Box CEO Aaron Levie: To Create Something Exceptional, Do Sweat The Small Stuff

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Business schools and most jobs don’t teach you how important it is to sweat the small stuff.  

In fact, we’re mostly told the opposite—don’t be a micromanager, don’t be penny wise and pound foolish, don't miss the forest for the trees. The implied wisdom is that abstract and conceptual thinking always prevails over narrow determination and single-mindedness. And yet, when we look at the greatest inventions, greatest companies, and greatest teams of our time, their success always comes down to tireless concern over every last detail.

Big, sluggish companies—you know the ones, with brands that elicit ambivalence instead of aspiration—are fat, dumb, and uncaring for a reason. Their products, from airline flights to consumer electronics devices, feel like the result of an accident or a hassle rather than the core purpose of their existence. In these instances, system thinking—with the goal of managing and improving processes, logistics, and throughput—reigns supreme in the organization, replacing a maniacal focus on delivering great products or services by attending to every last excruciating detail.

It’s certainly easy as a startup to focus on the small things, because when you’re small, every issue is big. This is why, counterintuitively, a small, nimble company with far fewer resources often delivers the most innovation and a superior user experience. By focusing on every level of detail, because survival is on the line, better products and service emerge. As organizations grow, this responsibility dissipates, founders move on, and quality suffers—it can always be someone else’s problem to worry about the small, nuanced, granular things. Those are tactical issues, and I’m strategic, right?  

Yet, the best companies in the world are those that have scaled by turning those tactics and granular efforts into the reason for their success. This is why you get a near-uniformly positive experience when flying Virgin compared to often-abysmal treatment from other airlines, or why Apple unequivocally makes products that just feel better than other PC manufacturers.

Why the small stuff is so important

In management, we can easily slip into thinking about the holistic delivery of a product distinct from the perfect delivery of every subcomponent or part that makes up that service. Everyone has been in those meetings—executives feel that the small things can be left to everyone else, instead focusing on the areas of "higher value." Phrases like "this is good enough," or "customers won’t notice" should be stamped out of any management team’s or individual’s vocabulary.  

Because ultimately, your product or service is consumed on that granular level that's being ignored. Whether it’s clicking on a link, signing up for a product, playing with a dial, or conversing with an attendant, these are the interfaces from which customers experience your brand. No customer cares that you have the best logistics and supply chain in the world if the final manifestation of your product is flawed. 

And with the Internet amplifying how people share their love or hate for products, increasing global competition, and contracting wallets, the quality of these interactions are more important than ever before.  

The small things have a disproportionate impact on customers' feelings. It’s the way Kindle knows your name when you first load it up, the consistent experience you get from Starbucks baristas, the dozens of optimizations Spotify does to make sure your music starts streaming instantly, or the richer sound and better comfort you get from Bose headphones. We're taught that quality and cost should scale proportionally, but many of the best experiences don't come with a larger price tag at all. Just a greater level of attention to the details.

The combination of an insane attention to these details and neurotic level of focus on customer experience in all areas is what sets apart the great companies from the good. Organizations that do decide to adopt this level of intensity will always have superior offerings, an instant differentiator from the indistinguishable competition.  

Building a culture around sweating the small stuff

"Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected," Steve Jobs once famously and said. 

Most companies have given up on caring about excellence altogether, so there aren’t too many examples that we can live by. M.G. Siegler argues that leaders need to aim for less deference to produce high-quality work. While this has been proven to work across film, fashion, and technology, it’s also a cop-out for the entire team. It should be everyone’s responsibility to push for a higher standard and level of experience. 

Unsurprisingly, we're actually well-incented to make our work the very best—it's better for profits, long-term morale, and it's more gratifying—but we often don’t know why it's so critical until it's too late. The product gets shipped to poor reviews: fail. Customer unrest thanks to poor support: double fail. And amidst the infinite varying priorities and market changes, it becomes shockingly easy to undervalue quality even in a well-run organization.  

In any organization, quality bars are subjective and moving targets, making them hard to identify and address, let alone maintain. But when they’re not defined or upheld, most organizations will regress to the mean, which we can assume is the average output. But leading organizations are built by exploiting the fringe—the fringe in quality, in performance, in experience, in cost, and so on.

To sweat the small stuff means to be uncompromising about anything that affects the quality of a product or experience for customers. It means making tradeoffs of time and effort for the efficacy of the final output. It means implementing systems, social or formal, that ensure high bars are maintained at all times and in any circumstance. It means delaying product releases, extending work hours, or losing a little extra margin to make things just right.  

Asking "What would be best for our customer?" doesn’t go nearly far enough. Leading through this question gets you to average results. Instead ask, "What will blow our customers' minds?" Repeat the question "Can we do better?" until the point of migraine-induced annoyance, and see how much things change. Create a culture that forces this challenge multiple times, every step of the way, and you’ll see remarkable changes in every deliverable. Implement a we-won’t-ship line in the sand that can't be subverted for any reason if quality standards aren't met. There are other tactics to distribute the enforcement as well.

Mark Pincus, the CEO of Zynga, pushes on the notion that every employee is the CEO of something. This empowers individuals to take responsibility for their area of ownership, adding a level of accountability and fulfillment that can drive quality. In many ways this is a psychological trick to ensure success and quality in the most narrow and distinct of areas. For customer delight, Zappos became determined to build a winning culture for its company that would make employees love their jobs, and thus reflect this inspiration and happiness on their clients.  

If you don't seem paranoid about perfection, you're probably not aiming high enough. Sadly—for consumers—the vast majority of companies will never put this level of focus on their products, services, or interactions.  But building it into your culture, and making sure it's a collective and distributed effort, is a winning way to ensure your products are superior.  

Author Aaron Levie is the CEO and co-founder of Box, which he originally created as a college business project with the goal of helping people easily access their information from any location. 

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[Image: Flickr user Michael Mol]

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