Mark’s User Manual V0.5

V0.5 2024-03-14 (Pi Day and Einstein’s 145th birthday)

Over the years, I’ve done multiple “user manual” exercises at work. For those who aren’t familiar, these are a way of documenting what our “human API” is – i.e. what the best ways to interface with us are, what errors we might throw, what API calls are fast and slow, and what API I might expect from you. I decided to sum them up, but haven’t gotten to all of them yet, hence the 0.5 version number. 

Below is a work-based user manual for me. My soulmate and kiddos have a different manual, a much more complicated and unwritten one. I share this manual in the first meeting I ever have with a new direct report, as a way of starting an important conversation about our working relationship. 

Mark’s User Manual V0.5

I believe that we can only build a great company if we work together really well. You can get work done without working together well, but it’s just so painful. And it’s never remarkable and the chances of it delighting customers are low.

It’s important to me that we have the discussion about how we work together and treat that as a foundation for what we get done together. Over the years, I’ve come up with some guidelines of how I like to work with people. Disclaimer: I am a very imperfect human (just ask my wife and family). These are aspirations of how I’d like to work with you, not a contract. I will fail at them – and I expect you will as well, in whatever user interaction guidelines you tell me about, even for the ones you feel are most important. In times of stress, we aren’t the partners and teammates we want to be. That’s ok. We’re all on journeys. Oh wait, that’s the first tenet.

  • We’re all on journeys. We’re imperfect. Let’s make sure we make space for that in every interaction.
  • Let’s avoid surprises
    • Bad news should travel fast. I will be eager to learn bad news as fast as reasonably possible as being surprised is difficult for anyone. It’s okay if the information is incomplete. In fact, if you’re sharing things as they arise, I expect the 411 to be incomplete. You’ll feel that I trust you to bring me incomplete information when I say “Thank you, keep me updated” and leave you to figure things out unless you ask me for help. I’ll do the same for you when something is happening that I think will affect you. I may have incomplete information too but the earlier we involve each other in discussions about difficult things, the better our relationship will be. 
    • One way to operationalize this is to start with the hardest thing in every conversation, not leave it for the “Oh, one more thing” in the last 3 minutes of our 1-1. It gets to be a muscle and gets stronger – my wife and I rarely notice when we bring up hard things with each other, we’ve done it so often over the last 25 years.
  • We are both human and will sometimes communicate poorly. That’s ok and we should expect it. Let me tell you a little bit more about me to help us avoid misunderstandings and fix the ones that happen:
    • Live comms are not my strength yet. I think it’s important that I set the bar that I am working hard on my quite imperfect communication skills. I regularly create misunderstandings. My weaknesses include jumping to conclusions, not listening carefully, and sometimes reaching out to multiple people to solve the same problem. I also sometimes start with the justification for something before getting to the point, rather than starting with the point and then explaining if needed. Know that I don’t intend to cause these problems and want to communicate more and more clearly with you over time. Feel free to call them out. 
    • Implied communication can be hard too. We will likely both be busy/overwhelmed sometimes and say things in imperfect ways, creating misunderstandings. For me, I am worried that you may read more into nuances of my communication (tone, terseness, word choice, naive emoji choice) than I mean. So, to be clear, If I haven’t said to you that I’m disappointed in you or something you’ve done, I am not. To the degree possible, you will be the first work person to know I’m disappointed in something you did or that I’m concerned with something you’re planning. So please don’t read things into a terse slack or funny look in a meeting; it’s almost certainly not about you – and if it is, you’ll know just as soon as we can get together, not after some long lurking and uncomfortable period.
  • I always assume good intentions
  • Negativity for the sake of negativity triggers me
    • Negative things exist. If everything was perfect, we wouldn’t have a reason to be here working. But I find it important to talk about challenging things in a positive and iteratively improving way – “wow that’s messed up… here’s an idea for how we could make it better.” 
    • That said, sometimes we just need to vent and be negative in a safe space. Feel free to do that with me – it’s totally ok as long as it is identified as such. It can even be fun.
    • Related to negativity is a way people often try to justify making things better by saying how bad things were in the past.: Respecting the past is important to me. We’re all here because we thought it was a pretty awesome 🚀 to get on. Let’s move forward to make things better – we don’t have to 💩 on the past or on prior work of well-intentioned people to do that. It’s a power move, creates fear in teams, and reflects poorly on leaders.
  • We each define our own working style, amount of work, and work-life balance
    • I work really hard. I love working. It’s one of my life’s top avocations, along with spending time with my soulmate and 5 kiddos. This avocation of mine t doesn’t have to be yours and it never even crosses my mind to measure anybody else against how I choose to spend my fleeting 4,000 weeks on this planet. You be you, I’ll be me, and let’s just get stuff done.
  • The 95/90 rule
    • I thrive on alignment. I want us to be able to finish each other’s sentences a significant portion of the time. I want us to be brave enough to make decisions when the other is unavailable, even if sometimes we know that decision is against the other person’s wishes and will have to be “explained.” 🙃 
    • So the 95/90 rule is a cute way of saying that if one of us is unavailable and an important decision needs to be made, 95% of the time we will know what the other one’s opinion would be – and 90% of the time we will be brave enough to make the decision without the other person present – even if we know they might disagree
    • This takes work. We have to get to know each other. I have produced some artifacts (like this doc!) to help you know the human that I am:
    • How should I get to know you? What works for you? What artifacts, if any, do you have that I can learn about you from?
    • This one isn’t quick; it takes time. Time both over a long period and in short intense spurts. Let’s figure out how to be this aligned. 
  • Trust first
    • I’m a trust-first person, meaning that I will start my relationship with you trusting you. I could be a trust-last person – many execs are – but I just don’t find life as fulfilling that way. Of course there are downsides of this approach, but I value the upsides more than letting the downsides deter me.
    • By the way, what is trust in the work environment? Though equations don’t really sum it up, I do like this as a starting point for conversation:
    • It’s important to me that we have a trust-filled working relationship. And if we feel that trust is broken or at risk of breaking, let’s prioritize that above all other things, even if we have to fly to see each other to have the conversation that needs to happen. 
  • Silence is Assent
    • We all want to work together efficiently. And to do that we need to tell each other things, hear things from each other, and make sure we move together as a team.
    • But if we’re not careful, it turns into a lot of consensus, most of it unneeded. So lets make sure that we do all the communicating and listening and with the correct amount of consensus.
    • I want us to share things we think are important with each other. But asking others to agree with us, though tempting, can create burdens and even bad outcomes. So when you share something, in most cases you don’t have to ask for agreement or even for them to read it. Note that if you ask for these things, there may be unintended consequences: 
      • Maybe they don’t know what you’re talking about but don’t want to expose that
      • Maybe they just flat out trust you and don’t want to take the time – but don’t want to be responsible if it turns out badly
      • Maybe neither of the things above are true but they just don’t have the time to fit this into their other priorities.
    • For that reason, in general, if something is broadcast, and there is no request for an approval or LGTM, then silence means assent.
    • By behaving in this way we get the best of both worlds – good communication and only the needed amount of consensus. 
  • Why is this talk important? Principle of No Regrets
  • Bad habits I am working on 
    • I can and will sometimes be micro–managing. Stop me. Believe it or not, I think I’m being helpful. It’s my way of feeling safe or grounded when I’m experiencing imposter syndrome or just don’t understand something. I realize that it is disempowering. 

I can’t wait to hear your thoughts! Let’s work on “how to work together” as a team 🙂