Be honest: there have been times when you noticed the printer was broken, audibly sighed, pressed a few buttons, then slowly walked away, effectively washing your hands of that pesky problem. It’s okay, we’ve all done it. No one likes fixing the printer.
But what if, in reality, you are the only person who has noticed this problem, and you didn’t do anything about it? What if you never report it, and the poor sap that’s about to do an important demo can’t print their notes just minutes before their meeting? Yikes, this scenario escalated quickly.
What’s Holding Us Back?
Social loafing is the phenomenon of a person making fewer contributions to a group effort than they would if they were solely charged with the responsibility. In other words, when any number of people can potentially take it upon themselves to fix the printer, an individual person will assume that someone else took the initiative.
Researchers have suggested that this diffusion of responsibility is due to decreased pressure on any one person, and that bigger group sizes dictate less individual effort. In a large company, you’re more apt to believe that surely there must be someone else that elects to fix the printer. ...Right? Anyone? :crickets:
Don’t Do Nothing
Michael Pryor, CEO of Trello, is determined to eliminate the mentality that occurs when an individual assumes other people will address a problem. He has a simple saying he reiterates during all company meetings: Don’t Do Nothing.
Michael makes this mantra clear to the entire company because he believes in empowering his employees to make decisions for themselves. By telling them “Don’t Do Nothing,” he is giving them agency to take any next steps they see fit to solve the problem.
“We have always said our goal is to hire smart people and then get out of their way and let them do their job,” Michael explains. “By giving people agency, we are basically telling them: own a decision.”
Don’t Do Nothing is self explanatory: if you see a problem that needs to be addressed, make a decision about what the next steps should be. The Don’t Do Nothing slogan has caught on like wildfire around the company, inspiring memes of Michael and custom emoji.
When a person goes to another team to bring something to their attention, their statement is often prefaced with, “In the spirit of Don’t Do Nothing, I noticed that…”
This flattering photo of Michael turned into the poster child for Don't Do Nothing. In unrelated news, our CEO is awesome.
Empower Your Employees
It comes down to trust. If you don’t place trust in your employees and colleagues to make the right decisions, the effects can be dire. Not to mention all the extra work you’re creating for yourself by needing to approve every little thing. According to Gallup, establishing trust in the workplace is one of the factors most highly correlated with employee satisfaction.
“The hardest thing for an entrepreneur is ceding control to other people,” Michael explains. “You spend so much time doing everything by yourself that it becomes second nature. But you can't scale a company by yourself. Hire people you trust and then give them the ability to make decisions. It's the only way you'll grow.”
Michael routinely relies on his management team to report to him on projects surrounding Product decisions, Sales requests, Marketing campaigns, Engineering capabilities, and HR feedback. Without placing his trust in these people and their teams, he would be spreading himself too thin trying to keep up.
It also comes back to servant leadership, a concept to which Michael fully subscribes. Giving his employees the autonomy to make decisions allows them to expand their confidence, cultivate their team members, and ultimately empower everyone to improve the company any way they see fit.
“The hardest thing for an entrepreneur is ceding control to other people. You spend so much time doing everything by yourself that it becomes second nature. But you can't scale a company by yourself. Hire people you trust and then give them the ability to make decisions. It's the only way you'll grow.”
- Michael Pryor, CEO of Trello
Putting Theory Into Action
"Don't Do Nothing" is not just a meme, it has actually compelled people to take action when they otherwise wouldn't. It has significantly improved cross team communication, and has reduced stress.
On multiple occasions a developer has pinged me about a broken link or a typo in a blog post. Fresh eyes are always great, because even copy editors miss a few.
The Web team has an "Incoming" list on a Trello board where anyone can report a bug they notice. The team addresses the cards in the queue as time allows. One time a Server developer noticed through his own work that the Web client seemed to be taking too long to switch from a large board to a small one. Instead of assuming the team knew about it, he made a card on their board just in case. Turns out his observations were right, and the fix was added.
All team members, including those not on technical staff, are encouraged to report bugs and performance issues:
This is an actual exchange between myself and Lou, an iOS developer.
PS. Trello iOS 3.3.5 now available with a fix for this.
Sometimes You Should Actually Do Nothing
It’s not just about galvanizing people to take action. It’s also about giving people agency to not take action, if that’s what they think is the right course. Michael also trusts his employees to assess a problem and say, “this isn’t worth anyone’s time.”
He is essentially saying that if someone sees a problem and decides not to address it, he trusts that they made a thoughtful decision before deciding not to alert anyone else.
As Michael explains, “You don’t make the decision to ignore something because you assume it’s someone else’s problem. That’s the distinction. Because you are aware of it, it is now your responsibility to deal with it.”
You Can’t Fix Everything
It may seem overwhelming, especially at a small company where you are wearing many hats, to think that you need to fix every error you spot. The point is not to drop everything and immediately try to do something. If everyone was reactive when addressing a problem, the result would be a lack of focus. Rather, the point is to take responsibility for the knowledge you have gained, and make a decision about what to do.
And most importantly, now you never need to feel guilty about that darn printer again.