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On July 20, 1969, minutes before the lunar module Eagle was scheduled to touch down on the moon, dashboard alarms began to indicate an emergency. There was a hardware failure, and the onboard computer wasn’t keeping up with the calculations required for the landing. The reason we can now celebrate the 50th anniversary of the successful Apollo 11 mission and not a critical disaster is due to the work of Margaret Hamilton — a programmer who had a clear vision for how software should be engineered when lives were at stake.
Hamilton had architected the system so that in the event of an overload, the onboard computer would ignore all unnecessary tasks and only focus on a prioritized list that was essential for landing. Mission Control was able to give the astronauts the green light, and we all know what followed: The landing was a success, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and the United States achieved its “giant leap for mankind.”
A sense of responsibility for the astronauts’ safety shaped Hamilton’s vision for her work: Her team would need to build systems that could detect and recover from every possible error. It was this conscientiousness that led her to pioneer the field of software engineering and defensive programming, and it also turns out to be one of the key ingredients of a lasting vision.
Through my research and interviews with hundreds of business leaders and their teams, including Hamilton herself, a pattern emerged: High-performing teams feel a sense of shared responsibility for creating the world they envision.
This kind of thinking can be applied to all different kinds of work — the impact of the project or product may be on a different scale, but you can still feel responsible for the change you want to create for your end user. Brian Crofts, chief product officer of Pendo, a product engagement platform, says of the company’s vision for Pendo’s product, “In the past, when product managers wanted to get data on user behavior on their product, they needed to involve engineers to run reports. Our earliest vision was to give product managers autonomy in being able to gather the insights they need.”
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Pendo was started by product managers who experienced the pain felt by others in the same line of work. They had found that as a product manager, you could have insights to know what’s wrong with your product and yet not be able to roll out changes fast enough.
This empathy for product managers has shaped Pendo’s vision. As Crofts puts it, “Beyond helping product managers gather insights, we feel that it’s our responsibility to help them use those insights to create a better user experience.” As a result, Pendo’s product also allows teams to add in-context help and user guidance. While there may be no lives depending on this software, Crofts’s team has adopted a responsibility to their users that is deeply meaningful and helps to power their work.
Building empathy may also require investments from the organization. Anthony Philippakis, M.D., Ph.D., chief data officer at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and venture partner with Google Ventures, describes the vision at Broad, “to propel our understanding and treatment of human diseases.” According to Philippakis, within the organization, a shared responsibility to science and medicine helps to motivate people at all levels.
But the nature of the work at Broad is such that you need a deep scientific background before you can build a vision for your work. Says Philippakis, “The institute is very interdisciplinary. We might see experienced product leaders coming from software but without a life sciences background, who are then working with scientists without a software background. To build a common vision and bridge these disciplines, when we hire people, we plan on a multiyear investment so that teams feel this shared responsibility.”
Building this shared responsibility requires effort at every level of the organization. Philippakis engages teams in regular town hall meetings to communicate his vision and strategy. The organization promotes the importance of user research, with organized lunch-and-learn sessions where different teams can watch user research videos if they weren’t able to attend in person and learn from those who have participated in live observations.
As a leader, when you spread the sense of responsibility you feel for delivering on your vision, you no longer have to impose your vision. Here are three steps that managers can take to help build a sense of responsibility and engagement on their teams:
1. Create a vision centered on the problem you feel responsible for solving. No matter how technical your product, most likely it’s going to be used by other human beings. Your vision should reflect this human connection by articulating whose world you want to change, what their world looks like, why it needs changing, and how their world should look once the problem is solved, that is, the who, what, why, and how. I’ve found that it’s hard to write such a clear vision when you start with a blank sheet of paper — it’s easy to get stuck on finding precisely the right words. To help with this problem, you might use a “Mad-Lib” format from the Radical Product Thinking methodology, which makes it easier to create such a vision as team.
A well-articulated vision that’s centered on the problem gives you and your team a compass for evaluating whether your decisions are aligned with your responsibility for your users.
2. Show that shared responsibility drives action. Building a shared responsibility is important, but it is only real if it affects your business decisions. When you make decisions, communicate with the team what impact you’re trying to create for your users. This is easier when your users’ needs are aligned with your business needs.
The more difficult decisions come when your business needs conflict with those of your users. For instance, you may need to decide how much you’re going to monetize user data when doing so may not be in the best interests of your users. By communicating your rationale about how you balance these priorities, you’re helping your team make decisions aligned with the collective vision even when you’re not present. In effect, you’re scaling your sense of responsibility and creating a culture that shares these same values.
3. Get buy-in for your shared responsibility. Developing a sense of responsibility for the impact you’re creating for your users will help you experience why their world needs changing in the first place. When you test your prototypes with users, encourage the whole team to observe users trying to complete tasks using your product so the team better understands users’ pain points. Wherever possible, create engagement between your users and product teams so that your users are no longer abstract entities along your product road map. They become people with names and personalities whose lives you’re directly impacting.
By applying this approach, you can cultivate visionaries who are fueled by the shared responsibility of making the world a little more like the one you collectively envision.