I admit it. I love it when the sky is falling. There is no more delicious a state of being than the imminent threat of disaster.
During these times, I’ve done great work. I’ve taken teams from “We’re fucked” to “We made it”. Yeah, we had to cancel Christmas that one time and there was that other time I didn’t leave the building for three days straight, but it was worth it because there’s no more exhilarating place to hang than the edge of chaos. We’re wired to escape danger.
There’s a reputation you get after successfully performing the diving saves. You’re “The Fixer”. You’re the one they call when hope is lost and while that’s a great merit badge to have, it’s a cover story. It’s spin. See, someone upstream from you fucked up badly. When the sky falls, it means someone somewhere underestimated the project, didn’t make a decision, or let a small miss turn into a colossal disaster, and while fixing a disaster feels great, you’re not actually fixing anything.
Management by crisis is exhilarating, but it values velocity over completeness; it sacrifices creativity for the illusion of progress.
Still, right now, the sky is falling and rather than let it fall, immediate action is necessary and my first bit of advice is that everyone takes a deep breath.
When you see an impending crisis, your body has a distinct natural reaction. In your consideration of the crisis, you take a long, deep breath. You often don’t notice this, but if I was sitting next to you, I would hear sigh.
A sigh is associated with despair. We’re screwed. Sigh. My interpretation is different; this long, deep breath is one of preparation. Let’s break it down: Breathe in. Gathering your strength. Oh shit, how am I going to deal with this? Hold it. Hold it. Ok, breathe out. Ok, not sure what the plan is, but let’s roll.
The interesting part of the deep breath is when you hold it. Try it right now: deep breath and hold it. What are you doing when you’re holding your breath? Well, first off, you’re slowly asphyxiating, but in that moment of life-threatening tension you’re doing interesting work. It’s a subtle transformation from building tension to calm release. It can also be a deliberate moment of consideration.
You can let that breath out now.
It’s a metaphoric stretch, but it’s around the deep breath that I build my team’s communication structure. I’ll explain, but first a story.
The team at the start-up was in a design crisis. The 1.0 version of the product was out and doing well and everyone wanted to do, well, everything. Every feature was being considered. Unbridled ambition is a good problem to have for about a week. After a month, we had three different design directions in play with various levels of support. The creative rush of developing a new release was degrading to useless design meetings where different camps were building strategic fortifications rather than talking. Decisions were being made and not communicated. Confusion was replacing creativity.
In times of crisis, a few human behaviors can make everything worse:
- In the absence of direction, people make shit up. Nature abhors a vacuum and in the absence of solid information, people generate their own information to fill that vacuum. They’re not lying, they have no ill will, they’re just trying to build a semblance of structure amongst the confusion. This is only exacerbated by the fact that…
- Human beings provide mutual group therapy by endlessly talking about the crisis at hand. This isn’t the creation of new content; it’s just the regurgitation of the latest new. At the right time, this hallway cross-pollination is a great way to evolve an idea, but if all we’re doing is talking about the crisis, all we’re doing is scratching at the worry rather than dealing with it.
- Lastly, everyone wants to know everything. Combine the communication vacuums and the group therapy creating a fire hose of additional questionable content and it’s not surprising that everyone on the team wants to know everything. Before I proceed, I want total disclosure. I have something unique to add and I better get a chance to do so.
It was an information communication disaster. There were brilliant ideas wandering the hallways, there were stickies with great ideas hanging from monitors, but in the confusion that was our communication structure, everyone was running around panicking and no one was taking a deep breath.
Starting on a Monday, I imposed a new meeting structure. Let me first describe the meetings and then we’ll talk about the purpose. There were three types of meetings:
1:1s with my staff. Monday morning. First meeting of the week. 30 minutes for the folks who are cruising. One hour for those in crisis. The agenda is a simple deep breath:
- What are you worried about?
- Here’s what I’m worried about.
- And discuss…
Staff. With air from our 1:1s still in our lungs, I have my staff meeting. Two hours, right after the 1:1s are complete. It sounds like a long meeting, but when this meeting is run well and full of the right people, it’s almost always over before you know it.
Staff is where we can continue to publicly worry, but Staff is where I want to turn the corner, where we turn inhale to exhale. Ok, we’re worried about a lot, but what are we going to do about it?
The tone and content for this meeting vary wildly by where we’re at in the development cycle. If we’re early in the cycle, we’re talking about the state of design. If it’s late in the development cycle, we’re looking at confidence in the quality.
There are three buckets of topics that I work through at my Staff and they’re increasingly slippery. We start with Operations (Where are we?), move onto Tactics (What are we going to do about that?), and, finally, Strategy (No really, what are we going to do about it?) I’ll explain each.
Operations — Where are we?
Operations topics are hard non-debatable measures. How many bugs we do we have? Where are we at with hiring? When are we moving? Any hard piece of data that we collectively need to know. No debate, no discussion, just alignment.
Tactics — What are we going to do about that?
Now we’re working. Tactics are changes, tasks, events, things we’re going to do as a team over the next week to address the worry we found in our 1:1s. Like operational topics, tactics are measurable, consumable things, but these are not topics we’re reporting on, this is where we’re taking action. We are going to scrub every bug in the next product milestone to make sure it belongs there. Jason is going to provide the new design by Thursday. By defining these tactics, you’re defining the agenda for the last meeting on my list, but we first need to talk strategy.
Strategy — No really, what are we going to do about it?
All of these well-defined tactics are great. They are real work, which, hopefully by the end of the week is going to define measurable progress. Go you. There are some organization, product, and people problems that you won’t be able to tackle in a week… or a month. Strategy involves deep changes to policy or culture. Our quality isn’t great, so we’re going to institute a code review culture. Our design is all over the place, so we’re going to define a style guide. Strategic topics during Staff are my absolute favorite because they represent the biggest opportunity for substantive change in the group. They’re also the hardest to define as well as the hardest to measure.
Worse, strategic changes are also tricky to implement during sky-is-falling situations because everyone is working to prevent the sky from actually falling – they’re intensely and correctly tactical. This doesn’t mean strategic discussions aren’t important during Staff. You might not discover a strategic change, but just having the discussion around the idea of change will give a glimmer of future hope to those who are hyperventilating.
When my Staff meeting is done, I’ve not only taken a deep breath, I’ve also begun the process of calmly exhaling… I now know what we need to do this week… This is generally where people screw up. They confuse the relief associated with the exhale with having a plan, with actual progress. You haven’t done anything yet except sit through three hours of meetings and we need one more.
Look What We Built Meeting. 4pm on Friday. This meeting exists for one reason – to measure the tactics we defined at Staff. Did we do what said we were going to do? From an agenda perspective, this meeting is a no-brainer. The list of topics and measurements were hopefully well-defined on Monday. Again, the content varies as a function of where we’re at in the development cycle, but some version of this meeting always occurs on Friday. Let’s review the design. Let’s look at the bug charts. Let’s confirm that we’ve made that big decision.
The “Look What We Built” meeting is the time to demonstrate progress, to show that even when the sky is falling, we know how to kick ass.
Invest in the Boring
It’s not just during a crisis that this calm, repetitive meeting pattern pays off. It’s always. I know you’ve been working with your favorite designer for three years. I know you believe you’re totally in each other’s heads, but this psychic confidence doesn’t mean you should ever skip your 1:1 with her even when the sky isn’t falling.
Communication in a group of people is an endless exercise in alignment. No matter how well you know your team, you can never predict where the internal dialogue of your team is going to wander. What this meeting structure does is set organization expectations:
- Everyone knows when they’re going to get their moment to speak in private.
- Everyone, whether they’re in the meetings or not, knows the system by which a lot of information moves around the building.
- Everyone knows, whether the sky is falling or not, how we’re measuring success on a weekly basis.
Equally important to these meetings’ existence is that they occur with obsessive robotic regularity. Years from now, when your team has been disbanded, I want you to look at your clock at 10:15am on Monday and think I’ve got my 1:1 with my boss in 15 minutes. This regularity is not a threat, it’s not a stick, it’s the basis for building trust in a team. I know I have a say.
And I haven’t even told you the best part yet.
All of this structure, all of this boring meeting repetition, exists to make room for something else. Whether you’re designing as an individual or a team, when you’re being creative, you need two things: an environment that encourages the random and time to live there. An obsessive meeting schedule is an investment in the boring, but by defining a specific place for the boring to exist, you’re allowing every other moment to have creative potential. You’re encouraging the random and random is how you’re going to win. Random is how you’re going to discover a path through a problem that no one else has found and that starts with breathing deeply.