Speed is About Trust

Aaron Levie, founder and CEO of Box, tweeted about speed as an advantage:

The crucial point here is this trifecta:

Small teams, hyper aligned, with few constraints.

I’ve always believed in this.

It seems easy in theory but hard in practice because organizations have a natural gravity about them that can lead to internal competition and misalignment.

But when you have all three, magic happens. I know because I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of such teams.

The hyper aligned” is the hardest part of the trifecta. You can have small teams with few constraints that cannot build with speed, quality, and with learning in mind. I know because I’ve also experienced this before (in different teams).

The difference is top of mind for me now every time I do something new. When you’re on that slow, sluggish, train of dysfunction, it is the opposite of all the feelings of magic. (For more on this, read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni).

What I’ve come to understand is that hyper-alignment only happens if there’s a shared vision, mutual trust, and a focus on team achievement.

And the opposite is also true: a team is not aligned if they don’t have a shared vision of what their product ought to do, if the team doesn’t trust each other, and if people’s focus is on individual achievement such as promotions, raises, and bonuses, rather than the team serving the customer. And this toxic environment is painful, it’s hard to rebound from (though not impossible, but would require everyone to check their ego at the door, which is what makes it difficult), and most of all it is a waste—a waste of resources, of talent, of time.

This is why nothing is more important than establishing and fostering trust in a team. (For more on this, read Radical Candor by Kim Scott). You can have top tier talent and still not produce anything close to its potential if you don’t have trust. But teams with trust can go much farther together and accomplish something much greater than the sum of their parts. Trust is the great multiplier.

The trifecta of small teams, hyper aligned, with few constraints” is how organizations achieve speed. But trust is what makes or breaks it.

How do you build trust? Being committed to a mission, having low egos, and being team players. A video from legendary Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler on The Team, The Team, The Team” exemplifies this best.

Obviously this is harder to do in organizations where there are a lot of dynamics at play and incentives can vary. But it is definitely still possible to build trust through great teams—and that’s by hiring team players. You can snuff this out by understanding what people have done in team settings, what they’ve done for others to help the entire team win, and getting references from previous managers/leads and especially cross-functional peers. (Especially for designers, ask for references from people who aren’t designers. How do their engineering partners think about them? How do their product partners think about them? What about people in non-product development roles like data, like marketing, program management? Design’s real impact stretches way beyond the pixels. As hiring manager, measuring their infuelnce more than their design inputs is a good way to understand their overall ability and impact.)

From there, it’s about organizational design: building pods and giving them meaty problems with the leeway to problem solve and innovate as they see fit. Teams of course are just one part of the bigger picture. Just as important is how these small teams, hyper-aligned, with few constraints work with their neighboring teams. This is now about fostering culture continuously through shared values and staffing appropriately where needed.

Ideas are dime a dozen. But when you have a good idea with great execution powered by high-trust, you have something amazing. You’re not just building digital products anymore. You’re building something much greater—a self-propelling organism that punches well above its weight and can do amazing things collectively that they would not have been able to individually.

This is magic.

December 29, 2021

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