Clarity and shared direction

Will Myddelton, product lead


I’ve joined Local Welcome as the product lead and my first task has been to bring clarity and shared direction to our team. This is because we are up against a ticking clock. Last year, The Big Lottery funded us to reach these ambitious goals over the next two years:

  • expand from 3 locations to 100 locations

  • become entirely self-funding through membership contributions

  • do this without growing our team beyond 7 people

7 people is a tiny team. We can only reach these ambitious goals if each of us is acting with autonomy, mastery and purpose. Purpose is easy because we all believe in the Local Welcome mission. Mastery is OK too because we’ve all had professional careers.

Autonomy is a beast though. It’s a beast because for autonomy to be useful we each need enough clarity about our shared direction to allow us to act independently.

Clarity comes from structure

So clarity is critical to high performing teams. Yet people usually have one of two responses when asked to provide clarity.

The first group shy away from clarity entirely. Maybe they don’t know how to be clear because they’re not clear themselves. Maybe they’re worried about committing to something that they will be held to later. Maybe they don’t want to be tied down to a particular direction because it feels too creatively limiting. I understand all of these impulses but the result is always the same - the people and teams end up pulling in different directions. This is not an effective way to work.

The second group over-embrace the clarity. They make detailed five-year plans. They break these down into years and quarters. They create SMART objectives and targets. They make big Gannt charts and assign tasks to people. They micromanage progress against these plans. Again, I understand these impulses but they end up being too rigid. People are forced to follow plans that have stopped making sense long ago. This is not an effective way to work either.

At heart, both responses are about how people feel about structure.

The first group are allergic to structure. The second group are too much in love with it. At Local Welcome we are looking for just the right amount of structure to give us clarity.

Our structures give us clarity...

If you walk into our office today these are the structures you’ll see on our walls.

Our goal for the next two years is to operate an impactful, inclusive ritual that is membership funded. Our hypothesis is that we’ll do this by running meals with refugees and local people in 100 locations with 10,000 members each paying £5 a month.

Our roadmap shows the sequence of things we need to enact this hypothesis. It starts off precise and gets vaguer further into the future. Our key performance indicators (KPIs) are things we track constantly to show our progress.

Our objectives and key results (OKRs) are more focused and only cover the next 3 months. Each key result only has a 50% chance of success so they stretch us. To keep us on track we have a quarter checklist that lists the 18 things we need to have ticked off to have a chance of achieving these key results.

Finally, our work-in-progress board shows our week to week work. It’s a list of cards that we’re working on in this sprint. Each team member works on one or two cards at a time. We refresh the list every two weeks.

Dream in years. Plan in months. Evaluate in weeks. Above all make sure that everyone in our tiny team of 7 knows what we’re doing now and how that links to the bigger picture.

...but our structures change as we learn

Fine. But what is the difference between this and making five year plans and micromanaging? Isn’t this all too rigid? Where is the ambiguity?

We avoid the rigidity trap by changing our structures as we learn things.

We update our work-in-progress board every two weeks. When things aren’t working we try new things. The board may change radically every two weeks but we still have clarity and shared direction.

We redo our roadmap, OKRs and quarter checklist every three months. Each time we re-plan the next two years based on what we’ve learned. We learn a lot in a quarter! Even though the roadmap and OKRs may change we still have clarity and shared direction.

We revise our goal, hypothesis and KPIs as soon as we know that they’re not useful. This obviously means revisiting everything else - roadmap, OKRs etc - because something fundamental has changed. But even if the hypothesis and goal change we still have clarity and shared direction.

Like any delivery organisation we face uncertainty and ambiguity. We don’t ignore this by sticking to unrealistic plans. Nor do we mirror this with uncertain and ambiguous internal communication. We embrace it by having clear structures that change as we learn.

Shared direction comes from doing this together

We want our tiny team of 7 people to work autonomously. I’ve learned that you can’t do this by creating these structures away from a team and presenting them back as a fait accompli. They just don’t buy into it.

So we built these structures together as a team in three sessions:

  • Jamie Arnold’s roadmap workshop. We put time intervals along the top (3 months, 3 months, 6 months, 12 months, 24 months) and topics down the side (prove/learn, measure, users, capabilities, assumptions, dependencies). We filled in what we needed to make the hypothesis work and argued over sequence.

  • Christina Wodtke’s OKR approach. We took the first three months of the roadmap and created one primary objective and three secondary objectives. Each of the four objectives had three key results which were specific, measurable and ambitious.

  • Pete Herlihy’s inception workshop. We modelled the ‘steel thread’ - the tiniest end-to-end service we could operate. From this we generated reckons, stuff to find out, rabbit holes, this is nots, scope and icebox. These turned into our quarter checklist.

Yes, this was a lot of work. I told you autonomy is a beast. Setting up a team to work on their own means spending lots of time working together upfront.

Clarity and shared direction is already working

We’re only part-way through this journey but I’m already seeing strong signs that working together on our structures has paid off:

  • Ben, our founder, has started making different decisions overnight based on his new appreciation of our shared direction

  • Claire, our comms person, has started conversations about what it’s going to mean to ‘hit the crazy numbers’ and her ideas are fire

  • Celia, our operations person, has started asking searching questions about whether her current priorities fit the roadmap

  • Andrew, our delivery person, has stopped a bunch of activities that he was doing because they no longer match the OKRs

  • Efe, our designer, has been hacking away at our Squarespace code because he (correctly) inferred that we’d need this new website

  • Davinder, our grant manager at The Big Lottery, started asking all the right questions about our work over the next six months

  • Our trustees took one look at the OKRs for the next quarter and sign them off based the clarity and the focus they bring.

The best thing? All of these things happened with no involvement from me. Seriously. I didn’t tell anyone to do these things. They just happened.

This is the promise of working on clarity and shared direction. Our tiny team of 7 people is in the process of becoming more than the sum of its parts. We are adding autonomy to our mastery and purpose.

So maybe, just maybe, our tiny team of 7 might hit our ambitious goals.

Will is the product lead at Local Welcome. Say hello on @myddelton.