The idea of sharing your needs and working preferences is not new.
Understanding and communication of your needs is the cornerstone of any positive relationship, and there are numerous tools, techniques and templates applied to personal, professional and interpersonal relationships, rooted in fundamental concepts from counselling, coaching and psychology.
But where did the idea of a “Personal User Manual” come from, and how did our own version of it evolve?
What is the History the Manual of Me?
Based upon my research, the idea of a “personal user manual” seems to have been popularised by Adam Bryant, through his series of interviews with business leaders for his Corner Office column in the New York Times. An interview with Ivar Kroghrud, CEO of Questback back in 2013, outlines how the founder created a User Manual for working with him.
“I tried to think of a way to shorten the learning curve when you build new teams and bring new people on board. The worst way of doing it — which is, regrettably, the normal way — is that people just go into a new team and start working on the task at hand, and then spend so much time battling different personalities without really being aware of it. Instead, you should stop and get to know people before you move forward.” — Ivar Kroghrud
This concept traces back though, to an earlier Business Week article from 2008 by Ben Dattner, which has now been taken offline, but outlined the idea of creating a simple guide to getting the best out of you as a manager. Many comments drew parallels to profiling tests such as DISC or MBTI, which aim to create a simplified view of an individual’s traits, i.e. working styles, introversion/extroversion, whether they’re a certain colour of personality type. The difference between Dattner’s model and these other models, though, was the authorship. Where MBTI and similar tools try and put you in a box which describes you best, Dattner’s User Manual gave the author the opportunity to write their own definitions, and highlight the things which mattered to them.
The idea was accelerated by Bryant’s 2013 article, and coming back closer to the present day, where the demand for emotional intelligence in the workplace has again risen its oh-so-important head, a report from the World Economic Forum stating that emotional intelligence is one of the most important skills in the changing landscape of work, and a greater awareness of the importance of emotional wellbeing, autonomy and more empathetic management styles, the time feels right for a smarter way of getting to know new colleagues.
More recently, Cassie Robinson’s 2017 blog post is probably the most cited reference, where she shares an example of her own along with a number of templates for people to download and use.
In addition to new management styles brought about by recognition of the human and emotional need, the physical manifestation of work is changing dramatically too, with increased flexibility around when and where someone works. Changing legislation around parental leave, flexible working hours, improvement in the technologies which enable remote and distributed working, often pioneered and championed by start-up culture in Silicon Valley and similar pockets of entrepreneurial culture across the globe, we are increasingly seeing the erosion of the the 9–5 office, populated by faceless ‘resources’ to get a job done, and a shift towards dynamic and agile teams, inclusive and diverse groups of people, from a wide range of backgrounds, and bringing a broad range of skillsets, some in the office, others working remotely; some in full-time employment, others on contract.
Add to this, the ‘millennial’ attitude towards work, perhaps driven by two global recessions and the seeming impossibility of ever having enough money to own a home, a significant rise in the notion of ‘purpose-driven work has appeared, along with ‘side hustles’ and the almost exponential growth in small and medium businesses, over 76% up in the past five years in the UK alone — the notion of workplace culture, and how important it is to people’s happiness, engagement and motivation at work, as well as success, has never been more visible.
It isn’t just about results and getting your job done — its about how you interact with others and how they interact with you: relationships.
No small amount of focus has been placed on ‘workplace culture’ recently, and an increase in specialists who do nothing but help organisations design themselves better, businesses like Undercurrent, and more recently NOBL and August to name just a couple, are helping teams to work better together, to create better behaviours and better internal cultures, and the Manual of Me continues to be used by these sorts of organisations when they help their clients get to know each other better, as well as on-boarding tools for their own people.
Tools like the Manual of Me are just one in a potential arsenal of many to help the individual work better with the rest of a team, but also as a way to explore your own ways of working and understand more about yourself.
Our Version of the Personal User Manual
In 2015, I was working within a large agency organisations, where my role was to bring together diverse teams for short bursts of time to work on innovation projects. As part of this process, I regularly used playful games and exercises at the start of projects to get teams to work together effectively, to learn and discover how each other wanted to work or what we wanted from a project.
In 2017, I was working on a large cultural change project within the same agency and developed “Me on a Page” concept where individuals answered a series of headline questions about themselves, based upon a workshop series of about 30 games and exercises to help people explore their own ways of working. The writing of answers came last — and the process of asking questions, exploring and sharing together was powerful.
In 2018, after leaving agency life, and returning to freelancing, my need to rapidly onboard new clients led to me consistently ‘briefing’ new teams in on how to work well with me, and me asking them the same, as part of a teaming process which normally employees benefit from, but the self-employed do not. Equally, I was frequently being asked for a CV, and was questioning the value of a document with a list of historical dates on it, over something more powerful like a set of statements like “What value can I bring to your organisation”.
In parallel, I was running a community supporting the mental health of the self-employed, and the concept of a “Manual of Me” was introduced to the group by Simon White, who had created his own using artefact cards, which caught people’s attention — particularly those of us who were self-employed, and wanted a clearer way of presenting our offering to others. Our group set about discussing what a tool might look like if designed to help individuals create their own personal user manuals. Not just a sheet of paper with headlines, but combining the concept of the manual itself, coaching techniques, and playful games. We launched a prototype version of an online tool where individuals could select from a set of powerful questions, take part in a number of exercises, and share their manual online with others, all supported by some lovely illustrations from Buttercrumble.
In 2020, after the platform had been happily sitting on a website for a couple of years, the COVID pandemic struck and people found themselves working from home — the need for a way to communicate people’s new preferences, needs, and requirements was suddenly accelerated. I fired up a new set of questions focused around the new challenges of working remotely, and under intense stress and uncertainty, and sent them to anyone who found it helpful each week via email. I rewrote some of the questions to focus on the new landscape of changing nature of how teams were now working together (or rather apart), and rebuilt the platform to allow teams to connect and create manuals together.
In 2021, the platform relaunched with a renewed focus, and support for organisations who wanted to bring their groups of people together to create manuals, as they face a yet again new (for many) concept of hybrid/distributed teams and the question: “how do we work well together?”, and new paid options to support the ongoing cost of developing and hosting the concept, whilst retaining the free forever individual plan.
The future roadmap of the platform intends to retain the simplicity and power of enabling individuals to select questions, take part in coaching exercises, and share freely — whilst also looking at new ways of solving the many new challenges remote and distributed teams work together.