The Messy Middle

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Autor: Scott Belsky

Hodnocení: 3,5

Na tuhle knihu jsem narazil skrze doporučení někoho na Twitteru a její námět mě okamžitě zaujal.

Scott Belsky, zakladatel komunitní sítě Behance, kterou Adobe odkoupilo za 150 milionu dolarů, se totiž zaměřuje na rozbor „messy middle“, neboli tu prostřední úmornou část každého projektu, která nastupuje po počáteční naivitě a „období líbánek“ a končí až po prodání nebo předání projektu někomu jinému.

Jak tato prostřední část vypadá, nejlépe vystihuje tento graf:

Ten je pak rozdělen ještě na tyto 4 fáze:

Nejvíce probádané jsou pak právě fáze Optimalizace, kdy se projektu daří a je tak třeba z něj co nejvíce vytěžit, a Přetrvání, kdy je projekt dole a je tak nutné jej přežít s co nejmenšími ztrátami.

Celkově je ale kniha sepsaná spíše formou jednotlivých tipů, a tak v ní lze různě přeskakovat. Já jsem třeba přeskakoval tipy, které se spíše týkaly projektů s většími týmy, a tak mi mně, jakožto solopreneurovi, moc nedaly.

Na začátku bylo takových tipů celkem dost, a tak mě to moc nebralo. Na druhou stranu kapitoly o nabírání nových členů a jejich optimalizaci, což právě teď začínám řešit, jsem četl pozorně a mám z nich hodně nových poznatků.

The Messy Middle bych tak spíše doporučil těm, kteří pracují na velkém projektu s více lidmi. Ti z ní vytěží jistě nejvíce.

Vybrané pasáže:

Your job is to endure the lows and optimize the highs in order to achieve a positive slope within the jaggedness of real life—where, on average, every low is less low than the one before it, and every subsequent high is a little higher. In the moment, you can see only the uphill or downhill in front of your nose, but over time, you come to recognize that there is a median that keeps you moving forward in the right direction.

Without a fight against fate (aka the status quo), you’ll never venture beyond the expected. You can stretch your potential only by enduring the volatility of the journey, by getting curious about the bumps, and by optimizing every aspect of your product, team, and self.

Anonymity means you can make mistakes and drastic changes to your product without disappointing anyone, but only because nobody cares. Breaking through anonymity is a game of endurance, so you have to hack your reward system so that the absent short-term rewards you typically rely on, like revenue or new customer goals, are replaced by something else.

As you craft your team’s culture, lower the bar for how you define a “win.” Celebrate anything you can, from gaining a new customer to solving a particularly vexing problem. The problem with traditional rewards like money, which can be counted and accumulated, is that they require the least imagination. Make the most of the period in your journey when you must create your own rewards out of necessity. By doing so, you are engaging your team more dynamically than a raise or bonus ever will. Milestones that are directly correlated with progress are more effective motivators than anything else.

What should you celebrate? Progress and impact. As your team takes action and works their way down the list of things to do, it is often hard for them to feel the granularity of their progress and you need to compensate. Celebrate the moments when aggressive deadlines are met or beaten. Pop champagne when the work you’ve done makes a real impact. Even if it’s just a few customers that make use of a new product or feature, these are the real milestones you want to celebrate.

Imagine, for a moment, that all your self-doubts are simply a function of society’s immune system, designed to extinguish nonconforming actions. You’re questioning yourself because you’re doing something different and society is trying to stop you—your body is trying to reject the thing that is taking it out of its comfy homeostasis. There can be only so much innovation and change in a world that runs on consistency and people falling in line. Remind yourself that progress is vision paired with initiative. The hopelessness you’re feeling is a common phase that precedes progress; we often feel the weakest just before our immune response kicks in. Sometimes you need to make yourself swallow a big OBECALP to get through that time. A big part of overcoming doubt is suspending your disbelief. You want to stay grounded as you make decisions, but sometimes you need to escape the gravity of reality to imagine the possibilities.

To foster patience for yourself and those you lead, pick a speed that will get you there, and then pace yourself. Celebrate persistence over time as much as the occasional short-term wins you have along the way. Craft a culture in your project or team that values adherence to a vision and continual progress more than traditional measures of productivity. Establish a structure that allows teams to pursue long-term projects beyond the gravity of day-to-day operations. And remember just how rare it is to stick to a strategy over the long term. This competitive advantage is available to any team, big or small, that is patient enough to stay focused, stick together, and move forward.

If you want to be the industry leader, sometimes you need to take the difficult path. Be wary of the path of least resistance. It may look compelling in the short term but often proves less differentiating and defensible in the long term.

In an entrepreneurial environment, you must prioritize your team over your goals and tend to your team before your product. If your team is not in a good place or your office culture is lacking, your most valuable resources will not be able to make great products or execute well over time. Your team genuinely needs to be as important to you as what you’re making.

But the best managers know that growing the team is not always the answer. Too many teams hire when they should be optimizing the people they’ve already got. You can always get more resources, but resourcefulness is a competitive advantage. Resources become depleted. Resourcefulness does not.

As you assemble your team, look for people with excitement about the idea, ability to contribute right away, and the potential to learn. What your team lacks in experience they can make up for with initiative.

When you do hire experts, make sure their motivation is more a product of their desire to learn than their desire to provide the fastest answers.

Past initiative is the best indicator of future initiative. Look beyond the formal résumé and ask candidates about their interests and what they have done to pursue them. It doesn’t matter what the interests are—bonsai cultivation, writing poetry, whatever! Instead, gauge whether the candidate has a history of being proactive in advancing their interests.

Diversity includes people’s past experiences, so look to build a team of people who have endured adversity and overcome substantial challenges in their own lives. This will bring strength and tolerance to the team’s DNA.

Traits such as courage, a tolerance for ambiguity, self-reliance, and an urge to prove oneself are more powerful drivers of performance than a couple more years holding a particular job title.

The best team players will be the ones who are as willing to throw around their own nascent ideas as they are helping build upon others. People who shut down new notions in favor of wanting to advance their own may be heralded as creative firecrackers, but they do not make for good team players in the long term.

Seek people who make the impossible-to-understand more accessible. One of the greater challenges leaders face on the hiring front is evaluating people with a different technical expertise. For example, how do you evaluate the skills of a cryptocurrency expert or a data scientist if you have no expertise in either one? Sure, you can get third-party opinions from others in the industry, but sometimes recruitment is confidential and your candidates have jobs elsewhere, which restricts how many people you can involve in the recruitment process. But all skills, no matter how scientific, can be explained in layman’s terms—it’s just extremely hard to do it. Despite appearances, simplicity takes deep understanding and synthesis. The greatest thinkers in any field can explain problems and advocate for solutions in clear and simple ways. They use analogies, teach others, and make technical concepts relatable. Genius is making the complicated simple and relatable.

Build a team of people dynamic enough to make every conversation a step function that is more interesting than the one before it, and smart enough to make the complicated simple and accessible to everyone.

A better hiring criterion is, “Will they challenge us? Are they likely to bring a different point of view?” And then, when sparks start to fly (within healthy boundaries), remind your team that they’re making progress.

When building a team, hire both doers and dreamers in relatively equal proportions. You also need to empower them at the right times. During day-to-day operations, doers must be positioned to question new ideas and keep creative whims in check to ensure progress on the biggest ideas that will make the greatest impact. But when a new problem emerges or a brainstorm begins, doers—and their tendencies—need to be suppressed so the dreamers can do their thing.

If you’re more of a dreamer, be sure to hire doers, even though they may not seem as fun and flexible as you are. They will be the core of your company’s immune system, and without them, you’re liable to get off track. I often see this problem in creative agencies and start-ups founded by visionary types. They seek to hire people like them and believe that a creative company is made up of creative people. On the contrary, successful creative companies have a bold vision and creative leaders who help set it, but are often managed by more pragmatic and progress-oriented doers. You need to hire and empower people who default to the opposite tendency to your own, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable.

Feedback and discussion provide a constant stream of data for the new employee to consider. For example, I try to foster ongoing conversations around expectations, what I am seeing, and a few things I suggest trying. When there is a gap I see between what an employee is doing versus what I expected, I express it rather than wait. As a new employee, there is no way to graft yourself onto a new team without a sense of how you’re doing and coming across to others and what you could do differently.

The active efforts and campaigns you make to internally promote your plans and progress will help people stay motivated and make better decisions about what to do next. Your team’s understanding of priorities and perception of their own progress is in your hands.

My preferred method of evaluating delegated tasks is holding debriefs after both major milestones and fiascos. Asking questions like “How did it go on a scale of one to ten?” “What should we have done differently?” and “What worked surprisingly well?” will naturally hone a team’s instincts, capture what they learned, and foster accountability without challenging the new leaders’ autonomy or micromanaging them.

Be curious about competitors’ moves, but don’t emulate them. Instead, look at what your competitors do, and ask yourself a series of questions: “Are their strategy and goals the same as mine?” But if your competitor’s strategy and goals are the same as your own, then you need to ask yourself another question: “Is their tactic better?”

Competition can turbocharge longer-term efforts that lack short-term rewards and provide a sense of urgency that normally stops you from pursuing your priorities. Pacing yourself against your competitors can be a source of productivity—so long as the tactics being prioritized are aligned with your goals.

Your past personal best—your most productive week, your most efficient sprint, your best-executed event—is what you need to beat. Competing with your past is the purest and surest way to make faster progress without compromising your vision. The greatest successes are the aggregate of persistent optimizations of personal bests.

When it comes to speed and efficiency, the greatest risk is taking a shortcut in the one area that distinguishes you the most.

Speed through the generic stuff, but take the time you need to perfect the few things that you’re most proud of.

Unless you’re a legendary painter, tenured professor, or a New Yorker writer on a yearly retainer, few of us can slow cook for a living. But we can round out our work with a few slow-cooked projects—you just can’t forget what you’ve got on the stove. You must keep coming back to it, checking it every now and then, adding a dash of salt here, skimming off the foam there. Over the course of your life, these projects could become your greatest creations.

If you’re a founder or working on a solo project, you have the luxury of abandoning the project and pivoting to something you’re excited about; the sunk costs may feel too steep at the moment, but over time, it will feel negligible, I promise. Don’t let exhaustion or the lack of short-term rewards confuse your gut instincts. Every venture is hard, and every great team loses momentum once in a while. I think the ultimate litmus test is whether you have more or less conviction about the vision than you had at the start. If you still believe that what you’re building needs to exist—and the time you’ve spent on the project only deepens your conviction for the change you will make with your product—then stick with it.

If you look at a product, a paragraph, or a piece of art long enough, something will eventually look wrong. Persistent insecurities manifest themselves as unnecessary debates and you suddenly lose perspective of what matters. Gut instinct becomes compromised. The wrinkle that makes your work special is liable to get ironed out if you keep at it. Scrutiny must have a limit, otherwise everything you make will be critiqued and edited back to the unremarkable mean.

Your obsession and extreme attention to detail will cause small and insignificant things to distract you from the overarching goal, and you’ll start critiquing and changing parts without consideration for the whole. If you can’t help yourself and must search for ways to improve, at least learn to scrutinize a system rather than its parts. When a structure works, look for ways to make it better according to your mission rather than obsess over the rough edges of segments.

If design is important to your product or process, challenge yourself to look past the graphics and what’s new and shiny at the surface. Reduce elements—and any step requiring decisions—whenever you can. Fewer options, shorter copy, and simpler steps will always bring your product to a better place.

You need to prime your audience to the point where they know three things: Why they’re there? What they can accomplish? What to do next?

… every product suffers the same challenge: helping customers understand why they’re there, what they can accomplish, and what to do next in as few steps, words, and seconds as possible.

… the first mile of a product experience is increasingly neglected over time despite becoming more important over time. As your product reaches beyond early adopters, the first mile will need to be even simpler and account for vastly different groups of “newest users,” not just the power users you were originally hoping to attract.

Without constantly reconsidering your assumptions for what new users need, you’ll fail to accommodate the cohorts that will bring your product into the mainstream.

Your challenge is to create product experiences for two different mind-sets, one for your potential customers and one for your engaged customers. Initially, if you want your prospective customers to engage, think of them as lazy, vain, and selfish. Then for the customers who survive the first 30 seconds and actually come through the door, build a meaningful experience and relationship that lasts a lifetime.

When pursuing a new idea or solution to a problem, run it through three filters: 1. Empathy with a Need and Frustration, 2. Humility with the Market, 3. Passion for the Solution

Push yourself to go door-to-door, in whatever way that applies to you. Spend time sitting next to your customers to better understand their jobs or lives. Push yourself to ask more questions and spend more time building relationships. Connect with people you meet by looking for something to learn. By doing so, you’ll feel the granularity of your business, unearth invaluable realizations, and earn new customers, all the while building the relationships that make your creations more viable and sustainable.

A cool new product can be an indication of the next big thing—but it isn’t always the next big thing itself. You’re running a race to be the very first team to get it right, not the first to cross the finish line.

Identify and prioritize efforts with disproportionate impact.

Systems Thinking: choosing your projects based on the skills and relationships you will develop.”

Instead of weighing all options and seeking more before making a decision, sometimes it’s best to go with the option that feels most right at first. Otherwise you’ll waste time and energy searching for more options that may be only mildly more beneficial (or worse) than the one you started with, and you’ll be left second-guessing yourself rather than building conviction.

Most best practices are, in fact, just potential practices to consider employing. The more potential paths you have to consider, the better you can triangulate your own approach.

As you approach the later stages of your project, your challenge is to hold on to some of the openness, humility, and brashness you had in the beginning. Keep repositioning the ultimate goal to be as far away as you can see, and never forget that blind spots only grow as you succeed. In mind and in spirit, stay in the early innings.

When you’re finished, your fate and your work’s fate diverge, but your identity belongs to you. And you are not your work. Your work, or your art, is something you’ve made. It can fail, be sold, or be left behind, but it can’t be you. A successful final mile requires letting go of what you made and returning to who you are, your values, and your curiosities that are kindling for whatever comes next.

One of my favorite sayings from ancient times is “Wealth is ultimately feeling like you got your full portion.”

Realizing a deeply held conviction was wrong is a new lease on life. It means you’re still a student, still learning, and not done yet…

When you find yourself dwelling on the end of a journey, double down on the joys and curiosities of the day. Not only are they real, they offer a path to a richer life.