Engineering maturity models, the importance of setting context, productivity for monks
Also some weird-looking fake animals
Engineering maturity models and the importance of a strong foundation above all else
In his article Engineering Maturity Modelshares how he thinks about the importance of different team capabilities when building software organizations. Despite how some maturity models—such as the Capability Maturity Model (CMM)—have been misused in the past, Mike encourages us to look past the process and focus on the principles. Here’s the important part:
[The layers] aren’t stages in that you’re never really finished with any of them but you do need to have the ones at the base stronger and more developed than the ones further up or else you are certain to run into problems. […]
While I do think of this kind of like a maturity model, they are not stages that one achieves and moves on from. These are areas that one must keep returning to and keep investing in, always from the bottom up. Getting over your skis and investing too much in the top, which is very tempting for startups, is fraught. Too many product development teams without continued investment in the infrastructure or deployment pipeline can slow everyone down, proving Brooks’s Law. The important task for Engineering leaders is to determine when and how much investment gets made into each of these layers.
To put it another way, if the base of your infrastructure and deployment pipeline is shaky, an increased focus on product development is eventually going to bring the whole house down. Click through to the article to see details about Mike’s full model.
The importance of setting context as a product leader
I enjoyed’s breakdown of The Three Phases of Product Managers—and not just because he got me with his jazz reference. The third phase:
A Product Manager acting as a Jazz Player will set the context, and team members will build upon it. They relentlessly search for opportunities to create something innovative and outstanding. This scenario is more or less like the following:
Context: Product Managers bring the proper context to the team. Goal, audience, value proposition, objectives, and strategy. The team can help sharpen the context, and that sets the playing field.
Uncovering Opportunities: Everyone in the team has the same voice. They bring potential opportunities and evaluate whether it’s worth investing in them.
Learning: Curiosity is what drives them. As in Jazz, the team isn’t afraid to try solutions as fast as possible. They improvise and don’t fear embarrassment, but they’re scared of not learning fast enough.
I also agree with David that the most difficult part about growing into a product leader is the shift from “Conductor” to “Jazz Player” (in the model he shares in the post). And among those attributes, context is the hardest, and remains something I am constantly trying to get better at.
Synthesizing information and providing the necessary context to our teams about projects or decisions take longer upfront, so many leaders skip that part because they have so many other things vying for their attention. But the problem is that if you don’t do that work upfront you’re only going to have to do it later—and in a more time-consuming way. The team will have questions, there will be lots of back-and-forth, and they will likely also be frustrated by the lack of clarity in their work. So don’t skip that part. Don’t just say “here’s what we’re doing”, say “here’s what we’re doing, here’s why we’re doing it, and here’s the data that supports why we’re doing it.”
Ben Balter puts it this way in his excellent article Leaders Show Their Work:
As the ones with that missing context, leaders sometimes naively or inadvertently assume that all that’s required for a change to take effect is to communicate the thing that’s changed, but humans are not servers. Unlike deploying a change to a codebase, a diff isn’t sufficient to truly realize what’s intended. Engaged humans rightfully seek to understand how and why the change came to be and often want to double check their leaders’ work to fully understand how it impacts their own.
Distractions, monk productivity, and the importance of “between-time”
Sometimes the internet seems to think about the same things at the same time. Last week we were all in on meetings (see here, here, here, and here), and this week we’re all talking about distractions. Here are three excellent articles about this topic that all came across my feeds this week.
First, there is a new interview with the father of deep work, Cal Newport (NYT gift article link). He talks about context switching and “slow productivity”—and it’s really good:
I’m trying to develop this notion of productivity that’s based on, at the large time scales, the production of things you’re proud of and that have high impact, but on the small time scale, there’s periods where you’re doing very little. […] So how do you actually work with your mind and create things of value? What I’ve identified is three principles: doing fewer things, working at a natural pace, but obsessing over quality. That trio of properties better hits the sweet spot of how we’re actually wired and produces valuable meaningful work, but it’s sustainable.
Matt Reynolds has a catchy title in Wired: Easily Distracted? You Need to Think Like a Medieval Monk. It’s a fun exploration of how medieval monks were, as he calls them, “the original LinkedIn power users” who kept trying to one-up each other with how distraction-free they were living:
These kinds of stories reminded monks just how hard it was to stay focused. They weren’t expected to be concentration machines. They too would come up short every now and then. “Acknowledging that upfront is a kind of compassion,” says Kreiner. “Monks are really good at being compassionate to each other, and to how hard it was to really follow through on stuff.” Freeing ourselves from distraction is really difficult. We don’t have to feel awful about not always matching up to our lofty goals.
And finally, in a short read Mandy Brown talks about the importance of Between-time:
We live in a world full of distractions but short on breaks. The time between activities is consumed by other activities—the scrolling, swiping, tapping of managing a never-ending stream of notifications, of things coming at us that need doing. All that stuff means moments of absolutely nothing—of a gap, of an interval, of a beautiful absence—are themselves absent, missing, abolished.
If I had to find a thread through all these pieces, it would be this:
Not every moment needs to be filled with work that produces output. Cal Newport calls this working at a natural pace: “one with more variability in intensity than the always-on pace to which we’ve become accustomed.”
Everyone gets distracted. Have some grace for yourself, and others. And try to distinguish between “distractions” (filling time with stuff) and “between-time”—those real breaks that we all need but get so little of.
Some stray links
🐭 Surreal Animal Mashups by Ingo Lindmeier. This one lives up to the title.
🕰️ Interesting research on Time Savings When Working from Home and what we’re spending that extra time on. It’s mostly for more work! “The average daily time savings when working from home is 72 minutes in our sample. […] Workers allocate 40 percent of their time savings to their jobs and about 11 percent to caregiving activities.”
🏠 See also: Why 2023 Could Finally Be the Year of the 4-Day Workweek. “Among the reporting countries in the 4 Day Week study, revenues rose an average of 8.14% and increased a whopping 37.55% in comparison with the same period the previous year.”
👔 But then also see: Job searching and interviewing is a nightmare — and only getting worse. “It’s important to remember that if a company’s hiring process feels off, working there might feel off, too.”
💿 I’m never relinquishing my closet of DVDs. I can definitely relate—it’s why I still buy vinyl and CDs. “Unless you have a physical disc in hand, you really don’t have control over what happens to it.”
🛣 Wonders of Street View. Weird things picked up by Google Street View. Easy to get way too lost in these.
🕊️ More stray links on the blog here.