to be, given our distributed group and the fact that we were working on the single most important product for the company. We made it work and were incredibly successful in developing and launching a brand new product (more on that in another post). We hadn’t read any of the studies above, but seemed to understand intuitively or from previous experience that we needed to put in the effort to bridge the gaps and create a cohesive, effective team.
By the end of my time with that specific team, we had successfully launched our new application to over 100,000 students, saving the company millions of dollars and setting the stage for significant growth thereafter.
I’ve been interested in companies that either have remote teams, are fully remote from the start, or have transitioned to being remote. InVision is a prime example of a company that built remote work into their ethos from the beginning, and then transitioned to being fully distributed as they grew.
If you’re not familiar with InVision, it is a prototyping and design tool widely used across the technology industry. I’ve been using InVision personally for many years. Since it was founded in 2011, InVision has grown to over 1,000 employees and is used by over 5 million people at thousands of companies worldwide.
The benefits of being completely remote have been significant according to the founder, Clark Valberg, and CPO, Mark Frein. These benefits have included the ability to hire without geographical restrictions, saving millions by not having office space, and building a better product.
InVision has been incredibly successful, and has done it with a completely remote workforce.
Automattic is the company behind Wordpress, a popular content management system and site builder that is behind many websites on the internet. And it is a fully remote organization. While it also didn’t start out that way, it moved to being fully remote when it realized that it could better empower its employees by allowing them to work when and where they wanted, and after deciding that too few employees were showing up to the office anyway. Automattic now has hundreds of employees across more than 60 countries.
As described in this HBR article, there are numerous lessons from Automattic, as well as some very compelling reasons why remote work has worked so well for them. One of the keys is creativity. Creativity thrives online, and allowing people to find the best way to work allows them to be far more creative than they might be otherwise. That means allowing employees to work when they are most productive, and from wherever they are most productive. Additionally, being distributed allows Automattic to hire the very best people regardless of location (a common theme among the companies I looked at who favor remote work).
Automattic has been very intentional in developing its culture, and it ensures there is ample communication on teams by hiring right, providing good onboarding and tools, and then bringing people together periodically. Those steps have allowed Automattic to thrive as a remote organization, as evidenced by its growth and continued popularity of its products.
Zapier has been a remote company since its founding in 2011. It has literally written a book about the subject as well. For those unfamiliar with the company, it allows a user to easily connect apps together to automate processes or accomplish any number of tasks. It essentially allows non-developers to accomplish development tasks that wouldn’t have been achievable before.
Many of the lessons described so far are the ones that Zapier offers as well, as described in an interview with the CEO. The key benefits of remote work for the company have been in attracting and retaining talent, and in overall employee satisfaction.
No discussion of distributed organizations would be complete without discussing Basecamp. Its founders have long been proponents of remote work, and they have also literally written the book about working remotely.
Basecamp was founded in 1999, and has had a longstanding remote-friendly environment. Though the company has stayed intentionally small, it’s longevity and growth is a testament to its values.
The keys to success at Basecamp revolve around the idea of allowing employees to do deep work — limiting synchronous communication, interruptions, and meetings — and allowing employees to do their best work, however and wherever they do that.
Basecamp’s style is significantly different than many other companies. It may even seem radical. But the general principles are similar to other remote companies and they’ve clearly found success in what they’re doing.
Key Factors to Success
So what can we take away from this? How can we make our teams successful and high-performing?
In order to be successful, forming and maintaining a remote or distributed team needs to be intentional, as some of the keys to success are different than co-located teams. While either structure (co-located or distributed) can be effective, both types of teams need to be designed and led with intention.
When managed correctly, distributed teams perform just as well as their co-located counterparts. But therein lies the rub: you can’t simply put any team together and hope for success.
It would seem that co-located teams may generally perform better because they take the path of less-resistance. There is more room for mistakes when everyone is together in an office. You may not need as strong leadership or as many tools to make co-located teams effective. The effort to communicate can be smaller and the amount of time to bridge some of the distance can potentially be shortened. That’s perfectly fine. But let’s stop claiming that one outperforms the other.
With intentional leadership and design, we can create high performing distributed teams. As we’ve seen from the research and the examples above, the limiting factors to remote work are often in the effort put in rather than inherent in the nature of the team.
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Cash, P., Dekoninck, E. & Ahmed-Kristensen, S. (2017). Supporting the development of shared understanding in distributed design teams. Journal of Engineering Design. 28(3), 147–170
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Drouin, N. (2013). How organizations support distributed project teams: Key dimensions and their impact on decision making and teamwork effectiveness. The Journal of Management Development. 32(8), 865–885
Ocker, R., Huang, H., Benbunan-Fich, R., Hiltz, S. (2009). Leadership Dynamics in Partially Distributed Teams: An Exploratory Study of the Effects of Configuration and Distance. Group Decision and Negotiation. 20(3), 273–292
Reed, A. & Knight, L. (2010). Project Risk Differences Between Virtual and Co-Located Teams. The Journal of Computer Information Systems. 51(1), 19–30
Sarker, S. & Sarker, S. (2009). Exploring Agility in Distributed Information Systems Development Teams: An Interpretive Study in an Offshoring Context. Information Systems Research. 20(3), 440–461
My personal musings on a variety of topics.