Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage Articles Multiplying Engineering Productivity in the Face of Constant Change

Multiplying Engineering Productivity in the Face of Constant Change

Key Takeaways

  • Balance efficiency metrics with human-centered effectiveness to create an environment where people can do their best work.
  • Focus on being a multiplier as a leader by empowering teams through trust and autonomy.
  • Understand how people react differently to change and tailor your approach to help everyone face change with flexibility.
  • Toggle between wartime decisiveness and peacetime strategic planning as circumstances dictate.
  • Lead by example, especially when expanding into new leadership roles. Quickly build context, vision, momentum, and skills.

After leading teams through various environments - from startups to large tech companies - my mission has become clear: create the best environment where people can do their best work.

This article, based on my talk at QCon SF in October of 2023, shares some of the frameworks I've used to foster productive and empowered teams that can thrive amidst change, and provides some examples of how I’ve integrated the frameworks together.

Change is constant. In just the last three years, we’ve faced pandemic, war, return to work, macroeconomic conditions, the Great Resignation, and now generational AI, which is everywhere, everyone wants to use it.

Change is everywhere in this world. Even as a leader, or an individual contributor, if you focus just on your professional life, change is very common.

You have shifting priorities, or you change teams, or people leave. Leaders change, and every new leader brings in a new change – in priorities, in strategy, in architecture.      

Measuring Organizational Efficiency and Effectiveness

When we face change, we essentially need to re-evaluate how to maximize our desired results using the least amount of money and time. Essentially, there’s an efficiency part of this equation, and there’s an effectiveness part to it.

When you are able to combine the two – effectiveness and efficiency – is when you start to unlock organizational excellence (see image below).

Efficiency is everything that you can measure today: metrics, KPIs, engineering metrics, financial metrics. How good are our systems? Can we deliver code to production faster? What does our supply chain look like? Effectiveness is about doing the right things aligned to business goals, which can be more subjective.

In the book "Mastering Leadership: An Integrated Framework for Breakthrough Performance and Extraordinary Business Results," Robert Anderson and William Adams examine how productivity requires that we look at both efficiency and effectiveness. They identify six areas that are necessary to create a healthy, high-performing organization:

In addition to looking at the above areas, it’s important to evaluate the effectiveness of each metric area, by asking "are we doing the right things?" For example, a goal to sell the most cupcakes in the state sounds effective. But for a small new bakery, it may not be the most effective goal now, even if we can measure progress.

While balancing efficiency and effectiveness is certainly important, we need to make sure that we know what it means to be successful. Beyond simply hitting targets, there are several signs of a successful organization:

  • Directionality – Do all the staff have context and clarity of the goals of the organization? Are we all rowing in the same direction?
  • Owning end to end outcomes – Are we focusing on the end results, on the customers?
  • Experimentation – Are we comfortable taking big bold bets that align with business outcomes, with no fear of failure and learn from it?
  • High-frequency feedback – Do we have a connection to customers that builds trust with what we are doing?
  • Execution excellence – Are we consistently delivering on our promise?
  • Creating leverage – Are we creating value where people want it, and not just "selling our ideas"?
  • Growth and leadership – Are we creating and developing new leaders for the future?

Knowing what success looks like, as well as what and how we’ll measure our progress, gives us a good guide to know when we’re on target, and when we’re not.

Leveraging the Multiplier Framework

I once believed productivity simply required hiring super smart engineers and providing great tools. But I learned that to maximize collective potential, leaders need to multiply, not diminish, their people. Liz Wiseman’s book "Multipliers" discusses what makes a leader a multiplier, and what can make them a diminisher.

Diminishers limit teams to less than 50% of their total possible impact. Multipliers can double that. Avoiding accidental diminisher tendencies enabled me to unlock my teams' potential.

Multipliers have 5 disciplines that they use to increase the capabilities of their organization:

  1. Talent magnet – they attract talented people, and use them at their highest point of contribution
  2. Liberator – they create an environment for people’s best thinking and work
  3. Challenger – they define opportunities that cause people to stretch
  4. Debate maker – they drive sound decisions through rigorous debate
  5. Investor – they instill ownership and accountability for results

Multipliers are genius makers, building collective, viral intelligence in their organization. They bring out the intelligence in others. Multipliers attract top talent, debate then decide, and instill ownership with accountability.

Diminishers, on the other hand, exhibit behaviors like empire building, micro-managing, and being the know-it-all. They are the leaders who are absorbed in their own intelligence, stifling others, and depleting the organization of crucial intelligence and capability.

Most leaders don’t plan on being diminishers, so we need to examine our tendencies in order to prevent becoming "accidental diminishers" – behaviors that might reduce the ability of those around us from working at their best. Some examples of accidental diminishers include:

  • Idea Tyrant – Shutting down ideas to assert your authority.
  • Rapid Responder – Obsessively responding to questions rather than empowering teams.
  • Optimist – Dismissing concerns with a "we’ll figure it out!" attitude.
  • Pacesetter – Working at an unsustainable rate that burns out your team.
  • Problem Solver – Jumping in to fix every issue rather than developing people.
  • Protecter – Shielding teams from necessary experiences to help them grow.
  • Micro-manager – Undermining autonomy with excessive oversight and control.

As a leader, I need to be aware of what I’m doing to serve as a multiplier, and what I’m doing that diminishes my team. In several situations, I’ve talked with my team about which diminishers I tend to use and asked them to hold me accountable to stop those behaviors. This has built psychologically safe environments, where I’m practicing vulnerability and  that it’s okay to ask for help.

Change Models

If anything is constant in tech, it’s change. New priorities, leadership shifts, re-orgs, market disruptions, technical paradigms - navigating relentless change separates effective leaders. Because of this, it’s important to have a few frameworks at hand when evaluating how to manage specific change in your organization.

How do you adapt to change? What mindsets do you see in the people around you? In their Harvard Business Review article "How to become more comfortable with change", Kathryn Clubb and Jeni Fan discuss four mindsets we adopt when faced with change.

When you understand the mindset of yourself and others when facing a change, it’s easier to understand what support they may need to adapt. Below is a table that describes these mindsets, as well as recommended ways to engage them in order to reduce friction.

Mindset Characteristics Leverage this mindset
Resistor     Pushes back out of a need for control; wants to protect against chaos Listen to and learn from their objections; explore what the changes are in more depth
Receiver     "Change is happening to me;" avoids conflict, and will simply comply Clearly explain the "what" and "how"; seek data to understand the reservations
Controller Drives change through planning; wants to control the change; gets discouraged when things go wrong; can slip into micromanagement Seek input and encourage curiosity; what plans can they use to adapt to the changes?
Change-ready Focused on aligning their direction and purpose; recognize that change is continuous and see opportunity Engage them to co-create the vision

A second model I use is the Beckhard Harris Change Model to categorize reactions to change:

This equation helps you understand what you can adjust in order to help overcome resistance to change. Is there dissatisfaction with the status quo? Are you providing a clear, shared vision? Have you taken the first step toward action? Taking that first step toward action and momentum, and iterating on it, is the key for driving long-term change.

Wartime or Peacetime Leaders

Lastly, it’s useful to recognize that leadership needs to adapt based on the situation. Andreessen Howrowitz wrote a beautiful piece on wartime CEOs and peacetime CEOs. Naturally, you may incline toward one mindset versus the other, but you may be able to adapt to the other mindset as well, based on the situation.

In times of crisis, take a "wartime" focus on urgency and quick wins. In stable periods, take a "peacetime" approach to build consensus and strategy.

Putting the Frameworks into Action

While frameworks help guide leaders, nothing builds credibility better than aligning words and actions. I have a few examples of how I've put these frameworks into action.

At DigitalOcean,a cloud startup going against giants in the space such as AWS and Google, I executed a build vs. buy strategy for networking, hired a dream team, and delivered a portfolio that enabled our IPO. Acting decisively was crucial. I had to take a wartime leader approach, with a change controller mindset, in order to keep the company focused. Throughout this process, it was important for me to stay focused on operational excellence, and work to be a multiplier.

At Packet, a bare metal cloud startup, I focused on bringing people along, and scaling quickly after we were acquired. Again, I took a wartime leader approach, but used that together with a change-ready mindset and leading by example to rapidly grow the organization through the pandemic and acquisition by a Fortune 100 company (Equinix), we built a portfolio of products and scaled them globally.

As a final example, I’ll share my newest position. I’ve been at Netflix for just over five months, and my team is responsible for all the traffic that flows through our networks when you go to the app or website and select which title you want to play.

There are a lot of critical responsibilities that my team oversees to ensure 200M+ subscribers have a delightful experience every time they ‘Netflix and Chill’. While it is still a work in progress, I focused on clear accountability, so there are no blurry lines.

People were not able to move forward because decisions were fuzzy or people were waiting on each other. My approach again is to be change-ready and to focus on being a multiplier.  And strategy is a really important piece in how we execute, so I need to have a mindset of a peacetime leader.

When the Rules Change

Mastering one leadership context is challenging enough. But as we grow in our careers, we often step into entirely new environments and roles. All the rules can change in an instant.

When transitioning into an unfamiliar leadership role, success hinges on rapidly closing knowledge gaps. Here is my playbook for getting up to speed quickly:

  • Immediately set context: Resist relying on what worked before. Dive in and deeply grasp your new scenario.
  • Bring vision: Leaders must define a compelling vision to rally teams. But build it upon your new context.
  • Hit the ground running: Identify some quick but meaningful wins you can drive to build momentum and credibility.
  • Ask for help: You'll never have all the answers on day one. Listen and lean on experienced folks around you.
  • Tailor your leadership: What does your team need most right now from you? Your job is to unlock their potential. Provide that.
  • Keep learning: Great leaders never stop developing skills. Each new environment exposes areas for growth.

Today’s Leadership Imperative: Multiply Potential

The rapid pace of change today demands engineering leaders adopt new mindsets. Organizations that wield culture as a competitive weapon must empower their teams to withstand turbulence.

But that environment doesn’t happen by accident. It requires eliminating diminishing behaviors that sabotage potential. Embracing change-readiness. Leading by example. And creating psychological safety for engineers to bring their best selves to solve challenging problems.

That’s been my journey distilled into frameworks. The key is translating insights into action. With the right principles, leaders can foster agile, high-performing teams ready for whatever change comes next.

There is no perfect blueprint. But at the core, leadership is a multiplier game. If we can multiply potential in ourselves, our teams, and our organizations, we have a shot at mastering even relentless change.

Are you ready to start multiplying? The most meaningful leadership work begins within.

About the Author

Rate this Article