Resources for Product Leaders #5
Finding clarity of purpose, impactful questions to ask yourself as a manager, and developing healthier communication patterns in your team.
I’ve been thinking about David Rock’s SCARF model a lot recently, particularly in the context of leadership. In short, the model identifies five social domains that activate the same threat and reward responses in our brain that we rely on for physical survival:
Status—our relative importance to others.
Certainty—our ability to predict the future.
Autonomy—our sense of control over events.
Relatedness—how safe we feel with others.
Fairness—how fair we perceive the exchanges between people to be.
As leaders, when we see our teams having strong reactions about things that happen around them, it’s usually because they feel “SCARFed” in one or more of these domains. If your organization changes priorities constantly and without warning, be prepared for many people’s certainty to be threatened. If you involve yourself in ever little detail of a designer’s work, you risk creating a huge threat to their autonomy.
How can this help us as leaders? Any time you see a team member (or yourself!) reacting negatively to a situation it can be extremely beneficial to take a moment to trace the emotion back to the core threat the person might be perceiving. Then you can figure out how to harness that same social domain as a reward instead of a threat. So instead of immediately jumping to a conclusion that the team member is being “difficult” or “just need to get over it”, understanding what they are really reacting to creates a ton of empathy, and also helps to figure out the best way to address the situation.
For instance, if a team member complains about changing priorities, don’t immediately make excuses about “the business” and how that’s just how things work. Validate that you understand how disconcerting it is for one’s certainty to be threatened, and then dig a little deeper. Ask them what they are reacting to. Acknowledge that sometimes priorities will have to change, and then ask them if there are ways that you can help to reduce the threat to their certainty (i.e., elicit a “reward” response instead) in those instances—perhaps through an early heads-up, or much more strategic context than others on the team might need.
(Needless to say, this model is super useful for personal relationships as well. So the next time you and your partner are having an argument about folding the laundry, take a step back and figure out if maybe they are experiencing a threat to their sense of fairness, and how you might—together—change that into a reward instead.)
This article by the Raw Signal group hit me pretty hard. It talks about the macro-trends we are seeing at work—a permanent shift to remote work, more empowered employees, etc.—and what that means for us as leaders. In short, the most important thing we can do for our teams (and ourselves) right now is dig for, find, and communicate clarity of purpose.
Why does your team exist? Forget goals for a second. Why do we pay you or your directs? And if we stopped paying them what would happen? And if you knocked it out of the park what would that mean? And if you don't know, and your boss doesn't know, who can we go get those answers from? And with those answers in hand, how does your current work map to what it ought to be? And what needs to happen next?
It’s also a great exercise to take the answers to the above questions and place them next to your product roadmap to figure out if the work your organization is planning over the next few months line up with the clarity of purpose that you’ve found.
Another excellent article from the folks at First Round. A bunch of really impactful questions to ask yourself and your teams, grouped in themes like team morale, measuring your effectiveness as a manager, and focusing on personal well-being. Too many to quote, but here’s just one of the ones I really like:
Is anyone on the team just cranking out work without context?
“Without the business context on why you're doing the tasks you're doing, you're just not going to be as motivated or excited. I want to ensure that my team knows and believes that every single thing they are doing is driving value for the business,” says Jenna Klebanoff. “So I do my best to invite them to the meetings when possible, and when it's not possible, give the context on why we're doing this and how it supports the business goals. This also puts them in a position to challenge any projects that come along that aren't driving business goals, which is empowering for the employee.”
Some really basic but solid recommendations here to help improve a core issue in many organizations:
Big organizations (unintentionally) train us to believe that work is often blocked by decisions, approvals, or consensus from leadership. And, that we should always 👏🏽 be 👏🏽 working. So, while we have one project/effort that’s waiting on a decision to be made, we start other work. Which leads to more work-in-progress. Which then turns into more things that need to be approved. Which means more waiting around. Which means more work to fill up time so that people aren’t anxious that “ICs aren’t doing anything.” Yet we wonder why we’re all so busy all the time.
“Spend time upfront on the strategy and goals for the project” and “Start with as few meetings as possible, and then introduce more as needed” are two particularly important pieces of advice.
A helpful quote
I’ve been enjoying Readwise, an app that resurfaces your Kindle highlights daily (sign up with this link to get an extra free month), so I thought I’d include a favorite or two in each newsletter. Here’s a wonderful reminder from the highly recommended Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration:
And that will do it for this edition. If you’re looking for a lovely summer album (sorry, Southern Hemisphere friends!), check out Tash Sultana’s MTV Unplugged (Live in Melbourne). Start with this amazing performance:
Have a wonderful week!
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