A Personal Retrospective

Sometimes the way out of bad situation starts within

One of the last blog posts I wrote was about coping with burnout. Apparently I had some ideas, and assumed they would improve things. Well, that was six months ago, and I’m still burned out.

So what do I do now? One option is to change something external. I could take a vacation, go on sabbatical, quit my job, or start a new career entirely — all of which are options I’ve considered. But in the end I’d either be returning to the same old problems, or else I’d just be exchanging one set of problems for another. I may very well end up making an external change, but I also don’t want to screw myself by being reactive.

In reality, my current situation is a reflection of both what’s happening to me and what’s happening within me. In regards to the former, many of the things that are currently stressing me out in my professional life are not unique to the particular company I work for. As for the latter, I always have the power to determine my attitude and response to stress. Therefore, perhaps the most important change I need to make right now is internal.

I learned a long time ago that internal change doesn’t begin with action. It starts with reflection. Yet reflection is only helpful if you ask the right questions. Otherwise you can easily end up brooding or arriving at the wrong conclusions.

Being a product person, I’m used to conducting “retrospectives”, which are a framework for asking simple questions in order to gather insights about a particular situation over a specific timeframe. One of my favorite frameworks is The Four L’s, in which you ask yourself:

  • What did I like?
  • What did I learn?
  • What did I lack?
  • What did I long for?

When applying this methodology to a project or product sprint, the results often uncover new opportunities to achieve better outcomes going forward.

If I applied it to my professional life, what would the results be? Would I uncover any new perspectives or approaches that could help me get my “mojo” back?

Let’s find out…


Situation: My experience as Head of Product at eyeo

Timeframe: Past 3 years


What did I like?

  • Building a product department from scratch
  • Working with smart people that are primarily motivated by values (instead of money or prestige)
  • Helping those I manage to unlock their potential
  • Collaborating with a passionate team to launch an all-new product that addresses a real user problem
  • Contributing to the development of the company’s strategy, culture, and ways of working
  • Demonstrating the value of research, design, and content
  • Being directly involved in the creative process
  • Learning what leadership means to me
  • Learning what leadership means to others

What did I learn?

  • You’re primary responsibility as a leader is to define the right problems, not the right solutions
  • Your effectiveness as a leader depends on whom you have a relationship with, and the kind of relationships you have with them
  • Self depreciation undermines confidence in your leadership
  • Boasting or reminding people of your credentials alienates those you seek to influence
  • Issues are always best solved directly, immediately, and with the people actually involved
  • Culture determines outcomes more than any other factor
  • The busier you are the less strategic you become
  • You aren’t prioritising correctly if it isn’t painful
  • Information is not the same thing as knowledge
  • A change in attitude is far more powerful than any change in a process
  • The fastest way to kill positive, naturally occurring change is to define it and then make it a requirement
  • Systemic issues become exponentially more difficult to correct the larger a system becomes
  • Feedback is most constructive when it’s explicit, actionable, and delivered in realtime
  • It’s not really a team until everyone feels responsible for the final outcome
  • There’s no substitute for direct observation/experience
  • There’s no true responsibility without real authority
  • If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re probably not growing
  • Changing everything at once (especially by force) will likely not lead to the changes you really want
  • What you do is only meaningful if you understand why you’re doing it
  • Every new hire will make a team slower and less effective before is will make them faster and more effective
  • Optimism is not a strategy
  • Trust, ownership, and accountability are the most essential ingredients in effective teams
  • The quality and effectiveness of your organisation’s communication depends largely on your company values and technical infrastructure
  • Being “there” (physically or virtually) doesn’t mean you’re “present”
  • Every time information is transferred there is information lost, and the more indirect the transfer the greater the loss

What did I lack?

  • The authority to make key decisions regarding my people, our products, or our processes
  • The autonomy to act in the best interest of our users
  • Adequate involvement in setting of longterm company strategy or mid-term goals
  • Sufficient support from my boss or the executive management team
  • Explicit expectations for my role
  • Regular feedback
  • The right tools to administrate my people management responsibilities
  • Incentives or rewards for constantly increasing responsibilities
  • A longterm plan for professional development
  • The ability to accurately measure the direct impact of my work or the work of those I manage

What did I long for?

  • A company vision that truly inspires me and the product team
  • A shared sense of urgency or understanding of teamwork across the company
  • A passion for and continuous investment in innovation
  • A shared understanding of what it means to be a leader
  • A well-defined company culture that’s scalable
  • Consistent, clear direction from the executive management team
  • The ability to deliver actual value to users on a regular basis
  • Follow through on big, organizational initiatives
  • Recognition and appreciation

+++++

It’s going to take me some time to process and synthesize these results. At first glance, however, there’s obviously a lot more I could do to help improve my situation as Head of Product at eyeo. There’s also a ton of insights that would benefit me in any role at any company. The trick now is to identify and prioritize the most important things I have the ability to change or improve as an individual. Then, maybe, any external changes I should make will become more evident.

Until then, I’ll probably continue to feel the effects of burnout. But at least now I can already see some light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.