Category Archives: Culture

Escalation as Tie-Breaker

By Christian Kaiser

In my previous post, I described how teams can remove obstacles by clearly defining who makes decisions for every area of responsibility in the team. The method includes assigning stakeholders who need to agree on every decision in the area.

An interesting aspect of it is that all stakeholders have the same level of authority over an area, i.e. all need to agree (or at least not disagree) in order to make a decision.

So what happens when the stakeholders do not agree?

I’ve observed teams become stuck when the decision is not being made and the dispute is just left standing. That is never a good option.

On other occasions, people have been more inventive and gotten things moving again, but not without breaking some rules. For example, I’ve seen one side just silently get going on the controversial project, thus creating irreversible facts. On the upside, the team can move on. On the downside, this behavior will undermine trust in the organization.

Why might intelligent people who belong to the same organization disagree?

Most likely, both sides have excellent reasons for their stance based on the context they have. For example, there may be insufficient or outdated context that needs to be communicated to one or both sides. Or perhaps the disagreement has exposed a question that no one had thought about thus far.

These situations clearly requires communication to, and action from people with the necessary context and authority. Simply put, the boss decides. After all, it is part of their job description!

Here’s how it can work: In case of a stakeholder stalemate, the next higher layer of the organization is informed and asked to make the decision (the “escalation”).


Ideally, that is just one person, but if there is no immediate common boss, it may be multiple people (e.g. the respective department heads). If these bosses do not agree either, the matter is escalated further. If needed, all the way to the top.


Doing so exposes the disagreement to a larger portion of the organization. That may come with discomfort. However, if all the obvious routes have been explored and the conflict is in fact due to a disconnect at a larger scale, it is the right thing to do and should be encouraged in every way possible.

Best Practices

So how does a boss help their team to make a decision? Three steps:

#1: The conflicting parties must give the boss the full pros and cons of the decision at hand. It is important that the boss fully understands them and demonstrates that understanding. If she fails to do so, it may create frustration and loss of trust (“I’m not surprised she decided the other way, she did not even listen to me / understand my proposal”).

#2: She then needs to make the decision.

#3: Last but not least, she needs to communicate why she made the decision this way. The reasons can actually range from “coin flip” to “judgment call” to “logical conclusion”. It’s important that there is an explanation so that people don’t have to make up one. The made-up explanation is typically a lot more dramatic than the real one!

At the end of the process, everybody can move on, knowing that a needed decision has been made. The party whose proposal was not chosen can rest assured that they have been heard and their reasoning was fully taken into account.

Potential Problems

What if people don’t know they’re expected to escalate, or are afraid to?

This is a common problem. The boss must re-iterate their readiness for escalation often, and avoid emotional behavior when it happens. A simple eye roll will discourage people strongly! And since escalation doesn’t come naturally in many organizations, the boss should actively explore her blind spots, find out when escalations that should be happening are not, and teach the team when to seek her out for decision making.

What if the boss is not making the decisions she needs to make?

In that case, the boss is failing her team. Perhaps it’s time for the team to escalate the inaction to the next level up.

What if the boss deals with escalations a lot, and it’s taking too much time?

First and foremost, making decisions is a crucial part of the duties of a manager, and should be highest priority, especially if progress is blocked. However, one clearly would want to minimize the occurrence of escalations.

Some common reasons for escalations and how to address high frequency occurrences:

  • Lack of context in the teams – probably the most common reason. The remedy is to diagnose the disconnect and communicate the resolution.
  • Unclear responsibilities – another form of lack of context. See above and my last post.
  • Conflicting personal motivations –  this is the hardest to diagnose and fix. For example, Bob is pushing for a decision because it will help get him promoted, even though it may not be the best for the company as a whole. It takes grit and determination to address these problems, especially in bigger companies.

What if decisions are regularly escalated so highly up the hierarchy that it’s difficult for the boss’s boss’s boss to know enough details to make a good decision?

It may be time to think about changing the structure of the organization, e.g. by creating a “common boss” lower in the hierarchy.


As part of a series of articles on organizational health and best practices, we’ve looked at escalation, an often underused method to reach quick decisions and resolution of larger disconnects.

In my next article, I’ll use these principles as a foundation for best practices for rapid technical innovation in teams of any size.

My Master Plan: Make it Up as You Go Along

By, Julie Pitt

“Where do you want to be in five years?” We’ve all been asked this question in a job interview. If you’re like me, you probably made something up on the spot about ascending into leadership, or expanding your skillset. I have a confession to make. I loathe this question. Honestly, I don’t know what I’m doing. I have never had a plan.

When I really examine this question and how it relates to my success, I can confidently say that lack of a plan has never been a problem for me. I distinctly remember when I left my last government job to take a position at Netflix. My boss at the time told me: “you will go to industry, get burned out, and be ready to return and become a Civil Servant.” The opposite happened. Within a few months of joining Netflix, I overcame the feeling that I was out of my league. I became energized, realizing I was capable of things I never thought possible.

Still, if someone told me at the time that I would someday start a company, the last thing I’d say would be “yep, that’s my master plan.” I would have told them that such a move “just isn’t in my nature.” And yet with every career move since, I have ventured into the unknown and come out the other end resembling more of an explorer and less of a comfort seeker.

Maybe that is why I feel like now is the right time to start a company.

The Next Phase

It is no secret that most companies fail. Overconfidence and optimism are well documented in entrepreneurs who delude themselves into thinking that unlike most people, they will be successful. I claim that I am only slightly delusional. I accept that I am entering into this venture against extreme odds. However, if the only thing I walk away with is an exciting adventure and the wisdom of hindsight, I will feel as if my time was well spent.

At a personal level, I want to know, is this “it” for me? Is there an “it”? My gut says no, but only time will tell. Since humans like me easily forget moments of sentiment and determination, I shall lay out a series of testable hypotheses that I can assess as we form and evolve our company. I admit that most of the “testing” will be subjective. My hope is to counteract the human tendency to fit an explanation to past events, by making predictions before those events unfold. Before diving into those, let me set the stage.

The Partners

My two co-founders and I have worked together closely at two companies in the past, over a span of 6-8 years. We have observed each other’s successes, but have also worked through problems together under extreme stress and pressure. We have a good idea of our individual strengths and quirks, and have given one another very candid and sometimes painful feedback. Fundamentally, we are starting from a mutual basis of trust founded on years of experience working together.

All three of us have some runway in the form of personal funds, where we can each go for some time without a paycheck. This allows us to start without external funding. We all have very marketable strengths from our past industry experience, such that we can advise other companies on building successful products, avoiding pitfalls along the way. Given the immediate demand for our expertise, consulting is our primary business.

At the same time, we are all passionate about developing an innovative product that people will love. We don’t yet know what that will look like. Our current strategy for exploring this space is to set aside time for R&D projects that will yield a clear signal on which direction to go. Admittedly, it can be extremely difficult to balance these efforts against a growing consulting business, so one open question is whether we can pull this off.

Business Hypotheses

Within the above context, I make the following predictions.

Hypothesis: If each partner has motivations that are aligned, all will act in the best interest of the company. Nobody will try to “cheat” and nobody will feel shortchanged.

This one especially applies to small startups. I want to make the distinction that when forming a partnership, it is unreasonable to expect that everyone will contribute equally in all areas. This means that assuming you have the right mix of people and strengths, each person will contribute those strengths and that as a whole, nobody feels like they are pulling extra weight. If it feels like someone is slacking off, the question should be why. I would posit that the reason most assuredly comes down to that person’s motivations no longer aligning well with those of the other partners.

Hypothesis: Having a sane and disciplined process for evolving company vision and strategy is more important than having “the right” vision and strategy.

In essence, you don’t know what you don’t know, and that’s OK. I believe it is best to acknowledge what you know and what you don’t, form a strategy based on available information, but quite quickly adjust as more information is available. What I’m stressing here is that the governance process for evolving a vision and strategy is more important than having the right ones from the beginning.

Hypothesis: Exploring open-ended problems in time-boxed increments with measurable achievements can lead to innovative solutions that ultimately provide business and/or consumer value.

When exploring an unknown space in a business setting, some questions are bound to come up. Is this a fruitful path to explore, or is it a dead end? If it is a fruitful path, how long will it take? Usually these questions don’t have answers, especially at the beginning.

I claim that the best approach when embarking on an expedition like this is to put checkpoints on the calendar, in advance, to assess whether to kill the project, keep going, or make a course correction. A goal or testable hypothesis should be set for each time increment and assessed at each checkpoint. Even if it’s as simple as “I will have a working vocabulary of technology XYZ in 1 week”, your ability to decide what to do next after 1 week will be dramatically improved.

Hypothesis: The business will unwind gracefully and amicably if the exit is discussed and agreed to in writing at the outset.

This prediction is based on advice I have heard from a number of entrepreneurs and professionals. Even when you are working on the basis of mutual trust, talk through all the ways your business can spontaneously combust and decide how to handle them before emotions and tensions of the situation are involved. In other words, let your thinking brain decide, rather than your emotional brain.

Hypothesis: Giving something away spreads the seeds of serendipity far and wide. Most of those seeds will wither and die, but some will bloom in surprising ways.

To prove this one, all I need to do is provide an example of what I judge to be a fortuitous encounter, relationship or other windfall that results from this blog. Another question that has come up between the three of us is, how much free advice should we give before engaging a client? My stance is that we should not worry about this. If a 20 minute conversation with a prospective client solves all their problems, we should feel good that we helped them. It would also be a signal that either their problems aren’t that challenging or our advice isn’t as valuable as we think it is.

Hypothesis: Growing a company very slowly means you can work sane hours and have a life.

This is one of those questions I have wrestled with for years. I have a natural tendency to immerse myself in whatever I am doing. I know that to be a healthy person for the long term, I need to balance that with family, fitness, hobbies and other pursuits. On top of that, commuting to the Silicon Valley is horrendous for me and I’m not interested in moving. Can I work a normal workday and still create a successful business?

On the growth side, I often wonder how much of the urgency of delivering something quickly is manufactured by CEOs and leadership. It seems that at any particular moment, “the time is right and we must act now.” I believe that nimbleness and maneuverability are keen advantages in just about any business, but moving quickly in an unfocused way will lead to burnout with no real gain. Does a company really need to grow quickly to be successful?

Hypothesis: Enlisting the help of a good lawyer and accountant at the outset will save a ton of headache.

To prove this hypothesis, I need to produce an anecdote in which the advice of one of these professionals averted a major snafu. I am almost certain this will happen.

Hypothesis: It is possible to build a successful consulting practice while doing R&D for product development. The business can successfully transition from one to the other, or sustain both.

I am the least certain about this one. I have heard from other friends who have done consulting that sales and marketing eventually soak up much of one’s time when building up a client base. From my experiences so far, I can easily believe this. The delusion creeps in here because I must believe that somehow “it will be different this time.”


Some of these hypotheses will become evident quite quickly, and some will take months, if not years to be more or less conclusive. I will endeavor to give updates on these as events unfold. It is also more than likely that I will realize that the formulations of some of these hypotheses missed the mark, or that there are other ones that are truly relevant. At least now I have a starting point from which to compare my experience.

Who’s Responsible For What?

By Christian Kaiser

Imagine everyone in your company or department knowing exactly whom to invite or not to invite to any given meeting. Imagine decisions being made without delay because everybody who needs to be in the room consistently is, and the total number of people in the room is always as small as it can be!

In my experience, there’s no better way to accelerate a project than by being crisp about who’s responsible for what, who needs to be involved when and how, and who doesn’t.

I found that a RACI-like method (applied quite informally) works well. It’s a usually quick and simple exercise, with a very high return on the time spent.

I’ll walk through the steps in the following sections:

Determining Areas of Responsibility

First, you will need to define the “areas of responsibility” you want clarity on.

The areas you use for your exercise can be as coarse or fine-grained as needed though, as long as everybody knows where the areas begin and end. To keep it simple, I like to start with few coarse areas and only split and refine when needed (i.e. if there’s a different assignment of roles needed for a sub-area).

Let’s use an example: is a fictional small startup of a handful people. Everybody’s wearing a number of big hats, and their areas of responsibility are rather coarse: “Sales”, “Finance”, “Engineering”, “Marketing”.

As’s business grows, they hire additional people. They now have James, a sales executive. Mike, one of the founders, still works directly with a few key clients who he has a personal relationship with. In order to reflect that, the group split the “Sales” area into “Sales (client X and Y)” and “Sales (everyone else)”.

The company also hired a great product manager, Sean. Now “Product” becomes a new area of responsibility that is separate from Engineering.

To record things for discussion purposes, I like to put them into rows in a spreadsheet, like so:


NB: Google Apps seems particularly well-suited for this purpose because it allows collaboration between multiple contributors, plus no documents are passed around in email, creating confusion about which one’s the right one and how to merge.

Assigning Roles

Then you need to assign roles for the appropriate people in the team, in each area. Start with putting the names of people on top of columns to the right, like so:


Assigning the roles is quite simple, since there are only a small number of roles to choose from. Here are the ones I use:


The person in this role drives the whole area of responsibility forward. It could be simply someone who actually does the actual hands-on work, or a delegate like a program manager, team manager etc., if a whole team covers this area. This is the person who drives the decision process and calls the meetings. Please note that ownership means just that, and does not include final decision authority.

There can only be one owner for each area of responsibility. If you find yourself thinking about creating multiple owners for some area, think about whether your should split the area instead.


A person in this role needs to agree when decisions in this area are made. Owners are also stakeholders by definition. Stakeholders are mandatory attendees to decision making in this area. If they cannot make it, they must send a delegate with decision authority. Or in other words, no decision that affects the area can be made without them.

There should be as few stakeholders as possible to be able to make decisions quickly. Ideally, there’s just one: the owner. But for a variety of reasons, many organizations choose to have more than one pair of eyes on the area.

Before assigning someone stakeholdership or asking for stakeholdership yourself, ask yourself whether the team could instead find ways to trust the owner or other existing stakeholders to make decisions. After all, stakeholdership comes with a commitment of time and focus. For example, the team might decide instead to increase the owner’s level of context by training them, or by bringing them into conversations they’re not part of yet.

Informs decision

People in this role are invited to meetings or are otherwise consulted when decisions need to be made. They are not mandatory attendees at decision meetings and are also not required to agree with a proposal.

To the contrary, if you find that you would like someone to be mandatory attendee to decision making meetings, they should probably be a stakeholder.


This is actually a very important role. Someone with this role in a particular area is not involved, e.g. not invited to the decision making meetings, therefore does not need to spend time and can focus fully on other areas. You’ll want to maximize the number of these.


In case you’re missing a role along the lines of “informed”: I like to simplify by not calling such a role out separately. In most small to medium size organizations, the default for this role should be “everyone”, at least for opt-in information channels.

Some people may argue that everyone in their organization already knows what each others’ role is, and that might certainly be true in their case. However, I have found it to be false in most cases. Specifically, it is often very difficult to organically disperse this knowledge crisply when new people come on board.

I was often surprised about how many disconnects were exposed after writing things down and discussing it with the people involved. For example, multiple people might think they’re the owner, or, even worse, it turns out that no one thinks they own a particular area.

Responsibilities are expressed as field colors at the intersection of people and areas of responsibilities. Pick your own color scheme! I’m using RED for owner, GREEN for stakeholder and YELLOW for informer.

Here’s’s matrix:


You’ll notice that it is not only clear how the roles are distributed in a particular area (horizontal), but also which hats and how many of them everyone wears (vertical).

I’ve seen very productive reality checks come out of this exercise, e.g. when someone realizes they cannot really own two major areas and be stakeholder in three more, or that a certain area has too many stakeholders. It’s often satisfying for the team to mutually agree on “downgrading” someone’s role, e.g. from “stakeholder” to “informs”, or even to “none”, because it likely translates into increased focus for the other (probably no less important) roles, and into faster decision making overall.

In our example, Mike, as a founder, started out wanting to be a stakeholder in all the areas, but then realized that he would be content (and already very busy) with informing Finance and Marketing decisions, and not being involved in Engineering decisions at all.

Communicating It

When the group is satisfied with the result, it’s time to communicate it to whoever needs to know (probably everybody). How you do that is up to you.

Since the semantics do need some explaining to folks who have not been part of the exercise, I’ve found it useful to go over the details with the team and have extensive Q&A rather than just attaching it to an email to all@.


  • There’s often confusion about responsibilities, especially over time and through team changes
  • A rather simple and short exercise can provide clarity and focus
  • It allows to define the nature of involvement crisply
  • The team can agree upon a efficient distribution of responsibilities after careful deliberation

Next Time

You may have noticed that I did not touch on what happens when stakeholders disagree. How can a decision be reached in that case? I will cover best practices around this in my next post.