In any product lead tech business, your products and platform will evolve over time as a result of having dedicated professionals working on them continually. The tricky part is ensuring that the evolution results in positive value for the business and employees.
When I say "positive value", I'm being intentionally hand-wavy. What is "positive" for one company may not be "positive" for another, and what is "value" for your company may not be "value" for mine. That said, I think we can all point to some examples of positive value for a company and it's employees. If you wrote a list it might include something like:
- Continued growth opportunities for employees.
- Increased revenue for the business.
- Faster delivery of current and future goals.
- Opening of new potential markets to gain custom from.
- New domains for staff to learn and understand.
These are all things I'm sure we'd love to create for our company, but actually doing so can be really tricky and opens up new questions. We quickly find ourselves moving from this big picture view of "creating positive value" into the weeds of details around hiring, investment, priorities, and the like. Those details are important, but when we try to jump from one to another we end up with more questions than answers. When this dotting between big picture and small details happen, we end up putting our organisation into a reactive mode and this is bad.
Reactive mode means lack of direction, and control, it means no one knows what's coming next, or what the end of the week will look like. It's a one way trip to burn out. What's more, when you step back and look at the big picture at the end, it's a huge mess! Specific iniatives may be really beautifully done, but there are just as many with no coherance built on a mountain of compromise. When we're constantly dotting from big picture to small details with few steps in between, we're missing some extremely important steps in the process.
Vision, strategy, process, and accountability form the foundation of a healthy product and engineering organisation. They help you walk from big picture all the way down to the details. They lay out how that happens for the organisation, and ensure decisions are considered in relation to the organisations values, and goals. They ensure an organisation spends most of it's time operating in a forward looking fashion, rather than in a state of perpetual reaction.
The vision is where it all starts, this is the big picture but it's laid out for everyone to see and understand. Your vision should set a clear idea of where you want to be in 3-5 years time. It's usually made up of broad statements related to your position in the market, how your customers view your business or product, and how you fit into their life.
Your vision will rarely talk about the "how" you get there, it will be entirely focused on where you want to be at a given time. The more specific you can be about that vision, the better. There's no prescribed length for a vision, and it'll greatly depend on what you're including. If you're coming up with a vision for the engineering of your platform it may be longer and more specific than a broad vision for your company. That said, everyone who is covered by that vision needs to read it, and that means it needs to be short enough for someone to comfortable consume. What's more, it needs to be relatable to everyone of every job role covered by it. A Product Manager should be able to read and understand your Engineering Vision just as much as a Senior Engineer.
To continue forward, we're going to take a snippet of some language from a potential vision document you might write.
Our customers confidently use our platform for their largest and most ambitious events, as well as the smaller and more frequent ones. They trust the metrics they see and rarely question whether it can handle the potenetial traffic.
If vision is about the "what" then strategy is the "how". Strategy specifies goals, and what you're going to do to achieve them. This is often where things like Objective Key Results (OKRs) come in. It will seek to identify the major issues in the way of you achieving it, and what you're going to do about it.
Continuing on from our vision example, lets look at what some language might be for a strategy to get us there.
Area of improvement: Currently our average monthly uptime (over a 3 month rolling period) is 90%. We know from customer and market research that this is not enough for customers to fully trust us. We want to increase this number to 99.95%.
1. Alot an additional 5% of our time towards reliability improvements starting from the next quarter. We will track this as a separate allocation in teams roadmaps to ensure they have the space to do this.
2. Continue to prioritise active production incidents as the automatic top priority work for the team.
3. Begin reporting total monthly up time as part of our company all hands. This will highlight the improvements we make to the rest of the business, so we can celebrate our wins with everyone. It will keep our commitment clear to all other teams and will help keep the sales and customer support teams informed of progress.
This example clearly links back to our vision, we may not get the whole way there by the end of the given timeframe, but it puts us in a place where we're sure to make progress. It's prescriptive of the approach we want to take, but not so prescriptive that it specifies exactly what each team or individual needs to do. Teams can take this strategy and figure out how they can fall in line to deliver to the goals.
Our strategy is specific enough that teams can understand both the current focus, and the path we're going to take, but it's open enough that they can figure out what they need to do to make it happen. This gives us a great springboard to start forming OKRs or similar, if that's something your organisation is into.
Because strategy is specific, it can often be easier to write than a vision. It can often be useful to write several strategies and use those to inform your vision. That approach allows you pick out the themes of what you're doing based on the more short to medium term business needs, and then project forward.
Clear and appropriate process makes it easy to deliver on strategy. If vision is the destination, and strategy is the path we choose, process is about the mode of transport. The two heavily depend on each other, and a change in one will often have a knock on effect on the other.
If your process lines up poorly with your strategy, it can often make you feel like you're stuck in the mud and that your strategies too optimistic. When the two align well you can see continued delivery towards the strategy. This therefore means it is often necessary to consider changes to your processes when your strategy changes.
Processes are measured against their effectiveness at delivering to your strategy. It doesn't matter what your processes are, or how similar they are to others in your industry as long as they move you further along on your strategy at the pace your organisation needs.
Unfortunately, the term "process" often comes with baggage. In fact in many organisations people push against having processes at all. Whether you like it or not, everything you do in your organisation has a process behind it. The question many teams face is whether the process is well defined and understood by everyone, or whether everyone's process is unique and different. Even those in the most creative fields will tell you, they have a strong process for what they do, just look at Tom Sachs video on How To Sweep.
Oddly, this is the least specific section in this article, but one of the most specific building blocks. Your processes will be unique to your organisation, even if they are similar to that of others. The most important part of a process is that everyone involved knows it, understands it, and follows it. A typical way of achieving this is by writing it down in a place everyone can find it and access it, making sure it is as simple and clear as possible, and following up with accountability.
Process and strategy are both moot if you're not going to hold yourself and those in your organisation accountable. This isn't about managing underperformance, although that is one aspect, or creating an extremely high bar for everyone. It's about ensuring you follow through.
Individuals in the organisation need to be held accountable for following process and maintaing base standards of deliverables. Leaders need to be held accountable for creating and sticking to their strategy and vision. Without accountability, you can have all the vision, strategy, and process you want but any delivery that happens will be accidental.
When processes are not followed we need to practice accountability, that doesn't mean playing the blame game when someone makes a mistake but it does mean recognising patterns of recurring mistakes. If you see a pattern from an individual or an organisation at large your first question should take you back to the principals above. Is your process making it easy for someone to make a mistake, is it over complicated or not well defined, maybe it's not easy to find so people "wing it"? After you've gone through all of those questions and more, you can start asking yourself if it's an issue with the individual / team, and if so what should be done about that. Does the team need more training, does the person need to slow down and take more breaks, maybe they've picked up a habbit from a previous job and need some training and support? And yes, maybe they need to go on a PIP or be moved elsewhere in the business.
This is also true for leaders. If on the 1st January you've decided to dedicate 5% of all teams time to reliability improvements, and by the 10th January you've told teams to drop that work in favour of something else, you're not following your strategy. Those under your leadership must be able to hold you accountable and question what went wrong in this situation. Maybe the strategy was too ambitious, maybe it was set too early without all the necessary information, maybe you didn't properly challenge a request from your leaders.
The building blocks of a successful organisation
Vision, strategy, process, and accountability are not a guarantee that you'll get to your destination on time. Nor is it a guarantee you're aiming for the right place. But when each is done well it is a guarantee you'll make progress in a specific chosen direction.