Managing with Martians

Or, why frameworks are better than answers

Suppose one day, a Martian landed in your backyard. (Don’t worry, it’s one of the cute ones. It’s small and green and has the proper proportions of adorableness with oversized head, little body, and inquisitive, big eyes (three of them).

Now, this Martian is a curious little fellow. It talks in a high, breathy voice with an accent that’s a cross between Bostonians, Austrians and Siri. It somehow understands English and it’s here to learn all about the Earthling world for its Tetra InterGalWarp Ewol in front of its Martian Dojimos (translation: “fourth grade summer break presentation in front of its class”).

So this is what the Martian does. It points to things and asks you about them. What does it do? How did it come about? What is it used for? Nothing escapes its inquisitive eyes (after all, there are three of them). A blade of grass. Mustard. An Underwood Typewriter. That tawdry romance novel on your shelf with the undone bodices. The Mother of Dragons as portrayed on TV. The color purple. Arachnids. Cosplayers. Balsamic-strawberry ice cream. The list goes on and on.

At first, it’s cute. (Haha, the adorable Martian wants to know why some people wear a green bodysuit with shell on their back and tie a colored bandana around their eyes and carry some styrofoam nunchucks). But pretty soon your amusement starts turning to alarm. The questions come too fast, too furiously. What is this petunia? What is this Mini Cooper? What is this hipster? You know all the answers, but firing them off one by one doesn’t solve anything. The world has a million things one could point to and ask about. Maybe even a billion.

You could spend all your days and nights answering this Martian’s questions and you wouldn’t really make a dent in its understanding.

As a manager, you own the outcomes of your team. The buck stops with you, so don’t go around blaming somebody else when things don’t work out. This is the meaning of accountability.

But the dark side of accountability is when you get too attached to outcomes, and you start thinking that the most direct way to a great outcome is to give people the answers and tell them the easiest-bestest-quickest way to do something.

It’s natural to fall into this way of thinking because everyone is looking for answers. Maybe they are even asking you for the easiest-bestest-quickest way to do something, because you are the manager, and they think you know the answer. And of course you want to help. You want the folks on your team to be successful. If you do happen to know the straightest path to success, why wouldn’t you save everyone the time and energy—not to mention decrease the risk of the whole thing going poorly—by directly supplying the answer?

You need to amend your relationship with X by sending them an e-mail, asking to set up a meeting, and discussing the following…

Ally just asked me when your mocks would be ready. Can you have them done in a week? We should look at the wireframes tomorrow.

You should ship the feature to a 1% test before you launch it, and make sure you set up some user research sessions as well.

In the best case scenario, you’ve given someone clear direction that has them executing in complete alignment with your intentions. Sometimes, this is necessary. There are crisis situations and big, hairy decisions that cannot afford anything but clear, decisive action. (This is what Ben Horowitz refers to in his book as “a company in wartime.”)

But let’s say you’re not at war. You’re expanding and growing a fine business and building up a team for long-term success. Then what? Then, all you’re doing when you supply answers is micromanaging. You’re stamping out creativity and growth. You’re stunting the development of others. And in seeing yourself as a gatekeeper, you’re also setting yourself up for a long and arduous road ahead.

If you don’t figure out a better way, shit’s about to get unsustainable.

How should your Martian buddy get all its questions answered while leaving you enough time to actually have a life?

Well. You could sit it down and give it a few lessons on the basic principles of life. Like, understanding what’s an animal (ladybug) as opposed to a plant (petunia), or what’s natural (grass) versus man-made (Underwood Typewriter). And what motivates Earthlings (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with self-actualization at the top which for some people translates to cosplay or eating mustard or watching the Mother of Dragons on TV). And then, in the future, when the little Martian points to a clump of tall grasses, you can say “fescue, flora” and that’ll be that.

Or…. You could teach it how to read and usher it into a library. After a couple months in there, the Martian’ll have a pretty good understanding of the world. (Some TV wouldn’t hurt either.)

Or… it could go to school. Start kindergarten and take every class all the way through college. That’ll take a while, but hey, Martian time runs differently than human time.

Or… You could teach it how to use the Internet. It could use Quora or Jelly or Wikipedia to answer all its questions, and the wisdom of the crowds will ease your burden of being the one and only source of answers.

Or…. if the Martian species is in possession of advanced technology, it could build one of those systems that The Matrix had where one can download knowledge straight to one’s brain. (Efficient, and you can even learn kung fu!)

Really, there are a lot of possibilities for our Martian friend.

What are some useful frameworks in managing? There are probably dozens of books on the topic. None guarantee a perfect outcome, but like a handy tool or a nice set of blueprints, they help you frame your thinking so that you have a better chance of executing successfully. A good framework is like a shortcut for understanding how to solve a particular class of similar problems.

I like to think of a manager’s job as learning, designing, or teaching frameworks, where every framework is a shortcut for achieving a desired outcome in a given situation. Like a well-known childhood game, it’s fun to collect them all, whether from books, talking to other people, or personal experience.

Some of the most useful frameworks I turn to again and again (each one always in a state of iteration and refinement):

  • Giving critical feedback or having difficult conversations
  • Assessing whether a product is ready for launch
  • Designing and executing a realistic roadmap
  • Setting good goals with accountability
  • Building viable new products
  • Managing a team during “war time” versus “peace time”
  • Defining quality
  • Determining who to hire
  • Understanding people’s skills, strengths, and growth trajectories

When you find yourself giving the same feedback over and over again, or when you end up making the same mistake more than once—that’s when it might be time to think about using a framework (call this the meta-framework, if you will.)

After all, you know what they say about Martians.

If you give a Martian an answer, you’ll satisfy it for a minute. But if you teach it a framework for getting answers, then you’ll give it its best chance of success in achieving Pistatort-Caliber (translation: A+) on its Tetra InterGalWarp Ewol. And really, who wouldn’t want that for our adorable little green friend?