In most work environments, we tend to frame feedback around specific dichotomies. You perform poorly or well. You have strengths and you have weaknesses. You do a good job on a project or a bad job.
This good/bad dichotomy is problematic because it ignores the grey area, and the grey area represents potential growth. Conversations framed on "weaknesses" tend to be more personal and less productive.
Feeling down about my weaknesses.
At Wistia, constant personal improvement is one of the things we value most, so we needed to find a way to talk about areas of potential growth that was more in line with our culture.
Recently, we began framing our dialogue around flatsides. A flatside isn't a sign of weakness, it's simply an area that hasn't been developed yet.
What is a flatside?
We're all full of flatsides. A "flatside" is an aspect of your skillset that you haven't explicitly decided to nurture.
For example, imagine that you're an individual contributor at work. You're a great engineer or marketer, and you've moved into a manager role for the first time. Instead of being a "good manager" or a "bad manager," you may not have invested the time in adding texture to your management flatside. That's simply because your job has never required that skill before.
That's where I find the flatside terminology to be so powerful. Rather than focusing on a weakness, we can collectively have a conversation about an area that someone hasn't invested time in developing yet.
A flatside isn't good or bad, but rather, an indication of how much you've invested in a given area up to this point.
From that perspective, our flatsides aren't personal. They aren't ingrained failures—they're opportunities to grow if we want to.
You can be an expert at anything
For me, what's so appealing about the idea of flatsides is that you can be an expert at anything you decide to invest time and energy in. The fact that you haven't done so represents a choice, not a failure.
When you're building on a flatside, you're learning a new skill in pursuit of happiness. And it's that mindset that will help you maintain the enthusiasm you need to become a master at your craft.
For example, learning to play the piano is hard. Most people never get past the valley of despair (see graph above). That's because to truly have fun playing the piano, you want to be able to improvise, make up your own songs, pick up a tune by ear, and entertain yourself with your creativity. Just imagine how much fun it would be to create great music at any moment.
Here's the secret to getting better at it: you have to measure smaller successes that will generate joy for you along the way, so that you can forge right through the valley of despair.
Instead of starting off trying to write a bestseller, start measuring how many daily visitors you can get to your blog. Can you convince five people to read your next blog post? As traffic begins to grow, move on to weekly and monthly visitors.
Instead of going into a startup thinking you're going to sell the business for $50MM, measure how many new people you tell about the company in a month. Then move on to measuring the number of leads you get. Evolve your measurement so that your goals are attainable, but you're also marching forward.
How flatside thinking can improve your company
1. It improves teamwork.
When a team is transparent about their individual flatsides, team members can divide project work in more strategic ways by splitting up tasks based on their flatsides. You can map out your teams' complementary skillsets and make the puzzle pieces fit.
For example, as an entrepreneur, I have come to the realization that I am not the most organized person. When it comes to planning out the details of a big project, I know that right now I am not the best person for the job. However, there are plenty of people on my team who have fully developed organizational skills. Knowing my flatside, they know that they can make the team better by taking ownership over an area that might otherwise tacitly belong to me.
Flatsides help you understand your shape in the wider context of the team, so no one has to feel alienated for a weakness they once thought they had.
2. It provides a framework for our company value of constant improvement.
When you decide to grow a flatside, you're making an explicit decision to invest in self-improvement in that area. Framing ability as something we can control is an empowering mentality.
When you explicitly decide to grow one of your flatsides, the next question is how you'll do it. For us, that's a way to make our company value of constant improvement actionable. The next conversation centers around what to measure and focus on to make it happen.
As it turns out, people are good at realizing when it's time for them to grow out a flatside, which empowers them to take matters into their own hands and run with it; where they go is often an awe-inspiring sight.
3. It promotes long-term thinking.
By its nature, flatside thinking fosters a culture of long-term, future-centric thinking that allows us to make healthier decisions about personnel and performance.
People outside the company often ask me how Wistia has managed to last for nine years, which makes us ancient by startup standards.
Even when we were just a few people sitting around a table together, we imagined where we could go in a few years if we kept at it, improving bit by bit. It's the optimism behind flatside thinking that informs all of our work and gets us excited to make that small, incremental progress every day.