Gilding Guilds

Things always operate in trends, and if my clients are any indication, it seems like “guilds” are back in vogue. Nevertheless, many teams waste countless hours on guilds that provide little value or even turn out to be detrimental. Therefore, one has to be mindful of the common pitfalls and best practices for setting up a guild for success. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a guild that does something no one cares about, like gilding lilies.

The Common Mistakes

The following description might seem simplistic, but I can attest it is not far from the truth at many startups: tech leadership decides there’s a particular area that could benefit from special attention or wants to invest in the “professionalism” of their team. Deciding on establishing a guild as the right solution, these guilds are usually kicked off without much planning.

Perhaps a leader is chosen, or a recurring meeting is created. If we’re lucky, someone whipped up a Notion document describing the guild’s intent or purview. And just like that, off they went. Lacking any concrete plans and prioritization, the subsequent efforts often turn out to be misguided or deliver a low ROI. Other times, the opposite happens, and people quickly go back to their regular jobs, and the guild is turned into a corporate zombie: it is not dead, but it is not really alive either.

This approach has more harmful outcomes than we could list here, but it includes wasting people’s time, harming the team’s focus, making others in the company wary, and ruining the trust you’ve established with your team. The latter is essential to put our finger on: when a guild just fizzles out or doesn’t get prioritized, you lose trust because it seems you don’t mean what you say. The opposite is also possible: sometimes, we realize too late that guilds are wasting time, and when efforts are stopped, the team finds that surprising.

Making Guilds Work

All the above said that doesn’t mean that guilds are futile. Here are some options to reconsider your guilds.

Just don’t: OK, sometimes guilds are futile. For example, if a certain technical area isn’t getting a lot of attention, perhaps instead of creating a guild, you should consider if that neglect actually makes sense. I know many engineers feel bad about “tech debt” existing somewhere, even when it’s in parts that are working properly and are not expected to be changed anytime soon. It just might be that a certain area is not getting attention because it doesn’t really warrant any more effort when it comes to the value it would create. If you want people to get better in their craft, making them perform useless tasks is not often the best way to do that. Find little (or big) tasks that get prioritized because they genuinely matter. You can do better than using a guild to merely keep people busy.

Task-Force It: The exact opposite of the prior case, sometimes something is important enough and urgent enough to turn into a proper project. Usually, when this happens, Product would agree, and it is easier to treat the initiative as so. In some scenarios, that means that an ad hoc team is formed for a few months; other times, you select people who will have to split their time between the task force and their regular work. Either way, creating a task force is often much better in providing value faster, as opposed to the slow progress the typical guild model usually has.

Treat It Seriously: And sometimes, a “proper” guild is actually the right way to go. If that’s the case, you must kick it off with intention. Set clear goals and guidelines. Define the measure of success, who will be involved, how the whole thing will be managed, etc. A guild with no checkpoints or defined purposes is just a blank check to waste time. When the team knows it will have to demonstrate the benefits achieved from the guild’s work at the end of the quarter, everyone’s more likely to focus on creating value instead of doing tech for tech’s sake.