Decision-making is an indispensable skill for engineering leaders. In any company building software, engineering is where the rubber meets the road, and your decisions (short, medium, and long-term) will have the biggest impact on the business.
We often ask ourselves, "how can we be deliberate about the culture of our organization, so we don't end up pushing for outcomes without caring about how we achieve them?" – that's why I believe that "how we make decisions" should be one of the greatest building blocks of company culture.
I've argued that engineering leaders need to adapt their leadership approach as their company grows. So shouldn't decision-making also be flexible and easy to adapt?
In this article, I will present a few practical frameworks and tools that you can use to help guide your decision-making.
These frameworks will help you understand:
Most of these frameworks come from the fantastic conversations I’ve had with Jason Warner (former CTO of GitHub) and other Engineering Leaders on our podcast.
This is not a magical guide to decision-making, but a simple toolkit from which you can pull out different frameworks. Ideally, these tools are woven into your company culture, and become daily, weekly, and monthly knee-jerk reactions to some of the questions that inevitably come along.
As you read through this list, remember: There are many times when you need to make a decision. But it's the art of the decision, not the science and mechanics of the situation, that matters. That's where excellent leaders are made.
Use for 👉 Creating a decision-making structure within your org. that fosters transparency and trust by assigning different decision-making parameters based on job levels.
One of the most important aspects of any function is decision-making. Jason Warner’s Diamond (widely discussed in Episode 3 of Developing Leadership) is a framework that can help bring more clarity to organizations by showing us what kind of decisions are being made at the different job levels.
The Diamond challenges the notion of “tops down” and “bottoms up” decision-making:
A set of all decisions will always originate from the top (one-way door, strategic, exec only) and bottom (majority of tactical decisions, ephemeral or transient choices, experimental mindset decisions).
The decisions in the middle are many that translate the tops-down decisions into action and make sure the bottom-up decisions map to the overall strategic direction of the company. If there are mismatches, the diamond middle is where it would likely originate.
It can be hard to accept a structure where decision-making isn’t always coming from the top, but if there is an immense amount of trust, this can be genuinely liberating as it leads to quicker decision-making processes, which, you guessed it, will help your company scale.
Jason believes that companies should not rely on an all tops-down approach or all bottoms-up approach. Instead, each organization needs to find a balance between the two approaches in order to achieve its goals.
TL;DR: Most decisions in a company originate from the top and bottom of the org, but most of the actual decision-making happens in the middle of the organization. Embrace this and you will be able to scale faster.
Use for 👉 Deciding how much time and how many people need to be involved in a decision before embarking on it.
The Eisenhower Matrix is a decision-making tool created by Dwight D. Eisenhower, who believed that there were two aspects that define decisions: important/non-important or urgent/non-urgent. Adopting the practice of using this matrix, or variations of it, for work decisions is a great way to avoid making bad decisions and wasting time.
The way we use this matrix at Athenian is a little different. Instead of categorizing decisions as urgent vs important, we categorize them on reversibility vs impact. This is a great first step into a decision-making process, as you can quickly decide how long you should spend on this decision and who needs to be involved.
💛 Inspiration for this matrix came from this article by Farnham Street.
TL;DR: If a decision is easy to reverse and low impact, make the decision fast – the higher impact and harder to reverse it gets, the more time and people you need to bring in.
Join me on April 28th for a live webinar where I will go through the 8 Mental Models for Exceptional Engineering Leadership - find out more!
Use for 👉 Understanding if you should be defensive or offensive in your decisions based on the stage of the company you’re at.
The Inverted Bell Curve of Defence illustrates the offensive vs defensive fronts companies should take, based on the stage that they are at. Understanding this will help you set the intention for your decision-making based on stage.
When you start building a product and the tech associated with it, at the beginning of the journey you are on the offense because that's what you have to do to succeed.
Then you become more defensive as an organization grows because you want to be structured architecturally, so the infrastructure works and it can’t be brought down.
But then at some point, if you just stay system and stability-oriented, you are going to be outcompeted, so you have to go on the offense again.
This framework comes from Ep. 6 of Developing Leadership “Deep Dive into Engineering Leadership Roles.
TL;DR: You should adopt an offensive front at the early stage of the company, become defensive when you have a structured architecture, and then offensive again so you don’t get out-competed.
Use for 👉 Creating alignment between Engineering, Product, and Design team leads.
EPD is a cross-functional team structure that enables all three elements of this triad (Engineering, Product, and Design) to have equal importance to the business. This is essential for companies that are shifting their mindset from building and shipping software to delivering a service. Something which all tech companies should consider.
Each EPD squad will have a Product Manager, Development Lead, and Design lead. The success of EPD relies on the health of the relationships among these three leaders. The clear alignment of their goals is key for decision-making.
The Product Delivery Organization is a term coined by LaunchDarkly, but EPD has been around for a couple of years.
TL;DR: Consider having Engineering, Product, and Design as one integrated team, where the leaders of each team collaborate in their goal setting and decision-making. This is a mindset shift from building and shipping software to delivering a service.
Use for 👉 A quick daily reminder of what you need to deliver and a reflection on how you could improve.
At the start of this article, I mentioned how Engineering is where the rubber meets the road - which means you are often building fast, iterating, and delivering amazing products. But as a leader, you have to have a reflective mindset, to make sure your thinking is not just short-term, but also medium and long-term.
Former U.S. Chief Data Scientist, DJ Patil, had this simple checklist in his White House notebook:
I love this checklist (pinned to the top of Jason Warner’s Twitter profile), because it’s tailored specifically to engineering leaders, and it is a great tool for stepping back and reflecting on your purpose.
TL;DR: There is no way to TL;DR such a simple and straightforward list! 😄
Use for 👉 Implementing an autonomous mindset within your team. This is a great value to add to your company culture and an easy way to illustrate it.
Based on the internet meme “how to draw an owl”, this is one of the main values of the customer-engagement platform, Twilio. The gist of it is that you should figure things out on your own.
After the two circles, everyone has their own way of drawing the owl. Jason talks about this method when discussing the pitfalls of OKRs, and why messiness, often difficult to measure, actually matters, in episode 15 of Developing Leadership.
Twilio CEO, Jeff Lawson says it best:
“Yes, it was a meme, but it’s a great representation of our job. There is no instruction book and no one is going to tell us how to do our work. It’s now woven into our culture and used as a cheeky, but encouraging reply to those who email colleagues at Twilio asking how to do something. It reminds them that they have — or are empowered to find — the answer. Plus, part of the opportunity and the fun of a startup is figuring it out yourself.”
What this framework tells us is that outcome is the most important element in a process, and if we give people the freedom to draw their owl in their own way, great things will happen. It’s the art of the decision, not the science and the mechanics that matter. 😉
TL;DR: Understand that people will have different ways of reaching an outcome. Embrace the messiness so you don’t get stuck on strict OKR structures.
We put together a cheat sheet of all of these tools! Keep it somewhere you will check often, share it with the other leaders in your company, and make it a part of your company culture!
If you’re interested in learning other tools for engineering leaders, check out 7 Mental Models for Great Engineering Leadership.