For a week or so, my son has been failing, he constantly fails, every day, every hour but he is so adamant that he won’t give up; he tries and tries again – and fails for the unknown-th time (yes he has failed that much); He has spent majority of his life failing; almost all 11 months of it.
To him, it’s not failure, to him, he is learning how to walk, or eat, or talk.. just like his sister did, and my better half, myself and almost everyone I’ve known.
At any given point there are thousands of seminars going on about “Success” and how you can learn “how to succeed”; some will teach you how to be successful at flipping houses, investing, growing a business, setting up an eCommerce shop that takes a few hours per week where you can set your own hours and “like Bob, make $10,000 per month” with the disclaimer that these results are not typical….
….But what about failure? Who teaches you how to fail successfully?
While there are lessons to be learnt from others in being successful; these lessons are based on other people’s failures and what they learnt from them – they learnt to fail, successfully.
We are born with a “learn by trying” and “learn from failure” behavior but at some point many of us lose it because we are taught that failure is bad.
While “success” is the end-result or the goal that we wish to attain, we really should tell ourselves that “it’s okay to fail” (avoiding obvious failure paths and not self-inflicting intentional failure) and we should be trying to figure out how to fail successfully; “I failed, I’m now going to get up and try a different approach” – you have to be okay with failing.
Unless we try and push our limits and drive towards the point of “possible failure” we wont discover our potential.
In leadership, failing successfully is important as it tells your followers that you too are human; that its okay to be wrong, and that you learn from it; that its okay to try something different and experiment. I don’t have all the answers for my teams and I try various different things to find answers that work – I end up with a lot of failures before I end up with success.
You have failed successfully when you have failed, learnt from that failure and have gotten back up to try again.
In my pursuit of becoming a better leader I sometimes forget to look at my the lessons life has taught me much earlier on in life (as a child), its interactions with people that ask interesting questions that help dig out those lessons – this is one of those.
I grew up in Dubai – back then it wasn’t all the glitter and glamour it is today, things have changed dramatically. One thing that has not changed though, is the summer heat.
I am not sure what you may have heard, but Dubai has two seasons, “”hot” and “very hot”. So, growing up in Dubai and school being out over the summer heat pretty much meant that we were mostly indoors.
Being stuck at home gave us just a few options: watch TV (not much to watch), play games, read books. The games were fun for a while, but they were the same games, TV kinda sucked…. the only thing that changed, or was new was “reading books”. Junior school on-wards at the end of the school year, my parents would buy the books needed for next school year and being bored, we would study them over summer. This turned out to be a great thing to do because once the school year started, I was already familiar with the material, had already done the required readings and most of the homework – I could mess around in class and do what I wanted, and since it was no longer summer, I could go out and play after school – it was a lot of fun.
I was performing, my homework was done, I already knew everything and I could do whatever I wanted; there was no harm that I could have been doing by having fun…. right? well. I was wrong.
Eventually (think it was grade 9) a teacher called my parents in and together they explained to me that while it was great that I was on top of my game, my “fun” was becoming a distraction for others because the other students were unable to concentrate and get work done. Since the others had not already gone through the material, someone like me should be helping them get their homework done and leading by example rather than distracting them with fun alternatives.
We all have different motivations for pushing hard and getting things “done”, i.e. “I just want to push through he last few minutes of this workout and complete this 1000 meter row so that I can sit down and take a break”, or “I just want to finish coding this feature so that I can get back to learning about Node.js”, or “I just want to finish my work so that I can have fun..”… (who really wants to be rewarded for finishing early with more work?) working hard and having fun is great – there should be a healthy balance. Top players work hard and take a deserved break; However, most of us do not know or even think about how our actions may negatively impact others by creating distractions, or may impact ourselves and stop us from growing or delivering to our full potential; when the fun does negatively impact others/ourselves, it is important to recognize and address it. In the event that you do end up in a situation where someones “fun” is negatively impacting others, or themselves: do what my teacher did and have a conversation explaining the impacts. In my opinion (and experience), explaining the impact (of an observed issue) can make a world of a difference and often solves the issue.
At the end of the day, its the culture you build as a leader that dictates how people “have fun” and what work means to them.
At a meet-up earlier today I was asked “how can one make a team perform better”; I believe this question can be answered in many different ways and I would like to share my opinion(s):
Would you rather have a team that reluctantly does as you ask or would you rather have a team that does what you need it to do before you ask?
Culture has a large role in Leadership; in order to lead, you need to push a culture that people want to be a part of (follow).
There are several areas you can focus on and below are four (of many) things that I like to keep in mind when I am building “Culture”:
- Build and foster an environment that drives ideas bottom up as this increases engagement and hunger for solving challenges. The people on the front line(s) have valuable feedback that they want to communicate but do not know how – build communication and engagement.
- Actively recognize and reward, be humble, chose to publicly provide positive feedback and privately mentor with constructive criticism – build appreciation and mentorship
- Be as transparent as possible, over communicate, share road maps, expectations, perceptions, feedback, motivation – build trust
- Build and implement a collaborative environment, have people tie in with each other, be open, honest, humble, we spend majority our of day together and should want to be together – build a family
The focus should not be on “making a team perform better”, it should be on improving “culture” – Improve culture and your team will automatically perform, better.
Taking just these four points into account: when you focus and improve culture, your people will be more engaged, have trust in you, want to grow and have the desire to help others be successful around them (imagine the care bears); these type of teams happily give it all they got and even go above and beyond to ensure success.
There are four areas/domains of leadership skills: Product, Technical, Functional and Project.
Product leadership skills
- Customer: Know/Understand the customer’s needs; focused on customer
- Road-map: Know/Define what to deliver when
- Marketing: Know the business market/sales models and trends
Technical Leadership skills
- Architecture/Development oversight
- Technical Road-map: what fits where and how to best build it.
Functional Leadership skills
- On-board/Distribute Knowledge: Bring on new hires, knowledge sharing
- Grow People/Push to potential: Drive engagement, innovation
- Resolve Conflicts/Define culture: unblock, collaborate, act on feedback.
Project Leadership skills
- Track progress
- Schedule work/resources
There are other leadership skills that can be added to the list above and there are skills that may be shared by leaders (such as process optimization, motivation, domain knowledge, etc.) that I did not explicitly define; I limited to the top 2-3 that came to mind.
I recently asked myself, “what makes someone a great leader, and how does this differ from team to team?”; I have come to realize that some are leaders in one function (Project), others may be a mix in two (Functional and Technical); In my opinion (and conclusion), one must continue to grow their leadership by improving skills in other areas/domains that are not on-par with the rest.
People (followers) expect their (great) leaders to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, so great leadership is well rounded and should be able to tackle any problem.
Challenge – The WOD’s are different, will require effort and will challenge you, you will burn out – it should not be easy.
Teamwork – It doesn’t matter if you finish first or last – your team will encourage and cheer you on till the end; the class is only over when everyone is done or when you run out of time 🙂
Tolerance – You run into people who work differently than you do, might have behaviors that turn you off, you get to know them, you encourage them and/or they encourage you; you build tolerance and figure out how to workout together.
Accountability – No one is counting your reps or sets, making sure that you did actually finish the WOD or micro-managing you; you hold yourself accountable and make sure you finish your WOD
Motivation – While there is a coach motivating everyone by saying things like “great job” or providing tips; you also have others going through the workout saying things like “great job everyone, were almost there”. You realize that a culture of encouragement that involves encouragement from peers in addition to encouragement from the top helps motivate you and the team more than one single person can.
Respect – You learn to respect other peoples space, limitations, accomplishments and drive. You learn from them as they respect you as a new-comer and help you be better.
People growth – Old blood vs New blood
I wrote my first post here on Jan 23 2011 and that post was titled “Startups – importance of your team“; Its been a little over 2 years since I wrote that post.
Most of us work 5 days a week, putting in about 8 or so hours a day (we will stick to the average/norm here). We come back home in the evening to spend anywhere from 1 to 4 hours with our family/friends.
When friends and/or acquaintances form a startup, the long hours and the close working relationship build on existing relationships and everyone at the startup works as a “family”; but what happens when there are no existing relationships? or what happens when you already have a family and someone new tries to come in? Wouldn’t it be awkward if you were out with your family/friends and a stranger joined your group and just hung out? would you be your self? most wouldn’t.
So how do you take an existing family (a started up culture) and add newer members to it? How do you mix the two so that you do not end up with friend circles?
I have 4 simple attitudes/behaviors that I build my base on:
“We are not that different”.
The new member see’s a whole new planet, different people, cultures, processes, jargon, etc. The first step should be to look for similarities between what they know and what they should know. For my teams I use a buddy system and its usually the previous newest member who buddies up with the new member. They go over materials, documenting anything new that might come up, go for lunch, talk about process, go through the who’s-who, engage the new person in conversations with the other team(s); they try to get to know this person as if they were dating each other.
“We got this, lets work on it together”.
How do you start work? where do you start? who do you ask? Scary questions for someone looking under the hood of something they do not understand. Here is where the buddy comes in again; during stand ups and sprint planning the buddy might offer “we can work on this together”, or someone else on the team might say “hey this is a good problem for me to show you how xyz works, and we can solve it”… they get the knowledge, they figure out how to start, they experience the process and they know how to close it. Build trust and accountability.
“Your team mentioned that you are catching on so quick, what can we improve?”
Over communicate reinforcement of team acceptance, ask for ideas on what can be improved, engage the new member; engaged employees have ideas and feedback that they want to share, things they have questions about.
“You are doing great, let me share my vision on how you play an important role to the team”
Setup a growth plan that’s challenging and communicate that it may be challenging and track to it. I like to plan for the 1, 3, 9, 12 and beyond and use data obtained directly or through peer feedback to gauge fit; if there is going to be tissue rejection, you need to act fast and figure out what you need to do to make it work successfully.
These 4 steps get you on track but you will still need to build additional on-boarding processes (around material and core knowledge ) that will grow the employees product knowledge. Its also important to keep your existing members in mind when you optimize culture as you want to grow the existing employees as well and not just the new ones.
At the end of the day it helps if we recognize that the teams we work with are more than just “Random people”; they are people we spend several hours with, they are friends, people we trust, can openly collaborate with and people we want to continue to work with.
When one finds a team they can work with for the rest of their life and can call family, its no longer “work”…it’s just a large friends & family gathering where they just happen to be working on something together and having fun.
We should all build and be part of such teams.
The Startup and the 3 P’s: Product, Process and People
I will not pretend to know everything about startups and startup culture, but I will list the reasons why startup culture is exciting, at least for me:
You meet great people, people who have ideas and want to try things, people who have passion and want to make an impact, people who will challenge you to do better. There is passion for working together as a team, passion for building trust within the team and passion for collectively making an impact in other people’s lives; or sometimes, passion for just making something happen – to create. There is passion for possibly creating something that could go big – disrupt everything, all built from the ground up with the teams sweat, blood and tears where everyone is high on adrenaline. Suits? Offices? As long as you are connected with your team and are working well together, those things don’t matter. There is no red-tape, or big top-down structures, everyone and anyone has access to all. Anyone can start working on anything, there are many hats to choose from; wear all. You don’t get bored as things are evolving and stay fresh, there are new ideas, old ideas, odd ideas; anything can change anytime.
At the end of the day, a startup is defined by its growth; when a startup doesn’t grow, it dies; it stops.
There can be several growth stages for a startup, and startups evolve; once they start growing they are now “startedup” and will hopefully grow exponentially. In a perfect world, the cultural values that made the startup fun would remain and in some cases they do (depending on where the growth has lead the startup) but there are times where the culture itself that helped the startup grow and evolve starts conflicting with what is needed to grow to the next level.
Let’s say you follow agile and you end up with iterations, planned work, release schedules and a clear pipeline of what needs to be built. This all worked great when you had 2 products and a team of 10; since you have grown, the expectations of what you can or will deliver have also grown. Some brilliant folks in your team have discovered 2 more products that should be added to your portfolio; how do you grow your current 2 products (since they have a feature and defect backlog) and also work on these 2 new products without increasing your team size, changing delivery for current products or burning out resources? Before you grew, you may have had your own expectations of when and how you would bring on these two new products; now that you’ve grown, others may have different expectations from you and your team(s). Maybe you say “we need more people”, which brings me to the next point
With the growth of the startup, either through sales, funding or more investment and the need to create more product it is decided that you bring on more people, and you do. You end up facing the same issue, how do you grow people with the same 10 resources you had who are busy working the two existing products; some of the people you bring on may be self-starters and will figure everything out by themselves but what about the ones who don’t? So now you say “we need some process and automation to free up some of the manual work so that we can do more with the same resources”, which brings us to…
How do you focus on process and automation to free up time when the people you have are busy with supporting the existing two products, or are supporting the existing two products and are also trying to bring the new hires on-board?
A part of me says that the above three growth challenges are not really challenges and that they are part of what it means to be a startup culture and are expected. However; there are a few by-products that the 3 P’s create that can become toxic, stop growth and hurt the culture if they are not accounted for when trying to grow.
The Frat party & the first team
The first team consists of the people that built the startup; it was their teamwork and effort that made the startup grow; anyone who comes later is an outsider and “we need to be careful about who we let into our frat party” (once upon a time I lived on frat row). This one is not intentional, but when you work closely in teams and blur the line between friendship and co-workers, you end up creating an inner circle and make it challenging for an outsider to easily integrate and feel welcomed. This by-product is a blocker for People growth.
The golden simple process
At some point there was predictability and little chaos in what all needed to be done (smaller team, less products) so everyone starts expecting things to always be perfect. Even though you have grown, you have kept your process simple and did not optimize for KPI’s and other metrics that can help with predictability, complexity, risk and estimation. There will be times where things change, dates get reset and/or product scope creeps. If you had built a roadmap of what releases when, had committed the teams to that and put all these releases with their iterations back-to-back (because of all the product that had to get pushed out to show growth and maturity) and dates or requirements change on you (usually not for the better) the team and its happy culture will get disrupted as it will take effort to get things back on track; when/if this happens all the time, it gets hard to get away from the domino effect and people burn out, get disengaged and/or leave. This by-product is a blocker for Process growth.
When you were small, everyone knew what everyone else was doing, everyone shared and individuals had their skillsets. Now you have grown, 2 months ago you were 10 people, today you are 75, the 65 newer ones don’t understand the code base or the original design, there is some good documentation but they need more information and there are 3 key people who know different things about the original products; original products that you want the new 65 people to work on so that the first team can work on the two new ones; how do you distribute the knowledge known by the 3 key people, make them available to the 65 and allow the 3 key people to focus on their new projects? If they are constantly being pinged by others and cannot get their work done; their sense of accomplishment doesn’t scale much; especially if you did not plan for them to set time aside and help others. This by-product is a blocker for Product growth.
Each blocker is situation (just like leadership) and can be solved; we will examine and solve for each, before we move onto other “StartedUp” culture challenges. The next post goes into process KPI’s and metrics – addressing the golden simple process blocker.