By Sarah Gruneisen and Benjamin Augustin
The essence of great leadership is getting a group of diverse, highly passionate individuals unified and heading in the same direction. It’s building a team that knows where they’re going, that’s connected to the reasons why and that’s clear on what they’re trying to achieve. Achieving this holy grail of leadership ultimately comes down to having a vision and communicating it well.
A vision not only tells everyone what you’re doing as a business, it works on a product level too. If you’re creating a product and don’t have a clear vision as to why the product exists, who needs it, what people want from it and what pain points it addresses then your engineering team won’t connect to that product – they’ll just write code. The product might turn out well, but it won’t be amazing. Because if you want to knock people’s socks off, you need passion behind a product.
What happens in an engineering team without vision?
Without a unified vision – and we’ve seen this happen many times before – teams tend to create one anyway. Then you end up with a bunch of different visions, teams working in silos, and everyone becoming disconnected from what you’re trying to achieve as a business. While everyone may be doing a lot of work, it’s not work that’s needed. And eventually, they’ll get disheartened because they’ll feel like nothing they do is good enough.
On the flip side, you can also end up with people having no vision and doing only the bare minimum. They see their job as taking a ticket, doing the ticket and not asking questions. And this doesn’t work either.
One of the core tenets of Mobile DevOps is ownership, accountability and autonomy for every individual in an organisation. If you want people to be able to drive initiatives from the beginning right through to delivery, they need to understand why they’re doing it and how their role fits into the bigger vision.
Enabling engineers to ask the right questions
We often speak to engineering leaders within large organisations who feel like their engineering teams “aren’t passionate enough” or “don’t care about the product.” In most of these cases, we find talented engineers who care about their work but who are feeling disconnected from the rest of the business.
It could be that the engineers aren’t included in decision-making so they don’t know why the business priorities shift, or it could be that the work environment doesn’t empower them to ask questions. Whatever the underlying factor, once we identify and address it, we find those same engineers suddenly empowered to bring passion and creativity into their work, shine in their roles and proactively work to improve business outcomes.
Having a vision that everyone understands and embodies not only enables your engineering team to write good code, but to have tension towards the product and continually question their work. An engineer’s most valuable skill is looking at something and seeing what could be done differently to achieve an outcome. For example, the iPod would have never been created if Apple’s company vision didn’t empower its engineers to question WHAT they were doing in order to achieve the WHY. Without this enablement, we might still have drop-down, functional menus leading with “Start”.
To create a working environment that welcomes and encourages questions, we recommend scheduling two separate refinement sessions. The first is purely for asking questions – why are we doing this? Is it critical to our business? Is it bringing our product to where we want it to go? Is it what the customer needs? The second is to discuss solutions.
Empowering engineering teams to innovate
When you get your teams truly connected to a product vision, the outcomes can be genuinely surprising. For example, we worked on a project for a popular TV channel in the UK looking at their content playback on various devices. A huge part of their product was ad integration and they had a simple system in place which loaded the adverts in the same way as the content.
The viewing experience was frustrating, as the ad content needed to load and reload and was being interrupted by buffering. And yet, their vision was to bring the best entertainment experience and to make people happy.
Adverts were a critical part of their business model, but we needed to stop them from causing such a disruption to viewing – because that wasn’t aligned with the business vision. Our engineers came up with an idea to create a unified feed which integrated ads within the content, so the show would start buffering while the ads were running for a seamless viewing experience.
Nobody at product level would have known this was possible. For them, the process was just, adverts then show. But from an engineering perspective, we could see the gap between the current product and the vision. This solution didn’t come from customer feedback or the product teams, it came from the engineers’ understanding of what was possible within the context of the vision.
To use a different example, let’s say a customer is looking out of a window at a tree and says: “I want to touch the tree outside the window.” The product team might come up with the solution of going downstairs, walking around the building and crossing the road to touch the tree. But, if we take a moment and ask as a team why the customer wants to touch the tree, product can understand that the customer just wants to feel the fresh air, and engineering can recommend that we open the window to achieve this. It’s by communicating and working together that we achieve the best outcome for the client.
Essentially, engineers ask the right questions and find an alternative way to do things. It’s rare for customers to think that way – not because they can’t think that way, they are just often not aware of the possibilities. Therefore, the only way you can get to those amazing, simplified solutions is to bring your engineers to the vision. Engineers are inventors and artists who want to get excited and be part of the solution – they’re not just developers.
Communicating your vision starts with leadership
Just like any challenge you’re looking to fix in a team of engineers, unifying a team behind a vision starts with leadership. If leaders can’t communicate a product vision to their teams, making each individual feel like part of the solution, and giving them the autonomy to operate within their role, then there’s no benefit to having a vision. Teams will become just as disconnected as if there were none at all.
How do you communicate your vision effectively?
Repeat, repeat, repeat
You have to repeat, repeat, repeat the vision. Over and over. It has to be in every single presentation and in the background of every single conversation. Your team has to see it all the time. It has to become embodied within them. This doesn’t happen with just one presentation that says: “Here’s our vision!”
If you don’t talk about your vision often enough, people will forget about it. So, whenever you have a decision to make or have to prioritise, always reflect back on the vision. Whatever action brings you closer to the vision, that becomes the priority.
Make it tangible
Make sure your vision isn’t abstract. Paint a picture of what it looks like in real terms. If people aren’t sure what it looks like to have achieved the vision, then they won’t be clear on the action to take to move towards it.
If you can’t explain your vision in two sentences, it’s too complicated. Simplification can be tough, so work on it as a team. Once you can explain it simply and succinctly, it becomes a mantra you can repeat when making any decision to make sure you’re making the right choices.
Break the silos
Bring every single person in your company into the overarching vision. This expands peoples’ horizons and ensures everyone within the business understands the bigger picture that goes beyond their work and their team. Bring engineers into a product’s lifecycle as early as possible, so they can be a part of these early decisions and bring their knowledge on board from the start.
The overarching company vision might not feel relevant to every team within your company. In this case, teams can create sub-visions for different products. This way, every product has its own sub-vision that connects to the top vision, making it feel more accessible and meaningful for product teams.
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