Lessons from 2019
Tuesday, December 31, 2019
As I look back into 2019 and prepare myself for 2020, I’m proud of two things. First, leading through influencing with little positional power. Second, further polishing my skills to deal with ambiguity. Not unlike other years, there were ups and downs along the way, with abundant opportunities to lead, make mistakes, observe others making mistakes, and learn from those. Here are my top seven lessons from 2019.
Lesson 1: Don’t romanticize about what you want to build and how you want to develop it
Big ideas are essential to motivate, inspire, and energize. There are many examples at workplaces. Consider, for instance, re-platforming your code to follow some new-found design principles, or building new special-purpose logging and monitoring platform, or adopting a contemporary architecture using the latest and greatest tech. However, such ideas are just untested hypotheses, and may or may not solve your customer problems. So instead of selling what you want to build and how you want to develop it, focus on outcomes, and find ways to test your hypothesis by working backward from those outcomes incrementally. Romanticize about the results and not ideas.
Lesson 2: Have a point of view on what to standardize and what not to
Standards are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you can cripple innovation by standardizing a lot. Excessive standardization can also lead to a culture of dependency and mistrust. On the other hand, standardizing little creates a wild west. You get agility early on but won’t be able to scale the organization due to limited leverage, lack of repeatability, and lateral moves of people.
However, over the last several years, cloud providers have entirely disrupted how organizations have been standardizing their infrastructure, developer platforms, and all the enabling systems. It’s time for a new way of thinking.
Here are three rules of thumb to decide the kinds of things you want to standardize while leaving the rest to teams to determine as they see fit.
First, identify architectural invariants: These are principles you want to follow that remain mostly unchanged with technology. Examples include:
- Protocols and interfaces (APIs) between producers and consumers of the business capabilities, including security and access controls
- Rules for making tradeoffs when building software, for instance, between optimizing a process for customers and partners, balancing between availability and security, or latency and availability, etc.
Second, make common agreements: These are conventions, tools, and practices you want to keep primarily aligned. Examples include your network designs, policies, and tools for managing costs and security controls, data locality, etc. Evolve these as paradigms change but keep mostly common for everyone.
Third, know where you want to foster rapid change: These are areas of differentiation for your business. If there are tools already available in the industry for the agility of these areas, adopt those quickly as standards to unlock agility, but don’t force standards onto desperate problem areas. For instance, your front-end teams may want to use a particular CI/CD system while your data science teams may use a different approach for their workloads. Identify additional common agreements (2) needed to balance between flexibility and commonality.
Lesson 3: Be comfortable about not having an opinion
It is a typical leadership mistake to lead discussions with strong opinions. I’ve seen very senior leaders start with their views. Strong opinions can cripple dialog and push the org culture into a box. Strong opinions are also an indicator of “I know it all” mindset. As I wrote in the past, organizations may start or suspend significant initiatives based on opinions of positional leaders with titles at work. Eloquent opinionated individuals take over conversations in meetings to steer the course to conform to their views. Senior leaders’ names get dropped to shift the course of an activity or to override some data.
It takes courage and trust in the process to leave opinions outside when entering discussions. Yet, it opens options you may not have considered before.
Lesson 4: Take the time to form mental models of how things work
Related to lesson 3, this is another lesson I learned this year. There are cases where you need to build a point of view and make decisions to move forward. In one particular case, on tackling a problem in one context, I had the opportunity to come up with producing similar outcomes in a different context. Instead of starting with the same recipe, I went on talking to several individuals closer to that context, asking them what they think are the issues and challenges, and how they would address those. This listening approach gave me a ton of insights to develop a point of view on how to approach the problem. It also helped me garner support for the approach.
Lesson 5: Choose opportunity over fear
On any day, when making decisions, choose opportunity over fear. It is not uncommon to come across arguments based on fear and uncertainty of competitors, third parties, and other entities. Concerns of vendor-lock-in is an excellent example of a fear-based approach. When presented with arguments, ask questions to turn attention towards opportunity. Opportunity based discussions usually uncover more options than fear and uncertainty based discussions.
Lesson 6: Resist status management
When going through change, be okay with not having a status in the change and yet be willing to influence or even lead the change. I was fortunate to work closely with some individuals who demonstrate this ability so well. However, the most common tendency is to focus on how you fit in the change and not on what the change is about. Read more at Status Management.
Lesson 7: Build resilience not to get rattled
Finally, know what you do well, and invest in yourself to build resilience not to get rattled. Interactions at workplaces can and do shake us. Not every meeting or email goes well. Workplace interactions are often based on limited information and lack kindness and empathy. When faced with such situations, I remind myself that the stuff is usually happening around you, and not to you. It helps to observe, explore a few mental models to understand what’s likely happening, and build personal resilience by selecting beneficial mental models. One of my career goals for 2020 is to further master this skill and more importantly teach others how to improve their personal resilience.