Radical Focus with Christina Wodtke

Christina Wodtke is an author, lecturer at Stanford, and speaker who teaches techniques to create high performing teams. Christina is the author of four books, including Radical Focus and The Team that manages itself. Christina switched to academia about 5 years ago after years working with tech companies like Yahoo, Zinga, or LinkedIn.

In the episode, we made tons of connections between adjacent topics related to high performing teams. Here are some of them:

  • What are Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)
  • The power of using a fable
  • The importance of clear goals, clear roles, clear norms (What I call Team Agreements)
  • How exploratory OKRs foster innovation
  • Who from cows, dogs, stars, or question marks needs OKRs (You need the reference to the BCG 2×2 matrix for this one, see below)
  • What you need to know about individual OKRs
  • The role of a manager or of an accountability group in individual OKRs
  • How to do better performance management
  • How a team could manage itself (I wrote something about it here)
  • How drawing helps craft and share your ideas, and how to dare to start drawing (pareidolia is there to help you 🙂 )

Listen to the episode here or on your favorite podcast platform:

If you are hiring A-players, why don’t let them be A-players?

References:

Drop a comment or an email with your feedback or just to say hello! And until next time to find better ways of Changing Your Team!

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Here is the transcript:

Alexis:

Hey Christina, can you tell us a little bit more about you and your background?

Christina:

I definitely took the scenic route to get where I am today. So, I actually went to art school and changed from painting to photography because all the painting professors were abstract expressionists, and I wanted to work realistically. That’s when I first discovered computers. There were Macs there, and I started becoming interested in… This was before Photoshop, I was working on manipulating digital imagery.

Christina:

Then after I graduated, I moved to San Francisco thinking I was going to work in computers, but ended up going back to painting and basically painted and waited tables for several years. One day, a friend of my current boyfriend said, “Hey, we’re building a Yahoo killer. Would you like to help?” I said, “Sure.” I just fell in love with the web. I was reviewing 50 websites a week, and just the amazingness of it.

Christina:

Not to tell the background story in too long, but once I started falling in love with the web, I started learning how to code, became a programmer, then switched over to an information architect because I was very interested in why websites are so terrible, basically. Became an interaction designer, then became… So, I was starting to move up, and I was like, “Okay, maybe if I’m a manager, I can make better websites. I can make things work better on the web.” I’ve been an entrepreneur a couple of times, starting a couple of different companies. I started a nonprofit. My question is always why aren’t things better? Why do we launch things that we’re not happy with? Why is it so hard to work with other people? I’ve worked at Zynga and Myspace and LinkedIn and obviously Yahoo! I’ve worked as a consultant with people like the New York Times.

Christina:

When you go into this new thing, if only I could be in charge, I could do things better than everybody else. What I’ve really learned is that you need great teams, everything happens. So if you don’t know how to work with other people, if you don’t know how to connect to people, you really can’t get anything significant done. Of course, there’s single people who will build a cool game here or there or a cool website there. But if you really want to make a difference in the world, you have to figure out, “How can I work with other people?”

Christina:

That question has driven a lot of my work with OKRs and with high-performing teams, trying to figure out how do we make everything better for people? How do we make work better for people who work? How do we make the websites, the applications, the software that we interact with so much these days, how do we make it more humane? I’m now a lecturer at Stanford, teaching HCI, human computer interaction, still asking the same question I did way back in 1998. How do we make stuff suck less for the human beings that are affected by it?

Alexis:

I think that’s a great mission. I hope that there will be a lot of people that will follow your course. Christina, you’re also the author of a book that I already love and I recommended that book to a lot of people. The book is Radical Focus. I need to move a Post-it on the book to read the subtitle. It’s Achieving Your Most Important Goals with Objectives and Key Results. I left the book on my desk when I was traveling abroad, when I was in the US at that time. When I come back, I said, “No, that’s weird. I thought there was a book somewhere.”

Alexis:

I said, “Okay.” I forgot about it. A few days later, the book came back on my desk and with the Post-it notes, and it was mentioned, “Alexis, [french Language 00:05:17].” Of course, I’m French. People will probably recognize my accent. The book enjoyed traveling to India and back, and is looking forward to attract new friends. I love Wodtke’s approach. That was a great background. Jeff.” I was thinking, “Yeah, that’s cool.” Now, I have the proof point that the book is really cool and really great and really important. First of all, I’ve said objectives and key results, or OKRs. How would you explain OKRs?

Christina:

Well, thank you for that incredibly kind story. That just makes my day. So, OKRs, I always joke that I was writing a book about an acronym, and the only way I could make it interesting was to tell a story because I love OKRs. I think they can be really transformative to a person or a company. I’ve seen it over and over again. A lot of folks really focus on the OKR part, the objective and key results.

Christina:

So the objective is qualitative. It’s an inspirational goal. Sometimes I talk about it saying, “It’s a mission for three months.” Every company has a five-year mission or a mission statement. If you could make a mission statement for just a quarter, what would it be? It has to inspire people. Then you have the key results, which answer the question, how would we know, how would we know if we’d actually fulfilled this mission that we’re setting for ourselves over this three months? What would change in the world? What numbers would move? You have to avoid the seduction of the task, right? It’s very tempting to put down things you’ll do. If you do that, you might not get the results you want.

Christina:

So when I work with clients, I often say, “Okay, if you build this” … Let’s say somebody wrote for a key result, they wrote, “Install a new CRM.” I’m like, “Okay. So, what do you think would happen if you install this new CRM?” They’d say, “Oh, well, we would get better returns from our existing customers.” I’m like, “Well, how much more?” Have them guess at that, and I’m like, “There’s your key result.” Our current customers return back to us 20% more often. Then you can say, “Well, is the CRM really the best way to do it, or are there other things we could try?”

Christina:

So, by setting this qualitative and quantitative goal, you can unite the company. If you think about it, if you talk to the Biz Dev folks or maybe sales, they’re all about the numbers. We want to move these numbers. If you talk to design or customer service or other folks, they maybe care more about making a difference in the world, making a better experience for people, creating a better community.

Christina:

So, the OKR format really does unite these different points of view, so that everybody gets pointed in the same direction. By setting the objective and key results as the outcomes, I know in the lean community and other product manager communities, we talk a lot about outcomes over output. Output is just doing stuff and hoping something happened. Outcome is like, “We want to move these numbers. We want to make a difference in the world. Therefore, we’re going to think through all the different ways we can do it. We’ll guess how likely we think it will work. We’ll start running experiments to get smarter.” It’s just a better way to work if impact is your goal. If impact isn’t your goal, well, I’m not sure why you’re still in business, but this is a really desired thing.

Christina:

So, the thing to know about OKRs is that they’re not like a smart goal. Just setting and forgetting is dangerous. That’s the biggest danger you have. So, some people will spend tons of time word crafting, word crafting, getting just the right numbers, looking up everything. Then they’ll set that OKR, and then they’ll forget about it within a couple of weeks because the world is full of shiny objects. There’s always somebody yelling at you. There’s always an emergency. There’s always something on fire, literally, for me right now, unfortunately, since I’m in California. So, how do you make sure you still are doing the most important strategic things, despite the chaos of everyday life?

Christina:

The thing that makes OKRs great is that cadence. It’s all about the cadence. It’s that weekly… Looking at your goals and saying, “What are we doing to get closer to those goals?” On Fridays celebrating, “Look, we’re getting closer to our goals.” Then the retrospective at the end to learn what slows us down and what speeds us up. So, the cadence of the OKRs also create amazing organizational learning. That organizational learning is what keeps you competitive in the market.

Alexis:

I love it.

Christina:

[crosstalk 00:10:13]

Alexis:

The fact that we are aiming for an impact, it’s something really important. You can see that as an individual, as a team, as a company and as a society. You said avoiding the seduction of the task. I think I will reuse that 1000 time now. That’s really interesting. I would like to ask you, the book is a fable. What was the driver for you to use a fable?

Christina:

I’m a big fan of business fables and case studies, to be honest. I mean, HBR, the Harvard Business Review, used to open every magazine with a case study. I’d always be really excited to read it, to hear the stories of people struggling with the same questions I had. Then of course, Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team is a wonderful book, the goal. The Phoenix Project is another good one.

Christina:

So, I’m actually fond of this little, tiny, weird sub genre. I love fiction. I love stories. When I was a nerdy kid growing up, I read Lord of the Rings in the seventh grade. So, I found out recently that Reid Hoffman reads Lord of the Rings every year, which I think is wild. He was, of course, the CEO and founder of LinkedIn. He was one of the founders of PayPal. Now, he’s a VC dude. Stories are more important to us than we think they are.

Christina:

So, I thought if I could just show people this mistake that so many people make, which is set and forget, if I can show a small company that’s easily recognizable, and I don’t know how well you know the Silicon Valley, if you read it closely, you can probably guess where a lot of people said, “Oh, I know the Starbucks where they meet, the VC. I know that Starbucks.” So I really wanted to put a lot of places into it that would be recognizable.

Christina:

Through that journey that you go along with Hannah and Jack, you actually can see why they make the mistakes they make and how they fix it and how they get to where they are. I think a story is just a really great way to do it. What I didn’t know is that some people… So, when you write straight non-fiction, which is what my first book was, Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web, you learn exactly what people tell you to learn. But when you write fiction, you put in a world and you put in trouble and you put in challenges.

Christina:

I had an email recently from a reader who said, “I am so grateful to the part where Hannah fires that jerk.” The programmer, who’s messing with the code. He says, “Because I had to fire someone who was like that, and I didn’t know how to handle it.” When he saw how Hannah handled it, it really helped him. So, I think there’s a richness in fiction and ability to put in layers of meaning that you might not be able to do with nonfiction. Then the second half of course is where I just lay it out really simply and cleanly for people who want the cheat sheet of how to do it.

Alexis:

Excellent. This is really funny because I was thinking about business fable that I love. On my notes, I wrote The Goal, the Five Dysfunctions of a Team, The Phoenix Project. I had one more. I will give it to you because if you didn’t read that one, I think it’s a good one. It’s The Gold Mine by Michael Balle, a book about someone we will discover. It’s a manufacturing book. So, the setting is different. It’s trade industry. But I think it’s really a good one. I love fable.

Alexis:

It’s interesting that you said your first book was not a fable and your second one is a fable. When I wrote my first book, Changing Your Team From the Inside, I tried to be really serious about change. For the second one, I tried to learn from my mistakes in the first one. It’s a combination of a fable with experiments that people can try. So, I would like to interview readers to understand what they learn. That’s not a book about learning how to fire jerks, but that’s really interesting that someone can pick that. That’s a good one. That shows that the story is real. I wanted to know the end of the story, I was reading it. I was not able to stop because I want to know what happens next.

Christina:

Well, that’s the other thing is like, we learn better when we’re enjoying learning. So, I teach at Stanford. That means I spend quite a bit of time digging into learning theory. Stories are actually a better way to learn because of how our brains are set up to learn. I’ve seen that people say, if all of human history was a clock, right, a 24-hour clock, we’ve only started writing things down at 11:00 PM, which means that for thousands and thousands of years, the only way we could pass on knowledge, the way that we made sure people knew, donate those berries, they’ll make you sick, or stay out of that cave. There’s a big, fluffy thing with claws. Don’t go the, was storytelling. That’s how we learned. So, our brains are literally evolved to learn from stories.

Christina:

Using a fable is just taking advantage of how we’re hard wired to learn. It has a downside, too, that’s why if you have the anti-vaxxers, and they’re telling stories about this one kid who apparently became autistic, that’s going to be more powerful than a ton of facts. What I found over time is that if you can take facts and you wrap them in story, that people enjoy learning more, and they have higher comprehension and they have higher retention. So storytelling, it’s just better. It’s better for you. It’s better for me. It’s better for everyone.

Alexis:

In the book. The story’s about a startup. Do you think OKRs are only for startup, or do you see them being useful in other kind of environment?

Christina:

That’s such a good question. I told you, I’m writing 2.0 of Radical Focus. The number one reason I’m doing it is because so many people are not startups, and they’re trying to use it. Some of the techniques that were designed for startups don’t scale very well to larger companies. So, I realized I wrote it, what, five years ago? It seems like forever. Since then, I’ve had a lot of people come to me, big companies, small companies, struggling to figure out how to make certain things work with OKRs, working with them, trying different things. I’ve managed to come up with several techniques for larger companies.

Christina:

One of the more obvious examples would be the problem of cascading. So, if you’re in a little startup, then you have one, maybe two layers of management, cascading is not a big deal. You figure out your company, OKR, and then you figure out the team OKRs, and you’d go to town, you’re done. When you have multiple layers of hierarchy, you can’t possibly cascade. I’ve heard stories of large companies where it would take them a month to cascade. At that point, you’ve lost a third of your quarter to be able to execute. That’s ridiculous. At which point you want to move away from cascading and much more towards alignment, where the company sets the goal and then you trust the people underneath you to say, “What can we do as an organization or a group to help the company meet its goal?” If you can’t meet this quarter’s company’s goals, what is the appropriate thing to set, considering your function, your role within an organization? That was a big one where it just doesn’t work at all.

Christina:

I’ve been talking a lot to Marty Cagan. He was really kind and contributing to the book. He and I have both come to the same conclusion, which is if you’re an organization that is really all about command and control, OKRs are probably not going to be for you. We see a lot of people trying to use OKRs just to squeeze a little more productivity out of people. That’s not what they’re for. More times, it ends up with cheating. So, if you think about the Volkswagen scandal or the Wells Fargo scandal, those weren’t OKRs per se, but they were ridiculously difficult numerical goals that were handed from the top down, that were tied to people’s livelihood. You don’t get your bonus. You might lose your job if you can’t fulfill these goals that can’t be fulfilled, at which point people turned to cheating because they didn’t really have a lot of choices.

Christina:

So, in these really nasty companies, setting really ridiculous goals from the top down and saying, “Make it or else,” that’s like an anti-OKR. If an OKR could have a dark twin, an evil twin version of itself, it would be that. Where OKRs are much better at is saying, “Here’s what we want to see, figure out what you can do about it. We empower you.” Marty’s next book is going to be called Empowered. I’m really excited by it because I think that’s a message that more people need to hear, work is much more satisfying, much more pleasurable when somebody says, “Hey, here’s this ridiculous thing. I trust you to see what you can do with it. If you don’t make it, well, I’m going to believe that you tried your best.” A little more faith, a little more trust. If you’re hiring A players, why not let them be A players, right?

Alexis:

Absolutely. So that’s neither a top-down system, neither a totally bottom-up system. It’s something that is both a top-down and bottom-up, and people will figure out how they can contribute to achieve those higher-levels objectives. There’s the kind of reconciliation in between?

Christina:

Yes, exactly. When your company says, “This is our most important strategic initiative, this is the thing that we’re going to move into the European market, or we’re going to move out of B2B to B2C,” whatever strategic goal the company has, then everybody can ask themselves, “What does that mean for us? How can we contribute?” I will go even farther. I think that there’s always a possibility that there’s some groups that don’t actually need OKRs. The legal team, are they really constantly striving to be better? Or is there a level where they’re like, “Yeah, we’re good. We’re solid.” Or maybe the finance department, maybe they might do one OKR one quarter because they feel like they’re not being responsive enough or people are complaining about them. But once you’ve gotten good, there’s no higher level to take it.

Christina:

I don’t know what it’s like in France as much. But I do know in America, we seem to think the sky’s the limit, that things can always grow endlessly, and everything can be better. I think that can be very grueling on people. I think it can be disheartening on people. So, getting yourself to a really high level of performance and then staying there, moving away from OKRs and maybe just to KPIs. So you’re measuring, so you know if something’s changing or if things are getting worse, sometimes there are groups who go into a steady state, and that’s okay. That should be actually quite okay.

Christina:

Businesses need to be a little more humane. OKRs are really good at strategy because that’s the space where we’re asking, “What’s possible? What could we do here? When is the market actually saturated? What is the answer to these questions that we or a company are asking?” So I don’t think that every group, and maybe not even every company should have OKRs.

Alexis:

So, if there’s no behavioral change anymore that is needed, you don’t need OKRs. That’s an interesting perspective.

Christina:

Yeah. It’s a little different. But I think it’s a little saner, perhaps. The other thing that I’ve been working with, with companies is thinking about the relationship of strategy and OKRs. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the old Boston Consulting Group, 2×2, where they talked about how the dogs-

Alexis:

Yeah.

Christina:

Yes, exactly. So, if you think about it, if you have this complete unknown space, that’s the potential. You don’t know what’s really there. It’s a question mark. You have high hopes, but you don’t know. That’s a great place to do exploratory OKRs or hypothesis OKRs, where you say… instead of saying to go back and to moving into a new market, maybe your objective is have a product that resonates with Mexico. Then we say, “Okay. How are we going define resonate? Is it going to be a NPS? Is it going to be units moved? Is it going to be star ratings on Amazon or whatnot?” You come up with your OKRs, but you’ll notice that it just says, “Have a product.” It’s very open and very loose. At which point, then people can just run tons of experiments until they find the thing.

Christina:

So that’s a place where you can start finding your product market fit and use the OKRs to know when to stop. I know a lot of startups and innovation groups. The question is, how long do we keep up this thing? When do we say, “Okay, let’s cut our losses. Let’s get out?” So, the OKRs then create this cadence that allows you at the end of the quarter to say, “Do we want to keep working on this? Have we learned anything new? Is it time to pivot, or is it time to shut it down?” So, that’s good.

Christina:

With stars where you don’t know where the top is. You’ve got this really successful product. That’s going crazy. That’s a great place for OKRs because I don’t care if we keep pushing, pushing. Let it grow bigger, let it get better. But then when you get to the cash cows, which are a market that you’ve put a really strong product into, it’s not really growing anymore. Maybe you’ve been trying a bunch of things with OKRs and you can’t move the needle. You’re like, “Okay, let’s just move to KPIs. Let’s leave a handful of solid people. Let’s make as much money as we can as long as the going is good.” They don’t need OKRs, and dogs don’t. Maybe there was something that was working really, really well. Now everybody’s moved on. Maybe it’s a fax machine. There’s no growth in that market. There’s a little bit of money to be made still, but it’s going down. That’s another place where you have the KPIs. When it goes into the red, when it costs more money to keep it alive than it does that you’re making off of it, then you can put it to bed.

Christina:

So, you really want to be thinking about your entire product portfolio when you’re a larger company because you want to think where is growth possible and where am I just extracting value? It’s the old explore-exploit question.

Alexis:

OKRs for companies, for teams that wants to grow, what is your perspective on using OKRs for team members, for individuals, for people themselves?

Christina:

I got to tell you, for five years, I’ve seen people try it, and it just never ends well. There’s a couple of exceptions. So, let’s start with why it doesn’t end. When a upper manager is giving people an OKR, it’s really hard to say your compensation isn’t going to be tied to this OKR. That’s one of the things that if you do tie compensation to the OKR, that’s where we get into the situation of either you end up sandbagging the OKRs, you set them so low, you could easily make them, or you get into a situation where you’re being asked to do something ridiculous. Because your livelihood is on the line, your ability to feed your family is on the line, you are going to cheat. So, individual OKRs usually are terrible.

Christina:

The other reason is if you think about an individual within an organization, they’ve got the company OKR to think of. So that’s probably, if you have one objective and three key results, that’s four items you have to hold in your head. What’s really nice about OKR is whenever you’re trying to decide, “Where do I spend my time,” you can just say, “Oh, well, this quarter, the company is trying to do this. So I should really put the bulk of my work week towards that.” So, you’ve got the four things at the company level. Let’s say, you’ve got four things at the department level, and then you’ve got four things at the team level. Then you’ve got your four items. That’s too much stuff to hold in our brain. Our working memory just can’t hold that much stuff.

Christina:

There’s a reason I called my book Radical Focus, and I didn’t call it a guide to OKRs. It’s because it’s really, really important to say this is the single most important thing. Just for the sanity of it, just to simplify matters. I don’t think you should have individual OKRs. What are the exceptions? Exceptions are, if you have an individual that’s also basically a business unit of one, let’s say, you’ve hired a growth hacker, you can probably just set the rates, set the salary and say, “Here’s your goals. Let’s see what we can do.” But again, you can’t tie any compensation to it. It’s more a way of saying, “Okay, what’s possible here?” Again, I don’t super love that one. It’s slightly better. I have seen that one work.

Christina:

The other thing I have seen work really well is when individual human beings decide to set personal OKRs. This quarter, I’m going to work on taking care of my back because I’m spending so much time on screens because we’re all working from home. I’m finally going to get ergonomic. Letting individual people set their own OKRs, that they then either hold themselves accountable, or they are a part of an accountability group, that seems to work just fine. But I think the manager, individual relationship, when I tell people this, they’re like, “Well, how do I do performance management?” I’m like, “Oh my god. Okay. I can’t believe you don’t know how to do performance management, but sure. Let’s talk about that.”

Christina:

When you think about performance management, you want to think, “Okay, I hired you for a role. How well are you fulfilling that role?” There’s just a bunch of stuff you have to do as a manager. You’re a manager of a engineering team. You’re still going to have to give people feedback and manage projects and stuff like that. So, you’ve got fulfilling the role. You have contributions towards the OKRs. That’s a way of thinking of it.

Christina:

What amazing thing happened? Maybe, we were trying to go to the moon, and we didn’t make it to the moon, but we’ve now got Tang, and we’ve got Velcro, and that’s awesome, too. So let’s celebrate those contributions. Then you want to think about knowledge and skill growth, and have your people commit to some personal professional growth. You want to be growing your people. That’s something I personally believe in. It’s not necessary for everyone, but I think if you’re helping people become the kind of people they want to be, the kind of person that will benefit the company, let people study negotiation strategies or let them explore a new framework for engineering. Did you make time to grow? Did I, as your manager, allow you to make time to grow? That’s sometimes a good piece of the puzzle. Some of the companies I’ve worked with have added a fourth piece, which is, “Are you fulfilling the culture that we want to have? Are you helping hire? Are you mentoring other people? Are you pair programming? Whatever.

Christina:

One of the things about performance reviews that makes them hard is, again, the set and forget. We write up a job description. Maybe we steal it off the web, and then, we forget about it. So, when it’s time to do performance review, you’re actually asking yourself, “Do I feel good about this guy? Does he seem like he’s doing good stuff for us?” Sure. Okay. That’s fine. It’s one of the reasons I wrote the team that manages itself, it was really a followup to Radical Focus because OKRs aren’t everything. There’s part of the puzzle.

Christina:

So, yay, you’ve got OKRs, but you also have to figure out how do you make sure the roles on the team are really clear. Are you writing the job descriptions? Are you managing people? Are you supporting them? Then, are you creating a culture of high performance? Are you dealing with culture clashes? I mean, here I am talking to you. You have a French background. I have an Iowa background. Our teams look like that now, they’re European, they’re Asian. So, we really have to think about how are all these different cultures coming together to work effectively. So, OKRs are just one of, I think, the three tent poles of a high-performing team.

Alexis:

That conversation about personal goals was bringing us nicely to your second book, your third book, I think. The team that managed itself. Goals are not everything. The way to achieve goals is to have a real interesting, important team, and having people that are able to work as a team. When you said a team that managed itself, does that mean that there’s no managers needed anymore?

Christina:

I think that, yes, actually. I do think that it’s good to have a leader of some sort, a tiebreaker, somebody who can have time to manage up. It’s a real thing. But I think if you have a highly, a very healthy team, they manage themselves. They really do. When I was doing a ton of research, I already had my own personal experiences working in tech for, gosh, I don’t know how long, since ’95, before I switched over to academia, about five, six years ago. I realized that the people who really accomplish things through high-performing teams had some similar characteristics. Then I did a literature review, looking at books like The Fearless Organization, which is a wonderful book about psychological safety, the wisdom of teams. I think that’s one of the best books on teams.

Christina:

I’ve written a bunch of academic papers and just did a synthesis of all that, and came up with these three key areas, which are goals, roles, and norms. So goals, OKRs, that’s great. Do you have clearly defined roles that people have, that they’re accountable for? Are they growing in it? We’re really talking about hiring, firing and feedback here, especially that last one feedback. People tend to be conflict averse. They’re not always very good at giving the kind of feedback that they need to. Then the last one is norms. How do we interact with each other? As I was saying earlier, we have all these different cultures working together in a company, but I would argue even different companies have different cultures.

Christina:

So, when I worked at Yahoo!, the number one thing in the employee surveys were always, I love my teammates. We all love each other. It’s such a wonderful place to work. But it was very passive aggressive. There was no overt conflict. So, if you wanted to get something done, you had to go have a personal conversation with everybody. When I went to Zynga, I was in shock because they weren’t passive, aggressive, they were aggressive, aggressive. It was like another… A general manager would come up to you and say, “I’m going to take your game away from you. Or we’re going to crush you in these numbers.” It’s a real challenging. This is such a different culture.

Christina:

I’ve been in companies where all meetings start 10 minutes late, and I’ve been in cultures where every meeting starts on time. So taking the time to say, as a team, “Who are we? How are we going to interact with each other? How are we going to disagree? How are we going to make decisions?” That commitment to doing that followed up with a retrospective every week, remember cadence is everything, allows you to reduce the conflict and increase the output. Also, it helps keep people from quitting because if you’re working in a wonderful team, where you really feel listened to and you feel supported and you have the psychological safety, you’re not going to gamble that on another company.

Christina:

So, there’s so many reasons to set up a good, healthy culture. Yeah, OKRs are not a silver bullet. They don’t do everything. They’re really a great way to set goals and make goals, but without a healthy team, without the right people in it, you can’t accomplish it. They’re not standalone. They’re not a one-stop fix.

Alexis:

Do you feel that the people in the team, when they are clear on their norms, they know how to communicate out, to deal with conflict, how the acceptable behavior is defined? They know what their roles, and they know what is the roles of others. Do you feel it’s enough for them to be able then to manage themselves?

Christina:

Oh, yes. I think that’s the heart and the beating heart of a high-performing team is that they don’t need to be managed. If you think about it, like ask yourself, “What does a manager do?” Well, do they make sure everybody’s doing their job? Do you really need that if you’re hiring A players? Again, if you’re very careful about your hire, you’re hiring the right people that are really smart and strong. They’re motivated to do great work. They want to be at your company because they’re excited by it. It doesn’t matter if you’re making mechanical keyboards or a social network. People are excited to do that kind of work. There’s a lot of studies that show that people want meaning from their work. It makes them happy. So, you’ve got this team that knows what their roles are.

Christina:

Then being able to have a conversation around feedback is really critical. So, you think of managers doing what else. They’re hiring? Well, the team can get together as a group and say, “Here’s what we think we need from the new role.” Then, you headed off to HR to find people or do it yourself. It doesn’t matter. If you think about what a manager does in weekly check-ins, well, if you’re doing retrospectives weekly, and you’re talking about what’s working and what’s not working, if you have a healthy enough relationship, where I can come up to you and say, “Alexis, you were interrupting me in that meeting, and it doesn’t make me feel comfortable enough to be able to share new ideas. I just wanted to point this out to you because it’s making it hard for me to work with you.”

Christina:

If you have that level of psychological safety, where people can bring up conflicts like that, and actually work through them very quickly, that works really well. At which point then the manager becomes really… I’ve heard it called first among equals. I’ve heard it called service leadership. I like to just think of it as moving from being a manager to being a leader, instead of managing people. You’re really there to remind people, “Don’t forget, this is the goal we’re heading towards. Let me make sure that other parts of the company know what we’re trying to accomplish. Let me spend some time with the CEO or the general manager, and make sure that our group is doing what the company needs to do.” But it’s a very, very different role than the command and control, and “I’m going to boss you around.”

Christina:

If you can do that, just imagine how much head space is freed up for that leader. Now, instead of dashing around trying to solve, “Oh, I don’t know, I didn’t get the mock-ups from the designer,” all these little fusses and fights. If you’re freed up from that, you can spend time doing things like strategy and competitive analysis, and looking into new markets. It’s such a waste of our time to try to dash from person to person, just trying to Band-Aid an unhealthy team. Instead, you want to move your team into a strong, healthy team so that you can spend time on much more meaningful activities.

Alexis:

Oh, yeah. I totally agree with that. This is impressive how you’re summing up that very nicely.

Christina:

Well, I’ve talked a little bit about the second edition. While I’m coming back to it, I’ve talked a little bit about how I’m bringing in strategy and such. The team that manages itself is actually my fourth book, believe it or not. So, I don’t know if you know this, but I had started writing the team that manages itself. Then, I have a developmental editor that I love working with, Cathy Yardley. She got breast cancer, needed to go to treatment. Thanks to our fabulous American health care system, had to take a full-time job for a while to pay for her treatment. I’m so glad that she got better. I think we live in a time of miracles, medically, but the miracles have a price in America.

Christina:

So, I put aside the team that managed itself, and I wrote a book that I felt didn’t need a traditional development editor. I did do peer reviews because I’m a big fan of working lean with my books. It’s called Pencil Me In. It’s all about the importance of drawing your ideas. So, the first half of the book teaches you how to draw. The second half teaches you what to draw, things like personas and various different kinds of models and org charts and wireframes and all the things that people like to do. A lot of really great folks contributed the drawings they do. I have some wonderful sketches from game designers, Alex Osterwalder, who wrote the Business Model Generation book. He also gave me an essay and some of his drawings. You know he’s very, very visual. All his books are very visual.

Christina:

It was just a fun thing to do that was different than the fables. It was a bit of a… It was a labor of love. I’ve never been so happy while writing a book. Then when Cathy got better, we dove back into the team that managed itself. I always like to point it out because I’m very fond of it. I feel grateful to folks like Teresa Torres, who are now using it in her product management trainings as well because I think that none of us have to become great artists, but a little bit of facility with drawing. Just enough, so you’re not afraid to get up on the whiteboard and share what you’re thinking about. It makes all the difference in the world.

Alexis:

Now I have another book on my reading list. I’m really thankful for that. I love reading. Yeah, drawing is always the thing that… I love to draw things, to explain things on whiteboard or wherever. People are always saying, “Oh, yeah. Your drawings are so nice. How do you do it?” I’m always thinking, “No, my drawings are really crappy,” but that’s not the problem. I’m just doing it. That’s just the difference between not doing it and doing it. So, if there’s a book that can help people feel more comfortable just to start, just to try, that would be nice. If I can give them some tips, I will be happy to help more people to today how to draw things. So that’s a good recommendation. I love it.

Christina:

I agree completely. What’s funny is nobody expects you to sit down in front of a piano, having never played and be able to put out some show pawn, right? Everybody’s like, “Oh, I can’t draw. It’s so embarrassing.” You have to learn, you have to practice. You have to teach your hand how to obey your brain. It’s not a lot of learning. It’s much easier than piano, I would argue. But you can at least get to chopsticks and do a lot. I think human beings are really interesting.

Christina:

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of this, it’s called a pareidolia. But it’s our ability to see faces and other patterns and everything. So, if you ever looked at the front of a car and said, “Oh, it looks like that Volkswagen is smiling,” or if you looked at an outlet in the wall and you say, “It looks like a little face,” that’s humans. So, you can actually draw really, really badly. Human beings can figure out what it means. We’re pattern matching creatures.

Christina:

So, I always try to encourage people to make crappy pictures. I’m like, “Please just make a crappy picture because there are times when a picture is just going to be more effective.” When you’re trying to talk about a user funnel, you’re going to want to draw a terrible upside down triangle to show the funnel. Just a little bit of facility can take you so far. It’s fun. Dang. I like to do in the evening, I just sit and get myself a glass of wine. Maybe the TV is on, I’m watching a little Trevor Noah. I’ll just make circles and make triangles and make goofy-looking little people just, again, to train my hand to obey my mind. It’s so relaxing.

Christina:

I feel like in this high-stress time with all the wackiness in the world, anything that can help you chillax is absolutely required. When you don’t have any pressure on your drawing, it’s just doodling, and doodling is a joy. So, you can do it for work or you can just do it for the pure happiness of letting yourself relax a little bit. I think that matters.

Alexis:

That gives us another really good reason to try it. Doodling is a joy. I know that’s a really good way to end our discussion, I think. Christina, I want to thank you for your time and all your advices. Thank you for sharing all your experience and knowledge in your books. Thank you for being in the Le Podcast today.

Christina:

Oh, it’s such a pleasure to talk to you, a joy. Thank you.

Alexis:

Thank you for listening to this episode of Le Podcast. Go to alexis.monville.com for the references mentioned in the episode, and to find more and to increase your impact and satisfaction at work. Drop a comment or an email with your feedback, or just to say hello. Until next time, to find better ways of changing your team.

The music is Funkorama by Kevin MacLeod (Creative Commons CC BY 4.0)

Picture by CoWomen

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