How to start a new project: A top-down approach
Start with a small team that works in pods of 3–4 people. Each pod should have 1 senior, 2 juniors and 1 intern. They should be given a task in general and they must be free to come up with solutions. The task of higher management is to give these solutions/ideas direction based on their broader perspectives. Setting up metrics to measure progress is a good way to enable this kind of hands-off approach. It also allows the teams to keep track of their progress.
To start building the pod, the first goal should be hiring selectively for the seniors in each of the teams. You can set up the expectations in general for the project but it is these managers who will finally attempt to solve these problems. They should be given freedom to hire anyone they want, given some constraints( like hire from top colleges etc.).
As the pods are being set up, the managers should be given the task to find problems in the space of interest. Higher management can decide and prioritise among these problems/possible solutions.
Each pod should be given a clear goal but they should be free to come up with possible solutions. Setup a culture of prototyping fast and accumulate experience with the problem-solving in each of the approaches. There should be an expectation of regular deliverables be it as small as a working prototype or economic analysis of any policy.
A way to enable regular progress is to set up weekly catchups and work update blog posts that are shared across teams. These catch-ups should not be formal reports but rather standups with an informal update where people can share ideas and get feedback. It also forces people to ensure some progress each week and ensure that nothing stays stagnant for long. Don’t make these too formal or evaluative in any manner because then people would start optimising for these meetings and not work on their day to day job. Goodhart’s law sets in and the whole purpose of these meetings is defeated.
Once the problem statements and possible solutions are clearer, the teams should be incentivised to finish the project for one problem use case. Make them finish one pilot rather than starting multiple threads/use cases. Once a single use case of a typical problem is solved, then extend it to multiple use cases that are similar. This kind of incremental problem solving would build core-competence that would allow you to pivot to any problem in future.
Below are further ideas that motivate this kind of team management.
Delegate, delegate, delegate
The best way to achieve 10x productivity is to get the 10 people to your desired level of productivity. This means it is important to invest in developing talent to achieve their best part from your own role.
Culture eats strategy for breakfast
Essentially, any person working in a team, no matter their personal motivations and attitudes align themselves with the team culture. Thus, you can achieve anything with any group of people if you define the culture rightly. You work like the five people you work the most with on a day to day to basis.
The best way to achieve this, as learned from modern ideas of capitalism, free markets and democracy is to create an open culture where everyone can voice their opinions. Such a setting is most likely to equilibrate on a better working condition that keeps all employees motivated.
Simultaneously, a senior manager can fall into the trap of defining strategy too strictly. Even the best strategies won’t work if the people implementing them don’t believe in it. Furthermore, a strategy has to be enforced regularly through deadlines and at some stage, the manager or the employees are bound to fatigue. On the other hand, if you set a culture right, it would continue to propagate the ideals for centuries. (This is how great nations are made-like the idea that America is a land of opportunity).
If you motivate the workers with a good culture, you don’t have to motivate them to work longer hours. The best way to make interns work hard is to place them in an environment where managers work hard. And the best way to make managers works hard, is make to them excited with the vision.
`You’ define the culture
We understand that culture is important but then who defines the culture. The new joiners blame a bad culture on the older team. The junior on seniors. The seniors feel that juniors don't listen to them.
The place any change starts with oneself. This might mean to hold yourself to ideals higher than what you expect from the team. It also means that if you want to see a change in the culture, you need to put yourself in the centre of the issues that plague any team/space currently.
If the team lacks a sense of collaboration, then you have to start setting up behaviours that promote it. It does not mean ordering people to hold more discussions but rather having regular discussions with employees at any level and inviting without any formality to join these discussions.
If the culture that is being set up is open and positive and people see their higher-ups going beyond what they expect them to, then change is bound to happen.
Hire superstars: A passionate worker is better than 10 normal ones
Given the importance of culture to drive innovation in a team, it is imperative that you hire people who are culture carriers. If you want a passionate, fast-moving culture, you need to hire people that are excited, rash but effective. The rules of project management mean that communication gaps between people hinder the growth of the project. Also, politics set in after the number of people cross a limit.
Thus it is better to hire a single person who is excited by your vision that 10 people who are average. If you still want to grow a team and achieve a lot, it might be better to start hiring these superstars and then take their help to find the next generation of passionate workers.
Bottom-up ownership: Make people feel they own the idea and you are just the guiding lighthouse
People won’t work on ideas they think they are forced to work on through an order from above. They will put their least effort in achieving these goals.
One way to obviate this behaviour is to let people take ownership of the projects. A senior manager role then becomes to take a broad view and help the juniors to reach a broader understanding of where some project should progress.
Zero to One: Why the first solution is the most important
Any project has two stages:- zero to one and one to N. Each stage has its own challenges but the important thing is to handle them individually.
Zero to One: We should start solving a problem for this stage by striving to create a niche solution that works for 1 point. It could be one village, one office or one water tank. We should work at this stage with an attempt to form the best solution that solves the problems of a first solution. The learnings at this stage should be about making a solution that works and should not care about problems with scaling. Scaling problems can be dealt with once we have proved that it works for one.
Don’t let your team form silos: They coagulate, rot and stink eventually.
Teams are usually divided into sub-teams with minor goals in mind. One issue that happens with time is that this team drifts apart. This leads to a breakdown of the communication channel and may lead to duplicate or contrary efforts. Alongside, siloed teams tend to forgive bad ideas because their silos become an echo-chamber for bad ideas. When teams communicate in a healthy debate, bad ideas are reformed. A pre-requisite might be a culture that tolerates healthy conflict.
Fail Fast: The best way to reach the soundest idea is to fail at the wrong ones very fast
Don’t spend any more time on an idea/implementation that you know won’t work. It is better to learn from the failures and move on to the next idea. Nothing should be done because a boss asked something to be delivered. If something has failed, raise the issue and move on. At the same time, be careful and don’t overdo this as this might lead to team rejecting ideas all the time and not completing any projects. The failures should be obvious according
An important aspect to know when an idea is “failed” is to get feedback, which might mean different things for different problems. For a technical idea, create a prototype quick, fast and dirty and see if it works. For a management idea, get feedback from your employees. track metrics of progress and see if they have changed for better or worse. For an implementation idea, do a small pilot like implement a tracking water supply solution in a single pump house and see what challenges arise.
In short, never theorise if an idea would fail at scale on notebooks(except when its plain obvious/stupid). Try it in small increments and discover the issues. Iterate on your initial idea and improve based on learnings from these small increments to improve, pivot or reinforce certain parts of the initial plan.