The waterline

This one is a very short framing, but hopefully, it’s still useful. Whenever we operate in environments that look like pace layers (and when don’t they?), there emerges a question of relative velocity. How fast am I moving relative to the pace layer where I want to play?

If the environment that surrounds us is moving slower than our team’s velocity, we will feel overly constrained and frustrated. Doing anything appears to be laden with unnecessary friction. On the other hand, if the environment is moving faster than us, we’ll feel like a tractor on an autobahn: everyone is zooming past us. Whenever something like this happens, this means that our relative velocity doesn’t match the velocity of the pace layer in which we’ve chosen to play.

This mismatch will feel uncomfortable, and there is a force hiding behind this discomfort. This force will constantly nudge us toward the appropriate layer.

If, after working in a startup where writing hacky code and getting it out to customers quickly was existential, I join a well-structured team with robust engineering practices and reliability guarantees, I will feel the force that constantly pushes me out of this team – the “serious business” processes will aggravate the crap out of me.

Conversely, if I grew up in a large company where landing one CL a week was somewhat of an achievement, joining a small team of rapid prototypers may leave me in bewilderment: how dare these people throw code at the repo without any code reviews?! And why does it feel like everyone is zooming past me?

Similarly, every technology organization has a waterline. Everything above this waterline will move at a faster pace than the organization. Everything below will be slower.

If this organization decides to enter the game at the faster-pace layer, they will see themselves being constantly lapped: new, better products will emerge faster than the team can keep up with. We would be still in the planning stages of a new feature while another player at this layer already shipped several iterations of it.

Similarly, the organization will struggle applying itself effectively at the lower pace layers. We would ship a bunch of cool things, and see almost no uptick or change in adoption or usage patterns. Worse yet, our customers will complain of churn and instability, choosing more stable and consistent peers over us.

No matter how much we will want to play above or below our waterline, we’ll keep battling the force that nudges us toward us. We might speak passionately about needing to move faster and innovate, and be obsessed with speed as a concept – but if our team is designed to move at a deliberate pace of a tractor, all it will be is just talk.

When an organization is aware of its waterline, it can be very effective. Choosing to play only at the pace layer where the difference in relative velocity is minimal can be a source of a significant advantage in itself: the organization can apply itself fully to solving the problem at hand, rather than battling the invisible force that nudges it out of the pace layer it doesn’t belong to.

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