Defining things

Defining things

This is the third essay I’m writing in the series on important qualities in employees.

Can I define it? This is a question I ask myself frequently.

Why is definition important?

My rule of thumb in definitions is: If you can’t define it, it doesn’t exist.

If you can’t define what someone’s role is, you cannot be upset how it turns out later.

Every role has a responsibility of defining things. Especially in startups. As companies grow bigger and more structured more roles become completely defined. You may have little undefined time like in Google (20% undefined time), but as the company grows most of your role becomes really structured.

This is rarely talked about, and that’s what separates the exceptional people from the mediocre ones.

In a startup the early employees define a lot of what their roles are and what the company does. The hard thing with definition is that it sounds and looks deceptively easy, but in practice it’s very hard to do right. People who can define things well are rare. It’s a quality that is hard to measure.

Let’s look at some roles:

1. A CEO’s job is to define vision. What is the company working toward?

2. Product managers define what goes in a product in every release. Good product managers can define what goes into the product really well.

3. An engineer defines how things will work.

4. A designer defines how the user experience will look and what works on a page aesthetically.

5. A manager has to define what roles everyone on his/her team will do.

The list can go on and on. But any role dissected has a component of defining, and exceptional people do define things really well.

How does definition look?

Definition looks like metrics or written text.

Every company has a way of defining the broader metrics.

You may have a company dashboard – it’s a way of defining what is most important and focusing people on it.  Or you may just simply have those numbers white boarded out.

Google’s OKR is a way of defining everyone’s contribution in a company.  That’s why a goal-setting exercise is important because it defines something.

What works for any company may not work for you – there is no universal best way to define things. It is completely dependent on your company culture and what works with the people you have.

Definition in product may look like documentation.

Definition in coding may look like comments.

Being able to recognize it is important, because we have to differentiate definition from notes.

Startups fear definition and structure

 When we are starting a company what is required to be defined is the most essential. What is the problem we’re trying to solve and how to make it useful? When we aren’t solving the right problem nothing else matters.

But as a company grows, (I will put a magic number around this say 10 or 15) and hires a lot more people – that’s when definition becomes a lot more important.

Slowly adding definition to roles at this point becomes important.  Especially post product market fit.

Change is hard, but change around definition is critical to growth.

 Additional notes while I was writing this:

1. The word documentation is used very loosely in development. And the reason documentation is important is not to document for documentation sake, because documentation helps us define things.

I’ve met people who think of documentation as nonessential.

Documentation for most part in other words is defining what it will do on paper.

When someone asks someone to document something it means defining it either partially or fully.

There is a difference between documenting what’s already been defined and documenting it to define it.

The latter is really important and not to be mistaken with the former.

2. The only form of definition, which is valid, is in written form.

You can define in your mind, but it’s the best practice to define on paper. After all writing helps to clear things up even further.

Working memory of people is short and so my rule is paper definitions are the only ones that count.

3. It’s really important to define a role not just for the role’s sake but yourself as well.

When I say defining a role, I mean defining what a person will own. And ownership in turn leads to happiness and fulfillment. First work of a manager is to define roles.

Anything outside of definition is initiative.

10 thoughts on “Defining things

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