Fidji Simo polled her team at Facebook about her top skill as a manager, and there was quick and enthusiastic consensus: Simo has the uncanny ability to juggle many important projects and priorities without losing focus. As vice president of product at Facebook, Simo’s emphasis on intentional work has helped her team of more than 400 product managers and engineers develop countless innovative products.
That became even more apparent to Simo two years during the five months she spent on bed rest during her pregnancy. Her continued success depended on rigorous prioritization and execution. She was often forced to say “no” to anything that wasn’t critical, which created time and space–physically and mentally–to put 100% of her effort toward the most pressing and important projects. “I actually felt so much more productive than when I was in the office,” she reflects.
When Simo returned, she brought this commitment to focused work back into the office with her. Here’s how she’s made it a team-wide habit.
The Intention Behind The Work
Simo stresses that focusing isn’t simply about avoiding the temptation to multitask until a priority project is complete. Instead, it means truly understanding what you want to accomplish, and centering your activities entirely around that. So to help zero in on this, Simo regularly asks a few questions during weekly product reviews, when teams come in to present their plans:
- What is the main problem this product is solving?
- Who are the people we are solving this problem for?
- What is the emotion/feeling that we want our product to create or evoke?
- Is this particular implementation aligned with the problem we’re solving for?
- Is this the product/feature most likely to successfully solve that problem?
Simo says it’s particularly important to get comprehensive answers to these questions at the beginning of a project. But she’s also found that continuing to ask them throughout is an overlooked tactic that ensures work doesn’t veer off course unintentionally.
To maintain collective focus and maximize the odds of success, Simo’s team is now mobilized by the intention of their work, instead of the initial name of or label on a specific project (which can be stickier and harder to shake than you might think), or even the proposed product vision.
“I had a team focused on the problem of helping celebrities engage with their audience,” Simo explains. “One of the main things the team was working on was a Q&A product that helped celebrities respond to fans via text in comments. But in talking with actual celebrities, the team realized most of them found it more fun and efficient to respond with video. That became the impetus behind Live.”
Had they not focused on the problem (instead of the product they had in mind), they might have continued to develop tools to make answering questions easier. Instead, they were able to pursue the bigger opportunity to define a completely new form of engagement between celebrities and their audiences. “Had the team been defined by its product, calling themselves ‘the Q&A team,'” Simo says, “they probably would have been much less open to shifting toward the much better solution: live video.”
Focus Is Not About Traveling In A Straight Line
A clear intention is necessary for focused work, but Simo says those intentions should not be impervious to change. You have to build in the flexibility to change course from the beginning. Focus doesn’t mean you charge single-mindedly toward a goal. It means you pay rapt and incremental attention to how you need to turn the rudder on a project.
“I come from a family of fishermen,” Simo says. “It’s much easier to go in the direction you want if you make a thousand small changes along the way, rather than letting the boat go in a completely different direction and needing one big maneuver to get back on track.”
But before you can make those small changes, you must first recognize the need for change. That requires regular reflection, a sense of self-awareness, and the willingness to pivot when new information surfaces. So to stay nimble without losing focus, Simo routinely asks herself two key questions:
- Are these intentions still the correct ones?
- Are my recent decisions in line with these intentions?
Simo says she takes these sessions of reflection seriously. She sets aside time to run through all the major decisions she made in the previous week, plus all the incidental meetings she had, and evaluates whether they were consistent with what she wanted to accomplish. These aren’t metaphorical meetings, and they’re not negotiable. Simo blocks off between 30 and 60 minutes on her calendar every Monday morning to do this inventory. This is the agenda Simo uses in the process:
- List the broader team or organization’s top priorities.
- Check that your personal priorities for the week still align with those priorities.
- Check for any new information or data that requires a shift in priorities.
- Check priorities against your time allocation, meetings, and commitments that week.
- Make any adjustments to your calendar to better reflect your priorities.
- Note any priority adjustments that impact or need to be communicated to your team.
“My Monday solo meeting informs the things that I’m going to talk to my team about,” Simo explains. “At the end of the day, they’re the ones who help scale this intention throughout the organization.” When you’re a manager, founder, or leader, constantly communicating your priorities to your team is key, Simo adds. A shift in your priorities often means that the team will also need to adjust to keep moving in the right direction.
Making Flexibility A (Team-Wide) Precondition For Focus
This was definitely the case when Facebook Live started to gain traction. All the data Simo and her team were gathering pointed to Live as a critical product–the most social form of video they could put out into the world. The team knew Live was a priority, but they weren’t necessarily acting like it.
“If Live is our No. 1 intention, then our actions need to match that intention,” Simo remembers saying. “If we keep it staffed at only 10 engineers and continue to do a lot of other things on the side, then we aren’t acting according to our intention.”
In order to align their decisions with their goal to make Live a transformative tool for creators, Simo and her leadership team decided to pause all other projects and shift their staffing assignments to have more than 100 engineers solely dedicated to the development of Facebook Live. “This was a massive, drastic change,” Simo acknowledges. “But if you’re stuck in the notion that some changes are impossible–like shifting 90 engineers over the course of a week–then you’re going to miss opportunities.”
Moving key people, or even large teams, to a critical project is all about clearly conveying importance and intention. “The difference between change (which can be good) and thrash (which is always bad) is that with the former, everyone understands the intention behind the shift in direction,” says Simo.
With Facebook Live, she gathered all 100 people into a room and showed them the data, painting a picture of how large the opportunity was to get the product into people’s hands, especially those of creators and media companies. She also ran through all the other existing projects on the team’s docket to show why and how they could be pushed out in order to seize the greater opportunity.
“The only way to have this type of flexibility is to build a culture that makes change totally expected and acceptable–that’s what will make these instances less painful,” says Simo. “You create this culture by putting people in charge of a problem, not a product; reinforcing again and again that you’re all working in a market where assumptions change and that’s okay; releasing products early to get initial feedback and adjusting accordingly. If you do all that, you create an organization that can absorb change–and that’s vital.”
Simo also recommends setting aside blocks of intentional buffer time in your calendar each day or week to slot in last-minute surprises. Doing so means you don’t have to siphon off time from your strategic priorities to handle these unexpected issues. If no surprises pop up, you can use that reserved time to continue working on your primary project for the day or week.
Ultimately, though, Simo knows that her ability to keep her whole team focused no matter what changes arise all starts and ends with her own habits. “I’m most focused when I set my own agenda versus when I let others set my agenda,” she says. Careful calendar management ensures that her priorities and intentions are always reflected on her schedule, creating the conditions for focused work.
“I don’t want to pretend that I have totally mastered it. After all, intention is like a rough diamond. You have to polish and refine it until it really sparkles,” Simo adds. “But when I’m very specific and engaged with what I focus on, when my calendar matches that, my decisions match that, and it’s all very aligned–that’s when I’m most productive and efficient.” This way her team can be, too.
A version of this article originally appeared on First Round Review. It is adapted with permission.