What does it look like when your product plans start to mirror your work culture?
What does it look like when your ambitious product user journeys also start to mirror your own work culture?
This is one of the defining unexpected questions to have emerged from our time together in NevaLabs. In October, we set out to put people in control of their news experience and build a product around time well spent. Somewhere along the way, we ended up building a culture around it too.
Each of us have done our time in large corporations like Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, Hubspot and Bank of America, and start-ups like Storyful and ChangeX. We’re not exactly the cohort you imagine when you think of new movements towards mindfulness, having previously treated work-life balance as an optional extra.
But we’re now proponents of creating routines that reflect our own individual best intentions and those of our intended users.
Thinking deeply on how we can apply professional work tools to our personal lives is not how I envisaged my year with Columbia University’s Sulzberger Executive Leadership Program ending just last week. But after a year of talking about SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, timely), Design-Do product approaches, Opportunity Portfolios and Strategy Trees, it was the new learning about Temperament Types which opened up a whole new approach for me personally. (Or as one person in our class concluded: Sulzberger turned the lights on, and there’s no turning them off now)
C = D x V x P
To effect fundamental lasting change, you require Dissatisfaction, Vision and Process.
So goes the equation “C = D x V x P” the Sulzberger program drilled into 24 editors, producers, product managers and entrepreneurs this past year.
The equation was just one device in a lengthy toolkit designed to progress a work-related challenge/project, and ultimately teach us how to plan to work and work to plan.
Here in NevaLabs, as we embarked on a journey to build a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), the Sulzberger tools have been a constant anchor when dealing with those inevitable highs and lows of the start-up love affair with the problem you are trying to solve.
Tapping into our previous experience from building Storyful, we’ve worked hard to balance the scrappy, improvisational culture of a start-up with the focus and discipline of a business designed for global scale. That has meant creating all the usual mundane but necessary company policies, protocols and processes but also thinking about our work-life balance and office culture, knowing from our collective past experience that a new start-up can quickly fill your available time but should not overwhelm your headspace.
Together with the team, I've been inspired by the idea of a healthy and productive news routine, and the example of health, fitness, meditation and mindfulness apps that enable you to timebox tasks and measure progress according to your own stated goals.
Some of our product principles centre on a user experience that is productive, relevant, quality and ultimately offers a sense of completeness. In our workplace, we’ve agreed some simple rules like ‘no meetings Wednesdays’, meetings which last no longer than 30 minutes and must have clear calls to action, not distracting colleagues when they’ve their headphones on (they’re in the zone), reviewing the value of Slack channels and merging or removing, muting notifications, sketching product ideas alone and uninterrupted when words don’t suffice etc.
Somewhere along the way, most of us also started using the Pomodoro Technique wherein you set timers that remind you to take a break once every 25 minutes or the Best Self journal wherein you account for every 30 minutes in your day, identify what will make today a success for you, post reflections in the morning on what you’re grateful for and later on at night reflect on the wins achieved. Some thoughtfulness and discipline is required to complete the two page entry every day of your working life but when you start to timebox your day into 30 minute bursts and hold yourself accountable to three overarching goals for 90 days, the ultimate feeling of completeness is immense. That scarce but yearned for feeling is what we’re trying to replicate in our product – setting yourself some tangible goals, tracking progress and feeling like you’re succeeded, that you’re informed, that you’ve ‘completed’ the internet for the day.
Within all of it, there’s a sense of setting routines and being in control of them.
Unconsciously through office interactions and consciously through user testing, we figured out the ‘D’ in the Sulzberger change formula (C = D x V x P) for both ourselves as startup adrenaline seekers with tendencies to overwork and the ‘D’ for our users fed up of the constant scrolling online, the distractions, the randomness of content, the breakdown in trust and transparency.
In work and in our product, we want to know that our time is well spent. That we’ve had a measurable impactful return on our attention. That we’ve hit a critical milestone that will move us further along our learning curve.
From -> To
The star tool in the Sulzberger toolkit has been ever so simple and brilliant: Using the “From/To” framework, you consistently come back to a simple question of ‘where are we now and where are we trying to get to?’ Splitting a whiteboard or notebook page in two with ‘From’ on one side and ‘To’ on the other side has time and time again proven to be an invaluable means to drive clarity and direction both professionally and personally in recent months. It’s been particularly invaluable when it’s come to defining our users in NevaLabs who often have traits we also recognise in ourselves.
It's been particularly instructive when thinking about our future users. In the whiteboard scrawls above is all of us or some of us. It serves as a reminder every day of the transformation we’re hoping to bring in our prototype but also partly in ourselves as we dig back into our Best Self Journals each day and go about trying to conduct productive meetings and stay focussed on milestones within roadmaps.
This past year, through Sulzberger, I’ve come to appreciate that we all (generally) fit one of four temperament types - catalysts, stabilisers, theorists or improvisers. And within that we have ‘current behaviours’ and ‘ideal behaviours’. When you come to an awareness of your temperament type (I’m a catalyst and INFP which means 'harmoniser clarifier') you also better understand how to play to the strengths of your personality in the workplace but also how to channel the temperament types of others (or at least understand them which means being aware of your own weaknesses) in order to effect change. In the end, everything comes back to the strength of a relationship with users or co-workers that is based on trust and transparency.
Personally, that's left me with a deeper understanding of the need for empathy as a starting point in all conversations and to also resist the urge to take a position from the perspective of an investor or publisher and instead look at life and product through the lens of a person, the individual.
The product principles guiding us might be simple and obvious but their impact is already known to each of us personally as we think about core themes of better understanding our own selves and our intentions, while seeking a better return on attention. We’re clearer than ever on where we are all coming ‘from’ and more confident than ever that our quest to reach the ‘to’ will be both professionally and personally rewarding.