A frequent conversation topic that comes up with founders is that of individual employee performance. Once a company nears Series A, team size crosses 30 — I haven’t heard of too many Indian companies with low team counts (this is a topic for another post!) – and invariably the founder’s attention is drawn to managing employee performance or the impact of this. Almost every month or two, someone is being let go, or counselled. Sometimes more frequently than that.

As Blume’s team size has grown, we too have had our share of less motivated and low-performing teammates.  Clearly when the team size is smaller, it is hard for non-performers to stand out, and hence they get weeded out faster, or even get the right feedback, and improve. However as the team grows larger, these non-performers can sometimes linger for a while.

I have been thinking about this topic, and have found the metaphor of ‘shower thoughts’ useful to approach this. This metaphor comes from an article i read by Ben Kuhn titled ‘Attention is your scarcest resource’.

Kuhn references a post by Byrne Hobart, and writes (bold and italics mine) –

“That experience of mine resonates strongly with Byrne Hobart’s observation about focus in knowledge work: The output of knowledge workers is extremely skewed based on focus. The productivity tiers seem to be:

  1. <10% focused on the job at hand: meaningful risk of getting fired.
  2. 10-50% focus: “meets expectations,” gets regular raises.
  3. 50%+ focus: superstar, 10x engineer, destined for greatness.

“50%+ focus” is roughly when something becomes the top idea in your mind. It’s when you start caring enough to think about it in the shower. It’s when you start habitually asking “how could this go faster?” It’s when you get relentlessly resourceful. It’s around when you start annoying your coworkers and/or significant other, although that part is avoidable with practice.”

I find that early on, when team sizes are in the <20 number, you have about a third to half of the company as the ’50%+ focus’ workers – they have ‘shower thoughts’ about the company and its problems. They work long punishing hours, are proactive and get things done, often without necessarily seeking permission. They are incredible brand and cultural ambassadors internally and externally.

The rest are in the ’10-50% focus’ / meets expectation category. As the company gets bigger, the proportion of the ‘shower thoughts’ workers drops to about 10-20%; you also start seeing the first of the “<10% focused” folks.

Hiring and increasing the number of ‘shower thoughts’ workers

There is no one universal rule to hiring or even enhancing the number of these shower thoughts workers. Still from my experience there are a few.

  • Missionary cultures and high purpose orgs attract a lot more ‘shower thoughts’ workers. It is vital that the founder / CEO spend a certain amount of his or her time communicating the mission, how it came about and the key values underpinning the mission and the journey towards realising it.
  • ‘Shower thoughts’ workers can also emerge when the ’10-50% focus’ category starts working with a manager who is from the ‘shower thoughts’ category. The reverse can also happen. Never make a ‘shower thoughts’ executive or engineer work with a non-‘shower thoughts’ manager.
  • Cultures or processes enabling frequent, fair feedback as opposed to those where feedback takes longer time to emerge, tend to encourage the emergence and growth of ‘shower thoughts’ workers. This could be either personal or even product performance feedback – they are interconnected – product performance eventually impacts personal performance.
  • Cultures that enable ownership and initiative – most startups fall in this category – clearly support the rise of ‘shower thoughts’ workers.

I suppose there are more, and would love to hear what I missed out.

Interestingly, one rule I have seen is that, shower thoughts workers are typically introduced to the org through references. Someone who has known the ‘shower thoughts’ worker writes ahead introducing the ‘shower thoughts’ worker.  Alternately the name of the ‘shower thoughts’ worker comes up prominently when asked ‘Who is the best ____ person you have met?’ (insert growth / product / tech etc).

Are ‘shower thoughts’ workers thinking the right thoughts?

My colleague Ria Shroff-Desai, who leads our people practice, and with whom I shared an early draft version of this article, raised an important question. How do we know ‘shower thoughts’ thinkers are having the right thoughts? How do we incentivise obsessing over the right questions, she asks? This is important, and I suppose the best solution is when the leadership communicates priorities right. Prioritising, after all, is one of the 3 jobs of the startup CEO.

Working with non-‘shower thoughts’ workers

I came across this wonderful article from John Danner where he writes about how to work with the ’10-50% focus’ workers. He refers to them as nonGSD workers (GSD = Get Stuff Done, his term for ‘shower thoughts’ workers). It is a good framework to approach conversations with non-shower thoughts workers.

Conclusion: an alternate framework to ’shower thoughts’ is ‘work as play’

An alternate framework to ‘shower thoughts’, and one I have often used is that high performance workers don’t see the work they do as ‘work’, i.e., something that needs to be dealt with for 5-6 hours and then moved on from. Instead they see work as play. The find it easy and enjoyable. This is what is referred to the in the saying “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.” (source unknown)

In this regard, here is an excerpt from a paper I came across called ‘The Mundanity of Excellence’. Here is a good summary of the paper by Aditya Khanduri; the paper is a study of what drives and leads to emergence of elite swimmers.

The excerpt details how champion swimmers find the punishing conditions and intense regiment of training enjoyable. Clearly if you enjoy training in unpleasant conditions, you will do more of it and will be better trained than your competitor. There is some of this in the ‘shower thoughts’ folks too. When you get obsessed with something, it doesn’t feel like work. It feels like fun.

I would like to thank Ria Shroff-Desai for reviewing an early draft of this piece, as well as for sharing a perspective on whether ‘shower thoughts’ workers are even asking the right questions.