Applying “systems thinking” to turbocharge your leadership effectiveness
Finding balance as a manager is one of the trickiest parts of engineering leadership. How do you keep people motivated without overpressuring them? How do you reward individual performance while also encouraging collaboration?
Nickolas Means, the VP of Engineering at Muve Health, doesn’t worry as much about what comes out of his engineering teams as what goes into them. That’s because he enjoys applying systems thinking in his leadership approach.
“An engineering team is, at its core, a system — similar to any other team or group in an enterprise,” he says. “If we can understand how the system works — and how we play a role in it — we can be more effective and proactive within it. And as a leader, it helps to think about inputs and outputs — the information and incentives going into a team will have a great impact on the work they produce.”
He points to an old story about Microsoft’s career ladder, back when one of the rungs required that you had to have presided over a reorganization. So guess what Microsoft had in those days? A lot of reorganizations.
Means generally views the energy he gives to his team as ‘inputs’ in the system, so he strives to build psychological safety, provide context, and give incentives for collaboration. And as a result, his teams don’t just deliver great products – they also foster a culture that they’re proud to be part of.
Why psychological safety matters
There are two ways to motivate your teams to perform: you can make them fear the consequences of underperformance, or you can offer them the freedom to explore, experiment, fail, and learn.
Means believes in the latter approach. Psychological safety, he has found, empowers innovation and turbocharges productivity. At its core, psychological safety done right means that engineers feel secure in their jobs – they’re not in constant fear of losing their job, they’re not afraid of taking risks and making mistakes. They’re not fearful of being held accountable, nor are they hesitant to offer “negative” feedback (even to their bosses).
“In a toxic culture where leadership doesn’t respond well to failure, there’s a tendency to pile on, to point fingers, and to place blame. Which often means that if someone does something ‘wrong,’ they sweep it under the rug versus elevating it so the team can learn from it.”
In fact, in a psychologically safe environment, failure and feedback are welcomed as opportunities for growth.
“In a toxic culture where leadership doesn’t respond well to failure, there’s a tendency to pile on, to point fingers, and to place blame,” Means explains. “Which often means that if someone does something ‘wrong,’ they sweep it under the rug versus elevating it so the team can learn from it.”
As a leader, Means acts as a shield for his teams. When there’s pressure on Engineering from other executives or other departments, he receives the pressure rather than passing it on to his team.
“As long as the team has a healthy sense of urgency, I try to avoid there ever being pressure,” he says. “Part of what I view as the role of a good manager in serving their team is taking that pressure and being the liaison with external stakeholders, so that their team members aren’t being distracted or confused by things that don’t concern them or their work.”
Engineering is very much ‘thought work,’ Means acknowledges. And in order to do their job well, engineers need to be able to think clearly and focus. That means limiting outside worries and pressures. This doesn’t mean protecting your team from everything — sometimes being exposed to outside forces provides additional context — but it’s important to know when that’s the case and find a balance.
Clarity and psychological safety go hand-in-hand
Context goes hand-in-hand with psychological safety when it comes to your team’s performance. Means references a talk given by Julia Grace, Head of Infrastructure Engineering at Slack, at LeadDev Austin on this very subject.
“The central conceit of the talk, which I thought was brilliant, was this four-quadrant graph,” he recalls. “She put psychological safety on the Y-axis, and clarity on the X-axis. Her takeaway was that if you get into the upper right quadrant where your team has clarity of purpose and strong psychological safety, you’re going to have a high performing team.”
And she’s not alone – Google’s Project Aristotle points to similar conclusions. So why does providing context matter so much to a high-performing engineering team?
“People generally come to work wanting to do a good job,” Means says. “So if they understand why you’re asking them to do a thing, they’ll generally take ownership and do what they can to make it happen. So, much of your job is to build context about why the work matters — why this deadline is important, why we need to get a certain thing out for the business, and so on.”
Providing context is an essential part of effective leading, but equally important is how you communicate that context with your team.
“If people understand why you’re asking them to do a thing, they’ll generally take ownership and do what they can to make it happen. So, much of your job is to build context about why the work matters — why this deadline is important, why we need to get a certain thing out for the business, and so on.”
An often overlooked part of building context, Means says, is making certain that the engineers understand why the work in the backlog is in the backlog. Discuss with them where that work is headed, and encourage debate around those decisions.
Communicating context is only half the dialog — it’s a two-way street. Get your engineers talking to you too, so you know where you are (or aren’t) on the same page. If it’s a larger project that’s going to take a couple weeks of someone’s time, consider having them write a one-pager on the problem they’re solving. You might have heard the saying, “writing is thinking” — just the habit of doing this can expose gaps in understanding.
“Ask a lot of questions and get people to explain the problem to you, because the best way to cement knowledge is to teach it,” Means says. “If I can get the people on my team to teach each other about why they’re working on what they’re working on, on a regular basis, then I can get a good idea pretty quickly if they’ve got enough context to make the decisions they’re making.”
Context and psychological safety relate to the work your team accomplishes. But there’s also the matter of how your team works. The goal is in that word – you want the team to work together, collaboratively, with the goal of pursuing the best decisions together. But so many business structures are incentivized around personal accomplishments.
“If you give people a performance review and encourage them to optimize their personal performance for rewards or promotions, then you’re probably going to end up with a bunch of people that are fighting for their own visibility. Which discredits those who are working on less-visible work, like legacy refactoring or helping others,” Means says. “But if instead you can incentivize the team to work together, then you’re going to get a bunch of people who collaborate.”
Considering that many of us are in organizations that use performance management systems or individual grading scales to evaluate employees at all levels, Means admits it’s tough to incentivize teamwork. It requires a more empathetic work environment. That’s hard to pull off because companies often still value individual performance at some level. But doing so successfully supports those other important inputs: context and safety.
Explain to your team why collaboration is important and valuable. And, protect their safety to fail – without pointing fingers. Any failure is a chance for the entire team to learn together.
“If you give people a performance review and encourage them to optimize their personal performance for rewards or promotions, then you’re probably going to end up with a bunch of people that are fighting for their own visibility. Which discredits those who are working on less-visible work, like legacy refactoring or helping others.”
“If you go into a system outage with a perspective of, ‘I wonder what we’ll learn from this, I wonder how we’re going to get better as a team from this outage,’ then you’re capturing knowledge out of that situation versus just running around with your hair on fire,” Means says. “When things go wrong, we don’t want to pin it to somebody. We want to figure out where the system went wrong and what adjustments are necessary going forward.”
A manager has the capacity to set the tone in those moments of failure. How you respond will dictate how your team responds. And, when it comes time for performance reviews, you can stress a person’s contributions to the team in addition to how they moved the ball forward as an individual. Even individual goals, like career growth, can be discussed through the perspective of collaboration.
Fostering a culture that supports the team
Each of these inputs into a team will take shape in that team’s output – including its culture, the most intangible of its products.
“I’m a huge proponent of building the process to fit the team — not the other way around,” Means says. “So I try to get the team to tell me how they want to work.”
In other words, while it’s your job as a manager to feed your team context, offer psychological safety, and incentivize collaboration, you can ask your team to share with you how it wants each of those to look in practice. Talk to your team about the things you all value.
“For me, building culture is a lot about discussing the things that are important to us and making sure we all hold them as important,” Means says. “A big part of doing that is that it’s not prescriptive from me. It’s a collaborative process of coming up with those things that we want to consider important.”
“I’m a huge proponent of building the process to fit the team — not the other way around.”
Means told us that much of this process happens in 1:1s, asking questions about what they value in a team, what helps them focus, and what enables them to do their best work (and what distracts or discourages them).
“Then, when you get your whole team together,” Means says, “you bring up the things that you’ve been hearing one-on-one that are important to the people on the team. And you come up with a collaborative group of things that are important to everybody.”
Voila – culture becomes a deliberate, collaborative, whole-team effort. You’re simply using those expressed values to support the system of your team, where they can work their magic on everything else that your team produces.
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