ArticleNovember 30, 2021 · 3 min read time
If there is anything I have learnt over the years working in tech companies, it is that the world is unpredictable. For a reason or another, people often hope and wish for certainty – even when it is not attainable in the competitive landscape in which these companies operate.
Once upon a time, I sat in a rather plain meeting room in the Pacific Northwest. It felt like we were in a garage, with all the boxes lying around and gadgets piled up in the corners. Every now and then, you could see a robot go by or someone dressed as a T-Rex. It didn’t really make anyone even blink anymore.
We had spent months trying to get more usage of a new feature that we wanted to launch in the near future, running experiments with large masses of people, and trying to see what changes increased our performance indicators.
We tried everything. We created tutorials that taught how to use the new feature. We created illustrations. We changed the copy text, the location of the button that launched it, and the features in it. There had been interviews, focus groups and hackathons.
In the end, all these ideas were dwarfed by a simple change done by an engineer in a few minutes: he had made the button blue.
Sometimes the most simple solutions are the best ones. We have a tendency to overthink and micromanage, which may prevent us from finding the best approaches with the best people we have hired. Do not get me wrong. I am a strong advocate of basing decisions on knowledge or data. A lot that has been studied, a lot that we can use as good rules of thumb. These will help us deal with what is often called table-stakes, the basics that need to be there but do not provide any advantage over the competition.
This drive for knowledge often makes people too sure of themselves, their training, their previous work or their position to name a few examples. The problem arises when we do not understand or accept that in the end, we do not know how a product will land in the markets.
The world is an unpredictable place. There are too many factors that are contributing to the success or failure of a product or a service that they can all be controlled. Some of these factors are even beyond prediction.
Thus, the best tech companies I've worked for have adopted approaches that acknowledge that they are working on hypotheses and work iteratively to test their assumptions and performance against the goals they want to reach.
It can not be overstated what a huge mental shift this is for people and feeds into to the fundamentals of how organizations are led, all the way into incentives that are put in place.
People and teams ought no longer be led by stating what they should do but what they should accomplish. People need to learn to let go – at times, things do not work out, and it is in everyone's best interests to cut the losses short. Nobody should be punished for this either: sometimes things just do not work out.
Re-organisations should not be moments of fear but done, sparingly, to shift focus where it ought to be. There ought to be follow-ups, metrics in place to tell if projects are achieving what is hoped of them, instead of following whether the projects get done. It leads to saying 'no' to things that do not matter.
It is this mind-shift that I've perceived so many times to keep organizations back: it's not the skills of people, it is how we approach problems, and leadership.
And by embracing uncertainty is how we can win.