I found two work-related goals scribbled in the page margins of a pocket notebook from the beginning of 2012. 1) I wanted to primarily focus my design time on getting the hazy-around-edges NewSpring identity system under control (via a thorough brand audit and re-templating project) and 2) I wanted to hire a few designers and developers to help shoulder the load and prepare for the growth we knew was on the way (we’ve practically doubled in attendance since then).
These two tasks would, in theory, enable me to focus much of 2013 on our website and copywriting, both of which were adequate, but suffering from a lack of proactive design and vision. In the absence of proactivity, reaction rules the land. And reactionary design is typically poor design in the longrun.
But Plans Change…
Halfway through 2012 we restructured the team, which restructured me to the bottom of the org chart. This was driven by multiple factors, the most pressing of which was my unreliability as a leader of people. By this point in the year, my new hire goal had been a successful one, and we’d added some fantastic team members to the mix. Two of those hires were appropriately promoted to lead design and web development, and I continued to work on the brand audit/re-templating project.
I don’t want to gloss over how difficult that transition was (and still can be)—I wrote about it in October—but I do want to highlight what time, patience, and a commitment to discipline can teach. Nothing is wasted, and this transition has been a healthy, educational one. Difficult, but good.
Don’t fight forces, use them.
Right now, I’m working on copy and code. My workday is almost wholly focused on the things I am best at, and, not too coincidentally, the areas where I can have the most possible impact at NewSpring. 2013 will be the year of wireframes, writing, and web. Just like I hoped it would be a year ago. The goal remains; the landscape’s changed.
Alter Your Perspective, Alter Your Outcome
Circumstances are, largely, beyond us. There are only a handful of things we can actually control. Beyond those things, success is a matter of managing the ebb and flow of those outside forces. Forces can be enemies, or they can be useful tools.
This is the philosophy of the Japanese martial art of Judo—the “Gentle Way”. Judo is not gentle because it isn’t violent, or effective, or powerful; it can be all of those things. Judo is gentle because it aims for maximum efficiency through minimal effort. It uses forces to achieve success. Judo is the gentle way for the practitioner.
[Resisting] a more powerful opponent will result in your defeat, whilst adjusting to and evading your opponent’s attack will cause him to lose his balance, his power will be reduced, and you will defeat him. This can apply whatever the relative values of power, thus making it possible for weaker opponents to beat significantly stronger ones.
Kano’s theory was called “jū yoku gō o seisu” or “gentleness controls hardness”. My friend Blaine once told me something similar, while gently reminding me not to be so mechanical…
Machines fight and then break in conflict. Humans flex and grow.
There is a way in which we can bow up to circumstance, fight against change, strive for our ideas of what should and should not be. And often it is necessary to stand your ground for deeply held beliefs. But in my case, had I bucked authority in mid-2012, or fled to another job, I would have failed to achieve the objectives I put to paper at the beginning of that year.
If I had adopted a rigid stance, sure of myself, angry at the world, I would have fought, broke, and, ultimately, lost. I would have sacrificed my mission because I was unwilling to alter my tactics. Focused on the moment, and forgotten the endgame.
But in adjusting, in stewarding the tension and forces confronting me, and in being willing to flex, change, pivot, and grow, there is much freedom.
And, it turns out, much victory.
Talent doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Within a team context, employees add or subtract value. You have to determine how much value each employee adds, and what idiosyncrasies are worth tolerating for the good of the mission.
A company is a team effort and, no matter how high an employee’s potential, you cannot get value from him unless he does his work in a manner in which he can be relied upon.
—Ben Horowitz, When Smart People are Bad Employees
If I’m the most brilliant and talented developer or designer (or assistant or strategist) on the team, but I’m unreliable, I’m subtracting value. I’m a minus. I sabotage the group effort. Sometimes shining accomplishments can outweigh (or at least outshine) unreliability in other areas, at least for a season. But eventually I put the mission in debt. Longterm there’s no correlation between value to the team and an inability to meet deadlines.
I’ve learned this the hard way. I’m 31 and I have two severance packages under my belt, so these thoughts are as much for me as anyone else. I’ve often put my teams (and my clients) into debt due to my own unreliability. It throws shrapnel. It hurts everyone—the mission, teammates, the relationships represented, and my own reputation. It costs.
There are any number of reasons why it happens. Taking on too much work. Lack of interest. Laziness. Mishandled time estimates. Ignorance. Naiveté. Poor habits. Procrastination. Chuck Close talks about the amateurness of delaying work while waiting for inspiration:
If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lighting to strike you in the brain, you’re not going to make an awful lot of work.
Sometimes you can get away with waiting on the perfect storm. Sometimes waiting is part of making. But only sometimes. Only occasionally. Because talent and unreliability can’t coexist in the same employee without eventually putting a team in the red. There’s simply too much to do. If there wasn’t, you wouldn’t need a team.
There’s no overlap. At least not for the long haul. Highly talented reliable employees are highly valuable team members. They keep the team in the black. But a less-talented reliable employee can often add more long-term value to a team environment than a flaky hero. (No matter how many super powers they have).
I love the first paragraph of this answer to the question Should user interface designers be able to build what they design? on Quora:
UI literally ‘interfaces’ between two things: software code and the human eye/brain. The whole purpose of UI is to connect code on one side and human senses on the other. So I don’t think it makes sense to call oneself an interface designer unless there is at least an understanding of how programs work, how databases work, and so on. Otherwise what is the design interfacing to?
I feel this acutely in my 9–5 as we design and build all manner of pages, applications, systems and physical objects for thousands of people to interact with. It all comes down to people. And I’m not talking about people interfacing with things as a design problem to be solved—thanks to situational experience and the leadership1 I’m under, I’m beginning to see it more as a gift to be stewarded.
My team* and I are designing and building solutions to bridge the gap between people and software, or people and information. We’re removing barriers, adding increasing clarity and appropriate context to these interactions. How can we possibly do that well if we don’t understand both sides of the interaction? How can I possibly design clear, appropriate user interfaces if I don’t have at least a
cursory competent2 understanding of what I’m building this bridge between?
*We have big plans and empty seats
2. If we use the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition as a gauge, I don’t think code competency (some perception of actions in relation to goals, deliberate planning, formulates routines, etc.) is too much to ask for from a UI designer. ↩
Projects fail because when we work in teams, we seek deniability. We want instructions, not insight. We want someone else to be happy with our work and someone else to take the blame when things don’t work out.
If you delegate and distribute power to the edges of your organization, especially the young fringes, be prepared for fresh, brilliant work—and occasional colossal failures. Even with a talented, savvy team, they’re going to make mistakes when you give them room to roam. They’re not you. They don’t think like you. They’re going to do things you don’t like.
The only way to ensure you always get exactly what you want is to micro-manage every decision, movement, and project. But you’ll eventually end up doing that without a talented, savvy team. They’ll go elsewhere, where they can stretch their legs a bit and get to roaming.
Distribution of power will eventually lead to occasional off-mission decisions. You have to expect (and even embrace) a percentage of missteps from your team. It’s a part of the process of producing great work, but the on-mission ideas/implementations you’ll get in return are worth the trade-off.
Development can help great people be even better—but if I had a dollar to spend, I’d spend 70 cents getting the right person in the door.
—Paul Russell, Director of Leadership & Development at Google
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about hiring lately (I can’t help it—we’ve added three fulltime staff and an intern to our team in the last month) and some concepts have risen to the surface:
1. For senior positions, hire talent.
2. For junior positions, hire potential.
3. For every position, don’t hire people you don’t like.
Of course, it must be said, ignoring lists is also extremely important.
Some time ago, talking to some people, they wanted a bonus if the Lakers made the playoffs. I said, “Bonus? If we don’t make the playoffs, you don’t work here anymore.”
—L.A. Lakers owner Jerry Buss
Define the win, then hold your team accountable for not meeting the expectations. If they go above and beyond, it’s bonus time. But you don’t get bonuses for doing your job.
*This post has nothing to do with basketball.
My team currently has two openings, a Web Developer and
Junior Designer, and we just hired a Project Manager. I’ve been spending ~15% of my workdays lately sorting through portfolios, reading and sending emails, and following up with potential applicants. I think most people in Director/Principle/HR-type roles are too busy to explain why an applicant gets rejected, but I want to throw some ideas out there that I think might help you if you’re a design/developer on the job hunt.
1. Show Lots of Work…
Actual, Honest-To-God, well-thought-out, proof-that-you-can-problem-solve WORK. There are 12 year olds with a copy of Photoshop who can set some cool type on an image. Your grandma could learn basic HTML/CSS (hyperbole, maybe—but also probably true). Where’s the proof that you can turn complex thinking into seemingly simple solutions? Proof that you can take a client’s needs and translate them into real work?
If you’re a designer, show a variety of design solutions (include sketches and failed attempts, too—process is important). If you’re a developer, show live code examples (not just “I worked on this website” statements). If you don’t have real clients yet, try your hand at unsolicited redesigns. Just get out there, find problems and solve them. Do it on your own time and show a potential employer/client that A) you can hustle and B) you’re capable of solving problems for them.
2. …in an Easy-To-Browse Portfolio*…
I had a wonderful client/friend (amazing combo if you can make it happen) who once told me he typically browsed through dozens of portfolios looking for the right talent for new projects. “Don’t make me click a lot,” he’d say, “just show me big pictures of great work.” Word to the wise from a guy who hires talent for huge clients.
*Bonus points if I can look at your portfolio on my phone. I’m not a super-busy guy, but I’m also not always at my desk in front of a 30″ monitor. Mobile is the future of how we interact with the internet—if you aren’t thinking about it now, you’ve got catching up to do.
3. …with A Stellar Cover Letter
Make me look twice. Being a vital part of a team is about more than a skillset, so your résumé is only the price of entry. Who you are determines whether you get to stick around for coffee. Is there a person behind the portfolio? How is that person different from rest of the stack of emails I’m getting? Standouts get hired, not résumés—have a voice. Articulate why you’re different.
4. Sweat the Details
Proofread your damn résumé. Make sure your website works. Spell the company’s name right. The care you put into the details of presenting yourself to a potential employer/client is a good measure of the care you will put into the work you do for that employer/client.
I once got a cover letter that led with, “My objective is to obtain a Junior Designer position at [local advertising agency's name].” Since I received this letter and résumé for a job opening on my team, I replied, “I wish you luck in your objective to obtain a Junior Designer position at [local advertising agency's name].” Details matter, always.
5. Follow the Instructions
Be as creative as you want to be, but make sure you follow the instructions in the job posting while you’re doing it. See #4.
6. Be Passionate
Please love what you do. If you’re not energized and excited about the job you’re pursuing, stop, reassess and pursue something else. In a typical week, you’re going to spend 35–45 hours a week with your coworkers—no one wants to work with passionless people. Find something you love to do and run after it.
Read Kevin Fanning’s Let’s All Find Awesome Jobs. It’s full of great, practical advice.
If your mission is to quit, there’s no better time than right now.
There is never a more convenient season. Get it done, or let it die.
First-rate people hire first-rate people; second-rate people hire third-rate people.
If you have talent, there will always be someone telling you how to use it. Talent is in short supply, and smart people always have a vision for how you should use yours. It’s not enough to be good at what you do—you need to know where you want to take it (and more importantly where you don’t want to go).
Don’t mindlessly offer up your talent on the altar of the wrong vision. Be intentional with your talent, or someone else will do it for you.
[The '10 Boston Celtics are] a very unselfish team. They don’t care where their scoring comes from. Nobody seems the least bit bothered by that.
—Stan Van Gundy, Orlando Magic head coach
Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.
Same thought from two very different sources, both of which give me lots to ponder about how I interact with my team and who gets the credit. Winning is better than self-promotion.
I’m settled in to a hotel in Virginia Beach (yay for free wifi, Hilton Garden Inn! You get it!) for a week of vacation. I hope it’s well-earned, but I hope my team sees it that way, too.
I’ve been trying to shift my thinking over the last year—less about me, more about us—to find out how we can leverage the team best. I still think rest is massively important for both individual and team health, but I’m framing more and more through the lens of team lately.
As I put down roots (physically and mentally) and commit to moving forward with a group of like-minded folks to build something great, I’m acutely aware of how my personal lack has a blast radius beyond my task list(s) and projects. How do my shortfalls pull us down? Destroy our reputation internally? Affect the health of the organization? Am I making excuses or blame shifting? Where am I pulling my weight? Where am I just dead weight?
Here’s to resting… And to working damn hard not to be the weak link when you’re done resting.
You should paint like a man coming over the top of the hill singing.
The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life.
1. a disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome.
2. the belief that good ultimately predominates over evil in the world.
3. the belief that goodness pervades reality.
4. the doctrine that the existing world is the best of all possible worlds.
1. the tendency to see, anticipate, or emphasize only bad or undesirable outcomes, results, conditions, problems, etc.
2. the doctrine that the existing world is the worst of all possible worlds, or that all things naturally tend to evil.
3. the belief that the evil and pain in the world are not compensated for by goodness and happiness.
After some research and good old fashioned introspection, I’ve determined I’m both. Firmly. And neither. At least not wholly.
As with most things, there is a great tension at play that shapes my work and interaction with people. These are the environments where I spend most of my time, and as such they’re the proving ground for which side of world view I’m operating from. It’s a tricky line to walk—much of optimism in the above definitions seems overly naive and downright delusional to me, but I also don’t want to be known as the guy who only sees and comments on the worst the world has to offer. I’m looking for some middle ground here.
I think that balance as a general principle is a waste of time. To balance you have to be completely aware of the two extremes, the ‘weight’ of each, and of the absolute center on any issue. I find continuously that I am just not that smart.
Trying to find balance between optimism and pessimism is a seemingly attainable goal (given that we have two rigidly defined extremes), but it still feels like a waste of mental energy, energy that could be better spent on greater things. In the moment, I want to be more concerned with what I need to perceive about a situation in order to accomplish a task or finish a project. If that requires adopting a stance that others might label pessimistic, I need to be OK with that, even if that perception isn’t in keeping with what I see my world view as.
I’m guessing this will all be more difficult that I imagine.
If you have a job where someone tells you what to do next, you’ve just given up the chance to create value.
Well established hierarchies are not easily uprooted;
Closely held beliefs are not easily released;
So ritual enthralls generation after generation.
—Tao Te Ching, Chapter 38
If it’s pessimistic to read that quote and agree 100%, then i’m a card-carrying pessimist.
More on this topic later.
Last week I spent a few hours moving our three-bay “compost corral” from one corner of the yard to another. After relocating the structure, I had to move the ~40 wheelbarrow loads of actual compost. I could have shoveled away at it, and while a shovel is a perfectly good tool, it wasn’t the right tool for this job. Have you ever used a pitchfork? Amazing—capable of lifting and pitching much more semi-loose material that you expect. The pitchfork cut my work by more than half, and saved my back in the process.
You shouldn’t make a habit of blaming your tools for your lack. But you use the right tools for the job. “Work smarter, not harder,” I can hear my father saying.
So don’t use a shovel when you actually need a pitchfork. Don’t schedule a meeting when you actually need a quick phone call or email. Don’t make an iPhone app when you actually need a better website for mobile users. Don’t do the same repetitive tasks day in day out when you actually need to automate or streamline your process.
If presented with options, use the tool that does the job the best.
It’s the easiest thing in the world to heckle from the stands. To quarterback from the La-Z-Boy. To second guess after the moment of decision has passed. To take your minimum of knowledge and yell at the top of your proverbial lungs how everyone is doing it wrong.
We see this play out online in increasingly verbally violent manner—people spending inordinate amounts of time finding anything or anyone they disagree with and picking fights (in 140 characters or less no less). They mount mini-campaigns. They scream. They spit. They gnash. And all in the name of some sense of rightness or perceived wrongness of the other. They’re stuck in the stands, hurtling towards mediocrity, convinced of their superior thinking.
But what I never see people doing is putting legs to their complaint. You say you care so much about [insert organization or movement or system or belief here]? You see so much wrong with it? Then why aren’t you involved? Why aren’t you in the middle of the damn thing? If you won’t set-up shop at the scrimmage line and fight to change something alongside other people from the inside out, you’re all talk. You’ve got no teeth. And you’re ridiculously easy to ignore because you just don’t know anything and you aren’t doing anything.
It’s much more difficult to stick around and work together, especially (perhaps most importantly) with people you don’t always agree with. Because all the bluster and bitching and words in the world don’t hold any weight if you won’t act on them. When you claim to have beliefs, virtues, and standards that you refuse to act on you’re in the stands, wailing at the wind, feigning care and loving the sound of your own voice. You’re a hypocrite. You’re what you hate. You become what you be-tweet.
You say you care about something? If it’s important, put down some roots. Dig in and help change it. Or please just shut up.
A note from The Management: You’ll have to forgive the sports analogy. It’s out of character, but it fits. I figure I’m entitled to at least one a year since my name is in the URL and all.
From 30,000 feet, creating looks like art. From ground level, it’s a to-do list.