Meri Williams has some answers. Previously chief technology officer at online print and design brand MOO, Meri is now CTO at "bank of the future" Monzo. She's also chair of The Lead Developer, an international conference series for technical team leads, and has previously held technical leadership roles at the Government Digital Service and Procter & Gamble (among others.)
So, in other words, she's a seasoned pro at scaling systems and infrastructure — but also people and organisational culture, which tends to be an even bigger challenge.
In her Turing Fest 2018 talk, Meri shared some of the golden lessons from her distinguished engineering career. Here's her guide for scaling a happy and engaged team – and growing fast without losing the parts of your culture that made you great to begin with.
Repeat yourself. "Don't repeat yourself" is a nice programming principle, but a terrible human communication principle. "When people don't know what they don't know, weird stuff happens," Meri says.
Every time I've been surprised by a weird decision or realised people just really weren't on the same page, it was like, "oh, ok, we only said that once or four times." The research is right – you really do need to repeat yourself 7+ times.
Be clear. Be consistent. Use the same words again and again – when you say what the strategy is, or why we're doing this thing, or why that team is moving off to do something different. "People probably still need to hear that message beyond when you think you're being really repetitive."
Remember we don't just communicate in the present. Use architectural decision records (ADRs) to communicate (to future folks) what you were thinking when you made a choice. "In your ADRs, capture the context you were in," emphasises Meri. "When you find crazy in your legacy, it was probably sensible at the time."
"We all hate bad bosses," says Meri. "When I started leading teams, I said, 'OK, how can I avoid being the terrible manager that was inflicted on me earlier in my career?"
Meri loves data and research, and approached leadership as a learning project. "I'm nerdy enough that I have a favourite management book," says Meri. "It's very data-based."
Book recommendation: First, Break All The Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman
One of Meri's main takeaways from this book? "The things that make teams high-performing and happy are the same. It gives me great delight."
Create the conditions for motivation. "So much of motivation is feeling like you do good work in a good way," says Meri.
"I've been leading teams for about 15 years now, with thousands of people in those teams. Particularly for creative professionals – for designers, for developers, for content folks – it really matters that we feel like we're doing the work well... as well as that we're doing good work."
Book recommendation: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink. It teaches that motivation consists of purpose, autonomy and mastery, minus any negative factors that detract (more on that in a moment...)
Is everyone around me committed to quality work? It's terrible to feel like you're the only one who wants to do things well.
Every person is capable of virtuosity. Every role can be brilliant. Most people want to be good at what they do, so finding ways to help them be great at what they do is what our mission should be.
Meri explains that when we're talking about creating space for teams to do brilliant work, we're really talking about these things:
Inclusion, which Meri added to Daniel Pink's other three factors, can't be underestimated, even if has been in the past. "Getting a broad range of people to feel like they can belong is really hard, but really worthwhile," says Meri. "We all know that diverse teams outperform homogenous teams very significantly."
Semper in excretum; sed altuit variunt. Always in the shit, the depth varies."
Meri explains that when you're growing a company, different things come 'for free' at different inflection points:
Only 10 people in your company or team. Everyone knows everything for free. Everyone knows what's going on because they can hear all the conversations.
10+ people. Communication isn't free anymore, it needs to be thought about. People get confused, lost, or the wrong end of the stick. "What's experienced often as interpersonal conflict is actually people not being on a level playing field anymore in terms of what's going on," says Meri.
50+ people. You start hearing more of: "I don't know how to progress anymore, I need a career path." Here, we start needing more structured ways of having conversations with people about where they're going to go and how they're going to develop. It's not always obviously happening organically.
100+ people. Most people don't know everyone else. "You have to build processes and mechanics to build trust between teams," advises Meri.
150+ people. This is when Dunbar's number kicks in – the maximum number of people you can maintain relationships with. "If there are more than 150 people you work with, you can't maintain a relationship with each of them individually... or the vast majority of humans find that difficult," says Meri.
"You have to think what's going to happen because people don't know each other. What's going to happen because fiefdoms spring up? In huge companies, it's actually just lots and lots and lots of collections of 100-200 people... getting them to speak to each other and work with each other gets harder and harder as you scale."
Focus on the right problems at the right time. Prioritise the problem that's about to happen right now, not what you anticipate being a problem six months down the road. "We're going to fall on our faces because of this thing way before that thing is going to become the most urgent and the most important," says Meri.
"Sometimes it's more comfortable to solve the things that are further away because they feel less emotional. Pick your focus, but don't try and aim for the super long-term... so much will change before you get there."
"I see so many organisations trying to emulate Google as they are now. Find out what Google was doing at the same size you are." Only steal their solutions if you're facing the exact same problem.
"Sometimes however well we plan, however hard we try, our impact may not equal our intent," shares Meri. But what really matters is what the actual outcome was – it matters how people experienced it, not how you intended it.
Regularly check the actual impact you're having. "I see far too many people spend all of their energy upfront in trying to get it done right, and none of their energy in checking how it's actually going," says Meri. "You should do this all the time – because then it's not weird when you do it in the really important times." There are a lot of tools to help with this...
Use retrospectives. Jessie Link, who heads up Twitter's London engineering team has a great talk on different ways of using retros, showing that you don't have to stick to the vanilla "what worked well, what didn't, what should we do differently" formula.
Help your teams develop a culture of reflection and improvement. Your team will be much more likely to tell you when something didn't go the way that you intended it to.
Use a team health scorecard. Spotify have used this model for years with thousands of engineers, and have written extensively about it. Figure out what matters to your teams — don't just grab their list and assume it fits.
Watch Sam Barnes' talk 'People are Weird, I'm Weird'. (The spoiler is in the title!) Meri rates it a must-watch, especially for introverted leaders:
"Sam has his team talk about what matters to them, and then as part of the retro they'd score on that too. Make that type of reflection normal."
"We need to stop levelling people out to equal consistent mediocrity, and instead focus on getting the most out of difference."
Meri worries when she hears teams saying, "We just don't understand why we can't hire any women engineers." (.".. Have you looked at your website recently?" asks Meri.) Hearing "we just can't find anyone who's a culture-fit" is another worrying comment – it paves the way for discrimination, and really just means "not like how we are right now."
Culture add matters a lot more than culture fit. You don't need someone who's just the same as you. "I'm not saying hire people who will cause huge ructions in your team," says Meri, "but someone different enough to add something new."
"We just need a shift in perspective. We are not interchangeable resource units. We are colours... or flavours. We are better in complement, in concert with each others."
What if we think of people and roles as a matter of casting? "If we think of people and roles and teams as a matter of casting someone into the role they're going to be best at, we're much more likely to end up with a high-performing team," says Meri. We need to ask: "how do we assemble a great team with complementary abilities?"
When people look at your team or your organisation, make sure they can positively answer these questions:
Think how you're giving messages that lots of different people are expected. You might ask yourself: Is it obvious from how you talk about benefits that you're expecting working parents? Is it obvious you're open to different religions?
It starts with your leadership. "I look for whether the leadership team are all the same or not," says Meri. "When you can see some types of difference, some indication that there are differences in people leading the organisation, you're more likely to go, 'ok, there are multiple routes to success here.'"
If you have diverse leadership, figure out how you make it more obvious to your team. "Help people to know your leadership team as humans. They'll be more convinced they can be themselves and be successful."