For the last few years, I’ve been working with and studying some of the best teams in the world; Red Arrows teams, SAS and US Navy SEAL units, Racing yacht crews, a Formula One pit crew, etc. I set out to study teamwork. In particular, I wanted to know how these teams have become world class. In the course of my studies, I identified six common characteristics, which differentiated these incredible teams.
Interestingly, I didn’t set out to study world class leadership. However, when I found world class teams, I also found world class leadership (I know, I probably should have expected that!). So, as well as studying teamwork, I also began to look at the characteristics that differentiated world class leadership. One of the most powerful insights that I discovered is this…
Great Leaders Ask Great Questions.
In fact, the great leaders that I encountered often didn’t provide any answers! Instead, they realise that the group has the potential to generate a better answer than they could on their own. It’s a principle that James Surowiecki outlines in his book, Wisdom of Crowds. When I shared this idea at an educational conference last year, a Head Teacher responded by saying, “That’s rubbish. Are your trying to tell me that Einstein should ask his class for the answer, and that the class will have a better answer than Einstein?”. “No”, I said, “Einstein is part of the class. So by engaging the class you get Einstein plus the class, not instead”.
Knowing that great leaders ask questions is one thing. Knowing what constitutes a ‘Great Question’, is another. So, what makes a question ‘Great’?
Here are some of my thoughts and reflections…
To me, ‘Great Questions’ are simply the right question, asked at the right time. To ask great questions, we need to understand the problem we’re trying to solve and where we are in the process. Do we need to ask a strategic question, or a tactical question, or one that’s related to implementing and executing a plan?
Strategic Question – Why?
Tactical Questions – What? …. How?
Action & Implementation Questions – Where? …. Who? …. When?
Very simply, it makes sense to understand why we are doing something (and whether we should be doing it), before deciding what we’re doing or how we will do it? Equally, it makes sense to know what we’re going to do, before deciding who will do it, when and where.
To me, ‘Great Questions’ are also well defined and simple. Sometimes it takes time and thought to frame a question well. The world class leaders that I saw at work often ask simple questions, which engage their team to collectively solve a problem. Some of the most powerful questions I’ve heard simply begin with the words, “How could we…?”.
By: Simon Hartley, Founder of Be World Class.
I just re-read the awesome post from my friends David Loftesness and Raffi Krikorian, What Does A VP of Engineering Do Again? And while I agree with everything that they say, I think there is one crucial item missing, which has been present in every job I’ve had because all of them were user-facing internet services and a majority of my job has been working with product teams. Collaboration with stakeholders (especially with product) is key, but if you take it one step further, a VP of Engineering is actually measured by execution in a wider context across many teams or departments. You cannot look at engineering in isolation for your successes or failures.
But first a short story about my first months at SoundCloud. The CTO wanted more front-end work done because an important release was nearing. He asked me to hire more engineers to accomplish that goal. I started recruiting, but then I looked at why the velocity of the existing team was not meeting expectations. So, I went to all of the front-end teams (at that time it was Web, iPhone, and Android) and asked a very simple question “What slows you down the most in your day-to-day work?” To my surprise, everyone gave the same answer “We only have one designer.” They went on to say that although the designer was very good, she was completely overloaded so designs, changes, and simple clarifications took forever to get done.
Now that I knew design was actually the cause for delays, the solution to my problem was not to hire more engineers (which might have even made the problem worse with more work for the designer), but to start building a design team.
Engineering leads need to look at the whole product process (together with the responsible stakeholders) and not just at engineering in isolation. What I did was a very simple (but, in this case, effective) form of value stream mapping. Our self-improvement at SoundCloud continued. You can read Phil Calcado’s excellent post about the organizational aspects of microservices at SoundCloud.
The Best Engineering Leads Will Stop and Assess the Situation
Continually assessing situations in a holistic way isn’t just the job of an engineering lead — everybody involved should take responsibility. But, in my experience, the problem usually surfaces in engineering because when things are not moving fast enough (and when do they ever?) management’s first reaction can be to throw more engineers at the problem so more work will get done, but also (and this is the not so nice scenario), management thinks the engineers are not working hard enough. Other common responses from management include reorganizing the teams or adopting new methodologies. However, as an engineering leader, you are a lot like a doctor: you need to diagnose the illness before treating the symptoms.
Engineering leaders need to look at the whole value chain and to sit with the leaders from affected departments to review at the problem. The solution to a problem might not be to hire more people (which a lot of startups do), but to organize product development in a better way. And if you have to hire, it might mean that you have to move headcount around. When everyone has the same goal goal — delivering more business value — shifting headcount from engineering to design or to recruiting shouldn’t be an issue. Afterall, the goal is more business value, not having the biggest department. So, when I realized our problem at SoundCloud wasn’t going to be fixed by adding more engineers, we created a design team. But this was just the first step towards a better setup.
Even after creating a larger design team, it remained isolated from other departments and was not fully integrated with our workflows. The problems of turnaround and wasted resources were exacerbated by the increasing risk of misalignment between product, design, and engineering. Therefore, the next logical step was to improve the organization by creating a delivery team per product.
Shifting Organizational Structures to Deliver Business Value
A delivery team is a team that can deliver the vast majority (95%) of its backlog items to production without dependencies on other teams. Unlike more horizontally-oriented teams (for example, a front-end engineering team that relies on the back-end engineering team for any back-end changes), a delivery team has all the necessary skills inside their team. So, depending on your company and your product, these teams can look very different. In engineering teams that are infrastructure focused, these teams can consist of only engineers; but if you look at a team that delivers a consumer-facing web app, then the team looks more like this:
Creating these delivery teams and then making sure you have the right staffing for them should eliminate a staffing mismatch between the affected departments. Some team members (like support) might just be a pointperson for the team, e.g., the support person only attends the daily standup and reports what is going on.
So, don’t look at engineering in isolation when trying to solve delivery problems. It is critical that each engineering leader (and especially the VP of Engineering, who can really influence the organizational setup) ensures that the overall product development process is set up in a way that reduces waste and delivers value to the customer which is the whole point of product development in the first place!
This post includes material from the upcoming book “Scaling Teams” by myself and David Loftesness, which will be published by O’Reilly in 2016. In this book, we will explain in detail the various scaling challenges of software startups.
Thanks to Laurel Ruma and David Loftessness
By: Alexander Grosse from issuu
In March 2015 we received the bombshell from our U.S executives that our office in Oxford was to close as part of a long-term global consolidation of sites with some staff being offered relocation and the others made redundant. The products needed to continue, but how could we avoid the remaining time just being miserable?
Staff were asked to complete their current work and assist with knowledge transfer to the remaining development offices in the USA and India. The previous few years had seen good progress with agile and lean software development, customer satisfaction had steadily risen and staff turnover had been extremely low. So the closure announcement was a body blow. The chance of the announcement being taken badly was all too real with the risk of the situation disintegrating into a depressing mess.
The Oxford management team had the difficult task of trying to make the best of the situation and get the best outcomes for both staff and the company. One year on, the results so far have been remarkably positive. We can therefore make some recommendations for anyone else in this situation, some of which are also worth considering for companies during normal operations.
- Long notice period – We managed to agree 18 months’ notice of the final closure. This was necessary to complete current work and have an effective handover so that the complex medical imaging software products could continue. However, it was a very long time to hope that people would stay so other measures were needed.
- Generous redundancy packages. These were agreed at a level which impressed staff. With their tax-free nature, this gave people confidence that even if they didn’t find another job immediately, they would not have any financial worries for a few months.
- Relocation support – Real commitment was shown to staff to find them other places within Siemens. This included generous relocation packages, funded exploratory visits for staff and families, advice from locals and flexible move dates. This was not cheap, but the cost was much less than hiring and training somebody new.
- Voluntary end dates – Rather than imposing end dates, staff were asked to openly express whether they wanted to stay 6, 12 or 18 months. It’s very hard to predict how people will react so it was better to try to align individual’s needs with business needs. Almost 100% of people got they end date they wanted, most opted for the longer duration and the company had adequate cover.
- Keeping a training budget – Staff were given encouragement to still do training and qualifications. The company would still get some benefit from the training in the short-term, it would help staff with finding a new position, but mostly it helped reassure staff that they could stay and still develop themselves.
- A larger entertainment budget – It was important for people to socialise and support each other so there was an increase in company-funded drinks, lunches and a bigger-than- normal Christmas party.
- Help with job-hunting – Staff were allowed to take some time for interviews and encouraged to have an open discussion on opportunities with support given to try to accommodate people’s wishes where possible. External consultants were available to advise on interview techniques, CV-writing and job hunting.
- Effective use of employee representatives – Rather than just fulfilling a legal requirement, a real effort was made to engage with the elected employee representatives, create a detailed FAQ for staff and share all information on the intranet.
- Continued staff recognition. The office was required to operate properly for an extended period so it was only fair that staff should be treated normally and retain the opportunity to still achieve an above-target bonus and the opportunity for promotion.
- Management care – The managers have been very open, honest and helpful to the staff and shown genuine care and empathy for people and their circumstances. This probably made the biggest difference and enabled so many of the positive results. A site closure can be viewed by staff as a big breach of trust, so asking staff to believe promises about arrangements during the remaining period is a challenge and requires lots of reinforcement, consistency and ensuring that was is said is done.
- Staff morale – This went through the inevitable rollercoaster of shock, anger, worry then acceptance. People were annoyed or upset at the decision, but overall viewed the offers as fair and professional. Staff who had been through a redundancy before thought that the way this was handled was much better. Although losing colleagues is unavoidably sad, people have been positive about making the best of the situation.
- Staff stayed until their agreed date – The long notice period and generous packages meant that most people were fairly relaxed about finding a new position and happy to leave serious job hunting until a few months before their agreed end date. Whilst, it’s an imposed change for everyone, in some cases, staff have appreciated having the “luxury” of having an extended period with a financial cushion during which to calmly think about what alternative job they would really like to do in future. Staff have been open about their hunting and have discussed mutually agreeable end-dates before accepting offers.
- Results still achieved. Work on products continued at a good level. Inevitably people weren’t going the extra mile in quite the same way as they used to but were professional and productive. Staff have been helpful in ramping up new recruits in India and continue to take pride in their products. There have been no surprise, early, resignations or disciplinary issues.
- A surprising number relocated. 25% of people relocated to the USA which was a lot higher than anyone originally expected since people liked being in Oxford.
- Additional social events – The activity in the office “community” if anything picked up since the news with whisky tasting, a pool tournament, team nights out, a group cycle ride around town etc.
- Peer-to- peer training – Staff have shown a great desire to support each other and proactively run open seminars for others in the office to share their knowledge with others (e.g. Sharepoint, Data Science, Android Programming, Arduino programming, Linux etc)
- More cakes – We’ve always provided cakes on a Friday but the number of spontaneous cakes being brought into the office on other days has gone up.
Overall it has been a much more positive experience it could have been. The office morale is still good and the staff have received outstanding praise for their continued professionalism and dedication.
The results has been good for the company as there is a smooth handover taking place while ensuring that people are taken care of. The actions above have not been cheap for the company in the short-term, but are ultimately delivering better long-term value than the alternative of instant site closure followed by disorder and a long period of rebuilding a new team from scratch.
Suggestions relevant for companies not closing
Whilst some of the topics are only relevant to a site closure, some things could be beneficial anytime.
- Management openness is always a good thing. It’s easy to forget the importance of explaining plans and listening to feedback. Make sure there’s time for group meetings, 1 to 1 sessions and occasional surveys.
- Peer-to- peer training is always very cost-effective so time and support should be given for this. Staff have a lot of varied knowledge and it’s motivating for both the trainer and attendees.
- Creative entertainment. It can be an easy area to cut, but pays back a lot. If people have a good social relationship with colleagues, they are much more committed to them and hence also the company. The entertainment does not necessarily have to be lavish e.g. a pool table and tournament, an indoor mini-golf area made out of office accessories and text books, a pancake- tossing event on Shrove Tuesday etc. Something a bit different every few months keeps things fresh. Cakes, are always good.
- Look for the best outcome for both staff and the company given the circumstances. Arrangements with staff have to be fair to get the best results in the long-term.
By: Stephen Wells, Siemens Molecular Imaging, Oxford