Episode 359 | The 3 Tenets of Fulfillment at Work

Show Notes

In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike discuss a talk giving by Jason Cohen at the Business of Software Conference. He tells you what things to focus on to create fulfillment at the work place for you and the people you hire.

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Mike:  In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and I are going to be talking about the three tenants of fulfillment at work. This is Startups For The Rest Of Us Episode 359. Welcome to Startups For the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching and growing software products. Whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Mike.

Rob:    And I’m Mike’s trusty sidekick, Rob.

Mike: And we’re are here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s going on this week, Rob?

Rob:    I’ve decided to just start throwing curveballs at you every week in the intros.

Mike:  You totally messed me up there, you know?

Rob:    I know, Josh is going to edit out.

Mike:  I don’t care if he edits it out. We screw up the intros all the time, it’s not that big a deal.

Rob:    This is not a new thing. For me, things are going pretty well. I was bummed to miss Business of Software last week, had to fly home with our kids but I am getting geared up and pretty excited for the Zen Founder book that Sherry has been working on for months and months and months. I’m a second author on that and I have contributed stories and revisions and stuff. She’s been doing the work and it’s turning out really, really well. We still have only have a tentative title.

One title suggested by our son which I thought was great is ‘the entrepreneur’s guide to keeping your asterisk key together’, it’s kind of appropriate. It’s about how to stay sane while running a business; a startup and then even other types of businesses because there’s just stress involved even if you’re running any type of thing that’s not a startup. It’s good, it pulls a lot for material. Just talked about over the years there’s a lot of new material in it. I think it’s going to be good.

We’re taking the tact of it’s not an info product, it’s going to be a book so it’s going to be whatever it is, $25 or $30. It’s not going to be this $99 or $200 dollar thing, just going for larger audience, kind of like I did with my first book, Start Small, Stay Small. That really served to get the message out to as many people as possible. I’m stoked about it and if that sounds interesting, you should head over to zenfounder.com and there is a landing page for the book there where you can buy to preorder it or even just sign up. If for some reason you can’t find it, there’s an email capture widget in the lower right, a Drip widget where you can enter your email and certainly we’ll be emailing all this once the book is available.

Mike:  I really like the working title, even though I know that it’s not final but I think your son is a budding copywriter.

Rob:    I agree, yeah. When he said that, I was like “Dang, well a, don’t say that word, but that is really good.” He’s 11 years old, so he’s right on that cusp where they start doing that stuff.

Mike:  Yes, my kids are infatuated with any movie that has cuss words of any kind and they just simply want to watch them over and over. They just want to skip ahead to that one part.

Rob:    Yep, makes sense. How about you? You were at BOS this week.

Mike:  Yeah. It was really good. I really liked a lot of the talks. Honestly, there was not a bad talk among them. Usually, you’ll go to conferences and you know, there’s one or two that are sort of interesting, kind of on the cusp of, “Could’ve done without this one.” I can’t think of a single talk that I went to that was not fantastic. They were all really, really good. I was just going through the survey afterwards and I was just like five, five, five.

I got halfway through it, I was like none of these sucked at all. I handed in the survey as it was. It was just an interesting experience to be there in front of those people. Plus, Seth Godin was there. That was awesome, I got to ask him a direct question pertaining to Bluetick, got some direct advice there.

Rob:    Yeah, was that after his talk? Was he in the hallway? Or was he up on stage when you asked?

Mike:  No, he was up on stage asking questions and I kind of explained to him the situation I was in and he gave me direct advice, he was like “Yeah, go do webinars, based on the situation that you are in.” That’s definitely one of my listed things to do anyway but that will probably percolate more to the top just because of source of the advice, I’ll say.

Rob:    Yeah, totally. That’s cool, I’m glad to hear that it went well. Sherry said the same thing. She did a talk there that I heard was pretty well received as well. She had a lot of good things to say about it. She had never been to Business of Software. She does have a frame of reference with some WordPress conferences. Obviously, she’s been to several Micro Confs and she just spoke very highly of the speakers as well as a lot of the attendees she met. There’s enough overlap that she knew a bunch of people, she knows Jason Cohen, I know Mark Littlewood threw me in. I think it was really good for her to be at. Then now we got to meet your wife.

Mike:  Yes, finally she’s not just a Photoshopped person on my Facebook page.

Rob:    I started to question if she was real. You and I have known each other for 10 years or something but we’ve never met the wife. You guys came out because we were staying in Boston’s north end over the weekend, and you guys came out and we had cannoli and whiskey, is that right? That’s a good combination.

Mike:  Yes. I don’t know if I would go with a too much of one or the other on any given night but at least not together.

Rob:    If you have not had a cannoli in Boston’s north end, you’re missing out. Cool. What are we talking about today?

Mike:  Well, today we are going to be talking about essentially a condensed version of a couple of slides that came out of Jason Cohen’s talk from Business of Software and we’ll link over to his blog at https://blog.asmartbear.com.

This particular story or instance is not on his blog but he talked a lot about what constitutes fulfillment at work. This was just a very, very small segment of his talk. Most of his talk was really about decision making and holding onto certain decisions too long, just not making them fast enough. The example he threw out was letting somebody go and he asked the entire room and said, “Is there anyone here who has fired too late? Who you waited too long to fire somebody?” Tons of hands went up and then he asked, “Have you ever fired somebody too soon?” There might have been one person who half raised their hand and that was it.

The reality is that when it comes to those types of decisions, his comment was that holding on too long is really a consistent predictable failure of judgement. He talked through some of the different pieces of what constitutes fulfillment at work and how to make some of these decisions a little bit faster so that you can get your business to a better place. That’s not just for you or just for the business but also for the employees or workers or contractors that you have inside of your business and helping them make sure that they are happy and productive. If you’re happy with what you’re doing, you’re going to be naturally more productive at it as well.

Rob:    The part I like about this is this is equally applicable to a founder because it is really easy to stop being fulfilled as a founder. You build this business and you drive for revenue and you drive for these goals and then you turn around one day and you’re like I built this whole thing and it sucks and I’m unhappy and I think that’s a really important thing. That’s obviously a lot about we’re sharing that talk about over on the Zen Founder podcast.

But then this also applies to your people. As soon as you have two or three people on a team, you have to start worrying about their well being, whether they’re happy and fulfilled. You can keep some of them around for 6 or 12 months but long term they need to be fulfilled or they’re going to burn out, they’re going to quit, they’re not going to be productive. This may sound like a topic if you’re a hardcore entrepreneur, startup founder, solopreneur, where you think I don’t need to worry about this stuff. You do, because you will burn yourself out, you will find yourself in the situation I have many, many times over the years where suddenly you look around and you’re like I have lost one of the elements that made me really happy. Knowing what those are for yourself is really important.

In my MicroConf talk this year, I talked about my three which are freedom, purpose, and relationships. Whenever I’ve had only two of those three or one of the three, I find myself slowly slipping into sadness and unhappiness with my work and my life. I get the feeling that there’s going to be some similar type of magic in this talk. Jason Cohen always delivers. Every talk I’ve seen him give is typically one of the best, if not the best at the conference he is giving it at. I actually don’t know, I didn’t see the talk and so I’m interested to dive into what he had to say.

Mike:  Yeah, the other thing I really liked about his talk was that when he was going through it, it kind of made me a little bit more aware of how this plays into the people that are working for you. It is very easy to get stuck in the doll rooms or trying to power through certain problems that you’re having or certain challenges that you’re facing and not really think about the people around you because you’re so focused on the stuff that you’re doing. Even though you might be unhappy, you overlook the effect that not just you being unhappy has on other people but also the effect that the work that they’re doing has on them. You can end up with a lot of charm based on the types of people that you hire really related to the situation that you’re putting them in. It really made me think about that a little bit more.

Let’s dive right into it, the three things that he talked about on this slide were joy, skill, and he said need but it really kind of meant business need in that context. What he showed was essentially a venn diagram of joy, skill, and business need. If you see a classic venn diagram of three different circles together, there’s usually places where two of the circles overlap in three different places and in the center you’ve got this one area that all three of them overlap and that’s the part that he referred to as the productive happy fulfillment that everyone needs in their work environment. If you’re happy about the work that you’re doing, joyful about it and you’re skilled at it and the business needs it, then that puts you in a very happy, productive and fulfilled place and you’re going to be able to do that stuff for a very, very long time. By long time, I don’t mean a few hours or days, I’m talking months and even years on end.

Rob:    Got it. The business needs it. That means that you feel needed and wanted. You are contributing towards the bottom line, right? That’s the idea?

Mike:  Yeah.

Rob:    You’re helping the business. I have seen people, I worked at large companies. There were people who were getting paid to do something they can do but it didn’t make any difference for the business and they stuck around because the company was old and stodgy and didn’t want to fire people but those people were not very happy in their jobs, right? That’s that piece. Skill is pretty obvious, it means you have the ability or the attribute to get done what’s being asked of you. It’s like build this application, write this code, and you know how to do it.

What is joy? Go deeper into joy, does that just mean doing that skill makes you happy?

Mike:  Yeah, this one is an interesting one because when he put it up there, it didn’t quite make sense to me because I was like isn’t all of this joy? What he really meant by joy was learning. Are you challenged doing this in a way that you are continually learning new things? For example, the place where joy and skill overlapped was you’re building an application for example and you’re learning new things as you go along. It’s kind of past the boiler plate stuff that you’ve always done in the past, you’re doing architecture, you’re figuring out how the different business layers of the application fit together, doing new things so you’re learning as you go through that process and you’re skilled at programming.

The overlap of those two things is really when you end up in a flow state and your mind just kind of shuts off and you’re like, “This is a lot of fun, I’m having a good time doing this.” What I found really interesting about the way he phrased this is he’s like this is also a trap. The reason it’s a trap is because you’re doing it because it’s fun to learn but the business doesn’t necessarily need all of the different things that you’re doing. You’re probably doing a lot of things that are not necessary for the business to succeed but you’re still having fun doing it so you’re able to focus on it for shorter periods of time and that short period of time can be a few weeks or a couple of months but if the business doesn’t genuinely need that piece done, then six months out, the business hasn’t moved forward, which means that it wasn’t really needed for the business, and things aren’t going well and then you become unhappy as a byproduct of not fulfilling needs of the business. That’s where the productivity really comes into play.

Rob:    Got it, joy is very similar to learning but as long as you’re learning things that the business still needs.

Mike:  Yes.

Rob:    The three are joy, skill and need; business need in this instance.

Mike:  Right.

Rob:    Alright, I’m buying it. I like where we’re at so far, what’s next?

Mike:  The next one was kind of combining the scenario we talked a little bit about, combining joy and skill to get into flow. Joy and business need is also an area where you can get into flow because you are learning new things and you know that the business needs it. Whatever the byproduct of that, even if it’s not necessarily something where you need to be skilled at it, if it’s stuff that’s helping the business move forward you feel some level of fulfillment by doing it. You can get into that flow state because it’s very easy to power through a lot of that work.

But, at the same time it is kind of a trap because you don’t need a great deal of skill to do that stuff. You can outsource it, you can hand it of to somebody else but you do it because it’s fun and you do it because the business needs it and it’s going to move the business forward, but it’s also a trap. It’s very similar to the combination of joy and skill where you get into a flow state and it’s very easy to find yourself continuing to do that but eventually you’re going to be unhappy doing it because it’s just not challenging at you at all, it’s not developing your skill set, it’s not using the skills that you already have. It just gets boring.

Rob:    I have a couple examples of this. When I had the ecommerce site justbeachtowels.com and I was so excited, it was still a new business thing for me to be doing online business full time and this is 2007, maybe. I guess I wasn’t doing it full time yet but I was starting to get away from consulting. It was fun for me back then to interact with the customers and be email support for an ecommerce website which is pretty low skill need, it’s not even like I was supporting software, it was basic questions. It was making me happy that I was interacting with customers and I was just enamored by the whole thing. Obviously, the business needed it but there was no skill involved, a very low skill.

I did find that pretty soon I got bored and I didn’t have enough time to do everything. I outsourced that. The other thing I did was I was doing a lot of the manual copy paste and some kind of fulfillment of orders, not physically packing them but interfacing with different software packages because they didn’t talk to each other. That was actually, interestingly enough, in a weird nerd alert way, was fun for me in the early days. Man, I got an order for $40, it was so cool for me to see it, participate in it, and to make sure that thing gets sent out.

Again, it’s a very low skill activity. I think a lot of us do fall into this trap at one point or another and don’t outsource stuff that we probably should because if it is something you enjoy and the business needs it, it’s easy to justify. I understand why this is a trap and it’s something that really keep in mind as a founder, because you’re the one that has to make the choice and make the recognition that this isn’t something that you should be doing and then fire yourself from that task and hire someone else to do it.

Mike: I think we can all think of a lot of examples that kind of fall into both of these different areas. The last one I wanted to dig into was the combination of need and skill. Let me give you an example. Let’s say that you are an attorney or even the business owner and the business needs to have a privacy policy and you have to have some level of skill of interpreting the human language in a way lawyer speaks so that you can put that together. You can do that for a little while but even if the business needs that or even if it’s like reviewing contracts because you’ve got a consulting company and you’re working with a lot of people, a lot of clients, and you need a custom contract for each one. You can do it because you’re skilled at it but eventually it gets boring and you’re not learning anything new, you’re really just looking for all the gotchas that could be put into a contract that you need to pull out and re negotiate them with whoever is on the other side.

That’s a very good example where the business needs it, you’ve got skill doing it but eventually it leads to burnout because skill alone leads to toil, you’re going to just be toiling away at something that is not fun because you’re not learning anything new. Although the business needs it, it’s not that much of a need, to be perfectly honest. It’s one of those things where if down the road something became a problem, then it would probably show some sort of benefit. But if the engagement goes well then it’s not actually a business need. That’s really where the burnout factor comes into play. You can do it for a while but not forever.

Rob:    Yeah, this is where I think most founders eventually find themselves, in the need plus skill and it’s doing hard things that don’t bring you joy. You’ll find yourself doing a lot of operational work. Or you’ll find yourself hiring the lawyer to do the privacy policy and worrying about vacation days or getting your health insurance signed up or making sure the payroll ran or just stuff that is enough skill or enough intricacy in knowledge that it’s hard to train someone straight away to do that and there’s a desperate and immediate need for it but it doesn’t bring you joy.

This is where, much like the joy plus need thing we talked about where I talked about doing email support, you need to outsource that to somebody. That’s where need plus skill, that quadrant I guess is one that is easily a trap, especially for someone who is a technician and likes to get in and do things themselves. This is the easiest one to just get in and grind it out and the business needs it and you have the skill and let’s do it and it works for a little while until it doesn’t and until you are unhappy and you don’t like running your business anymore. This is when you need to take a step back. Even though it can be hard to train someone to do the things that you’ve been doing, whether that’s the operations of the business, whether that’s still coding on your app when you’re at 10 employees, there’s a bunch things that this can fall into. But, the further and further away you get yourself from these things that don’t bring you joy day to day, the better off and more longevity you’re going to have.

Mike:  The example that Jason had given that kind of illustrates the idea of the combination of need and skill was also enterprise sales reps. His comment was they don’t really do this on the side after work. The business needs it but it’s not something that they go home and practice their negotiating skills or practice doing enterprise sales on the side.

Paul Kenny had commented on it on his talk afterwards. He’s like, “Actually, we do think about this stuff and we do try to develop our skills.” I wonder how much a developer can relate to that situation because I think that classically we think of ourselves as developers. We are willing to go home and work on code on the side and develop those skill sets. To us, that’s helpful because we’re learning new things and doing stuff. I would imagine that sales reps, to some extent, do see that in the stuff that they do on the side.

To kind of sum up the different things that Jason had put together with joy, skill, and need. The intersection of all three of these things really creates a productive, happy fulfillment for somebody who’s working there. People will have different motivations, they have different skills, they have different things that make them happy. It’s important to realize that there has to be this balance that can be struck, not just for yourself but for other people that are in your work environment, to help them maintain this balance and end up in that situation where they are in that three pronged intersection between these three things to help them be able to push through certain things. I think it is very easy to push through certain environments or challenges when you’ve only got one of these things or two of these things in play as an entrepreneur but your employees and your contractors, they can do it for a little while but probably not nearly as much as you because you have different motivations than they do.

Rob:    The best managers that I’ve seen are the ones that can spot that in other people and figure out their unique giftings. The things that they’re good at and the things that are going to bring them joy. It’s two different things. Just because you can see that a developer is good at managing people, that developer may hate managing people. To try to not force them into things that are going to make them unhappy in the long term, which I’ve seen happen over and over, is a real needle that you have to thread as a founder, or as a CEO, or as someone who’s going to manage other people. It’s keeping in mind, a, are they good at it? B, does the business need it? C, is this person going to enjoy it? The only way you’re going to figure that out is by knowing them better and by having conversations with them, and trying it out and seeing if it does actually make them happy.

Mike:  One of the traps that Jason had illustrated was the idea that it’s very easy to, as the founder, put yourself in situations where you’re doing the types of work that give you all three of these things but then leaving other pieces of the project or other work for other people to do that doesn’t necessarily fulfill them. The example he used was for example doing all of the architecture work for a software design and leaving the stubs inside of the functions for other people to fill in the blanks and that doesn’t ever work. We know intuitively that doesn’t necessarily work. If you look at this particular framework, these three things that come into play, that’s why it doesn’t work. It’s not just that you have to recognize the situation doesn’t work, you also have to understand why it doesn’t work and be able to translate that to other types of projects in your environment.

Rob:    It sounds like the point of his talk was to drive home how you yourself can stay happy in the long term as a founder and then how you can interact with employees, contractors, and other people you interact with to identify on these 3 axes how they can as well. Is that a good summary of it?

Mike:  That’s a really good summary of this particular tactic. What he was really referring to in the greater context of this talk was how to make difficult decisions faster and understand what people’s motivations are for different things. For example, looking at these things in the context of the problem that you are in and trying to figure out whether you need more information or you can just make a decision right now and more about being kind to others and allowing them to work on things that are going to make them fulfilled.

If you’re taking all the fun work for example, you’re not going to have contractors working for you for very long or employees working for you for very long. They’re going to leave, they’re just not going to be happy or they’re just not going to do their best work. You really need to hold yourself accountable to the results of people and what it is they’re achieving in your environment.

He had a thread that went through his entire talk about not just the decision making for letting people go but also making sure that you elevate yourself in a position where you’re more of an editor and letting people do the things that they are really good at. Another piece of this was the whole aspect of making sure that you are hiring A players as opposed to hiring B players who are then going to hire C players.

Rob:    I think that about wraps us up for the day. If you have a question for us, call our voicemail number at 888-801-9690 or email us at questions@startupsfortherestofus.com. Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control by MoOt used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for Startups and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening, we’ll see you next time.

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