Saturday, February 21, 2015

Do Just One Thing

I rarely read management and self-motivation books, for I rarely find anything enlightening beyond the obvious ("Think positive", "Don't give up", etc.). Even rarer would I recommend such books to anyone. And yet, I have read and strongly recommend anyone else to read 'Zero to One' by Peter Thiel. One doesn't need to be a manager nor in dire need for motivation to appreciate it. The book's a masterpiece, replete with so many enlightening gems that had me nodding my head at every page.

'Zero To One' expounds many good lessons about entrepreneurship and life. For now, I just wish to pick on one good lesson: do just one thing.

All big dreams start at zero

Who is Peter Thiel, And What His Management Philosophy Is About

Peter Thiel is a veteran billionaire entrepreneur and investor. He co-founded Paypal, steering it to a billion dollar acquisition by eBay in the wake of the dotcom burst in the late 90s. His colleagues at Paypal (known as the 'PayPal Mafia') reads out like an Expendables-like list of luminaries - they are the masterminds behind LinkedIn, YouTube, Yelp, Tesla Motors and SpaceX. Peter Thiel was also an early investor of Facebook.

In 'Zero To One', he explains his philosophy on 'doing just one thing':
"The best thing I did as a manager at Paypal was to make every person in the company responsible for doing just one thing. Every employee's one thing was unique, and everyone knew I would evaluate him only on that one thing. I had started doing this just to simplify the task of managing people. But then I noticed a deeper result: defining roles reduced conflict. Most fights inside a company happen when colleagues compete for the same the responsibilities."

His style has certainly rubbed off his former colleagues. In response to an online query, Keith Rabois is only too happy to explain further:
"The most important benefit of this approach is that it impels the organization to solve the challenges with the highest impact. Without this discipline, there is a consistent tendency of employees to address the easier to conquer, albeit less valuable, imperatives. As a specific example, if you have 3 priorities and the most difficult one lacks a clear solution, most people will gravitate towards the 2d order task with a clearer path to an answer. As a result, the organization collectively performs at a B+ or A- level, but misses many of the opportunities for a step-function in value creation."

The PayPal Mafia are not alone in thinking this. Mark Zuckerberg takes this philosophy to a higher level altogether - by focusing an entire organisation onto a single goal. Noah Kagan, employee #30 of Facebook, remembers:
"One day I took Mark into a conference room and told him I had a genius idea. We needed to make money at Facebook to be a "real" business that made serious profit. For the most part, I was always concerned that we weren’t making enough money and had to prove to outside skeptics that we could generate real revenue. Mark pushed back. On a whiteboard he wrote the word, "GROWTH." He proclaimed he would not entertain ANY idea unless it helped Facebook grow by total number of "users." Lesson learned: Focus on moving one metric at a time. This simplifies every single decision you make and helps prioritize which actions to take."

Essentially, it comes to this: focus on doing just one thing, as an individual and also a company. Multi-tasking is self-defeating: lessens accountability, distracts attention, destroys cohesion, and impedes success.

Does this philosophy only work in start-up ventures with small, lean structures? Not at all.

Individual Focus Builds Collective Goals

Take football. Everyone has a position to play and mission to achieve. Defenders patrol around deep zones, warding away opposition players and the ball from heading their way. Attackers sprint forward to create and score goals.

Each player can't afford to be distracted. A defender who strays too far forward exposes his team to counter-attacks. An attacker can't keep tracking back to cover for the wayward defender - to do so would be to neglect his primary attacking role. A team whose players are constantly out of position and stepping on each other's foot will not do well. Good teamwork stems from individual responsibility and focus.

Hence, the typical mind-set of most organisations (big or small) that every employee should share responsibilities and collaborate in large project teams to tackle most tasks (big or small) is naïve and ineffective. Less is more.

7 to 1: The difference between a team of players excelling in their individual roles, and a team with defenders who can't defend

Each Person Has To Pull His Own Weight

A manager I know is fond of saying "The team is only as strong as the weakest link". That's true. The manager went on to demand that every member help out the weak link in his daily job. That's wrong. This causes everyone to be stretched and strained, and eventually lose sight of the goal.

The better solution is to help the weak link sparingly, and if he still doesn't pull his own weight, then too bad, off he goes, hasta la vista, baby! If a weak link is dragging the entire chain down, collective good is served by severing the link. In football, a bad player simply gets substituted, benched the next game, and sold by season end if he doesn't buck up. Is it brutal? Yes. But more brutal would be to let the majority suffer for the incompetence of one.

'Doing just one thing' sounds like an individualistic mantra. It is. But it's not a selfish thing. Such single-minded focus drives individual performance to achieve the collective goal. Working together doesn't mean that everyone must work on the same thing at the same time. Working together simply means that everyone works on a link that builds up to the bigger chain. Assuming the overall strategy is sound and specific tasks are delegated properly, all everyone has to do is to mind their own business and hit their own targets - mission accomplished and everyone wins. Defenders stop goals, attackers score goals - match set and won. Simple as that.

Why Multi-Tasking Is A Bad Thing

Multi-tasking is bad for both managers and employees. Managers suffer from loss of productivity due to employees lacking focus, whilst needlessly competing and busy politicking. Employees suffer from lack of leadership due to managers prioritising the wrong things, delegating work poorly and imposing unrealistic targets (how many of us have missed out on high assessment score and bonuses even when after hitting our main financial targets, only because we "did not have a 100% internal training attendance record"?).

A complex set of goals distracts and distorts. Employees will use it to make up excuses for their underperformance and overplay minor achievements that don't matter. In turn, managers will use it to downplay their employees' major achievements and nit-pick on minor mishits that don't matter. Everyone is focused on ticking boxes, rather than measuring actual results. Everyone is focused on making as few mistakes as possible, rather than creating value. Everyone is focused on plucking low-lying fruits, rather than shooting for the stars. That's not how a dynamic workplace should run.

Every manager's fear, and why they resort to setting multiple unattainable goals for everyone

One Goal, One Mind

Sure, some jobs are routine and reactive without a big mega-project in the works (e.g. customer service). But that don't mean they can't be reduced to a singular goal. All it takes is the managerial direction to focus on the things that matter (e.g. "Promptly respond and close every customer complaint within 14 days"), and set aside the ones that don't (e.g. "Attend monthly training").

Why do managers - even those with good intentions - keep setting multiple goals for their employees? It's because they confuse goals with methods. Hitting sales target is a goal, making a hundred calls per day isn't. Keeping clients happy is a goal, hosting karaoke sessions for them isn't. Driving down costs is a goal, monitoring every sheaf of paper spat out by the office printer isn't. It's all a matter of broadening perspective, and seeing the big picture. Think macro, not micro. Life is fair. People who focus on goals will attain them. People who don't, won't.

Peter Thiel is right. Focus, focus, and focus. Do just one thing, and you'll do that one thing well. Try to do everything at once, and you'll end up doing nothing well at all.

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