In my pursuit of becoming a better leader I sometimes forget to look at my the lessons life has taught me much earlier on in life (as a child), its interactions with people that ask interesting questions that help dig out those lessons – this is one of those.
I grew up in Dubai – back then it wasn’t all the glitter and glamour it is today, things have changed dramatically. One thing that has not changed though, is the summer heat.
I am not sure what you may have heard, but Dubai has two seasons, “”hot” and “very hot”. So, growing up in Dubai and school being out over the summer heat pretty much meant that we were mostly indoors.
Being stuck at home gave us just a few options: watch TV (not much to watch), play games, read books. The games were fun for a while, but they were the same games, TV kinda sucked…. the only thing that changed, or was new was “reading books”. Junior school on-wards at the end of the school year, my parents would buy the books needed for next school year and being bored, we would study them over summer. This turned out to be a great thing to do because once the school year started, I was already familiar with the material, had already done the required readings and most of the homework – I could mess around in class and do what I wanted, and since it was no longer summer, I could go out and play after school – it was a lot of fun.
I was performing, my homework was done, I already knew everything and I could do whatever I wanted; there was no harm that I could have been doing by having fun…. right? well. I was wrong.
Eventually (think it was grade 9) a teacher called my parents in and together they explained to me that while it was great that I was on top of my game, my “fun” was becoming a distraction for others because the other students were unable to concentrate and get work done. Since the others had not already gone through the material, someone like me should be helping them get their homework done and leading by example rather than distracting them with fun alternatives.
We all have different motivations for pushing hard and getting things “done”, i.e. “I just want to push through he last few minutes of this workout and complete this 1000 meter row so that I can sit down and take a break”, or “I just want to finish coding this feature so that I can get back to learning about Node.js”, or “I just want to finish my work so that I can have fun..”… (who really wants to be rewarded for finishing early with more work?) working hard and having fun is great – there should be a healthy balance. Top players work hard and take a deserved break; However, most of us do not know or even think about how our actions may negatively impact others by creating distractions, or may impact ourselves and stop us from growing or delivering to our full potential; when the fun does negatively impact others/ourselves, it is important to recognize and address it. In the event that you do end up in a situation where someones “fun” is negatively impacting others, or themselves: do what my teacher did and have a conversation explaining the impacts. In my opinion (and experience), explaining the impact (of an observed issue) can make a world of a difference and often solves the issue.
At the end of the day, its the culture you build as a leader that dictates how people “have fun” and what work means to them.
The takeaway from the previous post on KPI and metrics was that we should proactively monitor process and optimize as needed; just because it worked when you were a startup does not mean it will work when you are “startedup”, you will need it to scale and by capturing metrics and KPI’s you will be able to perform analysis when/if things go wrong. This however does not mean that you need process for the sake of having process or that you should focus on process over people; agility is important and being lean goes a long way.
The chicken and egg problem: What came first, the chicken, or the egg?
You have great team(s) and you have great product(s). Your team(s) is/are at capacity enhancing and maintaining the current product(s), but you need to create more product(s). In order to grow product(s) you need to add more people but these people need to be grown as well. Hiring people and not growing them will make product growth challenging as there will be a longer ramp up time or will disengage and leave (or you end up with an us vs them culture); and redirecting your current team to grow people rather than the current products will grow the new hires at a rapid pace but your current products will stop growing, what do you do? going back to the chicken and egg problem, I think in the long scheme of things it is irrelevant what came first; what is more important is the realization and existence of the chicken and egg, or the “idea” of a chicken and/or an egg, and that you need to ensure that the cycle continues, chickens give eggs and eggs (eventually) give chickens.
Single points of failure (Single Threads)
As engineers and architects we focus on identifying single points of failure within architecture; as managers we need to identify single points of failure within team members, processes and tools. Ask yourself, if I was to randomly start pulling people out (pto, resignations, etc) what would be the impact? Would we still meet delivery? Do we lose key subject matter experts? Most of the time people end up becoming single threads because there are many hats to wear and things need to get done; documentation and knowledge transfer becomes a “will get to it” task that many never get to.
Single points of failure and knowledge silos end up becoming a real impact to growth when you bring on new hires who need to be brought up to speed and grown because the same resources that need to help grow others are already busy with their existing work. Not only does it impact growth, it also negatively impacts collaboration and team culture, when people do not grow they disengage and this causes further issues. As you grow from a startup company with a smaller team to a “startedup” company with a larger and growing team, your single points of failure can grow and teams/members can get frustrated as they get pulled from different directions.
A few simple approaches to reducing and/or eliminating single points of failure are:
- Focus on collaboration and knowledge sharing among teams (culture), the more people share what they learn the more people know.
- Work-load for single threads can be split between product development and people development.
- On-boarding programs and training documentation can be built as part of a product backlog.
- New hires can be paired with senior resources to create mentor-ship and knowledge transfer programs.
Each organization is different and each has its unique attributes that require a solution or several approaches that solve the problem for that specific organization; a silver bullet approach doesn’t really work.
- To grow new product(s) outside your current capacity you need to grow team(s).
- To grow new team(s) who will grow new (products) your current team(s) can be impacted.
- Your current team(s) can end up becoming single threads and/or single points of failure.
- Recognize that this can become a problem.
- Focus on culture, collaboration, knowledge transfer, documentation, etc. so that the impact to the current team(s) and product(s) will be minimal and your new team(s) will rapidly grow and be engaged.
The Startup and the 3 P’s: Product, Process and People
I will not pretend to know everything about startups and startup culture, but I will list the reasons why startup culture is exciting, at least for me:
You meet great people, people who have ideas and want to try things, people who have passion and want to make an impact, people who will challenge you to do better. There is passion for working together as a team, passion for building trust within the team and passion for collectively making an impact in other people’s lives; or sometimes, passion for just making something happen – to create. There is passion for possibly creating something that could go big – disrupt everything, all built from the ground up with the teams sweat, blood and tears where everyone is high on adrenaline. Suits? Offices? As long as you are connected with your team and are working well together, those things don’t matter. There is no red-tape, or big top-down structures, everyone and anyone has access to all. Anyone can start working on anything, there are many hats to choose from; wear all. You don’t get bored as things are evolving and stay fresh, there are new ideas, old ideas, odd ideas; anything can change anytime.
At the end of the day, a startup is defined by its growth; when a startup doesn’t grow, it dies; it stops.
There can be several growth stages for a startup, and startups evolve; once they start growing they are now “startedup” and will hopefully grow exponentially. In a perfect world, the cultural values that made the startup fun would remain and in some cases they do (depending on where the growth has lead the startup) but there are times where the culture itself that helped the startup grow and evolve starts conflicting with what is needed to grow to the next level.
Let’s say you follow agile and you end up with iterations, planned work, release schedules and a clear pipeline of what needs to be built. This all worked great when you had 2 products and a team of 10; since you have grown, the expectations of what you can or will deliver have also grown. Some brilliant folks in your team have discovered 2 more products that should be added to your portfolio; how do you grow your current 2 products (since they have a feature and defect backlog) and also work on these 2 new products without increasing your team size, changing delivery for current products or burning out resources? Before you grew, you may have had your own expectations of when and how you would bring on these two new products; now that you’ve grown, others may have different expectations from you and your team(s). Maybe you say “we need more people”, which brings me to the next point
With the growth of the startup, either through sales, funding or more investment and the need to create more product it is decided that you bring on more people, and you do. You end up facing the same issue, how do you grow people with the same 10 resources you had who are busy working the two existing products; some of the people you bring on may be self-starters and will figure everything out by themselves but what about the ones who don’t? So now you say “we need some process and automation to free up some of the manual work so that we can do more with the same resources”, which brings us to…
How do you focus on process and automation to free up time when the people you have are busy with supporting the existing two products, or are supporting the existing two products and are also trying to bring the new hires on-board?
A part of me says that the above three growth challenges are not really challenges and that they are part of what it means to be a startup culture and are expected. However; there are a few by-products that the 3 P’s create that can become toxic, stop growth and hurt the culture if they are not accounted for when trying to grow.
The Frat party & the first team
The first team consists of the people that built the startup; it was their teamwork and effort that made the startup grow; anyone who comes later is an outsider and “we need to be careful about who we let into our frat party” (once upon a time I lived on frat row). This one is not intentional, but when you work closely in teams and blur the line between friendship and co-workers, you end up creating an inner circle and make it challenging for an outsider to easily integrate and feel welcomed. This by-product is a blocker for People growth.
The golden simple process
At some point there was predictability and little chaos in what all needed to be done (smaller team, less products) so everyone starts expecting things to always be perfect. Even though you have grown, you have kept your process simple and did not optimize for KPI’s and other metrics that can help with predictability, complexity, risk and estimation. There will be times where things change, dates get reset and/or product scope creeps. If you had built a roadmap of what releases when, had committed the teams to that and put all these releases with their iterations back-to-back (because of all the product that had to get pushed out to show growth and maturity) and dates or requirements change on you (usually not for the better) the team and its happy culture will get disrupted as it will take effort to get things back on track; when/if this happens all the time, it gets hard to get away from the domino effect and people burn out, get disengaged and/or leave. This by-product is a blocker for Process growth.
When you were small, everyone knew what everyone else was doing, everyone shared and individuals had their skillsets. Now you have grown, 2 months ago you were 10 people, today you are 75, the 65 newer ones don’t understand the code base or the original design, there is some good documentation but they need more information and there are 3 key people who know different things about the original products; original products that you want the new 65 people to work on so that the first team can work on the two new ones; how do you distribute the knowledge known by the 3 key people, make them available to the 65 and allow the 3 key people to focus on their new projects? If they are constantly being pinged by others and cannot get their work done; their sense of accomplishment doesn’t scale much; especially if you did not plan for them to set time aside and help others. This by-product is a blocker for Product growth.
Each blocker is situation (just like leadership) and can be solved; we will examine and solve for each, before we move onto other “StartedUp” culture challenges. The next post goes into process KPI’s and metrics – addressing the golden simple process blocker.