Neil Roseman says focus on the inputs, not just the outputs

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On my day off Friday I attended Redfin’s fantastic brown bag lunch speaker series, which is open to the public and highly recommended for people working in start-up environments. Neil Roseman was the guest speaker, who built the server-side software for Amazon’s Kindle, among other things. It also gave me a great chance to check out Redfin, which has a great web-based real estate search tool.

The #1 takeaway for me was to focus on input metrics, not just output metrics, when managing a team or a project. It’s something that I’ve practiced, but also seen the opposite from people in high positions. It served as confirmation for me from a very successful manager.

An input metric is something you and your team directly control and goes into the eventual finished project for the company – for instance when selling reports, the # of reports completed or average time to complete a report. An output metric is the ultimate goal, but not necessarily something you directly control – # of reports sold, for example. So, when the company goal is to sell more reports, the report writers definitely influence that metric, because the quality of the report matters and will affect future sales, but if the salespeople do a bad job, or if the economy nosedives, those are actually bigger drivers of that metric in the short term and doesn’t reflect the impact of the report writers.

Measuring the entire team’s success based on reports sold is a bad idea because its success or failure is only loosely correlated with their work. Too many times I’ve seen managers focus on output metrics to measure success of the team, and it is demotivating for their teams and doesn’t do a good job identifying high performance within the team. It seems like a no-brainer to me, but too many people in high positions say “we’re holding everyone accountable for average spend” or “stock price” or name-your-output-metric-that-nobody-can-directly-impact.

Neil also had some great thoughts on working backwards to solve a problem. It’s a great approach that I often use to solve problems, but Neil takes it a step further and actually writes the press release for the product he’s going to launch before 1 line of code is written. I’ve never gone that far, but it’s something I’m willing to try, because it would definitely force me to focus on what adds value for the customer. It’s definitely worth a shot.

Neil also showed that he was an avid Woot user, wearing this t-shirt to the presentation (it went on sale a week before the presentation).

Overall, great presentation. Thanks Redfin!

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