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Atomic thinking and scaling teams

I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about different ways of thinking and focus, the impact potential of a particular focus, and how even the smallest change/adjustment can have a significant impact upstream. Examples which come to mind are how rowing teams all row together, optimize each row, and work as a team to balance on another out. The same can be said for cycling teams who rotate who rides in the slipstream to catch their breath.

These are all wonderful references and ideas, but how do they translate into a more generalized concept? The phrase I’ve been using is “atomic thinking”; thinking of the smallest possible independent pieces. Even the smallest adjustment can have a significant impact, without being dependent on other change to happen.

A great example of this is the Japanese relay team at the 2016 Olympics. This team focused entirely on getting really good at passing the baton. This is, to my mind, the smallest and most intricate step in their entire relay.

Zooming out, I like that the focus here is on the area where the team needs to pull together the most. In the context of a relay race, these are all excellent runners, and they all want to win the race. There is never any question of their running ability. On the contrary, the running ability seems almost assumed, they de-emphasize it so much. Passing the baton is the one aspect of the team’s goal which requires everyone to be more than 100% focused, and to all optimize as much as possible for overall success.

In the context of distributed work, there are many new challenges teams face, often for the first time ever. Timezones, communication, and hand-offs are three such examples. Hand-offs seems a lot like passing the baton, no?

As a team scales, I would focus entirely on the way teams pass work between the team members. Where and how is the communication happening? What level of detail is required in order to remove blockers for the next person? What is the next most important thing to work on, for the next person?

Focusing on this hand-off enables teams across a wide timezone spread to function well across the full timezone spectrum, which transforms timezones from a burden to a leverage point. Emphasizing this singular practice inherently resolves the other two challenges mentioned of communication and timezones.

Video of the Japan Relay team at 2016 Olympics – courtesy John Maeda’s blog.

Thinking about measuring the impact of such a change, the intention set out at the beginning should be the measure. For example, “I would like to see the team collaborating on issues, communicating blockers effectively, and working painlessly across timezones”. If that’s all happening, or on it’s way to happening, the change had an impact.

What is the smallest independent change you can make, for yourself or your team? How will you measure the impact of that change?

Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash

One reply on “Atomic thinking and scaling teams”

> What is the smallest independent change you can make, for yourself or your team?

At the end of each workday, I try to do just another small thing that would bring more success to me personally or my team, e.g. just reading a post which could bring new meaningful knowledge or do a code review that could unblock my colleague next morning.

I believe that these small wins are the changes you’ve written about.

> How will you measure the impact of that change?

It’s really hard to measure that change speaking of overall team productivity. The only way I could measure is that the feeling of passion, that helps go beyond work hours and motivates me, exist. If it exists, I know that I do the right things.

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