care, clarity, competence

As you have seen with several of these explorations — I am interested in a topic not so precisely labeled as “human coordination.” This subject effectively covers the human experience in engaging with the world (and other subjects in the world) around them. Much of this interest comes from personal frustration in dealing with the outside world, which is as much of anything a personal frustration with understanding myself first and foremost that manifests into misalignments I find in the “real world.”

A lot of my “life experience” thus far, especially focused on what some would call my “adult life experience” (say after turning 18) has been shaped through an experience I had building a company. The details and specifics of the company are not particularly relevant to this exploration — so will leave them out for now — but an important piece of the journey for me had been in interacting with others. Put another way, a big cause for the successes and failures of said company (which is still alive and strong btw!) had been in the human coordination department.

I will be the first to admi that this is not an area I have shown massive amounts of competence in. I have my fair share of scars in this department, mainly in the form of self-inflicted traumas (strong word) in dealing with people over the years that have most importantly (and most negatively) resulted in failures of all flavors (the slow losing, the quick losing, the dramatic losing, the silent losing, etc.). There are many ways to mess up in the coordination arena (and in the converse, there are probably also many ways to succeed).

I will also be the first to perhaps unproductively call out that it is an area I have spent a lot of time invested in trying to be better. Better I would define as more effective in terms of assembling people to get things done, particularly the things done that I want to get done — this is an obviously valuable skill in today’s world, and while I have shown an amount of success in this area, I really believe I have a long way to go.

One of the adjacent observations I have recently made is just how understudied this area seems to be. By this area, I mean both human coordination in general but in particular around things like organizational design, training, and culture building — it still feels like even the “world’s best” are flying by the seat of their pants and really making things up as they go. This feels silly? in that coordination really did unlock the next wave of progress in the 20th century and it feels like, now, while we are still making progress in particular areas (this is worthy of a whole debate that I do not want to get into right now), some/many would argue that things are stagnating (again, not here for the progress debate today, but certainly a topic that I am interested in).

Anyways, one way I thought about coordination today, in particular in the area that many call “managing other humans,” I tend to think about things in terms of care, clarity, and competence. Will get to explaining these terms in a second.

One observation I made was that a lot of managers, especially founders that I know (myself included), tend to complain a lot about people on their team not getting their job done. It is difficult when you are not getting the results you want to identify the root cause. The simplest explanation at times is to blame the people on your team for not being good enough. This may be quite lazy though — whose to say they are the issue and the direction is not the issue? It is a tough balance to strike. A framework I use — briefly mentioned above — to figure out if it’s something _I_ need to fix versus _they_ need to fix comes down to care, clarity, and competence.

  • Care: Do they like the company mission? (1-10, how committed to the cause are they and how much do they want it to win?)
  • Clarity: Do they know what success looks like for them? (1-10)
  • Competence: Do they have the skills needed to do the job and if not do they have the resources to acquire the skills to do the job? (1-10)

If you were to go through every person in your organization and figure out precisely how they score for each of these bullets, you would walk away understanding where the gaps are that you _could_ close with a set of top-down decisions. You could provide them with sufficient clarity, resources, inspiration, etc. to get these numbers up. This does not mean you should, however, because it may end up being too big a drain on your own time to actually be worth prioritizing investing more energy in bringing the boats up. In other words, you may be able to, with just a quick analysis as done above, decide that this teammate is below your line or they are being paid too much to be actively managed in the capacity that you are doing or some version of that. You could even have different expectations for different levels within the organization. Ideally, or at least ideally in many cases, you could make those expectations explicit and write them out in some form factor and share them with the company. You could also use this as a hiring rubric of sorts. You could look for people that only worked at places where they cared a lot about the mission. Or you could work for people who do not care at all about the mission they just want to be leveraging their skill-set etc. There are many ways to slice this tool – I know some people who rely on intuition for nearly all decisions. This is not to say that this tool should replace that. But it could be a good check of sorts just to use as an audit device.

My guess, and my experience with this in my own company and with some friends and looking at their companies, is that 99% of issues start with lack of clarity. Many founders, especially young founders, are not great communicators, and leave a lot up to interpretation when they delegate tasks. Delegating tasks is not particularly easy, especially if you are not trained on how to do it. Logic alone does not get you where you need to be, because you also have to account for delegating the right way. There’s been a bit of a cultural prohibition on details as of late — so you will find a lot of young/nervous founders being afraid to prescribe too many details to what they want. Others are just lazy. And others are just incapable of getting into the details because perhaps they just do not care enough or they do not see the light. All that leads to, though, is just ambiguously delegated tasks, where often times the receiver is not even sure if they are their responsibility, let alone the specifics and details of the tasks. You can basically bet that even a highly competent person who cares a lot will fail at their job if they do not know what success looks like.

A common retort of this though is that “we are moving so quickly we do not have time to show you what clear looks like.” I think this is a lazy/ridiculous statement made by people who are not caring about the details. Caring about the right details does not necessarily take more time. It just is a way of communicating what are the things that have to be a very particular way versus a set of things that are more type 2/reversible decisions that could take on several different form factors. Intentionality is the goal here really above anything else — ensuring that people know where they should optimize for speed versus quality versus speed and quality, etc.

I think people tend to operate at this mediocre level that is not particularly big picture/inspiring and at same time is not particularly detailed. I imagine that people could get both 10x more high level and 10x more detailed with their thinking. This is both an abstraction problem and a content problem. They are approaching something from the wrong level of abstraction, and such that no matter how hard they optimize, they end up doing things that do not really matter. That is probably the most common problem at the company — you have the founder not working on the most important thing up front, so when they finally get to it, they end up pivoting the direction of the company making all of the micro-optimizations not really valuable. That is on the founder, so as much as they can blame the people around them for not being “as good as them” (again myself someone who did versions of this at times) the reality (while true in ways) means very little compared to owning the top of the leverage stack. The other piece — I referred to as the content problem — is that a lot of people are just wrong a lot of the time. It is ~kinda hard to say that and not smirk a little or feel a little uncomfortable because I think we are told this story that we all have the power to be right and while that is true I think some people are honestly right more often than other people. So when we are looking at a problem, the reality may just be that we are wrong. Like maybe the idea is bad. People are afraid to say that. They want to find all of these other reasons. The more complicated reasons tend to sound better at first but in reality are also wrong. Now it’s worth admitting that right and wrong outside of physics is not really a thing. You could say it depends and that would not be totally inaccurate, but saying it depends also often feels like a crutch people use to avoid responsibility. I think saying that things are more and less effective is a reasonable way to understand what you believe to be going well versus other areas which are struggling.

The simplest way to increase clarity is to understand what everyone is doing. This is not advice. Advice would include how to do this. There’s no one way to do this and I can tell you from experience that a lot of it depends on who you’ve hired. There is a certain category of leader or new employee etc. that would/will be offended if you ask them what they are doing all the time (even asking once a week may be offensive). Ignoring the emotions caused by being offensive, again it is their feelings so who am I to say they cannot feel a certain way, you may end up in an extremely unproductive loop of sorts where you are blind to the inputs. Being blind to the inputs is a bad position to be in for someone who wants to run a dynamic machine and provide people with clarity. The reality is that most founders do not know what everyone is doing. This problem has sadly amplified in remote work. You basically have a lot of people doing fake work. Meetings about meetings. Things that are not driving enterprise value. I would not blame the people — I would blame you, the leader, for not giving them clarity. One thing I did at one point is have everyone at the company write out their top priority every week in a public spreadsheet. With this, assume that people are not doing the most optimal thing at all times. Having them write out their top priority — this week will be successful if X thing is done where X is as objective as possible — is a way for you to figure out where the holes are and help course correct them. Now I am not professing as I continue to disclaim that this the absolute optimal way to get “buy in” and have people care about you/your company in such a way that maximizes productivity — that can be a different art.

Because the bucket of care is also an area where I see a lot of misalignment between founders/managers and employees. You should not unjustly assume that everyone cares as much as you. No one will care as much as you. Why should they some would argue — you are being paid way more than them perhaps and it is your idea, you are the leader. Likability also plays a big factor here. If people like you — if they feel connected to you in some way beyond the actual content of their work, they will probably care more. This also touches on trust — do they trust you? Do they trust you to lead the company? Do you trust yourself? When you are giving them feedback, do they interpret it as you not liking them? Do they think of it as a personal attack? Or do they see that you care about their personal growth in any capacity? How well do they understand your mental model?

The reality is that I think a lot of teams do not like each other. Like they would not enjoy getting a meal together. That alone is an indicator that it is likely they will not work extremely well together. This is not always the case but is often the case. Getting your team to like you, and getting the people who work with you to like you can make a really big difference in terms of the output you achieve. But doing this in a manipulative style way where you are actively trying to win friends and influence these people — I rarely see that work. That requires you to be someone your not. Beyond awkward and weird, it just rarely is effective. So the advice here, of which there is not advice, is just to audit it more than change anything. Does your team like you? Like you do not have to be best friends but how would they model you in their heads? Where do you fit in their lives? Remember they have lives, or at least most of them have lives outside of work, and it is likely some of their lives have things they consider more important than their work. Remember that people are often fighting battles of sorts that you do not know about. They may have lots of pain and trauma in their heads and you may not be able to see that. So consider that when you are doing the care assessment.

The final category – competence, is the one that can kinda throw a wrench in all of the above analysis. Like you may be reading the above and be thinking — kinda like I am thinking — wait this makes a ton of sense. This is logical. This is clear. I will implement this and it will work. It may work. And surely can work in ways. But it will not work if you have a bunch of people that more incompetent than you have planned for. If all of your systems and culture and communication is designed for a particular level of competence, and you hire people who do not reach that bar, you have one of two options:

  • fire them
  • train them

If you choose to train them, note the following — people, at least most adults 25+ that i have interacted with in my life, tend to change quite slowly if at all as they get older. Sure, in a new system they can change, so long as that system is communicated sufficiently intensely and clearly. But most of the time I find adults to be rather stuck in their ways (again the exception to this or at least closest exception I know of to this is when people openly want to get better and are asking for resources to change and get help). So consider that training tends to take longer than you could imagine it taking for you — funny and also perhaps obvious how that works (especially if they care less than you). But further, the answer most of the time tends to be the simplest (and sometimes also the scariest to execute on) which is that I think the average talent bar in terms of competence levels at most companies, especially startups, even supposedly or so called great startups, tends to be quite low. Now I am not right here right now articulating exactly what I believe makes up the atomic components of competence (though I do believe that it would be possible to turn this fairly abstract idea into something more concrete if you wanted to do that). But I am saying that if you were to ask the average startup employee basically anywhere to write an essay for you on basically any subject it would take them extremely long and be extremely poor quality relative to what you would expect from someone you would openly describe as competent. And I realize the words extremely may look like sloppiness or hyperbole but I can assure you that they are not. You would probably come to the same conclusion visiting most of the ivy league schools – most people are just not that good. And that is fine, kinda a boring explanation that does not give founders much to do other than to focus on finding the best people, and such we end up with all this busy work and busy advice I outline below. The other thing people realize is that they need to be able to build a system that can account for having hired at least some relatively incompetent people (and what happens at super fast growing companies is you end up needing to hire a lot of average people or even a little above average people but the value is generated really by a much smaller subset of those people ). The other piece of reality though is that group of extreme value generators actually tends to be quite small relative to the overall pie chart. So if you are hiring quickly, you are unlikely to attract that group. If you are hiring anyone average, you are unlikely to attract that group. No one wants to think that they are not in that group. And lots of people will fool you with impressive backgrounds. And if you lead out of fear you will think you are hiring greatness when in reality you are not close to it.

Once again, the simple explanation — the notion that people are just not good enough, is probably the right one that trumps all other pieces of the pie chart.

That being said, even for the good ones, you will want to have opinions on the appropriate level of clarity, care, and competence. You will just want to make sure that you are problem solving at the appropriate level of abstraction, and that may require you to unpack things at a higher level (aka fire someone) than you would have normally expected.