The future of content / publishing, product design opportunities.

Subcompact Publishing — by Craig Mod.

Brilliant essay from Craig Mod of Flipboard on how we could rethink the design of solutions in content and publishing. I think he’s hit the nail on the head on how we could be doing a better job with solutions rather than simply transferring mental models and interaction design over from the physical.

Interesting points:

The views of existing content publishers: “The perception of the incoming disruptors is that they are low quality and therefore not really worth paying attention to.” Joshua Benton remarked this to Clayton Christensen, who knows a thing or two about low price disruptors eating incumbent lunches.

The Subcompact Car = Minimum Viable Car: Where are the digital publishing subcompacts then?

Usability between physical and digital content: Tablets and smartphones don’t have the same obviousness in interaction design, but therein lies an opportunity.

Publishing Technology Startups: Could be previously categorized into technologists disconnected from traditional content ecosystems and incumbents of traditional content ecosystems disconnected from technology. Both were needed before, but not as much now as new breeds of content producers emerge – both technically proficient and producing high quality content. See Twitter vs. traditional news media on covering stories – there is a rapidity to the former but a quality to the latter – find someplace in the middle.

Great description for emerging content niches: Matter isn’t quite a website, it’s not really a magazine, and it’s not exactly a book publisher either. Instead, Matter is something else – a new model for high quality journalism.” Buying an article gets you an ad free web edition, eBook for Kindle, iPad and other readers, Q&A with the author. Memberships include a seat on their editorial board. They focus on building their most valuable asset – the community. How much does your average magazine or newspaper subscription get you?

Skeuomorphic Design: Rather than just blindly bringing over physical predecessor design, there’s an opportunity to rethink what’s most vital and where something better can be done digitally. Matter has an outstanding understanding of editorial ethics, storytelling and craft, then changes the shape of the content and distribution models to what’s now possible with digital. Magazine design parameters (# of articles, monthly publishing schedule, article bundling) are decisions driven by physical content distribution and production constraints. They don’t need to carry over.

The Subcompact Content Manifesto:

  • Require few to no instructions, understood on first blush, clear navigation
  • Editorial and design decisions are based on the constraints of digital as a means of distribution and consumption
  • Small issue sizes (3-7 articles / issue), small file sizes
  • Digital aware subscription prices (No one is going to pay the same amount for a download as a book).
  • Fluid publishing schedule
  • Scroll (don’t paginate)
  • HTMLish based
  • Connects to the open web – I cannot tell you how much I love seeing an Ebook with embedded links to additional media.

Small file size: Speed should be what you optimize for in content smaller than a book but bigger than a tweet.

Reasonable subscription prices: Should reflect the lower cost of doing business digitally, not the cost of protecting print subscriptions.

Fluid publishing schedule: Depending on the length / complexity of the content. Daily schedules work for blogs, hours/minutes for tweets, weeks for digital content, no more monthly schedules, books beyond that timeframe.

Scroll rather than paginate: Engineering costs are usually too high for beautiful, simple and fast pagination and doesn’t make sense for subcompact content publishing. Scrolling is simpler for navigation and better mental models for users. No pagination is better than poor pagination.

Clear Navigation: Nail the mental models – it shouldn’t require a how to or tutorial before people can start consuming content. This is more or less my design philosophy.

HTMLish based: including ePub or Mobi or other formats with HTML pedigrees. Indisputably the future format for all text and maybe also interactive content. Most all computing devices come with high quality HTML rendering engines built in, so take advantage of the existing infrastructure.

Think about the jobs to be done: classic quote from Clayton Christensen perfectly relevant to rethinking digital content publishing.

The basic idea is that people don’t go around looking for products to buy. Instead, they take life as it comes and when they encounter a problem, they look for a solution—and at that point, they’ll hire a product or service.

The key insight from thinking about your business this way is that it is the job, and not the customer or the product, that should be the fundamental unit of analysis.

I’m waiting in line for coffee and have ten minutes to kill. 

Customer facing RSS: I love RSS but this is a great idea – make it easier and cheaper for people to subscribe to content authors and producers for a sensible cost. Although I question whether the economics can be reversed from the point that most people expect certain types of content to be free instead of behind just another pay wall. Maybe the higher signal to noise ratio in subcompact publishing will warrant a long tail type of subscription plan. Mod addresses this with comments on designing for the open web as well as having a call to pay action.

Marco Arment: Whose Instapaper app I love, behind The Magazine recently launched, nails the subcompact publishing ethos. This is the first time I’ve heard the table of contents icon called the “hamburger” but it is perfect. Paul Graham talks about the kind of programmer Marco is in the recent Startup Ideas essay – “not just a publishing-interested engineer, he’s a subcompact publishing magnate”:

Knowing how to hack also means that when you have ideas, you’ll be able to implement them. That’s not absolutely necessary (Jeff Bezos couldn’t) but it’s an advantage. It’s a big advantage, when you’re considering an idea like putting a college facebook online, if instead of merely thinking “That’s an interesting idea,” you can think instead “That’s an interesting idea. I’ll try building an initial version tonight.” It’s even better when you’re both a programmer and the target user, because then the cycle of generating new versions and testing them on users can happen inside one head.

The Daily Routines of Famous Writers

The Daily Routines of Famous Writers | Brain Pickings.

Great stuff on dedication to mastering a craft.

E.B. White:

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.

Ray Bradbury:

Some new thing is always exploding in me, and it schedules me, I don’t schedule it. It says: Get to the typewriter right now and finish this.

Ben Franklin’s daily routine:

This one from William Gibson is interesting for the relationship to the subconscious mind in thinking and creativity:

Naps are essential to my process. Not dreams, but that state adjacent to sleep, the mind on waking.

Kurt Vonnegut:

In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me.

Collective Intelligence / Human Systems Engineering

Collective Intelligence | Conversation | Edge.

Fascinating read from Thomas W. Malone, Director of MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence at the Sloan School of Management.

He studies the way people and computers can be connected to act more intelligently than any single person, group or computer. Better living through technology is one of the reasons why I wake up and “human systems engineering” is a slow hunch.

Love this view:

You could say that the Internet is one way of greatly accelerating the connections among different people and computers on our planet. As all the people and computers on our planet get more and more closely connected, it’s becoming increasingly useful to think of all the people and computers on the planet as a kind of global brain.

What’s the science here? In a sense, we’re trying to understand scientifically how groups of humans work together now using the means we have and have had for connecting humans to each other, face to face communication, telephone, Internet, et cetera. More importantly, perhaps, we’re also trying to understand the science behind the deeper phenomena of humans working together or humans and computers working together in ways that will help us understand how to create new kinds of human or human and computer cooperatives or collective intelligences. So in that sense, the boundary between science and engineering begins to blur.

Science is about understanding what is, engineering is about how to create what you want to be. But they’re clearly related to each other. Understanding better how the world works helps you shape the world in ways you want it to be, and often trying to shape the world in ways you want helps you understand fundamental scientific questions about how the world is in ways that you might never have thought of asking before. Another way of thinking about the question of what’s the science here is to relate what we’re doing in collective intelligence.

Interesting points:

Rose by any other name: Families, companies, countries and armies are examples of collective stupidity as well as intelligence. What causes either?

Global brain: Think of an evolutionary vector that could someday give rise to a global brain. E.G. Daniel Suarez’ Daemon. Google and Wikipedia aren’t that far off.

Genomes of Collective Intelligence: Malone has identified 19 collective intelligence design patterns that repeat over and over.

Measuring Collective Intelligence: Using the same statistical techniques to measure individual intelligence – average and maximum intelligence of the group is only moderately correlated with the collective intelligence of the group as a whole. Most of the factors thought to correlate didn’t at all. What did correlate?

  • Average social perceptiveness of group members: as measured by a test for autism (“Reading the Mind and the Eyes test” – look at other people’s eyes and try to guess the emotion the people are feeling. People good at that were good in groups and when you have a bunch of people like that the group is more intelligent.
  • Conversational Turn Taking: groups where one person dominated the discussion were on average less intelligent
  • % Women In The Group: More women = more intelligent. This is not just a diversity issue – they found a  linear relationship with more women being better all the up to all women.

Single factor of intelligence: One of the most well documented / surprising results is that there is a single factor of intelligence that correlates with individual performance across a wide array of tasks. Specifically, that single factor of intelligence is picking up new things quickly. Hah.

Interesting bio: Malone’s undergrad was in mathematical sciences – basically applied math and computer science. In graduate school, masters in engineering economic systems – Stanford program that no longer exists by that name. PhD in cognitive and social psychology from Stanford. “I wanted to help solve the problems created by technology changing faster than society could adapt.”

Why do this: Understand how the world of groups of people and computers work together, help businesses, governments and other organizations to work better, try to understand how world/society is evolving.

Ant Colonies: Maybe the right unit of analysis needs to be the colony rather than the individual ant when assessing collective intelligence.

Most of the things we think of as human intelligence really arise in the context of our interactions with other human beings.

The difference between managers and leaders.

A friend was commenting today how rewarding and moving it was for their team to talk about what they learned and felt over the course of shipping a major product release. I always felt that was the best part about shipping – giving praise and thanks to everyone who made it happen. It inspired me to articulate my beliefs on the difference between phone it in average management and real leadership, and what I strive for personally.

I believe the fundamental difference between managers and leaders is in making ideals into reality.

What follows will have a lot of idealistic statements for those that may puke at the Hallmark  generalizations. But I do think that wanting to make reality into something better is what defines leadership in any domain, beyond any trivial application in business. Think of the people in history who are remembered exactly because they made reality better.

For the purpose of a binary oversimplification, managers or people who aren’t leaders make do with how things are and accept reality as is. Something may be clearly wrong or less than it could be, but you just go in, rearrange the deck chairs on your section of the Titanic and collect a paycheque. Leaders have a clear vision of what could and should be, and work to unleash the emotional and intellectual power of those they serve to attain that shared ideal state. In leading change, I think you have to be on some level offended by the inadequacy of current reality to do something about it in spite of the odds, rather than live with what’s feasible in current constraints.

Managers make people do tasks based on structural authority and resource control. People then trade their time for money in a practical decision. Leaders inspire passion and commitment by enabling higher levels of Maslow’s pyramid instead of just the food and shelter part. If you think in terms of enabling people’s goals while channelling collective efforts towards a higher purpose, it engages an emotive state beyond just the rational. Managers instead talk about what they want. Leaders ask what other people want and find ways to give that as net givers rather than takers.

Managers have credibility based on variables like age/experience/seniority or hierarchy. While there is an obvious relationship between decision making effectiveness and experience, I do not believe intelligence increases over time more than the set of information it operates on. So as a leader you can recognize the quality of people’s thinking even if they have some other gap. If intelligence is defined most reductively as the ability to learn new things, and experience is what other people call their mistakes, leaders can recognize the credibility and value of what their constituents say. Leaders treat people like trusted experts and advisors. Leaders themselves have credibility that is based on trust and competence, which would hold true even if situational factors like hierarchy were removed.

Managers find faults in people’s capabilities and consequently limits on what can be achieved. Leaders identify the strengths people have and focus on developing them, exerting a multiplier effect and helping people to achieve more than they thought possible. People who are more insecure about their own ignorance or uncertainty tend to be harsher on others for theirs. While Andy Grove made a reasonable point about needing to present certainty when others look to you for clarity and direction, leaders are able to see failure or misunderstanding as a necessary part of learning and acknowledge they have something to learn as well. If you think about the best people you ever worked for, they’re not only the ones you learned the most from, but also made you feel like you taught them something too.

Managers say “I” a lot. Leaders say “We”. Managers take credit for success and place blame for failure. Leaders flip that relationship. They recognize and reward others for any success obtained and take full responsibility for anything that goes wrong because that makes the collective stronger than throwing people under the bus. Managers make people feel small in front of others. Leaders make people feel like superheroes, praising in public, correcting in private.

Managers leave people feeling like they had decisions imposed on them. Leaders leave people feeling the dignity of choice and authors of their own plot. Managers do what they do because they have to. Leaders have a deeper sense of purpose and values guiding their actions, so do what they think is right. Managers tell more than listen. Leaders listen as much as they tell – I’m not going to say that they don’t tell because that’s what part of the job is. Managers say one thing and do another and make excuses. Leaders do what they say they are going to do without excuses.

These are some of the idealistic barf inducers I try to manifest.

Too Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders

To expand further on this line of thinking, Rajeev Peshawaria’s “Too Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders” is probably the best self contained model on management / leadership and organizational design that I’ve read. Certainly there are titans like Peter Drucker and the aforementioned Grove who had great insights on various aspects of leadership. What I liked about Peshawaria’s approach is that has a simple yet complete model from top to bottom in an organization.

It can be summarized as a series of questions/statements to assess leadership effectiveness at each level – the self, the team and larger enterprise. It makes for a neat organizational scorecard. You can have people score each statement on a scale and then graph how things change over time.


Self Leadership: 

You can’t be a leader without being clear on your purpose and values as they respectively define what you want to create and how you will create it. Courage of conviction cannot exist without clarity of purpose. Peshawaria says the only two limitless sources of energy as a leader are in purpose and values. I’d say love and fear are pretty powerful engines too, but maybe that’s a different way of saying the same thing. Peshawaria suggests the first 3 questions for clarifying purpose and the last 3 for values.

Why am I here: What are the few things that are important to me? Figuring this out puts a finger on purpose. You can never have work-life balance if you are unclear on purpose – it will always be trading time against the things you really care about. I agree with Marissa Mayer that burnout is actually resentment from having to trade your time away from what is really most important to you.

Leadership Type: Do I want to lead a simple life rich with every day pleasures? Achieve great things on my own without the hassle of other people? Work with others for a better future and share the credit for it? Do something entirely different? Just want the prestige associated with leadership? The answers to these questions decide true motivations in leadership.

Outcomes: What results do I want to bring about as a person?

Known For: How do I want people to experience me? The more you think about how you want to be remembered, the clearer you get on your values.

Decision Making & Actions: What values govern my behaviour and decisions? You can’t lead if you don’t have some kind of philosophy for how to navigate uncertainty and conflict.

Emotional Response: What situations cause me to feel strong emotions? These are important sign posts – such as the feeling of nailing a solution to the point it seems like magic, or what you hate / love.


Team Leadership:

This level is about enabling a team of direct reports to perform to a higher standard. The simplest and best way to figure out how to motivate people is to just bloody ask them. People have multiple layers of motivations and with varying proportions – people are coin operated, want to be proud of the things they put their name on, want recognition and respect, to be left in peace. As an all encompassing explanatory model, I firmly believe in Self Determination Theory and think it has application here.

Once you figure out what motivates each team member individually, connect their day to day work with that and design jobs so that people get to do what they do best and care most about. If there is no match between motivators and the work at hand – find a better fit rather than try and force through carrots or sticks. Ultimately it’s better for the team and the individual / job for whom there is a poor fit.

Most employees care about the same basic things – their Role, the Environment they do it in and their Development. As a leader, you need to understand what people care about in these areas and connect their day to day to work to it. Sometimes people can’t see it for themselves, and this provides a level of motivation beyond basic hygiene factors like compensation or commute time.


Role Assessment:

The best leaders know they don’t have enough time in the day because they are not investing enough time in their people rather than the other way around. You accomplish more and I think it is the fundamental shift from being an individual performer to someone who enables the performance of a team.

Instead of giving commands, guide discovery and buy-in of what you had in mind and give people a role in the decisions that affect them. Be open to better ideas than your own from others. The source matters less than the quality of thinking. Paying people buckets of money only releases rational energy (although I’m sure the contributors to one of my favourite Twitter accounts disagree). Enabling people’s aspirations for their role releases a level of emotional energy that is the only way to build things that kick ass.

Vision: Does our organization have a compelling vision for success?

Strategy: Do we have an effective strategy to achieve that vision?

Goals: Do people feel they have challenging but achievable goals connected to that strategy and vision?

Autonomy: Do people have sufficient freedom and authority to do their job well? As a leader, you should control the end but not the means. It’s often easier / faster to just issue a command rather than open discussion, but situations that really require “my way or the highway” are few. There are times when it would be no skin off your back to let people have autonomy on a matter and would pay dividends for the times you need them to just do as you ask.

Personal Connection: Does people’s roles align with their purpose and values?


Environmental Assessment:

Communication: Do you regularly engage with people and have a good sense of what is important to them? As a leader I think you should never make people feel like they are the least important use of your time.

Involvement: Do people feel their opinion on important issues is sought and respected?

Collaboration: Do people feel the culture emphasizes collaboration over undermining each other?

Respect: Do people feel treated with dignity and respect?

Relatedness: Do people feel a sense of community / friendship beyond just being tenuously connected functional work units?

Fairness: Do people think the reward and recognition system is fair?

Performance: Do people believe mediocrity is accepted?


Development Assessment:

Focus on strengths rather than weaknesses. I strongly believe in this idea championed by Gallup and the StrengthsFinder people. You’d do better to identify what you do best and develop that to the point it can split atoms, rather than improve the things you suck at to levels of marginally less suck. Identify the core tasks for each role and if people have more weaknesses than strengths that match, move them to another job instead of trying to correct a bad fit. If they’re mostly there, then figure out how to offset those weaknesses and develop their strengths.

Challenge: Do people think they get opportunities to learn and develop in meaningful ways? Nothing is more soul crushing than people feeling like they are wasting their time and abilities. There are a lot of things that are satisfying in life but achieving something you weren’t sure you could do is way up there.

Feedback: Do people get regular coaching and feedback on their performance. You cannot improve performance if there is not a rapid feedback loop, whether between the product and market or the employee and their work.

Strengths: Do you help people identify what they do best and develop that further?

Making things better: Does the organization value entrepreneurship and innovation in ability to deliver results and do people feel responsible for coming up with new ideas to do that?


Enterprise Leadership:

This comes into consideration when the number of people under command are too large to maintain close relationships with each or when there are more than 2 levels of organizational hierarchy beneath you. If the enterprise was a person, Peshawaria says strategy is the brain, structure is the bones and culture is the nervous system. People are the muscle. Cutesy HR metaphor, but makes sense put that way.

I like the idea he suggests to involve as many people possible in strategy formation activities. While people at the top may understand bigger business issues that aren’t widely known, you get better perspectives from people in the trenches on functional work issues than you do from those in disconnected ivory towers. Create multiple teams and have them come up with answers to the following questions that can be stated in 15 minutes / 1-2 pages. Have each team present and pick the best. The questions below are for high level strategy and biased towards the HR side of things, but the technique can be used at all levels of management when deciding what to do about something.

  1. What do we want to be?
  2. Who do we serve and what do for them?
  3. How will we do that? Get to brass tacks in business model analysis on what’s missing or could be done better.
  4. What capabilities do we have that will help us succeed at this?


Strategy Assessment:

Vision: We have a compelling vision for success.

Strategy: We have a unique strategy to achieve that vision.

Application: Vision and strategy are actually transferred into resource allocation and decision making.

Unique Strengths: We have no BS core capabilities that give us a competitive advantage.

All Hands On Deck: Everyone in the organization can clearly and consistently articulate why we matter to people.


Structural Assessment: 

Right People, Right Places: We have top quality talent with the right skills and experience in the right jobs.

Systems & Processes: Our supporting systems (e.g. performance management, promotion processes) encourage the desired performance. People can neither game the system or do good work unrewarded, process doesn’t get in the way of results and makes things easier.

Roles & Rights: Roles, responsibilities and decision making rights are defined as clearly as possible. Think RACI charts.

Prioritize / Eliminate: Our people and resources are deployed in a way that best supports the execution of our strategy. When people complain about too much work or too few resources, as a leader you are not prioritizing enough or telling them what they can ignore. As Steve Jobs said, focus is more about saying no than it is saying yes.

Enabling Structure: The formal organizational structure enables core capabilities. Does it take a dozen sign offs before someone can apply new market knowledge?


Cultural Assessment:

Peshawaria’s definition of culture is elegantly simple – culture is what people do when no one is looking. He says that creating a culture depends on the conviction of the leadership team rather than the technique. Identify the results you want, reverse engineer the behaviours needed to achieve that and then manifest these behaviours in practice. For example, don’t talk up teamwork and then go blaming others when it goes wrong or take credit for other people’s ideas. Put in the right incentives to answer the question why employees should give a shit about demonstrating the desired behaviours. Otherwise you just have an empty management wishlist that people laugh off instead of actually practice.

Tenets: We have a philosophy that is well understood by everyone.

Alignment: Our compensation and rewards are aligned with these behaviours.

Credibility / Trust: Leaders do what they say they are going to do.

Big Picture: We focus on both long term and short term success.

Listen & Learn: We have a culture of listening, learning and constant renewal.

All said I think this is a clean and simple model for leading and designing an organization that creates great things, and things I try to keep in mind in my own practice as a product leader.

Engineering change at RIM – user experience, mobile computing, customer expectations.

Interesting Engadget interview with Thorstein Heins on engineering change at RIM.

Heins’ comments about taking time to nail the user experience and get mobile computing right sound good. Those are things that were starkly apparent when comparing BlackBerry against Android and iOS when the present market leaders started to gain traction. It was clear they were becoming true mobile computing platforms, to the point that people were willing to pay their own money to bring them into the office instead of company issued phones.

At first, IT departments tried to stamp out any non-issued company phones for business use, but in the past 2 years “bring your own device” has become common vernacular and topics in CIO magazines. All it took were the first senior executives saying that they wanted to switch for underlings to also get the option as a matter of company policy. Another indication of that shift in the market was RIM’s release that put a firewall between the business and personal hemispheres of a BlackBerry’s brain, so a remote kill could be executed on the former without affecting the latter.  It’s funny to think that Android was only released in 2008 and the iPhone in 2007, or the Kindle is only 5 years old now. Mobile computing technology moves very fast and has changed the world very quickly.

Comparing BlackBerry at the time, it was/is a faultless communicator – phone, email, text, BBM, unified inbox, Exchange/BES, network operations center guaranteed delivery. But you could plainly see the difference between platforms in being able to do things that you normally needed a computer for, or in the user experience when browsing with your finger on a big screen vs. a roller ball on a smaller one. Initially people scoffed at the toy / non-professional aspects, but the same interaction design ideas from games made their way into how not-games worked, and have become ingrained in people’s mental models of how things should work.

Same kind of thing has happened in consumer web applications vs. enterprise. Once people are shown an easier, better way to do things in products, that becomes their expectation elsewhere. “Why can’t it…?” SaaS/web based solutions used to be a cute option associated with free webmail, but try selling an enterprise solution these days without a way for customers to just give you money and login to start using the product without on-premise servers and installations. (Sure, there are specific exceptions to this with mission critical or high security enterprise infrastructure, but the general rule holds true.)

In so far as release strategy, I wonder whether it will be possible to exceed expectations with the amount of time BB10 has been talked about. It is encouraging to hear Heins’ comments that there is a renewed energy in the team and would be great to see a return to form with things done right in the time taken. At the same time, delivering exactly what you promised becomes more problematic with less frequent product releases as customer expectations and potential launch complications increase. One reason why “ship early, ship often” is such a popular idea now – customers are much less likely to be upset if they know another update is soon on its way, engineering is happier to keep iterating.

I agree with the idea that software keyboards are the future. They enable things like SwiftKey‘s amazing prediction and correction engine (there is some speculation SwiftKey is powering BB10’s on screen touch keyboard). Swype (and now Android’s) gesture based text entry. Thinner devices. Being able to input text in landscape or portrait mode depending on what makes most sense for the use case. Giving users the flexibility to configure the text entry UI as they wish – make the keys giant for someone with arthritis or vision problems without having to make a separate device. Looking at kids who have grown up with touch screen only devices, the lack of a physical keyboard isn’t impeding their incessant use.

That said, it is good to hear RIM are playing to their strengths around physical QWERTY keyboards. Every senior executive I know who has hammered away thousands of emails on one Blackberry after another for the past 10 years has reiterated how much they want that physical keyboard and how switching to a touchscreen is not going to work for them. There is something to be said for a solid tactile experience that haptic vibration just doesn’t replace yet. Maybe a generation from now, kids will find physical input methods as unfathomable as some do today when you show them a cassette tape, record or even a CD. People have been favouring Apple’s touchpads over mice, Windows 8 is going to bridge the touchscreen gap on desktops and notebooks, hybrid tablet-laptops, Surface, iPads in business meetings, etc. etc.

Although I’m an Android guy these days, I’m rooting for the hometown team to thicken the plot. The more players and options, the better for consumers and innovation. I remember a proud moment 6-7 years ago when travelling on business in Europe, standing in the airport and being pleasantly surprised to see how every business traveller seemed to be using a Blackberry.

Structuring Agile teams & systems for maximum damage.

Very interesting document from Henrik Kniberg & Anders Ivarsson on how they’ve structured Agile teams @ Spotify for maximum damage.

Earlier this year, we saw the Valve Employee Manual that had wonderful visualizations of how they say things are organized there. The model works for Valve in their blockbuster oriented industry as Don Alvarez put well in this post.

At any rate, this all builds on some slow hunches I’ve had regarding how organizational structures either enable or disable market driven products and rapid response teams. How do you realize the “learning organization” vision that Eric Ries and Steve Blank advise, the ideals of Agile / Continuous Development against traditional waterfall?

Adam Pisoni of Yammer had some interesting thoughts on the subject on how they do it there:

So did the always-excellent Marty Cagan and Mike Krieger of Instagram. Intuit is often held in product management circles as “getting it” and here are some ideas from their approach.

At Spotify: The smallest functional unit is a “squad” that behaves like a Lean Startup in themselves, focusing on a specific function and iterating a minimum viable product continuously. There are 30 squads totaling 250 people across 3 countries.

Making the squads play nice with each other means sorting them into “tribes” of less than 100 people – cutely based on Robin Dunbar’s number of how many effective social relationships you can maintain. There are in turn larger groupings called chapters and guilds.

Some other interesting points:

  • As standard issue Agile goes, they have Product Owner and coach / Scrum Master roles and quarterly performance / trend reviews with each squad.
  • “Scrum of scrums” held on demand to discuss dependencies. In practice, I’ve found this depends on people’s ability to think in systems and consider cross functional impact, so you need people who are good this.
  • One downside to autonomous teams is a loss of systemic efficiency e.g. duplicating efforts and losing learning across squads. Chapters and guilds are a solution for this – chapters are based on similar skills, guilds on broader communities of interest.
  • System Owner concept to mitigate risks in architecture by having one throat to choke on key system issues. I firmly believe this architect function is necessary to keep all the parts working together.

A couple really important systems design aspects to me are that the teams have everything they need to produce in their respective areas, including autonomy / decision making power within their mission scope. There’s a joke in product management that leading without authority basically amounts to making a suggestion until someone with actual authority comes along and exercises it.

I think Joel Spolsky nailed it in this article – a single great person in a top down command and control structure cannot possibly work as well as the distributed intelligence of teams:

In tech startup land, we all understand instinctively that we have to hire super smart people, but we forget that we then have to organize the workforce so that those people can use their brains 24/7.

Thus, the upside-down pyramid. Stop thinking of the management team at the top of the organization. Start thinking of the software developers, the designers, the product managers, and the front line sales people as the top of the organization.

The “management team” isn’t the “decision making” team. It’s a support function. You may want to call them administration instead of management.

“Hiring smart people and getting out of their way” is a cliche often regurgitated when selling people on an organization but power and politics are usually determined by structural elements. Just like  one measure of power is how much budget you can spend before asking someone for permission, there are usually structural checks and balances that slow people down from getting stuff done.

The common thread remains that how systems and teams are structured relates to how responsive your products can actually be in the market. This is a somewhat facile organizational design statement, but one I’m drawn to in thinking about how systems and organizations can be designed to sharpen the pokey end of the solution spear and apply learning more rapidly.