Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Want to Benchmark Tech Best Practices?

Our Navy has a problem, or a series of problems, and everyone knows it.

It is a problem of long standing that manifests itself in a variety of ways. Our inability to design warships, or properly maintain the ones we have, is one example. Our shrinking carrier airwings - in aircraft numbers and range - is another. Not unrelated to the issues on the pointy end is the groaning weight of staff bloat and a top-heavy leadership structure.

Our self-selected elite - in uniform and out - have failed us. The system and structure that motivates, rewards, and encourages them share the blame, but mostly this is a people problem. As such, the cure will have to come from people.

Congress can help us by ripping up root and branch the late-Cold War Goldwater-Nichols and its Cult of the Joint - along with the hide-bound, accretion laden acquisition bureaucracy that it spawned. Altogether, they are a dead hand on the tiller of our Navy and about as effective as the palace full of eunuchs was to the last Chinese emperors.  

As an institution, the Navy does not have to wait for Congress to act. If we are lucky and smart, we can get the right senior leadership in place to kick start change - and that is a change in how we see our job.


We need to focus.

Let the bureaucratic structure follow the change, but we need to break things down and start with Question-1: what is our job?

To start this, why not leverage one of the fetishes of the last few decades: "What is happening in tech?"

We've all seen the field trips. We've all seen working groups.

We've all read one of the buzzword-concepts-of-the-quarter, "disruption." 

What can we do to take what does seem to get people excited, "tech" and "disruption" and find a way to use that in a constructive way?

Let's look at what is going on Basecamp, a productivity software maker.

Their founder and CEO Jason Fried just put out a letter titled "Changes at Basecamp" to his employees that I'd like to pull some interesting points from - almost all of it.

After a soft intro, Fried gets right to the point.

We all want different somethings. Some slightly different, some substantially. Companies, however, must settle the collective difference, pick a point, and navigate towards somewhere, lest they get stuck circling nowhere.

With that, we wanted to put these directional changes on the public record. Historically we've tried to share as much as we can — for us, and for you — so this transmission continues the tradition.

He acknowledges that what he is about to do will not please everyone. He wants his employees to know that, but also wants to step out front an make things clear to everyone. 

1. No more societal and political discussions on our company Basecamp account. Today's social and political waters are especially choppy. Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant. You shouldn't have to wonder if staying out of it means you're complicit, or wading into it means you're a target. These are difficult enough waters to navigate in life, but significantly more so at work. It's become too much. It's a major distraction. It saps our energy, and redirects our dialog towards dark places. It's not healthy, it hasn't served us well. And we're done with it on our company Basecamp account where the work happens. People can take the conversations with willing co-workers to Signal, Whatsapp, or even a personal Basecamp account, but it can't happen where the work happens anymore.

One of the worst things our Navy has done in the last two decades is bit by bit getting involved in socio-political fads that are both a distraction, a time-suck, and as they are socio-political in nature and not mission-focused. They bring division in to the ranks.

3. No more committees. For nearly all of our 21 year existence, we were proudly committee-free. No big working groups making big decisions, or putting forward formalized, groupthink recommendations. No bureaucracy. But recently, a few sprung up. No longer. We're turning things back over to the person (or people) who were distinctly hired to make those decisions. The responsibility for DEI work returns to Andrea, our head of People Ops. The responsibility for negotiating use restrictions and moral quandaries returns to me and David. A long-standing group of managers called "Small Council" will disband — when we need advice or counsel we'll ask individuals with direct relevant experience rather than a pre-defined group at large. Back to basics, back to individual responsibility, back to work.

Do you have "pre-meetings" where you have meetings to get ready for meetings? Do you have meetings where you mostly discuss what happened at other meetings? Do you have meeting where you leave them wondering what exactly this did to move the ball forward for your command or the Navy? 

Do you have people who co-opt your time and command to pursue their personal priorities that are unrelated to the command’s mission?

Every do a quick accounting of the amount of people at a meeting times the length of the meeting and see if it created more value than it consumed? Are our leaders overworked, or just overscheduled? 

4. No more lingering or dwelling on past decisions. We've become a bit too precious with decision making over the last few years. Either by wallowing in indecisiveness, worrying ourselves into overthinking things, taking on a defensive posture and assuming the worst outcome is the likely outcome, putting too much energy into something that only needed a quick fix, inadvertently derailing projects when casual suggestions are taken as essential imperatives, or rehashing decisions in different forums or mediums. It's time to get back to making calls, explaining why once, and moving on.

How long have we been working on cutting steel on a FFG design already in production? Why are we still waiting for our next fighter design? Is this a process or a mindset problem?

5. No more 360 reviews. Employee performance reviews used to be straightforward. A meeting with your manager or team lead, direct feedback, and recommendations for improvement. Then a few years ago we made it hard. Worse, really. We introduced 360s, which required peers to provide feedback on peers. The problem is, peer feedback is often positive and reassuring, which is fun to read but not very useful. Assigning peer surveys started to feel like assigning busy work. Manager/employee feedback should be flowing pretty freely back and forth throughout the year. No need to add performative paperwork on top of that natural interaction. So we're done with 360s, too.

Administrative overhead. Thank goodness the 360-deg review high-water mark was years ago, but this paragraph is important. How much time is spent doing FITREPs and EVALs? How much time processing awards - from draft copy to record management? Do they really best help us identify and promote talent? Do they add more value than they consume?

6. No forgetting what we do here. We make project management, team communication, and email software. We are not a social impact company. Our impact is contained to what we do and how we do it. We write business books, blog a ton, speak regularly, we open source software, we give back an inordinate amount to our industry given our size. And we're damn proud of it. Our work, plus that kind of giving, should occupy our full attention. We don't have to solve deep social problems, chime in publicly whenever the world requests our opinion on the major issues of the day, or get behind one movement or another with time or treasure. These are all important topics, but they're not our topics at work — they're not what we collectively do here. Employees are free to take up whatever cause they want, support whatever movements they'd like, and speak out on whatever horrible injustices are being perpetrated on this group or that (and, unfortunately, there are far too many to choose from). But that's their business, not ours. We're in the business of making software, and a few tangential things that touch that edge. We're responsible for ourselves. That's more than enough for us.

How much of the public-facing time - and the hours of PAO/HR etc - of our senior leadership is dedicated to addressing the great power competition everyone wants to talk about, much less making sure the senior leaders of 2025, 2035 and 2040 will have to fight and win at sea?

Look at where we are in 2021, it sure looks like the senior leaders of 2015, 2010, and 2005 didn't have their eye on the ball. What did they have their eye on, and why? (NB: this blog has been running since 2004. The answers are here for new readers. Longstanding members of the Front Porch already know.)

This may look like compression. A reduction, an elimination. And it is. It's precisely that. We're compressing X to allow for expansion in Y. A return to whole minds that can focus fully on the work we choose to do. A return to a low-ceremony steady state where we can make decisions and move on. A return to personal responsibility and good faith trust in one another to do our own individual jobs well. A return to why we started the company. A return to what we do best.

This is the best part. We all only have 24-hrs a day. We can only do so much. Is your time focused on what it needs to be focused on? If you need an extra 100-workhours to, oh I don't know, do preservation - then besides asking your people to get 3-hrs of sleep as opposed to 4-hrs of sleep - where do you find it? You compress the number of other things you want them to do, and have them take that time to in what they really need to be doing.

This is not a new concept, and asking for it isn't either, but the natural state of a bureaucracy is to demand more time - more reports, more metrics, more meetings - and if you don't push back they win. Before you know it, there is not "time" or money to do what is actually your mission. 

This fight takes leadership ... leadership willing to make the right enemies. Make no mistake, there are entrenched interests who get a paycheck and tingle up the leg by using our Navy to pursue their personal and political goals - defense of the nation be damned.

They will push back. They will play dirty. We just need leaders who can take it.

Who's responsible for these changes? David and I are. Who made the changes? David and I did. These are our calls, and the outcomes and impacts land at our doorstep. Input came from many sources, disagreements were heard, deliberations were had. In the end, we feel like this is the long-term healthy way forward for Basecamp as a whole — the company and our products.

That, my friend, is leadership.

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