Having been a longtime fan of the over-the-top First Round Capital holiday videos, I took it upon myself to imagine what a fully remote company could make. So I set off with Automattic’s Chief Semicolon Advocate Michelle Weber on a journey fueled by her reshaping of the lyrics of Jingle Bells to more accurately describe what it’s like in a remote company like Automattic. What’s it like? It’s a lot of joyous “pings and bells”(referring to the WordPress and Slack notifications that come in throughout the day). Without further ado, here it is:“How to make a fully kitschy distributed company’s holiday video”
As a fan of the late John W. Gardner’s work on “renewal,” I am also a fan of his work on “excellence.” I know that word “excellence” makes some people feel either icky or excited, but his treatise of the topic is fair and sufficiently sublime that I come back to his book on the topic at least once every two months.
It’s not easy to summarize in a few sentences, but at its essence Gardner points out that we love excellence and we love equality. But the two concepts fundamentally contradict each other. And that makes leadership a challenging task because there is always a need to balance excellence AND equality. And because excellence will always mean something different to each team member, the leader needs to first determine each team member’s zone of excellence as a starting point — otherwise equality becomes the prevailing topic over excellence. Meanwhile they must ensure that there is an equal and fair playing field to the stage for any unexpected excellence to emerge. It is a complex balance to manage as a whole, but it is this challenge as set within a fully distributed company that I have found to be a satisfying opportunity for new learnings.
Gardner writes on pages 145-6 on the topic of Motives, Values, Vision:
Leaders don’t invent motivation in their followers, they unlock it. They work with what is there. Of course, “what is there” is generally a great tangle of motives. Leaders tap those that serve the purposes of group action in pursuit of shared goals.
One could argue that such capacity to motivate others is a quality to be expected of only the most exceptional human beings. Nonsense. Anyone with a reasonably broaf acquaintance can point to an athlete coach or Elementary School teacher or head of a Salesforce who is an excellent natural motivator. The gift is rare but not exceedingly so, and in fields such as those mentioned it is pulled to the surface quickly because the returns from high motivation are so promptly apparent. In other fields the effect of high or low motivation may be masked and leaders in those fields May ignore it — to their loss. In addition, we have all become so sophisticated that the task of motivating may seem so much juvenile anyway. You’re asking me in my pin-stripe suit to act like that like an athletic coach?
So organizations die of sophistication and more vibrant organizations replace them. Someone must see to maintenance of the morale necessary to undertake arduous endeavors. Someone has to call for the kind of effort and restraint, drive and discipline to make for great performance. Someone has to nurture a workable level of unity.
Such leaders must understand the wants and purposes and values of their people, and they must know how to overcome the inertia that afflicts most people most of the time. In this process, shared values are crucial.
I took from this passage above how it isn’t really about motivating individuals, but knowing the individuals first. In a remote working environment that is an extremely difficult thing to do. Although it is trivial to communicate with anyone in an all-distributed company, it is difficult to get to know them.
So a little over a year ago, I caused some waves within my design team around an idea of having them all blog regularly. I didn’t roll this idea out with any premeditated plan — it just felt like the right thing to get going because as a company we believe in the power of blogging. It almost failed for a variety of reasons that were mostly due to my being unaware of the many different factors at play within the existing managerial structures of our organization, but it also helped me find the various seismic lines within the company, too. All-distributed companies don’t reside within a physical building or campus, and so the politics that one can usually read from a perspective of geography (ie proximity to the CEO’s office) aren’t immediately obvious.
As someone who cares as much as they do about process as they care about results, the net result is Automattic.design as one central site where my entire design team is now blogging on a quarterly basis.
It has been a journey that has helped me to get to know their individual strengths, motivations, and curiosity levels as one step away from their daily work. And it has motivated ME to serve them better as a leader as I have gotten to know what their passions are for where design can head in the future with the 4 new design principles we have co-created.
Now, to be absolutely clear, the idea of making your whole team blog is not going to motivate them. It will likely be demotivating, at first. But for me as a leader, especially for an all remote team at the v large scale that we operate, it’s been helpful as one of my initial activities to learn how to best serve those who might choose to give me their trust. It’s frankly motivated me to do the work that I know that I need to lead them all, and now its my job to share that collective motivation back — through whatever means an all-remote jolt of team motivation can be delivered.
Exciting times! Now back to work for me … —JM
In a quick conversation this morning with Davide Casali, who is a founding member of our new Design Ops team led by Alison Rand, he brought up a phrase I often hear while working remotely of a “drive by” comment. On the one hand that can sound a bit macabre like in the case of how it’s often used in the media involving shootings.
But if we consider it in more of a “pop” way, we end up on a YT music video with close to 150MM views called “Drive By” — referring to driving by a potential love interest and missing out on love. In other words, it’s about being non-committal.
That’s the spirit with which Davide described a phenomenon where one can post design work within a remote organization hoping for substantive commentary, and instead just get a drive by. What does he mean by that? I think it’s one of three things:
- A “like” — which is as useful as a wet tissue when you’ve just sneezed.
- One positive word, such as “Awesome!” — which beats a “like” by 5%.
- One negative word, such as “Awful!” — which does a ton of damage.
Any of these three options lack commitment and fall into the category of being marginally more useful or more damaging than saying nothing at all. I think for that reason remote cultures can easily degrade to going silent.
Why? Because sharing a longer comment that is more substantive can break the flow of your day while working async. You may say the wrong thing, and then somebody will appear out of nowhere and start to argue with you. And if you don’t respond to them (because everyone’s watching to and waiting to see what happens) then you’re a bad person. Hey, that sounds like … the Internet (smile).
As drive by comments and likes go, if you’re curious about my own method when working with my team it is:
- I use a “like” to signify to someone that I’ve read what they posted. It doesn’t have to mean I agree with it.
- I use a comment to share an opinion I might have. But I don’t expect anyone to change their mind — my goal is to drive the overall direction, but not to actually micro-direct.
- I use a comment to ask a question that I’d love to know the answer around — or at least I’d like to be sure that the person has asked the question themselves. Ultimately I don’t need the answer.
Okay, this is kind of a drive by blog post as I need to get back to work. I hope it’s useful to you. It was useful to me to write this, so let’s hope for win-win! —JM
I was lucky to see a tweet by Dónal today that made me read more about CLOS networks.
The CLOS network removes the bottlenecks inherent in the main nodes of a classical hierarchical system.
Instead, it expands the amount of communication that occurs between leaves and the spine.
If there isn’t any oversubscription taking place between the lower-tier switches and their uplinks, then a non-blocking architecture can be achieved.
CLOS architecture allows each leaf to be only two hops away from another one. And if any spine node goes down, communication is still working. Bandwidth is increased by growing the spine and growing the leaves.**
Why is this important to me? It’s super relevant to something I’m working on with respect to scaling design in an all-remote team at Automattic. —JM
Making a YouTube video takes me roughly five to seven times longer than a blog post. And my production values always vary, but practice makes perfect! —JM
It’s basically a warm-up video … all of my videos tend to be warm-ups. Why? I guess it’s how I stay … comfortably warm.
This week I’m doing my annual customer support rotation, aka “Happiness Engineering Rotation,” where I get to work alongside our world famous (and all-distributed) support team.
It’s an extra pleasure to get to work in the same rotation as Automattic CEO, Matt Mullenweg, because of something that Ben Silberman shared with me on the importance of actually talking with your customers. It makes complete sense: if you are going to serve your customers … then you want to talk with them to see how you’re doing. And if the CEO is doing that work, then your company is much less likely to go astray. I wonder why this commonsense is not so common?
Luckily all my sessions are quality controlled and constantly coached. My mentor this week, Mindy, gave me a fabulous point of feedback for how to best end a support chat conversation.
Ask, “Was there anything else I can help you with right now?
Mindy’s rationale for this phrase is built upon the logic of: 1/ creating urgency with the phrase ‘right now’ so the customer needs to make a decision, and 2/ simply working to serve all the customer’s needs while you’re right there with them. Seems like a good idea to use in all situations in life, to me. —JM
I was curious to try out WordPress developer and guru Helen Hou-Sandí’s new Simple Podcasting plugin for Gutenberg.
Wow! That was so easy! —JM
Although the variety of tools available to fully distributed teams is staggering — everything from virtual stand-ups, sit-downs, async, sync, todo, not-todo, audio plus screen, all video, post-it shares, partial video, full video, AR, VR, and so forth — it’s not an easy to thing to connect 1-to-many.
However connecting 1:1 is easy because there’s no ambiguity with respect to who’s communicating. That goes for all-remote or all-premise the same way. Direct, unfiltered communication is super powerful.
But when you’re in a group larger than two, then all-remote degrades much quicker than all-premise. I believe it’s because of the following reasons:
- Spatial cues vanish and it gets hard to coordinate a shared view of everyone in the same space. The left, right, back, front of a room aren’t usable as orienting devices. You can’t use your eyes to look to someone and they know you’re looking at them — so gaze doesn’t matter. In theory VR- and AR-based systems will help to solve this.
- Everyone isn’t comfortable with their video on and/or their audio on. When working remotely there may be a background noise so you need to turn the mike on mute; you or the room your in may not look great, so you turn the camera off. It’s hard to gauge the attention level of the room so misunderstanding forms more easily.
- Async is the norm, so being in sync mode feels extra constraining and slow. Over time when you are working all-remote, you come to get used to communicating async and get the benefits of being able to manage multiple streams of communication. So being in sync mode can feel slow and cumbersome.
These detractions aside, sync space can be useful for getting on the same page because it’s a significant investment by everyone in being co-present. It’s the closest thing to a handshake in an all-distributed environment to just show up in the same sector of spacetime.
When working in sync-time, the importance of timezone inclusivity comes to the foreground. This was an early suggestion made by my Automattic colleague Paolo Belcastro — that I’m forever grateful he gave me. I tried running in three timezones a while for my all-hands as an experiment, but over time I realized that two worked fine. So whenever I run an all-hands in design, I run it twice with identical content: one in US/EMEA and another in APAC/US.
Looking back to my early days (a year ago 😉 ) I realize that I overdid my sync time asks in the beginning, and so I scaled them back because it didn’t fit the overall culture. But I’ve kept some regular sync time, and I keep experimenting with how to make async 1-to-many exchanges as impactful as sync exchanges can be. How? I try to keep listening to my constituents, and I am iterating as I blog! —JM
Originally published on automattic.design
We’ve spent the last half year at Automattic Design finding our design principles. That might sound easy to do when so much has been written out there about design. But we’re the world’s largest all-remote design team, so we felt there was a need to brew our own.
- Start from curiosity. Welcome and seek out difference.
- Intuition is grounded in interpretation through iteration.
- Search for and tell stories about people, not just data.
- Consistency builds trust. Speed builds trust. Simplicity builds trust.
The design team has gone through many iterations, and will likely go through many more. In essence, our design principles are all about people. And they’re essentially about our constant need to understand people who are unlike ourselves in order to design better products and services for the entire world. How do we go about serving these people best? We need to listen to them.
So we’re now understanding our customers through “organically-farmed” customer research practices that have been a pleasure to get to watch grow and set root within our design community. In addition, we’re all fans of Rochelle King and her mantra to be “data aware.” And Kat Holmes joined Automattic’s Board of Advisors last year — we’re super proud to have her tutelage on the inclusive design front.
I’ve enjoyed seeing the four principles of Automattic Design emerge because it’s how I’ve tried to serve my own customers: namely, the designers of Automattic. Let me use the principles in the context of explaining how they apply.
Start from curiosity. Welcome and seek out difference.
From day one of my arrival, I’ve espoused the importance of Kim Scott’s radical candor concept. I use it in the context about the feedback I give, but it’s often more about the feedback I look to receive. The designers of Automattic have grown to be super candid with me about their difference in opinions about directions I’ve taken. It’s so much easier to serve one’s constituents when you hear immediate and direct feedback with candor. Because I can take it in and immediately decide how to course correct, if necessary. And it’s often needed (wink) — I’m not at all perfect.
Intuition is grounded in interpretation through iteration.
I’ve often had an idea set in my mind when working with someone on my team, and then it’s been completely changed after actually working with them. It’s a process of learning to work with someone else — and it goes in both directions as they learn me. Being hypersensitive to how it goes well with someone, or how it doesn’t go well, isn’t a matter of trying just one time. You need to try over and over again until the connection forms. Iteration is truly everything — and intuition becomes an end result that is crafted, instead of just something you use on the front end and never bother to correct or reshape. That’s called guessing!
Search for and tell stories about people, not just data.
I find that the more senior that you get, the more you like to throw down numbers. Numbers sound awesome when you’re trying to make a point. And then it happens — you forget that the numbers connect with real people. It’s so easy to get caught in the ego of rationality. I’ve been lucky to have many mentors who’ve always cautioned me to not “go numerical” even when my most mathy-ness tries to take over my brain. It’s always paid dividends for me to focus on the people first; and the numerical data is a great special sauce to add to the overall mix.
Consistency builds trust. Speed builds trust. Simplicity builds trust.
In my book The Laws of Simplicity, my favorite law has always been the Law of Trust.
> Excerpted from Page 1 of my book, The Laws of Simplicity
Imagine an electronic device with only one unlabeled button on its surface. Pressing the button would complete your immediate task. Do you want to write a letter to Aunt Mabel? Go ahead and press the button. Click. A letter has been sent. You know with absolute certainty that it went out and expressed exactly what you needed. That’s simplicity. And we are not far from that reality.
Every day the computer becomes increasingly smarter. It already knows your name, address, and credit card number. Knowing where Aunt Mabel lives and having watched you write a letter to her before, the computer can send a fair approximation of a kindly email to her from you. Just click a button and the deed could be done—finito. Whether the message is coherent and keeps you on dear Aunt Mabel’s Christmas list is another story, but that is the price of not having to think. In simplicity we trust.
Why? Because trust is all that matters when people are involved. And when people use your digital products, you (= your products) need to be trustworthy.
Okay! My blogging break is over. Thanks for reading! —JM
I was happy to see a call by Dan Mall for illustrators out there, and the discussion thread has a bunch of talented folks to impart a heightened sense of humanity to any digital project out there in remotelandia.
Illustration is a field where working remotely is quite common. And many writers do the same as well. So it means there’s an incredible amount of talent to tap into out there for remote design teams with respect to imagery and content — what are you waiting for? —JM