My brother’s in the hospital right now. Something serious that’s got him weak and stuck in bed for a while. I care about diagnosis, and spend my time reading medical research papers on his strange disease. (Not that I’m an expert, but I think it couldn’t hurt.) Our family chat is full of good sprits. We cheer him up, some send prayers. But when he gives us updates, he talks about something else - frustration with immobility.
He needs someone to help plug in his phone or just be there if he’s too tired to peel off the cellophane on his meal. That’s what he needs. We just need to ask.
“What do you need right now?” Such a great question to break out of assumptions, and yet so uncommon.
It applies caring – and extends to things like teamwork, mentoring, even product design. And it helps us live in harmony with others.
The best mentors, the few who really matter to the startups that break through, they spend most of their time calibrating to the needs of the founders they help.
They hear the founders out, but also dig deeper, working out what resources they have, what skills they have and what experience they lack. They don’t usually accept stated needs at face value, but they always start there.
When building something to help somebody (that’s what products are, right?) what do you need right now is the perfect question to understand who you’re trying to serve.
It cracks through the surface of so many things: goals, challenges, options, emotions.
Great product designers know it’s their job to really understand the users’ needs and context, before they pick out a single use case.
Picking what a product actually does, and for whom, that’s the magic. That’s how you steer yourself towards building things that really serve others.
With teammates, this question works wonders.
Good managers don’t chase their subordinates with, “when will you be done?” I used to think it was because they’re chill folks, but I learned it’s because they’ve already asked, “anything you need right now?”
This is what teammates do.
Since they’re always framing conversations around hearing needs and serving others, they already know when someone is struggling. Checking in isn’t about status updates, it’s about getting help and staying in flow.
Some of the greatest startup and corporate CEOs I’ve met consider their work like air traffic controllers. (Those are the ones you’ll notice are blazingly fast at email.) They’re constantly hearing needs, and routing them to the right place.
They say that building a great team means working with people that are smarter than you. But it’s more than that, it’s also people who are more specialised than you and who you can trust with setting their own outcomes and getting the support they need to achieve them. This doesn’t mean everyone’s flying solo. We still check in with each other about what we need.
One of the best recommendations I got about living in harmony with others was Non-violent Communication (NVC). One of its principles is taking responsibility for understanding your own deeper needs, and then expressing them directly, separating them from requests for others to respond.
When things aren’t going well, asking “what do I actually need right now?” is harder than it sounds. But it’s helped me see my emotional states better, and break bad patterns. It’s also helped me to hear the needs underlying other people’s emotional expressions.
It’s such a wonderful feeling to hear a need. Most often, it doesn’t require a solution. Better communication seems to flow automatically after that, and needs find their way to getting met.
What do you need right now?
A simple question that does so much.
I’m in a cozy place, preparing for parenthood, dabbling with some art projects, getting my hands dirty with ZK and ML. One of my more “product-y” projects is a communication tool for community groups and unconferences. It focuses on autonomising teams rather than “coordinating”. Another is a set of primitives for “hyperstructuring” Free Software to help contributors get paid fairly.
I’m also part of Discover Mode - where I’m a solver-for-hire helping a Web3 projects with product design and strategy.
In the past, I've designed peer-learning programs for Oxford, UCL, Techstars, Microsoft Ventures, The Royal Academy Of Engineering, and Kernel, careering from startups to humanitech and engineering. I also played a role in the Lean Startup methodology, and the European startup ecosystem. You can read about this here.
Menus and kitchens (2023)
Retreats for remote teams (2023)
What do you need right now? (2023)
Choose happiness (2021)
Emotional Vocabulary (2020)
Project portfolios (2020)
The history Of Lean Startup (2016)
Entrepreneurship is craft (2014)