Haplo Retrospective

This is a work in progress, last updated 2 Dec 2021. Send feedback or subscribe to updates.

Leadership

People are leaders through status, or through their actions. At Haplo, we built a team of leaders who lead by their actions.

Leaders with status act through authority. When I look at the world, I see that giving people authority is often a very bad idea.

We believed that good leaders will lead through their actions, by setting an example and creating the conditions for others to succeed. I use “good” in both senses of the word. A good leader is effective, but they’re also kind and have an entirely positive impact on their colleagues.

As founders, we had authority through our status of starting the company, our legal obligations as Directors of the company, and our interests as sole shareholders. But we tried to limit our use of our status to setting the values of the company, enforcing them, and ensuring good governance.

These self-imposed limits gave our colleagues opportunities to lead, because there was little difference in what the founders and the rest of the team could do in terms of leadership. Everyone had to lead by their actions.

This strategy was surprisingly effective. Because we had chosen our colleagues carefully, our team was made up of ambitious and capable people. It was fairly typical for a new colleague, within a year of graduating, to be leading the development of one of our products, working with clients, and making big changes to the way we worked.

Every decision you make about your company is interrelated. Expecting colleagues to lead, without the authority of formal positions and responsibility, can only work in a respectful workplace where everyone is valued and supported. And perhaps you can only truly respect and support someone if you give them the freedom to lead?

The nature of leadership

There are many aspects to leadership. While an emerging leader may only do a few of them, an established leader will need to do most, if not all.

Strategy and values

An organisation exists to achieve a goal. A leader must set a strategy and values which provide a framework for deciding what to do, and how it’s done.

This might be quite vague. At Haplo, our goal was to create some software that helped worthwhile organisations do things of value to society, and an exemplar workplace.

Our strategy was to ensure that our software was truly beneficial to every user in every role at our customers, fund the company entirely with a predictable revenue stream from a software-as-a-service product, and build a high-functioning team by embracing the diversity of the society we worked in.

Our values were to do it in the right way, so our impact was entirely positive for everyone involved, and we helped as many people as possible along the way.

To reinforce the strategy and values amongst our team, on a day to day basis:

Evidence-based decision making

The wider strategy and values are only a framework to make the right choices. The actual work is a series of small decisions that move towards the overall goals. A leader must gather evidence and understanding, and make decisions that are likely to succeed.

This was our starting point for enabling our colleagues to lead. As much as possible was delegated to those actually doing the work. Our role as founders was to create the culture that would guide people to make the right choices, and creating the processes which would identify and correct mistakes as quickly as possible.

The latter was important. Individuals will inevitably make mistakes, and if they’re not, it’s unlikely progress is being made. But a team as a whole shouldn’t make many mistakes, because an open culture enables everyone to see what’s going on, and light-weight processes ensure that everything is properly considered and reviewed.

On a day-to-day basis:

Communication to build consensus

A good team is unified in goals and actions. A leader should build this consensus by communicating strategy, values and decisions.

It’s not enough to state the conclusions and impose your will. The reasoning behind them is important. Can you really believe something is right if you don’t understand why the decision has been made? And will you be able to do your work well if you don’t believe in it?

Leaders at Haplo communicated in several different ways, depending on the scale of the decision and what it affected:

Embrace uncertainty

So much about business, the workplace, and the craft of writing software is uncertain. It is largely impossible to predict anything to any degree of accuracy, especially when it involves the decisions of people outside your organisation.

A leader must embrace this, and be comfortable with not being completely in control. Uncertainties must be communicated well and in advance, so that changes to the plan aren’t a surprise to anyone.

Removal of obstacles

One of our most important roles at Haplo was to remove obstacles which prevented our colleagues from doing their best work. A leader’s role is to make others more effective, and the easiest way to do this is by eliminating things which prevent them from being effective. The effort we put into this was repaid many times over.

There are many potential obstacles, so there was lots to do, including:

Let go, so others can lead

If you’ve got everything else right, you can step back a little to let your colleagues become leaders themselves, because you know you can trust them to:

We rarely asked anyone to lead. We just left space for them to do so, and encouraged them when they did. Our techniques included:

How this can go wrong

No organisation does everything perfectly, and Haplo was no exception. While we always upheld our values and maintained our standards, there were times when we didn’t execute as well as we’d have liked.

Pressure: This approach to leadership had the potential to put considerable pressure on our colleagues. Most of the time, it was a positive kind of pressure, as our colleagues could influence it and actually do something about it. However, when we were affected by external circumstances we weren’t able to control, this spilled over into short periods of stress for our team.

Supporting colleagues: Two way communication and support is essential. Having high expectations of a colleague’s performance and ability to get things done independently means that sometimes they won’t tell you when they need help. This is especially difficult where you’re working at a distance. There were a couple instances where I wish I had been much more proactive about digging into exactly what was going on and providing the support needed.

Scaling without hierarchy: We combined this leadership approach with an extremely flat hierarchy, because we thought it would make it easier for leaders to emerge naturally. This combination was hard to scale. When we were around 10 people, it worked extremely well. At 15, it was more difficult, and we started to put more effort into tools and process for communications. At 20 people, we reached the limit, probably because of the lack of hierarchy in the company more than the leadership approach. Our acquirer immediately put in place a small amount of hierarchy without interfering with the leaders, and things became much easier.


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