Velocity via modularity

We’ve been discussing the question of ‘where work gets done’ for over two years now. Over this period, I’ve come across at least a dozen brilliant answers, yet they’ve all come apart at the time of implementation. They either get critically examined and shut down early in the process or are so far diluted by the time they come to life that the creator often fails to recognize the original idea. I’ve spent a while examining what is different in the world of HR as opposed to the outside that inhibits us from innovating at the pace everyone else does. On writing this sentence, I am in no way diminishing the impact our profession has on work and life. I continue to proudly believe in the profession’s power and everything we’ve achieved despite our notorious reputation.

‘Fail fast’ is a popular concept and one that is appearing in the world of work increasingly often now; and while it is one of the most powerful mantras of the medieval (if not modern) age, I’d like to introduce yet another one I’ve come to love over the past few years. It is one that is vastly popular in the business world yet finds roadblocks within the world of HR. I call it ‘velocity via modularity’. I’ll begin with explaining what it is, examine why we struggle with this idea and finally dwell on a few key ingredients needed to make this happen.

What is it?

Imagine building a new hiring portal. You look at the million that exist and wonder why we’d ever need another one. The product team argues this one combs through the cloud, automatically collects every resume that has been updated in the past 12 months on any website, indexes it automatically to relevant jobs based on skills and presents it in a neat dashboard classifying it by how many have already been reached out to, interviewed and hired. You’re not convinced. Thus, they add the ability to integrate with every existing HRM system and an outrageously user-friendly dashboard. Profitability is still highly debated and hence they add a few more bells and whistles. At this point, the board is convinced that it’s a product worth releasing into the market. Only now, it’ll take two years to launch. While it’s a beautiful product, by the time it’s ready, someone else has already done it and you’re back debating what additional features will make it a viable product.

There’s a better way to do this- by breaking the product into what is a ‘minimal lovable product’ and ‘modules’. You first create a minimal lovable product and launch it in the market. Once that is out, monitor regularly to seek feedback while parallelly working on releasing ‘modules’ that will fit with the product like Lego blocks do. The product by itself is lovable and you make it a little more lovable by releasing little modules and iterating on them like you plan to do with the main product.

That is velocity by modularity. Maybe you have a vision on what the future will look like. Mobilizing the entire vision is daunting and often impossible. Yet breaking it into modules and releasing it module by module makes it tangible and gets you closer to the end vision much quicker. If modules break, they do not break the entire design because they can be quickly decoupled. And when two years later you analyze how the blocks fit together, you have likely achieved your vision.

The reasons we pause

In HR, we believe that we have a disproportionate impact on the lives of people. This is a 100% true. Yet, we are so obsessed with getting everything right the first time over that we view everything as a one-way door and double down on turtle like pace in the fear of a massive negative fallout. Some of what we do needs that kind of attention to detail and careful consideration, some of it doesn’t. I cannot recall the number of times, I’ve been questioned on ‘who has done this before?’, ‘how will this scale?’, ‘how will employees react?’ or ‘what if we offend someone?’. Each of this question has a hidden–don’t do it. The reaction to anything risky has always first been a ‘no’. It takes a while for people to come around and sometimes the ‘a while’ can span years. We’ve grown to be a risk averse community, thinking of employees (as much as I loathe to use that word) as monsters who wouldn’t understand mistakes, risks nor accept apologies. In my experience, when you take them along with you on the journey, they are usually very appreciative of you taking risks. Sure, they’ll complain. That’s their job. Ours is to listen to those complaints and address them vs avoid them.

Making it happen

If you buy into the concept, here are three necessary pre-requisites:

  • Permission to move fast: Bureaucracy kills both the ability to move fast as well as modularity. Sometimes it is difficult to visualize how the blocks fit together but empowering individuals, removing roadblocks and an appetite for failure are the modern keys to success. Good ideas come from anywhere and the more the approvals, the more tedious the task. I don’t have to tell you this. One may argue that there are limited resources and a process helps ensure the best allocation of resources. So how does one make things move faster? Push decision making down the chain and define the operating boundaries. One example is the famed 20% time in Google where one can spend a day in the week working on a per project. Another example could be each team owning a defined ‘experiment (failure) budget’ i.e. experiments they want to invest time and money into. The team self elects which ones they will chase that year.
  • Mechanisms to Think long, act short: This is the traditional act of defining a 3-year or a 1-year plan i.e. thinking long and then dividing the plan into short sprints i.e. act short. It’s a popular method of software development (agile) and helps break the vision into previously mentioned modules. While these sound simple, it needs a certain amount of discipline and methods in place. Having mechanisms in place to do this helps teams execute on new ideas better.
  • Celebration of failure: This is the easiest to pen but the hardest to put into motion. I’ve written about F*$kup Nights before. It is important to award taking reasonable risks and failing. In addition to the experiment budget, why not set up an award by nomination like any regular award? Bring forward genuine stories of spectacular risk taking and failure; and normalize it.  

Not working towards revolutionizing the way we work is not an option. And acts of bravery are the only way revolutions take place. There are many ways to take calculated risks, mobilize action and bring visions to life. This is one. Try it.

P.S: If you’ve read the 2021 Amazon Shareholder Letter, you probably have noticed that this post is inspired by it. If you haven’t, I urge you do. It has many nuggets of gold, including a strong emphasis on innovation and ideas on how to innovate.

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