Niklaus Gerber

September 20, 2022

Why do humans not provide a manual? And why they absolutely should.

By the rule of thumb, the more complex or complicated a product, service or machine is, the thicker the manual will be. I am not advocating that having things with long manuals is the way you should be building a product, but there is a clear correlation. If it is not self-explanatory, you need to provide additional context.

Humans, their feelings, relationships, needs and wishes are messy and certainly not self-explanatory. So why do humans don't come with manuals? I advocate that we absolutely should. There are two underlining issues we don't have manuals on. Firstly, sharing how we work shows a high level of vulnerability. Unfortunately, we are hardwired not to show how completely flawed we are. The second problem is that writing a manual means that you need to understand how something is working. For us, this means mastering the art of self-reflection and being honest with ourselves, which is a pain.

When I started to lead my first team at a prominent media company in Switzerland, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, I wanted to be a good boss. Preparing myself for the onboarding of the first hires, I stumbled upon the idea of writing a management README. A README is a text file that introduces and explains a project. It contains information that is commonly required to understand what the project or product is about.

The idea behind a management README is to give your employees more context of how you work like a boss. It clarifies things that someone might feel insecure about asking a new boss. Sharing such a document with an employee also shows vulnerability which helps to build trust. Trust is the start of one significant working relationship. My README is publicly available. 

The feedback I received from the employees was excellent. So many assumptions and worries could be removed with just one short document. If you ever join my team, I will ask you to write your employee README. Doing so gave me a great insight into how my teammates work, what is crucial for them and how they want to be treated. The README is now one of my top onboarding tools at work. Furthermore, it was adopted by former co-workers and superiors in their new careers. 

The idea of a management README is not mine, and many extraordinary leaders are doing it. But it got me thinking. Why do we don't we have a README for our private life? A document that shares how we think about friendship, little quirks people have that can drive us nuts (eating an Apple in public transport or scraping a Yoghurt cup), what is important to us in love, sex, co-living? A document provides additional context on what we need to function well. What if we could share this document with a spouse, friend, or family? 

I embarked on writing my private README. Bringing these things down on paper, thinking, reflecting and being explicit about every word was a great experience. I planned to share it with you, but I realised it was something private once I finished the document. I don't want the whole world to know how I operate. I am unsure if I would share it with my friend or wife right now. 

I also realised that it does not matter if I share it. Being clear about how I operate, what is important to me, what my needs are and how I want to be treated became a new compass for my life. 

I recommend that you embark on this experiment and write your README. Please share your learnings and your experience here at Better Human. If you have feedback on my work README, this would also be very much appreciated. 

About Niklaus Gerber

My thoughts on leadership, life, productivity, design, and innovation.