I learned a lot during my time at AWS. One thing that I haven’t seen discussed much is how documented tenets can be used to structure a team’s path.
Tenets in this context are documented principles and beliefs that a team holds about itself, its users, and its products. They can be a useful guide for decision-making, and even the process of defining and phrasing the team’s tenets — and the ruthless prioritization needed to hit the expected limit of 5–7 — brings tremendous clarity. As with planning, the value is largely in the process, not the outcome!
Tenets can be set at the team level, the service level, or for smaller efforts and scopes that would benefit from directional clarity.
Writing good tenets is hard, and even tenured leaders often misunderstand the concept, losing some of the benefits.
A bad tenets list reads like a statement of values, a wishlist, simple priorities, or untethered aspirations. Our product will be fast, cheap, and available everywhere.
This blog post publishes some internal Amazon tenets (see the w.amazon.com links!).
A good example is from IoT:
Necessary offline operations: We help customers build systems in the cloud that work in predictable ways when connectivity is limited.
The point of writing up tenets is not to capture something that’s unambiguous or uncontested (products should be fast, the team should have a high bar for quality), nor to capture something that’s easily defined in some process doc or as a metric and thus does not require much human judgment. It’s to define a mental model for coping with conflicting priorities, to define a position in an exclusive value space, or to provide a mast to which a team under fire can tie themselves.
I’m sure it would be very convenient to tie some IoT capabilities to a network connection. Making a system work reliably with limited connectivity is hard and must be designed in from the start; it’s something that customers need help with; and it’s a requirement that engineering teams would love to drop! This tenet encodes an intention that steers decisions towards the inconvenient choice that’s right for customers.
Tenets like this are a statement in advance, while we still have the space and presence of mind to use good judgment, that we won’t do the expedient thing. It is a form of precommitment — the corporate equivalent of setting out your workout clothes the night before, because you know you won’t feel like exercising in the morning.
Accessibility is another good example. It’s important, it has top-down guidance in many product orgs, and yet teams will routinely sacrifice accessibility (and localization!) in order to hit a deadline, saying “yeah, well, accessibility is important, but of course we have to weigh it against shipping features…”.
A weak tenet like accessibility is important is strengthened by making it definite — our releases are always accessible to users of assistive technologies — or make the tradeoffs explicit: we prioritize accessibility over time to market, and will delay a release that doesn’t serve all of our customers.
A good tenet can capture discomfort and interaction patterns, too: we avoid excluding our remote teammates by making decisions asynchronously and with time for thoughtful comments, rather than in synchronous meetings. Again, there’s a tradeoff captured: that the team will go slower in order to be inclusive and make more measured decisions.
Other tenets can express an opinionated stance about product-market fit: our users are sophisticated and prefer detailed, accurate docs rather than vague marketing materials, or we accommodate our industry’s long sales cycles by treating trial users with the same priority as sold users.
At a leadership offsite my team tried an exercise: gather in small groups and write what you think the whole org’s tenets should be, then come together and discuss. The outcome was educational, if not surprising: many newer leaders wrote bad tenets; many wrote tenets that focused on the importance of their teams’ efforts, rather than the breadth of the business and our coordinated long-term success; and few wrote tenets that surfaced the essential tensions between their own priorities and those of other managers. This exercise is time well spent if you can spare an hour, but be prepared to work through the disagreements about what really matters for your teams!