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How to Run a Successful War Room

Goal Setting
Conflict Solving
Embracing Failures
Health / Stress / Burn-Out

4 February, 2022

Rajat Chowdhary
Rajat Chowdhary

Engineering Manager at Atlassian

Rajat Chowdhary, Engineering Manager at Atlassian, contributes his tips for leading successful war rooms.

What is a War Room?

War rooms take place after time-critical events occur. There are often security incidents, regulatory changes, or bugs that require immediate action. In some org’s, war rooms might be a way for feature delivery as well. To mitigate these time-critical challenges, companies have to enter ‘war mode’ to push out a new feature or update to the system. During ‘war mode,’ teams will enter war rooms to brainstorm and write code to alleviate each individual problem.

Tips for Maintaining a Healthy War Room

Remain Sane:

When entering a war room, the most difficult aspect is to act sane. It may sound silly, but when a system is in a state of disrepair, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. As tensions rise and emotions grow, chaos can begin to break out, increasing the difficulty in decision-making.

As the leader of a war room, it is vital to lead by example, remaining calm and collected. By acting as a role model, team members understand the behavioral expectations of war rooms and will try and keep them together.

Keep Daily Milestones:

I secondly recommend that leaders devise daily milestones for their war rooms. In my experience, there are two ways to track these milestones:

  • The first is to keep a Zoom meeting running throughout the day. This allows any team members to hop on the call any time they have a question or idea and be able to discuss it with the leader or someone else on the call.
  • The second way to track milestones is to schedule meetings in regular intervals throughout the day. It’s not unusual to work long hours during ‘war mode,’ meaning it’s relatively easy to plan Zoom calls for every three hours.

Tracking daily milestones increases motivation for teams. I’ve learned that during ‘war mode,’ it’s easy to get bogged down with the gritty details and overlook the progress a team has made in the big picture.

Continue Shipping Code:

I advise that teams continue shipping during war rooms to not build up a backlog. Each time a team makes a fix, ensure that they are shipping it to production. It takes practice to ship code and run a war room simultaneously, but it is a key trait to not overwhelm teams after they exit the war room.

Making Tough Decisions:

The last and most important trait for a leader is the ability to make decisions. Previously I’ve found that I have not had the resources I needed to make a decision or push a feature. Each department has its own constraints, and as a leader, it is vital to combine these constraints to ensure alignment.

Without the time and resources to figure out the details of each small task, the decision-making of an engineering leader can shine. Sound decisions often have a high-risk reward ratio with a low fallback ratio in case a decision backfires.

Mitigating Team Fatigue During War Rooms

  • As previously mentioned, during ‘war mode,’ team members are bound to work long hours for numerous days, eventually causing team fatigue and lowering productivity. To combat low motivation, I recommend cycling through team members, having each member stretch for a few days before giving them a rest.
  • During war rooms, it is essential to open a line of communication for team members, ensuring they speak up when they become stressed. I recommend continually checking in with individuals to get a notion of the team climate and ensure a psychologically safe workspace.
  • Last but not least, use war rooms judiciously. By continuously calling for a war room when it doesn’t warrant, the effectiveness of war rooms is bound to decline.

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