Dropbox continues to acquire great design talent

Tim Van Damme, the lead designer at Instagram, has announced on his blog he’s joining Dropbox in early August after 18 months at Instagram.

Tim Van Damme, Hello, Dropbox
It’s time to move on, time to solve a different set of problems.
Dropbox is a fascinating company. It provides value to a wide range of people, not just those who build things.

Dropbox has been mining from a number of very social companies. The acquisition of Mailbox from Orchestra came with Gentry Underwood and his talented crew. (Remember, Orchestra also has a task management app of the same name). Soleio Cuervo, the guy behind Facebook’s “like” button joined the company in December, and Rasmus Andersson, another Facebook (and Spotify) designer joined in March.
Here’s my bet. Dropbox is going to continue their ascent. They won’t take their eyes off what has led them to where they are — which is file sync and sharing — but I am betting that they are developing something bigger. Much bigger.
My bet is that Dropbox could be that upstart startup, the one that moves in to shake everything up, just like Google did when it launched Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs.
It would be interesting to see a new take on calendars, a social take. And some real innovation in ‘word processing’ and ‘document editing’ and ‘office applications’. There is an obvious opportunity for new approaches to cooperative instead of collaborative work tools, and the background social platform of Dropbox — where files silently sync in the background while we work in the foreground — seems a great starting point for that experimentation to happen.
I will be watching closely.

Work to create a predisposition to innovate in the social dimension

I saw this post by one of the founders of AngelList, and I thought it was illustrative of some of the challenges of the lean social approach that I have been advocating.

Babak Nivi, Ask forgiveness, not permission

AngelList “corporate policy” is that team members should ask forgiveness, not permission.

We would rather have someone do something wrong than ask permission to do it.

Or better, we would rather have someone do something right and not need permission to do it. This is the most common outcome.

We would rather have people ship to production whenever they want, than go through an internal review process. We can fix it on production. We prefer the customer’s review process. And it isn’t too hard to reveal a new feature to a small portion of our users and iterate on it as we expand it to more users.

Eliminating permission increases the speed and diversity of our decision-making. Our incubator applications are a good example of diverse decision-making: one of our team members built it even though I was telling him, “This is fine, but I don’t think it is that important. Why don’t you work on something else.” It ended up being very important to our users and mission.

There are some sensitive parts of our product that are walled off from this “ask forgiveness” policy. There are some things we want reviewed by the people who “know better”. But it’s really rare.

This policy only works if you hire insanely smart and capable people, and let go of the ones who are not. We also filter for people who are mission-oriented, care about our customer and want to learn more.

Leaving aside the ‘letting go of the ones who are not’ line, I unreservedly applaud this management dogma. The equivalent in the lean social realm is that individuals should be free to innovate in the way that their own work gets done, or a group should be able to redefine their flow of work, without some huge review process.

Certainly, the feedback of others is still relevant, and you are going to have to take responsibility for the results of your innovation — and clean up any messes that are caused — but the inclination should be toward innovation, and the attempt to improve customer satisfaction, product quality, response times, whatever. And this comes with the need to measure what you are seeking to improve. But the predisposition should be to act, to innovate as understood by the people closest to the work being done.

Now, back to the hiring ‘insanely smart and capable people, and letting go the one who are not’. We have a throwaway culture, and that manifests itself in business — in part — by a lack of real depth in hiring. Too little time is spent to find out if people fit in advance, if they have the skills and mindset needed for a job, or for a long-term role at a company. Especially in the high velocity startup landscape, the credo as laid out by Navi seems to hold. I have heard other West Coast tech CEOs advocate firing the bottom third of workers every year.

Personally, I find myself leaning more and more to the ‘no fire’ policy (see What does a ‘No Fire’ policy change? Everything.), which leads to very different approaches to hiring, and the significant burden of mentoring and stewardship for managers and leaders in a company. But even in a company that hasn’t gone that far, I think there should be a greater commitment to the staff that a cavalier, libertarian attitude of firing everyone who doesn’t match up to some unclear guidelines about being insanely great. It becomes all too easy to say that you want people to innovate, to make mistakes, and learn from them, but then to decide to fire someone because they didn’t learn fast enough, or they didn’t lean exactly the lessons they were supposed to. I think the business has to commit to a deeper investment in people than that.

Bosses as teachers, innovators, and terrors

This past week had me uncovering a long thread of research — unplanned actually — that confirm the central and powerful role of bosses in the workplace. Setting that context, in one post (In a social world, management’s new role is teaching social literacy) I quoted from The Value Of Bosses (Edward Lazear et al):

A boss’s primary activity is teaching skills that persist.

This is a statement of subversive optimism, it seems to me. The researchers’ work quantified the impact of good bosses as being roughly equivalent to adding an additional team member to a nine member team, and that  impact is stronger with better workers, presumably because the better workers are more open to learning.

In an increasingly social world, where digital literacy must include the skills of using social tools, we will therefore need to have managers that can teach social literacy.

And we have to stop pretending that knowing how to login to Facebook is social literacy, as Ana Silva points out.

The dark side of the power of bosses is fear. Employees are working longer hours and harder because they are fearful for their jobs (Productivity demand up despite us working longer), and productivity demands are increasing. Senior managers believe that an additional 20% of productivity is needed, according to a CEB study, and this must come from increased collaboration: from greater social literacy.

So, we need to start by making sure managers across the board become extremely socially literate, and knowledgeable in teaching social literacy as well. My experience to date suggests this is not the case in business today, and is unlikely to be even a high priority in most companies, where training in social tools and technique is often the job of community managers or consultants, not line management.

And we will have to find new ways to innovate in our social experiments. So bosses and staff alike will have to achieve social literacy, enough so that social business innovations can be tried and evaluated. I suggested in Lean social means no paving the cowpaths that the principles of lean development and the lean startup should be applied to the adoption of social in business:

The principles:

  • Work fast
  • Minimize waste
  • Expose ideas to real people early and often
  • Test hypothesis
  • Iterate in response to feedback
  • Scale successes

First of all, I think this argues for social software that is naturally and explicitly organized around this lean principles. For example, social tools that explicitly support intuitive and fast techniques for disseminating new ideas and gathering feedback in useful and visual ways. (I selected that as an are where I think that today’s tools fall short.)

Secondly, I think this runs in conflict with the default model in most businesses today, the majority of which are still operating around the concept of fixed, well-defined business processes that people are supposed to ‘follow’ to get jobs done. But we’ve switched to a world of rapidly changing work, where work is becoming more collaborative, and solutions have to be contrived following general principles not exact formulas. Yes, the principles define a sort of meta process, but it is simply a general template for a modern sort of lean learning.

Last, moving to a lean mindset — at the corporate, department, project or individual level — means that adoption of social can’t be taking the existing way of doing things and simply gluing some social stuff on top. It can’t. If only because the way we do things is the biggest leverage in innovation, and social has to be about innovation first, and secondly about improving productivity and efficiency of existing ways of doing things.

I think companies should adopt a lean social approach, and this once again has to become the mantra of managers. They have to drive these innovations.

And the climate of fear in the business world, where companies are cutting staff and asking the rest to work harder and longer, is a serious issue. This often is manifested as fear of the boss, particularly fear of getting fired. And when people quit their job, they are actually quitting their boss, because the communication is bad and there is little trust.

One technique to counter that fearful communication is anonymous feedback to bosses. I reviewed a new specialized tool for exactly that use case called Tell Your Boss Anything, which is well-designed for its purpose, intuitive, and simple to use. And it counters the inherent fear of retaliation that surrounds negative feedback to a manager.

One CEO, Charlie Kim of NextJump, instituted a company policy intended to end the precarious fear of the workforce: the fear of getting fired. He adopted a ‘no fire’ policy, and it changed everything in his business:

Charlie Kim: Once you realize that you are entering into a lifelong relationship, hiring starts to look a lot more like adoption, or dating. Multiple interactions over some time are required before our team would get comfortable with a prospective hire. Every hiring manager started hiring more carefully, something I’d been advocating for but couldn’t make happen in every manager. Without further direction, they started treating hiring like adoption: once we take someone into our family, they’re here for life, when things don’t work, they’re responsible for training them, helping them.

Training also became much more comprehensive, touching subjects such as character, grit, and integrity in ways we had previously viewed as beyond the scope of company training.

Once again, the central role of training for leaders — teaching skills that persist — comes to the forefront, but the radical nature of going to ‘no fire’ is breathtaking.

And Kim discovered that removing the fear of being fired led to a surprising result: 0% turnover. Basically, people value the stress-free, playing-for-the-long-term environment of the new NextJump, and they aren’t lured away by companies offering more money. Money is less important than belonging.

On The Tool Front

I reviewed Mailbox, the highly anticipated email client that implements a very smart email ‘snooze’ model. I will be using it as my preferred client from now on. I looked at Brightpod, a small and simple work media tool, and it may well be the perfect minimum viable product in that space. And I profiled Crowdbase, a very smart social sharing solution — a sort of Pinboard or Pinterest for the workgroup — which I am actively using myself.

Michael Wolf commented on Twitter’s acquisition of Bluefin Labs —   part of a rapid consolidation in the social TV market — and he thinks Twitter was after their patents and contacts in the advertising side of things. Wolf also wondered what will About.me become now that it is being sold back to the founders by AOL, but that direction is not at all clear at this point.

 

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