I've been building growth teams for 3 years now and I'm here to tell you that you cannot growth hack your way to success. I'm sorry.
That doesn't mean growth hacks that take little time and are amazing do not exist. They do exist but are rare, but mostly they're not what makes a product successful in the long term. In fact, most things described as growth hacks fall into two categories: (1) gimmicky press-making features, which contribute a short-term bump to metrics, and (2) common-sense improvements to the core user experience, which contribute to the longer-term bottom line.
I really liked the book Kanban. At the time that I read it, it formalized a system of continous improvements that I had been consciously using but had never written down, and lended many new ideas of things to try.
Before moving to product management, I made the transition from individual engineer to engineering management. As an engineer I had been thinking a lot about how to improve the team, and upong moving into management had a more active role in improving the team. My approach was iterative starting with gathering information on what was constraining our software system. This was followed by identifying, vetting and making specific changes to address specific problems and lastly gather information to see if the changes were working as intended. One of the takeaways from Kanban that I found especially helpful was thinking about engineering tasks assigned to the team as inventory, and shooting to maximize the output of my team by keeping inventory low.
Recently, someone asked me about transitioning from engineering to product management, and I told them that while a lot of things were different, some of the core things I had learned in engineering management were still very relatable and very similar in product. As a PM you have a key role in managing your team's workflow and output.
There's a huge value to spending social time with friends and just chatting. If you're like me, you spend all day thinking about a limited subset of problems, so the socializing has a net benefit to your mind of scrambling things up a bit. You can get exposure to new perspectives, find surprising stories or interesting new areas to explore, and you can also find disagreement. These are actually crucial moments that can have a lasting impact on who you become as a person. Do you approach these situations as opportunities to debate and prove to yourself that you're right, or to understand and become a more intelligent person?
I find this habit in myself and in many other people: to try and prove yourself in these situations rather than hear what the other person is saying. This is unfortunate, and leads to less understanding in the world and more divide.
There's a class of these arguments that are different than most others: the super-emotional triggers. These are the hardest to discuss, and they seem to also be the topics that get the most media attention. We can gain a lot by thinking about how to handle these situations better.
You have to empower your team to speak up. You'll be surprised by how unnatural this can be. It isn't just about having people speak up and inject noise into an already noisy workplace, but rather to learn how to distill their concerns and apply them in the right way to the right people. If you do encourage people to speak up, you'll get dissent, but you'll also get better outcomes for your projects, better identification of your teams pain points, and you'll be able to have better meetings and avoid back channeling.
ICs have a great many levers to improve their organization. Some of these include: direct feedback to their manager, going above their manager to a director, or investing in improved teamwork with their colleages. Exposing these areas for influence to an IC and getting them to use them well are two fundamental challenges of managing.
If you want to get the most out of your team, you need people to give you very direct feedback. I have a natural compulsion to give direct feedback to my manager, and to work on improving the performance of my team and other teams, but I find that this is far from universal. The most common way managers try to get feedback: regularly solicity it. You may ask, "Do you have any feedback for me?". If you've got a quiet IC who you've asked for feedback a few times before and don't get much, this obviously isn't going to work. One option that I like here: direct mentorship.
Since living in Europe I've learned to be more blunt. With a workforce here that is made up of mostly people who are ESL speakers, nuance is often lost. I can no longer hint at what I am trying to get at and expect people to follow through. People rely on more direct cues to be able to be effective and anything else is going to get lost in translation. There's a balance here to be struck to make sure you don't injur someone, but I find that the American affect is to be more concerned about hurting someone than being heard.
If you've ever talked to another manager about Crucial Conversations, then you know it's a cult classic. Lots of us have read it, and lots of people love it. But it really doesn't work in a lot of situations. For example when managing someone and delivering a tough message, or in personal relationships when having a tough argument.
If you have to get through to someone on your team and they're just not getting it, Crucial Conversations can sometimes not work and you have to go with a different approach. I liked the book, but when I first read it I followed it to a point where I was being way to emotionally flexible to my reports while delivering feedback. This was stopping the feedback from being as effective.
After one of my internships I was trying to decide whether to return to the company or try a different company. I was emailing with my manager at the time, and I was conflicted as to what was the best thing for me to do.
We had a few back and forth conversations. I had reached a point where I openly told him I was considering other options and shared the options with him. At some point, he told me that he felt I'd be happier professionally if I had experience at other companies, and that would give me more tools in my toolbox.
I greatly appreiciated him sharing his perspective, and ultimately I decided to go to a different company. This conversation still sticks with me years later. I felt at the time like my manager was being authentic and doing something that ultimately might not be in the best interest of their company. But it left me with a long-term reputation of that company as a great place to work, the kind of place someone should try hard to work at.
There are a lot of ways to develop process for a team. If you become a manager / get hired in as a manager you'll inherit a team that already has processes. Your team will change over time with departures or new hires. Your processes may not match the people you have on your team, so you'll make changes.
As an early manager, I messed this up a few times. I declared changes and expected them to immediately be implemented. But they usually required an immense amount of labor on my part to be taken up by the team. I had made some crucial mistakes.
So let's say you're thinking about some changes to make people more effective. A new scrum meeting, switching to Kanban, or just minor tweaks like standup improvements. How do you go about actually rolling this out?
Early humans were hunter-gatherers. Then came domestication of animals and plants, which brought on much higher calories produced which lead to an increase in the growth of the human population. Later on in the middle ages, through continued gains in productivity, humans had reached a point in civilization where art and science could be sustained - though only by a small fraction of the population was able to participate. After the industrial revolution, the average person's free time grew immensely as automation increased productivity. As wealth grew, more and more people had excess money to spend, and became a part of the consumer class, able to buy and purchase goods beyond what they needed to survive.
From the moment there was a person with free time, there was a company trying to monetize individuals excess time. And today, we have the most free time (collectively) that we've ever had. I can't substantiate that claim with data (that's for an entirely different post when this blog is more fully fleshed out), but we can at least assume that we have an enormous amount of free time compared to humanity at almost any other point in history.
We've advanced considerably with the growth in productivity. Today, communication and knowledge spreads faster than it ever has. One of the more unsettling developments is how companies behave more and more like casinos looking to sop up as much of their users free time. If you can own people's free time, you can own their potential future spending decisions, or at least that's one argument.
I've been reading a bunch lately about the mind being a deceptive machine. From Nudge, to The Undoing Project, to Predictibly Irrational to Thinking, fast and slow. I've gotten engrossed in these books for a number of reasons. They all talk about a simple concept: You're not as right as you think you are, and you don't act as reasonably as you think you do. Your brian is constantly cheating to help you understand the world without being overwhelmed by it.
As a quick aside, I think this topic has a lot of potential interesting implications for the future and AI - do we want AI to be really good at the truth? Or really good at a more human representation of the truth? Would it really be hard to outperform humans at mundane tasks if we acknowlege that humans aren't really made to be good at these tasks? Does it make humans seem less special if we acknowledge there's a lot of things we're fundamentally flawed at doing?
As I sit and read these books I think about all the things I do that are odd, but seemingly coded into my mind in a way that is difficult to untangle. I'm also human - so while I might be able to be aware of my biases I often struggle to correct them. For example, I know that people form their opinions in an interview in the first few minutes, and yet I struggle to overcome this even when I can feel it happening during an interview.
When I was an engineering manager, I noticed a few meaningful trends in motivation and the struggles of newgrad engineers that I expect others may be encountering at well. I tried to step in and support these individuals when I found this, but I think there have got to be ways to address them at a larger scale than 1-1.
In short, I'll break this down into a few sections:
Writing every day is challenging. I had a manager who was able to do it effectively. But for me it was always too slow of a medium to communicate ideas. And now I am realizing that was such a foolish perspective - the process of writing is slower than talking but allows for editing, which is a crucial process of curation. I am finding that I can't not write - there's too many ideas floating around, I am misusing my time if I think I am too busy to write, and it's a great way to distill what's important. The editing process is incredibly cathartic for cutting out the crap and making sure you get to the important parts.
I'm not sure that I'll be able to write every day, but I'll be trying. My goal in all this is to live a bit more of a wholesome life. One example of this - I suspect (though not proven) that writing will help me to tone down some of my cynicism. I don't think of myself as cynical, but I do hear some of my own language at times and wonder where the more cynical tones are coming from.
So I've set up this blog, written entirely on my own, and I'll be customizing it and building it up with time.