Successful teams are customer-focused and guided by first principle thinking
A seasoned product, design, and technology executive, our VP of Engineering Bill Scott came to Transposit with over 20 years of experience building and launching scalable platforms at large, Fortune 500 companies including PayPal, Netflix, and Yahoo. During his career, Bill has experienced large organizational shifts — such as the transition to streaming at Netflix — that ingrained important lessons in navigating change, shaping teams for success, and overall leadership. Earlier this year, he shared 4 of these lessons through a series of stories during his keynote address at the 2021 GIDS Live virtual conference.
Bill believes that “the answer to almost every problem that's within a team leads back to the customer.” It is easy and quite common to substitute other things for the customer instead of taking cues from them directly, which can lead teams down an unwieldy path. We must view customers as “the purifying stream that makes a team healthy” — when teams truly understand and are immersed in the problems or issues their customers are facing, their desire to problem-solve helps unify them under a common purpose.
Bill recalls an engineering team issue at Netflix that was a result of a larger leadership failure — context that should have been shared was not, causing a costly mistake. He quoted his boss at the time: “Reasonably good engineers, and reasonably good teams, will make reasonably good decisions, if given reasonably good context.” The takeaway: leaders should always look to see if context is being spread evenly and ensure they are spreading context themselves. An important part of managing a team is understanding what they know, as well as what they should know that will aid them in performing their jobs better. He recommends that 1:1 time be spent mostly on questions — helping the team understand the ‘why’ behind their projects and tasks, while identifying and filling any context gaps they may have along the way.
Bill shares a story about how a team outside his purview had goals that worked against those of his team, and more importantly, the customer. This highlighted something he’d seen many times throughout his career — “people hav[ing] a finite mindset about what can be solved...[and] defending the solutions they [already] have instead of seeking out the problems that are infinite and continue to grow” to inform their path. When you make this shift and help your team to make this shift, it “moves you from being a taker to a giver, from the finite mindset to the infinite mindset” and allows you to rise above office politics and insecurity over domain. The goal should not be to solve just one problem, but to work yourself out of that job so that you can then solve the next one, and so on. This way, you stay busy and continue to prove your value.
Bill’s final lesson begins with him sharing about Reed Hastings, the CEO and co-founder of Netflix, and his former company Pure Software. He recalls Reed sharing with him that “the more talent you have, the less process you need, the more process you have, the less talent you retain.” First principle thinking is what you need to identify the root of any problem, and too much process can hinder that. Problem solving requires adjusting tools and processes to aid in thinking, never to replace it. An example: “agile doesn’t solve the problem the right way, it enables solving the problem the right way.” When joining an organization or team, it is important to sift through the noise of the problems and look for the first principles that may be at play. Bill closes with a reminder that the ‘why’ is just as important as the ‘what’, because the ‘why’ leads to empathy and first principle thinking.
You can view Bill's full keynote address here.