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Creating a User Manual
Why you should write one and what to include—with templates!
Hi there, it’s Adam. 🤗 Welcome to my weekly newsletter. I started this newsletter to provide a no-bullshit, guided approach to solving some of the hardest problems for people and companies. That includes Growth, Product, company building and parenting while working. Subscribe and never miss an issue. I’ve got a podcast on fatherhood and startups - check out Startup Dad here. Questions? Ask them here.
But one concept I haven’t talked about at all in this newsletter is the personal and professional User Manual. I did some research on the interwebs and found mostly clickbait articles and content marketing lead magnets from SaaS companies. I created my own user manual during the start of the pandemic and a lighter version of it in 2016 when I started at Patreon.
Today I’ll share the “why” and “what” of creating your own, personal user manual and include a teardown of mine.
Let’s get one thing out of the way at the beginning: yes, there are some people who believe that a personal user manual is a bad idea.
Here are some of the arguments:
It excuses managerial bad behavior (“Well, this is how I am, it’s in my manual.”).
It’s not helpful because people are generally unaware of their flaws.
You’re just wasting your time, no one reads it.
It’s self-serving and egotistical.
It doesn’t actually include anything valuable
Even though your mileage may vary, I have found these to be incredibly valuable and so have my teammates. I encourage all of them (and all of you) to make one; especially in a remote-work environment.
So, if you’re not a believer, try to suspend your disbelief for just a few minutes and join me on this journey. I hope you learn something new.
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Why A User Manual?
When I joined Patreon in 2016 (before re-brand and Growth Strategy) I worked with a lovely fellow named Tyler Palmer. We taught each other a lot and one thing I learned from him was a mutual sharing of expectations between manager and report in your first week on the job.
Every time a new employee joined my team I would create an item in our first one-on-one as part of onboarding that was simply: expectations. In this bullet or task I would share our Core Behaviors (which were a baseline of expectations for each teammate at the company) and I would share my managerial expectations of them. I also asked them for their expectations of me so that I could make sure I knew what they wanted from a manager.
I don’t have all of those expectations any more, but here are some of the more recent ones that teammates have shared with me:
Decisive and transparent leadership
Passion for the job
Human not a robot
Ability to say ‘no’
Candor and directness
Regular and consistent feedback
As evidenced by the above this is a practice I still adhere to. After I left Patreon is when I introduced my User Manual.
The User Manual is not a substitute for getting to know someone or helping them to get to know me. But it does serve as a valuable “cliffs notes” for me, my priorities, and how best we can work together.
In a remote-friendly (I know, debatable) and asynchronous world laying out a pre-read on you is kind of like the labels on the outside of the box. You can see what you’re getting before you open the package.
For example, I believe that humor has a place in the workforce and I like to keep things light. We’re all working hard so why wouldn’t we have fun doing it? A more serious person might interpret this as not wanting to win, not being competitive, or that somehow I don’t adhere to a certain level of accountability for my teammates.
This could not be further from the truth and I spell that out specifically in my user manual:
I am a positive and energetic person. I like to laugh and joke with my teammates. Don't mistake that for not being serious about winning... I'm very serious about winning.
It also establishes what’s important to me and gives people a sense of the soft-skills that I find valuable. A User Manual is one of the clearest ways of giving people a roadmap to success in your organization and with you (if you’re a leader) and how best to work with you as a team member (if you’re a direct report).
As mentioned above, there are some potential drawbacks of the User Manual. So let me debunk those one by one.
Excuses managerial bad behavior
I don’t look at the User Manual as a list of poor behaviors that I expect you to accept. It’s not a license to be a jerk, overly candid at the expense of compassion, or a shortcut to conversation.
Quite the opposite in fact. Your User Manual should open the door to conversation and explain a set of principles that drive how you operate. But it’s not inflexible and doesn’t absolve you from practicing appropriate situational leadership.
People are unaware of their flaws
While it’s true that early in your career you may not be aware of your professional blindspots the further you go the less of an excuse this is. The gap comes in when you identify flaws but refuse to correct them or call them out.
I hope that most managers who have risen to a certain level have received some feedback at some point in their career about their flaws and areas of development. If not, then their managers have unfortunately done them a disservice. The simple act of sitting down and writing out your user manual can cause you to think through some of your areas for opportunity.
You’re wasting your time; no one reads it
If you tell people that it’s important to you that they read it then they will. If you share it with them when you join; they’ll read it. If you attach it to your Slack profile; they’ll read it. If people think it’s useless puffery because you haven’t sold them on the reasons why they should read it… then they won’t. And in reality, if you can’t sell people on reading it then you probably don’t care enough.
Speaking from experience I’ve seen many people read my User Manual. Especially at companies where I’ve observed a culture of feedback and introspection. From peers and other executives to direct reports people will read it if they know it holds the keys to long-term success with you.
Now, I have certainly experienced times when people don’t read it. But that has been more of a commentary about the company’s culture than the usefulness of the document. At these same companies people, including my manager, didn’t bother even reading my 90-day plan. Red flags abound!
It’s self-serving and egotistical
Sure, it can be. But I’ve tried to put as much helpful information for the reader in my User Manual as possible. If you read a User Manual that is self-serving and egotistical there’s a good chance that the person who wrote it is exactly that. So use that as a barometer of someone’s level of humility and helpfulness and make sure to remember your audience when preparing yours.
It doesn’t include anything valuable
I suppose that could also be true if you don’t have anything valuable to include. If that’s the case you probably shouldn’t write one and should do some thinking about what value you bring to an organization. For the 99.9% of other people it can include valuable information.
For example, my User Manual says that I place a high value on learning and will pay for anyone on my team to join and take a Reforge course. I also share several of the books and reading material that have influenced my principles (often helpful books on product management and leadership) that provide a leg up for many.
So that’s “why” you should have a User Manual, but what about what goes into creating it? Here are the sections and content of my User Manual.
What Goes In A User Manual?
My User Manual is divided into the following sections:
General expectations for all team members
Favorite books on product, marketing and high performance
General expectations for people managers
Favorite books on management
Communication Style & Preferences
Meetings I like for my org
Additional quirks and preferences (final thoughts)
I don’t want to bury the lede so if you’d like to see a copy of my User Manual from Imperfect Foods (COVID times) and updated more recently for ResortPass you can download them here:
Imperfect Foods - Working Well with Adam
ResortPass - Working Well with Adam
If you’d like to read on, I'll break down each section and provide some more commentary on it here.
I introduce the User Manual by telling people what it is and how you’ll benefit from reading it.
It outlines, at a high level, my expectations for team members (IC and People Managers), expectations for myself as a manager, and the various quirks and intricacies of my style. Reading this document should give you an operating manual for succeeding in my organization and having a great time doing it.
General expectations for all team members
I provide a brief summary of my overarching expectations for team members.
Be ambitious, outcome oriented and not a jerk. Be communicative, metrics oriented, and push yourself outside of your comfort zone.
I then provide more detail on what that means with a special deep-dive into my belief around transparent, two-way communication and feedback. Emphasis on two-way and a request to give me feedback when you believe it’s warranted. And I also emphasize that candor doesn’t come at the expense of someone’s dignity or psychological safety.
Here are some of the communication (and other) expectations I have:
Keep it Simple
Make data-informed decisions.
Say what you’re going to do and then do it.
Move faster than your comfort zone permits.
Over communicate until you feel like everyone gets it.
Seek learning. Stretch yourself.
And here are a list of some of my favorite books on PM, marketing and high performance:
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Cialdini)
Never Split the Difference - Negotiation (Chris Voss)
Inspired (Marty Cagan)
Monetizing Innovation - Pricing to Value (Multiple authors)
The Other Side of Innovation (Multiple authors)
Measure What Matters - Goal Setting and OKRs (John Doerr)
General expectations for people managers
This section includes all of the above plus some managerial specifics.
Some of those include:
Model the behaviors and values of our company
Build high performing teams through recruiting, coaching and getting the right people into the right roles
Maintain a diverse and inclusive organization
Ensure the health and wellness of your team members
Practice situational leadership
Get in the details, not the weeds
And (some) of my favorite books on management:
The Score Takes Care of Itself (Bill Walsh)
Team of Teams (General Stanley McCrystal)
Radical Candor (Kim Scott)
Crucial Conversations (multiple)
Crucial Accountability (multiple)
My Communication Style and Preferences
I summarize at the beginning by saying:
I like bottom-line answers to my questions and in communication in general. Give me the decision/conclusion/etc. Before you give me all of the details leading up to it. Then we can dive into the details.
And then I elaborate with extra detail (see what I did there?)
Written communication > presentations
The reasons for synchronous vs. asynchronous communication
How to bring me a problem or challenge
How to provide pithy, weekly updates
Slack vs. all other forms of communication
This went through a lot of evolution during COVID. I was alternating the responsibility (along with my wife) for helping our son learn kindergarten concepts in front of a chrome book. This was really hard and made my working schedule different from a 9-5.
Here’s how it looked during COVID (note, I started part-time so I could start earlier):
Until July 13 I will be doing my best to adhere to a M/W/F schedule. You can expect that I am fully available on those days and less available Tue/Thurs. Starting July 13 I'm 100% available.
I have two tiny humans at home (7.5 and 5) and a partner who also works full time. This means that sometimes I work odd hours —During COVID and summer with school out I will generally adhere to a 9-5 schedule where I am available in real time. This is when we have childcare. I will be offline in the early evening for dinner and bedtime with my kids and then back online if needed in the evenings after 8:30pm and some exercise.
During the school year (pending COVID) I'll extend my working hours.
And after life adjusted to COVID:
I have two tiny humans at home (10 and 8) and a partner who also works full time as a lawyer. This means that sometimes I work odd hours — the mornings before school and evenings around dinner time are sacred to me and I won’t be paying attention to Slack/etc. very often.
I do a lot of checking-in on my phone (especially Slack) and sometimes I probably shouldn’t be so I may occasionally be talking to you and then suddenly “go dark” because a family thing comes up. I’m not ghosting you. I promise.
Meetings I like for my org
In this section I list out the various meetings I like to have in my organizations with the caveat that it depends on our org size and needs.
Weekly team leads
Department-wide meeting (1x/month)
Opportunity Assessment / Product Brief / Design Review
Additional quirks and preferences
I end with a few of the quirks and preferences that don’t fit neatly into the above sections. These include:
Worry about everything; panic about nothing.
Bad news doesn’t get better.
We must both provide value to our customers and the business. This is not an “or” statement.
There is a difference between “coaching” and “managing” and depending on what you need you’ll see both from me.
I’m very serious about winning 🙂
Final Thoughts on User Manuals
You can call it a User Manual, a Manager README, or a guide to working well with you. Regardless, it’s an important document that everyone should create once they start to observe patterns and preferences in their working styles. It has helped me connect with team members, manage a remote-first culture, build empathy and understanding during the pandemic and get a high level of performance out of my team members.
It has also helped me be a better manager to them.
One of my earliest inspirations for the User Manual was my friend and advisor Luc Levesque. For many years he has maintained a “Blueprint” for working with him. He was interviewed by the NY Times and talked about it in that interview which you can read here as a follow-up to this newsletter.
Do you have your own User Manual or any thoughts about them? Please share them with me!