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.
This topic builds upon the previous “Building high performing teams by telling your employees they suck” (its not as simple as telling someone “you suck”); the emphasis really comes down to communication (showing) and attributes (why) they are not performing to expectations (sucking).
I learnt very quickly in my career that quality metrics do not lie and can easily convince to win an argument. I also learnt that pictures and diagrams help me explain (and understand) things much quicker than words alone. This is why, whenever I have had to prove something to myself, or explain a point; I have turned to metrics and diagrams.
So lets first cover some basics
Many companies do an “annual review” dance; some do it twice a year, some don’t even do it (we wont talk about them)… and during this review, the expectation or assumption is that the person being reviewed has been working towards their goals that were defined the year prior; or that if goals had changed, then things would have been appropriately documented to reflect that change…. Truth is.. we do not have time for this; especially when you are in a high demand team where priorities change on you all the time. However; if you have been actively carrying out your 1-on-1‘s and have been using it to develop the person/your team and have some sort of career path or individual development plan in place; you may be well prepared for this annual review – Great for you!
Some lucky ones get an annual, semi-annual (or sooner) 360 review; I believe this provides more value than an annual review because it lets you hook into career development much sooner and/or it will give you insights to how you efforts are perceived by a larger audience who may be working with you on much closer day-to-day basis; this can one stay on top of their game if its done in short enough period as it is a great motivator. Managers can then review the trend over time and see how one is progressing to give a more accurate review.
At the end of the day, with all these reviews, coaching, development plans, etc. what we are really trying to do is grow people (or remove the ones that wont grow), make sure they perform and build teams that work well.
High-performing teams don’t just happen, they are made.
It is my opinion that in order to build high performing teams that work well; you have to instill a culture around “working well”. The annual, semi-annual, etc reviews really need to tie into a day-to-day type of thing; it may be seen as a lot of work (initially true), but just like good and frequent maintenance goes a long way, so does this.
To recap; what I have just stated is that we should focus on reviewing everyone on more frequent basis; something that ties into the day-to-day and can be captured daily or weekly… or best, if it can be captured adhoc as long as its captured within some frequent frequency. We would of course want this to be documentable, repeatable, measurable and actionable… we would want a process.
So, if this all has not added up yet, we want quality metrics that will provide diagrams/results based on process that can be used to communicate performance.
Every couple of weeks; I will ask my leads “without any thought into this, respond to my email and stack-rank your team”; or I will ask “If you had to do a project, who are the 3 people, in order of preference, you would pick”. Then there will be the “who is the most active volunteer” or “who is the least to volunteer”… While these questions lead to answers that I plugin to my brain somewhere and maintain on spread sheets… they do not translate to quality metrics because they are not standardized enough… nor really repeatable.. (and probably other reasons as well). Another flaw with my method of capturing metrics is that it doesn’t allow “everyone”offer an opinion; only the ones I happen to ask or interact with that day. So while I may be able to “wing-it” and come up with diagrams based on some metrics… we need to focus on improving the quality of these metrics.
What does “team work” mean to you? What are the attributes of a team player? What type of people do you want to work with? or what type of people do you want working for you?
Here are some interesting data points that one can use a 1-5 scale to rate someone on (in no particular order)
- Constructive communicator
- Active listener
- Problem solver
- Active participant
- Shares solution/ideas
- Volunteers assistance
- Customer focused
In addition to defining the data points; you want to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to provide this data on “any one” without a need for self-identification (remain anonymous) and you will want some way of reminding people to go back and update (or resubmit) data at some frequency.
Creating a process around capturing these metrics and emphasizing the need to submit feedback sends a strong message to your team(s) that this is important.
Once you have reviewed, tweaked and confirmed (adhoc charts) that you are capturing data that is meaningful; its time your shared the results with the team (where appropriate) and with individuals (as needed).
The diagram below is probably more for your own viewing (rather than sharing with the team)
You may want to dive deeper into this, and you will see
Where everyone lies based on attribute; is there a deviation for anyone? or does everyone score low in a specific category?
Again, from the above two it seems like Employee 4 isn’t at par with the rest.
Communicate how/why/where they are not performing… a picture says a lot more than words, see below:
This chart can be used in a 1-on-1 with Employee 4 to go over their specific performance; and can be tied in with what the “average employee” scores (which is just avg score per attribute), see image below
This image that compares employee 4 to the average employee accomplishes the “you are sucking” message and gives the employee actionable data that is backed by metrics. They can then use this information to focus improvement efforts.
So while its easy to focus on the literal words used. The goal should never be to tell someone that they suck (and stop at that); it should be to help drive change, development and improvement in someone by clearly communicating areas they need to focus on so that you can build a high performing team.
.. well maybe not as bluntly as that…
*this post has a follow on post Continue and read building high performing teams by showing your employees why they suck*
Every now and then, managers get together and play this wonderful game where they take all their employees and put them on a “9 box”; if you ask me., its more like snakes-and-ladders (aka chutes and ladders).. but the end goal is the same., identify where each employee is and figure out how to move they into the top-right corner (and promote), or move them into the bottom-left corner (and out).
Many of us have played this game many time…. In my opinion the problem with this game, and the way that many choose to act upon it is that its just too politically correct. For the individuals who fall in the bottom left corner we have decided that they suck but wont tell them that to their face, the ones who are in the top right are the super stars and we don’t want to make it too obvious to others…. so rather than say it how it is, we waste endless hours trying to figure out how to get the message across and build a better performing team all by ourselves….
Where is the fearless leader? where is the animal instinct and the competitiveness? Forget the politically appropriate messaging., I say call it all out: Hold a team meeting, tell people where you think they land and get it over with. Yes, either your team will think you are an ass for doing it., or they will respect you for being open and straight forward with them. Use your team to help pull the ones in the lower left corner and let the team know who the obvious role models are; Why do all the work your self? trying to be careful not to hurt someones ego? we are all here to work, get the job done and perform. Does your team really want dead weight slowing them down? holding them back? You are accountable when someone else has to work over time because someone in their team didn’t get their work done. Its you who they curse when they are putting in 60 hours because you didn’t have the guts to fire the bad apple and get a new one. yes, its always your fault.
So why the emphasis on being open? why the public humiliation or the public praise?
Not too long ago, an employee asked me “Why don’t you tell your people that they did a great job? Did you know he had to work through the weekend to get it done?”; My answer was “They day any of you guys, works more than I do, I will personally congratulate you and send you a box of chocolates”…… It was in humor that I made the comment, and followed up with a “the reason why he had to work the weekend was because he was not at his desk most of the week, coming in late, leaving early… he was off doing personal things”… What I am outlining here is the perception that someone else in the team had of me not being appreciative and recognizing someones hard work vs the fact that the person was simply making up time lost during the week – The thing about incorrect perception is that its never “just one person”… it could be your entire team!… Using a team meeting to dish out things like this helps reset perceptions and gives everyone a clear picture of what you see; essentially such a group setting promotes conversation that goes both ways… don’t be surprised if your team starts telling you what you are not doing and what you need to improve on. A team that gives you honest and open feedback about yourself as their manager not only tells you that they trust you, but it also allows you to use that information and grow yourself.
So do the 9-box and get a team meeting together: tell the ones who suck that they suck and that you and their team mates are here to help them improve and talk through issues – tell the high performers that they are high performers and that you and your team will be demanding more from them to help them grow to the next level in their career. Do this and you will build high performing teams that follow and believe in your fearless leadership.