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Leading an Organization Through a Colossal Change

Scaling Team
Company Culture
Team processes

17 February, 2021

Bhavini Soneji, VP of Engineering at Headspace, describes how she successfully led a not-yet-mature engineering team through a colossal and massively impactful change.

Problem

As a tech leader, you are usually faced with the task of maturing the team and processes to meet the next phase of the company's growth and needs. This encompasses - establishing a tech team & organization structure having a DNA ingrained in engineering and innovation, and at the same time set up the team for success by establishing best practices, common tools, and establishing a career path for the team.
 

Actions taken

Here is a compilation of actions I took and principles I followed, across different companies in my career, in collaboration with the team, stakeholders, and leadership. I came up with a strategy that I broke down into two categories: people and processes.
 

People and Culture

I used data to assess the given situation, relying both on quantitative and qualitative data; for example, using engagement surveys or going on talking tours across teams and stakeholders. As a result, I could structure the organization to align it to Business and Services so that the manager/leader was accountable for Product/Business outcomes and coaching their team. Where applicable, creating / aligning team to focus on platform and tooling.
 

After a successful restructuring, the next step I took was assessing and putting the right people in the right roles and hiring for gaps. I had to tighten up the interviewing process by calling out things that were important for us. Two aspects that are important 1) growing / promoting from within 2) hiring a mix of people with experience across different stages of the company, so they can lead the change as they have seen and operated at the scale of the next phase. Always encouraging the mixed composition of the team and nurturing its diverse character.
 

In companies that lacked performance reviews, I pioneered the use of performance assessment with all of my leaders and introduced a 9-box matrix that we have run three times by now. A day-long, thorough evaluation of the talent helped with the team development and succession planning and provided us a better understanding of the areas we needed to invest in and more lean in. The process drove consistency in management assessments and, above all, equipped managers with actionable feedback for their team members. Moreover, frank discussion allowed for themes and patterns to come to surface, which helped engineering leadership learn where we needed to focus and drive shared consciousness. If you are growing and if you don’t have those in place, you will see people leave because they won’t feel appreciated.
 

Processes

I introduced a great number of processes based on the company and its needs and where it aspired to go, while doing it in partnership with the team to bring about a transparent, open, and learning culture and drive best practices. I wanted to enable the curious and candid voices to come from anywhere. For any change I introduced, I made sure to set the context -- why it was important, how it would be evaluated, etc. My approach to introducing any process is similar to product development; it starts with gathering data, followed by formulating a hypothesis and building the process and finally, measuring its effects.
 

I organized, among other things, weekly show-and-tells, where engineers would go and present to other teams what they were working on. We gained enormous momentum that a show-and-tell became our most engaging and attended meetings across the organization. It enabled us to do intensive knowledge sharing, and people became more proactive because they were aware of what was being built. We expanded our efforts to Design and soon witnessed a culture emerging around this. People became more comfortable sharing their (not perfect) things in the making.
 

I also helped with starting tech reviews that were initially narrowed down to approval but happened to evolve to the original idea of consultations. All teams are optional on that; reviews have their topic and agenda, and people in senior roles are strongly encouraged to attend. They are meant to provide more feedback to individuals submitting their proposals but also brace them with confidence. It is one of the most inspiring learning opportunities that we created, but we didn’t get there overnight. Initially, there was much resistance because people believed that they would be judged for their proposals.
 

Also, we organize biweekly tech talks on different topics spanning technical and cultural issues. Speakers could be in-house or third-party people who would have 15 seconds per slide to share their story. Finally, I established monthly roundtable discussions with my tech and squad leads where they share their Aha moments and where we have a 10-minutes long session on what is keeping you at night.
 

In addition, I brought in external trainers, which resulted in a book club initiative strongly promoted by the team. I was keen to develop and nurture a culture of curiosity across the organization and used post-mortems as a venue to promote it. I tied it to emphasizing the importance of the customer experience and encouraged further exploration of the problems by more strongly integrating the customer’s perspective. I have seen success with scheduling customer shadowing for engineers, such that they understand how the product is used and pain points, such that they are motivated to proactively come and fix their issue.
 

In the end, to get efficiency and foster reuse, where applicable, investing in platform and tools teams to build common components and standardize service-oriented and microservice patterns; that increased velocity and saved time spent on working to reinvent the wheel.
 

Outcomes: People and Processes

Though it may sound like a cliche, the impact is enormous.

  • We spotted a huge difference in the engagement, attendance, and frequency of our forums/meetings, with an average attendance of around 80 percent.
  • Influencing outside of eng, as some of the initiatives were adopted in other parts of the company
  • Engagement score improvements of 15%+ across the different companies, showing effectively streamlined communication and accountability;
     

Lessons learned

Process

  • Have patience and give time for the process to mature. The formula for success is that leaders have to lean in to bring about a muscle change and follow-through on these change enablers while taking their teams along by painting the broader outline that the team then has flexibility to fill in on the details of how to go about it.,
  • Holding cross-groups accountable increases efficiency but also transparency.
     

People

  • Training is a highly effective method to share knowledge and engage people, and it should be included as early as possible.
  • 9-box gets out proper feedback and can help identify areas of improvement for the team. It also helps with consistency in assessment and fair succession planning.
  • Having the right people in the right roles -- and on key platforms/tools -- is crucial for the success of any organization.

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