For someone specializing in making R&D organizations accelerate delivery dramatically, there’s nothing easier than being called in when the team faces a clear obstacle. When you look, and you see that there’s an iceberg ahead, there’s not a lot of novelty required: you put all your might and attention to fix that glaring problem, and that’s that. It gets more challenging—and much more exciting—when I’m approached by a team that seems to be doing good and wants to do better.
As with many other matters, when you are faced with no clear path forward, you might get stuck, paralyzed by the abundance of possible options. Rather than staying in front of the window display, wondering which pastry to choose, I try to help my clients systematically assess the most important factors to focus on. In this article, I will share this system and the factors it looks into—Execution Assets, Culture of Excellence, and Defocusing Factors—and the different levers to pull in order to improve them.
There’s no single prioritization that applies to all companies. Still, I will try to list them in an order that makes sense by default: unless one of the lower items on the list is glaringly problematic, or has immediate low-hanging fruits, pick one of the higher ones where you see a lever you can pull. That way, you can make sure that you right your ship or keep it going in the right direction. Without some objective, no wind is a good wind! (Apologies, mates, I seem to be abusing the ship analogy here.)
Culture of Excellence
The culture of excellence is your team’s beliefs, values, and vision. It makes up the core of what makes your organization unique—as opposed to, for example, tech mastery which is virtually the same for all companies. Being the foundation, you have to make sure that they are sturdy and well maintained. A minor issue here, like a tiny leak in the hull, is rarely urgent but can be devastating in the long term.
Vision & Roadmap
The first matter is to ensure that the entire team is aligned about the bigger picture and the company’s purpose. Otherwise, organizations tend to slowly drift away from the right direction, only to be noticed too late. Grokking the vision and roadmap means that the team will be able to make ongoing micro-decisions that align with the direction the company is likely to be heading to.
Levers: This starts from the top, and you have to ensure that you move upstream and gain visibility and influence on the roadmap. Product Mastery is also helpful in binding the vision to actual results (and it is a valuable lever for many of the other items in this article).
Values & Manifestation
If the vision is where you want to get, the company’s values should point out how your team members should make decisions along the way. We’ve all seen companies that come up with elaborate infographics detailing their values, but they don’t actually map out to any real changes in the day-to-day. I’ve seen IBM plastering walls with huge “motivational values” posters that were just ridiculed.
Levers: Modeling value-driven behavior and decisions by leaders in your organization is the first step. The same applies when you are presented with several ways of doing things and inject the value to be considered into the process. It is powerful to see that the values are not just signs on a wall but are being put to active use.
We spend a huge effort in bringing on good talent nowadays, and it is a colossal waste to merely hope they get better on their own. The best teams see this as a key part of management and leadership and accelerate the growth and improvement of everyone in the staff. Imagine what would happen if everyone on the team regularly improved, like compounding interest.
Levers: Make sure that you actively track your Peter Pan count. Active coaching for each employee, along with improvement goals and a coaching dial that’s tailored to each individual’s needs. You should also make your lives easier by interviewing for growth mindsets.
No group can maintain the right direction and grow rapidly with time without excellent leadership. A big problem nowadays is that we don’t treat management seriously enough. ICs spend years honing their craft as engineers, but managers are lucky to get a two-day orientation and a couple of books. Ensuring that you have a solid management bench is vital.
These are areas that translate directly to goals achieved more effectively, business advantages and differentiators being amassed, and ongoing quality. As these are somewhat more tactical, many leaders prefer to start with these as they might be easier to grasp and assess. Nevertheless, being more tactical also means that these have less leverage compared to those listed under Culture of Excellence. Therefore, make sure to go through those before deciding to pick from this list.
I’ve coined the term Tech Capital to talk about technology that makes an active difference in the organization and is effectively an asset, as opposed to yet another feature (see examples here). Literally, every one of my clients who has embraced this way of thinking has seen a tremendous ROI. The tricky part is making the team aware of it and putting your money where your mouth is by enabling room for it.
Levers: Teach your leaders and ICs to view Engineering as an innovation center, as opposed to a cost center. Regular and habitual innovation is possible by implementing intermissions. Ensure that your culture provides safety when talking about failures and risks.
We are all prone to over-engineering, adding too much silver lining, and developing solutions to the extent that’s farther than necessary. A focus on impact means that the team always strives to do precisely what is required in order to achieve its goal and reduce any extra nice-to-haves that weren’t called for. This is a surefire way to increase your impact-per-engineer rapidly: our time is better spent if every feature is stripped to the core and has no padding. No faster typing is required!
Levers: Start by providing your team permission to push back. In fact, make it the expected behavior. No egos should be harmed if an engineer wonders whether a particular edge case has to be treated or if a certain aspect of the feature can be postponed. This often means that you need to cultivate chutzpah and openness. Make sure to value it when people find ways to make things simpler and leaner, and ensure that all of your senior staff relentlessly asks why things are needed rather than taking it for granted by default.
At the end of the day, what your team produces has to work and work well. This is probably something that your team understands and has a grasp on, but I find that as companies mature and evolve, it might require refreshing.
Levers: Routinely adjust your hiring to match where the team should be as opposed to where it is right now. Your talent growth efforts from above can include execution capabilities and skills such as providing engineers with mentoring, training, and education.
Your team is made up of layers of engineering force-multipliers. Ensure that people’s potential is fulfilled, that they can stay within the “genius zones,” and that each person effectively helps others.
Levers: Some tech capital manifests as a force-multiplier for the rest of the engineering team, like DevOps that are measured for engineering velocity. Provide your team with autonomy to make their own decisions. Create guidelines to free up bottlenecks.
Lastly, there are issues that can actively weigh down on a team and make it grind to a halt. These can typically manifest as the icebergs that I mentioned at the start, but sometimes they are less apparent.
There’s no writing about an engineering organization’s health without mentioning tech debt. When you allow it to grow too big, it is like going for a run with a 40-pound bag strapped to your back. While I often say we shouldn’t obsess over tech debt, there are times where it becomes too massive.
Levers: I covered a framework for managing non-feature work, including tech debt, in these articles.
Another problem that can seem like a leak that can get out of hand quickly is excessive turnover. Attrition can be a lagging indicator for poor leadership, morale, or compensation. Sometimes, it acts as a leading indicator for misalignment with vision and values. If people don’t understand what they’re working for, they’ll eventually leave.
Levers: Exit interviews, preferably with external people who can get the truth from people. Are there types of people leaving, such as in a specific group or of a certain tenure in the company? This might help you spot a problematic manager or a cohort that has uncompetitive compensation.
Silos & Politics
Some problems are more endemic to the way the entire company is run. A culture that insists on placing people within specific boxes, where politics are required to get anything done, and silos introduce bureaucracy to every step, is one that is going to be extremely tough to scale.
Levers: Right at the executive level, gain buy-in to the notion of cooperation and collaboration, and put ego and politics aside. For example, embrace your most important partnership: your Product counterpart. Many find success in setting up cross-functional and empowered teams that can get the job done with minimal external dependencies.
Practically each one of the above topics is discussed in more depth in The Tech Executive Operating System. Instead of mentioning it repeatedly, I’m providing here a reminder that if you want to dig deeper and be better equipped to lead your organization, you should grab a copy.
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