When Peter Deng emerged from Stanford’s d.school — armed with Post-It Notes and the desire to do something meaningful — he knew he didn’t want a typical job. He wanted something as fluid and flexible as the academic environment he was leaving, where ideas were championed and given space to thrive.
With this in mind, he took a chance and joined as the fourth product manager at a growing company called Facebook. “It was small. People cared about building things that made an impact — and they wanted to do it all fast. I immediately felt at home,” says Deng, now Director of Product at Instagram. But, as often happens when you get a bunch of ambitious people together, the urge to establish hard-and-fast process wasn’t too far behind.
“It’s not that process isn’t necessary, you just have to be extremely mindful about it,” Deng says. This principle has guided his work over the last six years at Facebook, and today as he shapes product at Instagram. “I’m always striving to give my teams an environment where they can focus on building and nothing else.”
At First Round’s CEO Summit, Deng shared the steps he’s taken to thoughtfully remove structure at Instagram in order to maximize and sustain creativity.
STEP ONE: CLEAN YOUR SLATE
“When you really think about it, process is just what happens when people realize there’s a problem, put together a checklist to solve it, and then immediately forget about it. Soon, it’s not relevant anymore,” Deng says. “Most companies are full of processes designed to solve problems from a long time ago.”
Process is being told what to do by someone who has less information than you.
One of the most pernicious and pervasive forms of process is the recurring meeting. What to do about it? Cancel them all, Deng says. This does not necessarily mean canceling them for good. That’s unrealistic. But you do need to reset things every so often so you can get a critical look at what’s necessary and what’s not. Once you’ve stripped things away, you gain a lot more clarity around how to truly support the people around you.
“Momentum is a really powerful force, and at first it’s fed by all of these meetings. But then you have all of these routines and habits that form, and before you know it, you’re just going through the motions, assuming what must come next.”
When you clear your calendar of indefinitely repeating meetings, you free yourself of all these assumptions. You never find yourself sitting in a meeting wondering why you’re there.
“I’ve been to so many meetings where there was a loose agenda and very few concrete things got done,” says Deng.
All of these observations set him on a mission to give more fuel to the fire that made Instagram so beautiful and beloved in the first place. For him, that fuel was time and space. When he joined the team, one of his first orders of business was to cancel recurring meetings.
STEP TWO: GET TO THE ROOTS
Once you’ve wiped the slate clean, you can focus on the problems you really have in the here and now. Unfortunately, Deng says, force of habit and tradition is so strong that most people are left thinking the following:
I need one-on-ones with my reports, but I cancelled all of them.
I need a weekly meeting so I know what’s going on with everyone on the team, but that doesn’t exist anymore.
I need a product review meeting. I’m a product leader. I review products.
“The thing is, these aren’t real problems,” Deng says. “If you break each one of them down, you’ll see what you actually need to do.” Remember that one-on-ones, staff meetings and every other meeting and process should besolutions to specific problems. They don’t need to happen just to happen.
For example, why does a manager really need a one-on-one with a report? Two reasons: You want to know what they’re doing, and you want to support their growth.
Why do you need a weekly team meeting? You want everyone to be informed about what’s happening.
Why do you need regular product reviews? You want all features to go through the same people so the product stays consistent. You also want to provide feedback along the way to guide development. “These are legitimately important things, but if you aren’t careful, you spend more time talking and less time innovating,” Deng says.
When you get to the root of the problems recurring meetings try to solve, it becomes clear that there are much less intrusive and more active ways to address them (including brief meetings that are very focused on busting problems). By breaking tradition, you will arrive at a more efficient structure where you aren’t simply sharing updates round-robin-style just because it’s Monday morning.
STEP THREE: EMBRACE IMPERMANENCE
Creative environments are inherently dynamic. The constant flux inspires ideas, spurs innovation, and doesn’t take kindly to rigidity. Your goal should always be to find the right temporary solutions to solve real problems, Deng says.
“The landscape you work in every day is impermanent. The products you’re working on will change. Your competitors will change. Your goals will change. You may plant a beautiful flower that wilts and dies, but does that mean you’ll never plant another seed?”
When you solve a problem or create a process, there is always an expiration date.
Look at the problems you created when you cancelled your recurring meetings — they are all status-update related. Now think, what temporary solution can you create that would address all of these problems in a fraction of the time and would be flexible enough to change if you needed to?
In some cases, a temporary solution might be a meeting that recurs over a certain time-bounded period but is always subject to change, and that no one gets attached to.
“At Instagram, we kick off every week with a single product planning meeting,” Deng says. “It’s 30 minutes and we address all of these status issue problems at the same time. Every team gets to say one of the top three things they’re working on that week. And, for accountability, they say whether the thing they mentioned the previous week got done or not.”
The rest of the time is devoted to removing cross-team blockers. These include gaps in communication, bottlenecks, resource needs, and conflicts between teams.
“There’s no actual, deep product discussion in this meeting,” Deng says. “It’s just a quick survey of what we have to do to make progress during the upcoming week.”
A quick sync meeting can cover a lot of territory, but you’re still left with a few loose ends. For example, as a manager, how do you support people individually in their careers? This doesn’t require the formality a lot of people ascribe to it.
“When you have a clear schedule, you can solve this problem in much smarter ways. You have the flexibility to have one-on-ones only when you really need to have them,” Deng says. And you can meet with people outside the bounds of typical one-on-one topics. In multiple ways, not having a standing meeting actually breaks down barriers.
“I make a point of ensuring most of my one-on-ones aren’t spent on tactics,” he says. “All of those everyday work-related things like coordination or checking off tasks can be done over email or at the product planning meeting or in some other forum. That’s not what should happen in a one-on-one. That’s precious time for two people to sit and talk face-to-face.”
It's a mistake to spend this time on details when it really should be about broad strokes.
“I regularly have one-on-ones where we don’t talk about anything that needs to get done. We talk about what the person wants to be learning and doing over the next six months. We take a step back together and identify themes in their recent work and how they can evolve.”
Along the same lines, Deng occasionally takes his reports to “career lunches” if they are interested.
Have a lunch where you give someone your full attention, not to talk about the work but about their future.
“I’ll tell them from the beginning that we won’t be talking about anything tactical or immediate. It will purely be dedicated to high-level stuff, like where they want to be in two years. What kind of role do they see themselves excelling in? A lot of awesome things come up. Maybe I’ll find out that someone wants to learn enough to go do a startup of their own someday, and that’s great.”
Not only does this boost employee morale — and actually retain top talent — it also helps Deng do his job better. “It gives me a chance to find the opportunities and projects that will really excite a person, that will give them the ability to learn and to move on when they want to. In the meantime, we can partner together to be really effective.”
STEP FOUR: BE SPONTANEOUS
A key part of creating structure that can flex and change is to move away from a “manager” schedule toward a “maker schedule.” What this amounts to is fewer meetings dictated by management to check up on everyone and more gatherings around actual product building. The latter tends to be impromptu.
“Now that we’ve cleared our schedules and are no longer meeting just to meet, we’re suddenly free to have casual product discussions whenever,” Deng says.
To reinforce this model, he created a rule that no one can have meetings planned between 3 and 4 p.m. every day. That time is earmarked for sitting with your team and working on the product. “This automatically creates a dynamic where you have engineers, designers and product managers close by, able to talk only when they need to about what’s right in front of them.”
Not only does this free people up to create products rather than discuss them again and again, it gives leaders the opportunity to casually walk around and talk to each team. When the work is actually being done in the moment, team leads can immerse themselves in what’s going on without it feeling like a meeting or official review that has to keep happening.
STEP FIVE: MAKE MORE, TEST LESS
It’s important to note, process isn’t only about meetings or bureaucracy. It’s also about your approach to the work itself. There are just as many habits and traditions around how something gets engineered and designed as there are around running a team. This is another area where it’s helpful to clean your slate and re-evaluate.
Testing what you build is one process in particular where you should focus more on taking positive action than on instituting rules around how to take action, Deng says. Adopt that attitude now, because the pressure to test everything before it’s released will only grow as your team grows.
“The products you’ve already built become your bread and butter, and you can fall into a trap of just making small incremental improvements here and there,” Deng says. “Suddenly, you don’t want to break or mess with anything, so you find yourself constantly testing small ideas, pitting them against teach other to see what performs better, gluing yourself to things like click-through rates.”
When you’re in this state, it’s easy to hit your local maximum, and that’s not healthy, especially when you’re trying to break into or disrupt an industry.
“To solve this problem, we developed a set of testing principles so Instagram can approach testing in a healthy way,” says Deng. “The best thing about them: They’re really short and simple. They’re easy for people to remember and talk about when I’m not even there.”
One of Instagram’s core principles is to always do the simple thing first. “I love this one, because whenever we find ourselves in a complex product debate someone always has permission to pop up and say, ‘Hey, let’s do the simple thing first!’” Deng knows this one works because he’s heard other people repeat it in conversations. That’s the test for whether a rule should stick.
When it comes to testing, Instagram has three principles — and they all meet the simplicity standard:
Only test if you have a hypothesis. “Engineers everywhere test things like it costs nothing — like oh, let’s test this slightly different shade of blue just to see what happens. But you have to have a hypothesis. It’s the reason you do anything.” Having a guess means you thought something through and it’s worth exploring.
Only test if the outcome will change your course. “If you’re testing a bunch of things you’re planning to ship no matter what happens, you’re just spinning your wheels. You only want to run a test if it might give you information that will change what you plan to do.”
Only test things that are ready to ship. “Everything we test should be bug free and nearly ready to go,” Deng says. “It needs to have been thought through in terms of how it will scale. And, as a bonus, whatever we test, we should be able to launch within one week. We have to feel really strongly that this is the right thing to do. The test is just there to make sure we haven’t broken something and that we’re seeing the intended effect.”
Remember, testing is not free.
STEP SIX: REVISIT AND REVISE
Re-evaluate any process you’ve put in place often, Deng advises. “Take the time to ask, ‘Are we doing the right things?’” He even sets calendar reminders for himself on a monthly and quarterly basis to do a 30-minute scan of operations, to see where the team is working efficiently and what can be shifted to add momentum.
When you do this, you’ll never let a meeting recur indefinitely, and you won’t stay stuck in structures that limit your potential. Even if you fall into a pattern with someone where you’re regularly meeting one-on-one, make it clear that the pattern has a deadline. Chances are by the time you hit that end date, you won’t need to meet anymore anyway.
A big part of this step is fielding and integrating feedback. How can you revise things to work for a whole team of people without their input? The problem is that it’s not enough to be open to feedback, Deng says. You have to actively solicit it.
Respect the fact that it's hard for someone who works for you to tell you something's broken.
To encourage people to be more straightforward and vocal, Instagram takes very intentional measures.
“At the end of 2013, we did a whole retrospective of the product process where we asked the engineering, design and PM teams to sit together and talk about what worked and what didn’t work during the previous year,” Deng says. “We forced openness by asking questions that proactively pulled things out of people. When we did this, we realized a lot of the things we were even currently working on were broken. It led to a lot of change this year.”
If there’s one takeaway, he says, it’s to expect change. Don’t just anticipate it. Invite it.
If you want to create an environment where people are free and encouraged to create, first and foremost, consider the following:
Cancel all recurring meetings every so often to reset.
Make a list of the real problems these meetings were designed to solve.
Find dynamic, temporary solutions to these problems that are as flexible as you want your team to be (this can include meetings as long as they have expiration dates).
Make and prioritize time to help your colleagues grow completely separate from the work at hand.
Enforce free time for teams to sit, work and talk with each other naturally.
If you need a meeting to align everyone, schedule 30 minutes once a week for rapid-fire roadblock busting.
Be rigorous about when and how you test to save time and resources.
Revisit and revise all of the processes and policies you’ve created so that nothing becomes too permanent.