There is much truth to the old adage “what got you here won’t get you there,” for individual careers as well as for companies. Among the best companies, leaders, and artists, change is their only constant — past practices are modernized, old assumptions are questioned and updated, and one’s past style is left in the dust of the future. But the more successful a product or company is, the harder it is to change.
Over the years, I have spent a lot of time with leaders of growing organizations discussing the challenges of scaling without compromising vision and productivity — whether it be early investments like Pinterest, my previous roles at Behance and Adobe, working with CEOs in Benchmark’s portfolio, or one-off consulting roles I’ve had for companies like Adidas, Twitter, and Facebook among others. Recently I’ve been thinking about how the insights I have observed relate to larger, successful companies that seek to reach new heights by transforming their products and practices (as every great company should always be doing). Here are seven observations/ideas that resonated the most:
(1) Double down on customer empathy to avoid the “product-market fit slip.” The risk for companies that achieve a remarkable product-market fit is that they start taking it for granted and fail to reevaluate and act when it slips. New competitors are discounted for being too small or limited to worry about. Your youngest or early-adopting customers start to try new tools, but their new preferences are not taken seriously because of the small market share they represent. And then, like a frog in boiling water, you don’t realize the problem until it’s too late. For big successful companies, the “product-market fit slip,” as I like to call it, is never immediately apparent — it creeps up on you. Of course, the only sure antidote to such a fate is to double down on customer empathy as you grow. Product strategy and aspirations must be boiled down to a few customer promises that you make and then deliver on. You can’t retreat away from customers when a product is successful, you must get even closer.
(2) Protect the integrity of products alongside healthy tensions and tough questions. The best product organizations I know have a very strong “immune system” that extinguishes most new ideas in order to preserve the integrity of the core product. The immune system is important, and the truth is that most crazy ideas, like viruses and germs, should be killed to keep a product simple. However, every now and then, even the best of products require an organ transplant in the form of a bold new innovation being embraced rather than rejected. Much like the human body undergoing an organ transplant, the everyday immune system must be suppressed to give innovation (the new organ) a chance. The leader’s challenge is to respect the legacy of a product and protect its integrity dearly while, at the same time, asking the tough questions and suppressing the immune system at the right place and time.
(3) Prioritize time to tackle organizational debt. Earlier this year I wrote about tackling organizational debt, “the accumulation of changes that leaders should have made but didn’t.” All too often, the easiest decision to make is to not make a decision yet. And often times, patience and additional diligence pay dividends and are well worth the delay they cause. However, when you find yourself waiting for changes that seem obvious, speak up. Don’t accept any process as a given or a timeline without understanding what’s driving it because, often times, there are accumulated steps or burdensome processes that can be optimized. Clues for such a condition include too many meetings with acronyms, too many gates for an idea to pass through before being approved, and too many people required to be in a room before a decision is made. When you implement a process, be sure that it it isn’t an escape door from taking action. A great process advantages conviction — when people you trust on your team know what needs to be done, they should be empowered to do it. Your job is the clear the path for great vision and execution.
(4) No elephants in the room. A month or so ago I wrote about another common problem I have observed in leaders of teams big and small: aspiring for peace as a default. On the contrary, if your job is to innovate and improve products and processes, you should be challenging peace as a default. Create an environment where people can withstand a fight and engage in friction as it arises. Rather than passively surf the whims of peoples’ hesitations to take action, bring the conflict to the surface with questions like: “Let’s debate this out — what is the worst thing that will happen if we make X change to the product?” or “Why can’t we launch sooner? Is scrambling a little bit after launch really worse than punting the project for additional months?” More importantly, you need a culture where people speak up when they disagree or don’t believe what they’re hearing. Your team must value conflict as a means to making bolder and better decisions for a more exciting outcome. Disagreement is great, so long as it is voiced and the team shares conviction when a decision is made.
(5) Optimize for persistent communication over scheduled communication. Over lunch with a few CEOs of larger companies this summer, the topic of weekly 1:1’s with direct reports came up and a few of the leaders noted that they had stopped scheduling them for a few reasons: (1) a scheduled 1:1 often encourages people to accumulate and save topics for their next meeting rather than share and discuss them in real-time, thus delaying decisions and causing bottlenecks, (2) weekly 1:1’s often prompt an agenda of whatever happens to be top-of-mind rather than what’s most important, causing discussion of items that may resolve themselves or aren’t actionable, (3) in the constantly-connected era of Slack and other forms of “persistent 1:1 communication,” there is less of a need for a scheduled 1:1 meeting unless there is a particular topic that warrants it, (4) when a less frequent (monthly) 1:1 is scheduled, it is better prepared for and can be used for more career-related and strategic topics rather than whatever happens to be top of mind, and (5) If you have a staff of ten people and automatically lose ten hours a week that could be allocated proactively rather than automatically…well, you get more important work done. Regardless of your management approach, don’t let the process of scheduling delay real-time communication and decision-making.
(6) Position designers at the center of product development and narrative. A great digital product experience considers how a customer feels — and what a customer knows — at every step of the journey (from splash page and sign-up, to confirmation emails, to on-boarding and crafting the first mile, to the accessibility of core features, to account settings, to engagement emails, to advanced features). While the various parts require great engineers, user researchers, product managers, and marketers (among others), the only people truly qualified to weave together such an end-to-end experience, and protect it, are designers. The best companies realize just how much a design-driven product team is a competitive advantage. Never abstract yourself away from the design process. Your job is to hire, partner with, and empower great designers to weave every step in the customer journey together.
(7) Re-align rewards and opportunity with performance. I’ve seen a lot of large organizations fall into the trap of “career tracks” and valuing tenure over impact. On the contrary, your message to your team (and all teams) should simply be, “If you exceed our expectations, the company will exceed yours when it comes to reward and opportunity.” Your job is to follow-through on this promise by tuning into who is most self-aware and improving, consistently executing, and garnering the most respect and influence in your organization. When you and the rest of your team knows who did what, a natural intuition develops for pairing projects with people outside of traditional hierarchical structures. These superstars are the people we all want to work for, and these are the people whose expectations you (as the leader) need to exceed, without regard for their title or tenure.
I am fascinated by the correlation between change and continuity, and how change brings something great to the next level. The technology and start-up world is so obsessed with what it takes to get something off the ground and doesn’t focus enough on how to be a successful steward of something that’s working. In my opinion, “changing the world” (or just your industry) is as much about stewardship of products and change as it about entrepreneurship and ideas.
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