- Why should I read this? We’re actually skeptical about using apps to help people become better managers. So based on all the conversations we’ve had with managers, we thought we'd share some insights on the problems we’ve identified, where we think technology can help (and where we think it can’t). Read on if you’re interested in learning more on this topic and how this guides our approach to building Kommon.
- Twenty one problems: in our manager chats, we identified 21 separate challenges people were having in the role. But these all fitted into three broad themes: not getting timely, practical advice on how to do the role well; not knowing what processes to put in place or habits to adopt to organise management responsibilities; and not being able to quickly build good relationships with team members.
- How we think we can help: managers are busy, and it can be difficult to figure out how to solve these problems. However, technology can be excellent at creating virtual spaces for people to come together and achieve specific aims. By creating a dedicated space for managers and their team members to focus on career development and professional growth, we can take the burden off individual managers to figure this out, and optimise it to encourage behaviours and include advice we know constitutes best practice. Self-serve software also means for the first time managers can solve this problem themselves, rather than waiting for help which rarely comes.
- The traps we’re avoiding: workplace technology has the potential to be distracting, dehumanising and intrusive. On a less calculating level, it can also just be terrible to use. We’re steering clear of all of these.
- If we’re right: we won’t make great managers overnight, but we’ll make it much easier for everyone to start taking steps in the right direction. And if we can do that, we know we can unlock higher performance, more successful careers and happier teams in companies across the world. We think that’s a product worth building.
This may be a surprising admission from a software startup, but we’re skeptical about the use of technology to manage people.
Ultimately being a brilliant manager is founded on building trusted relationships with your team members. And although Marc Andreesen famously said, ‘software is eating the world’, it has a mixed record of success in absorbing and nurturing human relationships. Whilst technology has the ability to connect people faster than ever before, is it worth it if those connections are instant chat messages and emoji likes rather than meaningful bonds with your teammates?
We’re not the only ones thinking in this way. Kim Scott, author of the seminal management book Radical Candor (which we would highly recommend), has done more to improve management practices across companies than most. Even she has written about how she abandoned plans to turn her ideas into an app, because she felt she could have greater impact through her writing, workshops and podcasts.
“After testing three different variations of our software, we realized that if the goal was to get people to put their phones in their pockets, look each other in the eye, and just talk, an app was a value-subtracting round-trip.” Kim Scott, Radical Candor
She did, however, believe that ‘it was a nut that can be cracked’, so there’s hope for us yet. And after speaking with managers from a whole range of companies to build Kommon, we do think there’s a way software can help, if we avoid some pitfalls along the way.
How we can help managers
When we spoke to managers about their challenges in the role, they identified 21 separate issues (yes, a product manager’s nightmare). However, when we looked into the data, we found that these challenges all involved three broad themes:
- Managers didn’t feel they were getting timely, practical advice on how to do the role well.
- Busy managers didn’t know what processes to put in place or habits to adopt so they could organise their management responsibilities effectively and still accomplish their day-to-day work.
- Managers didn’t know how to build trusted relationships quickly with their team members.
Together these were resulting in a lack of confidence and underperformance in the role, particularly for newer managers.
If we examine these points, we think there’s opportunities to use technology to enhance the relationship between managers and their team members, rather than distract from it.
Enabling managers to solve their own problems
Many of the managers we spoke to seemed to be waiting for guidance from others, either from their HR departments or their own managers. As far as we know, they’re still waiting.
This isn’t surprising given that traditionally that has been where help has come from (with mixed results), and that the alternatives are either confusing (Googling ‘how to be a better manager’) or prohibitively expensive (management training).
However, cloud-based software applications now mean that individuals can finally find, test and buy their own solutions to their own problems. If a manager wants to improve their team’s communications, they could spin up a Slack team, or begin using video-conferencing. For improving design practices, there’s Figma, or Canva. For productivity, there’s a whole host of apps. This generation of software means employees don’t have to wait for others to act so they can start working more effectively.
The same should be true for managers. If you want to improve how you track and progress your team’s careers, you should be able to do it today - not to have to wait for someone else to do it for you.
Jeff Lawson reflected on his experiences when he started Twilio, now worth over $USD 40 billion:
“When we were starting Twilio, I pulled upon my experiences as a developer where I need a solution to some problem, I’m Googling around for the answer and you get to some vendor’s website and you’d say, “Oh, this looks great,” and then like the call to action button in the corner is like contact sales. You immediately knew, “Okay, well this probably isn’t going to work out.” First of all, it’s 2:00 AM, I’m working on some problem. Obviously, sales is not going to talk to me right now, but it was also a sign that this company is probably not for me. It’s probably going to be a really big expensive purchase. I’m probably going to go through a whole sales cycle. What I really want is something that I can get my hands on and just start using…” Jeff Lawson, CEO, Twilio
When we read this, we can’t help but think that there should be software which answers the same call for managers.
Structuring and Organising Information
Although research has suggested the human brain could store information equivalent to four times the US library of congress, most of the time it doesn’t feel that way.
Every day as a manager you’re exposed to a whole range of information about your team members - from project performance, to meetings, to emails, to instant messages, to performance reviews, to informal gossip. The list goes on.
Managers are then meant to be able to organise, store and recall that information in such a way that they can make clear, correct, unbiased decisions about how to develop teammates careers and the team as a whole. No one seems to mention it but this is an incredibly complex task which for the most part, for some reason, we try and do in our heads.
My educated guess is that 50% of my job as a manager is information acquisition, assessment, and redistribution. It is my primary job and the efficiency with which I do this is a direct contribution to the velocity of the team." Michael Lopp (Rands), Engineering Leader, Apple
Technology has the potential to give managers enormous help with this. Ensuring that the right information is collected, at the right time, and is available in the right place when managers need it.
Done well, this would give managers a more readily accessible and complete picture of their team members’ progress. Day-to-day, this would help managers take decisions which incrementally advance their team members' careers (which projects to set them, how to work best with them, how to fulfil their development needs, how best to align their work with others etc.) But it would also create a much more complete written record to support landmark decisions such as promotions and pay rises. Hopefully ensuring that these decisions are based on evidence of genuine performance and merit, rather than just impressions gathered in individuals’ heads over the preceding months and office politics.
Encouraging collaboration, openness and transparency
Anna Wiener is an American writer, who published a memoir on her time working in Silicon Valley. It’s a rare first-person account of life at work from someone who’s not a high-flying CEO, and which hasn’t been through a corporate PR filter. At one point in it, she reflects on what she wants in a workplace, and the first item on her list is:
I wanted to trust my manager.
Building trust between managers and team members is a large topic which we’ll address in detail another time. But if we think about the problem in reverse, it’s quite easy to imagine managers who you didn’t trust and why. Some symptoms might include: a lack of personal interest and investment in your career; limited openness and information-sharing; or an overbearing management style with little room for your opinions and ideas.
Now, for some managers, that might just be their deliberate (terrible) approach. In which case, there’s larger human problems there that technology is going to struggle to fix. However, for some, these are habits that have formed because they’re busy with other responsibilities, and struggle to fit the personal side of management into their professional routine. In the absence of any help, they may also be falling back on vague understandings of what ‘leading’ looks like (usually from some misleading stereotype) rather than knowing how to put a system in place to organise this part of their work in the best way for them and their team.
In 2020 more than any other year, we know that technology can play a powerful role in creating virtual spaces for people to work together (especially when they’re physically apart). We believe the same can be true for management.
By creating a dedicated space focussed on developing people’s careers, we can take the burden off individual managers having to work out how to do this themselves. We can also ensure it is designed from scratch to encourage the behaviours and habits we know build trust in teams - collaboration, openness and transparency between managers and their teammates. For some managers, this could be a dramatic improvement over having to remember to share the things they wrote down in that notebook or Google doc, or to arrange that one-on-one, or to collect feedback on that project. And we know people are busy, so we can build an understanding environment that nudges both managers and team members to spend more time on this aspect of their work if it seems that they're not paying enough attention to it.
The pitfalls we’re avoiding
Whilst we think these are areas of great potential, we’ll quickly call out some of the technological traps which we think have the capacity to diminish relationships between managers and their teams, and which we’re looking to avoid.
- Attention-seeking: we think teams should be paying more attention to how their people are managed, but we’re not looking to monopolise it. There are already enough workplace apps which provide distractions above and beyond the value they create, we’re not looking to make another.
- Depersonalised contact: we’re focussed on using technology to improve the human connection between managers and their team members. We’re not trying to entirely digitise interactions which require a human discussion. This would defeat the entire point and undermine the trust we’re trying to create.
- Algorithmic judgement: we want to give managers and their team members an easier way to structure their working relationship, and help them make the right decisions at the right time to build better relationships and better careers. But those decisions are up to the manager and the team member. We’re not going to be algorithmically plotting careers or scoring productivity.
- Crappy user experience: ok this one is less high-minded than the others. But absolutely a pitfall we’re trying to avoid! In one recent survey, only 51% of HR leaders felt the technology experience they gave their employees was ‘great’. Even more worryingly, even less employees thought so - only 33%. We want technology to be able to enhance relationships between managers and their teams, and that’s only going to happen if they want to use it.
Strengthening rather than replacing relationships
So that’s our future for how software can help managers. By giving managers and their team members a common space to capture more thoughts and track progress in ways they weren’t doing before, we can use technology to enhance these relationships, rather than replace or distract from them. And we can do it all in a way which helps managers today, rather than leaving them waiting for guidance which sometimes never comes.
We won’t make great managers overnight, but we’ll make it easier for everyone to take several steps in the right direction. And if we can do that, we know we can unlock higher performance, more successful careers and happier teams in companies across the world. We think that’s a product worth building.