This post is a sequel to my Role Shapes post from last year. Like that post, this post is about a metaphor for working on a team, and talks about each of us as shapes in a space of work that gets done. This year, I’m talking about a slightly different space.
I’m going to call last year’s metaphor the “hindsight model.” The hindsight model talks about a finished project, and all the work that went into it, and the shapes we each carved out of that. It’s “hindsight” because you don’t know what all that work is when you start. You can only know for sure what all the work was once you’re done.
This model, then, I’ll call the “foresight model.” It’s about an ongoing project, and the responsibilities we each have as members of that team. In the foresight model, the shapes aren't about work we have done, but about areas of responsibility, like parts of the field we’re covering for when work arises.
To explain that, I’ll tell you two stories.
Emily just graduated from a prestigious college program, during which time she was recruited heavily by one of the bigger video game publishers out there. Knowing how tricky it was to get a job in the industry, she jumped on the opportunity, and took a role as a producer for a game team in Los Angeles making a sequel to the publisher’s most popular franchise in collaboration with another of the publisher’s studios in the UK.
From that description, it ought not come as a surprise that Emily now finds herself jumping into a large, existing machine, with lots of people already doing stuff. Here’s what Emily’s role looks like:
In this diagram, every shape is a person, and the space is all the potential work that might arise. In this little fable, Emily’s job is to produce the animation team making the player animations. So her responsibilities might be something like:
- Track all known work for her team.
- Track each animator’s current set of active tasks and progress towards their current goals.
- Track and communicate dependencies her team has on other teams’ work.
- Anticipate obstacles for her team and use political and social skills to nip them in the bud.
- Establish important relationships to ensure she has a strong network to lean on.
Her shape on that diagram, then, represents all those responsibilities. Emily’s shape is finite: it is bounded on all sides. It doesn't shoot off into infinity. And all the adjacent shapes are other people’s roles. Let’s say in the course of tracking her team’s work, Emily discovers some work for the texture artists. Well, one of her neighboring shapes is another producer whose responsibilities include “Track all known work for the texture artists.” Usually, the right thing to do is obvious: Tell that producer about the new work and move on. If it’s critical to her animators, Emily might say so.
But sometimes it’s not quite so simple. Maybe it’s late at night and the other producer isn't around and it’s blocking her animators. Maybe it’s contentious work that not everybody agrees should be done. There are times that Emily might need to use her judgment and overstep her role a bit.
Those boundaries are dark black lines in the diagrams, but in reality they’re much fuzzier – they have to be fluid. And when you are in a role like Emily’s, the fluidity at the boundary is the most interesting part. That example is a simple one, too. They get far more complicated:
What if Emily thinks that one of her peers, an adjacent shape, isn't doing a very good job, and it’s going to endanger Emily’s team or even the whole project down the road? Of course there are obvious avenues here, too: Tell the other producer’s manager! Trust the system! But Emily already followed all those rules, and the manager didn't share her perspective. Eventually Emily’s sure the evidence will be indisputable, but by that time the damage will be done.
It’s easy here to pull out a soapbox and say, well, no good company should have issues like that. You have to be willing to fire problem people! You have to have an open, honest dialog about responsibilities! You need a direct and unflinching review process to handle these issues!
But issues like these happen at every company all the time, and the bigger the company, the more often they happen. And the reality is never so simple: Maybe Emily’s overreacting. Maybe the manager is incompetent, too, and it’s going to take some time for the system to sort that out, time the project doesn't have. Maybe there are legitimate differences of opinion and trying to pick one perspective as “true” is just not possible.
In these situations, Emily still needs to do her job. And if she’s truly excellent, she’ll find ways to navigate these issues rather than just throw up her hands and say “Not my problem” and perform her work to the letter of the law. Maybe she can come up with a clever, politically sensitive way to take on that extra work herself or distribute it to others without the other producer feeling the imposition. Maybe she can build the kind of relationship with the other producer that leaves him open to taking her advice.
These are the challenges that Emily faces in her new role. To succeed, the skills she’ll need include discipline and personal talent for the production work, of course, but moreover she’ll need the political savvy and social skills to navigate the boundaries between her shape and others’ with nuance.
Paul gets halfway through college and decides the overly-structured environment isn’t for him. Plus, he’s been coding since he was 8 years old, and has some pretty good ideas for new products. So he drops out and starts a company on his own. Here’s what Paul’s role looks like:
Paul’s shape is infinite – if you keep zooming out, it keeps going. There are no boundaries at the edges. Paul’s responsibilities look like this:
- Decide what needs to be done.
- Do all of it.
I’m not being glib; those are the two challenges he faces. He’s only one person, so he can only do a very limited amount. He has to decide what’s important. Rent time at a coworking space? Work out of his apartment? Buy better equipment or save that money for food? Then there’s building the product. How to do it? Should he look for funding? That might inform the way he starts building. And so on.
The challenges Paul faces are the challenges of a man faced with infinite potential and limited time. And to succeed, he’ll need vision, personal talent, discipline, confidence, and decisiveness.
Spoiler alert: There’s not a ton of overlap between the skills Emily needs and the skills Paul needs. Both need discipline and personal skill for the work, but that’s about it.
I’ll go further than that: Neither Paul nor Emily wants the other’s skill set! Paul doesn't really have time for much nuance, and if he has Emily’s finely-tuned social sensitivity, the attitudes and opinions of friends and business partners might consume a lot of his attention in times when he ought to be forging ahead. And if Emily has Paul’s singular vision and drive she’ll almost certainly come across as brusque and dismissive in her role.
Emily and Paul are fundamentally different creatures. Working in the “work force” requires – and therefore teaches – a very different set of skills than you need to succeed as an entrepreneur or employee of a very small company.
In terms of the visual metaphor, the difference between them is that Emily’s shape is finite and Paul’s is infinite. A finite shape has a finite list of responsibilities, and the nuance is in the fractal intricacy of its boundary with all the other shapes. An infinite shape’s responsibilities end with “et cetera”, and the nuance is in triage: The shape is infinite, but the person occupying it is finite.
The interesting part is when conditions change. Let’s start with Paul.
When Things Change for Paul
For Paul, conditions change when his company grows. Let’s say Paul sells his good friend Dana on the company, and Dana drops out of school to work with him, and they divide all the work up evenly. Now, the company looks like this:
This is interesting: their shapes are still infinite – all shapes at the edge are, because there are no boundaries at the edges. But they both have clear domains now. Maybe they agree that Paul handles all IT work plus the Costco runs for coffee and snacks, and Dana handles the books, and both of them code. They still both have to triage aggressively, because there’s infinite work they could do, but now they also need at least a rudimentary awareness of the other, and the basic decency not to go stomp all over the other’s code without at least saying something.
Now let’s say things keep going well and they attract some investment, and have enough money to bring in a few more friends who couldn't join sooner because they needed salaries. Now the company looks like this:
All the roles are still infinite, but there are some boundary lines being drawn. They’ll have to develop some respect for their individual domains. This starts to take some adjustment, for Paul.
Now the company takes a big step: they hire an office manager. Someone part-time, with very clear responsibilities, to shoulder some of the straightforward burdens that everyone agrees are taking up too much of their time. Now the company looks like this:
They have their first finite shape! The difference is palpable: Infinite shapes are the “buck stops here” people, the ones at the top who take ultimate responsibility for the company because, well, that’s their job. A finite shape is an employee. Their office manager probably doesn't have much equity, if any, and he reports directly to one of them, and there’s a clear understanding of what he does & doesn't do. He works Mondays through Thursdays from 10am-4pm, he receives packages, handles any office visitors, and does the Costco runs.
But eventually they grow more, and hire a bunch of other employees who report to Paul and the other business partners, and the company looks like this:
They've added some senior people, who have new infinite shapes at the edges, and probably significant equity to go along with it. But they've also added a bunch of finite shapes. And now they have employees who have to do Emily’s work: they are bounded on all sides by other people, and need to start exercising political and social skills to get things done.
Paul has a team, now, and they look to him for management and counsel. They’re mostly finite shapes, so they need a manager who can tell them about political savvy and nuance and help them develop the skills of working within their constrained roles but still having an impact.
But Paul doesn't know how to do any of that. He knows how to forge ahead and make big decisions and push on things so they get done. And none of those are appropriate behaviors for his new team members.
The worst part is, Paul might not realize it. Because it’s how he’s used to working. His behavior was appropriate and highly effective when the company was small. And from Paul’s perspective, it still is, because he still does it and gets away with it. Why? Because his tenure makes him the 800lb gorilla, but people in Paul’s situation can be surprisingly oblivious to this. Often, Paul doesn't understand why other people don’t just behave like he does. After all, it works for him!
People like Paul, when they give advice, often focus on personal effectiveness, alpha behavior, and triage, and deride or overlook the importance of management, coordination, and “overhead.” They are allergic to process and overhead because for small companies, that’s the right way to be. It takes tremendous self-awareness, humility, and flexibility for people in Paul’s situation to internalize the changes intrinsic to a growing company and develop that new skill set.
If you've ever known a high-level executive who was guilty of “seagulling” – swooping in from nowhere, shitting all over something, and then flying off – you know what I’m talking about. People in privileged positions who don’t understand the importance of relationship-building and nuance in larger organizations end up marauding through situations and leaving them even worse off, all the while thinking they’re being highly effective.
The way you avoid waste in small organizations is by staying lean and not wasting time with politics. In larger organizations, it’s almost the opposite: you avoid waste by respecting the boundary lines between shapes and navigating them with nuanced coordination, communication, and management, none of which are usually strengths for people like Paul, who got to where he did precisely because he thrives when there aren't boundary lines.
When Things Change for Emily
For Emily, conditions change when she works her way towards an infinite-shape role at the edge, either via promotion within her company or by taking a job at a smaller company.
Paul’s challenge is that he’s so used to his work pointing off into infinity that it can be hard to understand how behave respectfully when it points straight into a boundary with someone else. By contrast, Emily’s challenge is that she’s so accustomed to boundaries on all sides that when they aren't there, she may not know how to act. When suddenly her work points off into infinity, she needs to set aside all that tact and diplomacy she’s been building up for years and embrace more of Paul’s skill set.
When people talk about Impostor Syndrome I think usually they’re in this situation.
When Emily’s role is a finite shape, there are people on all sides of her. So most of the time, she’s the right person to do everything within her shape, because if she weren't, she could move those responsibilities to someone more appropriate by adjusting boundaries. Sometimes her shape grows and she has to learn new stuff, and that can be scary, but as long as her shape is finite, she knows what her responsibilities are, additions are incremental, and most importantly, changes don’t require her to behave in a fundamentally different way. The most challenging part of her work is still being sensitive to boundaries.
When her shape suddenly doesn't have a boundary on one side, it means that anything that happens in that direction is her job. Let’s say Emily takes a job in a high position at a small company. One day she’s in a meeting with six other people, and someone points to something written on a whiteboard and says “Who’s handling this?” Emily sits silently with everyone else until in a moment of shock, she realizes that nobody else is going to answer. It’ll be something with which she has zero experience, and she’ll feel completely unqualified to do it – Impostor Syndrome! – but immediately as that thought enters her head, she’ll also realize that there’s nobody qualified who can do it. So, that’s her job now too.
When your role is an infinite shape, you end up doing a lot of work that you’re totally unqualified to do just because it’s gotta get done, and if you don’t do it, nobody else will.
The challenge Emily faces is not just agreeing to take on the new work, but realizing that she needs to start behaving differently. Infinite shapes have different sorts of jobs: There’s a kind of fear of the unknown pointing off in the direction of Emily’s new particular infinity, and everyone is looking to her to assuage that fear. She’s used to leading with nuance and making people feel included and avoiding stepping on toes, but none of that is going to assuage that fear of the unknown. People want her to show up with a vision, to express a confidence that they can hold onto, a sign that she has a plan and is confident it’ll succeed.
For people in Emily’s situation, this can be especially difficult, because on the inside they’re not feeling confident at all. They’re feeling something more along the lines of, “Oh my God I hope nobody figures out I have no idea what I’m doing right now.” They feel like, through monstrous clerical error, they have been seated in the cockpit of a 747 hurtling through the air, full of passengers tacitly expecting a competent pilot at the yoke.
Where Emily succeeds, it’s because she has mentors she can trust and confide in who can help guide her, and the willingness to become the person who now speaks for this particular infinity with sangfroid, candor, and confidence. It’s a very big shift, and usually also hinges on Emily having some healthy way to handle all the stress, but like anything, it starts to feel more natural with practice.