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Why Defining Engineering Principles Is Critical

Company Culture

20 April, 2021

Nahi Ojeil

Nahi Ojeil

Vice President of Engineering at Commure

Nahi Ojeil, VP of Engineering at Commure, explains how defining engineering principles can help large organizations move in the right direction while avoiding misalignment and overt centralization.

Problem

As a manager of a large organization, I aspire for my team to operate in a decentralized manner with as much independence as possible while still consistently moving in the same direction. To ensure that, one needs to have a set of principles in place that would provide people with guidance without overcommunicating everything.

The lack of well-defined engineering principles typically results in misalignment and inconsistency unless all decisions are centralized, which can overtax managers. Any effort to make the team more independent without setting principles first could easily backfire as people will start pulling things in different directions.

Actions taken

I wanted the best of both worlds -- I wanted the team to be more independent and people to make their own decisions while at the same time, I wanted to ensure consistency and alignment. I was sure that if we could develop a culture based on clearly defined principles, the team would be guided, not by people but by principles. That would allow us to minimize personal decision-making and have everyone on the team row in the same direction.

To do so, I wanted to get a pulse of things first. I had many one-on-ones and had brainstormed together with people in smaller groups. That helped me establish a baseline -- where we were and where people felt we should be. I gathered a small working group within the organization to collectively develop guiding principles that should be embedded at the very foundation of our culture. We relied extensively on the feedback I collected through various types of meetings, but also on the data projecting future trends and the state of our organization.

We did the first revision of the principles within the working group, and I tweaked things up a bit according to my understanding of where we were moving as an organization. We socialized the first draft across the organization, soliciting input and feedback through talking to peers and partners. That helped us create a living document that captured a diversity of opinions and was welcomed across the organization.

The document defined the core principles and explained how we would apply them on a more operational level. We also codified them to make them functional in different situations. Furthermore, we empowered managers and technical leaders to always reference those principles in their decision-making.

Lessons learned

  • By removing decision-making bottlenecks in fast-growing organizations, you would enable them to move even faster. However, without any principles and/or guidelines in place, the danger of complete chaos is imminent.
  • Inconsistency is tightly connected with growth. Growth entails communication overhead and misalignment because where there was one or two, are many now, which inherently changes the structure of your organization.
  • There is a lot of value in making the team part of the process of defining values and principles. Having someone come and dictate the principle can be counterproductive as people are reluctant to apply principles that they feel are imposed on them. The likeliness that the team will accept principles handed down by the leadership is rather low.
  • It is possible to have an organization that will move quickly and operate independently without having leaders who will have their hands in everything. The most efficient approach is to have people work within the constraints of a value system.

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