Transforming a Slow and Unhealthy Engineering Org

Aditya Sawhney

VP of Engineering at Axcient



"I was managing various teams that came to us through different acquisitions. Consequently, they were at disparate levels of maturity, even from a process and development side of things. Everyone was doing their own thing, using their own tools, and there was an overall lack of process and consistency. As a result, the engineering organization was perceived as being slow, unhealthy, and lacking visibility."

Actions taken

I began by sending an assessment survey to each team. The survey allowed me to collect anonymous feedback on many different aspects including culture, people, process, projects, and systems. This leading set of questionnaires gave me a sense of each teams' maturity level and to see if there were any common threads - good or bad- across the teams.

Once collected, there was a scoring mechanism for the assessment. The scoring system created a spider web where one could see areas that were faltering while also showing others that were farther ahead. Averaging out across the different teams, any category or piece that was consistently scoring low across the board meant that a problem area had been identified and a note was made of it.

Next, I defined what our 'North Star' should look like. I emphasized the focus of this north star on three distinct pillars: speed (or velocity) of deliverables, quality, and impact. In reference to each of these three pillars, I set key performance indicators (KPIs) as a means of measurement.

I then went back to the surveys to figure out what initiatives needed to be done in order to reach the north star. I weighted the categories and scored them based on effort and impact in a 4x4 quadrant. How much effort was it going to take and what was the impact? This was more of a subjective assessment but it helped to outline which initiatives to take on first.

"Those with low effort and high impact were the low hanging fruit that we could easily tackle. High impact and high effort things would take a bit more strategy and thus a long time. Using this quadrant scheme I came up with a quarter-by-quarter game plan of what initiatives we were going to take and who would be assigned the owners for each of those initiatives."

Lastly, I defined milestones for all of the initiatives. The teams' progress was recorded and I did regular check-ins on a weekly or biweekly basis. The measure of success was clearly defined so that everyone knew whether we were on course or not. We continued on this path until we reached the level of maturity that I was looking for.

Lessons learned

  • "There needs to be alignment and buy-in from the executive level. What I did was in addition to the work which was already happening, separate from feature development. The transformation slowed down the pace of deliverables in order for it to be corrected and go faster later on. It required a lot of time and effort to make progress so there must be executive alignment and buy-in upfront. It's important."
  • "As we were experimenting it was important to create a psychologically safe environment for the teams. I let them know that it was okay to fail because we were experimenting. I encouraged them to keep a learner's mindset and to focus on the progress they were making. Even if they had false starts or a few bad sprints, that was okay. As long as they were making progress they weren't going to be held accountable."
  • "Don't be prescriptive about how things need to be done. You want the team to own the process. I set boundaries that the team should stay within and gave them what needed to be done, but how they did it was completely up to them. This gave the team a sense of ownership."
  • "Recognize and celebrate the wins. During the month we would have the teams come in- groups of individuals and not just the leadership team, and talk about what they had done. People related more to this type of grassroots level concord and felt good about what was happening."
  • "Gamify to some extent. We had one single dashboard that would state initiatives (listed along the rows) and each team (listed in the columns). This meant that everybody could see the leaderboard and who was progressing on each channel. It added a level of healthy competition."
  • "As a leader, you can't be sitting on the outside and ordering instructions to your team members. You have to lead by example, participate with the team, help solve problems when they are running into issues, and facilitate conversations. You should be there to aid and support your teams."

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Aditya Sawhney

VP of Engineering at Axcient

Engineering LeadershipLeadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyCulture DevelopmentPerformance MetricsLeadership TrainingFeedback TechniquesCareer GrowthCareer Progression

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