3 things you can learn from Instagram’s ‘Efficiency Guru’

Instagram COO Marne Levine has the intriguing nickname of “efficiency guru,” according to an article in The Wall Street Journal. A gig like that intrigued us: what kind of superhuman can be efficient enough to reach “guru” status?

The nickname itself comes from Kevin Systrom, Instagram’s co-founder and chief executive, who reportedly gave Levine the name because she has “helped the app avoid some of the pitfalls of rapid growth.”

The results of Levine’s work seem impressive: An infographic in The Wall Street Journal piece shows that Instagram had 300 million monthly users in December 2014, right before Levine joined the company as COO in January 2015. By December 2016, that number reportedly hit a whopping 600 million. Instagram was also able to compete further with Snapchat, according to the article.

Levine seems like of those people who has always been focused on work and policy; in college, when her dorm mates had pictures of Prince on the wall, she bragged that she had a Dukakis-Bensen political poster.

So what can we learn from a standout like that? We read more about Levine to see what parts of her wisdom can apply to everyone else. 

Ask a lot of questions first to understand the territory

Diving in recklessly, however, is not the answer. Levine is intent on finding out as much information as possible about what needs to be done. She spearheaded weekly question-and-answer sessions at Instagram for the executives, which allowed leaders to take the temperature of the room and see what concerned employees.

Levine also told Bloomberg that one of her policies is to get people talking about challenges and vulnerabilities by admitting her own, which is a valuable way to understand team members and growth: “I often ask people what I did wrong in the last meeting, because then others feel they have permission to own their mistakes, too.”

If you have to stress about deadlines, do it at the beginning

Managing your time wisely is key, and that usually means doing as much work as possible upfront.

Levine walked into the White House for the transition of President Obama’s administration and immediately created a matrix of “all the positions we had to fill, all the deadlines we had to meet,” says her former boss, ex-Treasury Secretary Larry Summers.

She did the same at Instagram, the WSJ said, opening with a deep analysis: “Once Ms. Levine moved over to Instagram at the beginning of 2015, she dove in with the creation of a formal budget, giving the company a comprehensive view of its spending for the first time. Until that point, executives leading Instagram’s various teams didn’t communicate regularly about their spending, with different teams hiring in different countries without coordinating.”

Harvey Mackay, a noted efficiency expert, has some insights into how you can do the same work as Levine. His recommendations: “break the task down,” which means begin with the largest portions and make them into separate “steps that have their own deadline.”

Mackay also suggested that people “build in a buffer,” or making your deadline for the task “a few days ahead” in case anything comes up — something that Levine does as well.

Be thorough but make sure people receive your recommendations well

Levine reportedly created Instagram’s first official budget, and the social media platform got its first, crystal-clear look at where the dollars were going. While that kind of transparency is great, it can also create friction as people get nervous about the information being revealed and what it says about their roles in an organization.

Levine seems to have handled that awkwardness with an open-door policy on questioning, above, as well as putting people at ease.