Lazy Giants, and Working in Job-Space – Business Strategy and Psychology #28

Micromanaging is when a manager tries to control every part of a process, detailing in exacting detail what needs to be done and checking on progress very regularly. This quickly undermines a worker’s independence, making it appear to employees that their judgement isn’t trusted. Micromanaging also damages the results that an organization can produce, as the manager insists on tasks being done “their way” rather being open to process improvements.

While it is possible to understand why people become micromanagers (it sometimes appears as a symptom of OCD, or as a consequence of emotional instability and perfectionism) it is still something to strongly avoid. But avoiding micromanaging is easier said than done. Sometimes a manager needs to help employees with a project. So how can a manager help a team, give them additional instruction and guidance, without coming across as a micromanager?

As explored in this HBR article, there are three factors than allow a manager to help without coming across as a micromanager. The first factor is the timing of the help. Although help might be well intentioned, if it is given too early it won’t be valued. Additionally, early help is more likely to be misconstrued as undermining the team’s ability. Help is much more valuable when the team being helped understands the project, and where they might need guidance.

Secondly, managers are more valuable if they pause to take stock of how much time they can afford to give to this project. A manager that has very little time but still wants to be kept fully up to date with the project and make key decisions on the project will make sub-par decisions and use up too much of the team’s time. This kind of management is called “swoop and poop” project management. On the other hand, a manager who has the time to get dug into the project, to understand its complexities and difficulties, is able to better help. Equally, a leader who understands that they are only able to give a little time to helping might make it clear that they are there to help with smaller parts of the project and to order lunch for the work group.

Finally, to make sure that a manager is able to help a group, they need to make it clear that they are there to help. It might seem obvious, but managers wear many hats, acting in part as an evaluator and in another part as a coach. If it isn’t clear which hat a manager is wearing, employees might be reticent to accept help for fear of it damaging their opportunities for promotion if they appear to not know what they are doing. The easiest way that a manager can signal that they are there to help? Say it in as many words. “I’m not here to judge, only to help you with this project.”

These three tips can help whether you are managing a group and trying to help the best way you can, but also if you are being managed and want to make sure that you have the best possible relationship with the helper. Clarify their role, ask to get back to them with what help you need, and ask them to be clear on the amount of time they have available. These discussions aren’t easy with a manager, but they will make sure that the project is successful, and that everyone feels like their contributions are valued.

Pelagos 1946 Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975 Presented by the artist 1964

Hello Reader,

Last week was particularly stressful for the US, and for the UK. In the US, Trump supporters invaded the Capitol. In the UK, we entered our third national lockdown.

I realised the other day that I had expected lockdowns to get easier, but they haven’t. For me personally, this lockdown might be the easiest stress-wise. The first lockdown overlapped with my final exams, the second with a stressful job search. But this lockdown is also hard. It might be the longest lockdown because the exit conditions are reliant on vaccine rollout, and it might be the hardest because it falls during the coldest, darkest, and greyest months of the year.

So if you are finding this lockdown somehow more difficult than others, don’t worry. You aren’t alone. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Reach out to friends and family, and stay connected to your support network.

This week I talk about how tech giants are becoming lazy, about different shapes at work, and about how talking out loud makes us into better thinkers. As always, if you enjoy what you read and want to read more, subscribe below.

Have a great week, Callum

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Lazy Giants

Back in May I read an article by Nicolas Colin, founder of The Family, a VC and PE firm. The article speaks about the five stages of denial that companies go through when their industry goes through disruption. The article is framed around big industries like Music, Film, Publishing and Retail, and how large companies in these industries become disrupted by tech upstarts. What I’ve realized, and what I’ve been thinking increasingly frequently, is that these tech upstarts have increasingly become Lazy Giants.

A Lazy Giant is a specific kind of giant. Every company, when it reaches a certain size, becomes a giant, and decisions that giants make have large ripples across entire industries. However a Lazy Giant is a company that loses track of it’s original goal, and starts to focus on being profitable at the cost of everything else, sometimes even eventually it’s own long term profitability.

The first company that I want to talk about is Facebook. I don’t like using Facebook. I occasionally open Facebook in a tab to check for any valuable notifications or any birthdays. Facebook, originally, was in the business of creating social networks. Helping people keep in touch with old friends and colleagues and for sharing photos of your family holiday. However the monetization of the platform comes from selling our attention to advertisers. Facebook have been optimizing their algorithms to keep users scrolling and to keep them looking at ads, rather than helping them to stay in touch with friends.

But, you might argue, Facebook has just pivoted. They are now an advertising company, and optimise for their advertising algorithm. They aren’t a Lazy Giant, they are just focusing on a different problem, how to get ads in front of the right people.

The issue with this is that Facebook admits that their advertising algorithm isn’t that good. Facebook isn’t optimizing their advertising algorithm to maximize utility to advertisers, they are optimizing their algorithm to maximize the amount of money that they can charge advertisers. Why would Facebook make their algorithm more efficient if they charge per view?

(This is where the anticompetitive argument against Facebook starts to hold water. If social networks were competing for advertising bucks they would be forced to show that their algorithm is more efficient than their competition. As it is, Facebook and Instagram have similar algorithms and aren’t forced to be better than anyone else, or even any good for that matter.)

The second giant that I think has gotten lazy is Amazon. I have a large amount of respect for Jeff Bezos, specifically the way that he runs meetings at Amazon. However, for a company that claims to be obsessively customer focused, they sure have had a lot of scandals around their product reviews. A FT investigation found suspicious behavior by 9 of top 10 UK contributors on feedback.

But the scandal that I only more recently became aware of is a bait and switch technique that some sellers are using, where they take a successful product listing with lots of positive reviews, and change the product to something else that isn’t as good. Customers see the positive reviews and assume that it is for the product listed, trusting the Amazon reviews.

In this article the author bought a mini drone, only to find out that most of the reviews on the product were for a jar of honey. This is an easy problem to solve. Just limit the amount of changes that can be made to a product while keeping the reviews. If Amazon was as obsessively customer focused as they say, this would have already been fixed. But is hasn’t, because positive reviews encourage people to spend more on Amazon, further lining the pockets of the company.

But the problem for Amazon isn’t just with reviews. Investigations by the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have found that Amazon promotes its own products, products that it makes and has a larger margin on, above products made by 3rd party sellers, even when the 3rd party seller’s product has better reviews. This isn’t the “customer obsession” that Bezos claims, this is profit obsession. Despite Amazon’s Day 1 mentality, Amazon is turning, in parts, into a Lazy Giant.

The final Lazy Giant I want to mention is Google. Google is a giant that operates in many industries, including entertainment (YouTube), advertising (AdWords), enterprise solutions (Gmail and Drive), and IoT hardware/software (Nest). I have mixed feelings on Google. On one hand, I love my Google Home devices. On the other hand, I’m using YouTube less because I’m finding the suggestions to be less intellectually stimulating than I would like and there are too many adverts.

But today I want to talk about Google Docs. I remember at school when people first started to use Google Docs. The idea that the documents were stored on the cloud, and that we could edit them simultaneously? That blew my mind. And then Google did the same thing with Slides and Sheets, replicating Microsoft’s PowerPoint and Excel. Both of these tools were good, but neither as smooth or powerful as the Microsoft original. But hey, it was only early days. Or so I thought.

Since then Google haven’t changed a thing. As this article explains lucidly, Google managed to blow a 10 year lead. Microsoft Word is now accessible online, and can auto-save online using OneDrive. Of the three giants that I mention here, Google is the one I am most disappointed in (especially since they removed “Don’t Be Evil” from their code of conduct).

Now, not all tech giants are destined to become Lazy Giants. Microsoft, for example, is still learning from it’s rivals, producing quality software and hardware, and generally doing good work. Netflix, a more recent giant, is still focusing on the goal of bringing entertainment to the world, and they are thriving.

Overall, I think that all companies, not just tech companies, should start to worry when they stop trying to solve problems, and start trying to make money. Making money is not a reason for a company to exist, nor is it a fulfilling reason to get up in the morning. Solving problems, however, is both.

What Shape are You?

Each of us, at work, cover an area in “job-space”. Within a project there are a set of tasks, or jobs, that need to be done, and these tasks make up an area in job-space. Individual members of a team cover areas of that space, taking responsibility for different tasks. An individual’s area falls within their project, and the full scope of the tasks to be done for that project fall into the job-space of a larger business unit.

Individual contributors have quite regular shaped areas in job-space. Managers or team leads might have their own distinct area, but likely also help to fill in the gaps between team-members to make sure that everyone is on track and aligned. For a project to be finished, the whole of the project area in job-space needs to be filled in.

As our career develops, we learn to occupy a variety of shapes. Our shape might grow in size as we gain responsibilities, and limbs might grow off the shape as we learn unique skills. We might find, over time, that we enjoy taking a certain shape, doing a certain set of jobs, but might not enjoy others.

I find this to be a very useful analogy. I stumbled across it earlier this week, and while the original article meant for the analogy to be used to understand how important the little bits of work are, I find an additional benefit to this analogy – understanding which areas in job-space you border.

First is the usefulness of this analogy when understanding how important little tasks like formatting, code commenting, and creating documentation are. These little tasks, while they might not explicitly move a project forward, are required for the project to be considered complete. What makes these tasks so essential for each individual is the fact that these tasks lie at the center of each person’s job-space, impossible for other people to fill in. If you have tried to comment someone else’s code or create documentation for someone else’s project you’ll understand how difficult it is to access an area within someone else’s job-space.

This was an idea I struggled with at my first job. I was busying myself with project work, creating new prototypes and solving problems, but I wasn’t always taking the time to document the process and communicate findings to stakeholders, missing out on tasks central to my area.

Second, this analogy makes it more clear who you should be in constant communication with. When you think about the area that you occupy, you can also think about the adjacent areas. Areas can be adjacent to you if the kind of work is similar, but on different projects, or if the work is for the same project, or even if you are working on different projects under the same team lead. All of these adjacencies are people that can be helpful to know, whether they can offer coaching or advice, or whether it means the fewer formal meetings are needed to ensure that a project is on track.

So, when you think about the work you need to do, think about how it fits into job-space. Why are you doing this work, and why can’t anyone else do it? How can you expand the area you occupy? And what kind of shape do you enjoy being?

Talking Out Loud

Writing is a tool that helps with thinking. I’m passionate about this topic, and the only reason that I haven’t written about it more is because I feel like it is too complex to just dip into (ironically this is probably why I should write about it).

This week I read an article on how talking to yourself is a technology for better thinking. I encourage you to read the article itself, but I wanted to highlight a couple of points that carry over to writing as thinking.

When you write, for yourself or for others, the words you write generate new mental cascades on top of the series of thoughts that caused you to write the words in the first place. The consequence is that you end up thinking from a variety of angles, and you either become more specific on what you are trying to say, or less sure that it is true, in which case you probably shouldn’t write it.

Additionally, when you write, or talk, you are forced to use full sentences rather than relying on internal mental shortcuts. These mute internal shortcuts may help to speed thinking, but they don’t lead to precise or reliable outcomes.

I theorise, though I have no proof, that the same process, of making assumptions explicit and working harder to communicate, is what makes diverse teams perform better. As this article on HBR discusses, it appears that it is because diverse teams have to work harder to communicate that they have better outcomes, not despite it. Again, these are just my thoughts. If you have any insights or thoughts on this matter do email me on


First up is a super geeky science read about how mealworms are able to compost Styrofoam. Next, is it possible that too many highly educated people can be a bad thing? Finally, how about an insight into a company that has zero full time employees, but generated $1million last year?

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