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A management tool for early-stage projects.
New teams working on innovative projects can benefit from weekly or fortnightly sprints in which a rotating single team-member, never the boss, delivers a deck to the full team and high-stakes external stakeholders. The deck tells the story of the whole team’s work and why it is important, and evolves as the project is refined.
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When used well, Share-Outs build fellowship between team-members, decrease the costs of tactical shifts during the development phase, and reduce information gaps across the team. Share-Outs of this type have a large time cost, and so should only be used in the early phase of projects, where entropy is at its greatest.
This is a guide to the Share-Out, a tool I have used to help build teams and simplify work during the chaotic early stages of a project. The challenges in managing teams at this point in the cycle are radically different from the challenges of managing teams on mature projects. Some important differences include:
Tool 1: everyone gives the pitch, and develops a common language
During Schmidt Futures’ startup phase, the early team experimented with several different approaches to funding before coming to the decision to embrace talent as its core organizing principle. Our CEO Eric Braverman was faced with the challenge of aligning staff behind it. The approach he used was to run a series of workshops in which all staff gave the Schmidt Futures strategy pitch to all other staff, in their own voices. Other staff were then asked to give feedback, and the pitches were developed and delivered again.
The purpose of this approach was
To generate two-way feedback: the strategy was to be informed by the creativity of the people implementing it, as much as it should help to focus the team’s work.
To drive a sense of strategic alignment across the team, narrowing the questions of debate substantially.
To genuinely involve the whole team, without regard to the individual’s role, in shaping the way we tell our story.
Relative to the Share-Out approach below, it was a low-lift effort. Each staff member spent perhaps 2-3 hours over the sprint developing, delivering, watching and giving feedback on pitches. Yet it developed a common lexicon between staff and supported the shift to our talent-centric culture now, as new staff were onboarded and exposed to the language. It also helped teams reframe their work within a coherent strategy—leading to the development of some of our most high-performing talent programs.
Tool 2: everyone works on a personal narrative of the value of their work to the team’s mission
A second similar tool I came across a little later was @seanjtaylor’s, described below in the original thread:
Tool 3: The evolving all-hands deck
A very common tool in early-stage startups is an all-hands deck, given by the CEO and division leads every month or so. The deck has fixed sections (for example: progress against OKRs, product launches, fundraising, sales, finance, hiring), and the responsibility for delivering each section lies with the respective division lead and their staff. For example, Head of People owns the “hiring” section, which might be delivered during the all-hands by an up-and-coming junior staff member as a development opportunity.
All-hands decks are relatively low-cost and greatly facilitate information-sharing across the organization. The members delivering each section know their area intimately, so the quality of information is high. And they help set internal incentives by reporting against OKRs at a regular cadence.
This tool seems most suitable once the project is becoming mature: the team knows what problems they’re trying to solve, and roles and responsibilities are understood. It can be tempting to try using a similar tool during the early stages of a project, and while this is probably better than nothing, I don’t think it resolves the main challenges in early-stage teams.
The Share-Out is suited to early-stage projects where entropy is at its greatest: the (relatively small, say 4-12) team is new and haven’t formed deep trust; different team-members have different narratives of the nature of the problem or work being done, which changes often; and the team is experimenting with many approaches at solving the problem and will necessarily end some. It has a large time-cost, and is not suited to teams where these issues do not exist.
The Share-Out works like so:
The boss sets a sprint cycle (maybe weekly or fortnightly) and assigns a single team-member to own each sprint.
The boss books a series of full-team meetings for a fixed period (say, Friday mornings for the first 3 months), and invites high-stakes external stakeholders to each call. These stakeholders should be those likely to ask good questions and ensure anyone assigned to deliver the deck has a good reason to practice the delivery.
The boss should also book short debrief sessions after the call, to elicit feedback from the team on how the presentation went, and invite changes for the next cycle.
In the first sprint, the boss and the first assigned team-member creates a deck designed to capture the story of the team’s work. In following weeks, this deck is updated by the assigned team-member, perhaps in consultation with the boss. Various frameworks could be used to structure the deck, for example the Heilmeier Catechism. The deck is not a list of activities or progress against OKRs, though it should capture the work of everyone on the team and where it fits in the greater picture.
During each sprint, the assigned team-member spends a few days interviewing each other team-member to ensure that their work is accurately captured in the deck, and updating if necessary.
On the two days prior to the full-team Share-Out, the assigned team-member lines up practice sessions with a number of their colleagues, who provide feedback on the presentation.
On the Share-Out day, the assigned team-member delivers the full presentation and Q&A on behalf of the full team, to the team and external stakeholder. This call is followed by a short debrief with the internal team only, and perhaps a 1:1 feedback session with the boss and assigned team-member.
This cycle is repeated each sprint, with the deck evolving to capture the work of the team.
What does the Share-Out achieve?
Team-members learn about their colleagues’ work deeply, and are incentivized to advocate for it
Unlike the evolving all-hands deck described above, a single team-member delivers the full story of the team each sprint. This means they need to get quite familiar with their colleagues’ work. Yet the real magic happens because of the external stakeholders that are invited to each Friday Share-Out. This shifts incentives: those whose work is being described by the assigned team-member have an incentive to (a) make sure that it is understood by their colleague and (b) ensure that their work has obvious value to the team’s project. Likewise, the assigned team-member wants their team’s work to be looked on favorably by the invited stakeholder, and so becomes an advocate of their colleagues’ work.
The team develops a common story and information gaps between colleagues are small
The evolving deck necessarily captures an internal team language that very quickly gets shared by the team. The team also has several opportunities each sprint to hear about (or describe) the work of their colleagues, drastically reducing the gap in information about what is happening across the team.
Reduced cost of tactical shifts
A large cost for managers of teams working at the very early stages of a project—say, before the team finds product market fit, or even agrees on the true problem they’re trying to solve—is that the manager will need to kill various initiatives, or shift the whole team in a new direction. This can create a sense of chaos and cause a general anxiety for the team. In one case, a friend’s project had several tactical shifts, leading his (excellent) team to feel disconnected from the project. They all resigned.
Share-Outs are not a panacea for this problem, but can help bring the team along as new information arrives. Team-members get high-frequency data about what aspects of the team’s work play well, and what do not. This can help reduce the costs of pivots.
Invariably, the first few decks produced by the team will be fairly low quality. Yet as the deck evolves and the story is refined, it should become a powerful artifact for the team’s work. I still use one deck we developed using this method for presentations quite regularly.
Increased engagement and performance of the team
A few months into the first Share-Out cycle I managed, my boss gave me feedback in our 1:1 “I have never seen a team that more resembles a cult than yours does Jim.” She meant it as a joke, but she wasn’t a million miles off: the team felt deeply connected to their work, were performing exceptionally well, and had an emotional bond with each other that I’d never seen before. A big part of this, I reckon, was that the process forced the team to empathize and advocate for each other’s work. This builds trust and connection, quickly.
When you shouldn’t use the Share-Out
The Share-Out is incredibly costly. The assigned team-member will spend perhaps 20 hours during their sprint managing the process. Other team-mates will have 2-3 hours a week taken up by it. Given the value of doing work during the initial phases of a project, this has a large opportunity cost. Yet the costs of entropy for many early stage projects easily exceed those time costs: a team rowing in different directions, each only partly knowing what their colleagues are up to, and without a common language or team spirit. An investment early on in telling the team story can make all the difference.
My role is to support new initiatives within Schmidt Futures, and I’ve had several opportunities to implement the Share-Out. I haven’t always done so. Each time that we’ve used the Share-Out to align a team at the beginning, it has felt like a good investment. And each time I’ve delayed implementing it (or worse, put it on pause because “real work” has gotten in the way), I’ve regretted it. While the time costs of this method are high, so too are the costs of unbridled entropy.
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