It’s hard to pick a single best work by Joel Spolsky, but if I was forced to, I’d pick The Joel Test. It’s his own, highly irresponsible, sloppy test to rate the quality of software, and when anyone asks me what is wrong with their team I usually start by pointing the questioner at the test. Start here.
It’s a test with 12 points and as Joel says, “A score of 12 is perfect, 11 is tolerable, but a 10 or lower and you’ve got serious problems”. More important than the points, his test clearly documents what I consider to be healthy aspects of an engineering team, but there are other points to be made. So it is completely an homage to Joel that I offer The Rands Test.
I was employee #20 at the first start-up and the first engineering lead. Over the course of two years, the team and the company exploded to close to 200 employees. This is when I discovered that growing rapidly teaches you one thing well: how communication continually finds new and interesting ways to break down. The core issue being the folks who’ve been around longer who also tend to have more responsibility. As far as they’re concerned, the ways they organically communicated before will remain as efficient and simple each time the group doubles in size.
They don’t. A growing group needs to continually invest in new ways to figure out what it is collectively thinking so anyone anywhere can answer the question: “What the hell is going on?” This is the first question The Rands Test answers. As I’ll explain shortly, the second question The Rands Test helps you answer is selfish. The second asks: “Where am I?”
Let’s start with bare bones versions of the questions and then I’ll explain each one.
- Do you have a 1:1?
- Do you have a team meeting?
- Do you have status reports?
- Can you say No to your boss?
- Can you explain the strategy of the company to a stranger?
- Can you explain the current state of business?
- Does the guy/gal in charge regularly stand up in front of everyone and tell you what he/she is thinking? Are you buying it?
- Do you know what you want to do next? Does your boss?
- Do you have time to be strategic?
- Are you actively killing the Grapevine?
(Note: While I’ll explain each point from the perspective of a leader or manager, these questions and their explanations apply equally to individuals.)
Do you have a consistent 1:1 where you talk about topics other than status? (+1)
I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would suggest 1:1s are a bad idea, but the 1:1 is usually the first meeting that gets rescheduled when it hits the fan. I’m of the opinion that when it hits the fan, the last thing you want to do is reschedule 1:1 time with the folks who are likely either responsible for it hitting the fan and/or are the most qualified to figure out how to prevent future fan hittage.
Furthermore, as I wrote about in The Update, The Vent, and The Disaster, conveyance of status is not the point of a 1:1; the point is to have a conversation about something of substance. Status can be an introduction, status can frame the conversation, but status is not the point. A healthy 1:1 needs to be strategic, not a rehashing of tactics and status that can easily be found elsewhere.
A 1:1 is a weekly investment in the individuals that make up your team. If you’re irregularly doing 1:1s or not making them valuable conversations, all you’re doing is reinforcing the myth that managers are out of touch.
Do you have a consistent team meeting? (+1)
The team meeting has all the requirements of the 1:1 — consistency and a focus on topics of substance — but don’t give yourself a point just yet.
Status does have a bigger role in a team meeting. As we’ll talk about shortly, the Grapevine is a powerful beast and a team meeting is a chance to kill it. I have a standing agenda item for all team meetings that reads “gossip, rumors, and lies” and when we hit that agenda item, it’s a chance for everyone on the team to figure out what is the truth and what is a lie.
After that’s done, my next measure of a team meeting is: did we make tangible progress on something? I don’t know what you build, so I don’t know what’s broken on your team, but I do know that something is broken and a team meeting is a great place to not only identify the brokenness, but also to start to discuss how to fix it.
If you’re killing lies and fixing what’s broken in a team meeting, give yourself a point.
Are handwritten status reports delivered weekly via email? (-1)
If so, you lose a point. This checklist is partly about evaluating how information moves around the company and this item is the second one that can actually remove points from your score. Why do I hate status so much? I don’t hate status; I hate status reports.
My belief is that email-based status reports are one of the clearest and best signs of managerial incompetence and laziness. There are always compelling reasons why you need to generate these weekly emails. We’re big enough that we need to cross-pollinate. It’s just 15 minutes of your time.
Bullshit. The presence of rigid, email-based status reports comes down to control, a lack of imagination, and a lack of trust in the organization.
I want you to count the number of collaboration tools you use on a daily basis to do your job — not including email. If you’re a software engineer, I’m guessing it’s a combination of version control, bug tracking, wikis, CRM, and/or project management software. All of these tools already automatically generate a significant amount of status regarding what has tactically gone down each week.
When someone asks for a status report, my first thought is: “I’m already generating piles of status on these various tools, why not just ask those?”
Well, there’s a lot of noise in those tools. Well, write a report that takes out the noise — collaboration tools are built around reporting. The status information is out there. In what managerial textbook does it say it’s a good idea to “Distribute the task of figuring out what is going on to the people who are performing the work?” That’s, like, your job.
Well, what I really want is your high level assessment of the week. Three things that are working, three things that aren’t, and what we’re going to do about it. Ok, now we’re talking. I can do a strategic assessment of the week, but why don’t we just put that at the beginning of the 1:1? That way when you have questions (and you will), we can have a big fat debate.
But I’d like to have a record I can review later. Super, feel free to write down anything we talk about.
Yes, status reports are a hot button for me. I’ve written hundreds of them and each time I’ve begun one, I start by thinking, “Why in the world do I feel like I’m performing an unnecessary act?” Status reports usually show up because a distant executive feels out of touch with part of his or her organization and they believe getting everyone to efficiently document their week is going to help. It doesn’t. Emailed status reports say one thing to 90% of the people who wrote them: “You don’t value my time”. This leads us to our next point…
Are you comfortable saying NO to your boss? (+1)
Perhaps a better way to phrase this point is: do you feel your 1:1 with your boss is somehow different than every other meeting you have during the week? Part of healthy communication structure is when information moves easily around the team, organization, and company, and if you walk into a meeting with your boss always on your best behavior and unwilling to speak your mind I say something is broken.
Yes, he or she is your boss and that means they write your annual review and can affect the trajectory of your career, but when they open their mouth and say something truly and legitimately stupid, your contractual obligation as a shareholder of the company is to raise your hand and say, “That’s stupid. Here’s why…”
Easier said than done, Rands.
Ok, don’t say it’s stupid.
Here’s the deal. I believe that leaders who think they’re infallible slowly go insane with power created by the lie that being wrong is a sign of weakness. I screw up — likely regularly — and I’ve been doing various forms of this gig for twenty years. While it still stings when I stumble upon or others point out my screw-ups, I’d sooner I admit I fucked up, because then I can figure out what I really did wrong faster, and that starts with someone saying “No”.
Can you explain the strategy of your company to a stranger? (+1)
Moving away from communications, this point is about strategy and context. If I was to walk up to you in a bar and ask what your company did, could you easily and clearly explain the strategy?
This is the first point that demonstrates whether you have a clear map of the company in your head, and you might be underestimating the value of this map. If you’re a leadership type, chances are you can draw this map easily. If you’re an individual, you might think this map is someone else’s responsibility and you’d be partially correct: it is someone else’s job to define the map, but it’s entirely your responsibility to understand it so you can measure it.
As we’ll see with the following questions, The Rands Test isn’t just about understanding communications, it’s about understanding context and strategy. How do you think the employees of HP and Netflix feel given the strategy flip-flops over the past few months? Safe or suspicious? Let’s keep going…
Can you tell me with some accuracy the state of the business? (Or could you go to someone / somewhere and figure it out right now?) (+1)
It’s a brutal exaggeration, but I think you should independently judge your company the same way that Wall Street does: your company is either growing or dying. Have you ever watched the stock price of a publicly traded company the day after they announce that they are going to miss their earnings numbers? More often than not, no matter what spin the executives have, the stock is hammered. It’s irrational, but what I infer when I see this happen is that Wall Street believes the company has begun a death cycle. If the executives can’t successfully predict the state of their business, something is wrong.
I realize this isn’t fair and there are myriad factors that contribute to the health of the business every single day, and I encourage you to research and understand as many of those as possible. But when you’re done, I’d also like you to have a defensible opinion regarding the state of the business, or at least a set of others whose opinion you trust.
This is a picture that you are constantly building, and this is an easier task if you’ve given yourself a point on the prior question regarding company strategy. If you have a map of what the company intends to do, it’s easier to understand whether or not it’s doing it. This leads us to…
Is there a regular meeting where the guy/gal in charge gets up in front of everyone and tells you what he/she is thinking? (+1) And are you buying it? (+1)
Our last point regarding context involves the person in charge. In rapidly growing teams and companies there’s a lot going on — every single day. When the team was small, the distribution of information was easy and low cost because everyone was within shouting distance. At size, this communication becomes more costly at the edges. Directors, leads, and managers — these folks tend to stay close to current events because it’s increasingly their job, but it’s also their job to take steps to keep the information flowing, and it starts with the CEO.
On a regular basis, does your CEO stand up and give you his impressions of what the hell is going on? Whether it’s 10 or 10,000 of you, this is an essential meeting that:
- Gives everyone access to the CEO.
- Allows him/her to explain their vision for the company.
- Hopefully allows anyone to stand up and ask a question.
If the value of this meeting isn’t immediately obvious to you, I’d suggest that you are one of those lucky people who already has a good map of the company as well as a sense of the state of the business. That’s awesome — here’s a bonus point for you: does the CEO’s version of the truth match yours or is he/she in a high Earth orbit with little clue what is actually going on? Give yourself a point if it’s the former and if it’s the latter, what does that say about the state of the business? Growing or dying?
Can you explain your career trajectory? (+1) [Bonus: Can your boss? (+1)]
Next, switching gears a bit, give yourself a point if you — right this very moment — can tell me your next move. You’re already doing something, so explain what you’re going to do next. It’s a simple statement, not a grand plan. One day, I’d like to lead a team.
Part of a healthy organization isn’t just that information is freely moving around; it’s what the folks receiving and retransmitting it are doing with it. You’re going to mentally file and ignore a majority of this information, but every so often a piece of information will come up in a 1:1, a meeting, or a random hallway conversation, and it will be strategically immediately useful for you to know what you want to do next.
- Angela got a promotion and her team is great and I’ve always wanted to be a manager.
- Jan just opened a requisition and his group is working on technology I need to learn.
- They fired Frank. That creates a very interesting power vacuum…
You can argue that even without a plan you’d make the same opportunistic leap, but I’ve found that having a map is usually a better way of getting to a destination.
There’s a bonus point here as well. Does your boss know what you want to do next? He or she likely has even more access to the information moving around the company, and whether they like it or not, have equal responsibility to figure out how to get you from here to there.
Do you have well-defined and protected time to be strategic? (+1)
If you gave yourself two points on the prior question, congratulations, I think you’re in better shape than most, but there’s one more point. Are you making progress towards this goal? Can you point to time on your calendar or even just in your head where you are growing towards your goal?
I like being busy. Like really busy. Like getting in, grabbing a cup of coffee, and suddenly finding the coffee is cold, it’s 6pm, and I forgot to eat busy. Busy feels great, but busy is usually tactical and not strategic. This is why I’m constantly maintaining my Trickle List — it’s my daily reminder of doing work that is larger than right now.
If you have time where you’re investing in yourself while you’re at work and your boss is cool with it — give yourself a point.
Are you actively killing the Grapevine? (+1)
When Grace walks in your office, you know she knows something by the look on her face. She moves to the corner of the office and starts with, “Did you hear…?” and the story continues. It’s a doozy, full of corporate and political intrigue, resulting in your inevitable response: “No. Way.”
Being part of a secret feels powerful. In a moment the organization reveals a previously hidden part of itself, and in that moment you feel you can see more of the game board. So, that’s why they fired him. I was wondering. Grace finishes with the familiar, “Don’t tell anyone,” which is ironic since that’s precisely what was asked of her 15 minutes ago.
There is absolutely no way you’re going to prevent folks from randomly talking to each other about every bright and shiny thing that’s going on in your company. In fact, you want to encourage it. 1:1s and meetings are only going to get you so far. The thing you can change is the quality of the information that’s wandering the company.
In the absence of information, people make shit up. Worse, if they at all feel threatened they make shit up that amplifies their worst fears. This is where those absolutely crazy rumors come from. See, Kristof is worried about losing his job so he’s making up crazy conspiracy theories that explain why THE MAN IS OUT TO GET HIM.
Without active prevention, the Grapevine can be stronger than any individual. While you can’t kill the Grapevine, you can dubiously stare at it when it shows up on your doorstep and simply ask the person delivering it, “Do you actually believe this nonsense? Do you believe the person who fed you this trash?” Rumors hate to justify themselves, so give yourself a point if you make it a point to kill gossip.
Magnitude and Direction
There is a higher order goal at the intersection of the two questions The Rands Test intends to answer: Where am I? and What the hell is going on? While understanding the answers to these questions will give you a good idea about the communication health of your company, the higher order goal is selfish. I’ll explain.
I think of the two lines of questions as a vector. A simple vector can be drawn as two points connected by an arrow, but a vector is far more interesting. It’s a geometric object that describes both direction and magnitude. Understanding how information moves, how you communicate with your boss, and being able to describe both your career strategy and that of your company sketches a vector in your head. The first point is you at this very moment and the other point is where you want to be. The distance and direction between the two start to explain how you’re going to get there. I love vectors because they draw a picture about a complex problem and I hope as you were answering the questions above this mental picture began to appear in your head.
Like the Joel Test, the point of the Rands Test is not the absolute score, but the score is good directional information. If you got a 12, I’d say you’re in a rare group of people who have a clear picture of their company and where they fit in. Between 8 and 10, you are likely troublingly deficient in either communications, strategy, or your development – it depends where the points are missing. Less than 8 and I think you’ve got a couple of problems.
There are a lot of different scenarios I expect folks to find themselves in as they explore these questions, which is why it’s tricky to proscribe specific action. Your company may be doing well, but you may be unhappy and have no clue what you want to do next. You might love your job, but have no idea whether the company is actually growing. Your course is dependent on what you care about and the Rands Test points out good places to start.