This is one of my larger learnings of the last year(s) as an Engineering Manager and as a Manager of other Engineering Managers. It’s also something I had to learn the hard-ish way as I did it wrong in my first leadership role, and watched peers struggle hard in my current role. My default brain setting is “anarchism” and I have a hard time following the rules, whatever they may be, so this one is a particularly hard challenge for me. This article is about following “Doctrine”, avoiding the “Problem of the week”, and distinguishing between these two.
I don’t particularly like the term itself, as it sounds quite militaristic, but I don’t have a better one yet. What I mean by that (and I borrowed it from Simon Wardley, but I am not focusing on the universal, but the individual underlying principles of working in a company), is that at any given time, any company has a few fundamental truths that it operates on to move forward. One of them (as I experienced it personally) could be hypergrowth, but other examples might be “finding product market fit”, “becoming profitable” or “building things based on User Research”. If there is none or few, I would assume your company is just struggling along with the wind, and you should probably look for another place to work. The same goes for rapidly switching “fundamental truths” before any doctrine has yielded any results - a sure sign that the top leadership doesn’t have its act together. A very well-run organization will frequently communicate and cautiously adapt its doctrine
If you are finding yourself in that situation of hypergrowth, you are supposed to grow your teams and headcount as fast as you can, with the goal of “achieving maximum impact for the company”. That means thinking about “If I had twice the teams and people, what else could I be delivering additionally? Or doing in parallel? Or unblock with raw force?”. You of course don’t want to fall into the build trap of just generating meaningless output with no outcomes.
But if you don’t follow doctrine, you might fall into the trap of locally optimizing: Maybe, for the current thing that your teams are building, adding more people will likely not help. You have read the Mythical Man-Month and you’re rightfully afraid. Au contraire, onboarding more people will slow down your current execution. But if you take a stance against headcount growth in a company that has hypergrowth, you will be chewed out by the org and tossed aside as “someone who stands in the way”.
So what I suggest you should be doing instead is
Understand the current doctrine, including why it’s there in the first place
Plan how you can use that to your organisation’s advantage
Propose and execute
In a way, this advice may sound opportunistic, and to a bit that’s true. But the way I made my peace with this is that there is hopefully a strong strategic reason behind it that will delight your users and propel the business forward.
As an additional trick up your sleeve, you should probably have a good story for the inverse action too. For example, as we can see in the current economic downturn/recession, hypergrowth can quickly turn into layoffs and trimming of organizational structures. Once that happens in your org, you should probably stop screaming immediately for more headcount, and rather find out how you can handle more topics with the people you have, to make yourself and your group valuable.
Bring your own tactics
So here’s the difference where I start acting rebellious. Every company I worked in so far had, to some degree, a problem of the week. That’s where everyone’s eyes were on, but as quickly as these topics come, they’ll be superseded equally fast. You can spend your whole leadership tenure running after them and making a dent toward these topics without going anywhere. Usually, they are also reasonable to work on:
Our error rate is too high
Too many outages last week
Performance is bad
Cloud spending is too high
The Swedish Market demands more meatballs
While these are examples of “problem of the week”, most of them could be longer, serious strategic endeavors. But often, they are driven by a key event: Maybe the CEO got an email from his university friend, who’s also a CEO, and will be quickly forgotten for the next hype next week.
For this kind of problem, I would suggest being compliant - that means doing something about it, getting some quick wins in, and allocating a bit of capacity - But not going all in. Your people will get whiplash from the weekly turns. But this will also torpedo something very important:
For whatever thing you are a leader for, I expect you to have some kind of vision for where this thing should go in the next half year / year / two years. And you need to make small, consistent steps towards that goal, and make sure that goal stays in line with the company doctrine and company vision. But if you just go with the tactics, you are a waiter and not a chef (to use a tired kitchen analogy), catering to your stakeholder’s whims without delivering a truly excellent org, and you will be stuck wherever you are today. You will likely miss out on promotions because you won’t display any ability to move things forward. I think I’ll write another article just about bringing your own strategy.
To sum it up: A little anarchist mindset goes a long way, but be smart about which battles you pick :-) Unless you are part of Senior Leadership, then you should think about if your doctrine is clear and well communicated to your group of leaders.