Principles - Guidelines for Your Team
How to Bring Autonomy and Alignment to Engineering Teams
Practical Engineering Management aims to provide a wide range of tools, actionable tips, and practical solutions for becoming an impactful and inspiring engineering leader. An interesting addition to a manager’s toolbox is the idea of principles. This entrepreneurial concept, often found in high-growth companies, guides their decision-making processes.
Are you interested in exploring other leadership essentials? Check my previous articles:
Let’s delve into how you can use principles in your role as an engineering leader. Here, you can find a cheat sheet PDF that sums this article up.
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What are Principles?
A company's mission and vision are often high-level and not easily translated into tangible actions and decisions. To keep the organization aligned, a company can promote a principled leadership culture. The concept of principles serves as a framework for decision-making and pursuing the company's strategy.
There are two notable sources of inspiration regarding principles:
Ray Dalio's "Principles" (link) - the unique approach to leadership outlined by the founder of Bridgewater Associates. Dalio's principles foster a culture of openness and continuous learning, where the best ideas prevail regardless of hierarchy. His principles are described in the book "Principles," which I highly recommend reading as a source of inspiration for work and life.
Stanford's course "Principled Entrepreneurial Decisions" (link) - a program that assists entrepreneurs in making difficult decisions as they grow their businesses based on personal values and principles.
According to Stanford's course:
The average adult makes around 35,000 decisions every day. Most of these decisions carry little to no weight (..). However, a select few of these decisions have the power to change your life, company, or even the world. When making these significant decisions, more often than not you are given inadequate information to make a clear, obvious choice. One of the most effective ways to navigate these difficult situations is to rely on your principles and values.
Example Principles from the Industry
In the latest Harvard Business Review (article: "It's Time to Define Your Company's Principles", Nov-Dec 2023), the authors discuss two visions of Twitter/X:
A global forum with clear content rules (Twitter under former CEO Jack Dorsey)
A platform focused on unbounded free speech (Twitter/X under Elon Musk).
This might seem like a clash of two billionaires, but from a strategic perspective, both leadership styles make sense and are likely rooted in the company's principles:
Old Twitter, reliant on advertising revenue, limits free speech to protect advertisers' images.
New Twitter/X, where revenue comes from subscriptions, grants more power and freedom to its users.
Although the principles behind these aren’t publicly shared, It’s not difficult to infer the differing values of Dorsey and Musk.
Let’s examine a few example principles from tech giants:
Google's "Focus on the User and All Else Will Follow": Emphasizing user-centric design, this principle inspires software engineers to prioritize user experience, ensuring intuitive and accessible products.
Amazon's "Working Backwards": This principle encourages engineers to think from the end-user's perspective and work backwards to ensure the product meets its intended goals.
Netflix's "Highly Aligned, Loosely Coupled": A principle of having teams that are aligned in their goals but loosely coupled in their execution can inspire software engineers to work autonomously while still contributing to the broader objectives of the organization.
Apple's "Privacy is a Fundamental Human Right": This principle reflects Apple's commitment to prioritizing user privacy in its products and services.
Facebook’s “Move Fast” and “Build Awesome Things”: Evolved from the original “Move Fast and Break Things”, and later „Move Fast with Stable Infra”, these principles focus on acting with urgency, continuously working to increase the velocity, and building things that are better than „good”.
These principles guide the operational and strategic approaches of these companies, shaping their internal processes, decision-making, and company culture. Moving beyond the tech sector, here are some of Ray Dalio’s principles focused on leadership and organizational management:
Radical Truth and Radical Transparency Dalio emphasizes the importance of honesty and transparency in the workplace. This involves encouraging open dialogue and sharing information openly to ensure all team members can make well-informed decisions.
Idea Meritocracy: In such a system, the best ideas win, regardless of who presents them. This approach values critical thinking and asserts that decision-making should be based on a synthesis of everyone’s best thinking.
Meaningful Work and Meaningful Relationships: Work should be meaningful, and building strong, honest relationships enhances both personal fulfillment and professional success.
Mistakes and Weaknesses as Opportunities for Learning: Mistakes and weaknesses are not embarrassments but opportunities for learning and improvement. Ray Dalio encourages a culture where making mistakes is part of the process, but repeating the same mistakes due to lack of learning is unacceptable.
Being Evidence-Based and Encouraging Independent Thinking: Dalio stresses the importance of being data-driven and evidence-based, rather than opinion-driven, in decision-making. He also encourages independent thinking to foster innovation and creativity.
Dalio’s principles have been fundamental to the success and unique culture of Bridgewater Associates.
Why You Need Principles
If your organization hasn't developed clear principles, don't let that stop you from creating them for your team. In a small company, this is an opportunity to lead by example and influence the entire organization.
In larger organizations, you might not have direct access to C-level management, and it can be hard to influence the entire company. But with effective principles, you can make your team autonomous and start influencing the ones who cooperate with you.
If you want to lead a high-performing team, you shouldn't tell people what to do, but rather use their expertise to solve problems and deliver value to customers.
Alignment and Autonomy
Principles provide alignment and autonomy for your team. Even with strong software engineers, there are countless ways to solve a problem. Principles guide decision-making without constant supervision. For instance, if considering an additional security layer for an API, Apple's principle of "Privacy is a fundamental human right" would make the decision a no-brainer. In contrast, Facebook's "Move fast" might lead to a more nuanced discussion.
While your team should be responsible for the "HOW" of a given challenge, your principles should provide them with a context on what matters the most in their work.
Focus on Key Problems
As a big fan of Richard Rumelt's "Good Strategy, Bad Strategy", I often use his framework to plan the "local" strategy for the team. According to Rumelt, a good strategy contains a clear diagnosis, alongside guiding policy and coherent actions.
Ideally when the strategy and its kernel come from the top (C-Level, Directors). But if it's unclear, you can also try to build your own diagnosis, e.g., by classifying your technical debt (read more: Ten Types of Technical Debt) or assessing product success factors (Four Factors Essential to the Success of Any Product).
When you know the key strategic challenge ahead of you (diagnosis), your principles should target solving this problem. They don't have to be super sophisticated. You can try with:
Quality Over Speed: each task assumes an extra 20% of work where engineers add tests to the implementation and improve product quality.
Smooth User Experience: every user-facing functionality follows "3 response time limits" (source). Access to data should be below 0.1s (e.g., API response time); each step in a flow cannot take more than 1s. All operations between 1s and 10s must be animated. Nothing can take more than 10s.
"Highly Aligned, Loosely Coupled" - Netflix's principle can be interpreted as building your service specialized in one thing, in loosely coupled architecture (e.g., if your primary challenge is a monolithic system).
Tableau's "We Won't Release a Product Until We Would Use It" - when you reach a certain level of excellence, keep this bar high. Ensure engineers use a product or play with it as if they were customers. Pay attention to details and address all glitches as soon as possible.
There Is Only One Priority - empower your teammates to push back if too many things are on their plate. Whenever it's not clear to them what the most important thing to focus on is, you owe them the answer. When they get new requests, they should demand clarity for "in cost of what?".
Balance Your Work and Life - in a high-pressure environment, you expect them to keep their working hours healthy. No after-hours tasks, but better prioritization and assertiveness.
Each of these principles is not a goal on its own. It's a guideline for strategic challenges you face, like resolving team distractions, improving their well-being, breaking down the monolith, excelling in the user experience, etc.
Create Your Own Principles
According to the Harvard Business Review article, there are three types of principles:
Stakeholder Principles: Best practices for managing relationships with customers, employees, and investors.
Organizational Principles: Principles shaping culture, organizational structure, and processes.
Operational Principles: Guidelines for daily activities and decision-making autonomy aligned with the company's mission.
Develop Your Operational Principles
As a first-level manager, you will likely focus on operational principles, so here's how you can start developing them:
Reflect on Personal Values: Start with a deep understanding of your own values and how they relate to your professional life. See how much they are aligned with the company's leadership style.
Identify Key Challenges: Determine the specific challenges and opportunities unique to your context. In an empowered organization, this will be driven by product strategy (e.g., what differentiates your company from competitors). You can do the exercise and check Four Factors Essential to the Success of Any Product and think about what it can be your strategy aligned with these factors. You can also identify key challenges based on Ten Types of Technical Debt or Top Ten Factors of Developers' Productivity.
Bring Team Together: Work with your teammates on some initial propositions for your principles, then do refinement to pick the final ones, and start adapting them. Try to align your principles with company goals, key metrics, mission, and values.
Write Principles Down: Make sure your principles are documented and available for everyone. Refer to them as often as possible - weekly team meetings, all-hands (e.g., when introducing your team), 1:1s, and an onboarding process. Documentation should contain more context and examples of how principles were used in the past.
Embed Principles in Decision-Making Process: Ensure that your principles are not just theoretical but are actively used in decision-making processes within your team and organization. When discussing difficult situations, refer to your principles to move forward.
Following these steps, you can develop principles that guide decision-making and foster a principled leadership culture within your team.
More Example Principles from the Industry
Here are more principles and values from the industry you can use as an inspiration (not all of them are up to date):
Amazon’s “Two-Pizza Teams”
Google’s “20% Time”
Apple’s “Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication”
LinkedIn’s “Act Like an Owner”
Playdom’s “A/B Test Everything”
Box’s “Access to All the Files and Information Needed to Work from Anywhere”
Sun Microsystems’ “Disagree and Commit”
Tableau’s “Don't Hire Talent from Old-School Companies”
Google’s “We Maintain Long-Term Focus”
Facebook’s “Maximize User Engagement”
Principles, as an entrepreneurial concept, are often used to run entire organizations and are typically discussed by C-level or senior management. However, I recommend experimenting with them at a local level, within your team or guild. Whether you’re in a high-growth company, part of an organizational transformation, or working for an early-stage startup, your principles can bring order to chaos and lay the foundation for an autonomous and high-performing team. With influence and credibility, your principles might even be adopted by the entire organization. Good luck with that!