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Survival Aesthetics XVIII: The Core Principle of Great Teams
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It’s been a while. I recently left my job to take some time off before the wedding. I’ve been in Oakland getting back in touch with a relatively unscheduled mode of thinking and living. Lots of reading, researching, wedding planning, drawing, taking classes, biking, walking, eating, meeting people, writing code, writing prose, meditating. A festival of gerunds. It’s been a blast.

Anyways, my fiancee (and soon to be my wyyyyyfe) are moving to NYC soon. If you know of any awesome teams that I should get in touch with, let me know.


Speaking of teams...
One-on-ones are the bedrock of great teams.
And "one-on-one" is corporatese for "regular conversation that isn't just idle smalltalk or chitchat."

Great Teams

In domains with limited volatility, high certainty, and deterministic operations, a supervisor can view the component parts of the machinery as interchangeable. Each component has a discrete and unchanging role. If a component breaks down, you replace it with a new one. The supervisor's role, then, is to weigh the balance between performance, durability, and cost. The supervisor's role is to find linear, predictable efficiency in operations and productivity.

However, knowledge work does not behave this way. It is different from the assembly-line "scientific management" imagined by Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor.

Client demands do not clearly articulate their needs, and when they do they are rarely consistent with their demands. The ebbs and flows of the market require everyone (not just the supervisor) to participate in problem-solving in spaces of uncertainty. Such a dynamic system, forever changing and destroying and renewing, requires a different look at management. Productivity of each component is harder to measure; what makes a component productive in one context may not translate to productivity in a new context.

In such an environment (volatile and uncertain), the role of the supervisor isn't just to maximize output of components in particular contexts. It is to maximize their output across an increasingly boundless set of contexts. The supervisor's job is to facilitate the skill of learning how to problem-solve. A self-directed "component" can be increasingly left alone to operate at unexpectedly high levels of performance.

The supervisor must work to catalyze such a growth. The capacity for growth is essential to great teams.


Growth is necessarily difficult in normal circumstances. Most people, even the most driven and intelligent, behave like billiards balls. Their development is largely an optimization of movements based on other balls ricocheting off of them. Most of us define our personalities and our skills based on our predictable reactions to external events.

We become comfortable in our behaviors, thoughts, and reactions. We become territorial over these responses, as if they say something essential about us. Over time, we become rigid, unchanging, and obsolete. Our patterns of reactions help us make sense of ourselves and the world, so anything or anyone attempting to break these patterns is viewed with distrust.

A supervisor cannot facilitate growth without first gaining the trust of his reports. Without trust, people shutter their windows, barricade their doors, and enshroud their universes with darkness. Such trust-less organizations abound with seemingly clever secret protocols, codes, and hyper-legalistic cultures. To build trust, the Relationship must be valued as the centerpiece of a community. This is why one-on-ones are essential to growth.


One-on-ones are a weekly ritual between supervisor and direct report to align personal goals with company goals. In knowledge work, if personal goals do not align with company goals, growth is hard to come by, and thus great teams are hard to catalyze.

One-on-ones provide a safe and predictable avenue for direct reports to discuss their growth, give feedback, and share information with their supervisors. In systems speak, this is a weekly "health check."

The one-on-one is a place to discuss and reflect on a direct report's growth. What does the report want in one year? In 5 years? What is their dream job? What do they want to be when they "grow up"? What have the done for the company in the past month? What have been some disappointments? What have they done for themselves in the past month?

Especially in urgency-driven companies, there is very little dedicated space for such conversations, yet these conversations are what unlock trust between supervisor and report, as well as high performance from reports. Reports internalize that the supervisor cares about their personal goals; the supervisor works to ensure reports have the space and resources to grow in a mutually beneficial way. This creates a positive feedback loop in the relationship, which leads us to the next point. A team ceases to view its work as mercenary-like two-year tours of duty and more like journeys mutually constructed by the firm and the individual.

Information-sharing between reports and supervisors is often highly filtered and politicized. Culturally, the manager-employee relationship has come to be viewed as "an incompetent authority figure seeking to assert his competence over a possibly incompetent employee seeking to usurp the authority figure." One-on-ones whittle away at this myth. Through consistent conversations and the creation of positive feedback loops, reports and supervisors can speak more freely with each other without needing to pick every word so carefully and politically. Such open-ness in communication means the supervisor can learn of looming organizational and team problems long before they actually express themselves in the quality of work.

And thus the annual performance review becomes no surprise to anyone, as everything in the review has been discussed frequently in the preceding 52 weeks.

Smart, thoughtful people, when given the venue to express their goals and the bottlenecks to these goals, will say incredible smart and thoughtful things (are you surprised?). And I believe almost everyone is smart and thoughtful when given an appropriate venue.

Hope you enjoyed reading! Happy Tuesday and until next time.
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Ammar · 725 15th St, NW · Washington, DC, DC 20005 · USA

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