Article for the day!

12 Signs You’re Working in a Feature Factory

I’ve used the term Feature Factory at a couple conference talks over the past two years. I started using the term when a software developer friend complained that he was “just sitting in the factory, cranking out features, and sending them down the line.”

How do you know if you’re working in a feature factory?

  1. No measurement. Teams do not measure the impact of their work. Or, if measurement happens, it is done in isolation by the product management team and selectively shared. You have no idea if your work worked
  2. Rapid shuffling of teams and projects (aka Team Tetris). Instead of compelling missions or initiatives, teams deal in feature and project assignments. Chronic multitasking and over-utilization
  3. Success theater around “shipping” with little discussion about impact. You can tell a great deal about an organization by what it celebrates
  4. Infrequent (acknowledged) failures and scrapped work. No removed features. Primary measure of success is delivered features, not delivered outcomes. Work is rarely discarded in light of data and learning. Often the team lacks the prerequisite safety to admit misfires
  5. No connection to core metrics. Infrequent discussions about desired customer and business outcomes. Team cannot connect work to key business and customer satisfaction metrics. Impossible to connect iterations to “what matters most”
  6. No PM retrospectives. Product managers do not conduct regular retrospectives on the quality of their product decisions and compare expected benefits to actual benefits. Developers have “passing tests”, but product managers do not. Product managers view velocity and output as their key performance indicator
  7. Obsessing about prioritization. Mismatch between prioritization rigor (deciding what gets worked on) and validation rigor (deciding if it was, in fact, the right thing to work on). Prioritization rigor is designed exclusively to temper internal agendas so that people “feel confident”. Lots of work goes into determining which ideas to work on, leaving little leeway for adjustments and improvisation based on data. Roadmaps show a list of features, not areas of focus and/or outcomes
  8. No tweaking. Once work is “done”, the team moves immediately on to the next “project”, leaving no time to iterate based on qualitative and quantitative data
  9. Culture of hand-offs. Front-loaded process in place to “get ahead of the work” so that items are “ready for engineering”. Team is not directly involved in research, problem exploration, or experimentation and validation. Once work is shipped, team has little contact with support, customer success, and sales
  10. Large batches. Without the mandate to experiment, features are delivered in single large batches instead of delivering incrementally. You might still work in sprints (yay, we’re “Agile”), but nothing new is reaching customers at the conclusion of each sprint
  11. Chasing upfront revenue. Features are implemented to close new deals. While not inherently wrong, the economic justifications are often flimsy (at best), and fail to account for the non-linear increase in product complexity (you make the quarter, but you pay for it many times over later). Again, this reinforces the idea that features are the unit of value measurement. Product decisions lack a sound economic grounding
  12. Shiny objects. Low visibility for refactoring work and debt work-down. Low visibility for overall value delivery capabilities. As mentioned, primary measure of success is new feature output. Little appreciation for the health of the whole product as opposed to shiny new objects. Little awareness around impact of new features on usability (and maintainability and extensibility) of existing product

For translations of this post see: Korean

I’ve written about addressing this problem. Check out these posts:

Article for the day


If fear-based tactics are being used as a driver in your workplace, it could have a negative effect on your time, money, relationships, and psychological well-being.

Do you know where your organization’s culture currently stands?

A Close Look at the Problem

Fear can manifest in the workplace in many ways, but it typically occurs with a trickle-down effect, where ineffective leaders employ fear-based tactics to control the behavior of employees.

Leaders who try to hold people accountable with fear may not realize they’re doing it. Or, if they’re doing it intentionally, they may try to argue that fear gets things done. But using fear as a driver provides only short-term motivation and short-term resentful compliance.

When employees become resentful toward leadership, stress levels and employee turnover rise, while workplace satisfaction, happiness, and psychological well-being plummet. The effects of fear-based tactics can negatively impact employee engagement, the customer experience, and even brand reputation—when employees are stressed and fearful, this dissatisfaction can potentially seep into conversations with clients, and their frustrations with their organization’s culture may be voiced word of mouth or via internet, serving as a red flag to potential candidates.

In his best-selling book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink identifies three various levels of motivation:

Motivation 1.0 – To survive.

Motivation 2.0 – To seek reward and avoid punishment.

Motivation 3.0 – To seek autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Many organizations find themselves stuck in a fear-based 2.0 culture where leaders and employees are compelled to avoid something, whether it’s failure, termination, or some other unwanted consequence. It consists of punishing the bad and rewarding the good.

In order to move into Motivation 3.0—autonomy, mastery, and purpose—leaders have to provide trust, growth opportunities, and meaning in order to achieve it. In motivation 3.0, our work transcends fear and instead becomes intrinsic and purpose-driven.

When fear is present in an organization, it can lead to what Pink has termed “The Seven Deadly Flaws”:

1. It can extinguish intrinsic motivation.

2. It can diminish performance.

3. It can crush creativity.

4. It can crowd out good behavior.

5. It can encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior.

6. It can become addictive.

7. It can foster short-term thinking.

The opposite of a fear-based culture is a culture where everyone within the organization feels psychologically safe. Coined by Harvard Business professor Amy Edmonson, the term psychological safety is “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” When there’s no fear of punishment, it leads to more innovation, increased productivity, and an authentic environment of candor.

It may be hard to categorize your culture as either fear-based or psychologically safe. Imagine these two terms on a spectrum, and your organization will fall somewhere on this spectrum. Even if you would place your organization closer to the psychologically safe end of the spectrum, any lingering fear that does exist, even in small amounts, can create big problems.

Identifying a Fear-Based Culture

Some fear-based tactics are obvious, such as delivering a punishment for poor performance. Others, such as a lack of communication, can be harder to identify when you aren’t even aware that there’s an unaddressed problem.

Below are some common characteristics of fear-based cultures. Have you witnessed any of the following behaviors in your organization?

1. There are things you don’t talk about, can’t talk about, or don’t feel comfortable talking about. At Fierce, we call them Mokitas. Mokita is a Papua New Guinean term for something that everyone knows but no one talks about. The fewer mokitas, the healthier the tribe. That thing that we know and feel compelled to not talk about because the consequences may not be “pleasant.” In a psychologically-safe culture, no problem is off-limits, and employees feel comfortable discussing issues with leadership. Confrontation takes place when needed, and feedback is given on the fly.

2. Employee mistakes are met with some sort of punishment or unwanted consequence. Rather than supporting employees in their development, ineffective leaders will try to improve performance with fear-based tactics including threats, various forms of intimidation, passive aggressive behavior such as the silent treatment, secrecy, or manipulation. In a psychologically safe environment, failures are met with support and development opportunities. Leaders are transparent and use coaching conversations to help employees identify their own personal values and desires that will aid their development.

3. Leaders are micromanaging. A leader who micromanages is a fearful leader. They’re rarely satisfied with deliverables and nitpick tiny details that can slow project timelines and dishearten employees. They may doubt the ability of employees to handle tasks and fear delegating new tasks, which puts a damper on development opportunities. Effective leaders who want to create a psychologically-safe environment will grant trust and autonomy to employees, acting as a supportive guide for personal and professional development.

4. Siloed and/or One-way Communication. Healthy cultures have top-down, bottom-up, and cross-department communication. If conversations are only happening in one direction or aren’t happening at all, it hinders transparency and openness, which makes it harder to establish a sense of trust in leadership within an organization. Leaders and employees need to be on the same page when it comes to feedback—it’s a two-way conversation. Leaders need to give feedback to employees, and employees need to feel safe giving feedback to leaders.

While the full list of fear-based behaviors is more extensive than what we’ve listed here, these are some of the primary culprits. If you’ve experienced any of these behaviors, it’s time to make a change in your organization.

The Conversation is the Relationship

In 2012, Google launched an initiative called “Project Aristotle” to study the lives of their employees and determine what factors mattered most for creating a successful team. Long story short, Google’s data concluded that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work:

“What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘work face’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘psychologically safe,’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy.”

The study identified that real connections are what create a sense of psychological safety, with communication and empathy being the main building blocks of these connections.

When conversation is skillful, empathic, and nurturing to the relationship, it builds the cohesion and connections that fuel a healthy culture. As we say at Fierce, C=R=C. The conversation is the relationship is the culture. The better your conversations, the better your relationships and culture will be.

Establishing a Psychologically-Safe Workplace

DECISIONWISE BENCHMARK STUDY of over 100,000 employees found that 34% of employees in the U.S. do not speak up out of fear of retribution. If you want to see a culture shift, “speaking up” needs to be actively encouraged, and when employees do speak up, their perspectives need to be met with respect and consideration. They need to know that you want to know their thoughts.

Psychological safety is shaped by skillful conversations and a growth-oriented, supportive, and empathic approach to employee performance. Here are the top three most important conversations to start having now:

1. DELEGATE – Leaders need to muster up the courage and willingness to delegate. Losing control and ownership of certain tasks can be uncomfortable at first, but granting employees trust, confidence, and growth opportunities engages and enlivens teams. Successful delegation also allows leaders to free up time, space, and energy to place their focus where it’s needed most.

2. COACH – Have a one-on-one conversation with someone in your organization to dive deeper and address the most pressing issue. Effective coaching conversations help guide employees to healthy, desired action and allow them to chart their own course of development with self-generated insight. When there is no advice-giving on behalf of the coach, it provides a self-actualization opportunity for the coachee.

3. TEAM – Encourage team members to share ideas openly without filtering or trying to assess whether the ideas have merit. The best brainstorming is unfiltered, and if you’re interested in generating the best ideas, employees need to feel safe enough to express themselves freely.

If you’re an individual contributor and you feel leadership either doesn’t support “speaking up” or they haven’t communicated their support, don’t wait for them to do so. We highly encourage you to bring up the issue to your supervisor. And we know how hard this can be—especially if you fear there might be a consequence to speaking up. However, if you want to empower yourself and those you work with and create positive change, it will require you to initiate what could be a somewhat risky conversation. One conversation can make all the difference.

Read more in our latest eBook HERE about all five of the most critical conversations you need to be having to transform your culture and create lasting change.


If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:


If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:


If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’


If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!



Source: A Choice of Kipling’s Verse (1943)

Good article for the day

Steve Jobs Once Gave Some Brilliant Management Advice on Hiring Top People. Here It Is in 2 Sentences

By Marcel Schwantes

Every boss in a hiring role should appreciate this simple yet profound advice from the former head of Apple.

Steve Jobs may have had an enormous ego as the head of Apple, but he understood his place in the information age when he famously quipped,

It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.

Genius and profound. Your best move is to intentionally not be the smartest person in the room. And other iconic figures would agree. As Lee Iacocca once said, “I hire people brighter than me and get out of their way.”

While smart people may be found up and down your organizational chart, there’s a more specific term for the type of people Jobs and Iacocca were referencing: knowledge workers.

The Age of the Knowledge Worker

Coined by management expert Peter Drucker in 1959, the term knowledge workers refers to people whose main capital is to think for a living. They work with their heads, not their hands, to plan, analyze, organize, test, program, distribute, search, market, or otherwise generally contribute to the transformation of information in the knowledge economy.

Drucker asserted quite prophetically before his death in 2005 that increasing the productivity of knowledge workers was the most important contribution managers needed to make in the 21st century.

That leads to the million-dollar question: How do you manage them? How do you manage highly paid, independent thinkers who like to control the process of their own work and don’t like to be managed, and who own their organization’s means of innovating, developing, and producing?

The same way as everyone else. You treat them as valued human beings.

This obviously will require strong leadership. The good news is that to lead the smartest people in the building, you don’t need to be smarter than them.

3 Keys to Leading the Knowledge Worker

Like all high performers, knowledge workers take pride in their work and want to serve their customers well. And they want to grow and reach new possibilities along their career path.

Three ways leaders can engage and inspire their knowledge workers are:

1. Redistribute decision making.

In a knowledge economy, top-down hierarchical management styles that direct traffic one-way with no input will collapse, because employees typically know more than bosses do about their own areas of specialization.

And being closer to the ground, they may also know more about the customer’s needs, wishes, and expectations to problem solve, delight, and offer a richer customer experience. That’s why Drucker advised managers, “Knowledge workers have to manage themselves. They have to have autonomy.”

Conversely, high-performing organizations that empower their knowledge workers are typically flatter. Information is shared openly across fewer reporting levels, and people are able to use it to make the right decisions quicker.

Take a cue from luxury retail chain Nordstrom, headquartered in Seattle. It has a strong culture of empowering its employees to make decisions on the frontlines. In Nimble, Focused, Feisty, author Sara Roberts, executive consultant to Fortune 500 companies, describes the Nordstrom way:

Nordstrom structures itself so that employees are empowered to treat customers as they themselves would like to be treated. Employees are encouraged to exercise good judgment to do whatever is necessary to satisfy the customer. Meanwhile, the hierarchy of the organization is structured to support those front-line employees in that task. Why? Because Nordstrom believes that the relationships between customer and employee is critical to capturing that customer long-term.

Other organizations that distribute decision-making flatten their authority closest to the user, research, product, or market because this is where the best solutions will be recognized and can be responded to most quickly.

2. Support and lead teamwork.

In the knowledge economy, leaders build community by developing strong relationships. This means investing in time with your most valued workers to learn who they really are.

Let me ask you a question: As a leader, how well do you know the people who work closest to you? Do you know the events of their lives that have shaped who they are today? Do you know their dreams and plans for the future? Leaders use relationships and strong bonds to foster great collaboration.

In supporting a team atmosphere, leaders leverage relationships to make sure there’s alignment between their workers’ personal goals and the company’s business goals. When it’s clear that there’s misalignment, leaders must find a happy compromise (as long as it doesn’t hurt the business).

Supporting and leading teamwork extends to valuing workers’ input on things like hiring and promotion decisions. Leaders may even charge the team with new team member performance to show trust in their judgment.

In the end, ensuring a strong team approach comes down to leaders checking their egos at the door and relying on the collective wisdom of the team.

Karen Dillon, the former editor of Harvard Business Review and a co-author of Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choicewrites in HBR:

When I finally focused on being a real leader, instead of a nervous new manager, I started asking my colleagues how we could best get the work done rather than simply figuring it out by myself. I think it signaled to them that I cared about their opinion and expertise, and that I was not assuming I was a one-man band.

Dillon says that her team ended up winning a top industry award the following year — an achievement she attributes to a strong team, but only after she let them have a hold of the reins.

3. Listen more than talk to show you value their expertise.

This is really an extension of the last point because it’s so important for success. Building personal relationships is the best way to make sure your employees feel heard. This means the most receptive leaders will listen to their needs, ask what matters most to them, and genuinely figure out a way to develop them in the direction they want to go.

Retired U.S. Air Force colonel, leadership consultant, and author Lee Ellis recently interviewed Tom Crawford of Crawford Corporate Coaching, who framed knowledge workers in such a succinct way:

  • Knowledge is powerful.
  • Knowledge shared is more powerful.
  • Knowledge from the people in the company who touch it every day is the most powerful of all.

Expanding on these points in his LinkedIn post, Ellis says that “leaders need to be listening to the ideas and insights from people at the lower levels.” While that’s seems like a no-brainer, Ellis says the opposite is often true: “The higher you go in the organization, the harder it is to ‘lean down’ and listen.”

“Strategic listening is not a natural, common practice among busy senior leaders, because it requires time and patience and a positive belief in the power and capacity of others,” states Ellis.

He adds, “And like all the other great leadership attributes, strategic listening requires the rare leadership combination of confidence and humility that few of us naturally have.”

Closing Thoughts

If you find yourself managing the smartest people in the room, remember this: The universal human need of every knowledge worker is not unlike that of the rest of us. It’s to perform meaningful work, be respected, collaborate in a tight-knit community of excellence and shared values, and ultimately make an impact for good in the world. And the biggest aspiration for their leaders is a matter of the heart: to make their people better workers and better human beings.