1. NO ONE TALKS (OPENLY) ABOUT THE MIDDLE, BUT IT’S IMPORTANT
“We typically like to remember the things we want to remember we don’t remember the things we want to forget. And yet at the end of the day, we don’t benefit from hearing stories drastically edited for egos and soundbites. What we really want to hear is how those low points were navigated and how those high points were optimized”
A big reason Scott decided to write The Messy Middle is because he noticed that hardly any companies talked openly and publicly about the part of the journey that’d be the most helpful for others to hear about. Often the middle parts of the journey that are filled with the anguish and blood, sweat and tears, get missed out because it doesn’t make for a great headline. Can you imagine The Verge or Techcrunch posting something like “Behance Team is Kinda Stressed About New Onboarding Update”, no they want to post about the extremes.
Scott also found that after speaking to many successful people across different industries, the ones who had huge achievements also had long periods of this type of journey to get there, and when he would ask them about their journeys they didn’t really remember the granularity of them at all — the ‘messy middle’ was long forgotten.
In his book, Scott recalls going through photos on his phone to piece together the early days and ‘messy middle’ while building Behance. He also interviewed old colleagues who were off doing other things now and had honest conversations about them to really remember what those times were like and get a full picture of his own journey, because he had mostly forgotten it too.
During my conversation with Scott I was really inspired to continue to be incredibly open as I build my business, AJ&Smart, and share the journey, good and bad. I was also inspired to seek out and learn from the stories of the ‘messy middle’ of the companies I admire, and not just the success stories that we hear about at the end when everything is ok. The most prevalent feeling I got though was that while going through some of the more challenging times running my company that I wasn’t the first person to go through these things, and that it’s an important part of the journey and I should embrace, and optimise for, it.
2. TREAT COMPANY/TEAM CULTURE LIKE AN IMMUNE SYSTEM
“I equate a very healthy team to managing an immune system and really knowing when something feels off, like when there’s like an infection germinating. When the team has caught a cold you have to act on it.”
— Scott Belsky
Scott shared that he talks openly with his team about his fears, doubts, and challenges, and encourages a culture of openness within his company so that everyone knows where their colleagues are at. However he also has to balance this with being a source of optimism and energy to effectively lead his team.
He talks in the book about how a great leader will leave every meeting or conversation with energy, and he stresses the importance of this because often you’ll leave meetings or situations when no solution has been fully reached yet, and it’s essential that the leader instills a positive energy within their team at these times.
I think this is incredibly important advice and it was refreshing for me to hear that Scott maintains honesty like this with his team. It can be appealing as a company leader to try and hide when something is bothering you, worrying that talking about it will worry your team and trying to deal with it on your own, however I agree that this openness encourages your team to reciprocate, and this in turn means you’ll know about potential issues sooner rather than later.
3. ENDURE & OPTIMIZE
“Your best chance at succeeding in a product or as a team is finding the things that you’re doing that are especially compelling..whether it’s how you’re functioning as a team, or how a product is performing and then iterating on those things. It’s asking why is this working? Why is this attracting attention?”
— Scott Belsky
As someone who runs a business I know how incredibly compelling it is to ignore a lot of the things that are working well (‘if it aint broke don’t fix it’ kind of vibes) to focus on the things that are breaking. It sounds easy in practice, but so many companies (sometimes including my own) get it wrong, because when they’re in the midst of the real volatility the last thing you want to do is focus on something that’s working.
You can actually spend years putting out fires, being reactive and trying to stay afloat, dealing with issues like worrying about running out of cash, and meanwhile we can hardly spend any time optimising the things that are actually working.
Scott’s book has a whole section that is really focused on the optimisation of the best parts of what you do — it’s a must-read for anyone managing a product, team, or project.
4. IDEAS DON’T MATTER: LESS IDEAS, MORE STRUCTURE & EXECUTION
“Most creative people in the world seem to want more creativity. But it’s actually the last thing that they need”
— Scott Belsky
This concept has been huge for me and my business, and it’s actually a principle that guides a lot of what we do at AJ&Smart (we even have it on our wall at the office). I actually made an entire video about the concept earlier in the year.
As a creative ‘ideas guy’ myself who was constantly coming up with new business and product concepts, I really had to tear myself away from the idea that coming up with lots of ideas meant I was creating something.
It’s really hard to come to terms with the fact that ideas don’t matter unless you properly execute on them, but Scott’s book(s) give a great perspective, and tangible tactics for dealing with this, focusing on how creatives need guidance towards execution and to hone in on building the organisational skills that they possibly didn’t naturally develop.
“People gravitate towards a simple product, then that simple product takes its new users for granted it starts to add features for power users and to build a business model. And then what happens…”
— Scott Belsky
A big part of Scott’s advice is around developing the culture of adding and subtracting features in parallel, and about the challenges of maintaining simplicity in the product lifecycle — how simple products best engage new customers.
Something I was SO glad our conversation covered was the ’30 second theory’, which states that in the first 30 seconds of a customer’s journey with your product they are lazy, selfish, and vain (sounds harsh, but stick with it!)
Customers (me included) generally don’t want to read lots of text when we start using a new product, or watch a video explaining it, or spend ages figuring out what to do with it. We’re vain in the sense that we want to look good, or feel better, or look good infront of our client or boss, really quickly.
Scott’s point is that we often have too much faith in our customers in the first 30 seconds, and need to ground ourselves in these basic human tendencies and realities. And yes, once a customer gets more deeply engaged with our product they do transcend those slightly harsh realities. However until we get the customer to that level with a hook we can’t forget about the 30 second theory, and we need to build something insanely simple yet intuitive to get the customer through it.
So there you have it — a summary of my main revelations (or re-revelations) from speaking with the man, the legend, Scott Belsky.
For me what I love about his work is that he genuinely understands the dilemma that lots if (maybe all?) creative people face, and provides frameworks, tools, and methodologies to help make creative people more productive and push their great ideas forward.
Thanks for reading! Let me know what you think in the comments — would love to hear if you found this article, and the podcast episode, helpful!