My experience of high-performing teams – “What People Who Worked At Google Know That You Probably Don’t”

I read this great article from Hunter yesterday and wanted to revisit one of the two main points he makes in it about high performing teams.

“2. Know what high performance teams feel like”

I’ve been a part of teams I’d class as high performing, as well as others I’d class as not. Reading the post made me reflect on what separated those different experiences. There is definitely a palpable sense you get when you join a team that’s really pushing itself. You get this sense that the people you’re around are all smarter than you. Not only that, but that everyone is busy DOing, too. In a work sense, they reply to your messages, quickly. Generally, they use more open tools (like Yammer, Twitter, Blogs etc) and so you can also see their communication cadence with others, on top of yours. You get this sense that to make the grade in this new environment, you’ll need to really work hard to ‘return serve’ to a lot of the incoming stimulus that enters your world. That you’ll need to not just do what you know, faster – but learn what you don’t know faster than you may have before.

When I joined Yammer a few years ago, it was certainly this experience that I felt. I remember my first few days at our old HQ in San Francisco at 410 Townsend Street. The Customer Success team I had joined was small, but growing quickly. I walked in the first day I was there and everyone came over the greet me and say hello. We chatted casually for a bit, introduced ourselves, then it was back to it. I was then showed where all the work happened. We had our own group on Yammer, which is where everyone posted about the work they were making progress on with their clients. That group sat within the Yammer network itself, which moved at a tremendous pace. It was awesome, in the truest sense of that word.

After I had the ‘tour’ and was left to my own devices, I stared at the screen in the customer success group. It was daunting. What could I possibly say that would be useful for these people? Luckily, I was distracted by someone asking for more of a chat so got stuck into that instead. In the end, it took me about 3 days to start posting on our Yammer network. I felt lost for words, but resigned myself to just getting started and getting some momentum on my side. Momentum is a funny concept like that. I believe it’s why high performing teams focus so much on being responsive to each other. Because if you loose that momentum, that mojo, as a group it’s very hard to get back.

It’s just one example, but that’s how a high performance team felt to me. Many people have left the Yammer Customer Success team in the years since and gone into bigger roles within Yammer or Microsoft itself, or have flown our nest for director-level roles elsewhere. But the high-performance culture amongst both that group of people and the teams they’ve left behind has mostly been maintained.

Hunter Walk

Ok, that was a totally troll title. What I want to share though is a subtle advantage that people who’ve worked at transformative tech companies have over people who haven’t. It’s not that the average employee from Google, Apple, Facebook, etc is necessarily smarter or more capable than any other person. I mean, maybe they are on average, but I’m not making the case that just because they passed a hiring screen that makes them worthwhile. There are certainly ineffective people who made it into Google and many, many special talents that haven’t yet been part of a rocketship. But there are two learnings that I’ve generally found to be more highly concentrated among those with experience at transformative companies versus those who haven’t. And I think it’s learned/reinforced in those environments, not just magically inherent to the people attracted to these opportunities. It’s like athletes who have been on championship teams pick…

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Making friends

Sarah just wrote a great post over on her blog that you should check out about how hard it is to make friends in adulthood. Especially, these couple of sentences really resonated with me and what I’ve found with moving cities over the last few years.

As an adult, in everyday life the people you generally come into contact with are settled, established and adding people to their circle takes effort. They have routine, they have stability and are more than often not looking to disrupt their bubble.

Sarah writes so well (!), I’m not going to add too much. Just to say that building a sense of community around yourself when you move is hard. It feels to me a little like the sort of thing that is different each time. None of the ways you made your last close friends ever seem to work that well a second time around. Which means when those lonely days come about, you’re also left with a sense of frustration with yourself that you don’t know quite what to do. And as Sarah mentions, the bar to clear to be someone’s friend often feels much higher in adulthood.

I’ve resolved myself with being patient and letting time do it’s thing. In my time in Sydney I made some of the most terrifically close friends I could hope for. The list is small, but those relationships mean a lot to me. I could certainly do a better job of keeping them more alive. The fact they exist gives me hope for where we are today and where we’ll continue to explore throughout life. But it is hard. Thanks for writing the post, Sarfos 🙂

Adding oxygen to the room

Every so often, I find myself wondering about what the state of ‘blogging’ is and where it’s going. It’s often when I take vacation – when I get more time to think more broadly about things of that nature – and in those moments I often start blogging myself again. To get a feel for what it’s like to take the thoughts that are circulating in my mind and put them down. To make them concrete and then share them. In these times, I often end up wondering what Matt Mullenweg is thinking at the moment. Which is what I’m doing right now.

I’m watching this great interview between Mullenweg and Reid Hoffman, one of the founders of LinkedIn.

There’s a great, two minute discussion that caught my attention around the 10 minute mark. You can skip to it roughly using this link. Hoffman has asked for Mullenweg’s thoughts about being in an open or closed ecosystem. Matt has a great answer, where he talks a little about how he thinks about partnering on open source projects with other organisations that all have a relevant stake in making said project successful. He shares some thoughts about where WordPress(.org) is going with the improvements being made by Automattic (WordPress.com) and other organisations that wouldn’t necessarily spring to mind – such as the New York Times. It’s worth watching.

The horizon bias

One of the things I noticed upon moving to San Francisco earlier this year was how much harder it was to see the horizon than it is in Sydney (or the east coast of Australia more generally). I hadn’t really given it too much though, other than I missed seeing it and felt a great sense of calm and place on the rarer occasions when I was in a location, like Ocean Beach, where you could see it.

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Last night, I overhead a podcasts Rose was listening to which really resonated with me. The two women being interviewed were explorers, one born in the foothills of the Himalaya’s in India and the other born in Europe in place ‘similar to the scenes of The Sound of Music – rolling green hills of luscious grass.’ Both women, among other things, have ventured to Antarctica, walked 100,000 miles or completed other enormous feats of exploration. Both commented that for them, they were more at home in their natural environments that echoed their initial place of birth.

It dawned on me that, whilst I might find being in the foothills of the Himalayas quite overwhelming, others might find staring out into the expanse of the ocean similarly daunting. But because I’ve grown up doing just that, I pursue the chance to ‘check in’ with that scene every so often. It’s good for me. I have a bias towards being calm in that environment. But it’s my bias alone – others may share it but that doesn’t mean others don’t find similar peace elsewhere.

Calibration vs Measurement in 23 seconds

A couple of weeks ago we held the latest Yammer Hack Day at Yammer HQ. Hack Day comes around a few times a year at Yammer and provides people a chance to work on things they really want to work on for 2-3 days. Many people hacked on things unrelated to Yammer as well as many choosing to hack on our API and other aspects of the service. For me, I decided to hack on something a bit different. I decided I wanted to hack the physical space by opening a cafe inside the office for the three days. Also, I really just wanted to scratch my own itch and have a try at making great coffee!

On the first morning, I set up the Rancilio machine I’d borrowed from a colleague and then the grinder we’d borrowed from the excellent Joy Ride Coffee. I had trouble getting the machine going – let’s just say that my cafe, lovingly named ‘150ml’ in celebration of the metric system, had to turn many customers away on the first morning of hacking. Quickly, I ran over the road from our office to my normal coffee haunt, Ma’velous to seek their wisdom. There, they gave me a quick lesson and one thing stood out to me.

Me, getting a barista lesson at Ma'velous.

When you’re making coffee, you may see people time how long it takes for the espresso to get made from the machine. From the point the barista presses the button and starts exposing the ground coffee in the portafilter to pressurised water, to when you stop it, is ideally about 23 seconds. Easy, I thought. Put the coffee in the portafilter, whack it into the machine and then start timing and press stop at 23 seconds. Not quite. The folks at Ma’velous taught me that you actually want to stop the machine when the water changes from the rich, brown ‘coffee’ colour to be more ‘blonde’ in colour. It’s at that point you stop it. “So why 23 seconds?” I asked? They informed me that was to calibrate the grind of the machine – mostly. You don’t measure how much water you put through by seconds. Instead you calibrate how finely you’ve ground the beans by seeing how long it takes for the espresso to come through. So, if the coffee changes to a more blonde colour at around 13 or 14 seconds, it means your grind it a bit off.

There’s a lot of subtlety in all this and I don’t feel like I’m quite doing it justice in this post – It’s my first for a while – but generally I’ve thought a lot about that since. It’s so easy when given a clear metric, like time, to manage towards that. It’s left me thinking a lot about other measurements and how they provide the opportunity for calibration in other areas rather than directly changing expected behaviour – like letting the water run until 23 seconds each time and pouring a sub-par coffee each time.