OrgHacking’s Guide to Mission-Driven Companies

Believe it or not, this is 101st post in this blog. Which is the perfect opportunity for some big-picture reflection.

I started my professional career in the military. I loved coming to work every day with a deep sense of purpose, knowing that the work that I do helps save people’s lives. But the bureaucracy and the internal politics drove me away.

So I tried something different: working for a publicly-traded tech company. I loved the complexity and the broad range of challenges that stem from the way a for-profit company operates. But not having any sort of emotional connection with the problem our products were trying to solve, prevented me from bringing all of my energy and focus to work every day. If I’m spending more than a third of my waking hours on something (do the math), it’d better serve some deeper purpose than paying the bills or advancing my career.

I ended up spending a large chunk of a rather expensive 2-year “vacation”, getting an MBA, trying to figure out a career path that’ll enable me to marry the best parts of my two extreme professional experiences. I’ve learned and did a lot of other things during those two years, but having the time to grapple with this challenge is one of the things that I am most grateful for.

Fortunately,  I was able to find a small set of for-profit companies that met my “mission-driven” criterion and get a job with one of them. It was also deeply saddening to realize what small percentage of companies actually met that bar. My 5-year tenure with my previous employer was all the real-world validation that I needed to know that I’m on the right path.

When it was time to move on, “mission-driven” was one of the few criteria that I was not willing to compromise on. So I’ve put together a list of mission-driven companies which served as the most powerful focusing lens in my job search. When other colleagues were grappling with the “what’s next?” question, I’ve shared my list with them, and several of them said that they’ve found it useful. One of them even suggested sharing it with a broader audience.

So here it is. My list. It is by no means perfect, and is most certainly biased (towards early-stage tech companies in the Bay Area), and subjective (since I’ve used my own judgement on which companies met the “mission-driven” bar and which didn’t). I hope to keep adding to it, and welcome recommendations and suggestions for companies that should be on the list, but plan to keep tight editorial control.

Hopefully you’ll find it useful, as I did:

mission-drivenLINK TO FULL LIST

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OrgHacking’s Guide to Mission-Driven Companies

Takeaways From The Responsive.Org Unconference

Last weekend, I attended the Responsive.Org unconference in SF. Having had lukewarm experiences with unconferences in the past, I was really positively surprised by the level of the unconference and how much value I got out of it. Having a high caliber of attendees is a critical piece for success and the organizers totally nailed that part. My key takeaways are below.

Performance Management

This session, facilitated by Todd Elkin Aetherwyn, explored how the performance management process may look like in a networked, rather than hierarchical org.

  • Evaluation rubrics can be mapped to Dan Pink’s Drive Framework:
    • Autonomy – self-management, etc
    • Mastery – expertise in the domain of the role
    • Purpose – impact on the company’s mission
    • +Relatedness – communication/collaboration skills, including people management
  • Roles providing feedback:
    • A peer
    • A customer (can be an internal customer)
    • Your manager / someone else who has the perspective to assess the impact of your work on the company’s mission
    • A mentor (you should have one…)
    • Someone you’re afraid to get feedback from – this is all about personal growth, right?
  • Nudge towards transparency – encourage colleagues to make the reviews that they get public, or at least some portion of them . If more people know what you’re trying to improve about yourself – more people can help you do that
  • Explore other growth/maturity framework as inspiration for developing progress milestones along each rubric in a more objective/easy to evaluate manner. For example: Shu-Ha-Ri, CMMI, etc.

Unbundling Managers

This session was facilitated by me. I was curious to further explore some of my issues with Holacracy by  decomposing all the various things a manager in a traditional organization is responsible for and seeing whether there’s a way cluster them around new “non-managerial” roles.

As it turns out, the most compelling answer was right under my nose, in the “executive trinity” post. The role of the manager can potentially be unbundled into three roles. I’m still struggling with how to name them, so bear with me:

  • A people lead – typical “people management” responsibilities but with a more professional development focus. Hiring, firing, comp changes and promotions are view through the lens of recognition and professional growth.
  • A work lead  – typical “project management” responsibilities. This person is responsible for managing the work and helping the team deliver on its commitment/objective.
  • A direction lead – this person is responsible for helping the team set “what” they should be working on, by being extremely proficient in the “why”. They are responsible for helping the team stay aligned with where the larger organization is trying to get to.

I know that this idea may sound far from baked to some, and completely trivial to others. It’s a work in progress.

Compensation

This topic has been a lot on my mind lately. Specifically, how to design a good system for handling compensation. Fortunately, Ryan Irwin facilitated what turned into a double-session on this topic. And the focus was primarily on cash and cash-equivalent compensation.

The biggest takeaway for me, was as profound as it was simple: designing a good compensation system starts with defining the key beliefs of the designers/decisions makers in 3 major buckets:

  • Market forces – the purist approach for compensation suggests that people should be compensated based on their market worth. Netflix comes close to this ideal by encouraging its employees to interview and get offers from other places so they’ll have a better sense of their market’s worth. But labor markets, that tend to be thicker, are not perfectly efficient. Furthermore, assessing market worth is a pretty challenging and inaccurate task (typically consisting of trying to match job description to some market standard). Lastly, simply paying market price may conflict with other values that you want to promote through the compensation system (see below).
  • Employee needs – are there any variations in individual needs that the system should account for? for example: number of dependents, varying cost of living in different geographies, differing tax regimes across countries, risk / risk adverseness preferences.
  • Contribution to the organization – in many companies, this translates to some connection to the performance management system. But there are other aspects of this bucket that are also worth exploring. For example: loyalty/tenure to/with the organization, rewarding effort/behaviors instead/in addition to outcomes, degrees/certifications, etc.

Once you have clarity on the answers to these not-so-trivial questions, manifesting them in the various compensation components becomes a lot easier.

Since many compensation system were structured based on “best practices” or “industry standard”, going through the reverse exercise can be a pretty effective trigger for change. For example, many standard Paid Time Off (PTO) policies tend to have a tenure component in them, but the fact that this implies that the organization values and rewards loyalty is hardly ever discussed.

Takeaways From The Responsive.Org Unconference

Forget RACI, SPADE will pay off in spades

Another good read from the folks at First Round Review covering Gokul Rajarams decision making framework:

Square Defangs Difficult Decisions with this System — Here’s How

It’s a 5-part framework: Setting, People, Alternatives, Decide and Explain – or in short, SPADE

Setting

Defines the decision that needs to be made, using the standard 3-W’s:

  • What – articulates as precisely as possible what needs to be decided.
  • When – defines the timeline for making a decision. This cannot be a fake deadline, the timeline needs to be defensible.
  • Why –  goes one level deeper and makes the assumptions or beliefs that deemed the decision important explicit.

People 

Defines the groups of people that should be involved in the decision making process. This actually happens before or in parallel to defining the setting. Here Rajaram diverges from the classical RACI by defining only three roles:

  • Responsible – this is the person making the decision and the one accountable for executing it.  The often-confusing ambiguity between the “responsible” person and “accountable” person in some interpretations of RACI is eliminated by merging the the roles, which also reduces the systematic disempowerment in situations when one is held accountable for executing on a decision made by someone else.
  • Approver – is the person with veto rights over the decision. The intent here is that this right will be used sparingly and be focused primarily on the quality of the decision making process rather than its outcome.
  • Consultants – are the people that should be providing both input and feedback on the decision.

I find the way the approver role has been defined pretty interesting. If done correctly, it should create a dynamic similar to the one between a developer and a tester rather than a more traditional escalation up the chain of command.

I also can’t stress enough the importance of being thoughtful and proactive in identifying consultants and soliciting their input and feedback. Giving people a voice is the best way to reduce objections and road blocks further down the road.

Alternatives

These are essentially the potential outcomes of the decision making process.

Alternatives should be feasible, diverse and comprehensive. Engaging the people identified as the consultants for the decision is the best way to identify the best potential alternatives.

Decide 

Given the self-explanatory title, let’s focus on the actual steps:

  1. Gather the consultants in a room, present the best alternatives and have them provide feedback on them
  2. Solicit their confidential vote and reasoning for the alternative that each of them favors. Confidentiality can be removed if the level of trust is high enough, but it’s a powerful default, particularly around very contentious decisions
  3. Make the decision. Choose one of the alternatives and clearly formulate the reasoning for why you chose it. Note that making the decision does not require neither consensus nor a majority of the votes in favor of that alternative.

Explain 

  1. Run the decision by the Approver
  2. Walk the consultants through the decision that you’ve made and the reasoning
  3. Ask each of them individually to make a public commitment to support the decision
  4. Summarize the SPADE of the decision into a 1-pager and share with the rest of the company

The “explain” part is where I’ve seen many decisions-makers cut corners and then pay a steep price later on when execution on the decision stretches out or even stalls.

Forget RACI, SPADE will pay off in spades

The Agile Leader

… is probably one of the worst titles that you can give to a post if you want readers to read on. But as readers of this blog probably figured out by now, I am far from a marketing genius, so hopefully you’re still reading on.

Henrik Kniberg of Spotify fame, has put together one of the better posts about leadership that I’ve read in a while, sadly choosing a similar title to the one I chose for mine.

What is an Agile Leader?

He came up with a very simple definition to the job of a leader. A leader’s job is to ensure that everyone in the organization is capable of answering these 4 questions:

1. What does winning look like? Vision/Mission.

2. What’s the plan? Strategy and tactics.

3. What’s the score? Progress, status, feedback loops

4. What is preventing us from winning? Continuous improvement, people, teams, strategy, tactics.

He later breaks it down to a more detailed list of responsibilities:

Vision/mission. Ensure the the work being done has a clear purpose, clear hypotheses, clear boundaries/scope (“what are we NOT doing”), and clear success metrics based on business impact rather than deliveries. Ensure this is crystal clear to everyone involved, teams as well as customers and other stakeholders.

Iterative and incremental delivery. Ensure that the work is split into sub-deliveries, to enable iterative and incremental delivery rather than big bang.  Avoid large projects whenever possible, instead try to split the work into a series of smaller projects whenever feasible.

Adaptive planning. Ensure that plans are created and communicated to everyone involved. Ensure the plans are adaptive rather than predictive, and updated as we learn. Ensure that deadlines are communicated and forecasts created as necessary, and updated based on empirical data as the work progresses. Make sure any constraints (date or scope) are clear to everyone.

Feedback.  Ensure a short feedback loop with tight and frequent communication between teams and customers. Collaborative planning, demos, etc. Ensure that hypotheses and assumptions are field-tested early and that learning happens continuously. Ensure that progress is measured based on actual deliveries and feedback and business impact, not by compliance to plan.

Continuous improvement and knowledge sharing. Ensuring that learning and improvement happens continuously as the work progresses (not just at the end), and that key learnings are shared within the teams as well as across different parts of the organization.

Focus and alignment. Ensure that participants are focused and dedicated (not multitasking), and aligned with the same list of priorities. Bash silos. Ensure that people are focusing on achieving the highest possible business impact with the lowest possible effort and output (working smart is more important than working hard).

Impediment removal. Ensure that waste and impediments are visualized, prioritized, and systematically removed. Encourage teams to own and solve their own impediments whenever possible. Collaborate with other managers and take ownership of impediments that are escalated.

Decision enablement. Ensure that decisions are made in a just-in-time manner and by the people who have the best insight into the matter, decentralized whenever possible. Ensure that nobody (including you) becomes a decision bottleneck. Minimize the number of decisions that have to be made by you.

Visualize status and progress. Ensure that everyone can see the “big picture” – dashboards and such showing where we are going and why, where we are now, impediments, etc. Keep it at a high level, leave the details to the teams.

Flow. Optimize for end-to-end flow of value, not resource utilization. Look for bottlenecks and queues, and apply systems thinking and lean principles to streamline the delivery of business value.

Self-organization and autonomy. Make the goal and current situation clear so that people can think and act autonomously, with no need for you to tell them what to do.  Ensure people are given problems to solve rather than tasks to execute. Harness the collective intelligence of the group, rather than trying to be a mastermind yourself.

Staffing and capacity planning. Work with managers to ensure that the right people and teams are available at the right time to maximize the velocity and chance of success.

Budgets and estimates. Ensure that any budget and contractual constraints are known and managed.  Ensure that estimates are done by the team closest to the work at hand, kept at a high level, and adjusted when necessary. Ensure that estimates are treated as estimates, not promises. Make costs transparent.

Dependencies. Ensure that cross-team and cross-company dependencies are visualized and managed effectively, and that teams aren’t blocked waiting for each other.

Cross-functional collaboration. Use techniques such as co-location and cross-functional communication channels to reduce siloing and suboptimization.

Communication. Create an environment that facilitates high bandwidth face-to-face communication and minimizes the need for unnecessary documents, emails, and other low-bandwidth communication. Documents should be used to support communication, not replace it.

Fast failure. Create a context where small failures can happen early and often, thereby reducing the risk of a big failure at the end.

Note that the fuzzy term “ensure” is being used a lot. This is done by design, as the leader cannot enforce these things to happen, she can only “do whatever she can to create a context where this happens” which is what “ensure” means in that context.

This nuance hints a more profound and perhaps controversial statement made later on in the post about accountability: “people should be accountable for their behaviors, not results“. As  Henrik explains:

A product may fail to succeed despite all the best efforts of the team – it may fail for random reasons, it may fail because of acts outside of the team’s control. And vice versa, a product may succeed despite crappy efforts from the team and leaders, it may succeed because of blind luck or because there was no competition. This is complicated by the fact that failure and success is usually hard to define, with a big fat gray zone in between

It is a profound, and thought-provoking statement, because traditional performance management systems are wholly oriented around results ,rather than behaviors. How one might go about designing a performance management system that’s oriented around behaviors, without compromising on rigor, is something that I’m still mulling over.

The Agile Leader

A Deep Dive into Musk-World

I’ve heard references to WaitButWhy (WBW) several times in recent years. I remember reading their Gen Y post a couple of years back when it was making its viral rounds, and it was often mentioned as a source of inspiration to other content sites that I frequent or contribute to like Farnam Street and Evergreen. But I never got a chance to check it out until this past winter break, and boy did I pick a good time to do so.

WBW was just wrapping up a series of mega-posts (tens of thousands of words each) on Elon Musk and his companies. Committing to spending the necessary time reading such lengthy posts was not a trivial thing, but it was definitely worth the investment. These posts are truly the most comprehensive and clear resource on what Musk and his companies are really all about. Personally I’ve found them to be a better read than his recent biography.

It is a 4-part series consisting of:

  1. An intro: Elon Musk: The World’s Raddest Man
  2. A deep-dive on Tesla: How Tesla Will Change the World
  3. A deep-dive on Space X: How (and Why) SpaceX Will Colonize Mars (audio)
  4. A deep-dive on Musk: The Cook and the Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce

There are also a couple of smaller supporting posts on Solar City and the Hyperloop

I’m not even going to try to summarize them in any sort of meaningful way. But I will call out a few meta-ideas that really stuck with me, are relevant to the readers of this blog, and I may or may not turn into full-fledged blog posts in the near future:

  1. Technological progress doesn’t just happen organically over time. Without some sort of outside pressure, either natural (driven by the market) or artificial (driven by regulation), technological progress stops.
  2. We’re focused on the wrong kind of “doing things that don’t scale”. While the tactical application of this term (scrappiness, doing things manual before you can invest in automating them, etc.) is useful, the strategic application is far more interesting. This is what WBW refers to as the “Hershey’s Kiss” business plan used by both Tesla and SpaceX, but also by companies like Uber and Nike.
  3. The broad application of a scientific mindset (as opposed to dogma) to all aspects of life as the key thing that separates the most impressive and smartest leaders of our times from the rest of us

 

 

A Deep Dive into Musk-World