How we Plan at Bonial (part 2: clarity)

Clarity

How do you go about fixing something that requires you to change almost everything you do?  As described in part 1, this was the situation we faced at Bonial in late 2014 when it came to the governance and execution of our product development roadmap.  

Rather than re-inventing the wheel, we took advantage of proven play books – one for organization change and one for enterprise agile.  On the organizational side, we knew that the “top down, centralized control” model was already strained and would not scale.  So we leveraged elements from the (fantastic) book “Turn this Ship Around!” by Capt. David Marquett, which describes one organization’s journey from a top-down leadership structure to a “leader-leader” structure with distributed ownership and control.  Bonial would have to undergo a similar transformation – we needed everyone to be engaged and feeling ownership if we were to realize rapid transformation and scale. 

In the book, the author presents a couple dozen excellent leadership mechanisms and groups them under three high-level categories – Clarity, Control, and Competence.  In the interest of brevity, I’ll describe just a few of the things we did to improve in these categories.  (I’ll also break them up over several posts.)

Starting with clarity, we began with the simplest exercise possible: we documented all of the work-in-progress on one list.  Absurdly basic yet profound.  We created the first draft by literally going from team to team and asking them what projects were in progress and putting them in a Google Sheet.  (Why this format?  Because normalizing and adapting the existing tracking tools (Jira, Trello) would have taken far too long and wasted the team’s time and energy.  Also, Google Sheets allow for simultaneous editing which is critical for collaboration.)  To make this relevant for business stakeholders, we then dropped the small “story” and “task” level items and broke down the “saga” level items so that the resulting list was at a meaningful “epic” or “project” level.

Here’s a snap of an archived copy of the first version:

Screenshot of first Bonial Roadmap on Google Sheets

This exercise had several immediate impacts.  First, it showed our stakeholders that the engineering team was actually working on a quite a few projects and began to restore some confidence in the product development function.  Second, it shed light on all the projects and prompted a number of valid and constructive questions as to priorities and business justifications for the projects.  This in turn led directly to our decision to do more formal and intentional planning: we wanted to ensure that our engineering resources were “doing the right things,” not just “doing things right.”

Over time this simple Google Sheet has grown to be the primary tool for viewing and communicating the current quarter’s roadmap development.  We populate the sheet with the output of each quarter’s planning exercise (more on that to follow).  Twice a week we review the status of all items (red, yellow, green) and discuss as a team what we can do to adjust if needed.  The same spreadsheet is publicly available to all stakeholders for full transparency.  We’ve considered several times moving to more sophisticated (and expensive) tools but each time we decided that the Google Sheets does everything we need.

Key takeaway: it’s hard to plan if you don’t know what you’re already doing.  Take the time to get clarity on what’s happening, tune it to the right granularity, and ensure there’s full transparency.

In the next post I’ll talk about how we approach mechanisms for control. 

Getting Extreme

 

In my previous post on Extreme Ownership I shared that I wished more technology companies would take the principles more seriously.  Over the last month my wish was granted right here at my company.  

Our executive team had an offsite strategy meeting last week, and one of the coolest things we did was take a deep dive into Extreme Ownership.  In the weeks leading up to the summit each member of the team – managing directors, senior execs and CxOs – read Extreme Ownership and prepared homework consisting of an introspective look into how they’d individually violated or been challenged by the principles as well as which principles we wanted to focus on bringing more into the company.

We discussed our experiences over dinner in a very candid fashion.  Each person shared one or two “fails” that tracked back to the principles, or challenges that could better have been solved by better applying the principles.  It’s not often that very skilled and accomplished senior executives are willing to admit to failures in front of their peers, so I think that says a lot about the character of those around the table as well as their commitment to Extreme Ownership.

Some of the maxims that resonated strongly and were repeatedly mentioned:

  • “There are no bad boats, only bad leaders” – the core idea here is that you have to look first at the immediate leader before blaming the team itself for underperformance.
  • “It’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate” – how true.  How brutal true.
  • “Check the ego” – as the authors note, “egos cloud and disrupt everything.”  If you don’t have the discipline to keep your ego in check you don’t deserve the trust and confidence of the people you lead.
  • “They don’t want me to fail” – how many times do we assume that a boss or outside organization is to purposely make our lives harder when they put an obstacle in our way?  Probably quite a bit.  And how often is that true?  Likely very seldom.  If we’d drop the assumption of hostile intent and the resulting “us vs them” attitude, business and life would be a lot easier.

One of the longer and more challenging discussions was around how to move to “Decentralized Command” – let’s face it, it’s not easy to step back and let others take charge of executing a mission that you’re accountable for.  But it must be done to scale the organization and to develop the next generation of leaders.  And guess what – sometime they will fail, and you’ll still own the result.  Our COO made a key point here – while failure in the SEALs often results in injury or death, a business fail will have much, much lighter consequences, so we need to take an objective look at the real risk and balance with the cost of not decentralizing. 

As a team we decided on three of the principles we’d like to focus on for the entire organization and each of us was assigned a buddy from within the group to challenge us grow in these areas.  

I was really energized by this process and I’d recommend it to any team that wants to move in this direction.  In hindsight, I recognize that our company already has a pretty solid accountable culture and a general lack of fear, which probably made this a lot easier; some teams will have to overcome much bigger culture and ego challenges.  Which, in the end, means it’s even more vital.

Extreme Ownership, Tech Style

I recently read “Extreme Ownership,” a popular read on leadership by former Navy SEAL officers.  The core premise of the book is that a leader must fully own the results (good or bad) of their results if they are to create and lead a successful team.  Accountability is key, even in cases (or especially in cases) in which events are out of one’s direct control – the leader is responsible for ensuring that everyone in their organization has the context and competence to succeed, even to the point getting rid of underperforming team members when necessary.  There are no excuses.

How I wish I could find more of this in the tech domain.

I have limited experience in non-tech industries so I can’t say whether it’s better or worse elsewhere, but techies love their excuses.  When I was consulting I called it the “Any and All Excuses Accepted Here” phenomenon.  I’ve lost track of the number of status reports (standups, etc) in which someone reports that their task or project is late and everyone (leadership included) just nods at the excuses and moves on.  Perhaps a developer got sick or another team didn’t deliver on time.  Maybe there was a massive network outage that blocked access to servers or critical services. In truth the challenges are legitimate, but so what?  I rarely see the person who owns the outcome and explains what they’re going to do to make things right. 

Why is this attitude important?  Simple: as one of my mentors used to say, the market doesn’t give a damn about your excuses.  Either you deliver and win or you don’t.  

There are certainly companies who are much less tolerant of excuses in their relentless pursuit of market leadership, however that doesn’t mean their leaders actually embrace the concept of Extreme Ownership.  Many of these companies have cultures in which blame replaces excuses and leaders throw their subordinates or peers under the bus.  Shit rolls downhill.  The culture quickly becomes toxic and, while the short-term business results may be impressive and the investors are happy, the people responsible for delivering the success work in fear under weak leaders.

So how do we fix this?

It starts with you.  If you’re a leader in your organization you must embrace Extreme Ownership yourself if you want the rest of the organization to follow suit.  Once you do, you’ll find that it becomes contagious and spreads quickly throughout the team/s.

Getting into the Extreme Ownership mindset takes work.  Start here: the next time your team fails, resist the urge to make any excuses or to pounce on the person who screwed up.  First ask yourself the question: “What could I have done to get a different result?”  Then make it right if at all possible. Own up fully and personally to the failed result and set about doing what you can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.  Sometimes it’ll involve better communications; sometimes more training.  Usually it will require hard thinking in how to do things better.  Often it will need hard conversations about individual performance and in extreme cases the removal of people who simply can’t fulfill their team duties.  The latter is tough and is a last resort, but is necessary to ensure the health of the team.

Creating a culture of ownership is not enough – training is also needed.  Let’s face it – most people are not natural-born leaders. But I believe, and my experience has shown me, that most people can learn to be solid leaders.  As leadership has strong components of science and psychology it lends itself well to training.  We do a great disservice to our industry by thrusting new leaders into roles without any training or support (or worse, sending them to bland corporate boilerplate training).  More on this in a later blog. 

In closing – read the book (preferably with your team) or listen to the interview on Tim Ferriss’ podcast and start adopting the principles.  You won’t regret it.  

Own it!