Five lessons from my first year at Monzo

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Hey! I’m Tarah, and I’m a Lead Researcher at Monzo. My role is to deliver user insights, empower others to do their own research, and identify the best opportunities to serve our customers. We use these learnings to shape the features and experiences we build, with the goal of helping people grow their money.

Pre-Monzo me

Before joining Monzo, I spent a decade exploring different career paths. In a previous life, I taught young kids in Boston about the biology of octopuses. In another, I advised a flooring manufacturer on ways to provide better services to French construction companies. Most recently, I researched how WhatsApp can support small businesses and consumers in emerging countries like Brazil and India.

Eventually, I felt the need to prioritise depth over breadth and to commit myself to a meaningful mission over many years. Enter: the opportunity to help build a new Monzo product from the ground up. 

#1: Give away your Legos 🤲

In my first week at Monzo, my teammate Jay role-modelled how to give away your Legos. Molly Graham came up with this metaphor for passing on ownership of your work - even when it’s exciting and you’ve invested tonnes of time - in situations where someone else is better placed to take the work forward. Giving away your Legos frees up your time and mental bandwidth to invest in something that likely wouldn’t happen without you.

In this situation, Jay was partway through a research project where he’d done all the scoping, set-up, moderation, and analysis. Essentially, he’d done the whole project. Once I got to grips with the research findings, he let me create a highlight reel and play back the insights to our product squad, Chief Product Officer, and eventually at an informal session with our Board of Directors. As someone new to the company, this gesture helped build up my confidence, quickly lent me credibility with a wide range of people, and gave me ownership over the area I’d ultimately be accountable for. It's a relief to deliver something (no matter how small!) during your first month at a company, and Jay had set me up for success. 

Over time, I was delighted to learn that if I also gave away my Legos, there’d be other equally interesting - and often more impactful - things for me to own and move forward.

#2: Be bold and empathetic 🤗

There's a mantra in the tech world that encourages a bias towards action: Ask for forgiveness, not permission. But you know what people don't really talk about? In an environment where people are encouraged to move fast and be bold, you (yes, you!) also need to be a forgiving person because other people will be asking you for forgiveness too.

But being empathetic requires emotional labour. There are highs and lows along the way, which can take a mental toll after a while. This is where we all need to give each other some grace and be mindful of our internal batteries. 

I was struggling to balance these emotions when a colleague mentioned the framing used in Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT). This is an approach developed by Dr. Albert Ellis to help people frame their irrational thoughts in a more realistic and healthy way. The REBT exercises (along with frequent walks outside) have helped me start to build a healthy emotional reserve. Others have also mentioned doing meditation, sports, other forms of therapy, and defining clear boundaries between work and personal time.

#3: Ask the ‘stupid’ questions 🗣️

I love asking questions! It’s why I studied journalism, and became a researcher. But I’m also anxious, and sometimes worry that the continuity and volume of my questions make me seem woefully unqualified (and maybe even stupid?).

A few months ago, I went to a strategy offsite as a newly minted part of my product group’s leadership team. I asked so many questions throughout the day that I sent this message to one of our directors the next morning:

Screenshot of a conversation between Tarah talking to a Product Leader

It says: 

Tarah: "I'm worried that I asked too many clarifying questions in yesterday's offsite and sounded stupid. Do you have a take on that? Should I start to prioritise the questions I ask (or ask them later, in a smaller forum or chat message rather than in the meeting)?"
Product Leader: "I wouldn't give that even a moment's thought

I still think of this brief chat when I have doubts. I’ve learned to ask my questions, knowing that people will tell me if they become distracting or create some unintended negative consequence. In fact, I’ve been told that my questions are one of my key strengths, that they often give voice to what others were already wondering, and improve discussions.

#4: Stay open to growth 🌱

I grew up with cheesy ‘90s movies that often depicted protagonists as (externally) oh-so-perfect. As a result, my misguided plan was to hone my idealised ‘perfect self’ in the first few decades of life, and then after 30 - the magical age at which we become well-formed
adults who know everything - I would only(!) need to maintain perfection for the rest of my life. This clearly didn’t pan out. 

But stubborn perfectionism made me an ideal candidate to develop a growth mindset. This concept, coined by Dr. Carol Dweck, is the belief that your qualities are things you can cultivate through practice, rather than being fixed at birth. With the help of this concept, I’ve become more eager for new challenges that can keep me growing.

So, here’s how I’m challenging myself at Monzo: We’ve established that I’m a deeply curious person; my approach to life can be summarised by the movie title Everything Everywhere All At Once. At Monzo, there's lots of things I could work on and am interested in diving into - which all have varying degrees of impact. I sometimes haven’t prioritised well, doing whatever piqued my interest or seemed urgent at the time. This has sometimes led me to overlook opportunities to deliver insights that could’ve supercharged the team, in favour of potentially less impactful things. 

I’ve been thinking about how to prioritise more effectively. Some of the changes that come to mind are defining and implementing a regular prioritisation process while I’m clear-headed (in other words, not trying to plan my week between meetings!) Then, consequently descope or delegate where needed. 

My growth at Monzo is supported by a culture of feedback, which brings me to the final lesson…

#5: Give continuous feedback 🔁 

Monzonauts tend to give continuous (positive and constructive) feedback - that’s balanced by a caring environment. All these elements are necessary conditions for personal growth because:

  • only positive feedback would leave people with lots of gaps, a sense that others aren’t being honest with them, and a less resilient workforce

  • only constructive feedback would be hugely demotivating, and miss the opportunity to enhance people’s strengths

  • a feedback-heavy environment that isn’t supportive would be stressful, and discourage people from experimenting with new ways of thinking or doing things

  • infrequent feedback would make giving and receiving feedback overwhelming, and it’s also harder to pivot when you’ve been going off-track for a while

Here’s an example of how we encourage continuous feedback at Monzo: Nate, a Senior Design Manager, realised that we often forget to give feedback when a regular cadence doesn’t exist. He started a low-effort ritual in the Signup squad where a Slackbot reminds the team to give each other feedback each week. We call it Feedback Friday:

A screenshot of a slack reminder for Feedback Friday with replies from the team giving feedback to peers. The image says:

Reminder, It's Feedback Friday! It's time to give or ask for feedback [heart emoji] It doesn't need to be formal or long - a couple of bullets can make someone's day!"

I’ve also found it useful to share my main growth area (more effective prioritisation) with the people I interact with most, so that they can provide contextual feedback and help me identify opportunities to practise my skills. As a bonus, this can help build empathy and trust within a team - since you get a better understanding of each other’s motivations, and sharing requires some mutual vulnerability. Here’s how I did it with my product group’s leadership team:

Screenshot of a post from Tarah on slack. It says:

"Thread your development areas in here so we can help each other. 
During the strategy offsite, someone mentioned that we should share our development plans so that we can help each other with feedback and identifying opportunities. My main development area is to regine my focus so that I spend the bulk of my time on 2-3 impactful things that are delivered in a timely, high quality way rather than spread myself across a tonne of areas. As such, please let me know if you see me drifting or have tips to share!"

To get started with creating a culture of feedback, here are some examples of how to ask for contextual feedback, in a way that’s low effort for everyone.

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40 researchers and designers are sitting on bleachers and smiling.

The whole gang! Design disciplines have a quarterly offsite where we jam on a cross-cutting challenge, recognise each other’s accomplishments and enjoy good company.

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Researchers at Monzo do impactful work: our insights shape company strategy and improve the user experience for over 7.5 million customers. Here’s an example of how research informed a zero-to-one product called Flex, which won Best Credit Card Provider at the 2023 British Bank Awards 🏆

We want to work with the best people, no matter their background. Our latest Diversity and Inclusion report shares that Monzo has 35.6% women leaders, 22.9% People of Colour in leadership roles, and over half of our Board of Directors are women.

From my experience at Monzo, some of the best people I've worked with don't have a university degree - "just" the technical chops and tenacity! 💪 I’m also openly LGBT+ and feel very at home here. 🌈