Reflections after writing a "user manual"

Last year, prompted by some organizational shifts that found me with a new team and new product/engineering partners, I decided to create my own "user manual" as part of the transition. The goal of this effort was twofold:

  1. to help my new teammates better understand my style and communication patterns, so we could have thoughtful conversations about how to best work together.
  2. to explore my own patterns of communication, management, etc. and see if they still served me.

In creating this document, I first thought through my past experience leading a team. What were my tendencies? Which were helpful, and which should I seek to improve? I also thought about my communication style. Where do I most often get tripped up or misunderstood? What aspects of my style or personality might need a bit more "advance warning," so to speak? Finally, I focused on the things that might catch me off guard, and what someone might notice when that happens.

I'll admit, that last part was the trickiest bit. When I first sent my draft to a couple of colleagues for feedback, they worried it came across as a warning, or as a set of instructions for how to work with me. Hearing that feedback helped me reframe the guide to focus more on communicating what people might expect from me rather than what they should do about it. I also started thinking of the document as a set of standards I wanted to stay accountable to, and the act of sharing it was part of that accountability. This ultimately led to better conversations with my peers and directs after I shared it.

In the end, I created two versions of the document: one for my peers, and one for my directs, which includes some logistical "how I manage" stuff. Should you want to embark on something like this for yourself, here's some things I learned from the process.

  1. Keep the format simple. I focused on a few core sections: what I value; what throws me off and how I might respond; how I like to work/collaborate and how I communicate.
  2. Keep it conversational. You're ultimately giving people insight into how you show up every day, which is an extremely personal thing. Overly formal language can make things more awkward than they need to be.
  3. Get feedback from trusted colleagues and friends before you share with others. I shared my first draft with my boss and a few close peers, all of whom have had a lot of experience seeing me in action. Their feedback was invaluable not only in the writing itself, but in helping me gut check my own self-perception.

All in all, I've found this to be a productive exercise. It's helped me navigate many new work relationships, and I revisit it frequently to hold myself accountable and to update it as things change.