An Exercise in Finding Gaps

I lead my team on an interesting exercise last week.

Background

Like a lot of companies, the one I work for tends to undergo re-orgs every year or two. The one we had about two years ago was pretty major. My team (an ops team) was moved to reporting to the Director of Engineering for one of our products.

Previously to this, we’d been part of a standalone org called the “Platform Team,” whose mission it was to create the unified platform that all of our company’s products use. This re-org made sense in a lot of ways, as the previous head of the Platform Team went on to another role and we were without a leader, and it allowed my team to narrow our focus down to just a single product. (The largest product we have.) A few folks were split off, and moved into a separate team so they could focus on the needs of a quickly-evolving, much more influx, product.

I’m still a newbie Engineering Manager (and was even more so at the time!), so I wasn’t unable to grasp the complexities of such a move.

The Exercise

Following a long conversation with my team about “what do we even do now?” I had an idea. In order to discover the mis-matches between our team and the person we were now reporting to, I came up with the following exercise.

I had two questions in mind. Those were “what is our team’s charter” (ie, what is our mission), and “what do we do?”

I created a blank document with these two questions on it. (I seeded the first list to try to show what I was looking for.) In a 1:1 with my boss earlier in the week, I gave them some homework and asked them to take 20 minutes or so to fill it out. Then, at my team meeting at the end of the week, I also gave the document to my team, and asked them to fill it out collectively. I dropped out of the call while they worked as to not influence them on accident. (I have a 100% remote team!)

A fellow manager suggested that I also do this exercise on my own, without my team present. This was a real gut-check! If I came up with a different set of answers than my team… well, that’s information I should know. (Luckily my list and my team’s list were nearly identical. Phew!)

Once we’d finished the exercise, I compared all three lists (mine, my team’s, and my boss’) to try to find the gaps.

The goal was to discover the differences in expectations between my team and my boss. Finding the gaps alone isn’t a solution, but it’s helped to start a conversation about it. It’s made what we need to work on become much more clear.

What did I learn?

I learned a lot from this exercise!

One of the biggest things I learned is that there’s two very different mindsets in place. Here’s a quick mockup of the lifecycle of server-side software:

Silly example timeline of the server-side software lifecycle

Most of the things my team listed were from the right hand side of the line, and the things my boss listed were from the left hand side of the line. Super interesting.

I made the line really light because there was a bunch of crossover on the lists (yay!), but the trend is pretty clear. I can hear you scream “but DevOps!” from here. We’re slowly working at it little by little. It’s a slow process. The purpose of this exercise was to learn where we are, not where we need to be.

Wrapping Up

This proved to be a pretty handy exercise! I now have a better framework for discussions in the future, and know what work I have ahead of me.

I shared all three lists with my boss, as well. We’ll continue going over them over time, and look for differences. We have a bunch of work to do, but now we know what to work on.

I’m really glad my list and my team’s list were basically the same. It would have been a wake-up call if they weren’t.

If you’re stuck in a similar situation, try it. It really helped me. 💜

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