Bumper Cars or Go Karts?

Which is your company playing?

Does it feel like your company is playing bumper cars? In bumper cars, there’s typically an open area to drive with no particular direction or order to things. In go karts, there’s generally a track with a well defined direction. In the organizational analogy of bumper cars each person or team may have a goal in mind but they keep getting bumped off course by another team (or person) heading in a different direction. Go Karts present a greatly preferred model for orgs, where there may be plenty of bumps but, because every person and team is still going in the same general direction, the bumps are all minor and don’t disrupt the general flow.

The bumper car world does not stem solely from the lack of alignment. Lack of alignment alone might just be a herding cats scenario. The essence of bumper cars is that others are constantly preventing you from getting where you are trying to go, and this happens in orgs when poor alignment combines with tightly coupled teams. When a lot of coordination is required to accomplish anything of value and you lack alignment, then we’re in the world of bumper cars.

To really make things fun, though, let’s now toss in too much WIP. (Here’s a good series of posts on the troubles of too much WIP.) This truly creates a crowded bumper car rink. And, note that lack of alignment with tightly coupled teams naturally leads to having too much WIP as projects complete rather slowly.

While bumper cars in real life are great fun, this is not the model we want for our organization. You will pay the price in terms of results and retention. And, make no mistake, this is a failure of leadership.

What’s the solution?

I’m not so naive to believe there’s an easy one-size-fits-all solution. But, that won’t stop me from offering some suggestions to consider. To start with, definitely check out this slide from the Netflix culture deck.

Coupling

Re-examine your teams and architecture. Structure teams to operate more independently. Considering Conway’s Law, this might mean evolving your architecture to match. But, please understand this involves strategic tradeoffs. Nick Tune offers some helpful guidance on how to think about this here.

Alignment

Alignment can be tricky. The key is that teams understand the strategy and goals well enough that their decisions are highly aligned with other teams. The part that is so tricky is that leaders may not recognize the gaps where teams need more clarity on strategy and goals. While this may be a communication issue, it might also be that the leaders don’t recognize where they need to make strategic decisions. If the leaders are too removed from the teams’ execution, and the feedback loops are not working well, then they may remain oblivious to how and where this lack of strategic alignment is crippling the org.

As an example, in a company building a platform to support multiple enterprise integrations involving professional services work, it’s important for all involved to understand the strategy around the interfaces to that platform. How should teams make tradeoffs between simplicity for the partner/professional services team versus simplicity for the platform? Should teams optimize for 100’s of partners, or for a smaller number of very large partners?

Three important points for leaders to keep in mind:

  1. Overcommunicate on these matters. Alignment doesn’t simply happen from a one-time statement. Alignment is created and maintained by repeated communication, discussion and refinement.
  2. Always be looking to improve alignment. When two competent engineers differ on how something should be done, ask yourself whether the real issue is a lack of alignment on business context, values, principles, etc. E.g., is one engineer prioritizing the short term over the long term, while the other is doing the reverse? Should you create alignment on how you want the teams to make such tradeoffs?
  3. Who decides? Even with good alignment on context, values, etc, sometimes good people will still disagree. That’s to be expected. What we want and expect, however, is that a decision is made and the dissenters “disagree and commit”. For this to happen, it’s critical that there be a clear decision maker to decide and take responsibility for the decision, and also that the relevant people have an opportunity to make their case to the decision maker. Without these, people will often have trouble with accepting the decision and working to make it succeed.

Finally, I believe org structure plays an important role in this. I’ll have more to say on that in a future post.

Meanwhile, let’s all strive for go karts not bumper cars.

Thank You!

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