From Good to Awesome

Since I started to study leadership a few years ago, I could discover different practices and perspectives to deal with the daily challenges of managing people, products, and systems. Like any other skill, you analyze, discard what does not resonate with you, and keep what you think is useful. One thing I kept was the idea that you should not motivate people. You should understand them, their own motivations, and create a space where you can align company goals and people’s intrinsic motivations. That’s the sweet spot, employees feel great, and business goals can be achieved. I appreciate Daniel Pink’s idea of motivation as a sum of autonomy, mastery, and purpose; I can say that’s pretty much what I believed about this matter.

postits

Credit: Unsplash

One of these days, I heard from a friend: “we manage others in the same way we like to be managed.” There are nuances about this statement, but I got the idea, and I agree. The curious fact is: I was not aware that we can not use the same techniques with people who are not like you; maybe it does not work. Not all of your direct reports will act and function exactly like you, and it is so easy to fall into the trap to believe everybody, who is not like you, is not enough. That’s when something clicked in my mind, and I could feel I understood the problem for good, on a deeper level.

That management style of not motivating people was a bias that made me treat everybody the same and, consequently, to appreciate more the job of the people who are similar to me and respond better to my leadership style. Understanding human beings and creating an excellent space for them are just a few parts of the challenge. Some professionals need direction and autonomy; others need psychological safety, a sense of belonging, or predictability.

But besides all these environmental factors, sometimes, people need to be reminded they can be way more effective at their job than they currently are, with a specific and clear message.

Yes, even after creating the ideal environment - always my main focus as a manager - you will still see that some people don’t respond the same way and need to start having difficult conversations. That’s where actionable feedback comes into place, and it becomes the tool for personal growth. If you don’t explain the level of greatness you expect from your teams, and you do not coach the people you work with to get there, probably the results won’t be extraordinary. It is way more comfortable to sit down, complain about your direct reports, and leave the situation as it is. But taking a person who is not performing on her maximum and transforming her into an A-player is hard work. It takes time, energy, and an ongoing coaching agenda. However, it is rewarding for you as a manager, for your direct reports and, of course, for the organization.

As a leader, you need to put extra effort and point out the things that are not going great, show a few paths to follow and guide through them, actively. Look, I’m not talking about people who are performing poorly, who don’t have the skills or employees who you don’t know how the hell they were hired in the first place; this is a sad thing you need to take care of. I’m talking about people who could be doing an outstanding job, growing at a fast pace, but for unknown reasons, they have average performance. That’s where serious examination and actions need to happen. That’s where you transform lives, teams, and businesses. In the end, people rise to the level of your expectations of them.

Product and company stages

As I mentioned in my last article, I decided to invest some time seriously studying product management. Somehow now it feels natural for me to dig deeper on this topic, it’s a genuine interest.

postits

Photo by David Travis on Unsplash

Some months ago, I discovered this guy called Marty Cagan. If you are into product management you probably know him, he is some sort of a big deal in that area. He was an executive for several relevant companies, such as eBay, Netscape, HP, and he is a partner in the Silicon Valley Product Group, a really fantastic place to learn about the matter of this article.

My goal here is to summarize some of the things, from my point of view, so you can learn something too, without the overhead of reading hundreds of articles or reading his book Inspired, which I bought some weeks ago.

The first thing I would like to bring, it’s an update about an opinion I had in my last article, where I wrote that feedback loop is the most important thing. In the technology world, we generally have three different stages of companies: startups, growth-stage, and enterprise companies. The feedback loop is definitely useful in all of them, but there are few other things we should consider

Startup

Nobody knows or cares about the company, founders don’t know if their product has a market fit and they should try to build something viable as soon as possible. Usually, at this point, the organization is in a race to achieve product/market fit before running out of money. Martyn says:

“While money and time are typically tight, good startups are optimized to learn and move quickly, and there’s normally very little bureaucracy to slow them down. Yet, the very high failure rate of technology startups is no secret.”

He also suggests that most of the companies that succeed during this period are the ones that are great at product discovery.

Growth Stage

When companies finally find a market fit, they need to tackle another challenge: to effectively grow and scale. Besides hiring lots more people, they need to build strategies and tactics good enough to replicate their earlier successes with new, adjacent products and services. Communication is a big challenge in this phase, too, since some symptoms start to appear. Product teams complaining about a lack of understanding of the big picture, people don’t see how their work contributes to the broader goals, and in general, employees feel less empowered, departments have a hard time to communicate with each other, the infrastructure built for the product is not scalable enough, etc. Cagan writes:

“This stage is also tough on leaders because the leadership style and mechanisms that worked while the company was a young startup often fail to scale. Leaders are forced to change their roles and, in many cases, their behaviors.”

However, the energy and motivation to overcome these challenges are powerful, since there is a possibility of having a significant and positive impact on the world if they do the right thing.

Enterprise

If these companies are lucky enough to succeed in scaling their business, they now have a different set of problems. How to ensure consistent product innovation? How to keep creating value to the customers and the company without the bureaucracy? In the earlier stages, the organization had a clear and compelling vision; however, this usually changes since they already achieved that original vision, and now people are not sure what’s next. Decisions take forever to be made.

To have some breath of innovation, some companies create “innovation centers” to test new business ideas in a protected environment. However, Cagan says this rarely results in the innovation they’re so desperate for.

However, some big tech companies manage to stay relevant and innovative, even with hundreds of people and initiatives, like Netflix, Amazon, Apple, etc.

So, what is the secret? I’ll let you know as soon as I learn.

Conclusion

The beauty of this book called Inspired is that it is practical, and I feel I’m getting a bit less naive about product management, which was the initial goal. Now it’s clear to me that you should adopt different strategies in different stages of your company. Besides that, B2C and B2B business have entirely different dynamics and practices, things that work for one not necessarily will work for the other.

What is the right thing to build?

One of these days while scrolling on Twitter, I saw an anecdote - but at the same time a fact - which I liked:

“When management tells you to build a specific thing

Junior engineer: I can figure that out!

Mid-level engineer: that’ll take me about x amount of time

Senior engineer: what’s the end goal of this project? “

Another reply on the same thread:

Staff engineer: but no seriously, who asked you to do this, and what are we hoping to get out of it, and if we don’t do it, do you think they’ll just forget they asked?

This triggered me since I could totally relate to this journey of becoming a more mature software engineer, and to some other thoughts I’m currently having, I’ll explain to you.

postits Credit: Unsplash

Some years ago, when I was working as a software engineer in a big tech company, and my leader left, I had the chance to learn more about technical leadership on the go. From one day to the other, I needed to set the technical direction for engineers of the team and contractors. I always had the option to not accept that challenge and go back to my individual contributor track, but something inside of me was telling me to jump in the soup and make the best out of that opportunity. It was a good idea.

One of my main motivations to keep growing and learning more about technical leadership and engineering management was doing precisely the opposite of some bad managers and leads I had in the past. I bought several books, courses, tried things in practice, and so on. I felt super comfortable leading teams, people were happy, productive, delivering features, and I had fruitful relationships with my direct reports. However, there was one thing I felt that was not still quite right. I did not have the feeling we were investing our time building the most impactful thing we could.

Some can say this is the responsibility of a Product Owner or a Product Manager, but I tend to not play this game of excuses that leverage segregation of duties, I think we can - and should - all help each other. What if you work with some less experienced Product Managers? What if your PO feels overwhelmed with the amount of work, without really putting deep thoughts on the product? I believe it’s our role, as more experienced leaders in tech, to also give some direction regarding product decisions and goals. But how?

We can stop the conversation here and say prioritization with stakeholders, users, etc. is the path. They know what is the most important thing to build, right? Not really. They have a minimal understanding of the complexity of the product you are making, they don’t know about your strategies and how to connect your current efforts to short, medium, and long term goals. They just have a limited perspective of a set of problems and pains, and what are some possible solutions for them.

I love this quote from Gojko Adzic, seasoned tech-consultant, and creator of the Impact Mapping practice:

“The measure of success, for many teams out there, is rolling out software features to production. This is when they declare victory. Teams measure and manage things like time, velocity, story points, effort. Those things are inputs and outputs, but not really relevant from a customer or business perspective.”

This statement makes me feel uncomfortable because I agree with it, and I usually use those metrics, and yes, I declared victory when something was released. However, for more times than I wanted to, teams that I worked with released something, and its impact was not that significant. It is working, it is beautiful. The code is excellent and bug-free, but one question remained: was this the most valuable thing we could build with our time?

How can we shift this engineering mindset about building the thing right instead of building the right thing? The good news is that some folks already thought about this challenge. Nothing I’m writing here is super new or rocket science, but my career focus was always on how to build software and teams, not the what and why of products.

“When we develop a product, of course, we want to build the “right” product. The right product is a product that does something much like the idea we originally had, except that instead of what we originally thought, it has what customers actually want, need, respond to, desire, and love. No one - at least no one I have ever met - knows upfront what people will love. We get a successful product out there by getting something out there as soon as possible. Then we listen to the market, which tells us mostly what they don’t like, and maybe a few words about what they do like. Then we change the product or - as Lean Startup would have it - we pivot” - Ron Jeffries.

As I mentioned in another article, I like to reduce ideas to their essential parts, and if you ask me what the most fundamental idea about building the right thing is, I would say: the feedback loop. There is no particular framework, workshop, book, or other prescription that can ensure that the product you are building is useful, and customers love. A good part of your efforts should be invested in experimenting, prototyping, releasing things fast, collecting feedback from users, and iterating. The rest is a distraction.

There are some practices out there that can help you on this journey of finding the right thing to build, such as Lean Startup, Impact Mapping, Story Mapping, Feature Injection, etc. However, from my limited and engineering biased perspective, having an amazingly fast feedback loop with the customers is the most effective way to ensure you invest your time on the right points.

I’m just starting some serious study about product management. Let’s see if I’ll change my mind in a few weeks.

Follorwership

A lot has been said about leadership and how to thrive as a leader, but there is one topic that hides great insights and usually is neglected when we talk about team-building: followership.

teams

Some days ago, while enjoying my morning-austrian-black-coffee and reading 97 Things Every Engineering Manager Should Know, by Camille Fournier, I was exposed to the term followership and got intrigued by it. The model cited in the diagram above was created by Ira Challef, one of the best minds on leadership. This gentleman is a known author and speaker that has some great ideas regarding followers, which I will present to you.

Looking at the diagram, x means how much support an individual provides to her leader, while y represents how much the person challenges the ideas of her manager.

Individualist (low support, high challenge): team members who usually have their principles and don’t care about the opinions of the leader or the rest of the team; they prefer to do as they want and are continually challenging ideas, for good and the bad.

Resource (low support, low challenge): people that usually do what is required but not more than that, they often never challenge the ideas of their leaders or coworkers and don’t go the extra mile.

Implementers (high support, low challenge): individuals who are fully committed to the team’s goals and to the direction set by the leaders, without challenging peers or managers too much. They are usually very dedicated but need someone to guide them.

Partners (high support, high challenge): with this type of follower, you have highly engaged team members, which challenge the ideas of their leaders when needed but at the same time deliver a lot of value to the team, being always a real partner to the manager and usually they have the same or higher impact than the leader. This type of follower is often a good candidate to become a leader in the future.

After acknowledging this model, I started to use it as another tool to classify myself and the people I work with to understand what needs to be developed. Should I challenge my manager a bit more? Should I be a bit more supportive inside of my team? The beauty of it is that there is no right or wrong type of followership, there is space for everybody, and people have different needs. I’m sure there are leaders out there who prefer a team full of resources, while others prefer the right mix of partners and implementers. The same with team members, not everybody wants to be a partner, or maybe you like to see yourself as an individualist?

In any case, it’s a useful framework to add to your game.

What does it take to have high performing teams?

There are many people out there preaching sophisticated techniques and selling certificates that are supposed to help you with building teams and having “agile” organizations. But if there is one thing I learned with the time is that the best ideas are always the simplest.

And here is a simple one.

teams

Photo by NESA by Makers on Unsplash

I remember when I got my first Scrum Master certification and I thought I was ready for everything. You could bring me any projects and people, I would make it happen.

A few years later, I realized the amount of bullshit I went through and how naive is the idea of thinking that one methodology can solve all your problems. No, it can not.

During my career, I learned all sorts of fancy practices to deal with different challenges, but none of them were more insightful than this one I will tell you now. It comes from this video, which I highly recommend. But don’t worry, you don’t need to watch it now to understand what I want to show you.

What you really need to understand is the diagram below:

highperf

Before we continue, let’s give some clarity to the term psychological safety: “is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”. With clarity, the speaker means people are aligned and share a common understanding of the mission or task at hand. Now we are good to go.

A party is a company where you can literally do whatever you want, and nobody cares. C-level and managers have a lot of crazy business ideas without specific strategies and tactics to achieve results. People talk a lot, have fun, but nothing relevant is getting done. Sales teams usually are closing a few contracts with total misalignment with the rest of the company, without understanding if the thing which was sold can be built.

The chaos is very similar to the party, except for one thing: employees feel unsafe, and the leadership of the company has super high expectations without giving enough clarity and context for the teams. Literally, everybody is feeling bad, since teams don’t know precisely what is expected and can not do a great job, and leadership thinks people are incompetent since their impact is small.

The bittersweet part is that I had the chance to work with a mix of the two scenarios above, and one of the things which I found interesting is that some outstanding people ended up working on these types of orgs, they try so hard to make things work until they get to the point of burn out, and leave the company. One of the lessons from all this: don’t waste your time in crappy places, regardless of how good you are, a messed up company is just going to lead you to frustration.

Moving to the next quadrant, dictatorship is self-explanatory. From Wiki: “A dictatorship is a form of government characterized by a single leader or group of leaders and little or no toleration for political pluralism or independent programs or media”. In this case, teams have a lot of clarity on what is expected, but you better not speak up or try to change the status quo, you should just do what needs to be done and stay in your cubicle. New ideas are not welcome, and probably you will be negatively judged if you try something different. It’s a hostile place for creative minds.

And finally, the holy grail: high performing teams. After being more than 10 years working in tech companies, it feels obvious that if you don’t have excellent communication processes to ensure that teams understand the company’s mission and the goals for each quarter, it’s not going to work. If you don’t provide a space where people can share their thoughts in a safe environment, without fearing something disturbing can happen if she or he says something against the ideas of their leaders, it is not going to work. Some months ago, I wrote an article with a few tips to build high performing teams, but all of them can be reduced to these two things: give extreme clarity and psychological safety to your people; the rest will come naturally.

It is feasible to build a company where people ship impactful products and feel good at the same time but it requires work.

If you are a leader or a team member, and you see the problems your teams face regarding these quadrants, you can try to solve things in your sphere, but first ensure you are working in a place where this is possible, and you are not going to spend your energy for nothing.

Walk

Some years ago, I noticed that whenever I went for a long walk, I had clever ideas to deal with professional or personal situations. I could feel the creativity flow in my head, but without understanding why I felt so sharp. It seemed I had more clarity to analyze facts and to come up with plans to do what I needed to do. It was just natural.

This brainstorming in my head became a practice, and in the middle of these long walks, I started to write these new ideas, insights, and thoughts on my notes app so that I could develop them a bit more later.

After some time without going for walks, I decided to go for a long bike ride one of these days and guess what? I got into that state again, where I could see things clearly, and some ideas popped up in my head out of the blue. I felt amazed by the things I thought and decided to research the topic. I assumed it was impossible to be the only human being passing through these mind trips while exercising. I discovered some cool stuff.

What if I tell you that Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Aristotle were avid walkers, because of the same reason I just told you? Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”

So, what is the phenomenon that happens when you walk?

When you are walking, your heart pumps faster than usual, and it makes your body circulates more oxygen and blood to the organs, including your brain. Some experiments have shown that during or after exercises, people perform better on memory and attention tests. There is an entire article from The New Yorker here, describing some other interesting facts about walking and thinking.

Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz, from Stanford University, ran an experiment that is likely the first set of studies that directly measure the way walking changes creativity in the moment.

The place you go for a walk matters as well, some studies have shown that if you are exercising in a place full of trees, your memory has a better performance than if you are walking in the streets of a city.

How fantastic is that? In the end, I was not tripping, the thing is real.

Go for a walk.

Bye - almost - all social media, hello privacy.

I got tired of being assaulted by social media apps. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and most of these companies don’t really care about you or community development. It’s all about selling ads and stealing your attention with curated crap. It’s time to take back control. You can still reach me on Linkedin, Twitter or say hey to ulysses@hey.com.

I recently changed my email provider, from Google to Hey. Same thing with my browser, from Chrome to Brave. My new search engine is Ecosia, which you can plant trees with your searches - for free. As soon as I go to Brazil and teach my family to use Telegram instead of Whatsapp, another revolution will start. Until there, I’ll keep being a little bit hypocrite.

And no, I’m not using Google Analytics to analyze the metrics of this web site, I’m using this wonderful and plausible tool.

Are you tired of Google too? Check this list with replacements for all their products. We have alternatives for pratically all softwares in the world, you just need to explore for a few minutes. You don’t need to attach your life to big tech corps.

We always have the option to do better, to be closer to our principles, but of course, it requires effort like all the good things in life.

I invite you to join the revolution too.