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Manage Up with Communication Structure

Company Culture
Leadership
Internal Communication

5 December, 2018

Arjun Shah

Arjun Shah

Manager, Field Engineering at Amazon Web Services

Arjun explains how strategically increasing channels of communication help turn an entire company around.

Problem

We were brought in to help a large telecommunications company scale their e-commerce website used by 20+M MAUs, which, at the time, had significant technical debt spanning pillars such as quality, security, performance, scalability, reliability, and operations. There was no software delivery process, 300 offshore developers divided into 20 agile teams, committed code randomly to their specific release branch, which was later manually merged to main, thus creating a landslide of integration bugs. There was no branching strategy, no CI, no automated deployments, zero unit tests, absurd code duplication scores. There were 150+ open production bugs and atrocious production availability and MTTR metrics.
Over the years, a chronic culture of over-committing and under-delivering had formed which led to regular talent attrition and an unproductive, waste-ridden, demoralizing work environment. To my surprise, none of the business and IT stakeholders had awareness about this situation. They were accustomed to receiving only "the good part" of the news.

Actions taken

I quickly learned the context, and created a stakeholder communication plan. My intent was to baseline everyone's expectations with the current state and keep the right stakeholders regularly informed and accountable. This communication plan included having a well-defined cadence (e.g. meeting objective, attendees, decisions) for critical meetings such as product planning, product backlog review, product launch readiness, show & tell, and SRE review. I moderated these meetings for the first 3 months, and later delegated to others.
At first, there was the inevitable shock reaction as stakeholders quickly learned about the terrible state. This shock gradually turned into optimism as measurable progress was made on stabilizing and evolving the product (not covering that part of the story here, but it was fascinating how we turned the ship around). After 12 months, we had a mature agile cadence established, with solid alignment between ICs, middle management, and executive leadership, thus resulting in faster decisions, less fatigue and churn, and higher team morale.

Lessons learned

I've learned that many situations can use more communication structure. A solid communication structure lowers stress, anxiety, and chaos, simplifies and accelerates decision-making, creates healthier team alignment, and cultivates agility and speed.
Executives are hungry to know details and in reality, you aren't wasting their time by giving them too much, but you also want to be conscious of their time. Whether you are scaling a team, stabilizing a product, involving your leadership, or running a production incident bridge, a communication structure is vital to a high performing team and organization.


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