In JC’s Newsletter, I share the articles, documentaries, and books I enjoyed the most in the last week, with some comments on how we relate to them at Alan. I do not endorse all the articles I share, they are up for debate.
I’m doing it because a) I love reading, it is the way that I get most of my ideas, b) I’m already sharing those ideas with my team, and c) I would love to get your perspective on those.
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🔎 Some topics we will cover this week:
Negative lessons from Google regarding performance assessment to optimize performance.
Why fighting against compromise can be crucial to get to “magical experiences” for customers.
An example of how to not focus on scope but on the mission and impact instead.
Considering incentives with their second-order effects.
Being a demanding and supportive leader at the same time.
Subtracting things to make operations more efficient.
A controversial example of being radically focused on the mission.
👉 The maze is in the mouse (Medium)
❓ Why am I sharing this article?
Let’s fight bureaucracy and reduce overhead instead of adding it: less planning, more building.
We still need a bare minimum of performance assessment and feedback loop so we grow, and we build better products.
The obsession should be with building better products and creating more impact.
I’d like to simplify our level grids and be closer to “equity value created” + an axis on exemplification of leadership principles that is common to all communities.
Leaders should not optimise for 100% satisfaction of the team, otherwise you employ kid gloves even with your worst under-performers .
Take risks, build things that are big! Reward heroes with equity refreshers!
Never be a culture where it is a race to the bottom and doing extraordinary work is seen as negative because you force others to work harder.
Have everyone close to members & customers.
Always raise the hiring bar.
Google has 175,000+ capable and well-compensated employees who get very little done quarter over quarter, year over year.
Like mice, they are trapped in a maze of approvals, launch processes, legal reviews, performance reviews, exec reviews, documents, meetings, bug reports, triage, OKRs, H1 plans followed by H2 plans, all-hands summits, and inevitable reorgs.
The mice are regularly fed their “cheese” (promotions, bonuses, fancy food, fancier perks) and despite many wanting to experience personal satisfaction and impact from their work, the system trains them to quell these inappropriate desires and learn what it actually means to be “Googley” — just don’t rock the boat.
Focus on the customer:
Very few Googlers come into work thinking they serve a customer or user.
They usually serve some process (“I’m responsible for reviewing privacy design”) or some technology (“I keep the CI/CD system working”).
They serve their manager or their VP. They serve other employees.
This is a closed world where almost everyone is working only for other Googlers, and the feedback loop is based on what your colleagues and managers think of your work.
A L5 software engineer is expected to do certain things and will be evaluated to that rubric. The word “customer” is not part of that rubric, so don’t you bother supporting customers and don’t expect to be appreciated if you do.
➡️ Put the member at the centre of the grid
Everyone at every level will spend hundreds of hours preparing a single executive presentation, but it will be the most junior employee and often not even a full-time employee who is tasked with helping a customer for ten minutes.
For example, if they “respect the user”, how about each VP and every director cancel one hour of meetings per week and instead use the time to do some direct customer support themselves?
➡️ Have everyone close to members & customers
Literally 15+ approvals in a “launch” process that mirrors the complexity of a Nasa space launch) just to deploy each minor change to a minor product.
Address performance, raise the bar:
Any employee you dissatisfy is career risk, so managers aim for 100% satisfaction among their employees, and employ kid gloves even with their worst under-performers.
I joined at the start of 2020, and by sometime in 2022, I had been at Google longer than half of all Googlers. Hiring at this pace is always a problem because it leads to bad hires and those bad hires create more bad hires.
Winnow the layers of middle management that have accumulated over time, many promoted gradually beyond their capability, and now incapable of change.
They compound the problem by hiring more layers of directors, program managers, product managers, chiefs of staff, and more people to meet with and get presentations from and delegate to.
Instead, increase manager fanout and decrease the depth of the organizational hierarchy. Maybe they should learn to become valuable individual contributors again, get their hands dirty, and do real tangible valuable work.
What to focus on:
The equation would change if the focus instead were on value creation. If you asked daily: “who did I create value for today”, you’d get two very different behaviours.
Risk-taking, reward heroes:
There is almost always someone who is cautious tending to should-do-nothing.
Add in that often the people involved have wildly different knowledge and capability and skin-in-the-game, and there’s always going to be someone uncomfortable enough to want to do nothing.
Therefore any decision out of the existing pre-approved plan or diverging from conventional wisdom is near impossible to achieve, just as the existing pre-approved plan is near impossible to change.
If someone chooses to work twice as hard as is expected of them, they usually will be prevented from doing so because they have to work with others and doing so would force the others to work harder too.
➡️ Never be this culture
Set aside the peacetime generals who underpromise and underdeliver.
Define ambitious causes that you will collectively fight for.
Expect and reward individual sacrifice towards those causes.
Such battle requires heroes whom you should enable and reward.
The best people want to make a difference. Motivated people are capable of immense and uniquely valuable contributions in the right circumstances.
👉 Dan Rose - How Stunning Founders Operate (Join Colossus)
❓ Why am I sharing this article?
When you want to produce deep changes in behaviour, you can’t only be better in some ways, you have to be better across the board.
How to make sure all our experiences feel magical?
Sometimes it takes tenths of iterations to get to perfection. Going back to the drawing board is hard and it is worth it.
Fighting against compromise to make stuff that is great!
Articulate why it is that you're so insistent on this thing that you believe is so important.
The road map for the product drives the organization. The product is the strategy.
Attention to detail is key for leaders!
The importance of closing the loop after selling for the revenue leaders.
Kindle, how to move forward with an idea:
You can think about that idea intellectually, but to actually do it takes a lot more courage.
Kindle: There were three things that Jeff really charged the team with. All three were going to be extraordinarily difficult.
And frankly, at the time that we got started, it wasn't clear we were going to be able to do any of the three, but he was just committed to it, so committed to it that he delayed the launch date three or four times until he felt like we had the magic formula.
The first was selection, and that was my job, and I can't overstate how difficult it was to convince book publishers to put real energy into digital books.
The second thing was the screen. At the time, there were no devices with e-ink screens. We took a big bet on e-ink.
Jeff started the whole thing by saying physical books are an incredible invention, they've been around for hundreds of years. In order to convince people to put them down and pick up a new device, it's going to have to be better. It can't be better in some ways, but worse in other ways. It has to be better across the board.
And then the third, which was a total stretch, but again, classic Jeff Bezos was, he wanted it to feel magical.
And magical meant that you clicked a button and the book showed up on your device. He wanted it to happen over the air.
He didn't want you to have to plug in your Kindle.
So we said, “Okay, we can figure that out, and we had a great technology team that built that”. But then he said, “No, that's not good enough because if you're not in a Wi-Fi zone, then you can't get your book. And what if I'm on the plane and I'm just getting ready to take off and I forgot to download a book, and I want to download it? I want to be able to get that book”.
And we said, “But that doesn't work because to do cellular downloads is going to cost maybe $20 a month”.
“And if we charge $20 a month, then nobody is going to buy the device”. And he said, "Well, let's just pay the carriers for the cellular coverage, but give it away for free to the customer”. And we said, "Well, we can't make the math work. There's not enough margin on the books and the device to do that”. And he said, "Well, why don't you go back and make the math work”. And we came back 15 times.
And we just couldn't make it work because we said, “Okay, we'll charge more for the device”. And he goes, "No, nobody is going to buy it. We have to charge less”. Well, we'll charge more for the books, and he said, "No, then they're not going to buy the books”. So finally, we modeled together to barely make the math work. And it turned out that he was completely right.
The role of the founder CEO (but not only in my opinion):
There's something about a founder CEO that they have the right to ask for completely unrealistic things of their team and to be stubborn about those things and wait until they get to the answer that they like rather than accepting the compromise that the team insists is necessary in order to deliver the end result. And I saw Jeff do that over and over again.
As a founder, you have the right to do that. You can tell people, look, we're not going to ship until we get it right.
The first thing you have to do is you have to articulate why it is that you're so insistent on this thing that you believe is so important.
Caring about the product:
If you look across the great technology companies that have been built in the last 50 years, most of them were led by people who really deeply cared about the product, the product, and technology. The road map for the product drives the organization.
All you have to do is describe where you're trying to take the product, and it immediately aligns everybody behind what you're trying to do.
Attention to detail:
Great founder or product visionaries is the level of detail. The caring about the details really matters.
And I saw that with Mark in that we would sit in product meetings with him. He spent five days a week sitting through product reviews. And he would ask questions about the tiniest little details. Why does this pixel over here belong there instead of over here and challenge the team on those things, and to be a great product leader, you have to care about those details?
I think when it comes to product, the founder has to micromanage unless they are not a product founder.
I have this conversation with the founders that I advise and sit on the board all the time because they're asking me, “Hey, you know, I hired a really good product leader, and they're asking me to give them some space so they can run”.
And my feedback is always, yes, of course, you have to empower them. If you demoralize them, they're not going to stay. B
ut you also have to explain to them that you're the CEO, the product is the strategy, and at the end of the day, this is something that you have to be hands-on with, that's your job. But at the same time, you can't do that and do everything else.
The role of business:
Dave (ex-President and Chief Revenue Officer at ServiceNow for 10 years) is the ideal sales leader.
He just understands how to go to market, how to bring a product to a customer, how to serve that customer after you sell them the product, how to close that loop.
👉 Thread by Dan Rose about scope (PingThread)
❓ Why am I sharing this article?
How to not focus on scope and focus on the mission and impact.
I think we do that well at Alan, let’s keep focusing on this.
When Sheryl recruited David Fischer to run sales and operations, she asked me to give up part of my scope because she felt it belonged under the sales org.
I agreed with her and happily handed off part of my job to Fischer because I knew he would do it better than me.
Fischer later asked me to take over operations so he could focus on revenue.
In many companies, you’ll find executives like me and Fischer fighting over responsibility (which leads to politics); he and I partnered to align our respective scopes with what was best for the company.
Every leader was strong in their position and stayed in their lane, and we trusted each other completely to do our respective jobs. We vigorously debated strategy and tactics, but we never fought over scope or responsibilities.
👉 Margaret Heffernan: Collaboration and Competition (The Knowledge Project Ep. #30) (Farnam Street)
❓ Why am I sharing this article?
Be careful with incentives and their second-order effects. Make sure we have an incentive to help each other.
Share more when people help you, be more thankful.
How feedback is only to make things better. How to take it well.
“If I were wrong, what would I see?”
Connect more as people:
On Friday, I’m just going to tell everyone to down tools at half past four, and every week three people are going to tell us who they are and why are they here. It really was beyond awkward, I have to say. It felt very clunky,
Attempt to get people to see each other as human beings. Not as titles, not as tasks, not as experts, certainly not as rivals, but just to what I would now call build social capital.
Where are these sources of competition coming from, and what can I do to make it advantageous for people to help each other rather than compete with each other?
People also like to feel that their contribution has value. The best way for them to feel that is for somebody to tell them. You kind of have to remember who helped you.
When you’re in a really good collaborative environment, the argument is about, “That’s not good enough. How do we make it better?” Which is the crucial kind of dialogue to have.
I think, often, especially when you’re not wildly grown up, it’s really easy to take it personally. “So-and-so argues with me. That means they don’t like me.”
You need a certain maturity to think beyond that.
Especially if you have a very competitive mindset, of course, you’ve … got to get over that. It takes a certain degree of maturity, and it takes a certain amount I think of intellectual rigor, which is, do you want to get it right, or do you just want to win?
I think it takes a long time to look back and think, “Well, in those situations I did good work. In those situations I did less good work. What was the difference?” Obviously it’s me in both places.
Of course it’s you, but it’s also the environment and the context in which you’re operating.
I think certainly the thing of not taking argument [or] opposition personally [is] really fundamental; I think carrying with me this sense that I could always be wrong is really fundamental. There’s just this great question, “if I were wrong, what would I see?” that really is kind of in my bloodstream now.
👉 Brain Food: Figuring it Out (Farnam Street)
❓ Why am I sharing this article?
I loved this quote on organisms and how to not over-plan.
How to be demanding and supportive (disagreeable givers).
“Organisms in nature have survived and thrived for three and a half billion years, and they've done it without any kind of planning or predicting, or anything that we spend so much of our time doing.”
— Rafe Sagarin
Demanding and supportive are not mutually exclusive: "Most people think of demanding and supportive as opposite ends of a spectrum. You can either be tough or you can be nice. But the best leaders don’t choose. They are both highly demanding and highly supportive. They push you to new heights and they also have your back."
👉 Shopify abruptly shuts down Slack channels and cancels meetings in a move it’s calling ‘Chaos Monkey 2023’ (Business Insider)
❓ Why am I sharing this article?
Interesting bold move to subtract stuff and make the company more efficient.
The inflation of channels is a real risk and we should do a review once a year.
Review your folders on the drive and delete old & useless documents (keep only what we want to remember).
I love “It automatically cancelled all employee meetings of more than two people “
Shopify removed each employee from every existing public channel on the company's Slack workspace, deleted the message history from those public channels, and capped each channel at 150 members. The idea, it said, was to turn Slack into a platform that would be used just for direct messaging, with the rest of the company's communications moving to Workplace by Meta.
Community channels — such as those for special interests like photography or cryptocurrency — were changed to be read-only.
Slack - it's bloated, noisy, and distracting
“We have endless channel updates mixed with broad announcements and pineapple on pizza debates.”
It automatically canceled all employee meetings of more than two people and all meetings that were scheduled for Wednesdays. The only time that employees would now be allowed to hold team events of more than 50 people would be Thursdays between the hours of 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET. Any large events outside that window were automatically deleted, except for meetings happening with people outside of Shopify.
"Together these changes will help focus our time and attention, ship faster and improve our operational excellence,"
"The best thing founders can do is subtraction," he continued. "It's much easier to add things than to remove things.
👉 Brain Food: Longevity (Farnam Street)
“The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction. When in doubt, just remove. But be careful of what you remove. ...
When it is possible to reduce a system’s functionality without significant penalty, true simplification is realized.”
👉 Focus (Boz)
❓ Why am I sharing this article?
How to be radically focused on the mission!
To pick a somewhat trivial example, at fireside chats with Mark (the predecessor to the company Q&A’s he now hosts) people would sometimes ask about having the company support this nonprofit or that cause. Mark would always say no. He would explain that it isn’t that we don’t care about good causes, it is that our comparative advantage wasn’t going to be making good donations. It was building products.
Over time, this principle slowly eroded. More and more employees asked. At some point we had enough money to do it without making an immediate trade-off. And if so many employees wanted it, maybe it was more cost effective just to do it. Supporting nonprofits directly certainly isn’t a bad thing. So we just stopped saying “no.”
There are hundreds of them, each individually reasonable, but they take people and money and altogether they start to outweigh the core and create drag.
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About motivation/fighting mediocrity, we can add Reid Hoffman's advice on the 2 years "tour of duty": https://hbr.org/2013/06/tours-of-duty-the-new-employer-employee-compact ; as employers and employees, we can think about our career in terms of 2-year tours and earn the right to go on to the next one