Keeping up with the 150 or so emails I get every day is a challenge, one that I fail at quite regularly. Happily, I’ve recently had a breakthrough on this thorny problem. Pairing with Jamie Lystra, our incredibly able assistant, has tamed the email beast. I’ve improved my responsiveness, reduced my mail-induced anxiety, and found an implementation that balances the conflicting forces of leverage, confidentiality, and privacy.
My first experiment with getting email help from an assistant didn’t go very well. I didn’t get the leverage I’d hoped for, and having full access to my email account proved to be a problem in the end. I wish Alexandra Samuel’s HBR article on delegating email to an assistant had been written a year ago. She has some great ideas and advice, and it could have helped me avoid some pain.
While the first experiment failed, the need for help didn’t diminish. A new approach was called for. My colleague Shawn Crowley suggested that rather than share full access, I think about a filtering and forwarding approach.
Baseline requirement: a great assistant
I believe the primary factor for success in getting help from an assistant, whether in email or any other area, is the person him or herself. Jamie is justifiably proud of the important work she does. She’s gratified by helping me, Mike and Shawn. She seeks out new ways she can help us. She’s thoughtful, reflective, and pro-active. She’s loyal, steady, discreet, and optimistic, and exercises good judgment. With an assistant like this, any strategy for getting help with email would probably work.
Filtering, forwarding, and digesting
While our company email is hosted by Google, I continue to use a desktop mail client with IMAP. I like having all my email in my laptop, and being able to read and respond to mail without a network connection. My mail client of choice is OS X’s Mail.app. Mail has a feature similar to forwarding known as “redirect”. The difference between forwarding and redirecting is that redirect preserves the original sender in the From: header. When I redirect a message to Jamie, she sees the message as if it came from the original sender, not me. This helps her process my mail, and makes it easier to respond if appropriate.
Here’s how we’ve worked out an effective way to pair on my email. Throughout the day, Mail.app automatically:
- pulls all mail with IMAP
- leaves mail from anyone in my company in my Inbox
- leaves selective mail from outside the company in my Inbox
- archives and redirects everything else to Jamie
During the day, Jamie processes the mail that is redirected from my laptop. At the end of the day, she produces a daily digest of my emails in three categories:
- Important, response required
- Read, no response required
- Not sure what this is
I use the daily digest to read mails that matter from my All Mail folder. The third category provides a natural feedback loop to help Jamie learn what matters and improve her handling and efficiency. Since Jamie’s monitoring mail throughout the day, she will occasionally text or call me with something that’s urgent.
The overall results after just two weeks have been very good. I’ve been able to stay caught up on email. My responsiveness has improved. My anxiety level has decreased. Jamie is learning quickly what matters and what doesn’t. She can respond on my behalf on some mails. She’s more aware of what’s happening in my life, which has opened up new ways she can assist.
Our approach has reduced the total time I spend on email. That means there are things I’m missing, and serendipities lost. For example, I don’t see as many Basecamp messages on projects I’m close in. Interesting tidbits from newsletters, LinkedIn, and yes, even FaceBoook, can no longer catch my eye. Since she can’t possibly know when to add this stuff to the digest, Jamie has unsubscribed me from a bunch of lists.
The only downside to how we’ve implemented our strategy is that my laptop needs to be up and running in order to receive and redirect messages.
The level of loyalty, discretion, and diligence that Jamie brings to her job are critical to success since they build my trust. Keeping internal emails out of the redirect stream is a reasonable compromise between confidentiality for other employees and efficiency.
Inbox 0 is now a very attainable goal on a daily basis.
When I started Atomic Object with my co-founder in 2001, I followed my instincts and engineering training, as I had no formal business education and very little business experience. I wish I’d known about the knowledge funnel back then. Reading about this simple model in Roger Martin’s book, The Design of Business, was an “ah ha!” moment; he explained so well, and so simply, the process we more or less bumbled our way through in getting Atomic up and running. If understanding is a prerequisite to solving any problem, Martin contributes a simple, visual model and vocabulary to discuss and therefore increase the odds of creating value and improving your business.
The knowledge funnel has three stages: mystery, heuristic, and algorithm.
I’ve lately come to appreciate what people at Atomic Object call the “worry gene”, especially in the people I work with. Pushing the genetic metaphor a bit, the worry gene encodes for proteins which, in turn, cause behaviors and actions that directly improve the outcomes and results of projects. Having a strong worry gene is a really great attribute for working at a consultancy.
Some people interpret the phrase “worry gene” in a negative light. I think this stems from the assumption that worrying is bad and unproductive. What this interpretation misses is the critical part of what we mean by the phrase. It’s not the worry, but the actions taken, that matter. If you had a faulty copy of the worry gene, and your cells didn’t create the proteins that resulted in positive action, then I guess that would be bad. But that’s not a properly expressing worry gene. I like to work with people who pay attention and turn their worry into positive, productive action.
What kind of positive actions come from a properly expressing worry gene? Here are some I’ve noticed:
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Can a company really be anything like a family? Is drawing the comparison naive, or a selfish attempt at employee manipulation by a cynical CEO? I use the word “family” for Atomic Object both casually and seriously, but I’ve always had a small degree of discomfort with the comparison. This post is my attempt at thinking that through.
Here are the salient characteristics of families, as I see them:
- care deeply about each other
- sacrifice for each other
- play together
- work together
- support, protect, and help each other
- share food and other resources
- show up at significant life events
- know each other well, and in many dimensions
- socialize and celebrate together
- seek to perpetuate themselves
- have a strong sense of identity (name, crest, etc)
- have shared values, history, and rituals
- tolerate each others shortcomings
- drive each other nuts, sometimes
- have both living and dead members
- don’t chose their members
I think it’s pretty clear that any group of people, as they grow larger, exhibit fewer of these characteristics. It’s probably safe to say that no large companies operate like families, at least across their entire organization. I’ve also heard plenty of stories of small companies that don’t exhibit many of these traits, either.
Like a family
If I include deceased members, Atomic Object is approximately the same size as my extended family (parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, spouses, and their kids). When I evaluate Atomic against the list above, I think “check, check, and check”. When I compare to my own extended family, I see as many matches for Atomic as for my family, and truth be told, I’m closer to some Atoms than I am to some family members. I certainly spend a lot more time with many Atoms than I do with some of my family. (For reference, I have a close, happy family with fairly broad geographical distribution and stay in contact with all living members.) I love my family, and I also love some of my fellow Atoms.
What is an innovation services firm worth? I had to answer this question when we started broadening the ownership of my company beyond its co-founders.
The traditional answer to the question of what a service firm is worth is, “not much”. All the assets walk out the door at the end of each day. Since talent is portable, a change of ownership could result in a mass exodus, destroying much of the purchased value. There are usually very few hard assets in a services firm. Who would buy such a thing, or if they did, pay very much for it?
Yet the last few years have seen numerous transactions in which software development consultancies have been purchased for significant sums. This is partly explained by the general shortage of software talent, and by the value which such talent can create in a product firm. Rapidly growing product companies buying their vendors, and private equity investments in services firms, exemplify these transactions. I was not interested in an outside investor, but I still needed to establish our value.
My goal was to transfer ownership in the company to our employees. I believed then, and continue to believe strongly, that ownership should be purchased, not gifted. Ultimately, my quest for the correct answer ended in the realization that there is no “truth” to be discovered here, and that my ownership is worth what I’m willing to sell it for, and what someone is willing to pay for it. The best way I could determine to find that mutually agreeable valuation was to calculate it from financial first principles.
We have very few rules at Atomic Object. Our employee handbook is intentionally labeled “Atomic Guidelines”, and is full of examples, expectations, and explanations but very few concrete rules. The rules we do have concern time tracking, start of the workday, and contributing to the blog. We favor guidelines over rules because it forces each one of us to engage with the spirit and intent of an issue, and leaves the responsibility for deciding on a course of action with the individual. (I am quite familiar with the folly of trying to create a perfect, complete specification, i.e. rules, for anything sufficiently complex, whether it’s a software system or a company.)
Nearly three years ago, Atomic started experimenting with a new form of governance. Today, our Board approves nearly everything brought in front of it. Does this mean we’ve created a rubber-stamping sham of governance? Is Atomic run as a dictatorship with a thin veil of employee participation? Has our experiment in renewable governance failed? I don’t think so. To the contrary, I think it’s been a huge success. In this blog post I’m going to explain our experimental governance structure, as well as why I think the high approval rate of decisions and initiatives is an indication of success.
The philosophy behind Great Not Big isn’t simply one of avoiding growth, or a hard limit on how large Atomic Object might eventually be. Instead, it’s a question of focus. Our focus and priorities have always been on being as great as we possibly can be. Growth is an unintended consequence of our achievement, such that it is, at greatness. We opened an office in Detroit last year to find out if we could replicate our model for a software product development consultancy. Doing so was a means of managing the pressure to grow that happy clients bring, while maintaining a size in Grand Rapids that kept us focused on being great. The experiment went well, and we’ve successfully bootstrapped an office in Detroit that has been serving clients, attracting talent, and engaging with the technical community for the last 13 months.
AO Seeks Managing Partner for Detroit Office
Atomic Object is searching for a managing partner to lead our Detroit office. The managing partner role at Atomic is a challenging and correspondingly satisfying one. It is an opportunity to build your own software product development office, supported by a proven model, strong brand, and active mentoring and training.
Our Detroit office currently employs five great developers, so this isn’t starting from scratch. What this office ultimately becomes, however, will be crucially dependent on our new managing partner’s skills, dedication, and ambition. This position is a rare opportunity for a developer or designer who relishes the idea of building and leading a team of dedicated, passionate makers.
We’re looking for someone who is excited about contributing to the revival of the city of Detroit and interested in doing the hard work to gain the entrepreneurial rewards associated with the creation of long-term, sustainable value for our clients, Atomic, and themselves.
Transparency in a company does a lot of great things. Perhaps first among them is it builds trust. Transparency also creates the potential for broader employee participation in the analysis and investigation that proceeds major strategic decisions. If you can share an opportunity and your ideas early, you can tap your internal brain trust and improve your odds of success, I believe. What I’ve recently figured out, through some painful experience, is that taking advantage of the potential that transparency creates requires more than openness from the leadership of the company. It also requires what I’ll call “positive engagement” on the part of employees.
There are easier places to work than Atomic Object. We don’t specialize in one industry or technology domain, so we’re constantly learning. We push hard to build the best app possible for a given budget, and ideas always exceed budget. We all contribute to our marketing efforts through the company blog. Everyone’s expected to understand the economics of the company and make smart decisions with their time. We push ourselves constantly to develop professionally. In short, we have high expectations of ourselves and each other.
So why do talented people with lots of employment choices choose to be Atoms? Daniel Pink’s three dimensions of motivation are part of the answer. We score high on mastery and autonomy, and we adopt our client’s purpose for the duration of each project. A serious commitment to sustainable pace keeps the intensity manageable. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we have strong bonds to each other. Those bonds were strengthened last year with an experiment I called “pair lunch”.