Design Story
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Design Story

Great job, you’re fired 

How start-up gunners avoid the competence trap and self-assign their way to victory

Part I

The competence trap

Your boss turns in her chair, faces you, and calls out across the desks, “I’ve got an assignment for you.”

Your look up, ready for the challenge. It’s a tricky problem, one that requires your unique skill set and needs more than a little bit of creative problem solving and political savvy to accomplish. In fact, no one’s ever done anything like it before. It’s up to you to figure it out. You nail it. In fact, you nail every problem thrown your way week after week and year after year. So why should you be worried?

If you only do what you are asked, you’ll never get ahead. Sure you won’t be fired right way, but eventually, you will.

At first you’ll get incremental raises and some praise, but soon you’ll start to be an expensive version of your original job—with nothing new to offer.

Even if you dramatically improve at your job, you are still in a race against the diminishing returns of productivity. You’ll continue to get more expensive, so you’ll have to balance your new rate against increased output (i.e., do more in the same amount of time). This is a race against an asymptotic limit.

While you should certainly always try to get faster and better at what you do, you must couple your efforts towards efficiency with a concerted effort to acquire new skills, new approaches to solving problems and cross-departmental influence. Also, you must stop trying to get more efficient as a single employee and start to build systems that make the whole company more efficient. (See The Ogre’s New Clothes, an example of efficiency at scale from my days at DreamWorks).

If you don’t both deepen and broaden your expertise as an employee and help make the entire company more efficient, you will be in a sprint to a salary cap once the productivity/output equation hits its natural limits. Then something worse happens: Eventually, it won’t make sense to keep you on payroll.

Plus, it’s boring. You’re doing the same thing over and over, just a little faster and better—but the same thing. Who wants to do that?

When working at a startup, there’s no time to get stuck in a rut like you might at a big company. If you are doing the same thing over and over at a startup, you’re in trouble. Find a better, smarter, faster way to do repeatable tasks, and then self-assign new work.

Part II

If you always wait for your boss to assign you something, you will eventually get fired, but if you self-assign, you will win.

If the entire burden of sorting out work assignments is always on your boss, she will soon start to see you as dead weight—sure, a competent, high-achieving dead weight—but a drag on productivity nonetheless.

Why? She’s got other pressing worries: strategy, efficiency, industry macro-trends, outside competition, internal politics, evolving consumer landscape, and her own personal and professional life arcs. If she always has to figure out your assignments for you, she can’t excel at her own job. Also, if she’s a good boss, she’s will be trying to help you move forward in your career and build your work happiness through meaningfulness. But she can only guide you toward your next step if you demonstrate your interests and what you want to learn next. Help her be a better boss by self-assigning additional tasks and shipping side projects—give her tangible evidence she can present when she has to face her boss and make the case to promote you.

And if you’re the manager, encouraging self-assignment is the best thing you can do to increase performance. Here, Daniel Pink breaks it down.

All of my most successful projects started as self-assigned efforts. The Twitter Mirror answered a question no one knew to ask around celebrities and live events. I self-assigned #FollowMe, Twitter Stories, Oscar voting, and many other black-ops projects that are still secret. The success of those projects means that now my job is to dream up new projects.

Assign yourself your dream project. Then ship it.


Think like a gunner

I used to play in a med school basketball league. I loved playing hoops with the med school ballers because all they wanted to do was win—to be the best, and to beat each other in the name of excellence.

The biggest hustlers on and off the court in med school are called gunners. In the OR they are “gunning” for the evaluation of High Honors. On the court they just want to win. In addition to playing ball with a bunch of gunners, I married one.

And now, for the first time, I’m revealing their secrets to beating the competition, even when the competition includes the best of the best.

  1. Do your assignments a full week in advance so that you are always one lecture ahead. So when you are in lecture, you can check your work against what the professor says and essentially get a second chance at every effort.
  2. On rotations, always think from the point of view of the Attending Physician. Always try to guess what she needs and immediately offer to do it. Don’t wait for her to assign it to you; instead, always try to volunteer for the best, most helpful, most interesting job immediately—so you’ll stand out and you’ll get a chance to shine. Otherwise, you’ll get stuck with the grunt work (which med school gunners call “scut”).
  3. Don’t screw over your peers, just out-hustle them. Win through excellence, not treachery.
  4. Getting every answer right is not enough. You must also have a side project going that advances research, improves a process, or helps the institution.


How to be a startup gunner

Do everything your boss assigns you (obviously), but then do more. Here’s a list to get you over the top.

  1. Come to every meeting with your finished assignment AND preliminary work on what you think the company should do next. Give your boss the chance to say “yes” to your idea (or a chance to correct your course towards something else she values).
  2. Work up an MVP for each idea in advance of product sprints. It is much easier to say yes to something that’s already in process and has a chance of shipping than to an “idea.” My most successful pitches involved walking in with working code.
  3. Instrument your projects so you can track your own progress. Have all the hooks in place so you can see if your hypothesis holds true. Don’t just do stuff and see what sticks; have a thesis and work towards the best outcome. Iterate against a thesis, not against a button size or a particular shade of blue—those details matter, and have a compound-interest effect on the product—but they are not a substitute for thesis-driven design.
  4. Don’t say yes to bad ideas. Do what your boss needs, not just what she assigns. See Don’t Say Yes to Bad Ideas about how I dealt with this while reworking story problems on Madagascar.

Have any other suggestions for being a start-up gunner? Tweet me!




Complements to the human condition.

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James Buckhouse

James Buckhouse

Design Partner at Sequoia, Founder of Sequoia Design Lab. Past: Twitter, Dreamworks. Guest lecturer at Stanford’s GSB &

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