Nonlinear work

Alfred Lua / Written on 06 June 2021

I recently joined ReferralCandy as a Senior Marketing Manager, moving from an individual contributor role to a more managerial role. One interesting aspect of leveling up from a junior marketer to a senior marketer is the work I do becomes more nonlinear.

Linear work vs nonlinear work

When I first started in marketing, my work was mostly linear. Generally speaking, to get more social media impressions, I would post more and better social media posts. To get more page views for our blog, I would write more and better blog posts. For sure, not every social media post or blog post will get the same number of impressions or page views. But the change in the output (i.e. impressions or page views) is roughly proportional to the change in the input (i.e. number of social media posts or blog posts).

On the other hand, my work at ReferralCandy is becoming more nonlinear. Results are less proportional to my efforts. For example, together with the marketing team, I am responsible for the number of (quality) signups. Besides doing marketing work, I also want to think about how well the marketing team works together, do we have a good culture, do we need to hire more people, do we need to reorganize the team, do we need to try different things, and more. I could spend a lot of effort on these and get no signups at all. Or I could do a little and get a lot of signups. It is nonlinear.

To understand this concept of nonlinear work, I found it helpful to look at a CEO's job. A CEO's work is all nonlinear. Her main responsibility is to grow the company. She needs to set the direction, hire great people, cultivate a good culture, and maybe raise investments. All these intertwine to produce the results. But the results will not be proportional to her efforts. She could hire a lot of people and get either no growth or a lot of growth. 

For nonlinear work, we have to stop thinking about inputs having a direct and proportional effect on the outputs.

Career progression

In my experience so far, the progression seems to look like this:

  1. Do something linear X times (e.g. write 2 blog posts a week)
  2. Do something linear X times to get Y results (e.g. write 2 blog posts a week to get at least 1,000 page views)
  3. Get Y results through linear work (e.g. get 10,000 page views a month by writing regularly)
  4. Start doing nonlinear work (e.g. create a writing guide, help with hiring, help with setting team goals)
  5. Get Z results through nonlinear work (get 100 signups a month by reorganizing the team)
Nonlinearity against career progression

At the start of our career, we usually start with linear work because it's psychologically easier to deal with. We get out what we put in. But as we grow in our careers, our work becomes more nonlinear.

Going from linear work to nonlinear work is a big step in the learning curve. When we do linear work, the output is proportional to our input. We do X, we get Y. But nonlinear work will not feel like work initially. Making a meeting more productive has no immediate output. Interviewing 10 applicants for a new role will not change your team’s output. Increasing the morale of the team doesn’t directly grow the number of signups.

Juniors-turning-seniors (like me) can get frustrated by this. Despite doing seemingly right (nonlinear) things, we don’t see any changes in the output. So we incorrectly choose to stick to linear work because it is easier to see the direct impact of our work.

But we should be doing more nonlinear work.

Getting used to nonlinear work

To overcome that, we should get used to the fact that nonlinear work is important work even though the feedback loop is not as short as linear work. (In fact, my CEO likes to say nonlinear work is more important than linear work.)

In some cases, we could come up with proxy metrics to get some feedback on the progress. For example, last week, I talked about my proposed marketing strategy for ReferralCandy. The marketing strategy is a hypothesis, based on my experience, that if we do each component (double down on content, build our distribution engine, and start exploring product marketing) well, we should see the number of quality signups going up. We have metrics for each component, such as content page views and email subscribers, to give us a measure of progress. What we are going to do is to monitor both the signups number and the component metrics. If the component metrics increase but the number of signups does not, it might be that our hypothesis is wrong. This is the trigger for us to investigate whether we need to change anything. We might change some things but we could also decide that our strategy needs a few more months to play out because growing the number of signups is nonlinear and we should just keep at it.

There is also nonlinear work that is hard to have a proxy metric, such as improving team collaboration or morale. For now, I'm going to base it on my intuition because I believe it is possible to sense the progress even if there is no number attached to it. And I am not sure we need a number for these.

All work becomes nonlinear

People who are growing in their careers will eventually be doing all nonlinear work. Remember, a CEO's work is all nonlinear? 

It is probably good to understand nonlinear work early so that when we need to start doing it, we can make the transition. Even as I am writing this, I am still trying to wrap my head around the concept. It is hard. But it is fulfilling too.

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