Mike’s User Guide

Last week, I posted about the importance of defining your company culture up front, and what it meant to actually convey information about your culture. Since then, I’ve had several people ask me for examples of what good looks like here, and how we talk about this at Modulate. I’m trying hard to keep this blog about my personal thinking and discovery, rather than speaking on behalf of the rest of the team at Modulate, so I don’t want to go into too much detail there – though our careers page has a section about our culture which I recommend, and we’re continuing to think through more and better ways to discuss our culture outside the company.

That said, there is something that I can share freely here, which is my User Guide.

For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, the goal of a User Guide is to sum up key information about yourself, meant to help a coworker, boss, subordinate, or any other associate learn to interact with you more effectively. Generally speaking, even with a cohesive overall culture, a team might consist of people with very different User Guides – so this isn’t a substitute for outlining your overall company culture. But I nonetheless think it’s a valuable exercise that demonstrates what I mean when I talk about conveying real information, so I wanted to share my own.

Just to drive the point home, for each point below, I’ll include a “Contrast with” note explaining how I might imagine a perfectly capable person to differ in important ways.

  1. I expect and prefer for you to express your confusion, no matter what.
    • Clarification: At the root of our biggest problems is usually a simple explanation – the people involved thought they were on the same page but weren’t, and didn’t realize it until it’s too late. If you’re not convinced that I understand where you’re coming from or what you’re advocating for, stand your ground and tell me so.
    • Caveats: I’ll always try to proactively get in sync, but I can’t know if I’m missing something if you don’t tell me! Because of this, I’ll never resent you for attempting to ensure we’re on the same page. I wouldn’t have chosen to work with you if I didn’t feel I could trust your judgement about what was important. (It’s important to note that I expect the same open-mindedness from you – rather than confronting me with “You’re wrong, here’s what you’re missing,” I’ll be much more receptive to something like “I’m confused, based on what I understand I’d be doing this instead, am I missing something or are you?”)
    • Contrast with: “This stuff is complicated, I don’t expect you to understand”, “move fast and break things”, “Because I said so”, etc. Most of these sound pretty grating so might not sound like “reasonable” contrasts, but it’s important to realize that I’m agreeing here to spend a lot of time getting in sync – it’s very understandable for people to not feel they have the capacity to always accept people’s questions.
  2. I deeply value integrity and expect those around me to be the same.
    • Clarification: Never say anything behind someone’s back. If it’s worth saying, it’s worth saying to their face.
    • Caveats: Sometimes you don’t know how to present a piece of feedback to someone in a way where it will really be heard. This is ok – you can reach out to someone “behind the scenes” for help to learn how to present your feedback more effectively – but the goal always needs to be making sure that the person ultimately does hear your feedback, rather than you simply venting or scoring political points.
    • Contrast with: The obvious contrast to this would be gossip, “political points”, etc. But those things often can creep up from reasonable-seeming places. For instance, “I think this person did an awful job, but saying so would be really tough for them to hear, so perhaps I’ll avoid giving them that feedback, and just hold out hope that this was a bad fluke.” This kind of avoidance-based thinking can quickly result in speaking unfairly behind someone’s back – or even just forming unfair opinions – without ever giving the person involved a chance to speak up for themselves.
  3. I think in terms of procedural tradeoffs, not ideal outcomes. Be prepared to argue not just why your goal is right, but to show you’ve considered alternate approaches seriously.
    • Clarification: If a decision is truly obvious, you shouldn’t need to be fighting for it or even bringing it up. So if you do have to, assume there must be a counterpoint, and honestly try to see those points – not as a replacement for raising the conversation, but so that we can have an effective, open-minded debate.
    • Caveats: Of course, it’s possible that I did completely overlook something. But even then, consider that I may have been lacking in time, resources, perspective, etc before treating me as having made a decision out of malice or neglect, or dismissing the possibility of my having motivation you’re not aware of.
    • Contrast with: Any sort of claim of “here’s a complete set of guidelines necessary for navigating the workplace or any other environment”, or a “just skip to the conclusion” mentality, both of which are faster and more efficient when everyone’s on the same page but I find are too rigid and too easily lead to more confusion down the line.
  4. I am thoughtful but unrefined.
    • Clarification: I do my best to always be conscientious, but sometimes I make mistakes and that doesn’t come through. If I mis-state something, give too-blunt feedback, or falsely accuse you of acting badly, please do me the favor of assuming good intent, and I’ll strive to do the same for you. (Relatedly, if I’m discussing an idea you disagree with, please don’t be shy about expressing it, but also realize that I may simply be working to understand the intents or thought processes of another party, rather than actually advocating for the idea itself!) This also manifests in the way I process information – when you share ideas with me, I might interrupt you to test my understanding or challenge you with questions from outside the norm. My goal here isn’t to be rude, and I do want to understand how you see the idea you’re presenting, but in these cases my focus on ensuring my own understanding is accurate may be getting the best of me. If you don’t mind, then great – but if it throws you off, I won’t be offended if you ask me to give you more room to talk.
    • Caveats: This is a warning label, not an excuse. In some situations, it’s crucial to not make these kinds of errors, so please don’t use my awareness of this issue as a reason not to give feedback – but at least for now, I want people to be aware that this is how I digest many ideas!
    • Contrast with: Judging someone’s conscientiousness based on actions or outcomes, which are more apparent (and often extremely important!) I find, though, that judging people based on intent makes it easier to relate to them, which both keeps my morale higher and helps me to teach and learn from others.
  5. I like frameworks.
    • Clarification: When you solve a problem, it’s easy to take an individual lesson – a password if that scenario comes up again. But what I see as more valuable is to use that specific example to think through a generalized framework – that is, a new tool to add to your toolbox. This enables us to iterate on our mistakes more effectively and helps us hold ourselves accountable to making fewer mistakes over time.
    • Caveats: I’m not looking for perfect frameworks – or, as a physicist would call them, laws. The point of a framework is simply to help communicate more efficiently, not to identify the single obvious right answer. So when I present a framework that might be relevant, make sure to consider for yourself whether it applies – and tell me if I’m using my tools incorrectly!
    • Contrast with: Learn by doing – which is of course also a crucial component of success, but which I find less useful until I at least have a null hypothesis to test against. This point 5, as well as point 1 above, also somewhat contrast with the general dislike engineers and others have for staff meetings – when meetings are used to facilitate this kind of thinking, I believe they can be major force multipliers.
  6. I’m insatiable when it comes to personal growth.
    • Clarification: I hold an extremely high bar for myself with respect to rationality, empathy, and my ability to impact the world around me for the better. Because of this, I’m constantly seeking feedback and differing perspectives that will allow me to grow. Per the golden rule, you should thus expect constant feedback from me as well. The goal isn’t to make you feel good or bad about yourself, but to give you the advantage of an outsider’s perspective on how you’re doing, so you can grow more effectively.
    • Caveats: I know that people have different goals – personal, professional, spiritual, etc – and it’s important to note that I try not to judge any set of goals as more valuable than any other. That said, I’m liable to project some of my own goals onto you, especially when I don’t know you too well – so please do me the favor of calling out when I’ve pegged you wrong!
    • Contrast with: Many people find holding a constant, ever-rising bar for themselves and others to be incredibly stressful, and to put a strain on their relationships and their morale. I respect that, and if we end up working with each other will try not to impose my thinking on you, but I also expect that there will be times we’ll be frustrated by each other’s failure to take things seriously enough or to lighten up sufficiently.
  7. I can’t (or won’t) delegate what I don’t understand.
    • Clarification: I’m the kind of person who needs to understand how all the puzzle pieces fit together. This drives me to be something of a generalist – I try to at least dabble in everything relevant to me to ensure I have the basics down. Because of this, assume that I’ll ask a lot of pointed questions early on, and understand that this isn’t because I don’t trust you – it’s because I want to learn from you, so that I can be more effective at applying your skillset to the problems we have at hand.
    • Caveats: I don’t expect to be better than, or even as good as you, at your specialty, and am not looking to micro-manage. You solve the problem the way you think is best – I’m just looking to have enough background to be able to ask intelligent questions and understand why your approach was best.
    • Contrast with: Micro-managing for one, but also “hands off” management. I find that most managers are only interested in their team’s ability to complete assigned tasks, while I’m much more passionate about understanding your preferred way of thinking – in a way that builds a framework I can use to encourage and assist in both your personal growth and that of the company. (See how these all stitch together?)
  8. I’m interested in what’s interesting to you.
    • Clarification: I constantly find myself amazed by the amount of depth and nuance in the most obscure fields. If I have to choose between small-talk or discussing your odd fascination with, say, the subtle ways Dutch and Swiss shoes differ from each other, I’ll choose the latter every time. Not only will I get to learn something new, but there frequently are lessons that can be applied far more generally hidden in these random nuggets.
    • Caveats: I might be an uninformed participant in the conversation – I certainly don’t know enough to always engage right away. But I’ll strive to be an active listener at worst, and an insightful student at best.
    • Contrast with: “How could you possibly be interested in X? What’s the point?” or “I’m really only interested in these couple fields, can we talk about one of those”?

Of course, I reserve the right to update any of the above, both as I learn more about myself and as I learn better ways to explain my thinking to all of you! Feedback, as always, is more than welcome – and if you have your own User Guides, or other tools you use to share your way of thinking, I’d love to hear how this approach compares!

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