Ben Horowitz – The Hard Thing About Hard Things

This is a great cut-the-crap book about management and building a company. It’s most relevant to the the tech world, but there are plenty of gems here that are relevant to anyone – he’s especially good on shaping your culture (hint: yoga at work is not your organisational culture).

Here’s the introduction:

Every time I read a management or self-help book, I find myself saying “That’s fine, but that wasn’t really the hard thing about the situation.”

The hard thing isn’t setting a big, hairy, audacious goal. The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal.

The hard thing isn’t hiring great people. The hard thing is when those “great people” develop a sense of entitlement and start demanding unreasonable things.

The hard thing isn’t setting up an organizational chart. The hard thing is getting people to communicate within the organization that you just designed.

The hard thing isn’t dreaming big. The hard thing is waking up in he middle of the night in a cold sweat when your dream turns into a nightmare.

The problem with these books is that they attempt to provide a recipe for challenges that have no recipes. There’s no recipe for really complicated, dynamic situations. There’s no recipe for building a high-tech company; there’s no recipe for leading a group of people out of trouble; there’s no recipe for making hit songs; there’s no recipe for running for president … and there’s no recipe for motivating people when your business has turned to crap.

That’s the hard thing about hard things: there is no formula for dealing with them.

Nonetheless, there are many bits of advice and experience that can help with the hard things.

I do not attempt to present a formula in this book. Instead, I present my story and the difficulties that I have faced.

I share my experiences in the hope of providing clues and inspiration for others who find themselves in the struggle to build something out of nothing.

Ben Horowitz – The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Highly recommend.

Machine. Ecosystem. (4) – Marc Andreessen on Systems Thinking

Think about it [systems thinking] through the lens of a new tech product, which is kind of the centre of what we do [at Andreesen Horowitz]… If you’re not a systems thinker basically you say “I’m going to build a really great product, and then I’m going to have a really great product, and it’s going to be great, because it’s a really great product.”

The systems thinking more is that that’s just the first step because it’s not just about the product. It’s about okay, now the product is going to enter into the marketplace, and there are going to be customers that are going to have a point of view on your product, and there are going to be competitors that are going to be trying to take you out with a better product. And you’ll put your product in retail, and the retailers are going to try to gouge you on price, and make your product uneconomic to manufacture, and the press is going to write a review of your product, and maybe the reviewer is going to have a really bad day and he’s going to say horrible, horrible things… and your employees are hard at work and they build the first product, and you assume they’re going to be with you to build the second product, and maybe they will, or maybe they won’t, because maybe someone else will hire them.

And so with any kind of creative endeavor, with anything we do in our world – and this is for products or for companies – they’re launching into technically what is called – there’s actually a mathematical term – a complex adaptive system – the world. And inherently it’s not a predictable system, it’s not a linear system, it doesn’t behave in ways that you can expect, kind of by definition. So they say “complex” because there are many, many dimensions and variables, and then “adaptive”, like it changes. Things change. So the introduction of a new product changes the system and then the system recalibrates around the product.

And so as a consequence, to launch a new tech product and have it succeed you have to have a keen awareness of all the different elements of the system. You have to have a willingness to engage in the entire system, and it’s a gigantic problem generally if you’re in denial about that, if you’re not willing to think in systems terms.

Marc Andreessen on The Moment with Brian Koppelman*

*Full transcript here.

Machine. Ecosystem. (2)

Yesterday’s post laid out several reasons benefits of understanding your organisation as a machine.* But many of the important parts of your organisation don’t behave in predictable or mechanistic ways. Your team’s culture, for example, is a affected by, for example:

  • organisational history;
  • personalities on the team;
  • individual moods;
  • collective morale;
  • Team members’ stage of life and health;
  • interpersonal chemistry or rivalry;
  • changes in team members’ salaries or position;
  • ‘near’ factors like the closure of a favourite neighbourhood gathering spot;
  • the health of the wider economy;
  • government policy;
  • levels of outside interest and flows of money into or out of your sector

In short, your organisation is a complex adaptive system within the complex adaptive system of the economy and the world as a whole.

Unlike complicated problems, complex problems cannot be solved, only managed. They cannot be controlled, only nudged. This is the domain of the butterfly effect, where a small change can lead to something big, and a big change can barely make a dent. 

Aaron Dignan

Fruitful thinking

What this means is that trying to eliminate uncertainty or narrowly control outcomes is likely to be futile. Instead you need to ask which nudges will make your system more likely to produce good outcomes. You can think of projects and things you do as seeds with a chance of bearing fruit, and so widely – and position yourself to take advantage of opportunities that crop up in surprising places but seem to strengthen the system.

And as you think about the wider ecosystem and realise that you’re scarily dependent on ‘exogenous’ factors way beyond your control, you can think about how to nurture and protect the flows that you depend on, like flows of information or resources (including people and ideas) into and out of your organisation. How might building a network (for example) strengthen these flows, or tweak the system’s disposition in a way that’s in your favour?

*If you go deeper there are compelling arguments that even our machines are part of a living ecology – see Kevin Kelly‘s What Technology Wants and The Techium for jumping off point into this way of thinking

Vision. Positioning. Execution. (2)

Four types of vision:

  1. Vision of what is: the good, the bad… and the missing.
  2. Vision of possibilities: seeing what could be, or what could stop being. Having a sense of contributing factors and probabilities.
  3. Moral or ethical vision: knowing which possibilities should be, and which you will take responsibility for changing.
  4. Judgement: choosing a good way forward in light of 1, 2 and 3.

Each of these are helped by:

  • History
  • Friendships
  • Economics
  • Good stories
  • Science
  • Experience
  • Psychology
  • Visual art
  • Contemplation
  • Geography
  • Asking good questions
  • Sociology
  • Learning new skills
  • Philosophy
  • Studying management
  • Meeting new people
  • Systems thinking

The list doesn’t end. Anything that enriches your hinterland helps to shape your vision and creates new possibilities.

Leadership: don’t say it

You may have a very good point.

You may be entirely in the right.

It may be that you’ve understood their (bad) motivation perfectly, that they are wrongheaded, inconsiderate and rude to boot.

It may be that there’s a values-conflict that’s going to take a lot of deep and difficult work to address.

Some of the above is probably true. All of it may be true*… But saying it to them now – saying it how you’d most like to say it, maybe throwing in a few of the things that you’ve been carrying for a while – saying it now, in the heat of the moment, won’t help.

Grit your teeth. Breath deeply. Don’t say it. Instead do the harder work of fixing the deeper issues and slowly, slowly getting the boat moving in the right direction.

 

P.S. Of course, I said it. 

*And of course, it’s just possible that many of them are not true, or that you need kick in the empathy to know how to respond properly

Matt Mullenweg on distributed work

Here’s a short video with Matt Mullenweg, founder and CEO of Automattic*. He talks a bit about lessons he’s learned in running a distributed company, and why he calls his workforce distributed rather than remote.

These are his tips for physical companies interested in transitioning to distributed work:

  1. Document everything – so that key information like the reasons for decisions are clear to those who weren’t in the room.
  2. Move communications online – “when everything’s shared and public, it allows new people to read through and catch up quickly.”
  3. Find the right tools – “If you look around the office, the things that change how you work probably aren’t objects anymore – they’re things you access through your computer. So test out and experiment with different tools for collaboration – see what works.”
  4. Create productive face-to-face time -Automattic holds an annual get together “half-work, half-play” to create the empathy and connection that helps the distributed team work together productively for the rest of the year.
  5. Give people the flexibility to create their own work environment – “Every person in Automattic has a co-working stipend… and a home-office stipend… so that they can have the most productive environment for them.

I feel wary of losing the connection and accountability that in-person work allows, but there’s a long list of potential upsides here – including a wider talent pool, greater diversity of perspectives, more time and flexibility for employees, huge savings on office space and other overheads that can be spent on other things – that make it worth thinking more deeply about this.

Today there are just a few companies that are distributed first, but if you fast-forward a decade or two I predict that 90% of the companies that are going to changing the course of the world are going to function this way. I think that companies will evolve to be distributed first, or they’re going to replace those that are.

Matt Mullenweg

See also: easier tomorrow

*the company which, among other things, makes WordPress.

Peter Drucker on management as a discipline

If you can’t replicate something because you don’t understand it, then it really hasn’t been invented; it’s only been done.

When I published The Practice of Management fifty years ago [in 1954], that book made it possible for people to learn how to manage, something that up until then only a few geniuses seemed to be able to do, and nobody could replicate it.

When I came into management, a lot of it had come out of the field of engineering. And a lot had come out of accounting. And some of it came out of psychology. And some more came out of labour relations. Each of those fields was considered separate, and each of them, by itself, was ineffectual.

You can’t do carpentry, you know, if you have only a saw, or only a hammer, or if you have never heard of a pair of pliers. It’s when you put all of those tools into one kit that you invent. That’s what I did in large part inThe Practice of Management – I made a discipline of it.

Peter Drucker – from Frontiers of Management in The Daily Drucker

Understand the tools (make them if you have to). Build a tool kit. Make it reproducible.

I have mixed feelings about this quote from Drucker. On the one hand, bringing together a set of reliable tools for making effective non-profits or social enterprises is exactly what I’m trying to do with DriverlessCroc. On the other, a lot of the things that make these organisations effective in their contexts are very hard to reproduce – often apparently serendipitous combinations of people and resources in the right times and places, with combinations of vision, skills and technology that aren’t reproducible because they haven’t happened before – and might not again.

The point, I think, is to learn which tools are out there and how to use them so that you can be more effective at the creative, unreproducible work that only you can do in your context. Use the tools to make a new tool for change: your organisation.

I’ve posted a few thoughts about what some of these are here – more to come soon.

Blood and Bone (3): Drucker on decisions

All events but the truly unique require a generic solution. They require a rule, a policy, or a principle. Once the right principle has been developed, all manifestations of the same generic situation can be handled pragmatically—that is, by adaptation of the rule to the concrete circumstances of the case. Truly unique events, however, must be treated individually. The executive cannot develop rules for the exceptional.

The effective decision maker spends time determining which of the four different situations is happening. The wrong decision will be made if the situation is classified incorrectly.

By far the most common mistake of the decision maker is to treat a generic situation as if it were a series of unique events—that is, to be pragmatic when lacking the generic understanding and principle. The inevitable result is frustration and futility.

Equally common is the mistake of treating a new event as if it were just another example of the old problem to which, therefore, the old rules should be applied.

Peter Drucker, The Effective Decision, HBR1967

Blood and Bone (2): policy from decisions

An easy way to start making policy is to take a moment to record decisions you’ve made and why you made them.

When you can articulate the reason for key decisions, you make it much easier to make similar decisions in future – or better yet, easier for someone else to make a good decision without needing to come to you at all.

Peter Drucker describes four types of decision:

1. Decisions for generic events, of which the individual occurrence is only a symptom.

These are questions or problems that keep cropping up in the same or in slightly different form. An example might be repeated questions from clients about a specific service – our question is ‘how should I answer’?

There are three ways to save time with problems like this:

  1. Make the decision about what you’ll do and how you’ll do it, and document it. In this example, it might be writing a template email that provides key information in an appropriate tone. Copying and pasting and tweaking an email is far easier than reinventing the wheel each time.
  2. Find a way to make the problem solve itself. A good-quality FAQ section on your website might reduce the number of people who end up emailing. (But whatever you do, don’t send people who email to the FAQs without copying the relevant paragraph into your answer).
  3. Eliminate the problem. Few problems or questions are inevitable. Is there something you can do to eliminate the need for the question? This could be a case of designing a better product, or investing in a better ‘wrapper’ – one that puts the necessary information in the hands of your client exactly when they’ll need it.

2. Decisions about problems that seem unique, but are actually generic

Your problem might be new to you, but be common to all organisations. Financial management, child protection policies and performance reviews are examples of this.

There are established standards and processes like double-entry bookkeeping because everyone has to deal with money. If they help – and they’re likely to – use them.

Ask for help, learn from others, then be generous in sharing what you know when someone asks you.

If there’s nothing helpful out there – could you share yours once you’ve made it? How about open-sourcing your policies to save others from reinventing the wheel?

3. Decisions about exceptional events 

Unique and unrepeatable events are rare – do the best you can.

4. Decisions about exceptional events that turn out to be generic

It’s possible that you’ll come across an apparently unique problem that turns out to be, in Drucker’s words, ‘the first manifestation of a new genus… the early manifestation of a new problem.’ Try to look closely and see, then treat as in (1), above.

Blood and Bone (1)

When we start working for a cause, we want to get stuff done.

Most of us don’t want to know about money, and we don’t really care about policies and organisational structure.

We’re interested in impact… but impact usually takes time.

If someone doesn’t have a good handle on the finances (where the money comes from, where it’s going), and someone isn’t documenting decisions and culture in a way that’s easy to use and share, you’re unlikely to be able to ‘do the stuff’ very well, or for very long.

Money and structure are the blood and bones of your organisation – they enable it to keep going and to be more than a bag of jelly.

Getting these things right early – starting light, staying flexible, but working regularly to strengthen them –  will save you a huge amount of time and energy later.

For policy, start with notes in a googledoc, and roll from there. It’ll make things easier tomorrow.

For financial stuff, start here.