Having had the opportunity to work with dozens of teams and companies globally, I’ve spent quite some time considering what seems to set the best ones apart. Given that my personal mission is to create world-class engineering teams, knowing how to achieve that is a prerequisite to reliably replicating them.
I believe that the extraordinary teams around are not those where every single engineer is extremely senior and wields every keyboard shortcut their IDE supports effortlessly. Obviously, these can help, but there’s a clear cap to how fast you can type away on your keyboard. My realization is that the best teams have a high impact-per-engineer rate. Consider the fact that WhatsApp had about 30 engineers when it was acquired (for a whopping $19B!), and they were handling hundreds of millions of users. How many startups do you know that have the same amount of engineers or more, struggling to support a SaaS that hasn’t even reached product/market fit?
Undergirding such excellence is the ability of each engineer to provide immense impact and business value, not merely pushing out lines of code. When I help tech executives learn how to unleash this impact, with the intent of seeing it improve rapidly, a few levers consistently prove themselves as useful when pulled. I’ve documented many of them in The Tech Executive Operating System, and below I’ve briefly covered the most useful ones.
Healthy Dose of Chutzpah
Right off the bat, good communication is instrumental in improving impact. Cultivating a culture where the team is not afraid to speak up means that we are less likely to go down the wrong path when it was already clear to someone that we were doing so. Investigations of flight disasters have surfaced a common issue: the junior copilot had indications that something was going wrong but feared expressing what might be seen as insubordination for the senior pilot. The same happens in engineering organizations.
Someone on your team has a feeling that something is wrong or merely suboptimal, and they refrain from voicing their concerns. Sundry reasons exist, from self-confidence to cultural norms. Nevertheless, it is possible to generate healthy chutzpah and teach your people to speak up when needed.
Speaking up isn’t helpful solely for the rare occasions where a significant mistake is avoided. It also means that the team can make dozens of micro-improvements a week to what they’re working on. Sfumato is an art term that refers to the blending of colors gradually. In nature, there’s no black and white. The same applies to scope definitions. Accepting scope sfumato means that the team should continuously fine-tune tasks with Product as opposed to treating Jira tickets as gospel.
Accruing Tech Capital, Not Focusing on Tech Debt
Tech capital is all about creating assets that unlock new capabilities for the business and the organization. Consider the difference between merely cranking out a new feature and creating a tool that makes completely new forms of work possible. Tech capital is all about generating innovation regularly instead of making your team of brilliant (and expensive) engineers focus all their brainpower on “reducing tech debt” or following orders.
I’ve written at length about incorporating innovation regularly here and have recently given a talk about it at the Developer First conference (recording available here).
Streamlining Processes for Impact Alignment
Scope sfumato can only go so far, as we’re talking about adjusting the work that we have already committed to perform. It’s a way to perform tactical adjustments. Streamlining how your organization comes up with its roadmaps moves your team to a higher plane where strategic improvements are possible.
For example, incorporating OKRs and a cross-functional team structure enables a team to focus on business goals rather than technical achievements. Measuring your people by the impact they have achieved, not features released, so the proper alignment is made. Tweaking your processes to focus on the result first means that the team can learn to work smarter instead of working harder.
Experience Pressure Cooker
Lastly, it seems to me that some of the best teams I’ve had the privilege to work with excel at placing people in some sort of “experience acceleration” mode. When leadership is intentional about the staff’s personal growth, we witness dramatic leaps in “seniority.” These are the environments that turn out cohorts of exceptional people who then go off to start dozens of companies. Rarely does this happen because someone just hired all the senior people in the vicinity.
It is often about creating a “pressure cooker” for experience where we allow people to try things out, experiment safely, and fail. Without the needless hand-holding and coddling, they can “grow up” much faster. More often than not, the need to be there and ensure that no one makes a mistake is a sign of micromanagement creeping in—even though you feel like you’re just looking out for your people. Allowing them to acquire their experience faster—especially if you’re interviewing candidates for having a growth mindset—is a surefire way to accelerate growth and increase impact.
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