Sunday, January 26, 2014

Abstraction Kills

Throughout my career I’ve gravitated towards reading leadership books. Books in this genre typically have good guidance no matter what role you are in the organization: people manager, product manager, or team member.  For me they act like guide rails – every time I find myself veering of my path I can count on a good leadership book to get my focus back on track.

I just finished reading Simon Sinek’s new book: Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t. It’s now one of my favorite books.  In it he defines leadership as “…. the choice to serve others with or without any formal rank.”

There are many great aspects of this book but my favorite is on the topic of abstraction.  I work for a company that is growing at a significant pace and which prides itself in putting its people first.  It flips the typical mindset of corporate America and believes if it takes care of its employees, their employees will take care of their customers and the end result is the shareholders will be taken care of.  Sinek’s book discusses how the bigger companies get the more distance is put between the people at the top of a company and the folks that use our products or actually do the work..  The larger a company gets the more people become numbers.

Imagine two news stories.  1) A story that discusses 1000’s of people who are suffering due to a natural disaster and 2) one where a family is interviewed, shows the damage to their home and they talk about how they were displaced due to  a fire in their home.   Typically the second story resonates with us more even though significantly more people were impacted in the first story – we have a name and a face to the story. We can empathize more with the family impacted in the second type of news story.  

As product and people leaders we have the risk of making decisions solely on metrics. This is due to the distance that is now between us and our employees or customers. Do you find yourself saying things like “that only impacts 10% of our customers” – without truly understanding the impact to that 10%?  Doing that is a disservice to the people who count on us. We need to have a connection to those we serve to truly make informed decisions.  Get out of your office and talk to the people you work with…talk to the customers who use your product – they are the people that make your organization run. We need to make the time to understand what makes them tick.  This can help drive the culture of your organization to be one based on trust, which leads to a collaborative environment and allow the people you work with to do great things.  

Sinek’s book has given me a lot to think about-especially working for an organization that is in a period of abundance which is when it’s most at risk of making people an abstraction.  I look forward to the challenge in ensuring that doesn’t happen.

There is so much more to this book – if you get a chance give it a read!


  1. The title of the post reminded me of an old Joel Spolsky post -
    Your post went in a different direction and in a much more relevant direction. The organization is at a very fine tipping point and the approach you outline can definitely help in driving the culture.

  2. Good post. People really do matter - whether customers or coworkers, and it is so easy to abstract from people. Yet, simply stopping to ask and listen is invaluable. Thanks for the reminder.