TBM 11/53: The Know-It-All CEO

I hope everyone is safe and doing their best to keep their community safe.

My 83y/o mother, a lifetime smoker with chronic bronchitis, is trying not to leave her house. She's terrified, but loves chatting with her grandson via Skype every day. "When I was a child we survived the occupation hiding in our house, so I hope I survive now to see Julian in person again!”

I had to cancel this week's trip to Paris. La Conf' will happen in September. I have scheduled a free, virtual three-part lab series on March 19, April 2, and April 16 at Europe-friendly times. I'll record each session and make those recordings available to people who register. Click here to learn more about the series and sign-up. Invite coworkers. It'll be decent (I hope).

To all the teams struggling with being remote, I only have one bit of advice. There are a million people giving you tips. But the blocker is not good ideas. Advice is everywhere (especially from founders who have gone all-in on being remote). The actual limiter is your team's ability to inspect and adapt. I made a quick video called The Work That Makes the Work Work that talks about this. Give it a try.

And now back to our regular programming. Here's a thought experiment for you...

Say you work for a CEO who is a world-renowned expert in a specific domain. She has spent twenty years interacting with a specific customer/user persona. She knows it like the back of her hand. In four years she has grown a startup from 3 people in a bedroom, to a team of 150. Raised millions. Revenue is growing. Happy customers. She dictates the roadmap based on her conversations with customers. It's top down. And you know what? Often...her instincts are spot-on. The company is doing great.

But as the product becomes more complex, and customer personas multiply, she's losing her magic touch. She's not a designer, engineer, or product manager. The team grumbles about being "outcome focused" and "problem vs. solution" (as a proxy for saying "we're making bad decisions"). The CEO remembers how fast the team moved when it was 8 people in a room. UX and technical debt accumulates. Drag increases. Tension rises.

Common challenge. What do you do? How do you resolve this? How do you move forward? On one hand, you have this amazing CEO with tons of experience and knowledge. You want her to help. But her strengths have now also become a bit of a liability.

Here's something I have learned about this situation. There are two things going on: how decisions get made (who, when, how, etc) and the mechanism the organization has in place to reflect on decision quality.

A big mistake change-agents make is addressing these two things as if they are the same thing. It doesn't matter whether the CEO makes all the decisions or teams have 100% autonomy. In both cases you'll need a mechanism for describing your bets, and then reflecting on those bets. In both cases -- and in my experience few CEO's would disagree -- you need a way for people on the front-lines to trace their work to company strategy and The Why.

Back to our scenario with the CEO. Trying to wage a philosophical battle over who decides what is not your best option. Telling the CEO she isn't a designer, product manager, or engineer is not your best option. Both will inspire a threat response. A safer approach is advocating for a making bets visible, connecting the "tree" of bets, and doing decision reviews.

For two reasons 1) the best cure for the CEO-who-knows-everything is to look at outcomes, and 2) in the future, when you've pushed the decision-making authority down to the team-level, you'll STILL need this muscle.

Action Item: Decouple decision making approach from visualizing bets and reflecting on outcomes.