Aptible AOS & AEQ [part 2]: Next Steps In Building a Great Team at Aptible
Like any modern organization, Aptible has a goal of developing and sustaining a high-performing team. Because we’ve always operated as a very lean organization (over $1m ARR/FTE), our people are our most valuable resource, and the quality of our team is especially critical for our success. But building high-performing teams is much harder than it looks.
Inspired by the principles outlined in Google’s Project Aristotle, we created the Aptible Emotional Quotient (AEQ) and Aptible Operating System (AOS) with the goal of building a high-performing team. Once we had done that, we came together as a group, each person sharing the tensions and bright spots they feel with our existing culture and how we operate. In the spirit of transparency, we’re sharing some of the feedback and learnings we heard, and how we plan to tackle improvements in those areas.
What Aptible Needs to Improve on
The nature of working at a technology startup is extremely challenging. There’s a high rate of innovation with low barriers to entry in the technology space. Companies have to move quickly, adapt, and continuously look for ways to achieve and maintain competitive advantage in order to be successful. This puts pressure directly on the people of those companies, which is why you’ll often hear behaviors defined in terms such as “fast-paced, scrappy, wear multiple hats”.
Aptible is no exception to these challenges, especially as we try to grow our business and expand product-market-fit. With a current team of 20 or so, we feel pain sometimes in the form of ambiguity, scope extending beyond our job descriptions, and the constant tradeoff between hard problems we must tackle, versus technical debt. It was unsurprising to us that when we asked, the team gave us significant areas for improvement. We found that the biggest areas for improvement are in the second and third characteristics of high performing teams discovered by Project Aristotle: Dependability, and Structure & Clarity.
Project Aristotle defines Dependability as: Team members get things done on time and meet a high bar for excellence.
However, the team told us that there’s "so much to do, [with] limited bandwidth and team members, so it’s hard to focus on what’s important when everything’s important" and "I don’t think we say no enough, which leads to overwork and missed expectations." This feedback suggests that in our pursuit of Dependability we are lacking in a key aspect of achieving Dependability — Focus.
It was clear to us from the feedback that without allowing the team to have focus, we fail to provide the time and space for them to do good work in a reasonable amount of time. At many companies, team members will resort to working longer hours in order to meet deadlines, which harms work-life balance, morale, and ultimately, organizational health. At Aptible, it was important for us to improve Dependability in a way that results in us working more effectively, rather than working more. For example, we think that improving Focus starts in the planning process, and being more collaborative when deciding what to work on. Starting in Q3, team leads have taken a more active role in planning than they had in past quarters. Going forward, we expect them to have even more involvement and responsibility in quarterly planning.
Another approach we are taking is to be more collaborative about OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). Functional leads and individual team members now define their OKRs and commit to them rather than having them handed down by executives without input. This makes OKRs more accurate and creates alignment around responsibilities and actual work.
The biggest change we’re trying to make as an organization is to foster and maintain the discipline to say “no”, or recognize tradeoffs when considering new projects and opportunities. For example, when customer feedback highlights an area as an extremely important one for the whole organization, before adding it to our workflow, we take time to agree on the amount of work it creates, what needs to be dropped, and what we need to do to ensure we can actually drop it.
Most importantly, focus isn’t just about saying “no”. Being successful at achieving focus should result in us being able to say “yes” to bigger, more impactful work. And it will take some time and practice for us to build up a habit of appropriately rejecting ideas and work that aren’t critical to achieving the most valuable goals.
Structure and Clarity
The problem with teams that have to resort to being “scrappy” and “wear multiple hats” is that it’s easy to lose sight of what people are actually responsible for. This can quickly spiral into problematic ways of working such as organizational ADHD, scope creep, loss of accountability, and team members disengaging when they don’t understand their role.
At Aptible, we want each person to have clear roles and expectations. And we also strive to set plans and goals that are exciting, motivating, and achievable. But we suffer from a lot of those problems, and there’s much room for improvement, as noted in the feedback from the team:
- "Could improve clarity of some roles - sometimes I don't know what my role or purpose is."
- "Responsibilities are not always clear, making it hard to know who to ask questions to."
- “We may be bought in enough, but there’s more that could be done”
- "We have trouble sticking to things.”
- "There doesn’t seem to be a lot of visibility across projects (e.g. as an ops member, I’m not very clear on what’s being made by the eng team)”
The feedback clearly outlined the areas where we feel Aptible has work to do with regards to Structure and Clarity. We’ll take a quick look at our plans in each of these areas.
Clarity and Alignment
Being a startup in a very competitive space, we need to adapt quickly in order to stay ahead. The problem this causes is that strategies change fast and often, and the road to success isn’t always certain.
We started reading Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage as a teamwide activity in order to create roundtable discussions around organizational health, and to try and adapt his framework of answering 6 critical questions. Specifically, our goal for improving clarity and alignment is for everyone to unanimously agree and be very clear on the answers to:
- Why does Aptible exist?
- How do we behave as a team?
- What does Aptible actually do?
- How will we succeed?
- What is most important, right now?
- Who must do what?
Roles and Team Structure
Based on the feedback we received, it is clear that we need to hire for key roles to provide additional leverage and bandwidth, and to try to reduce the amount of ‘overwhelm’. To improve our understanding of roles and team structure we’re also striving to ensure that every function in Aptible has a documented Charter, which each Team Lead is responsible for authoring.
Some of the changes outlined above will help with this, including documented OKRs, having DRIs and more discussion during reviews, but there is clearly more work to do here.
Additionally, we recognize there’s a lot of important work happening behind the scenes to support and retain our existing customers, as well as nurture prospects. This is being owned by our Customer Experience team (composed of customer success, customer reliability engineers, and other helping hands). We know that these team members don’t spend much time in the spotlight because their work is continuous, rather than project based, and we’d like to create more visibility around just how impactful their work is. As such, we’re going to start experimenting with regular “Customer Spotlight” sessions, where we share detailed stories about support, retention and conversion, and all the magic we do for our customers.
We expect all of the practices and procedures we’ve outlined in this post and the previous one to become ingrained in the whole team and we will be revisiting them regularly to improve, course correct and grow.
If we go back to Project Aristotle and the five characteristics of high performing teams, we haven’t formally addressed the last two characteristics with AOS and AEQ. These characteristics are Impact and Meaning. To a certain extent, we are already on the right path with these, knowing that our work has both meaning and impact for the company and our customers. But we would be doing ourselves and our customers a disservice if we didn’t address these two characteristics with the same rigor and detail with which we are approaching the others. Stay tuned for how we will move forward with these and in improving and growing what we are already doing.
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