Questing, Scaling, Keeping

I’ve written a couple of takes on this before, but they didn’t feel quite right, so here’s another iteration. Keep that rewrite count ticking! It seems that there are some distinctions that I can draw when looking at the missions of teams, whether hidden or stated.

The first kind of mission is the one I call questing. This is the mission of discovery and pioneering. A questing mission usually involves going into the wilderness with a good chance of never being heard from again. Questing folk cheerfully accept this possibility, soaking up the thrill.

The second kind of mission is scaling. Here, the team is asked to make something go big. There’s usually already some momentum, some flywheel that’s in place, and the team needs to ride it and not fall off in the process. Scaling missions can feel a bit like catnip  — strong feedback loops within the flywheel create clarity and sense of direction, making it a game of skill: challenging, yet ultimately predictable.

The keeping kind of mission is all about preserving the value, to guard and to protect. There’s usually a treasure of some sort, and the team is asked to ensure that the treasure remains intact. Be that a key metric or some critical infrastructure, the keeping folk will make darn sure it stays the way it’s supposed to be.

Each of these missions has a different set of values. Questing missions value learning. You might fail, but you better live to tell us about what works and what doesn’t. Scaling missions value shipping. If it didn’t make the number go up, it didn’t happen. Keeping missions value predictability: “you can promise, but can you guarantee it?”

In a large organization, there are usually teams that contribute in different ways: some are questing, some are scaling, some are keeping. The mix of teams’ missions will reflect the overall mission of the organization. In a keeping organization, there will be fewer questing teams. In a questing organization, fewer keeping. The relationship between the mix and the overall mission seems bidirectional: just like a questing organization will discourage the emergence of keeping teams within it, it might have a hard time changing its mission given its current mix. For example, no matter how hard an organization wants to endeavor on the scaling mission, if most of its teams are questing, it will remain a questing org.

And that’s another twist to the story: team missions shift as they make progress — and these shifts rarely get the attention they deserve. If by some chance a questing team hits the motherlode, it will need to rapidly transform into a scaling team. These changes are often painful, and cause polarization. I once (it was a long time ago) had gotten rather frustrated with a lead on our team. We hit non-linear growth and desperately needed to optimize, to improve quality, performance, add features — and he wanted to pursue a whole new kind of idea! “I am more of a v1 type of guy,” he explained. I was miffed. Back then, I didn’t realize that folks have mission preferences. Just like team missions influence organizational mission, each of us will often have a preference for the mission, influencing capabilities of the team. As the team mission shifts, we are asked to grapple with the question whether this new mission matches our individual preferences. And when it doesn’t, we might be heading for another kind of crisis.

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