Hiring for continuous improvement

When I was CEO of Server Density I was always thinking about how I might be able to do my job better, and how we might operate better as a company. It felt like there were improvements to be made and new things to try.

Whether it was a new post on SaaStr, the latest book I read or something posted online by a company I admire, the idea of continuous improvement was a regular feature in my thinking about the company.

The most recent thing I’ve seen is Shape Up by Basecamp.

This book is a guide to how we do product development at Basecamp. It’s also a toolbox full of techniques that you can apply in your own way to your own process.

Whether you’re a founder, CTO, product manager, designer, or developer, you’re probably here because of some common challenges that all software companies have to face.

Shape Up, Introduction

Product and software development is challenging, especially when the business scales with more engineers. Most people know about agile and scrum but are they the most effective way of doing things? Projects are still late. Management still ask for engineers precise estimates. Engineers still get frustrated.

Having read much of Shape Up, there are principles there that I recognise from how we did things at Server Density, but also many new ideas that I would have liked to try. Their approach is exactly the kind of thing I would have considered proposing to my team.

That’s one way of introducing new ideas – having the CEO / Co-Founder suggest something. Often, a “suggestion” from the CEO is actually an “instruction”. It’s all very well having the authority of a company founder but it’s not always the best way to do encourage improvement. You need to be careful of forcing things through just because you’re the boss. One way to do this is to frame the discussion or proposal properly with the rest of the team e.g.

When I’m leading through a tough decision, I try to say, at the outset, “I want all of your opinions, but I’m going to be the one who ultimately makes the decision.” Or in some cases, I will say, “I don’t know if I’m the right decision-maker. I need help exploring what the decision vectors are, and I need all of your help. And then I will let you know how we’re going to make the decision once we’ve talked about it.” If you don’t give people that guidance, which is I think a common mistake, you’re likely to run into trouble.

High Growth Handbook, Elad Gil

Improvement as part of being a “good team”

In discussing some of the ideas in Shape Up with my co-founder, Harry, he made the good point that the real barrier to introducing change (even just experimentally) is often within the team itself. You have to get other team members to buy in (to the principles, or at least to the idea of trying new things). There is value in having process (even at a small company) so long as it helps rather than hinders the way people get things done.

Sometimes team members just don’t care or don’t understand why things are worth improving. They may not willing to put in the work to form an opinion or they may just be happy with the status quo.

This is different from team members not having the time or being so pressured there is no room for thinking about how they improve their workflow.

It’s also not the only thing that is important, and may only come up occasionally. There needs to be some predictability in daily work – you can’t be changing things all the time. The person who turns up with a new idea every day can become quite tiresome!

But equally, the definition of what makes a “good team” should include some degree of willingness to read, research and suggest ideas for how things could be better. Many other professions have the concept of Continuing Professional Development. It’s often a mandatory part of remaining qualified for the likes of lawyers and in many scientific or medical roles.

In a competitive industry, you want to find people who share a similar desire to improve workflows and outcomes for the whole team, not just working for their own selfish benefit.

How do you hire for continuous improvement?

This is a new realisation for me about what makes a good team. I’ve always has the luxury of the founder authority to propose ideas, but really you want the team to come up with their own suggestions for how they can improve their own work. The founder (or manager) can then support them in their experiment.

So what are some questions you could use in interviews when hiring for this characteristic, or at least an open willingness to consider new approaches?

  • In your own projects outside of work, how do you learn about new ways of doing things or improvements you could try out? This doesn’t have to be in programming, it could be in a different hobby, family life or their own approach to doing things. Good answers might show a range of sources for exploring new ideas e.g. blogs, reading, Twitter, journals, etc. You are looking for someone who is interested in their industry enough to review other ideas and opinions, and have sources of input they keep an eye on. It’s not the same as always staying up to date on the very latest technologies or frameworks – it’s more of a broad curiosity for their field in general.
  • What do you think of the processes at your current company? Where could they be improved? This question is looking for a critical awareness of how things work, what does/doesn’t operate well and, crucially, any ideas for improving things.
  • Tell me about a time you tried to change something at work. How did you approach it? Was it successful? You want people who have thought of ways to improve things and probably tried to get it implemented. Failure is not a problem if they understand why. And indeed, not suggesting changes is also a valid answer e.g. they may have felt they would have been ignored, or weren’t asked, or some other structural issue that prevented them from speaking up. Some people are more willing to put ideas out there than others, and will do it in different ways.
  • If you could design the ideal process for X, what would it be? Again, this shows they have thought about improvements and considered challenging how things are done. You may want to probe them on “ideal” vs “pragmatic”. It’s fun to discuss the perfect world but there are always constraints. It’s important to understand that.

We often think about technological change, improvement and progress in terms of the raw technology itself. Let’s not forget that it’s the human processes that actually get things done, using that technology. Don’t just get excited about the latest framework or cloud service, also think about ways to improve how things get written, delivered and deployed.