Psychological safety: the key to building a successful team

The New York Times Magazine ran its Work Issue last week. The first article from the issue shares learnings from project Aristole, a Google initiative to understand what makes team click. The Google People Ops team had actually published findings from this issue back in November 2015.

They found that psychological safety was the most important among 5 key dynamics experienced by successful teams:

Psychological safety was far and away the most important of the five dynamics we found -- it’s the underpinning of the other four. How could that be? Taking a risk around your team members seems simple. But remember the last time you were working on a project. Did you feel like you could ask what the goal was without the risk of sounding like you’re the only one out of the loop? Or did you opt for continuing without clarifying anything, in order to avoid being perceived as someone who is unaware?

Turns out, we’re all reluctant to engage in behaviors that could negatively influence how others perceive our competence, awareness, and positivity. Although this kind of self-protection is a natural strategy in the workplace, it is detrimental to effective teamwork. On the flip side, the safer team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner, and to take on new roles. And it affects pretty much every important dimension we look at for employees.

While this doesn't come as a big surprise, it's still a good reminder. As a manager, your behaviour and attitude can be interpreted in (very) unexpected ways, and making sure that you're not sending the wrong message to co-workers and that they can express themselves freely without feeling that they're being judged is extremely important.

When professional services make sense

Tom Tunguz has a great article on professional services:

As the next generation of SaaS companies achieve maturity, they have begun to serve larger and larger customers, who in addition to demanding a great product, often request services. Professional services, as they are often called, entail training and customization. For product driven startups, the decision to offer professional services is a tricky one.

On one hand, the customer is always right and services often enable substantially larger contracts. On the other hand, selling hours to drive revenue decreases the efficiency of the business, by hiring more people in order to grow revenue linearly. In addition, many businesses operate their services divisions at a loss. But not all.

Professional services are a subject close to my heart. As an open-source software company, XWiki SAS derives a significant part of its revenue from professional services. The ideal we're striving for with our new XWiki Collaboration Suite offering is to find a way to enable customisation according to client needs while keeping upgrades as seamless as possible.

What we've found aligns closely with Tom's observations: the larger the client, the more likely they are to have custom requirements that you'll need to fulfil in order to close the deal. When applicable, product roadmap sponsoring is a great way to bridge that gap: your client gets the feature they need and your product keeps progressing.

Brian Trautschold of Ambition offers interesting insights about this process:

It’s really tough. I think part of what you have to do, unfortunately, to survive early on is you kind of have to toe that line. And you have to always go back and say, “What we’re building is a software product that is going to be scalable, that’s going to be used by multiple companies.” But it also depends on what part of the market you’re selling into, what types of customers you have. If you’re selling $100k enterprise deals, you’re going to bend a little bit more to make sure it works for Oracle or some huge company, versus Bob’s Pizza Shop.

But it’s really delicate. I think we may have taken too stern of a line early on and said, “No thank you” to customers, where we said, “Here’s our vision of what the future is going to be, you need to agree with us.” And over time, maybe as we grew the engineering team, we grew our capability and we could ship features or variations more easily we tried to open our arms a little bit more and bring people in.

But you never want to be truly doing things that are one off. You want to say, “Is this going to be useful for the next 20 customers?”

How do you handle professional services at your company?

The strategy behind Slack's launch

When the product was first coming together, Butterfield and his co-founders returned again and again to Paul Buchheit’s now-famous blog post, “If your product is Great, it doesn’t need to be Good.” Known as one of the creators of Gmail, Buchheit has a simple thesis: If you do a few things incredibly well, the rest doesn’t really matter. [...] Buchheit’s words strongly resonated with Butterfield and his team.

"We don’t cut corners, and we try to focus on the few things that are most important to our product vision."

For Slack, those three most important features are:

    • Search [...]
    • Synchronization [...]
    • Simple file-sharing [...]

These may not be checkbox features, or buzzworthy new concepts, Butterfield notes; they may not even be things that users think they’re looking for in a solution. But when it comes to a successful go-to-market strategy, perhaps the most important decision you can make is to build a product you believe is different from everything else out there, and an important change for the audience you're going after.

“We had a lot of conversations about choosing the three things we'd try to be extremely, surprisingly good at,” Butterfield says. “And ultimately we developed Slack around really valuing those three things. It can sound simple, but narrowing the field can make big challenges and big gains for your company feel manageable. Suddenly you're ahead of the game because you're the best at the things that really impact your users.”

Blue Ocean Strategy talks a lot about the need to create a differentiated value curve. It looks like that's exactly what Slack did, by focusing on a set of key things that they had to do much, much better than their competition in order to stand out from the crowd.

I would say that since this interview, a fourth pillar that emerged is the ease fo creating integrations. Being able to very simply send pieces of information and content from apps to Slack channel is a killer feature for many teams, and something that other chat products didn't really do well before.

Towards apps that help you get your job done

David Cummings has some interesting insights about the future of productivity applications. He argues that we will more and more see apps that focus on a specific job, with one application of record per job function:

Phase three is new vertical-specific SaaS applications as well as more specialized solutions that represent portions of more complicated products. One way to think about it is that there is an application of record for each job function (that is, a product that people in that job function spend a large number of hours per week to perform their job). [...] What job functions currently use a generic solution, but would be better served by a more specialized solution?

One specificity of such apps is that they will guide the user on how to do their job well, moving towards prescriptive solutions:

One of the biggest trends for SaaS over the next five years is new products that offer prescriptive solutions in place of general tools. What I mean is that there are a number of well-defined categories like CRM and ERP that are essentially customizable front-ends to specialized databases (e.g. CRMs are mostly contact management databases). These new products are still going to have the specialized database behind the scenes, but the front-end is more of a business process management system that actually tells the user what to do next.

This also corresponds well to the "First SaaS explosion" as described by Clément Vouillon:

As SaaS penetration grew (businesses of all sizes are ready to buy SaaS now) and as the technological barriers kept going down, many verticals saw an explosion of new players. These new startups very often focus on a more specific part of a vertical and offer products with better UX/UI than what the bigger players can do.

It's going to be interesting to see whether this leads to further fragmentation down the road, or whether big players will just gobble up smaller ones in order to beef up their offerings (the way Salesforce did it with Eloqua and Pardot in the marketing automation space).