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Team choreography

29 October 2018

The power of good process and why it’s important to nail your operational cadence

This post was originally published on Range.

In their book An Everyone Culture, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey lay out three pillars for high-performing, deliberately developmental organizations: the edge, the home, and the groove.

The Edge represents the aspirations and goals for the team and individuals. They are slightly out of reach, and force people to stretch. Some failure will be inevitable and conflict is necessary if you want to get optimal results.

The Home is the central community, fostering trust and emotional safety. It’s the healthy culture that allows people to take risks and do their best work. Without a strong home, pushing on the Edge becomes dangerous and people will become prone to burn out.

Finally, the Groove are the practices used by the team to strengthen the home and support people as they work close to their growing edge.

Over the past year the Range team has talked to folks at dozens of organizations across the world. Many of these progressive, technologically driven companies have great cultures and strong homes, and they are working on complex problems that inevitably pushes people to their edge. But some of them have lacked a strong groove, and have been suspicious of anything that smells like process.

This isn’t surprising. Much of what makes these companies feel special is the rejection of the command-and-control, linear management practices of the 20th century. People often join startups specifically to escape the bureaucracy of big cos; driven by a desire for agility, freedom, and learning. Process and common practices are seen as dogmatic and antithetical to the innovation and creativity that they seek.

But equating process to bureaucracy and rejecting it outright is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Bad process is bad, and you should of course question practices that feel bureaucratic and which slow you down. But good process drives clarity, builds alignment, is empowering, and actually encourages autonomy rather than inhibit it.

If you’re still feeling allergic to the term ‘process’ then pick a different word; Hulu’s Jason Kilar calls good processes “mechanisms”.

If your team feels chaotic, you’re struggling to stay aligned, you find it hard to hold people accountable, or you see people drowning in competing priorities. Where do you start?

To find your groove, you need to lay down a solid foundation and create a well-defined operating cadence. This is a rhythm, a drum beat that keeps people aligned, helps everyone know what is happening, what is important, and what to expect.

An operational cadence can be thought about from multiple perspectives: for an individual, for a team, or for a company. And while there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, there are some common components that we’ll look at below.

Weekly Bookends

In an attempt to reduce meeting load, it can be tempting to lump all team related activities into one weekly meeting. In some cases, this will be unavoidable, but there is a lot of power in having two team meetings form bookends for your week.

A Monday briefing kick-starts the week and re-orients everyone. It gives you a chance to check-in on things that are important to your team, such as project statuses, metrics, plans for the week, and other commitments like out of office time. Done well, this brings clarity and focus to the week’s activity and builds alignment which reduces coordination overhead throughout the week.

It’s hard to be simultaneously in a forward-looking and backward-looking frame of mind, so the other bookend is designed to round out the week with a recap or retro. This can be relatively short, or even over lunch. The goal is to reflect on highlights and lowlights for the week, celebrate both successes and failures. You can also use it as an opportunity for a show-and-tell, to share knowledge, or to review customer stories. Instead of drilling into issues during this time, make a note and bring them to the next Monday briefing.

Choreographing Communication

Every team will have outside people they should be regularly communicating with. Structuring this communication, instead of leaving it ad hoc, will reduce the cognitive load of deciding what to do and how to do it. This will ultimately make it easier to produce and will help people feel more informed.

Though a bit crude, this can generally be broken down into:

  • up — your manager, department head, CEO, the board, or investors
  • out — peer teams, stakeholders, downstream dependencies
  • down — subteams, reports

Some communication will be in person, at the weekly briefing, check-in meetings, or all hands. Some will be written; we’ve talked to teams who send out emails, others use Google Docs and drop them in Slack.

The medium doesn’t matter too much, as long as it’s discoverable. The key is consistency and predictability. Design the cadence and then iterate.

Gokul Rajaram has good advice on running all hands, and Lara Hogan has a nice template for bi-weekly email.

Planning

Lack of a regular cadence often leaves people scrambling to come up with a plan after being surprised by their boss. Making sure everyone knows when and how company and team goals are going to be defined and shared is really important.

That said, the mechanics will be very context dependent and will be different depending on the nature of your work and the size of your team. Quarterly planning is a common company level cadence, but teams might want to plan interim milestones on a 2 week, 4 week, or 6 week rhythm.

Generally products or industries that are in their genesis should have short planning cycles. Mature products and utilities will plan on longer time frames. Simon Wardley (swardley) has written about this in the context of his work on mapping.

There are many other mechanisms that great companies utilize as part of their groove. I’m sure we’ll talk about more of them, here on this blog in the future.

But getting your teams into a regular rhythm through a well-defined operational cadence is an important first step. You can get started by:

  1. Defining the weekly touch points for your team, favoring Monday/Friday bookends if you can.
  2. Setting a plan for when and how you communicate up and out, as well as within your team. Bi-weekly memos over email or docs are a good start.
  3. Making sure everyone is aware of how and when objectives and goals are defined and communicated.

Let us know how it works out. And if you’re curious about what we’re building, and whether we could help you build your grove, you can find out more at range.co.


Team choreography was originally published in Range Labs on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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