Make the seniority, talent, and quality-of-mission of your organization’s teams as consistent as possible. The pretstige of team missions and their capability should all be comparable. There should be no dramatic differences between the caliber of your teams.
It’s not uncommon for a leader to bucket what needs to get done as a set of hard, medium, and easy missions. The next step they’ll take is to assemble teams of respectively different talent levels and seniority to handle those challenges of different prestige levels. The outcome are teams that vary in their ability and the importance (real or perceived) of their mission. You’ve just turned your department into a caste system.
This creates lots of challenges:
- People who are on low-caliber teams know it. This causes morale and retention issues.
- In some cases, people end up selling the company to recruits based off of what the prestigious teams are doing, only to place people into other teams. This causes morale and retention issues.
- The weak-mission teams will often not have a growth path to the highest levels. This essentially means it’s a transient team unless you hire people to stagnate. A great litmus test is: can every team support promotions to the highest level?
- You end up constantly having to field questions around internal transfers to the prestigious teams. Good managers tell the truth when people aren’t ready for the other team or when the team isn’t ready for them. Bad managers give little glimmers of hope that don’t reflect reality and lead to a long tail of frustration.
- Dysfunctional organizations will actually lower the hiring and promotion bars for lower caliber teams for political and morale reasons. This can lead to very, very bad outcomes like reducing the integrity of compensation bands or causing internal strife at the mis-match across teams.
- This set of variables is also very dangerous because internal processes of an organization are based on the people they’re serving. Different cohorts of people need different enablement, onboarding, rules, and rewards. Having major differences amongst teams means it’s harder to have one overarching culture and set of organizational mechanics.
How do you fix this? Let’s go back and revisit some assumptions.
Assumption 1: We Have Hard, Medium and Easy Missions
People get this wrong all the time. When looking at the missions of a team, it’s not uncommon for a leader to have standard biases or an ego that leads to total miscalculations of the difficulty of certain missions.
An example is in software engineering, where leaders might view their team’s goals as fancy backend “hard stuff’’ and simple front-end “easy stuff”. That’s obviously bullshit. Think of all of the terrible UIs you encounter on a day to day basis. If frontend engineering was easy UI would be a solved problem.
Another example is when a leader or a team aren’t executing well on a part of their responsibilities and they end up saying that it just needs to be handled by some other team because it’s easy but distracting. In reality, if it’s easy they’d be doing a good job at it. This kind of thinking can lead teams to push away what is actually more important work in lieu of more interesting (or greenfield, or easy) work.
People often make bad calls on what’s difficult and what’s easy and then make things worse with the second, equally damaging assumption.
Assumption 2: Easy Missions Should Be Done By Lower-Caliber Teams
Leaders will then compound the problem by staffing teams to get the “easy missions” done with less senior or skillful talent. So they assume a problem is easy, understaff it, and then as things inevitably go wrong they end up blaming either the team, the mission, or anything else but the poor decisions that lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A Better Path
To solve this problem, take a hard look at the topology of work you’re trying to get done:
- If a small volume of work is much simpler than other tasks, you should add it into the responsibilities of your existing teams.
- If a large volume work is much simpler than other work- meaning it’d meaningfully distract your regular teams - you should either contract it out or you build an different organization to handle it.
- Sometimes you’ll have a team who has lower perceived prestigue because it doesn’t contain as many buzzwords or trendy technologies as other teams. Absent active efforts, that team will have a harder time hiring and retaining. To counteract this, you should make sure you’re overloading that team with talent, so that you make up for the team’s perceived mission prestigue with personel prestige.
- In all cases, expectation setting and integrity in decision making is critical. Don’t hire people into roles with the false hope of transferring to other teams if it’s not possible. Don’t transfer people to other teams if they’re not ready.
- Your hot-stuff AI/ML startup has 4 high-powered product teams, but you keep having this pesky problem of a trickle of internal requests from the client-facing teams. You decide to create a team to just handle those requests. You figure it’s not that big of a problem and don’t want to distract your teams, so you hire a junior team to just handle that. You’ve just made a huge mistake. That team will be unhappy and have retention problems forever. You should have either contracted that work or found a process for your other teams to get it done.
- Your hot-stuff AI/ML startup has built out a customer portal that is getting a ton of traction. The work has meaningful challenges and growth opportunities, but it’s very different than your core team’s responsibilities. The people you hire, the promotion paths, the culture needed to execute well, and the evaluation criteria are existentially inconsistent with your other teams. You work with senior management to build out an entirely new organization to work on the portal. Great job, you’ve done the right thing. This was a lot of work that warranted a focused division to manage the mission.