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Focus on People over Processes
How to build great teams and minimise bureaucracy
One of the things I get asked again and again is “what’s your process for X”. And every time my answer is the same — I rarely think in terms of processes, and almost always think in terms of people.
The first time I came to this pattern was about midway through my ZeroTurnaround journey. We had some consistent issues with one specific team (all identifying detail are omitted, because I don’t want to throw good people under the bus). There were communication issues with other departments and some misalignment between expectations and results.
We’ve spent a lot of time fixing those issues. We made sure there were checklists for communication that were carefully followed so that nobody would be out of the loop. We set more specific goals and made sure they were followed. In the end things improved, but we never could get it quite right.
Eventually the leader of that team left and we hired a new one. Suddenly not only the previous issues were no longer a problem, but the team started performing at a different level and contribute value in new and surprising ways. We were stunned. But this was the first time I realised what became my maxim later on:
Often people problems will masquerade as process problems.
Young managers get mesmerised by process design, because it’s something that they can control. People seem slippery and unpredictable, whereas Excel sheets will never get offended or make you feel stupid. But people are clever, proactive and creative and they can do astonishing feats if you just let them.
Realising that is one of the most transformative experiences in leadership — you don’t really need to manage competent people, all you need is to give them direction, ownership and remove obstacles from their path. And if you also give them good feedback, you will be rewarded greatly by seeing them become better versions of themselves right before your eyes.
Nowadays, whenever I see a process problem I always ask three questions:
Are the people on both sides of the issue competent?
Are they talking to each other?
Does the issue have a clear owner?
Only if the answer to all of those questions is “yes” I will consider it an actual process problem.
Shockingly often the solution boils down to sitting people down in one room and getting them to talk. Sometime an extra push is needed, so I ask them to set up a recurring meeting until the issue is solved.
Even when a lot of departments in a complex corporate environment are involved, I will always start by getting people to communicate before creating checklists, setting up workflows and otherwise trying to solve issues without talking.
Getting people to talk to each other is the most underestimated manager’s tool.
Ownership can be an issue even if people are competent and talking to each other. Sometimes there isn’t a clear boundary among different domains and issues fall in-between. Without clear ownership, it is very easy to argue endlessly. As a manager it’s sometimes my job to issue judgement and pick one of the parties to run point, make final decisions and take responsibility.
Rarely I encounter orphaned entities — things that nobody really wants to touch and that bounce around with weak ownership from project to project. For those I will look for a new parent, or at least a foster home that will care for them until I can get them properly adopted.
Having clear ownership is the primary factor in successful organisation design.
Often when talking about this I get an objection — “Jevgeni, this is all easy for Bolt, which has access to top talent, but we have to make do with the people we can find”. But I’ve arrived at this framework long before I joined Bolt, and the talent I could access wasn’t at the same level.
There are a couple of things that people do wrong when setting the bar for their great people:
Lack of patience. Often the candidate pools are very inefficient and volatile — meaning you get a great candidate only once in a while. But people are unwilling to wait and grab the best one out of the top 3 that they find, instead of waiting longer and finding the right one. Generally, a good sign is that you are truly excited about the candidate, instead of feeling that he/she is just good enough.
Wrong compromises. What is often talked about is hiring for strength, rather than lack of weakness. Indeed some of my best hires had personality quirks that they more than made up with their intelligence and passion. However an almost taboo topic is hiring for talent rather than experience. If you don’t have access to the best talent, rather hire somebody with less experience, but quick on the uptake, instead of more experience, but slow growing. After six months the former will almost certainly outperform the latter.
Taking your time and betting on talent over experience is the way to a great team.
So these are all people problem, but once in a while the answers to all three questions will be positive — what do I do then? Very often I will ask those very same people involved to come up with a proposal. They have the best context and if they come up with the process, they are likely to own it and execute well.
There are still issues that I’ll need to solve myself. They split into two classes: where people involved just don’t feel the pain or where I have either a deeper expertise or a broader vision. But 95% of the issues go away by asking these three simple questions and encouraging people involved to design solutions.
So this is how I arrived at a very simple formula for building great teams:
Never compromise on people quality.
Get people to talk to each other and work together.
The first one is critical and where most managers fail. For some of the roles at Bolt time-to-hire was over 18 months, because I refused to compromise on the quality and would meanwhile make up the difference by sharing the role between myself and others.
Once I found the right people, suddenly it was transformative. In the end the difference was exponential — when every single member on the team can be trusted to pull their own weight, the difference in that team’s productivity is massive.
The second one is also really hard, because it doesn’t involve any Excel :) Turning a group of people into a team is much more art than science. You need to show them trust and respect, give them time and opportunity to understand each other, go through fun and tough times together.
Most importantly give them space to be human beings — vulnerable, unique and always-growing!
Some topics that fell out of the scope of this post:
Organisational failure symptoms and how to solve them
Human-centric process and organisation design
Human-centric skill and performance models
Let me know if you want to hear about these and others, or if you have any other issues you are interested in. Feedback is always welcome!