Soft Edges

As humans we seem to engage in a never ending dialog around who should, when and why?

A constant conversation that often focuses on the process rather than the outcome. In my own world (a technology product delivery world), there has probably never been a better example than when does architecture end and technical design / engineering begin? If I had a dollar…

I feel that this type of question is (unfortunately) more about when to engage the people / team rather than the activity itself. More about when do we get Jenny in the loop than what will our architecture and technical design look like?

I’ve got a pretty strong opinion on this and it’s rooted in primaries, secondaries and soft edges.

For simplification, think of primaries as the R/A in RASCI and secondaries as the C. Soft edges? Well that’s just about not being precious and working together as primaries and secondaries.

When we lead into something like architecture, the reality is that our architects are responsible / accountable for it, but our engineers have so much to contribute. In fact they need to contribute because they will ultimately implement what’s being architected.

When we lead into something like technical design and engineering, our engineers are responsible / accountable, but our architects typically have a deep engineering background. They too can contribute to ideas on how to implement the architecture.

Therefore is architecture and technical design / engineering mutually exclusive? Nope, never is. In fact over time, such involvements and activities don’t start and stop, they merge and transfer. As we progress through time and implementation, our architects shift from primaries to secondaries and our engineers vice versa.

Where is the handoff point then? Well there actually isn’t one. Instead there is a blended activity of outcome ownership and a shifting of responsibility / accountability and contribution within the team.

The underpinning philosophy that enables this is the soft edges.

The ability for roles / teams / people to work together on problems, contributing together with little regard for job description or remit. Soft edges allows us to have a first class opinion and not get precious about ‘who’s call is it’? Rather can we get the best outcome, like what’s the best idea?

We all know who the elephant in the room is, and we all know who is the deer. Let’s not rule out what the deer has to say.

It’s important to know who is primary and has the responsibility / accountability and who is a secondary and can contribute. Over time this often reverses, and when working well it does so with smooth transition. Smooth transitions need a lack of jarring and the best way to do that IMO is through softness, as in soft edges.


Phased Alignment

If there is one thing that I’m constantly encouraging my team to do it’s to get into alignment with each other.  You know, the close the door and everyone has their say, everyone debates the issue and when they leave the room they’ve all signed up to the decision and don’t break ranks.  

Sounds great!  However it doesn’t always play out that way. Even when the team is full of great professionals with the best intent, alignment sometimes cannot be achieved.  So where to from there then?

I like to use what I call Phased Alignment.  Phased Alignment is a construct which defines phases of getting a team to alignment by starting with decisions that can be simply endorsement by leadership through to (unfortunately at times), mandated by leadership.  

What do I mean by this?  Well… what I mean is I use a construct that fully empowers my team to make decisions through alignment, but if they can’t they know ultimately I’ll step in and make it on their behalf. Decision needs to be made, there’s no backing away from that.

Phased Alignment goes like this:

  • Phase 1 – Leadership Endorsed Decisions: Teams operate independently and self guided where alignment is achieved. Leadership is able to endorse these decisions.
  • Phase 2 – Leadership Guided Decisions: Teams fail to gain alignment and needs leadership input and guidance to get aligned.
  • Phase 3 – Leadership Mandated Decisions: Teams fail to get aligned and forfeits the decision making ability.

Let’s explore these phases a little more…

Phase 1 – Leadership Endorsed Decisions

Leadership Endorsed Decisions is when my team is empowered and able to work effectively together and whether it’s 1 workshop or 20, they emerge with an aligned decision ready to be endorsed.  This is the best outcome and most decisions in a high functioning team come through the Leadership Endorsed Decisions phase.  This is the good stuff.  What’s the decision? Everyone Happy?  Awesome, job done.

Most of the time we stop here, which is great news, however sometimes it really isn’t that straight forward.  Sometimes it’s because it’s a difficult subject, or that people past experiences have already formed strongly opposed views, or even sometimes its even inexperienced or (unfortunately) ineffectual staff.  

Whatever the reason, sometimes the team is not able to get aligned themselves and at that point they move out of Leadership Endorsed Decisions into Leadership Guided Decisions.

Phase 2 – Leadership Guided Decisions

In failing to get aligned themselves, the team needs guidance in the conversation from leadership.    This is the team struggling, this doesn’t mean troublesome but it does mean struggling.

Leadership Guided Decisions typically manifests itself in re-workshopping with the leadership playing an active role, in being clear in the need for alignment, the outcomes required and guiding the conversation.  Tools like Six Thinking Hats can be helpful, so can the reassurance that nearly every decision is reversible and that we’ll test and learn and review and if need be reevaluate the decision at a point in the future.

Effective leadership and high functioning teams should nearly always get aligned after the Leadership Guided Decisions, but on occasion there are team members who collectively or individually don’t or can’t respond to the leadership guidance and at that point there is no other way. The leaderships hands are now forced and it’s time to consider the discussion and options and make the decision for the team.  

Phase 3 – Leadership Mandated Decisions

This is the destination we normally didn’t want to be at.  The team has had the opportunity to get themselves aligned and couldn’t, the team then came under leadership guidance and still alignment could not be reached.  Let’s not sugar coat it, we’ve collectively failed at this point.

I try to avoid Leadership Mandated Decisions wherever possible, but what I don’t avoid is being clear to the team that alignment is required and that the team is empowered to execute on that. However and it really is a big however, if they can’t we’ll head towards leadership making the decision for them.  A decision is required one way or another.


I’ve found using the Phased Alignment Framework really helpful and teams response very well to it.  I’m able to very clearly outline my commitment to empowering teams and allowing them to make decisions for me to endorse, but at the same time if they can’t there are consequences of that because the decision is required.  

Mostly I see my teams operate in Leadership Endorsed Decisions and occasionally traverse into Leadership Guided Decisions and that’s great.  Sometimes even teams ask to start in Leadership Guided Decisions to get some extra horsepower in the process and that’s great too.  Sometimes we end up in Leadership Mandated Decisions and that is… well it is what it is.

Let’s always aim for Leadership Endorsed Decisions, they are typically the best ones, with the highest buy in and the best results. 


1 Over Interviews

When employing staff I’m looking for my teams (and myself for that matter) to finalise things with a 1 over interview; an interview with the hiring managers’ manager. Recently we were hiring another 2 new senior engineering managers and I had 1 over interviews with them which ultimately caused me to jot down these thoughts.

Although 1 over interviews are a pretty normal practice nowadays (for a load of good reasons), I strive for consistency, simplicity and repeatability so I go into these 1 over interviews with a specific approach in mind, best in a relaxed mutual environment over something like a coffee or tea.

My context and opening gambit is simple, we are here because I have strong trust in my hiring managers. My hiring managers also understand that my time is a precious commodity and don’t use it sparingly, so we don’t need to repeat the discussions and vetting been done to date.

The thumbs up has already been given and endorsed by others, so this is really about two things, why am I here and why are you applying.

The why am I here is an important frame in my view as I want to clearly outline the challenge and opportunity that I saw and very much personalise it. Joining is personal. I think it’s also important to lead the contribution to this conversation because not only do I have more exposure to the environment and context, it gives the candidate an opportunity to speak into the same frame using their own perspective.

If the two why’s are aligned, we are in a good space. We are going to be rowing in the same direction, if not… you know.

All going well, this leads further into a conversation around curiosity and things that only the two involved will shape in realtime.

Ultimately I really do trust my hiring managers and work hard to attract and retain them, and in that these have to be their hiring decisions that they are accountable for. At the same time it’s important to me that potential new team members hear from existing senior staff as to why they are here, in their own words.

The measure of success of this is candidates feeling more inspired to join and hiring managers being endorsed for great hiring decisions.


Who Am I Looking For?

I’m currently recruiting for a couple of roles: Head of Engineering and Head of Products. In chatting to the exec, recruiters, my mates and wider network, something that’s come up a lot is who am I looking for? It’s a damn good question because working with and for good people is really important to me. Like really important.

I thought I’d share.

Firstly I really really don’t want to do your job for you, that’s why I’m looking for you. Sure I (think I) was a pretty decent software engineer, sure I’ve spent like forever architecting highly scalable real-time platforms, but I’ve got different (not bigger, but different) fish to fry. This is a really important point to me because we certainly have different levels of accountabilities and abilities to affect the outcome (both in success and failure), but we all need to play our part outwards, not top down or any other fashion.

No BS and politics. Period, as in period, period.

What I need is for you to be damn good at what you do, own the function, lean towards a bit of a servant-leadership style of things and be super present. Oh and being a top person is a bit of a must, you’ve just got to fit into a team and be a team player. If you can’t enjoy some humour at and from people above, below and beside you (in the HR org chart), you’re probably need not read on. And if you can’t have a beer (figuratively, or not so) with the team, again, need not read on. But if you can, put your company card behind the bar (figuratively, or not so again) and show some love to your folk. Make sure you can enjoy.

You know when we get put under pressure or new / unexpected things come up, there are going to be cracks and gaps that appear, most noticeably ones that no one knows much about, something totally new to the team and outside the comfort zone. You’re gonna need to feel cool to step in and own some of those for us. Take point, and I’ll not only personally appreciate it, we’ll back you and give you whatever you need.

I’ll be sharing the outcomes we need and why we need them, I’m gonna need you to work out the best method and why we need those. Win the minds and hearts, speak clearly, openly and sincerely and if all else fails, make the call. No call is the worst call, don’t make that call.

You’ll also need to be open to new stuff yourself, and not always have the answers. Someone you never expected may have the idea or answers and you’re gonna need to be not only good with that, but champion it and praise it.

If you can run stuff well and have genuinely happy and engaged staff, I can get on and do what I need too. If all my DR’s are doing the same, well actually you probably don’t need me there a lot of the time, which is just as well because I probably won’t be. I’ll be facing into some other storms, selling what you’ve done and built or hey, even might be on vacation from time to time.

I’m gonna ask that you never surprise me and I’ll do the same, let me know early, let me lend some thoughts / experiences over to your side and I’ll see how I can help. But don’t let something fester, and bring it to me when it erupted. Eruptions aren’t good.

I commit to all my staff and I extend the same to you: I’ll communicate all that I can, as soon as I can, as complete as I can. I’ll take any and every question and answer it honestly and completely, the only caveat to that is if there is a degree of confidentiality around it, in which case I’ll tell you exactly that. 

You’ll need to bring something in with you though, and please be prepared for that. You’ll need to pack some energy each and every day. It’s my view that real energy causes something awesome in a team or relationship and you can’t create magic without it. Energy is your mandatory entry ticket.

In terms of the role, come on, you know its a guideline and will need flex. We’re all gonna have some cross-overs, hell we may even have opinions on things that aren’t in our remit. Lets not all be too precious about the 10 point font in your position description. Lets draw upon each other to get the best results, we actually do win and lose as a team.

Beware though, you’ll need to put in a decent shift. That doesn’t have to mean time, it means quality. But what’s very very important is that you’re gonna need to be able to ease off when you can too, soak up the calm and spend it with friends and family if you get a moment. If you travel for a week overseas for us, come home and your child is receiving a certificate at the school assembly, get to the damn assembly and beam as they beam at you. School camp? Get on the the school camp!

To much to ask? I don’t think so. I’ve met many people in my professional and personal life who easily fit the bill, I’m proud to say I have some who work with me right now. I’d like a couple more.

Lastly, be bold, be really bold. Nothing awesome is done without some good old boldness. Don’t tell me you’re not ready, you’re always ready, you just may not know or be comfortable with it yet. The only thing that might be holding you back is you, so get some boldness and move forth. Oh, and don’t leave the handbrake on while you’re at it, if it’s on yes you’ll have higher overall success rate, but you will slow us down, potentially all the way to failure. Don’t slow us down now!

Lastly, lastly, if you come on board, never ever ever (ever!) throw your role on the table. Never ever say ‘As the <INSERT ROLE HERE> I am’… Don’t bring your User Story form into your team engagement. That would be poor form (everyone knows who the hell you are), disrespectful and just totally unnecessary. Just get on board, lend some muscle and lets crack into it.

Who am I looking for? I think you might know by now.

Note: I originally posted this as Who Am I am I looking for on LinkedIn in April 2018 as a tongue in cheek recruitment message for character needed and slightly tweaked for this post.


Stopping Takes Courage

Today I was considering the news around Atlasssian waving the white flag on Stride & Hipchat via an IP acquisition from Slack and I was like, that’s some real courage right there.

I’m referring to: Atlassian exits business communications space, surrenders to Slack

For context, this was nothing about the platforms in question, frankly I’ve never used Stride or Hipchat but have heard pretty decent things about them. Ironically I’ve previously switched my teams to Slack, but that’s a total coincidence and pretty much irrelevant to this piece.

I’ve personally been a big fan of Atlasssian for quite some time, plucky Ozzie company once punching above their weight to now being a seriously quality heavyweight and doing that in some style. I think this latest decision speaks volumes of the leadership style within the organisation.

Stopping something can take the most courage.

Being a technology exec I am very familiar with the seeding of ideas, shaping of business cases, building of teams and leading the implementation of the products / platforms that they promise. In my experience to really succeed the team needs to believe in what they are building and why, care about their crafting and feel a real sense of pride in the outcomes. In this comes a real momentum and without a shadow of a doubt, coming to a dead stop at these speeds can have catastrophic consequences.

But in this case and for the bravery of Atlassian, catastrophic consequences hasn’t occurred, quite the contrary to a point where their share price soared close to 17% in after hours trading on the news. Too right it should. This is where companies like Atlassian get well deserved respect and increased confidence. They know when to change tack / pull the plug / refocus and do more of what they do well. They make the courageous, painful and hard calls because they are the right calls. They face into things like this.

But alas Atlasssian is in the minority in this space. We really don’t tend to see this kind of courageous leadership very often I’m afraid. Instead we tend to see companies wasting massive amounts of their shareholders money continuing to drink the company Kool-aid on failed strategies and doomed products, spanning years, sometimes decades… think Windows Mobile Phone. Chasing, chasing, chasing when the ultimate demise is pretty much already clear to most externals.

Stopping doing something that you’ve lobbied for, you’ve built teams for, you’re burned serious cash and / or political capital on can be the most courageous move you will ever make. On the outside it’s dollars and opportunity cost, on the inside it’s personal and professional pride, reputation, <INSERT LOADS OF OTHER SHIT HERE>.  The challenge and stakes of the decision often correlate to the courage required to making it.

In the case of canning Stride and Hipchat I’d say this is one hell of a courageous decision by Atlasssian. Given the current business communications platform landscape I would also say it’s the right one. More great stuff from Atlasssian.

Note: I originally posted this as stopping something can take the most courage on LinkedIn in August 2018 and slightly tweaked for this post.


1 Up & 1 In Promotions

I’m big on internal promotions. However, unfortunately I’ve witnessed that bogus situation of talented internal staff being overlooked many times, often because at best a bias of familiarity, at worst toxic office politics. This is something that has frustrated the hell out of me at times.

My thoughts are pretty simple on this, promoting people internally should be actively pursued without hesitation and that’s why I look to encourage a ‘1 up, 1 in’ policy in which wherever possible we look to promote someone internally in tandem with bring a new face and fresh ideas into the organisation. Healthy balance.

Earlier this year we promoted 8 people into what we call engineering managers, others may call them team leads or technical leads. These are our staff who help run product delivery teams (designers, product managers, architects, engineers, testers etc) writing our products and often having come from a software engineering background (although not always).

Even in these difficult covid-19 times we are expanding our workforce and recently we opened up 3 new senior engineering manager roles, staff who have the aforementioned engineering managers reporting into them.

Interestingly 2 of the 8 engineering managers who were promoted earlier in the year were re-promoted up into these new senior engineering manager roles. Awesome outcome! For me, that’s good a pretty good litmus test of whether internal promotion is a starter.

Any placement absolutely has to be warranted and be rooted in character and talent, internal promotions included. That said, support for internal promotions should be on the must do list, not on the should do list.

Wherever possible I’m looking for 1 up & 1 in promotional pairs, creating opportunities, rewarding and acknowledging awesome staff and freshening up the team with an equal balance of new staff. As leaders if we aren’t going to do this, who is?