Our growing team is now spread across three states.
Who’s wearing a bathrobe and slippers right now? I have no idea. The goal is to hire smart, hard-working, honest people, who care about the mission, regardless of geography.
Then get the hell out of their way.
Admittedly, this is something we’re still learning how to do. “Getting out of the way” is a nice management cliche, but harder to implement in real life.
How does one get out of the way exactly? And how can you be most helpful once you’ve done so?
Is the Manager standing directly over the shoulder of the team member? We know that’s not it.
Or are they on the sidelines simply cheering them on? Better, but not actually helpful in getting work done.
I’ll stop the metaphor there because the point is that it shouldn’t be vague.
After trying and learning a few things, we’ve gravitated towards a philosophy that can be captured as “directional autonomy”. It simply means this:
We do our best to define the “what”, “when”, and “why” of our work, and empower the individual to take control of the “how”.
This enables smart, hard working, honest people to make it happen. When our team understands the challenge and the context, we trust them to find the best solution.
It’s similar to a road trip. You know your destination and desired time of arrival, but how you get there is another story. It could be smooth sailing with no traffic, or mired with snowy road closures and flat tires that require you to ditch the car and catch a bus instead.
And what if there’s a Cracker Barrel on the way?
What an opportunity!
Or is it a distraction?
To shift this from theory to practical implementation, we focus on three things:
A top concern when building a team is that people won’t be “on the same page”. But alignment isn’t about geography, it’s about communication.
For that reason, we set medium term goals using the Objective & Key Resultsframework (OKRs for short). It’s used by some of the biggest companies in the world, but it’s so simple it can be applied to teams of all sizes. There are just two parts:
1. Objectives — What you want to accomplish.
2. Key Results — A numerical expression of success or progress towards that objective.
OKRs provide alignment on what’s most important (not just urgent) for the business.
Each OKR cascades from the company level down to the individual level. This provides a clear line of sight of what we’re working towards, when we’re doing it, and the why behind it. It’s then up to the individual to determine how to accomplish their part.
The super power is that each individual’s unique skills are used to solve the team’s biggest challenges. In other words, everyone is contributingin their own unique way. Directional autonomy baby.
Have you ever noticed that when a group of people order pizza together it takes forever, but if one person just takes the lead everyone is happy in the end? The person who places the order does their best to make smart decisions, and the one guy who hates green peppers just picks them off.
The same is true in a company. As a team grows there’s a nonlinear increase in the number of lines of communication. It looks like this:
Could you imagine gaining consensus on a pizza order while 91 simultaneous conversations take place?
We avoid making decisions by consensus, when possible, for the same reason.
The individual closest to the problem is likely to be the best equipped to make the decision. They’re encouraged to collect data and information from others, when appropriate, but ultimately they’re empowered to make the call. We want them to use judgment to make the best decision they can with the information (and time) available. Then hold themselves accountable for correcting course if they called it wrong. Just like green peppers, most decisions are reversible.
The final gem is borrowed from Raman Chadha, Managing Director of the Junto Institute. In his experiences, setting standards for the entire organization, instead of just at the individual level, creates a healthier work environment.
When they’re set at the individual level they become a personal expectation, which can create an emotional response if that expectation isn’t met.
A team standard, though, cuts across job descriptions and applies to everyone. This makes them less personal and creates alignment.
For example, being clear in communication is something that our team places importance on. It’s something we work hard to demonstrate in our customer interactions, our product, the documentation of our software code, and even on this blog. While it’s not in any of our individual job descriptions, holding ourselves accountable to this standard results in higher quality work across the board.
Raman elaborates on his interpretation of this concept in his post. Here’s the money quote:
“…expectations are personal; standards are not… when running a business, setting standards for people to meet rather than expectations makes things easier for everyone; it de-personalizes the performance metric and makes it more objective.
When someone doesn’t meet an expectation, it can trigger an emotional reaction like dismay, disappointment, or frustration. But when someone doesn’t meet a standard, it can be less emotional, if at all.
…I try my hardest not to set expectations for anyone. Instead, I try to set standards for the organization which apply to everyone, including me. ”
Rather than steering behavior through carrots, sticks, policies or procedures, the responsibility to adhere to the standard is shared. The target is clear, and the management red tape has been removed.
At WatchTower, we believe that when we align our team toward key objectives, empower each other to make decisions independently, and hold ourselves accountable to consistent and high standards, then we’ve cleared the path to do what we do best. We’ve gotten out of our own way.