Book review: The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhuo

“The Making of a Manager” is the first book by Julie Zhuo, VP of Product Design at Facebook. In “The Making of a Manager”, Julie shares her experiences and learnings with regard to her transition from being a personal contributor to becoming a manager. “This is a book about how someone with no formal training learned to become a confident manager” is the starting point for Julie’s book.

When she started her first role as a manager at Facebook, Julie had very little experience under her belt and she describes what she thought a manager’s job was:

  • have meetings with reports to help them solve their problems,
  • share feedback about what is or isn’t going well, and
  • figure out who should be promoted and who should be fired.

Without wanting to spoil the rest of “The Making of a Manager”, this is how Julie sees a manager’s job today:

  • build a team that works well together,
  • support members in reaching their career goals, and
  • create processes to get work done smoothly and efficiently.

Julie summarises that “Your job, as a manager, is to get better outcomes from a group of people working together.” She puts a great focus on outcomes and refers to her former manager Chris Cox, ex VP of Product at Facebook, who explained that half of what he as a manager looks at were his team’s results and the other half was based on the strength and satisfaction of his team.

I liked Julie’s inclusion of Richard J. Hackman’s research into what helps create successful teams (see Fig. 1 below). She uses a similar approach to managers creating the right conditions for their teams:

  • Purpose – The purpose is the outcome your team is trying to accomplish, otherwise known as the why. The first big part of your job as a manager, Julie writes, is to ensure that your team knows what success looks like and cares about achieving it.
  • People – This is all about the who. Are the members of your team set up to succeed? Do they have the right skills? Are they motivated to do great work? To manage people well, Julie explains, you must develop trusting relationships with them, understand their strengths and weaknesses (as well as your own – see below), make good decisions about who should do what (including hiring and firing when necessary), and coach individuals to do their best.
  • Process – This describes how your team works together. Julie clarifies that process in her mind isn’t about stacks of paperwork and frameworks for everything, but enabling teams to make decisions and work together effectively: “In a team setting, it’s impossible for a group of people to coordinate what needs to get done without spending time on it. The larger the team, the more time is needed.”

Staying on the topic of defining management, Julie provides a useful distinction between leadership and management. Manager is a specific role, with clear principles outlining what a manager does and how his success is measured. Leadership, on the other hand, is the particular skill of being able to guide and influence other people. Julie makes the point that a leader doesn’t have to be a manager; “Anyone can exhibit leadership, regardless of their role.”

In “The Making of a Manager”, Julie covers a lot of different facets of becoming and being a manager. From recounts her first couple of months as a manager to breaking down her views on strong management, Julie offers a ton of insights and tips for those of us who are managers or would like to take on this role. Let’s pick some aspects that resonated with me most:

  • Trust is the most important ingredient – It may sound obvious, but the importance of investing time and effort into creating / maintaining trusting relationships can get easily overlooked. Julie mentions that the hallmark of a trusting relationship is that people feel they can share their mistakes, challenges, and fears with you.
  • Giving and receiving critical feedback – Similar to Kim Scott and Amy Edmondson, Julie talks about how managers and their direct reports need to be able to give each other critical feedback regularly without it being taken personally. If your report does work that you don’t think is great, are you comfortable saying that directly? Similarly, would your report tell you if you if he thinks you’ve made a mistake?
  • Be honest and transparent about your report’s performance – As a manager, your perspective on how your report is doing carries far more weight than his perspective on how you’re doing. After all, you’re the one who determines what he works on and whether he should get a promotion or be fired.
  • Admit your own mistakes and growth areas – Julie shares how she tries to admit when she doesn’t have the answers or when she’s working through her own personal challenges, and shares a number of useful phrases that she’ll typically use when doing so (see Fig. 2 below).
  • Managing yourself – Here, Julie talks about the so-called imposter syndrome, i.e. where you doubt your accomplishments and worry being exposed as a “fraud”.  She raises the question why imposter syndrome hits managers particularly hard and gives two main reasons. Firstly, because managers are often looked to for answers. Secondly, managers are constantly put in the position where they’re put in the position if doing things they haven’t done before. She also talks about managers identifying their own strengths and weaknesses, and “being brutally honest with yourself”.
  • Amazing meetings – I liked Julie’s points about meetings, the bane of most managers’ lives. She distinguishes between decision-making meetings and informational meetings and explains how being clear about the meeting objective (and structuring the meeting accordingly) can lead to much more effective and enjoyable meetings (see Fig. 3 below).

Fig. 1 – Richard J. Hackman, Hackman’s 5 Factor Model:

Being a Real Team – One with clear boundaries and stable membership.

Compelling Direction – Provide the team with clear goals, which are both challenging and consequential.

Enabling Structure – Where possible, offering the team variety in the tasks they undertake improves the team’s success. Within the team’s structure it’s also key to ensure that team members have strong social skills.

Supportive Context – A supportive context is essential for companies and organisations, as they are made up of small groups which when combined form a larger group.

Expert Coaching – This is about coaching and mentoring the team to help achieve the outcomes they need to achieve and support team members developing their individual skills.

 

Fig. 2 – Julie Zhou, The Making of a Manager: Sample things to say when you don’t have the answer or are working through personal challenges:

  • “I don’t know the answer. What do you think?”
  • “I want to come clean and apologise for what I did/said the other day …”
  • “One of my personal growth areas this half is …”
  • “I’m afraid I don’t know enough to help you with that problem. Here’s someone you should talk to instead …”

 

Fig. 3 – Julie Zhou, The Making of a Manager: Decision-Making Meetings and Informational Meetings:

A great decision-making meeting does the following:

  • Gets a decision made (obviously)
  • Includes the people most directly affected by the decision as well as a clearly designated decision-maker.
  • Presents all credible options objectively and with relevant background information, and includes the team’s recommendation if there’s one.
  • Gives equal airtime to dissenting opinions and makes people feel that they were heard.

A great informational meeting does the following:

  • Enables the group to feel like they learned something valuable.
  • Conveys key messages clearly and memorably.
  • Keeps the audience’s attention (through dynamic speakers, rich storytelling, skilled pacing, interactivity).
  • Evokes and intended emotion – whether inspiration, trust, pride, courage, empathy, etc.

Main learning point: “The Making of a Manager” provides an honest, no bullsh*t account of what it means to be manager and how to best transition into a managerial role. Definitely worth a read if you’re manager or looking to become one.

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://www.juliezhuo.com/
  2. https://medium.com/the-year-of-the-looking-glass
  3. https://hbr.org/2009/05/why-teams-dont-work
  4. https://marcabraham.com/2018/03/12/book-review-the-no-asshole-rule/
  5. http://www.free-management-ebooks.com/faqld/development-03.htm
  6. https://www.cnbc.com/2017/01/30/sallie-krawcheck-says-a-lack-of-diversity-leads-to-bad-decision-making.html
  7. https://marcabraham.com/2019/01/27/my-product-management-toolkit-35-effective-one-on-one-meetings/
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQUxL4Jm1Lo
  9. https://hbr.org/product/becoming-a-manager-how-new-managers-master-the-challenges-of-leadership/1822-PBK-ENG
  10. https://www.tmbc.com/
  11. https://strengthsprofile.com/

 

Book review: “High Output Management” by Andrew Grove

“High Output Management” by the late Andrew Grove, ex Chairman and CEO of Intel, is a must read management book in my opinion. It’s easy to be quite cynical about most management and business books as a lot of them seem to introduce one central theme (or buzzword) right at the beginning of the book, followed by endless repetition throughout the remainder of the book …

 

 

In contrast, “High Output Management” contains valuable advice and tips from the beginning right to the end of the book. First published back in 1983, the book applies production principles to management. Some of these principles really resonated with me and I feel strongly about all (product) managers benefiting from these principles as part of their day-to-day working practices:

Identifying the “limiting step” – Grove defines the “limiting step” as the step in the overall shape of the production flow that will determine the overall shape of a company’s operations. In the book, Grove uses the simple example of a breakfast company, and highlights the time required to boil an egg is the critical component or the ‘limiting step’ in the production flow (see Fig. 1 below). The key idea here is to construct your production flow by starting with the longest (or most difficult, or most sensitive, or most expensive) step and work our way back. As a (product) manager you’ll thus focus on the limiting step within your context, e.g. in the workflow of your team, the customer funnel or the decision-making process.

 

Fig. 1 – Example of a limiting step when creating a breakfast – Taken from: http://clarkeching.com/ccblog/2018/1/21/what-are-bottlenecks-andy-grove

 

Detect and fix issues at the “lowest-value stage” possible – If there’s a problem with your product, you want to find out about it as early on in the production process as possible so that you can minimise risk. In the production world, I witnessed lowest-value stage thinking first hand at the assembly line of a Toyota factory. Here, employees can pull the   “Andon” cord to (temporarily) bring things to a halt as soon as they come across an issue. It’s an easy way of escalating things, making sure that a problem or bottleneck is dealt with before proceeding with the rest of the assembly process. Think about when you last pulled an imaginary Andon cord to flag a product or team issue early!?

 

Fig. 2 Using the Andon cord to raise an issue and stop production – Taken from: https://www.lean.org/lexicon/fixed-position-stop-system

 

 

Using (leading) indicators to measure and predict – In order to run a production process well you’ll need a set of indicators which help you monitor and improve the efficiency of the production line. Grove stresses that for these indicators to be useful, “you have to focus each indicator on a specific operational goal.” He goes on to list a number of relevant production indicators (see Fig. 3 below). Leading indicators give you one way to look inside the production process by showing you in advance what the future might look like.

 

Fig. 3 – Indicators related to the production process – Taken from: Andrew S. Grove, “High Output Management”, p. 16:

  • Sales forecast
  • Raw material inventory
  • Manpower
  • Quality

 

Leverage – Grove introduces the concept of “leverage”.  This is the output generated by a specific type of work activity. An activity with high leverage will generate a high level of output; an activity with low leverage, a low level of output. This raises the question about what qualifies as managerial leverage and output. Grove’s distinction between activities and output really helps to bring the concept of leverage to life (see Fig. 4 below). The overarching idea is that with each activity that the manager performs, the organisational output should increase.

 

Fig. 4 – Managerial activities vs output – Taken from: Andrew S. Grove, “High Output Management”, pp. 39 – 54:

Managerial activities:

  • Judgments and opinions
  • Direction
  • Allocation of resources
  • Mistakes detected
  • Personnel trained and subordinates developed
  • Courses taught
  • Products planned
  • Commitments negotiated

Managerial output:

A manager’s output is the output of all of the people and the teams that report into her. For example, if someone manages a design team, then his output consists of completed designs that are ready to be implemented.  That output can take many different forms depending on the type of role and industry. Regardless of the form of output, managers must measure its quantity and quality:

A manager’s output = The output of his organisation + The output of the neighbouring organisations under his influence

 

High leverage activities – We’ve already touched on the impact of highly leveraged activities on an organisation’s output, and Grove explains how these activities can be achieved (see Fig. 5 below). For example, to maximise the leverage of his or her activities, a manager must keep timeliness firmly in mind. Equally, managers micro-managing or ‘meddling’ are examples of negative leverage activities. A big part of a manager’s work is to supply information and know-how, and to share a sense of the preferred method of handling things to the teams under his control or influence. A manager also makes and helps to make decisions.

 

Fig. 5 – Three ways in which to achieve high leverage activities – Taken from: Andrew S. Grove, “High Output Management”, pp. 54 – 55:

  • When many people are affected by one manager.
  • When a person’s activity or behaviour over a long period of time is affected by a manager’s, well focused-set of words or actions.
  • When a large group’s work is affected by an individual supplying a unique, key piece of knowledge or information.

 

Applying production principles to management – In the book, Grove rightly points out how time management techniques are commonly used to improve managerial output. He then uses production principles to improve on some of these time management techniques (see Fig. 6 below).

 

Fig. 6 – Ways to improve on time management techniques – Taken from: Andrew S. Grove, “High Output Management”, pp. 62 – 63:

  • Identify our limiting step: determine which things that have to happen on a schedule that’s absolute, and which can’t be moved. You can then plan more flexible activities around it and thus work more efficiently.
  • Batching similar tasks: group similar activities, e.g. performance reviews, as these activities tend to require (mental) set-up time. You can thus maximise the set-up time needed for the task and reduce duplication of effort.
  • Forecasting your activities: Your calendar can be a valuable production-planning tool (and not a dumping ground for random meetings or “orders” by others). If you want to use your calendar as better forecasting and planning tools, Grove suggest that two conditions should be met. Firstly, you should move toward the active use of your calendar, taking the initiative to fill the holes between the time-critical events with non-time critical though necessary activities. Secondly, you should say “no” at the outset to work beyond your capacity to handle.

 

Meetings, the output of managerial work – A lot of managerial tasks (see “High leverage activities” above) are best suited for face-to-face interactions, and more often than not, for meetings. Grove provides a useful distinction between two basic kinds of meetings: process-oriented and mission-oriented meetings (see Fig. 7 below). I love how at the end of the book’s chapter about meetings, Grove reminds us of a quote by the late management guru Peter Drucker who said that “If people spend more than 25 percent of their time in meetings, it’s a sign of malorganisation.”

 

Fig. 7 – Process-oriented and mission-oriented meetings – Taken from: Andrew S. Grove, “High Output Management”, pp. 72 – 87:

  • Process-oriented meetings: Knowledge is shared and information is exchanged during process-oriented meetings, which take place on a regular, scheduled basis. One-on-ones and team meetings are good examples of process-oriented meetings.
  • Mission-oriented meetings: The purpose of mission-oriented meetings is to solve a specific problem and often produce a decision. These meetings are ad hoc affairs, not scheduled long in advance, because they usually can’t be. The key to the success of a mission-oriented meeting is what the chair of the meeting does. The person leading the meeting needs to have a clear understanding of the meeting’s objective – what needs to happen and what decision needs to be made.

 

 

Planning: today’s actions for tomorrow’s output – In High Output Management, Grove offers three simple steps of a  planning process (see Fig. 8 below). He describes planning as an ordinary everyday activity, something we all do – both in our professional and personal lives. The planning process enables you to reflect on what’s needed, the gap with the current situation and the specific actions necessary to close the gap.

 

Fig. 8 – Three steps your planning process should consist of – Taken from: Andrew S. Grove, “High Output Management”, pp. 103 – 120:

Step 1 – Establish projected need or demand: What will the environment demand from you, your business, or your organisation?

Step 2 – Established your present status: What are you producing now? What will you be producing as your projects in the pipeline are completed? 

Step 3 – Compare and reconcile steps 1 and 2: What more (or less) do you need to do to produce what your environment will demand?

 

Main learning point: “High Output Management” is probably one of the most valuable management books I’ve read in the last couple of years. If you’re looking for an inspiring but practical book about management, I suggest you look no further: High Output Management is the book for you!

Book review: “The Fearless Organization” by Amy C. Edmondson

Before you read this review of “The Fearless Organization” by Amy Edmondson, I’d encourage you to watch Amy’s Tedx Talk in which she talks about how to build psychological safety. Edmondson is a management professor at Harvard Business School and has done a tremendous amount of work in the area of psychological safety.  In her Tedx Talk, she describes psychological  safety as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” I believe that psychological safety is a critical yet often overlooked concept, and one which underpins Edmondson’s latest book, The Fearless Organization – Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.

 

 

These are the things that I took away from reading The Fearless Organization:

  1. Starting with “Personal and Organizational Change through Group Methods” – The aforementioned concept of psychological safety dates back to a 1965 book titled “Personal and Organizational Change through Group Methods” by Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis, which addresses the need for psychological safety for to help people cope with the uncertainty and anxiety of organizational change. Schein later noted that psychological safety was vital for helping people overcoming the defensiveness and “learning anxiety” they face at work, especially when something doesn’t go as they’d hoped or expected.
  2. Psychological safety isn’t a personality trait or difference – Based on her extensive research, Edmondson observes that psychological safety “is not a personality difference but rather a feature of the workplace that leaders can and must help create.” This observation made me think about the conditions that leaders can and must ‘enable’ to create a culture of psychological safety within the organisation, establishing a climate that supports learning. Edmondson mentions a number of other things which psychological safety is not, and which I’ve captured in Fig. 1 below.
  3. Measuring psychological safety – Perhaps you think of psychological safety as quite a fluffy idea, but it can actually be measured. I like the seven survey items which Edmondson introduced in her original research dissertation and which I’ve included in Fig. 3 below. She uses a seven-point Liker scale to obtain responses (from strongly agree to strongly disagree), and three out of seven items are expressed positively. Agreement with these items indicates greater psychological safety, whilst those items items expressed negatively (highlighted with an “R” for reverse), such that disagreement is consistent with higher psychological safety.
  4. Adopting an agile approach to strategy – I loved Edmondson’s point about viewing a company strategy as a hypothesis, to be tested continuously, rather than a plan. This perspective ties in with Edmondson’s broader theme around organisational learning. She argues that organisational learning – championed by company leaders but enacted by everyone – requires actively seeking deviations that challenge the assumptions underpinning a current strategy.
  5. Set the stage for psychological safety – In the book, Edmondson offers some useful tips with respect to ‘facilitating’ psychological safety, sharing a valuable toolkit (see Fig. 4 below).
  6. Proactive inquiry – Being able to say that you don’t know and driving participation through inquiry are two strong tenets of psychological safety. Edmondson shares some rules of thumb for asking a good question: one, you don’t know the answer; two, you ask questions that don’t limit responses to Yes or No, and three, you phrase the question in a way that helps others share their thinking in a focused way (see also Fig. 5 below).

Main learning point: In “The Fearless Organization”, Edmondson has written a valuable book about psychological safety. Even if you’re unable to create a truly fearless organisation anytime soon, Edmondson offers a number of valuable starting points with respect to critical aspects such as questioning, conflict and speaking up.

 

Fig. 1 – What Psychological Safety Is Not – Taken from: Amy Edmondson, The Fearless Organisation, pp. 15-19

  • Psychological safety isn’t about being nice – Working in a psychologically safe environment doesn’t mean that people always agree with one another for the sake of being nice. It also doesn’t mean that people offer unequivocal praise or unconditional support for everything you have to say. Psychological safety is about candour, about making it possible for productive disagreement and free exchange of ideas. Conflict inevitably arises in any workplace. Psychological safety enables people on different sides of a conflict to speak candidly about what’s bothering them.
  • Psychological safety isn’t a personality factor – Some have interpreted psychological safety as a synonym for extroversion. They might have previously concluded that people don’t speak up at work because they’re shy or lack confidence, or simply keep to themselves. Psychological safety, however, refers to the work climate, and climate affects people with different personality traits in roughly similar ways. In a psychologically safe climate, people will offer ideas and voice their concerns regardless of whether they tend to toward introversion or extroversion.
  • Psychological safety isn’t just another word for trust – Although trust and psychological safety have much in common, they aren’t interchangeable concepts. A key difference is that psychological safety is experienced at a group level. Further, psychological safety describes a temporally immediate experience.
  • Psychological safety isn’t about lowering performance standards – Psychological safety is not an “anything goes” environment where people aren’t expected to adhere to high standards or meet deadlines. It isn’t about becoming “comfortable” at work (see Fig. 2 below). Psychological safety enables candour and openness and, as such, thrives in an environment of mutual respect.

 

Fig. 2 – How psychological safety relates to performance standards – Taken from: Amy Edmondson, The Competitive Imperative of Learning, https://hbr.org/2008/07/the-competitive-imperative-of-learning

 

 

Fig. 3 – A survey measure of psychological safety – Taken from: Amy Edmondson, The Fearless Organisation, p. 20

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you. (R)
  2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different. (R)
  4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help. (R)
  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.

 

Fig. 4 – The leader’s tool kit for building psychological safety – Taken from: Amy Edmondson, The Fearless Organisation, p. 159 

Setting the stage:

Leadership tasks:

  • Frame the work – Set expectations about failure, and interdependence to clarify the need for voice
  • Emphasise the purpose – Identify what’s at stake, why it matters, and for whom

Accomplishes:

  • Shared expectations and meaning

Inviting participation:

Leadership tasks:

  • Demonstrate situational humility – Acknowledge gaps
  • Practice inquiry – Ask good questions and model intense listening
  • Set up structures and processes – Create forums for input and provide guidelines for discussion

Accomplishes:

  • Confidence that voice is welcome

Responding productively

Leadership tasks:

  • Express appreciation – Listen, acknowledge and thank
  • Destigmatise failure – Look forward, offer help. Discuss, consider and brainstorm next steps
  • Sanction clear violations

Accomplishes:

  • Orientation toward continuous learning

 

Fig. 5 – Attributes of a powerful question – Taken from: Amy Edmondson, The Fearless Organisation, p. 171

  • Generates curiosity in the listener
  • Stimulates reflective conversation
  • Is thought-provoking
  • Surfaces underlying assumptions
  • Invites creativity and new possibilities
  • Generates energy and forward movement
  • Channels attention and focuses inquiry
  • Stays with participants
  • Touches a deep meaning
  • Evokes more questions

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.businessinsider.com/amy-edmondson-on-psychological-safety-2015-11
  2. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00207284.1967.11642993
  3. https://hbr.org/2008/07/the-competitive-imperative-of-learning
  4. https://marcabraham.com/2017/08/17/book-review-radical-candor/
  5. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/matt-tenney/be-a-dont-knower-one-of-e_b_7242468.html
  6. https://hbr.org/2014/07/the-fukushima-meltdown-that-didnt-happen
  7. https://www.mindtheproduct.com/2018/05/how-to-improve-your-teams-conflict-competence-by-julia-whitney/
  8. https://marcabraham.com/2018/03/12/book-review-the-no-asshole-rule/

Book review: “The Messy Middle” by Scott Belsky

 

I’m sure a lot of us have common misconceptions about successful entrepreneurs and their companies. It’s easy to look at people who’ve ‘made it’ and think that their journey has been all plain sailing. Scott Belsky is such an entrepreneur, having founded Behance, a platform for creative professionals to show off their work, which eventually got acquired by Adobe. In “The Messy Middle”, Belsky eradicates any illusions about the process of creating – whether it’s a business or a product – being painless. He writes about the different stages of a startup lifecycle: the start, the middle and the finish. Belsky makes the point that “it’s not about the start and finish, it’s about the journey in between.”

 

Fig. 1 – Scott Belsky, Navigating The Messy Middle – Taken from: https://medium.com/positiveslope/navigating-the-messy-middle-7ca6fff11966

 

At the start, there’s “pure joy” to begin with. That is before reality kicks in and things hit bottom. Belsky describes the finish as “final mile of journey and the recovery time between one project and the next”, the point where you can allow yourself to take a break and make a change. I, however, specifically bought the book because I was intrigued to read Belsky’s thoughts about the ‘messy middle’. Belsky writes about this period, as a collection of peaks – ‘optimising’ – and valleys – ‘enduring’. It’s this period which benefits from volatility. Volatility being positioned as a good thing might sound counterintuitive to some, but Belsky argues that “volatility is good for velocity”:

“The faster you move, the better your chances of learning and momentum to soar above the competition.”

Scott Belsky, The Messy Middle

 

To achieve this level of velocity, Belsky encourages conducting experiments, and lots of them. Running these experiments means that you’ll be both enduring the lows and optimising everything that works. In “The Messy Middle”, Belsky shares a ton of lessons learned and tips, particularly in relation to those stages of your company or product that are dominated by enduring and optimising. Allow me to give you a quick shopping list of those points by Belsky which resonated with me most:

  • Avoid validation in the form of false positives –  To objectively observe the performance of your new creation or product, put yourself in others’ shoes. Belsky refers to points made by Ben Horowitz about telling the truth in this respect (see Fig. 1 below).
  • Celebrate progress and impact – Especially at the early stages, celebrate anything you can. Whilst you should avoid ‘fake wins’, celebrating quick wins and progress milestones is important.
  • Master the art of parallel processing – This involves being able to focus on a specific problem whilst also churning through the omnipresent anxiety and uncertainty involved in building things.
  • Friction unlocks the full potential of working together – Hardship brings your teams together and equips you to endure for the long haul.
  • Do Your Fucking Job (‘DYFJ’) – Leading a team through enduring times requires many “rip off the Band-Aid” moments. Nobody wants to inflict pain on their team, but quick and controlled pain is better than a drawn out infection. This also implies checking your ego at the door, instead concentrating on what needs to be done.
  • Self awareness as the only sustainable competitive advantage in business – Your sense of self is likely to shift when you’re at a peak or in a valley (see Fig. 2 below).
  • Break the long game down into chapters – Belsky recounts the approach by Ben Silbermann, CEO of Pinterest, who breaks up every period of his company into chapters, each with a beginning, goal, reflection period, and reward. Chapters help break down the long timescale it takes to build something extraordinary. I like to think of them as strategic milestones, each time getting one step closer to achieving the vision for the business.
  • Do the work regardless of whose work it is – Everyone has an opinion, but few are willing to do something about it – especially if it falls outside their formal job description. Belsky describes his marvel at just how quickly an idea takes hold when someone proactively does the underlying work no one else clearly owned. He goes on to talk about how hiring for people with excitement about the idea, ability to contribute right away and the potential to learn is key when assembling a team.
  • Never stop crafting the “first mile” of your product’s experience – Whether you’re building a product, creating art, or writing a book, you need to remember that your customers make sweeping judgments in their first experience interacting with your creation – especially in the first 30 seconds. Belsky call this the “first mile”, and he argues that it’s important to prime your audience to the point where they know three things: 1. Why they’re there (2) What they can accomplish and (3) What to do next.
  • Identify and prioritise efforts with disproportionate impact – Belsky shares a nice prioritisation method by Jeffrey Kalmikoff, which Jeffrey uses to help choose where to focus his energy: look at each item on the table and assign a 3 for very important tasks that would make a huge impact on strategy and revenue, a 2 for something with less significance, and a 1 for something inconsequential.
  • Stress-test your opinions with radical truthfulness – “Sound judgment, achieved through aggressive truth seeking, is your most differentiating and deterministic trait. It’s all about being honest.” This is one of the founding principles behind Bridgewater, the leading hedge funded founded by Ray Dalio. One of the most fundamental principles driving behaviour at Bridgewater is the notion of “Know what you don’t know, and what to do about it.”

Main learning point: In “The Messy Middle”, Belsky has written a book that I expect to be coming back to over the coming years; it’s a great reminder of the realities involved in creating things and contains a lot of valuable lessons learned as well as practical tips.

 

Fig. 1 – Ben Horowitz – Three methods for assigning meaning to hard truths, taken from https://a16z.com/2017/07/27/how-to-tell-the-truth/:

  • State the facts clearly and honestly.
  • If you caused it, explain how such a bad thing could occur.
  • Explain why taking the action is essential to the larger mission and how important that mission is.

 

Fig. 2 – Self awareness, by Scott Belksy – Taken from “The Messy Middle”, pp. 54-56:

  • Self awareness starts with the realisation that when you’re at a peak or in a valley, you’re not your greatest self.
  • Self awareness means understanding your own feelings enough to recognise what bothers you.
  • Self awareness means being permeable.
  • Self awareness comes from chronicling your patterns.
  • Self awareness means dispelling your sense of superiority and the myths that people believe about you.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.themessymiddle.com/
  2. https://a16z.com/2017/07/27/how-to-tell-the-truth/
  3. https://www.adamgrant.net/
  4. https://www.mindtheproduct.com/2017/07/enter-matrix-lean-prioritisation/
  5. https://ryanholiday.net/stop-examine-reconsider/
  6. https://blackboxofpm.com/ruthless-prioritization-e4256e3520a9
  7. https://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/how-to-learn-what-you-dont-know.html
  8. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stroop_effect

Book review: “Principles” by Ray Dalio

“Principles” is the latest book by Ray Dalio – founder of Bridgewater, the world’s largest hedge fund. In this rather hefty tome of a book, Dalio offers an insight into the principles which he’s applied throughout his life and work, and his underlying reflections. He kicks off the book by explaining that “Good principles are effective ways of dealing with reality” and that “To learn my own, I spend a lot of time reflecting.”

 

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“Principles” consists of three parts. In the first part, titled “Where I’ coming from”, Dalio looks back on his career and the founding of Bridgewater. “Life Principles” is the name of the second part, and covers Dalio’s approach to life’s challenges and opportunities. Finally. part three covers Dalio’s “Work Principles”. Let me share the key things I’ve taken away from “Principles”, starting with Dalio’s Life Principles:

  • Embrace reality and deal with it – Dalio shares an important equation which in his view makes for a successful life: Dreams + Reality + Determination = A Successful Life. For the ‘reality’ component of this equation to work, Dalio encourages his readers to be radically open minded and radically transparent.
  • Pain + Reflection = Progress – Dalio’s point about “going to the pain rather than avoiding it” resonated with me (see Fig. 1 below). It’s easy to dismiss this statement because it’s coming from a highly successful investor, but I’d flip that as I can see how someone like Dalio has gone through his own share of pain to get to where’s he gotten to, and learned along the way.
  • Using the 5-step process to get what you want out of life – Start with having clear goals (step 1), followed by identifying but not tolerating the problems that stand in the way of your achieving those goals (step 2), then you accurately diagnose the problems to get at their root causes (step 3), design plans that will get you around them (step 4) and, finally, do what’s necessary to push these designs through to results (step 5). Dalio depicts this as a continuous process and people can benefit from applying this model to achieve their goals (see Fig. 2 below).
  • Understand that people are wired very differently – Dalio stresses the fact that all people are wired very differently, and zooms in on the differences between left and right brained thinking (see Fig. 3 – 4 below).

 

Fig. 1 – Going to the pain instead of avoiding it – Taken from: Ray Dalio – Principles, p. 154

  • Identifying, accepting, and learning how to deal with your weaknesses.
  • Preferring that the people around you be honest with you rather than keep their negative thoughts about you to themselves.
  • Being yourself rather than having to be strong where you are weak.

 

Fig. 2 – Ray Dalio’s 5-step process – Taken from: Ray Dalio – Principles, p. 171

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Fig. 3 – Differences between left and right brain – Taken from: https://visme.co/blog/left-brain-right-brain-marketing/

Brain1.jpg

 

Fig. 4 – Understand the differences between right-brained and left-brained thinking – Taken from: Ray Dalio – Principles, p. 223

  1. The left hemisphere reasons sequentially, analyses details, and excels at linear analysis. “Left-brained” or “linear” thinkers who are analytically strong are often called “bright.”
  2. The right hemisphere thinks across categories, recognises themes, and synthesises the big picture. “Right-brained” or “lateral” thinkers with more street smart are often called “smart.”

 

Dalio’s Work Principles are dominated by the concept of an Idea Meritocracy – i.e. a system that brings together smart, independent thinkers and has them productively disagree to come up with the best possible collective thinking and resolve their disagreements in a believability-weighted way (see Fig. 5 below). Dalio successfully implemented an Idea Meritocracy at Bridgewater and shares the components of such a system in his book:

Idea Meritocracy = Radical Truth + Radical Transparency + Believability – Weighted Decision Making

  • Radical Truth – Talking openly about our issues and have paths for working through them.
  • Radical Transparency – Giving everyone the ability to see everything. Radical transparency reduces harmful office politics and the risks of bad behaviour because bad behaviour is more likely to take place behind closed doors than out in the open.
  • Believability – Dalio defines believable people “as those who have repeatedly and successfully accomplished the thing in question – who have a strong track record with at least three successes – and have great explanations of their approach when probed.”
  • Thoughtful Disagreement – The concept of Believability is closely linked to the art of Thoughtful Disagreement; the process of having a quality back-and-forth in an openminded and assertive way to see things through each other’s eyes.
  • Weighted Decision Making – At Bridgewater, employees have different believability weightings for different qualities, like expertise in a particular subject, creativity, ability to synthesise, etc. Dalio explains that in order to have a true Idea Meritocracy one needs to understand the merit of each person’s ideas.
  • Prerequisites for an Idea Meritocracy – To have an Idea Meritocracy three conditions need to be in place. Firstly, put your honest thoughts on the table. Secondly, have thoughtful disagreement (see above). Thirdly, abide by agreed-upon ways of getting past disagreement.
  • Mistakes are part of the game – Dalio has a refreshing outlook on the role and value of mistakes, which he treats as “a natural part of the evolutionary process”. It’s important in this respect to assess whether people recognise and learn from their mistakes. Dalio distinguishes between people who make mistakes and who are self reflective and open to learning from their mistakes and those who are unable to embrace their mistakes and learn from them.
  • Get people to focus on problems and outcomes – Assign people the job of perceiving problems, give them time to investigate, and make sure they have independent reporting lines so that they can convey problems without any fear of recrimination. To perceive problems, compare how the outcomes are lining up with your goals. Dalio also offers some valuable tips on how to best diagnose problems (see Fig. 6 below).
  • Avoid the “Frog in the boiling water” syndrome – Apparently, if you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water it will jump out immediately, but if you put it in room-temperature water and gradually bring it to a boil, it will stay in the pot until it dies. If one uses this syndrome as a metaphor for professional life, it signifies people’s tendency to slowly get used to unacceptable things that would shock them if the say them with fresh eyes.
  • Don’t just pay attention to your job – Instead, pay attention to how your job will be done if you’re no longer around. Dalio talks about the ‘ninja manger’ as “somebody who can sit back and watch beauty happen-i.e. an orchestrator. If you’re always trying to hire somebody who’s as good as or better than you at your job, that will both free you up to go on to other things and build your succession pipeline.”

 

Fig. 5 – The Idea Meritocracy as is the best way to make decisions – Taken from: https://twitter.com/RayDalio/status/1066357616350253057

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Fig. 6 – Diagnose problems to get at their root causes – Taken from: Ray Dalio – Principles, p. 484 – 490

To diagnose well, ask the following questions:

  • Is the outcome good or bad?
  • Who is responsible for the outcome?
  • If the outcome is bad, is the Responsible Party incapable and / or is the design bad?

 

Main learning point: Whilst “Principles” feels a tad repetitive at times and some of Dalio’s ideas might not be easy to implement, I feel that Dalio’s principles can provide great direction for all people working in organisations, big or small.  His reflections on things such as transparency and decision-making will be valuable to anyone reading this great book.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://youtu.be/c1OoWdqbKdg
  2. https://www.ted.com/talks/ray_dalio_how_to_build_a_company_where_the_best_ideas_win
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B9XGUpQZY38
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7hNda9DVxo

 

Book review: “Autonomy”

Lawrence Burns is a veteran of the automative industry. Having worked his entire professional career in the car industry – in Detroit, the birthplace of modern car manufacturing no less – you might expect Burns to be apprehensive about ‘change’ and modern technology. The opposite couldn’t be more true of Burns, since he’s been an advocate for driverless cars for the past 15+ years, starting his foray into this field whilst at General Motors.

In his latest book, “Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car – and How It Will Reshape Our World”, Burns and cowriter Christopher Shulgan paint a picture of driverless cars dominating our streets and roads, and having a positive impact on the environment and transportation as a whole. For those sceptics out there who dismiss driverless cars as science fiction, I recommend they read “Autonomy” and take note of the technology and societal developments Burns describes:

Getting started, the DARPA Challenge and Google’s “Project Chauffeur”:

The book starts off with the story of the “DARPA Challenge” in 2004 and how this helped shaped learning and development with respect to driverless cars. Burns gives the reader a good close-up of the experiences and learnings from one of the teams that took part in this challenge. At this first DARPA challenge, every vehicle that took part crashed, failed or caught fire, highlighting the early stage of driverless technology at the time.

Image taken from: https://www.wired.com/story/darpa-grand-urban-challenge-self-driving-car/

Driverless cars are the (near) future:

Bob Lutz, former executive of Ford, Chrysler and General Motors, wrote an essay last year titled “Kiss the good times goodbye”, in which he makes a clear statement about the future of the automotive industry: “The era of the human-driven automobile, its repair facilities, its dealerships, the media surrounding it – all will be gone in 20 years.” There’s no discussion that driverless cars are coming, especially that both car and technology giants are busy developing and testing. When I attended a presentation by Burns a few months agogo, he showed the audience  examples of both self driving cars and trucks:

Image taken from: http://www.autonews.com/article/20170316/MOBILITY/170319877/bmw-says-self-driving-car-to-be-level-5-capable-by-2021

Image taken from: https://newatlas.com/volvo-vera-self-driving-truck/56312/

In “Autonomy”, Burns brings Lutz’ predictions to life through the fictitious example of little Tommy and his family. In this example, Tommy steps into a driverless which has been programmed to take him to school in the morning. Tommy’s grandma will be picked up by a driverless two-person mobility pod to take her to a bridge tournament. Burns describes a world where car ownership will be a thing of the past; people using publicly available fleets of self driving cars instead.

Image taken from: https://www.thenational.ae/business/technology/autonomous-pods-the-future-of-city-driving-1.730283

Together with Chris Borroni-Bird, Burns has done extensive research into the potential impact of an electronic self driven car, looking at metrics such as “total expense per mile”, “cost savings per mile” and “estimated number of parts”. Borroni-Bird and Burns provide some compelling stats, especially when contrasted against conventional cars. Reading these stats helps to make the impact of driverless technology a lot more tangible, turning it from science fiction or future music into a realistic prospect.

Main learning point: “Autonomy” by Lawrence is an insightful book about a driverless future, written by a true connoisseur of the car industry and the evolution of driverless technology.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://spectrum.ieee.org/cars-that-think/transportation/self-driving/auto-consultant-lawrence-burns-dishes-the-dirt-on-waymo
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-pLM-2bxNMc
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJVKY1DtZ84
  4. https://www.forbes.com/sites/greggardner/2018/08/23/an-interview-with-self-driving-visionary-larry-burns-co-author-of-autonomy/
  5. http://www.autonews.com/article/20171105/INDUSTRY_REDESIGNED/171109944/industry-redesigned-bob-lutz
  6. https://lucidmotors.com/
  7. https://electrek.co/2017/01/02/lucid-motors-autonomous-tech-all-electric-sedan-mobileye/
  8. http://www.thedrive.com/opinion/9024/who-is-really-1-in-self-driving-cars-you-wouldnt-know-it-from-navigants-controversial-report
  9. https://news.stanford.edu/2017/05/22/stanford-scholars-researchers-discuss-key-ethical-questions-self-driving-cars-present/
  10. https://www.thenational.ae/business/technology/autonomous-pods-the-future-of-city-driving-1.730283
  11. https://www.wired.com/story/darpa-grand-urban-challenge-self-driving-car/
  12. https://spectrum.ieee.org/cars-that-think/transportation/self-driving/google-has-spent-over-11-billion-on-selfdriving-tech

Book review: “Powerful”

“Radical honesty” is easier said than done. In her latest book “Powerful; Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility”, former Netflix’ Chief Talent Officer Patty McCord delivers a great plea for the importance and benefits of a culture of “radical honesty”, one of the many things McCord helped put in practice whilst at Netflix. This element of always speaking the truth is one of the tenets of the Netflix culture which McCord was instrumental in shaping and which she writes about in “Powerful”.

McCord looks back on the Netflix culture as one of freedom and responsibility, and describes Netflix’ approach to creating “the leanest processes possible” and “a strong culture of discipline.” I’m keen to unpick the main elements of Netflix’ culture and McCord’s approach to co-creating a ‘powerful’ culture:

  1. Transform organisational culture – McCord outlines where to start with transforming organisational culture: “identifying behaviours that you would like to see become consistent practices (…) then instilling the discipline of actually doing them.” This is very much an evolutionary process, consisting of lots of small steps. The book lists the core set of practices that underpinned the Netflix culture McCord co-created (see Fig. 1 below).
  2. Great teams contribute to success – McCord singles out contribution to success as the greatest motivation for the majority of people and teams. She talks about the energy teams get from meeting a challenge and states “great teams are made when things are hard.”
  3. Hire ‘high performers’ only (1) – My simple adage when recruiting is that if I’m not sure about a candidate or if I / we feel a persistent doubt about the candidate, it’s probably best to refrain from hiring that person. McCord goes one step further by saying that one should only hire high performers; people who do great work and challenge each other. This made me wonder whether this introduces a barrier to entry for less experienced or more junior hires? These people might become very good at their job and will – eventually – benefit from an environment that is both challenging as well as supportive.
  4. Hire ‘high performers’ only (2) – McCord’s point about the importance of “having a great person in every single position on the team”, and how this makes for a highly performant team, reminded me of Steve Jobs’ famous quote. “A players hire A players, but B players hire C players and C players hire D players. It doesn’t take long to get to Z players. The trickle down effect causes bozo explosions in companies.” Perhaps it’s because I don’t know the exact traits of an A player and how to best look out for them, but I struggle with the A player concept. As a result, I felt that the makeup of great teams was the least convincing aspect of McCord’s book. I wondered what McCord make of some of the thinking by Andy Rachleff, a well-known VC and founder, who argues that “when a lousy team meets a great market, the market wins.”
  5. Treat people like adults – McCord also makes the point that we should treat all employees like adults. I know this sounds obvious, but I’ve seen plenty of environments where people aren’t being treated as such. At Netflix, McCord and her colleagues got rid of a whole lot of process, and instead relied much more on people’s own good judgment. For instance, at Netflix they stopped onerous processes such as annual budget and roadmap planning. This introduces a large dose of “trust” into the mix which I believe is invaluable for any business or team.
  6. People don’t want to be entertained at work; they want to learn – McCord’s makes a point about how employees want to learn things at work; they want to solve problems and deal with challenges. Instead of employees spending a lot of time away from their jobs for off-sites or formal training classes, McCord argues, employees benefit from truly learning on the job. She also covers the importance of all employees fully understanding how the business works; this being “the rocket fuel of high performance and lifelong learning.”
  7. Radical honesty (1) – As mentioned above, “radical honesty” plays a key role in Netflix’ company culture. Whether it’s about telling the truth about the company (e.g. its challenges, problems, etc.) or to each other, it’s important that the truth is being shared at any given time. For example, McCord encourages people to be fully transparent about their decisions and where they went wrong.
  8. Radical honesty (2) – The power of asking questions is another important hallmark of the Netflix culture of freedom and responsibility which McCord describes. At Netflix, people were taught to ask questions such as “how do you know that’s true?” or “can you help me understand what leads you to believe that’s true?” People thus learned first hand about what McCord refers to as “the ethic of asking”.
  9. People have power, don’t take it away – McCord dismisses any talk of empowering people. Instead, she argues that people have power and companies shouldn’t take that power away from them. The company’s job isn’t to empower people; companies need to make sure all conditions are in place for people to exercise their power. As a business leader, McCord explains, your job is “to create great teams that do amazing work on time.” She mentions the importance of great leaders ability to spot people’s growth potential and to nurture this potential.
  10. Build the company now that you want to be then – When recruiting people, McCord advises company to focus on future, as opposed to just hiring for the here and now. Can the people you’ve got in your team now do the job at scale? Are you going to need them to do tomorrow the same job they’re doing now? What’s your plan for them? McCord shares a “fast-forward six months forward” exercise which she uses to shape teams for the future of the company (see Fig. 2 below).

Main learning point: I can see how some of the elements that McCord describe describes in “Powerful” might not be applicable to all companies or to specific challenges that readers might be facing. However, I believe that we can all learn from the underlying mindset which McCord describes in her book; whether it’s the importance of ‘radical honesty’ or letting people exercise their power.

 

Fig. 1 – Core set of practices that underpinned the Netflix culture – Taken from: Patty McCord, “Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility”

  • Open, clear and constant communication: across the entire company about the work to be done and challenges being faced.
  • Radical honesty: telling one another, and management, the truth in a timely fashion and ideally face to face.
  • Debating based on fact based opinions: at Netflix, employees are expected to have strong, fact based opinions and to debate them avidly and test them rigidly.
  • Customer and company first: people to base their actions on what’s best for the customer and the company, not on attempts to prove themselves right.
  • Preparing teams for the future: hiring managers take the lead in preparing their teams for the future by making sure they’ve got high performers with the right skills in every position.

Fig. 2 – “Fast-forward six months” exercise –  Taken from: Patty McCord, “Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility”

  • Imagine six months from now, you have the most amazing team you ever assembled and you’re saying to yourself, “Wow, those guys are awesome! I can’t believe what they’re accomplishing.”
  • First write down what the team will be accomplishing six months from now that it’s not accomplishing now. now. Use all the figures you want.
  • For those different things to be happening, what would people need to know how to do? What kind of skills and experience would it take for the team to operate the way you’re envisioning and accomplish he the things you’ll need to do in that future?

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://jobs.netflix.com/culture
  2. https://www.slideshare.net/reed2001/culture-1798664
  3. http://pattymccord.com/netflixs-patty-mccord-on-being-a-great-place-to-be-from-protect-the-hustle-ep-1/
  4. https://visualsynopsis.com/uncategorized/powerful-by-patty-mccord/
  5. http://firstround.com/review/this-is-how-coursera-competes-against-google-and-facebook-for-the-best-talent/
  6. https://recruitloop.com/blog/steve-jobs-top-hiring-tip-hire-the-best/
  7. https://daedtech.com/a-players-dont-hire-a-players-they-partner-with-a-players/
  8. http://web.stanford.edu/class/ee204/ProductMarketFit.html
  9. https://medium.com/parsa-vc/7-lessons-from-andy-rachleff-on-product-market-fit-9fc5eceb4432