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10X Engineering Leadership Series: 21 Playbooks to Lead in the Online Era

Managing online teams has become the new normal! In an online world, how do you give effective feedback, have a difficult conversation, increase team accountability, communicate to stakeholders effectively, and so on? At Unravel, we are […]

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Managing online teams has become the new normal! In an online world, how do you give effective feedback, have a difficult conversation, increase team accountability, communicate to stakeholders effectively, and so on?

At Unravel, we are a fast-growing AI startup with a globally distributed engineering team across the US, EMEA, and India. Even before the pandemic this year, the global nature of our team has prepared us for effectively leading outcomes across online engineering teams.

To help fellow Engineering Leaders (Managers, Tech Leads, ICs), we are making available our 10X Engineering Leadership Video series. Instead of hours of training sessions (where very little is ingested and retained), we developed a new format – 15 min playbooks with concrete actionable levers leaders can apply right away!

This micro-learning async approach has served us well and allows leaders to pick topics most relevant to their needs. Each playbook has an assignment — the intention is for leaders to discuss and learn from peer leaders. The playbooks help create a shared terminology among leaders especially required in an online setting.

We discovered there are three categories where engineering leaders (including seasoned ones) often struggle when it comes to online teams — creating clarity, driving execution accountability, and coaching team members to deliver the best work of their lives.

Playbooks for Creating Clarity

“Everyone in the team is running fast” — “But in different directions!” It is very easy to get out of sync, especially in online teams. Also, clarity is required for team members to effectively balance tactical fires while ensuring long-term initiatives are delivered.

  • Defining Why: Is your team suffering from the myth, “Build it, and they (customers) will come”? The mantra today is, “If they will come, we will build it.” This playbook covers three plays (that are best taught at Intuit): Follow-me-home, customer need/ideal state statement, Leap-of-Faith-Assumptions statement.
  • Defining What: The field team is expecting an elephant, the product management is thinking of a giraffe, and engineering delivers a horse. How to align everyone on the same “what.” This playbook covers three plays: User story Jiras, Working backward, Feature-kickoff meeting.
  • Defining How: Is the team aligned on the new feature scope, tradeoffs, dependencies? Are they thinking about long pole tasks proactively and front-loading risk? To help align on How, this playbook covers four plays.
  • Clarifying priorities as OKRs: In an online setting, objectives and key results (OKRs) are a great way for leaders to communicate their priorities. Are you using OKRs effectively – or is it treated as another tracking overhead ? This playbook covers top-down and bottom-up plays in defining OKRs effectively.
  • Effective stakeholder updates: “How is the customer issue resolution coming along?” Leaders need to learn to provide an online (Slack) response in 2-3 sentences. Whether it is a 50-second response or a 50-min planning meeting, this playbook covers the corresponding plays: SCQA Pyramid, Amazon 6-pager, Weekly progress updates.

Driving Execution Accountability

“Vision without execution… is just hallucination,” or “Vision without action is a daydream.” Inspiring outcomes requires leaders to have the rigor for execution across the team.

  • Your operating checklist: All leaders have the same suitcase-size of 24 hours — what you fill in it defines your leadership effectiveness. This playbook covers plays for creating an operating rhythm of regular checkpoints with the team and helps you get organized to tackle unplanned work that inevitably will show up on your plate.
  • Applying Extreme Ownership: “There are no bad teams, only bad leaders” — as a leader, accepting responsibility for everything that impacts the outcome is a foundational building block, especially in an online setting. This playbook covers extreme ownership behaviors critical to demonstrate in high-performance teams.
  • Getting better with retrospectives: Similar to individuals, teams need to have a growth-mindset — getting better with each sprint and taking on bigger and bigger challenges together. This playbook covers plays on conducting retrospectives effectively with the lens of both what and how tasks were accomplished.
  • Effective delegation: Are leaders scaling themselves effectively in an online setting? Effective delegation is also important for leaders for growing their teams. This playbook covers Andy Grove’s Task-Relevant Maturity (TRM) and applying it effectively!
  • Clarifying roles: In an online setting, being very clear on the roles of the individuals on the team for a given project — who is driver, approve, collaborator, informed? This playbook covers plays namely DACI/RACI/RAPID, one-way & two-way doors, disagree and commit, and effective escalations.

Coaching Team

Ara Parseghian says, "A good coach will make his players see what they can be rather than what they are."

  • Effective online weekly check-ins: For team members, one of the biggest motivators and sources of satisfaction comes from making progress on meaningful goals. The playbook covers how to have an effective 15-min check-in with everyone on the team each week.
  • Giving actionable feedback: Leaders typically are not comfortable sharing feedback online. This playbook covers SBI (Situation-Behavior-Impact) and related plays.
  • Structured interviewing process: As leaders, effective hiring is the foundational building block of effective outcomes. How to hire the right candidates via online interviewing? Hint: It’s relying less on your gut for decision-making. This playbook covers a structured interviewing approach you need to implement.
  • Increasing team trust & effectiveness: Trust within the team members is the foundational building block for effective outcomes. Leaders need to work for developing trust and accountability. This playbook provides actionable levers to apply.
  • Having difficult conversations: An employee is consistently missing timelines or is making others in the team uncomfortable with their actions. While most leaders avoid difficult conversations even in office settings, online makes this even more difficult. This playbook covers how to create shared understanding.
  • Sharpening EQ: An effective leader needs to have IQ+Technical Skills+EQ. While this is a very broad topic, the playbook covers key actionable next steps.
  • Working on your mindset: Leaders need to be aware of their mindsets and biases. The lens with which they view themselves and others is important to understand. This playbook covers plays on mindsets to inculcate and those to watch out.

We continue to add more playbooks to the series and are committed to investing and growing our leaders within Unravel, as well as helping the community. Subscribe to the channel to make sure you do not miss out on these playbooks.