A Useful User Manual
We all work differently, but getting to know the ins and outs of our team members can make anyone more productive, collaborative and successful.
Becoming a manager of other people is a strange thing, isn’t it? For most of us, we accidentally fall into the role after we’ve been in the workforce for a few years and start the slow crawl up the career ladder. It starts with one person you’re responsible for, then another, and some more, until one day you look around and realise there’s a whole conga line of humans all looking up at you and expecting that you know how to manage them.
My general rule is to always try to hire people who are smarter than you (just no brilliant jerks, thanks). Any brief blips of insecurity are outweighed by the tsunami of new ideas and fresh ways of thinking that great employees transfer from company to company, and it is one of these tools that has inspired this month’s One Useful Thing.
A few years ago we hired a great human called Meisha Hill to join our company as our General Manager. She had recently returned to Australia from New York, where she’d spent four years working at and learning from The New York Times. Meisha arrived back in the country with suitcases full of possessions, and a head full of knowledge about how to nurture a team to get the best out of them. One of the tools that she brought back with her was something she’d picked up from her last boss, and as soon as I saw her implement it with her team, I knew it was a great tool. The simple idea was to create a “User Manual” for every member of your team.
One Useful Thing for April 2023
If you want to understand how to get the most out of people you work with, you need to have a User Manual. This is a short template that everyone in your team fills out, and presents back on who they are and how they like to work.
The aim is to communicate and better understand each other’s needs so you can learn what the ideal working conditions are for your colleagues. It also has the added benefit of helping you become more aware of your own ideal working styles so you can lean further into it.
We all work differently. Some people like to start working as soon as they wake, then power through to the early afternoon before turning into a pumpkin after that. Others takes hours for their morning brains to warm up, and are best engaged at twilight. And many people, especially since Covid, dive in and out of work remotely, based around their children’s nap times, sacred family dinners, or Barry’s Bootcamp classes.
When I did some consulting work with an international team recently who had workers spread out all over the world, the best way to get me up to speed was to read over everyone’s User Manuals. That way, before I’d even met them, I had an understanding of what really made them tick. That’s why this month I’m sharing a simple document that can be the sole difference between a team thriving or dying.
Why this is useful: Friction at work is one of the biggest killers of productivity, cohesiveness and happiness. Anything you can do to encourage empathy of each others situations, and forge clearer lines of communication, is a winner.
This is especially important in a world where many workplaces have a mixture of flexible, hybrid and remote work, and clear communication can be the defining factor in a project’s success.
To create a User Manual, each team member should fill out a series of prompts that helps you understand their motivations and preferred style of working.
These are the main subject headings of a typical User Manual:
About me: Describe who you are, some personal background, and share anything you feel comfortably with. Sometimes this can things like be your favourite quotes, movies, meals or holidays.
When I like to work: Tell everyone about the life you like to lead so everyone can work within those hours instead of against it. When do you like to exercise? When’s your best time for emails or creativity? What time do you take lunch? What time do you want, or not want, to be contacted? The more specific you are here, the more useful your user manual is.
How I like to communicate: There are a thousands ways of reaching people today, but which of them do you prefer: phone calls, Zoom, in-person, WhatsApp, email, Slack, Teams or something else?
My superpower: Readers of Cult Status will know how important it is to know what your point of difference is. It doesn’t need to be an Olympic-gold-medal level of achievement, but what can you do better than others?
How I like to receive feedback: Are you someone who wants to get instant feedback, or would you prefer it’s communicated in a regular weekly catch-up? Your manager and the people around you are not mind readers, so help them out here.
How I like to learn: Do you learn best from written instructions, throwing yourself into the deep end or watching someone else do hard things?
What I need from you: How can someone get the best out of you? To answer this, think through the best boss or manager you’ve ever had, and verbalise what they did that brought the best out of you.
What I struggle with: What are the biggest things that you dislike in a workplace or colleague? Be honest here.
Something about me that might surprise you: It can be fun to end your personal User Manual with something personal, light and interesting.
You can mix and match the above, as well as personalise it for your team or your company if there are certain ways of working that are unique to you. Feel free to also add photos, quotes or emojis to really make it your own.
How to use this:
Agree on the subject headings of your personal User Manual and put each of them on a new presentation slide.
Invite all your team together and take them through the blank presentation, ensuring they are clear on how to fill it out. If you’re a leader, you can always fill one in and use it to set an example to the team.
Give everyone at least a fortnight to properly think through their answers.
Arrange a meeting where everyone presents their personal User Manual to the team, one at a time.
Keep the User Manuals in a public folder, and consult them regularly when dealing with team members.
Whenever someone new joins your team, have them fill in their User Manual and present it to the team. Make sure they can also read over everyone else’s, and turn this a regular new ritual for your team.
There are lots of great resources you can download for free to help you complete this. My favourites are examples from Atlassian, Friday and the Open Practice Library. And that is this month’s Useful Thing. A User Manual is a great tool that you can start using with your team today to help make you a better manager of other people. Let me know if you already have one, or how you get on with implementing one.
I’m currently in Mexico City, practising my Spanish and having deep conversations (in English!) with experts around the world for my next book. I’m next returning to Australia for a fortnight in early June for a bunch of in-person events, including speaking at Remix Summit. I will be travelling to Sydney and Melbourne, and currently have two remaining slots to give a workshop to teams who want to get better at creatively problem solving as a group.
This is my current favourite workshop based on a lot of the ideas in Killer Thinking, and it’s an informative, fun and educational two-hour session where I take participants through the latest research and science behind creativity, then tailor a live workshop to come up with fresh, creative solutions to any problems you’re trying to solve. Every single time I run this workshop I get feedback that people go on to use these techniques all the time to help solve problems using creativity, which is the biggest compliment anyone can give. If you or your company is interested in taking up my last available slots when I’m back in Australia in early June, just reach out.
Yours in usefulness,