Max Hodak Writings

Management by laziness

February 2016

It’s easy to be very busy running a company. Being overscheduled is an ideal of Silicon Valley and can be very satisfying when you’re having a big impact. But there’s a big difference between being busy and being productive, and the reality is that most of what many people spend lots of time frantically doing would be done better by trusting someone else.

I’m always asking what I can be doing to make Transcriptic more successful. There are deals we have in progress, systems being built, people being recruited. Lots to do, and I want to help all of it go better, faster to the greatest extent that I can.

One of the things I’m now convinced is true is that you’ll never find out what someone is capable of unless they have the ability to fail. If you’re so worried about failing at something that you keep your team on short leashes, wanting to know that the decisions they’re making are good ones, you’ll never get close to their best work. Netflix calls this Freedom and Responsibility. Smart creatives aren’t extra hours in the day for me, they’re completely new capabilities for the company.

I’ve found that paradoxically I sometimes get the fastest, highest quality progress by asking what’s the minimum control input I can give to be successful? This feels really weird at first, and sometimes leads to days where I’m not sure what I should be doing as a great team expands to fill the freedom. But I quickly find new things to be doing that are much higher leverage than overseeing work we already have good people to do. It can be hard to resist the urge to do more on the obvious things we need to do, but management’s job is to serve your team, and in some ways that means doing less.

I’ll often have ideas or comments on the stuff happening all around me, but I try very hard to resist commenting unless it will actually move the needle. Even if my comment would make something 15% better or catch some minor issue, it’s better to let the team figure this out on their own. Over time as the team gets used to the freedom and responsibility, even if mistakes are made early on, they’ll get used to having to be right and those 15% opportunities will disappear. They were always capable of it but you never see it when they know you’re there to correct them.

One thing that doesn’t work like this is setting strategy. I’m constantly learning from my team and what we’re seeing with the market, but ultimately you have to set a single consistent vision and strategy for the company. And then don’t change it until you’ve learned something legitimately new. The reality is that there are only two or three major strategic decisions I have to make per year, though those are really important to get right. That’s the minimum control input to get a really good team to succeed.

“Hire slow and fire fast” is extra important to follow in cultures like this. It’s something I think we do pretty well at Transcriptic, and is controversial in its own way. We’re always understaffed. It’s shocking when someone leaves before most people realize it’s a real problem. These are the right things to do.

This doesn’t work for all companies, and the reality is that many startups don’t actually need great people. Many web apps just need okay engineers to build a CRUD app and okay marketers to distribute it using tried-and-true channels. But to solve hard problems freedom and responsibility is the only way to get and retain truly impressive smart creatives over the long term, and it’s more fun to work with really smart people anyway.