S1E26 – Continuous Improvement (Building Your Engineering Organization – Part 5 of 5)


Show Notes

Let’s imagine that you are just taking on an engineering organization. Maybe it is new to you or maybe it is completely new. What should you do to set yourself up for success? What are some of the important, or critical, aspects to think through, write down, nail down, or get agreement on?

In a five-part series, Mon-Chaio and Andy look back over the long, and sometimes rambling, episodes of The TTL Podcast and try to condense them down to something more digestible. In episode one you learned about defining your cultural and structural north star and in episode two, hiring strategy, clarity of tasks and boundary, and explicit intentionality. Episode three covered building your team fabric and episode four explored the skills needed to ensure a smoothly running engineering organization. This last episode finishes by reviewing the necessary strategies to ensure your organization continues to evolve and doesn’t get left in the dust by your surging competitors.



Mon-Chaio: Hello, everyone. Mon-Chaio here with this week’s episode of the TTL Podcast.

This is part five of five of our Building Your Engineering Organization series, and the last episode in our end-of-the-year summary format sneak peek. Next week, in deference to the tradition of Andy’s newest country of residence, we will be ending the year with a holiday-themed episode, where we’ll hopefully cover very little technical content and very little leadership content. So what will we talk about, you might ask? Well, you’ll just have to listen to find out. And if it makes you feel any better, It’s actually a topic Andy and I are both really excited about, and with which we’ve had many years of history with. That’s still pretty cryptic, I know. But think of this as a time when our particular, how should we put it, loquacious podcast is going to be a little bit tight lipped. Anyway, back to our current episode and more serious business, namely the last part of our series on building great engineering orgs. If you’ve been studiously implementing the tactics in the previous four episodes, you likely have an engineering team strongly embracing their North Star, with smooth guiding processes and clear models for working and thinking, and effective and additive course-correction mechanisms when and where necessary.

At this point, you could say, with as much accuracy as could be said, that you have an ideally functioning engineering organization. That would be partly true. You may have an ideally functioning engineering organization. At this particular point in time. The thing to realize is that not only does your engineering organization not stay the same, neither does the company and context around them, nor the engineering teams of your competitors.

So, while you might feel confident and comfortable with your organization right now, it’s really important to build in mechanisms that allow it to evolve with the environment around it. As legendary University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler said: “Every day you either get better or you get worse. You never stay the same.”

Andrew Parker: Sorry to butt in Mon-Chaio, but I just wanted to add onto this, this idea of continually improving that you can’t stand still. The Team Sky, from professional cycling, had this idea of small gains, where if the thought exercise is, if you can get 1% better every day, you’re much more than 1% better by the end of the year. You’re 37 times better by the end of the year. So even just trying to get a little bit better every day, you’ll hit it, you won’t hit it, but just trying to get a little bit better every day through compounding, you’re much, much better by the end of the year.

So if you can just kind of keep up, getting a little better every time, that’s where the real magic is in improvement. Back to you.

Mon-Chaio: So what can we do to ensure that we’re getting better every day instead of staying the same, which, according to Coach Schembechler, means we’re actually getting worse? The key here is not unscalable point tactics like scheduling weekly brown bags or lightning talks. It’s to instill within your organization a learning mindset versus an execution-based mindset. We talk about the difference between the two mindsets in Episode 3, “Organizing to Learn”:

Strart learning vs. execution mindset clip

Andrew Parker: … groups maybe interact to work together. The next level up, organizing to learn, is a bit more like a group or team level where, okay, how are you going to put those people together now and move them in a direction where you’re not just executing, but you’re learning. So your measure isn’t so much did you get 20 widgets out or did you write 500 lines of code today? It’s what did you learn today? Is that about right Mon-Chaio so far?

Mon-Chaio: Yeah, I would say that that’s absolutely what I took away from it.

Andrew Parker: Okay. And then the last one, the execution as learning, is to say, yeah, you still want that 500 lines of code. Execution is important, but you’re not optimizing everything just to get that execution as high as humanly possible, because you want to put some of your effort into learning.

So execution is learning says: how can you approach work as an organization, how can you approach work so that you not only do it, but you learn from it and change your processes, change your practices, and get better as you go? Or change what you’re doing because you learned it’s not the right thing to do.

All of those are possibilities in the learning.

Mon-Chaio: I think the other part of executing to learn is this concept that you don’t take space to do learning, learning comes as part of the stuff that you do day to day in a fast moving environment.

Andrew Parker: Yes, it is the way you operate rather than an add on.

Mon-Chaio: Mm hmm.

Andrew Parker: And I’ve encountered that before where, uh, place I worked, we used to do the famous Google 20 percent time or 10 percent time. We did it every other week. And eventually we dropped it because it created the wrong learning environment. It meant that learning was this thing off on the side rather than just the way we operated. And so we changed that. We dropped that practice and we said, how do we incorporate this into what we do?

It created a very different approach to experimentation and learning. So this time, we’re going to focus on organizing …

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Mon-Chaio: As you heard Andy say, it’s vitally important that learning not to be an quote-unquote add on or thing to the side. Having learning be a mindset versus just a tactic allows the scope of your improvements to be much broader, encompassing everything you do, rather than just the specific learning topic you’re focusing on during that particular week’s learning hour.

It also scales more broadly because everyone in your organization is involved in looking for learning opportunities every day. But, how do you go about building and establishing a learning mindset in your organization? Amy Edmondson introduces us to the four pillars necessary to building a learning organization, which we discuss further on in Episode 3:

Start four pillars of organizing to learn clip

Andrew Parker: … to probably shouldn’t do this. Just go and get it done. So the organizing for learning, Amy Edmondson breaks down into four different aspects, kind of what you need to do and how you can promote that as the organization. So one is framing for learning. Another one is psychological safety. The third is learning to learn from failure. And the other one is crossing boundaries. And I think Mon-Chaio, this is a lot to go over. I’m, I’m, I’m kind of daunted already. There’s a lot here. And we were probably going to skim over psychological safety, not because it’s not important, but it’s so important that it kind of deserves its own discussion. There’s a lot to it, and it’s very central to how most of this will work.

Mon-Chaio: Right, and not just teaming, I would say. Even non teaming …

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Mon-Chaio: The pillar I want to touch on today is framing for learning. If you want to go into more detail on the other pillars, I recommend you listen to the full episode of “Organizing to Learn.” Getting back to this episode, though, framing for learning is a key part of a leader’s job in creating a learning mindset. To do that, a leader needs to do a few key things when communicating with their teams:

Start how to frame for learning clip

Mon-Chaio: … whether it’s objective truth or not is, I think, less important.

Andrew Parker: So the framing for a learning frame, it’s that our axiomatic truth is that learning is important here. You might even say learning is paramount, but I don’t think she takes it that far. So the aspects of it is that the leader needs to set up the example that learning is part of their frame.

Mon-Chaio: Mm hmm.

Andrew Parker: So they need to set themselves up as not the expert. They are not the authority on the situation.

Mon-Chaio: Mm hmm.

Andrew Parker: They need to make it clear that in order to succeed, the group is interdependent. They all depend upon each other, that everyone’s input is valued and needed to reach their goal.

Mon-Chaio: Mm hmm.

Andrew Parker: And that their situation is challenging, full of unknowns, and an opportunity to try out new concepts. And that they have a tacit goal, no matter what their actual goal is, that their framing says that they have this tacit goal to learn as much as possible to figure out what to do next.

Mon-Chaio: Right.

Andrew Parker: And, and back to your …

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Mon-Chaio: Although our representation in that episode is very project centric, these tactics are even more valuable from a whole organization perspective. That is, a leader should represent to their organization that they are not the expert or authority of the organization, that everyone in the organization is interdependent with each other, that their organizational charter is full of unknowns and opportunities to try new things, and that in everything they do, they have a tacit goal to figure out how to do it better next time. That is how a leader can set a learning frame for their organization and scale team improvements through the team.

This doesn’t absolve the leader, however, of their steering duties. A leader still needs to be deeply involved in their organization’s continuous improvement efforts beyond just waiting for their team to observe and make learning suggestions. To provide that steer, a leader needs to be able to recognize when fundamental things are changing in their organization which necessitates revisiting old processes, procedures, and operating models. There are many models one might use, but one that is highly applicable to a variety of situations is the explore-expand-extract model. Listen to Andy talk about an almost identical analogue model, commandos-infantry-police, in Episode 6, “Untangling

the Metrics Request”:

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Andrew Parker: … similar. I think there’s some nuanced differences to it, which is commandos, infantry, police. If you want a less militaristic one, it’s pioneers, settlers, town planners. And the idea there is very similar, that in a commando phase, it’s kind of anything goes. You do what it takes to get that objective.

In the infantry phase, now you’re trying to organize a much larger group and it all comes down to logistics. So like armies move on logistics. So at the infantry phase, you’re working on those logistics and things will feel much more plodding if you’re looking at the same scale, if you’re looking at the same way of thinking about progress.

And then if you get to the town planner phase, it feels like nothing changes. If you’ve ever watched a city and you looked around, you’re like, I can return to this city in 10 years and I know where everything is. And I think that’s going to be an important thing where this conversation about how do I know that we’re still effective, it’s context dependent.

The answer will change. And so, in fact, you should expect this question to come up, even if you’re already providing a view into this. It may be that you’ve entered a new phase or a different dynamic and the way you need to answer it now has changed.

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Mon-Chaio: In that clip, Andy was saying that the required answer to a particular question is context dependent, and will need to change as the context around you changes. This is true at a larger scale as well and adopting a model like explore-expand-extract gives you an effective way of staying vigilant. When you are on the boundaries and transitioning into or out of these phases is often the most critical times to re-evaluate your existing structures and provide your organization with steer necessary to evolve those structures for your unique upcoming challenges.

You, as a leader, now have a model to understand when a larger improvement or evolution steer may be necessary. And, in between, you’ve imbued your team with a learning mindset so that they are also constantly improving the smaller details in their day to day work and processes from the bottoms up. If you’ve gotten this far, you’re already further along than the large majority of organizations I’ve either worked for or consulted for. But there is still one more oft-neglected area for you to focus your improvement efforts on, and that area is culture maintenance.

You’ll recall that we said finding your cultural values is the first thing you should do when starting a new engineering organization. We also emphasize the criticality of bringing people on board that fit your organization’s culture. What we haven’t touched on yet in this series though, is the fact that culture and people will change over time, and inevitably, the culture you aspire to will no longer be the culture that you have. We talk about a way to check for this phenomenon in Episode 10, “Toward Better Culture”:

Espoused theory vs. theory in use clip

Andrew Parker: … I think I’ve already referenced him a few times, but …

Mon-Chaio: I believe so.

Andrew Parker: So he talks about the espoused theory, which is what you would say is what the company says values are. And he talks about theory in use, which is what you can derive from people’s behavior, or you could say the organization’s behavior, and that there’s never a complete match between those.

Now, what you want to do, in his mode of thinking, is you want to get those closer and closer together. And his reasons for that is because as they get closer together, you actually do better. People are happier. There, there’s better outcomes. Everything just goes better. So you could say one of his values is that self consistency and that’s what he wants to drive towards.

And I think most of us operate with wanting self consistency. I think humans just in general have a problem with inconsistency.

Mon-Chaio: And it’s funny you mentioned that because I was reading this paper where the author said, so the authors were Berg in ’98, they argued, and I don’t know that I agree with their argument per se, but I do think it fits into this model.

They argue that instead of striving for a stronger culture, they should attempt to reduce the gap between employees’ preferred organizational cultural practices and their perception of the organizational practices. So again, it’s what’s being done versus what’s being said. Now, I don’t think it’s instead, I don’t think you should instead of striving for strong culture do this, but I think it’s in addition, and I think it’s a part of building stronger culture.

Andrew Parker: Yes, I’d agree with that. You have to know what you’ve got before you can affect it. If there’s a big difference between what everyone believes that they’re doing, which is the espoused theory, I should say.

Mon-Chaio: Right.

Andrew Parker: One of the things about espouse theory in use is that quite often people can’t tell you what their theory in use is. They will tell you the espoused theory, but that’s not what actually happens. Their theory in use is what actually happens. And if there’s a big difference between those, you can imagine what happens if you ask people to behave differently. Say, our values have changed a little bit. Since there was no big connection between them in the first place, the changing of what their new espoused theory is will very only slightly change or in random ways change their actual theory in use, what they actually end up doing.

So if you want to somehow start moving towards what you consider a better culture, your first step is actually to get people to start trying to shorten that gap. And it may be in just admitting that theory in use is your actual set of values and start with that and just say, we’re going to replace them. Go to our theory in use, that’s our, that is our set of values. That’s who we are. Or it may be doing that work to start pointing out the differences and getting people to move their actions a bit more towards the actual espoused theory. So I agree. I think the theories that I know …

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Mon-Chaio: In order to keep the deviation between their espoused theory and their theory in use small, leaders must regularly and constantly tend their culture by first utilizing cultural communication, which we describe in Episode 11, “Building Sustainable Culture”:

Start cultural communication clip

Andrew Parker: … so much, the CTO would bring it up again and again to the point where we’re just like, yes, we know, don’t drop data. But that’s the point at which we’ve got it.

Mon-Chaio: I think that is an interesting example because a lot of times when technical people think about saying things over and over again until you’re tired of hearing them, it’s unnatural for folks. And I think one of the reasons it’s unnatural is because it is not a natural style of communication. If you look at research around communication, there’s this type of communication called transmission communication, which is everything that we’re used to.

You say things in order to transmit information. This is why we’re doing this podcast, right? We’re taking information that we know or think and we’re transmitting it out. It happens at work. We have a meeting because we need to tell people something, or they know something and we need to hear it, right? Transmission of information. But when we’re talking about what you were just saying, this repeat it again and again until you get tired of hearing it, that’s not about transmission of information, is it?

Andrew Parker: No, because we all know exactly what’s going to be said.

Mon-Chaio: And there is another method of communication that they call ritual communication, or some people call it cultural communication, where the purpose is not transmission of information, but it’s what some researchers say “draws people together in fellowship and commonality.” And I like that statement because fellowship and commonality flows very closely with how we define culture. This bringing the group together for a central set of values and behaviors and beliefs.

Andrew Parker: Yeah. And to go back to my example of don’t drop data, that became a very cultural thing, especially when that group came in contact with other groups that didn’t have that same value and behavior, where we could see how much it had become part of the way we thought. Because in that difference, we could see that ritual of saying these words again and again had really changed the way that we thought about things.

Mon-Chaio: That’s a great segue into …

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Mon-Chaio: Cultural communication is culture is transmitted, and mastering cultural communication is essential for a leader to be able to influence large-scale cultural change from the top down. Further on in the same episode, we talk about why, in addition to more targeted bottoms up cultural influence, top down cultural change is often a much needed and powerful tool for

Start top down cultural change clip

Mon-Chaio: … I would also like us to consider that there may be ways of changing the culture more wholesale at a faster pace, not from below, but from above. And I think I want to bring us back to this concept of rituals. I was reading this article, and this researcher said, “symbols and rituals sustain unity because they completely transcend the individual beliefs of members.”

Okay, we know that we don’t want to be this unified blah group that all believes in the same thing. So this concept of like completely transcending the individual beliefs of the members, I don’t think that should be our goal. But I think if we do dig into it, it does require transcending the individual beliefs of members in some way.

What you’re stating is simply, we’re going to wait for them to have a break in their pattern, and then we’re going to change their beliefs. But I also think that we could affect it at a much larger scale using symbols and rituals.

So, for example, defining a team motto that has words that you care about. Right? Let’s say your team motto is, “We Work Together.” You could say that as your motto, even if your entire team never works together. Even if you’re scatter gather, right? Everybody does their own part, then they come back together to integrate. But there’s value in that team motto. Now, let’s say you put a logo behind it. Now, let’s say you put it on a flag in your team area. Now, let’s say you have a team ritual where you gather every Friday and you show examples of us coming together. Let’s say you give out little awards that people show on their desks. I think it’s very important for folks to realize the power of these symbols and rituals in affecting cultural change, wholesale cultural change, and the speed at which it can happen. Now, I would say it’s probably less sustainable if you don’t pair it with what you were talking about, the pattern breaking, and if you don’t look for examples of pattern breaking, I would say it’s much less effective.

But, I also think that there’s a lot of value in that instead of saying I’m going to wait for each individual and I’m going to work at a very individual level and hope it trickles down. Especially if you’re a CEO hired into a 5,000 person organization and the board is saying this organization has a terrible culture, we hired you to fix it. You’re not going to tell them, give me five years and we’ll see where we are, right?

Andrew Parker: Yeah. And it fits with the, what we’re talking about in the challenging goals and all of that, setting the expectations will change how people behave. And if you’re setting the expectation through constantly stating it, that we work together, there’s going to be some point, and also this is about bringing your espoused theory and your theory in use closer together, there’s going to be some point where that discrepancy is hard for people to maintain and that they will start bringing it closer together.

Mon-Chaio: Or they might self select out, right?

Andrew Parker: Yeah.

Mon-Chaio: To the point about hiring for culture and …

Andrew Parker: Exactly. And I was going to say, let’s …

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Mon-Chaio: Deploying these skills to do cultural maintenance is among the highest leveraged continuous improvement activities a technical leader can do. So, constantly and intentionally tend to your culture. Be vigilant for phase changes that indicate a need for a higher-level steer on process and other foundational improvements. And cultivate a learning mindset within your organization, to realize continuous improvements both large and small.

This brings us to the end of our five-part crash course on building engineering organizations. We’d very much appreciate you giving us a like and subscribing to The TTL Podcast on your preferred podcasting platform. Please also send us feedback at hosts@thettlpodcast.com. We’d love to hear from you, and do read and reply to all of our listener emails.

So, until next time, be kind and stay curious.


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