I came across a couple of really helpful articles recently about how to start a new job well. 30 Tips for New Startup Employees is a long and super useful read—and not just relevant for startups:
Align yourself with the risks of the company. If you’re an engineer but the company is not acquiring customers fast enough, spend your time in marketing. Have range, and don’t try to be too narrow in your focus in the early days. Gain knowledge in a few different areas of the business so you can reduce the overall risks of the company.
Learn How The System Breaks is more relevant to technical roles, but I think “failure streams” can be expanded to other areas of the business as well:
Failure streams are a short circuit to understanding the system, because failures are where the system is interesting and nuanced. Failures are where the heart of complexity, entropy, and flux in the system are. Everything that doesn’t fail behaves like the architecture diagram. Failures show where the architecture isn’t working as intended. By focusing on failures, engineers can onboard quickly into the most important part of the system – the part with problems.
These are all great tips. The one I would add as most important for me personally is related to the concept of Chesterton’s fence:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’
Or to put it in terms of systems thinking:
Before you disturb the system in any way, watch how it behaves. If it’s a piece of music or a whitewater rapid or a fluctuation in a commodity price, study its beat. If it’s a social system, watch it work. Learn its history. Ask people who’ve been around a long time to tell you what has happened. If possible, find or make a time graph of actual data from the system. Peoples’ memories are not always reliable when it comes to timing.
When you join a new organization you’re probably going to see a lot of random “fences across roads.” Instead of saying “let’s tear this thing down,” first ask “why is this fence here?” There is always a reason, and it’s very likely that there is value in the reasoning. First understand, then make change.