I’ve been on a small bender on this, and this is what I learned, in short. Reading my summaries could spare you the time of reading the actual books, but I don’t recommend it — they are chock-full of useful language and terms to describe situations, which will help you apply the lessons better.
The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions and Results
This is the book about how you best communicate goals and plans to a team, so they can start working on them without being micromanaged. The trick: Explain the Why, then When, and the What (problem), not the How nor the What (solution), then have them repeat these things back to you in their own words to check for understanding and completeness (you might have forgotten something).
Getting Naked: A Business Fable About Shedding The Three Fears That Sabotage Client Loyalty
You want your clients trust. In order for that to happen, you need to be honest with them, especially when it comes to your own shortcomings. Let your successful work stand on its own. Don’t grandstand, don’t pretend your better than them, but don’t be shy to be firm on the things you know to be right.
Feedback is important, especially negative feedback. It needs to be on time, absolutely honest, and to come from a position of kind caring. If you give feedback in order to belittle, demean or because you’re on a power trip, you’re an asshole. But you’re also an asshole if you don’t give any negative feedback when you see flaws, because then no one can get better.
Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage in Human Consciousness
This is a slightly esoteric book. Read on despite the woo, it gets rewarding. Organisations work better when you let them live like an organism, with purpose and innate reactions instead of programmed machine-like behaviors. When you truly empower people to take ownership of their work, they’ll do better. That means everyone basically manages themselves.
Strong Product People: A Complete Guide to Developing Great Product Managers
I don’t agree with a lot of the actual people managing advice. It is well-meaning, but putting it into action would throw diverse people of all kinds under the bus, as a lot of the advice subconsciously encourages group-think and only hiring people that are like everyone else in the team.
But the idea of defining your good, meaning „figure out what a good person for $Position really needs to be able to do“, and then coming up with a metric on how to measure this ominous „good“ is brilliant management advice, as it allows you to give useful and meaningful and above all, actionable feedback.
The Mom Test: How to talk to customers & learn if your business is a good idea when everyone is lying
Don’t ask leading questions. Don’t ask questions where any desire to please you could colour the answer. Ask open questions that give you useful insights regardless of the answer given.
The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses
hah, gotcha: I haven’t actually read this yet. Come back later! :)
If you work in product management, you should make yourself familiar with the Kano model.
Noriaki Kano, a Japanese researcher and consultant, published a paper in 1984 with a set of ideas and techniques that help us determine our customers’ (and prospects’) satisfaction with product features.
The resulting categories have been translated into English using various names (delighters/exciters, satisfiers, dissatisfiers, etc.), but all refer to the original articles written by Kano. You can read up more at https://foldingburritos.com/kano-model/
Using the understanding from this model, product persons classify features of a product as follows:
Basic/Threshold These are features that are indispensible. If they were not present, anyone using this feature would be immediately dissatisfied. Think of a hotel room that is lacking a bed. These are the „must-have“ features.
Performance Sometimes a feature or capability exceeds expectations. Some basic functionality turns out to be very fast or intuitive, or looks very pleasant. These are Basic/Threshold features that come with improvements. A real-world example would be an extra-comfy bed in the hotel room, or that one discovers more power outlets than expected.
Excitements Features that are completely unexpected, things that one wouldn’t normally associate with a given product or service are Excitements. Users would not think of asking for them when a product is described, but when they find them, they are delighted about it. Usually, this is a novelty factor („I would not have expected a cold brew coffeemaker in this hotel room, but I like it!“), and they will not always be the deciding argument for a purchase. But they are noteworthy and will ensure that the product or service is remembered well.
I’ve found this model quite useful when it comes to prioritizing tasks, or to figure out whether a product is „ready to ship“.
What makes teams tick?
For the past few months, I’ve been on a bender reading various books on how to best run a team or a company, how to be best manage people, or how to generally think about work. The current item in that stack of books is „Reinventing Organizations“, by Frédéric Laloux. I’ll not go into the details and my criticism of the book right now, but one thing that tickled me was the story of how a brass foundry stated that part of their purpose was to be be loved by their customers.
As a result, workers take delight in hand crafting little presents to put into the crates when shipping an order of gearbox parts.
And that brings me back to the Kano model, and that I think we should add one quality: Is it satisfying or exciting to make this Feature?
We see a lot of work in the FLOSS sector embodying this quality. Something gets made because the people working on it found it exciting. Either because they wanted to have the resulting functionality, or because building it is an interesting challenge, or because they could already envision the reaction of the users when they’ll find the hidden easter egg.
Trying to find out what features have this „exciting to make“ quality can be a tremendous boon for product people, and I will surely add this to my toolbox! Partly because you can now select for maximum team satisfaction, but also because you can recognise rabbit holes and nerdsniping before it happens and let the team know that a certain functionality might be cool to build, but isn’t helping in any of the other Kano qualities.
I’m working with computers and humans for long time. That has shaped a lot of my opinions and habits. In order to get the best experience of working with me, here’s a handy manual:
I’m neither a classical night owl, nor an early bird. That means that I keep pretty normal hours. I also do believe in a healthy work-life balance, so I do my very best to stick to the normal weekly working hours. As a result, you can depend on me being around at 9:00 AM and should not schedule any substantial meeting later than starting 5:00 PM in the evening, as I’ll be aiming to clock out at 6:00 PM.
You will probably still occasionally find me going through email or chat notifications in the middle of the night or the weekend, but please do not count on this (unless there are pre-agreed circumstances and emergency protocols).
Knowledge and skills
Most people have one area of expertise where they have incredibly deep knowledge. My depth is width.
That means that I know more than the average layperson about nearly any given topic I come across professionally, but I am also aware that there are most likely a lot of people out there who know much more about it than me. If you have a problem outside of your area of expertise, chances are that I know at the very least the most useful search term or person that helps you with the next step.
My depth is width. Make use of that.
Managing and Delegating
Knowing that there are more senior experts on most topics in the organisation leads me to be pretty hands-off when it comes to the How and What (Solution) you are doing when I am managing you.
I tend to mostly think and communicate about the Why, When, and What (Problem), because it is my belief that these are the things you will need most to do your best. Answering the Why, When & What (Problem) questions give you all the ressources and constraints you need to define your problem space and find the best approach. Me, as a Product Person telling you as a Designer How to draw a picture would be pretty silly. And I won’t tell an engineer which kind of motor best serves the stated purpose.
If you manage me, I expect you to do me the same courtesy.
When I delegate a task, I will always strive to include a proper definition of done, a timeline, and a useful set of constraints. (See my writing about Nerdsniping)
I try to put an emphasis on asynchronous communication. That means that you will receive a lot more chat messages, tickets and comments, emails, and text messages than live phone calls or desk visits from me.
With those, I stick to the „No Hello“ rule, getting to the point as quickly as possible in a fire-and-forget way. My expectation there is that even though you haven’t acknowledged receiving the communication immediately, you will still get it and give me a useful feedback as soon as possible and convenient.
As I’ll do the same in return when you send me such messages, here are some examples of what you can expect as answer:
a simple emoji indicating yes, no, on it, love the idea or similar. It should be pretty readable in context and also indicates that I’m probably in some situation where I cannot write anything more.
a direct answer to your query
a follow-up question
a request to send me the inquiry over a certain more documented channel (for example as a ticket or an email)
a deadline as to when I will actually get you the answer or complete the task.
If there is no deadline mentioned in the initial request, I will assume it is not urgent. If I didn’t mention one in a request by me, it is certainly not urgent.
I manage my notification settings in a way that reflects my availability and mental state. If I need to concentrate, most things that could go beep at me will be switched off. That means that your chat message might sit unnoticed for quite a while.
Or it might got noticed, but paused with a „remind me in 20 minutes“ marker, or similar. I have set up numerous filters that surface things that could be urgent, or silence things that have no impact on my current work.
It is my expectation, that everyone does something similar, so which sets my own expectations of reaction time. For more on that, read my text on Spam everyone and use your filters!
We will probably exchange a lot of emails. My aim will always be to
meaningfully populate the „to“ and „cc“ fields. If you find yourself in the „cc“ field, I only want you to know about the content of the email, but have no expection to act in any way on the email.
set meaningful subject lines. I will change the subject line, if the email conversation drifts to a different topic. I will split up a single subject into different new subjects, if there are several conversations at the same time.
answer within 24 hours of receiving the email, at the very least in order to acknowledge receipt and tell you when I’ll get around to actually answering any questions inside.
I will do my very best to never call you out of the blue. At the very least, you will get an asynchronous message asking if you have a specified amount of time to talk about topic x. That ensures two things:
you actually have the time and do not have to sacrifice context switching effort at the wrong moment
you have a topic at hand to ease any potential anxiety and to judge whether the time you have and the time needed for the topic match.
There are of course exceptions and emergency situations where we simply have to talk to each other right now, but those should be the exceptions.
Also, this does obviously not apply to watercooler talk in the company kitchen :).
Meetings where a group of people discuss a problem or topic should always be scheduled at least 24 hours in advance. They have an agenda that states the purpose and shape of expected outcome. („we need to decide on a roadmap. After this meeting, we should have one“)
My instinct is always to keep the number of participants as low as possible. This is to keep the meetings productive, and to not waste anyones time. Please do not feel slighted for not being included. If you feel I erred, let me know why you want to join. If in any way possible, I will add you regardless of the reason you give me. The reason is jus tthere to ensure you’re properly included and have a voice. At the end, everyone in the meeting should have had an equal amount of time to speak.
Meetings facilitated by me won’t overrun their booked timeslots and will have time for a biobreak after at most 45 minutes.
I love tools and will always be curious to try out new ones. That can became a source of procrastination, but overall, the gains outweigh the costs so far.
Mainly, I stick to text-based things. Markdown editors, email, chats. Tools that help me manage notifications and set filters are always the first things I check out and set up. Things that automate tasks are high on my list too.
I love talking about my findings and help you set things on your end, if my time allows.
Darmokra and memes
I’m a huge nerd. My hobbies include 3D printing, pen and paper roleplaying games (reading, playing & writing them), shooting foam darts at people who pretend they’re zombies and other stuff.
That also means that I will very often insert memes and pop culture references into conversations. You can rely on me adjusting the amount to the audience (it might even reach 0), but the preferred mode is OVER 9000!
A part of my job is asking people things along the lines of „can you look up if XYZ is feasible“ or „what would you need to do XYZ“ or „can you make me a proposal about this?“.
And there are always two things I give them along with the task:
how much time I expect them to spend on it at most
the level of detail I want for the answer
This is not to set pressure on them, but to take it away: With this information, they will have a better understanding on when the task is done, how much effort they can put into it. Asking things this way is a part of the SMART set of goal criteria. In case this term is new to you, here’s the breakdown of this acronym:
SMART is a mindset that helps specify goals and tasks in a way that ensures they have a decent chance of being met with success. And it allows the persons you give this task or goal to measure themselves against that yardstick, so they don’t start second guessing themselves. This lowers anxiety, is compatible with Auftragstaktik-style of management (which I highly recommend) and also ensures that your engineers aren’t nerdsniped.
That last thing is a real danger if you’re engineers are any of the following: Competent, inquisitive, enthusiastic, intelligent, willing-to-learn, new to the field, experienced…
This approach is especially important if you work remotely: You want to trust your team to work without close physical supervision (which is a bad idea anyway if you have any kind of knowledge workers). And as you’re working remotely, you’re missing a lot of small cues that you could pick up in an office: Are they nervous? Are they burying themselves in research, as evident by the books and open browser tabs? Is that topic you’ve given out as a backburner research task eating up all their mental cycles, because it is all they talk about when fetching coffee?
The micromanaging approach would be to check in with them often, ask about progress, and so on. Which not only increases anxiety, but also keeps them distracted from the actual work. (And probably pisses them off too — I’ve threatened to quit over micromanaging more than once, with the full intent of following through if it didn’t stop. Thankfully, I had enough standing for that to be effective.)
Instead you need to preempt the nerdsniping and anxiety and communicate clearly what is expected, what is out of bounds, and the time you expect them to spend on the task — as opposed to the deadline where you need the result.
So when I ask someone to research a topic, I say things like this:
I need this in a week, but you really shouldn’t spend more than 4 hours on it, spending more effort on this would not be helpful. If you cannot provide a thorough answer after that time, that is an answer in itself for me!
If you add this task as part of the normal duties, and not on top of them, you take out most, if not all anxiety, you make the result a reliable measure, ensure that the other tasks won’t take a hit, and give the engineer an understanding of what they are looking into.