My Six Guiding Professional Principles

Work on anything long enough and you will start to develop a theory, a philosophy on the how and why of it. Play a sport for years, and you will develop a system of which attributes and strategies are best. Play an instrument, and you will also find techniques and styles that best suit you.

Work for a while and a set of guiding principles will emerge as well. For better or worse, work is the single thing that will take up more of our time and almost certainly the most mental energy throughout our lives. So, it’s no surprise that after a while you discover principles that you can apply.

Principles are useful because they help guide you. They help you make trade-offs, prioritize, and navigate the tricky situations we all find ourselves in.

Here are mine.

1 — Most business problems are people problems. Understanding people better helps business.

Yes, a lot of business problems are technical, logistical, financial, etc but when you boil the rest down, it comes to understanding how to get people to act in certain ways. Think about it.

Marketing — How do we create messages that resonate with and motivate people?

Product — How do we create tools that are empowering for people?

Sales — How do we create valuable relationships with people?

Management — How do we create environments for happy, productive people?

We want people to open emails, click links, and add to their carts. We want people to listen to us in meetings, we want people to learn how to use our tools in the right way, we want to be able to communicate all this easier and more effectively.

It would be wise to spend more time learning about psychology and the intersections of behavioral science within our work. Humans are complicated and unique. We don’t always understand the reason for our own actions, much less the actions of others.

However, where we do understand people there is a great opportunity. This is the basis of design-thinking, UI/UX frameworks, neuromarketing, copywriting, management techniques, and more.

We could all do a lot better if we took stock of how well our business practices align with the current understanding of human nature.

2 — The product is the most important aspect of the company

You walk into a car dealership’s showroom. It’s beautiful, the architecture has been designed to make you excited about being there. A nice-looking salesman comes up and connects with you immediately. He begins to talk to you about their top-line model that is front-and-center. It’s magnificent and appealing in every way. The only problem? It’s a sports car and you came looking for a truck.

Now imagine a similar scenario where the dealership sells nothing but trucks. Yet, when you test-drive it, it has some nice features but is missing a few fundamentals. It has a heated steering wheel and remote start, but not enough torque or bed-space for you.

These are two examples to demonstrate how important getting the product right is. You can have the best design, marketing, sales, and operations available but if you’re not getting to the heart of the customer’s needs, it doesn’t matter. Similarly, you can be addressing needs only in ways that are flashy or easy, but not substantive, and still fail.

I know it’s cheating, but I’ll use Tesla as an example here. No marketing, no showrooms, no PR team, limited sales infrastructure. The product on its own is so good that they don’t need the rest to help paper over cracks.

Often, when you think you have a marketing or sales problem, you really have a product problem. Think back to the early days of Uber. They had cracks all over the place. Sometimes unreliable service, high-profile incidents, glitchy app, etc. They maintained momentum because the product itself was much better than the alternative.

3 — Ego is the enemy

People’s egos are typically the biggest cultural issue in any organization.

Ego is the part of ourselves that exists to reinforce and support our self-importance and identity.

Ego is especially rampant at work because people are desperate to have themselves perceived as smart, hardworking, valuable individuals. To lose that perception and status is often to lose your job.

Here are some of the negative impacts of the ego at work:

  • It leads to HPPO decision making, instead of decisions made collectively, or by the people closest to the problem.
  • People behave in ways that reflect well on them, instead of on the team, slowly creating a toxic environment.
  • People are afraid to admit to mistakes or ask for help. In the worst-case, this can create all kinds of problems, or in the best-case still prevents learning.
  • People get too attached to outcomes, and not enough to process. Nobody gives anything enough time to breathe and be understood.

The list goes on.

When you create a low-ego environment, people feel compelled to speak up, to mess up, to be creative and risky for the greater good of the team. With the freedom to experiment and fail, more creative solutions and lessons are found. When you foster an environment where people can be vulnerable, connections and teamwork are better.

We all have egos, the failure in realizing how much it is impacting our thoughts and behavior is the real mistake. Ego is the enemy, fight it.

4 — Ruthlessly Pareto prioritizing is key

When you think about it, the word “priorities” is in itself an oxymoron. Maybe it is possible to have multiple priorities but that number tops out at 3. If everything is a priority then nothing is a priority. In the long run (and that is the only run that should matter), doing the right things well is more important than doing more things. The problem is that sometimes you have managers/management rolling out priority lists that are 5+ items long.

Velocity reminds us that there is a difference in speed and direction. You can have a great ship with excellent sailors going full steam ahead. If you’re sailing in the wrong direction, it won’t matter.

I say “Pareto prioritizing” because I am a big believer in the Pareto principle. That 80% of the effects result from 20% of the causes. Whatever product or service you’re working on, there are likely a few things that end up delivering the most value. I believe it is often better to double-down on strengths, rather than supplement weaknesses. The worst strategies are the ones where you say, “we’ll do a bit of everything to cover our bases”. It sounds safe but is actually risky because you a) risk losing the opportunity to optimize and b) end up doing a lot okay but nothing great.

This is why you have to be ruthless in prioritizing. Look for the few things that make your offer unique and valuable, and focus on improving those. Let the rest sit on the wayside to be revisited later.

5 — Decision-making is more important and flawed than we realize

There’s a depressing facet of work that goes under-recognized. A lot of work is either correcting for mistakes or realizing that the ship you’re sailing has been heading in the wrong direction and now you must course-correct with fewer resources. (Can you tell I like this sailing metaphor?)

It all starts when a decision is made on what to work on and how. The problem is that there are all sorts of landmines that jeopardize the process, unseen and only obvious after-the-fact.

We humans don’t do well deciding under uncertainty. Availability bias, decision fatigue, fundamental attribution error, survivorship bias, gambler’s fallacy, etc. None of us are immune to taking mental shortcuts in these situations, but the more aware of them we are, the better we can side-step them on the path to success.

It’s always been surprising to me that considering the importance of getting consequential decisions right, few organizations deploy frameworks that act as guardrails to guiding themselves towards the best ones. What usually happens is that people who are considered to have the most experience and thus best judgment gather data and decide on their own. Is this the best we can do?

We should ask more of ourselves by asking questions like:

  • “Are we making this decision now because we are tired of deliberating?”
  • “Who is the best person to make this decision?”
  • “Is this decision reversible or irreversible? How does that change things?”
  • “How confident do we need to be before deciding? What do we need to increase our confidence level?”

Successes and failures can be followed back to a single decision that resulted in a string of (potentially forced) decisions. Obviously, we can’t get them all right and it’s impossible to know the future, but we can get much better.

6 — Don’t take yourself or the work too seriously

Don’t get me wrong here, work is serious. Your work affects other people’s work which affects their professional and personal lives, as well as your customers. You should do your best to show up each day as a person that can help others. However, it’s useful to remember that unless you’re in the life-saving business or pulling big levers in the economy, to not take it too seriously.

People are unknowingly/unwillingly self-absorbed and most of what you do won’t impact them for too long. Indeed, a lot of services are meant to be as out-of-sight, out-of-mind as possible.

They don’t care about your company as much as what you can do for them. They don’t want to be part of your company’s “community”. They don’t want to get your newsletter so they can keep up with what you’re doing. You shouldn’t invest much in these tertiary things either. Focus on how well you’re delivering your unique value and put the rest on the back burner.

Forgive me for getting too philosophical here, but most of your work won’t really matter either. Think about how stressed you might’ve gotten at a job you left years ago. How often do you still think about it? That work might not be used in that company anymore anyway. Think about all the brilliant doctors, engineers, writers, etc who lived only 100–200 years ago. You have no idea who they are or what their work was. The same will happen to you.

Don’t get too angry with yourself, nor with others. It’s not worth it when it won’t matter. Keep the big picture in mind and ask yourself if this is something that will matter to you or others in a few hours, a few weeks, a year, or 5 years.

Your mental state is crucial, you have to live with yourself 100% of the time. Few things at work are worth ruining your mental state for too long. Apply some stoicism at work and see if it doesn’t make your life a bit easier.

Conclusion

A theme of mine here is understanding. The better you understand yourself, your coworkers, your customers, your market, etc the better off you will be. This includes recognizing and correcting for blind spots in your understanding. That understanding is powerful, though. It allows you to prioritize and decision-make much easier.

My hope is that these principles are useful for you as you evaluate your own philosophy of work.

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Thomas Sloan

Thomas Sloan

Hi. I’m Thomas. I like to think about thoughts, and then write for clarity. Not everything here is a fully formed belief. Let’s talk :)