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The power of minimal clear constraints

August 28, 2022newsletter


After some time off and an eventful couple of weeks at Buffer, I’m back with another newsletter.

Read on for links I saved recently, book highlights, the latest at Buffer, something that’s been on my mind, and a general personal update.

I’ve really enjoyed the email conversations I’ve had from the first couple of newsletters. So if anything stands out in this one, or you have a specific thought or question on something I share, don’t hesitate to hit reply and say hello.

If this isn’t for you, unsubscribe anytime with the link at the bottom of the email.

🌍 Links I saved recently

How to motivate employees? Don’t. → I agree with Claire Lew’s assertion that motivation is not something we can give people. Instead, we must create the environment for intrinsic motivation to flourish. Great advice on doing that in this piece.

Why is scaling past 50 employees so hard? → From first hand experience, things become significantly more complex and challenging when your company grows beyond 50 people. This article resonated and has some great suggestions on managing the transition.

The flipped meeting model → I sometimes feel in a minority as a leader of a remote company who also really values meetings. This piece felt like a balanced argument for less and more productive meetings, rather than none at all.

Spend More Time Alone → As an introvert, I’ve always had rituals to ensure I have time alone to recharge. Recently I’ve gone a step further, building habits for reflection away from inputs, time to be alone with my mind. I enjoyed this article discussing solitude in these terms.

Crumb Time → I really like this concept from David Kadavy for how to set yourself up to make the most of small bits of time you have day-to-day.

📚 What I’ve highlighted recently

Think about your favorite athlete, musician, or actor. Behind the scenes of their public persona, there is a process they follow for regularly turning new ideas into creative output. The same goes for inventors, engineers, and effective leaders. Innovation and impact don’t happen by accident or chance. Creativity depends on a creative process.

From Building a Second Brain by Tiago Forte

There’s a difference between criticism and constructive criticism. With the latter, you’re constructing at the same time that you’re criticizing. You’re building as you’re breaking down, making new pieces to work with out of the stuff you’ve just ripped apart. That’s an art form in itself.

Quote by Andrew Stanton in Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull

👨🏻‍💻 New and noteworthy at Buffer

This past week was Build Week at Buffer, an idea I had near the beginning of the year to tap back into our startup and entrepreneurial nature as individuals and a company. We invited ideas from the whole company and asked people to pick their top 3 to work on. From there, we formed small cross-functional 3-5 person teams, connecting people who don’t usually work together. With a cleared out schedule from regular work for the week, everyone totally embraced the concept and created a ton of value for customers and the company. → Read more about Build Week

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Katelin Holloway on the Lattice All Hands podcast about how we approach the 4-day workweek at Buffer. She’s a fantastic interviewer and we had a great conversation hopping into a variety of aspects of the 4-day workweek at Buffer, including how we decided to try it, how it needs to work with your culture and strategy, and how other companies could approach adopting a 4-day workweek. → Listen to my interview with Katelin

🧠 Something that’s been on my mind

With the past week dedicated to Build Week at Buffer, it’s something that’s very fresh in my mind, and I have a number of reflections that have been forming over the weekend:

  • First of all, Build Week has been a massive success for Buffer. This is what someone in the team shared about the experience:
  • “Build Week has been truly phenomenal and probably my favourite week in the 347 weeks I’ve spent at Buffer!”
  • We designed Build Week to be different from a typical hack week (we’ve done many of these in the past, and found them super valuable):
  • The entire goal of Build Week was framed as: creating (and shipping in some form) value, in the space of a week.
  • With a traditional hack week, it was more of a time for engineers to work on what they desire, outside of the regular roadmap.
  • The work in traditional hack weeks was usually focused on refactoring, bugs or small features that people didn’t feel like they had time to fit in, or just a very raw prototype of some future functionality.
  • In contrast, Build Week projects were super varied, and many of them were ambitious.
  • We didn’t put very much process in place. The high level guidance of “creating and shipping value”, combined with the constraint of “within a week” led to a ton of creativity and drive.
  • In retrospect, I think we created great, simple “rules of the game”, but left a ton of freedom in the how.
  • This is one of my biggest takeaways of what we achieved with Build Week: the power of minimal clear constraints
  • One of the significant successes of Build Week was also that we focused on bringing together people who don’t generally work together. Each team had good representation of different functions.
  • We only had two required deliverables: a 2 minute video at the end of day 2, and a 4 minute video to wrap up the project on day 4 (we work a 4-day workweek). We also had a new Slack channel called #build-week for everyone to share these videos, and for general chatter and advice requests. This was the right amount of deliverables to drive some whole company connection and celebration, while allowing teams to get deep into their project.
  • One of my goals was that Build Week instills a new sense of creativity, innovation and comfort with uncertainty in the team, as well as reveals how productive we can be in focused small groups. The energy during Build Week was incredible, I have no doubt Build Week will be talked about regularly for months into the future, and that we will be discussing what learnings we can take from the week into our regular work going forward.
  • Personally, I had a blast. I worked in a team of 4 and we build a new page on our marketing site to showcase how distributed we are. As part of the project, I jumped back into some coding, learned much more about React and our marketing site architecture and infrastructure (e.g. Lambda functions), as well as how to create a PR and deploy our marketing site. I feel a new level of confidence to make quick fixes and changes to our marketing site and set them up for review and deployment by someone in the team. Check out the new Team Map page we built.
  • Stay tuned in the coming weeks and months as we share all the projects that were worked on in Build Week and ship some awesome new functionality in Buffer that was built during the week.

🙋🏻‍♂️ A general update from me

For the last two weeks of July and the first week of August, my wife Jess and I took a trip to the UK and France with our son Milo. It was ultimately shaped around my need to go back home to renew my U.S. visa, but we made the most of the visit.

We spent the first week in Oxford with my parents and saw friends and I even had a chance to meet a few folks in the team who live nearby. For the second week, we were in Hayle, Cornwall with my siblings. It was a fun-filled week with three couples and three kids (Milo is 15 months and I have two nephews, 4 and 8). I’m originally from Sheffield and these were two destinations that were new to me.

It was wonderful to be in the UK during the Summer (most of my visits tend to be for Christmas), though we did catch the heatwave which was challenging on many fronts. For the final week, we were in London waiting for my passport to be ready for pickup. This was a little stressful as we didn’t know when I’d be able to pick it up, and were booking our hotel a couple of nights at a time. The day I got my passport back we hopped on the Eurostar and spent the final few days in Paris before flying home. Milo was a big fan of the baguettes and croissants.

It’s great to be home in Boulder, and after two weeks, I’m finally getting back into a great routine. I’ve worked out twice this week, and Milo is sleeping well after a very disrupted first week back.

On the Buffer side of things, while we’re still in a long-trending decline of our key metrics (see this brand new dashboard of all our metrics created by a team in build week), I’ve recently been finding new ways to dig into and look at our data, and see more clarity of our path towards growth again.

With this new perspective, I’ve been feeling a greater conviction and proactiveness about shifting our culture and performance in the necessary ways to transition into a new and exciting chapter of Buffer the journey.

Have a great week ahead,

– Joel

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From time to time, I send out a newsletter with:

  • 🌍 Links I've recently saved
  • 📚 What I highlighted in books
  • 👨🏻‍💻 New and noteworthy at Buffer
  • 🧠 Something that's been on my mind
  • 🙋🏻‍♂️ A general update from me

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