Recently, I’ve been working with a startup entrepreneur who has been struggling with communicating his product vision to his team. He is on his second buildout and staring down the barrel of a third.
When I asked him what his core product is, he explains it well, but the meaning gets lost in translation. We began to dive down into the nitty gritty details of his product, searching for answers to why things are the way they are, and he said something very curious (and telling).
“I don’t need to know that because I’ve got really smart people like you to figure it out for me.”
This did not sit well with me. At the time, I failed to muster the words to explain why this kind of thinking is dangerous. After pondering on this over the weekend, I finally figured out how to convey to him why I found his statement misses the mark.
As a founder and CEO, his role is very much like an orchestra conductor. He is up on the podium, in front of his team, and they are all looking to him for direction. He knows the music, inside and out, but he needs these talented musicians to execute it for him.
No one else is going to grab the baton and start the performance without him. He is the one to bring all these different elements together in a way that will bring the crowd to their feet.
Sometimes you’ll have an awesome violinist who plays beautifully, but isn’t sticking to the composition. As the conductor, you have to recognize when this person sounds off and get them back to playing as part of the ensemble.
A CEO needs to know their product better than anyone else so they can provide vision and direction for their team to operate within. This means staying in tune with the technology, design, words, scope and marketing and how it plays out on a larger scale.
Having a team of really smart people is vitally important but without a conductor focused on the music coming together in a magical way, your audience will likely pass on an encore.
A few weeks back, I gave a talk to about 80 participants of Startup Weekend Des Moines. During the Q&A portion of my presentation, a participant asked me a killer question:
“If you could improve any one aspect about BitMethod or its products, what would it be?”
My deadpan answer? “I’d like to improve my public speaking and communication skills.”
The participant who asked the question appeared puzzled. I imagine this person — and others in the room — were expecting me to pick a tangible output BitMethod had already released, such as an app or part of our website. While there are certainly aspects of every product we’d love to improve, picking one of those would have been extremely short-sighted. I explained that as the leader of the company, I am interested in changing things that will have long-term benefits. Communication is something I’ve consistently struggled with. Communication is something that is integral to everything we do as a company. Improving my ability to communicate effectively will touch everything we do.
Companies produce products which are made by people. This production is achieved via communication, the backbone of productive companies. I believe self-improvement and life-long learning should be practiced by everyone. Why not look to myself, first?
Photo courtesy of Geoff Wood.
It seems like ever so often I forget a very important adage and the universe seems to conspire against me just to remind me of it. Last week was one of those weeks and a series of minor oversights and unintentional mistakes, when ordering some server equipment, added up into a perfect storm of suck. However, the real suck didn’t start until I made it worse by allowing it to get the best of me. I kept expending so much energy into trying to turn back time that I didn’t focus on what I truly should have, a solution to my problem. I spun my wheels for two days until I took a step back, evaluated my situation and formulated a plan of attack for getting me out of it.
When you find yourself in a shitty situation accept it as reality and move on. My tendency, as soon as I realize I am in a less than ideal position has been to identify the party to blame, sometimes it’s internal (ie. me) and sometimes it’s external (ie. somebody or something else) and proceed to figure out ways to mentally castrate them (or myself) for it.
A million rhetorical questions like,
- Why didn’t I create a full system backup before starting this migration?
- How incompetent is the sales person for not putting the order together correctly for me and screwing me out of three days of work and why do they still have a job?
- How can this part fail this quickly and this spectacularly and why did the manufacturer do such a shitty job making it?
start using up my brain cycles and I won’t stop processing until I get an answer to them, as if getting them answered will undo what has transpired and let me move on with my day.
Last week I was reminded how truly counterproductive giving into that instinct is. While you are trying to dig yourself out and find a solution, stop grieving and placing blame on the parties involved, it is a waste of time and energy. Focus on the situation, accept it as reality and look at your options to get out of it. Grieving, anger and blame will just make you blind to a solution at hand and just cause you to sink even deeper.
The trick is to develop the skill and become introspective enough to 1) catch yourself doing it and 2) force yourself to stop doing it once you have realized what is going on. I usually walk away and try to think about something else, sometimes a 30 minute round of Mario Kart will do the trick, sometimes I have to leave at 4:30 pm and tackle the issue the next day.
Once you’ve accepted the situation for what it is and truly stopped grieving, you’ll have nowhere to go but up. You will be able to focus on solutions that will improve your position relative to where you are rather than relative to where you have been before the situation arose. If you stop looking at it as a setback and all possible outcomes as inferior to your original position and start looking at it as moving forward and improving your current state, you are much more likely to succeed much faster in finding the best possible outcome. The best outcome may never be able to rewind time and put everything back to the way things were, you may even be worse off than before the world crapped on you but the important thing to focus on is you are trying to be in a much better position than you were AFTER the world crapped on you so you can move on and fight another day.
Today I finally stopped spinning my wheels and it feels oh so liberating.
Shit happens and acceptance is your salvation.
Quit hiring freelancers. You’re probably the wrong person to manage their potential.
Freelancers are for:
- Augmenting your team’s skills.
- Executing the same skills as others on your team to aid with a large workload.
Freelancers are not for:
- Establishing vision.
- Technology leadership.
- Project management.
Freelancers need a boss. They need a leader. It might be one person or it might be a whole company, but freelancers on your projects need a confident leader.
What you don’t need is a freelancer with a specific skill you’re incapable of judging or managing. If you don’t feel comfortable with design and cannot reliably tell good design from bad (and why it’s bad), you are not the person who should be hiring a designer. If you can’t tell good code from bad (and why it’s bad), you shouldn’t be hiring a developer. You should be hiring someone who knows enough to know the difference between good designers and bad, good developers and bad. This isn’t rocket science, but it’s advice I see companies ignoring every day. Pretty much every freelancer horror-story you’ve read about isn’t due to designers or developers without skills in design or development, it’s about a poorly managed project ending in hurt feelings on both sides.
When most people build homes, they find a general contractor to manage the project. Why? Because they don’t have the skillset to find, coordinate, manage, and intelligently judge the capabilities of masons, electricians, plumbers, roofers, carpenters and the like. They need someone who, yes, has a background in those fields, but more importantly, is extremely comfortable working with and managing those “freelance” construction people. Going it alone might seem cheaper, but in the end, it’s really not going to be. At best, you’ll waste a lot of time. At worst, you’ll get completely burned and have nothing to show for your money.
If you don’t know what you’re doing or what you need, for the love of God don’t hire a freelancer. All they are going to tell you is “Yes”:
- “Yes, I know how to do that.”
- “Yes, those five extra feature are a great idea, let me shove them in right way.”
- “Yes, I think the logo IS better in hot pink, you’re so smart Mr. CEO.”
- “Well, I thought the condensed, two-line about page copy was easier to read, but if you want to shove in a 3-page company vision statement that resembles the New Age romance novel you’ve been working on, yes, I’ll do it.”
Leaders say no and they say it often.
- “No, our team isn’t good at that, we’ll need to hire someone or find another solution.”
- “No, we’re not going to implement that now, let’s get a simpler version out first and iterate.”
- “No, that’s not a feature request, that’s an idea for a whole new product. Separate them.”
- “No, the logo your cousin designed looks like dog shit and we’re not going to use it, let alone make it bigger.”
- “No, you don’t need an expensive and custom app, you can accomplish this with free software from Google.”
Freelance talent is a wonderful tool in the right hands. I freelanced at BitMethod before working here full-time. The important thing is putting that tool in the right hands. Slow down a minute and ask honestly if your hands are the right hands.
Caveat: I read a wonderful article by a programmer several years back talking about implementing this change on his development team. I’ve tried in vain to track down the original article. If anyone can point me in the right direction I would be very grateful and happily give due credit. However, this came back up recently at BitMethod and the team really took to it, so I’ve taken to writing up my own version of the advice for your reading and working pleasure.
- – -
It’s easy to say “we should” (or somebody should).
It’s hard to say “you should”, or “I should”.
“We should” is a musing, a wish. It’s a thought not fully formed. “We should do this, we should do that.” Who the hell is we? You aren’t we. I’m not we. We is not a person who can accomplish anything.
From the right person, “you should” is an order, a command. “You should finish that report by the end of the day.” “You should take some time off this week, you’re looking beat.”
“I should” is a chance to take personal responsibility and lead by example. Make sure and follow it up with an “I will.”
Sometimes what you’re looking for is “Who should?” You know what needs to happen, but you don’t know who needs to do it. Ask.
Listen to yourself and your team for those nasty “we should“s and stomp them out. I guarantee things will get done faster and everyone will be more clear about what is expected of them.
Not getting it yet? Here are some examples to help drive the point home:
You discover a networking event coming up that seems interesting to your company.
- We should: You send the team an email saying “We should go to this.” with a link to the event.
- I should: “I’m going to this networking event. Does anyone want to come with?”
- You should: “Scott, I’ve noticed that so-and-so will be at this networking event and I think you need to meet them. Why don’t you go ahead and sign up for this?”
A weekly meeting you’re in charge of regularly gets started late. You’d like it to start on time.
- We should: “Alright guys, we should really focus on starting the meeting on time. Let’s do that next week, mmk?”
- You should: “Scott, I need you to be sitting down and ready to take notes at 9am next week. You’ve been late to a lot of meetings and it’s disrespectful.”
- I should: (Internal monologue) “I should start the morning meetings on time. I’m going to start it at 9am next week no matter who’s there, and people will start to get the hint.”
Your team is planning for an annual event that’s still many months away and you remember that nametags were a big problem at last year’s event.
- We should: You announce, “Somebody should make sure that we get the nametags printed out a few weeks in advance this time.” Everyone nods. The meeting continues.
- You should: “Scott, can you take care of getting nametags printed out a few weeks in advance this year? Let me know what information you need—and when—to get it done.”
- I should: You put a note in your planner to delegate nametag creation at least six weeks in advance as soon as the registration closes.
Have your own examples of when this has worked for you? Let me know in the comments.