Managing Without a Roadmap at Google

Rita J. King
October 4, 2015

Seek uncertainty and other lessons from Google's Astrid Atkinson on managing without a roadmap.

Do you need to inspire your team to perform at a new level? Reflect on some sound advice from Google’s Astrid Atkinson, who has built infrastructure and managed a variety of engineering teams during her 10+ years with the company. She led the team responsible for running and building out Google’s web serving layer and managed site reliability for Google’s social products. As part of the Cloud Platform team, she led the development of the next generation of app and service-level infrastructure. She currently works in Search Infrastructure.

This post was generated from a talk at the O’Reilly Cultivate Conference, with a focus on Leading Through Culture. Shaping culture takes a significant amount of daily effort. Culture is the total fabric of the way an organization functions--not what you say you’re going to do, but what people actually do every single day.

Atkinson has successfully led her teams to accomplish huge, world-changing, profitable goals. She started her talk by referencing my favorite essay of all time, Albert Camus’ The Myth Of Sisyphus. Sisyphus tricks the gods, and his punishment is that he will forever push a rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down so he can start all over again. Sisyphus becomes an absurd hero by finding meaning in the act of pushing the rock up the hill. The essay describes the difficulty of finding purpose in an uncertain universe.

“Meaning is something that we create in the act of our own struggle,” Atkinson said. “It can be almost anything. Leadership is like that. If you're not pushing a rock up a hill, you're missing the problems or you're missing the opportunity. Life is struggle. Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something.”

While not all problems are opportunities, all opportunities do begin as problems, she said.

Who Owns a Problem?

Should team leaders wait until the people at the top figure it all out and give marching orders before they start to take initiative within their own teams?

This is a question clients at Science House clients ask all the time. Who owns a problem, and how is ownership established? At so many meetings at which culture is mentioned, a slide will appear, with the famous quote by Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Often, people will incorrectly attribute this quote to their own boss, or to a consultant they’ve hired who says it so often that it sounds like he made it up.

But what does this actually mean in a modern context? Leaders are responsible for setting the mission, so that all teams know the direction they need to pursue. But without taking initiative to achieve their own goals, teams fail.

“People get bound up in strategy,” Atkinson said. “All you need is a plan, and you need to know that it is going to be subject to change. Deep down, the world just wants to be led. At first I thought this was horrifying, but it's true. People want others to step up with a plan. People are hesitant to set direction because they're afraid they're going to piss people off, but people are grateful.”

Partnerships are the key to achieving this, she said.

“Who are the people in your environment who can approve things?" Atkinson said. "Understand what their goals are. You need a story, not a strategy.”

The key to this is to deeply understand stakeholders’ positions very thoroughly. If the leadership direction is set, and people know where they’re headed, somebody needs to synthesize the increasingly complex moving parts into a cohesive plan that might change, but will nevertheless get you started in a way that makes sense. Somebody needs to own the problem, and when new information, pressures or realities creep in, somebody needs to contextualize those into the fabric of the plan as it evolves. The speed of modern reality demands it.

What can you do to create stronger teams?

“Creating safety is the most important thing in an uncertain environment,” Atkinson said. “Creativity requires taking risks. People without safety will rapidly become reactive. If they can't focus they can't get stuff done. A lack of safety makes people unhappy, and they quit, and that's a real pain in the ass.”

Safety doesn’t mean protecting people from reality. Lying makes people feel unsafe. Transparency increases a sense of safety (here’s another excellent piece, written for Medium by Mathilde Collin on the subject of transparency. I agree with her about figuring out what you need to be transparent about: communication, yes--salaries, no).

Don’t Interrupt Each Other

People need space to make progress on goals, and that means that part of the culture of the team has to be to stop interrupting each other unnecessarily. When you understand the players, the problems, the goals and tradeoffs, you’re well on your way to a great team. There are a few other important ingredients, however, with judgment being one of them. You can’t achieve judgment without clarity and understanding. Science House has a sharp focus on the shift in IT leadership skills, so Atkinson’s comment about engineers getting mired in minutia struck home. It’s often necessary to take a step back and refocus on direction.

Add Success to the Mix Whenever Possible

Atkinson shared a quote from Eric Schmidt: “Revenue solves all known problems.”

“One of the best ways to remove pressure is to add success,” Atkinson said. “Look for small opportunities to add success. Increases the team's confidence, increases your customer’s trust and people will be happier and more willing to cooperate.”

Agree on Problems

Fixing problems requires space, agreement on the problem you're fixing and a way to measure success.

Go back and negotiate and address sources of anxiety.

Make communication a priority.

“This is an area of growth for me,” Atkinson shared. “As an engineer I think the work should speak for itself but in any senior position this is absolutely not true.”

Tell Your Story

Take all the things you know, and string them together. Make your story and tell it to people.

“People keep their plan to themselves,” Atkinson said. “This is counterproductive. People hate surprises. The sooner you can start iterating, the sooner you come to a good result. If plans change you will have something to show for your work.”

People will need to defend their work, she said. This point is a provocative one, because it is usually only in companies that truly understand speed to market that this will get practiced. In companies that consider themselves more people-centric, asking someone to defend their work often makes them feel attacked, so colleagues avoid it. Ideas that take stakeholder needs into account will often achieve what Atkinson calls “durable consensus.”

The most truly people-centric companies don’t necessarily have employees walking around in a chipper mood all day. This is a dangerous illusion. People-centric companies do the hard work of creating plans that are based on reality and goals, with flexibility rolled in, so people know how to connect their work to the mission of the organization and goals of the team. This also leads to less anxiety, so that when people are spending time in other areas of their lives, they aren’t constantly obsessed with the fear that in the haze of not-knowing what’s happening at work, they might lose their job or their way.

Stability is Bad For Business

What if your team is too stable and you want to shake things up?

Stability, Atkinson said, is bad for business. I am in full agreement with her on this point. Many of our clients are under the impression that the goal of working on their culture is to create stability for their employees. But, you might say, didn’t Atkinson herself point out that safety makes people more creative? Yes. But this is a nuanced point that requires deep contemplation: Safety is not the absence of crushing internal or external pressures. Safety results from your contributions being deeply connected to the mission of the organization. Anyone who defines safety in terms of entitlement and the guarantee of a paycheck is not operating in the modern world. Even the companies that genuinely want nothing more than to keep every single person on the payroll no longer have that option as a feasible reality.

So why is stability bad for business? Because people get comfortable, and the human urge to maintain the status quo kicks in. Once this happens, you run the risk of missing the next big thing, and the people who were afraid to lose their jobs are once again in a state of panic anyway.

“Stability rarely looks stable,” Atkinson said. “The better you understand a space the easier it is to see problems. You need to make room for innovation. A ship in a port is safe, but that's not what ships are for. It’s true of software engineering teams too. You will cease innovating when you don't have competition. You're screwed unless you can get people to take ownership of a problem.”

Change is uncomfortable because it implies loss.

“The bugs in the old system make people feel safe,” Atkinson said. “They know those bugs. It’s difficult to spread change without scaring people. You'll own the process and learn. If people know they will benefit from the change they will become advocates. Help them deal with a sense of loss. The goal is to build something that fills a need, not to run it forever. All software has a lifecycle, some shorter than others.”

The goal, she said, is to focus on the process, not the outcome.  

Honesty is what creates a sense of safety.

Fear frequently prevents people from doing what it is right, even if they know on some level, however unconscious, that their choices are intended to protect them, not necessarily benefit the organization. This is true on every level of human life, and one of the reasons why we have problems like climate change that get completely out of control before we start to mitigate them in a significant way. True leadership is the willingness to step up and unequivocally point the way, while trusting that people will go in that direction. The problem is that in an uncertain landscape, people are less and less willing to do that, because if the direction is wrong, they don’t want to take the fall for having so passionately inspired it.

At Science House, we visualize business culture so it can be managed and transformed. Leadership teams will frequently identify a future direction with strong agreement. Rather than committing to a course of action based on their own articulated vision, the first impulse is very often to further socialize the concept for validation that it’s the right direction. They go off to talk to their teams, who go off and talk to their teams, and the context and vision often get completely lost in translation.

Then people report back after a lengthy game of telephone and leaders get skittish about their initial conviction. Instead of setting the tone for the future direction, they’ve spread the risk around to everyone without anyone actually taking significant risk.

This process takes much longer than clear articulation of the problem to invite input on how to solve it. Instead of asking for general input, as if people have full knowledge your motives and context and understand your vision, frame the need for input around a specific problem that needs to get solved.

Holding a session and inviting fifteen people who each have a different notion of how they’re expected to contribute opinions simply takes a huge amount of time and typically results in people digging their heels in to defend their own turf. This is a very predictable dynamic. Companies tend to justify it by saying that they are people-centric and want to make sure that every voice is heard.

There’s no point in having leaders if you’re going to waste time asking people who just want clear direction to come up with fifteen, twenty or twenty-five different versions of what should be one reality, subdivided into teams that are empowered to take risks as they get there.

The question isn’t whether or not you’re going from A to B. The question is: How are we going to get there? What challenges will we face along the way? How do we solve those challenges and maximize our opportunities?

Teams won’t abandon the habits holding them back unless they are empowered to take risks that make sense in context. If people are going to get punished for taking risks, they won’t.  

“Seek uncertainty,” Atkinson said. “It's where the future lies. Own the uncertainty. Change your relationship with the fear and terror. The best way to create the future is to invent it.”

Disclaimer: Google is a Science House client, but this is the first time I’ve ever met Astrid Atkinson and we have never worked together. This post is written entirely from my own observations of her talk and my own experiences with team building and culture.


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