We need not all be connected, all the time


When I went to school in the 80s and 90s, the communication between the institution and home was limited. Kids could bring home a flyer about some future event, they'd get their grades and remarks detailed in a little grey book, and once a year parents would come in for a chat with the teachers. That was basically it, and it was glorious.

In Denmark today, we have a centralized app used by all Danish public schools called Aula. Think of it as Facebook for teachers and parents. For our kid in an international school, there's a similar system. All of it sucks. And I don't mean in the way that the apps are poorly made, although that is typically also true, but in the way that adding IT to the parent-school relationship only made it worse.

I say that as someone who've spent a long career in the service of collaboration and communication tools. And as someone who is happy to let the kids play video games for hours on end. This is not the luddite perspective.

But what these wretched apps have wrought is a constant stream of needless communication and updates about life at school. Worse still, it's facilitated endless threads amongst parents on this thing or the other. And you're essentially obliged to partake in these non-stop chain mails, lest you miss a truly important or urgent message.

I simply don't need the play-by-play from a teacher about what happened in class this week, every week. We talk to our kids at home. We'll get the highlights, if there are any worth sharing.

Furthermore, it seems that very few people actually like where all this has gone. I've spoken to lots of parents who all begrudge these apps as yet another inbox with an ever-increasing unread counter, and teachers who'd rather spend their time on something else than detailing the mundane updates about weekly school life. Not to mention the fact that teachers often end up inundated with direct messages from parents at a frequency and in tone they'd never have to suffer if it required more effort than a direct message was required to talk.

Not all connections benefit from having the friction removed by digital systems. Some barriers to interaction are good, actually. The fundamental premise that everything will be wonderful if we could just all be linked together everywhere, all the time is false.

Parents and politicians are all, with some justification, so concerned about the dangers of screens these days. So let's start in our own interactions by burning the most useless use cases right away. We could start with Aula and its ilk. I'll happily bring the matches.

David Heinemeier Hansson

02 Jun 2023 at 08:51

When promotions become punishment


The world is full of talented, capable people who'd rather put their own efforts to direct use than manage others. But the natural inclination is to promote senior contributors up a managerial ladder, and out of the trenches. This often ends poorly, turning the promotion into a punishment.

It's usually not that these potential managers don't like working with others. Quite the contrary. I've found that nothing motivates ambitious people like working close together with other talented individuals. It's also usually not that they're uncomfortable being senior, in terms of setting a direction for the work. It's that they don't want the responsibility, and associated guilt, that comes with managing others. Especially when there's a need for correction.

I've witnessed time and again how someone new to management will agonize endlessly over having to provide corrective feedback to someone, and damn near fall into the pits of despair if they actually have to let them go.

To be an effective manager, you have to be empathetic, but not too empathetic. Because if you can't separate yourself emotionally from the process, at least in part, you can't make the difficult-but-necessary decisions required to service the broader team. And it's really hard to know whether you have this in you until you're faced with the reality of a tough situation.

It's a tricky balance. On the one hand, there's a lot of evidence that people respond best to the kind of managers and leaders who come from the ranks of the most talented, capable individual contributors. And you have anecdotes from the likes of Steve Jobs and others in spades to back this up. But on the other hand, it'll serve nobody if the stress of managing is so severe that it produces paralyzing anxiety.

This is one of the key reasons to pursue minimalist management. By setting up processes that handle much of the mechanics of reporting, and clearly reveals someone's progress for all to see, as well as distributing the human elements, like mentorship, you can reap much of the benefit of letting senior people provide parts of the management work without the dreaded promotion into management per se.

You still need some managers. People comfortable acting on the data that's being produced by the processes, and the testimony of mentors. But you can get by with fewer of them, without turning the whole thing into a flat free for all. And you can condemn fewer of the most talented, capable, senior people to positions where they must reluctantly hold the careers of others in their hands.

David Heinemeier Hansson

01 Jun 2023 at 10:21

Start them in the deep end


The kindest thing you can do to a new team member is to involve them in something real and challenging right away. Don't squander weeks of new-job enthusiasm with baby rails and play tasks. Get them into the deep end right from the start.

This doesn't mean leaving them all alone to figure out the culture, the work, and the people by themselves, mind you. Nobody hits the ground running, and everyone needs guidance and mentorship to thrive in a new situation. But it does mean that the context in which you offer that assistance ought to be real as quickly as possible.

For programmers at 37signals, for example, we assign both a buddy and a mentor to new hires. The buddy is solely there to be a friendly guide to the innards of the organization. Why do we do the things we do? The mentor is there to help you reach the bar on quality by showing you exactly where it is through detailed reviews of work.

Thus, new hires rarely spend more than a week getting acquainted with the environment before it's time to dive into the deep end of real work that needs to get done. And I'm perpetually pleased by how often someone shows themselves to be an excellent swimmer right from the get go when given the chance.

Not everyone will dazzle you immediately, and that's okay. Some people do take a bit longer to get comfortable before they can show you their best. But it's still a function of exposure. The more exposure to more challenges, the quicker most people will find themselves familiar with what's required of them.

Or not! It does occasionally happen that someone makes it through even the best hiring process, and still end up unable to meet the bar for what's required to thrive. Nobody, anywhere has a faultless hiring process that can bat a perfect ten out of ten. The sooner you find out that a given hire was a miss, the better it is for both parties.

The worst thing you can do to a new hire is leave them wandering the halls of the organization without something fulfilling, meaningful, and engrossing to do. Everyone worth having on board wants to contribute as quickly as they can. Let them!

David Heinemeier Hansson

31 May 2023 at 10:20

360 degrees of phony back-patting


In all the years we ran 360 performance reviews – the employee assessment process where you solicit feedback from peers, reports, and manager – I can think of only once when it lead to a meaningful follow-up. The rest of the time, across hundreds of reviews, it was an arduous, awkward affair of forcing people to come up with novel ways to congratulate each other on command. Dropping these 360s was perhaps one of the most popular acts of minimizing management we've ever done at 37signals.

It should have been obvious that the 360 process wasn't valuable because almost nobody wanted to do it. Getting folks to fill out their reviews required constant nagging, resulting in weeks-long procrastination. That is not the hallmark of a happy process that serves the interests of the people involved.

I think the key reason here is that there is very little upside to rating peers in the totally honest way that might actually be useful as part of a performance review. Even if someone acts in ways you think could be improved, are you really going to complain about it to management? Probably not, unless it's truly egregious, and if so, why wait for the 360?

So most people would just keep their minor grievances to themselves, and that's probably for the best! More than once did we deal with unnecessary drama and friction because someone actually did put down some mild feedback, which, as humans are prone to do, was then perceived as a stinging slight. You couldn't design a better process for planting seeds of social dysfunction than to explicitly ask peers to share their minor annoyances with each other through the conduit of management.

But so what if 360s are mostly just a compilation of nice things others were forced to say about you on a regular schedule? What's actually wrong with a regular ritual of congratulations? That it's fake, that's what. Humans can smell inauthenticity a mile away. And if 360s are anything, it's inauthentic.

A better way of celebrating each other, which is something every company should absolutely seek to do, is to invite the voluntary sharing of authentic admiration in an in-person session dedicated to the point. Without the pretext that it'll come as a sweet'n'sour mix. Just commit to the sweet, and save the sour for a direct managerial conversation in private, if need be.

We do this at 37signals during our biyearly meet-ups. We call it peer appreciation, and it's perhaps my favorite part of our meet-ups altogether. A handful of people put their name down to stand up in front of the whole company to appreciate a peer in public. It's genuinely moving, and everyone loves it. The polar opposite of the 360 charade.

The contrast between 360s and peer appreciation is clear. Processes that require honest participation need to be seen by the participants as intrinsically valuable. You can't force someone to be honest or authentic, if they don't see a personal upside. And it's an obvious red flag that they don't when nagging is required to get compliance.

Let peers celebrate each other in public, let managers deal with redirection directly and in private.

David Heinemeier Hansson

30 May 2023 at 08:30

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