A Leader’s Guide to Deciding

A good piece by Steven Sinofsky on decision making and the critical role that it plays in an executive’s job:

A Leader’s Guide to Deciding: What, When and How to Decide

In this post, Steven tries to put some structure on striking the right balance somewhere in between the two extreme ends of the decision making spectrum: being in the center of a command-and-control scheme and fully delegating any decision.

He argues that decision making gets complicated as the organization scale primarily due the number of stakeholders that are being affected by the decision. Based on his experience, typical responsibility assigning schemes (RACI and the likes) tend to slow things down and push responsibility around.

He identifies 3 key pieces to solving the challenge:

  1. “The most important thing an executive must do is keep the output and velocity of the team at the highest level, and focused on doing the right things” – if you understand that this is your #1 job as an executive, you will spend your time, on the right things.
  2. “The real challenge is in trying to define decisions, isolate important ones, and then figure out the stakeholders for that one instance” (as opposed to finding the solution.
  3. Being clear, up front, first of all with yourself, but then with everyone else involved on the role that you intend to play in the project:
    • Initiator (10% of time). Kicking off new projects.
    • Connector (60% of time). Connecting people to others so the work gets better.
    • Amplifier (10% of time). Amplifying the things that are working well or not so there is awareness of success and learning.
    • Editor (20% of time) Fixing or changing things while they are being done.

For each of those roles, he provides a few examples, the communication tools you should use, the granularity of the guidance you should provide, the time you should spend playing this role and the necessary mindset to drive an effective outcome.

As a final note, Steven touches on the exception to the rule: “Don’t ever be worried about deciding in the most top-down, non-empowered, toe-stepping manner when facing a true crisis. That’s what leadership is all about”. He ties this advice to Ben Horowitz’s distinction between a “wartime” and “peacetime” CEO, but in my mind, it goes deeper than that. What Steven is describing here, in his own words, are the “complex” and “chaotic” pieces of the Cynefin Model which I’ve covered at length here. It all connects in the end…


A Leader’s Guide to Deciding

The New Model for Scaling a Company

As readers of this blog can probably guess by now, going down research rabbit holes, in which one interesting read leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to another – is one of my favorite pastime activities. I find the discovery process just as satisfying and rewarding as the content itself.

This was one of these cases. It started with reading Mike Arauz‘s  Unlocking the Benefits of Self-Management Without Going All In on Holacracy, which led to a deeper exploration of August, the consulting firm that he co-founded and the interesting work he did around the Responsive Org Manifesto, which led to the work by another August co-founder, Clay Parker Jones, which is the topic of this blog (even though I can probably write a separate post on every step in this process):

The New Model for Scaling a Company

Clay addresses the common phenomenon of companies becoming “bad” as they become “big”, and proposes a set of principles that may chart a path for an alternative outcome.

He starts by identifying a 7-attribute Performance Criteria for organizations:

  1. Purpose: The work we do here is important to us and to our customers; We gather according to a clear purpose
  2. Fitness: Those who consume our product believe in its quality; We achieve impressive things together; We make sense in the world
  3. Vitality: Not just fun, but vital, life-giving; Our lives improve as a result of our membership in the organization; We get energy from our work; Our culture is contagious
  4. Fairness: We make decisions taking everyone’s needs and advice into account; There is a strong sense of justice; Everyone in the organization has the same basic rights
  5. Power: More, and more forms of power for all; Power is spread throughout the organization, not just kept in the hands of a few
  6. Connection: Boundaries between teams are permeable; We don’t see our users as outsiders; We offer signals generously so others can learn from us
  7. Safety: People stay in the organization by choice; I won’t be let go for personal reasons; It’s easy to do good work; We have what we need to succeed

He then charts a path for achieving the desired change. I’ll give you a quick taste of the first one:

  • We must replace tyranny with the rule of law:

“Large firms mostly have good corporate governance… these tools actually stand in the way of a true application of the Rule of Law … “governance” typically comes in the form of a standing meeting where a group of subordinates recommend a decision to one or more senior officials, who either say yes, no, or go do more digging. This is tyranny, or at the very least, it’s a feudal approach to organizing human work. The alternative approach is one where we don’t let a single person or a small group make arbitrary decisions that impact a whole, but instead we vest authority in a system”

  • We must replace central planning with market forces
  • We must replace opacity with transparency

Each one of those, is supported by a small set of “even over” statements – choosing to do one good thing, even over another good thing . If that construct sounds familiar, it’s because Holacracy’s approach to strategy is utilizing it as well:

  • Elect even over Select
  • Process even over Decide
  • Describe even over Prescribe
  • Focus even over Help
  • Open even over Closed
  • Pull even over Receive

If I managed to pique your interest, you should definitely read Clay’s full piece.

The New Model for Scaling a Company

What’s Your Operating Rhythm?

Another good piece from First Round Review giving some very useful advice for new Engineering Managers in particular (a topic I’ve covered here), and people starting a new job in general:

This 90-day Plan Turns Engineers Into Remarkable Managers

The two parts that I liked the most, covered what I’d like to refer to as the manager’s “operating rhythm” – the repeatable way in which you put structure around how you spend your time to be effective.

The first talked about the one tactical aspect of how each week is structured:

“Each week, I have my meeting with my boss on Monday morning, then my full team meeting on Monday afternoon, and then each 1:1 starting on Tuesday. The order intentionally facilitates top-down communication, so that engineers doing the work have as much context as possible. Otherwise, I become a bottleneck and information will come out in dribs and drabs — from me or someone else. Up-and-down communication is the easiest place for a manager to get lost.”

The second, talks about creating an “event loop”. Many of the important actions that a manager needs to take, marry themselves to some natural cadence: daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly. The less frequent activities, tend to get lost in the noise and be forgotten altogether.  The “event loop” is a cadence-based checklist to ensure that this doesn’t happen. The particular example provided in the original post looks like this:

event loop

You can probably see by now why I like these two pieces of advice in particular. If  you zoom out a bit – they have nothing to do with engineering management. As a matter of fact, they have nothing to do with management. They’re applicable to any role, and can probably be used outside of a professional setting as well.

There are a few other easily-generalized bits like this in the article, making it a very good read overall.



What’s Your Operating Rhythm?

The Cultural Manifesto

A recent piece by First Round Review recaps a talk Kevin Scott, LinkedIn’s SVP of Engineering and Operations gave at their recent CTO Summit:

How I Structured Engineering Teams at AdMob and LinkedIn for Success

There are many good nuggets of content in the piece, but at its core is an artifact referred to as the Cultural Manifesto: “a document or a set of materials to help your entire engineering team get on the same page about how you make and operate things, and how you function as a team”.

Not surprisingly, it has three main sections covering the organization concrete, documented opinions in three main areas:

  1. How we make things – code reviews, branching, deploying code, enabling features, etc.
  2. How we operate things – monitoring & alerting, production access, data integrity, etc.
  3. How we function as a team – role of engineering, culture and values, conflict resolution, etc.

cultural manifesto


It’s a phenomenal starting-point checklist to go through. If you don’t have a concrete, documented opinion on one of these line items – you probably should.

“Don’t let your CFO start capitalizing R&D labor” is my own personal favorite 🙂

The Cultural Manifesto