The Secret to High Performing Organizations

Written by: Brian Dawson

4 min read

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To learn more about how high performing organizations do what, listen to Episode 80 of DevOps Radio.

I’ve always been intrigued by high performing organizations. Not just the big ones – the Amazons and Netflixs of the world – but up-and-coming enterprises, like Stitch Fix, a startup that is transforming the clothing industry using algorithms and data science to make highly personalized outfits. What makes them so successful? What’s their secret?

For the last three decades, Randy Shoup has enjoyed a front-row seat at more than a few high performing organizations – yes, including Stitch Fix and WeWork, both where he served as VP of Engineering. Earlier in his career, he led engineering teams at Google, Oracle and eBay, among other high-tech standouts. 

High Performing Organizations Do These Key Things

“My experience is that high performing companies, whether they're small or large, set really well-defined goals,” Randy told us in a recent episode of DevOps Radio. “They clearly express the problem they’re trying to solve and define the value they’re providing to customers.” (As GM’s renowned head of research Charles Kettering famously said, 'A problem well stated is a problem half solved.")

When it comes to software delivery, Randy says, one of the keys to high performance is giving individual teams a lot of autonomy and accountability. “Think of the classic startup where everybody fits around a conference table,” he says. “The rules are fluid, but we're all trying to get the same thing done together.”

That principle applies to the very biggest companies. Google’s engineering organization employs more than 50,000 engineers, for example, but it doesn’t act like a 50,000-person unit, Randy says. “It behaves like 10,000 individual five-person teams, with a whole ecosystem connecting them. At the team level, everybody still fits around a conference table – or at least virtually does – and they're all working essentially on one thing.”

Companies that are successful over the long term figure out how to preserve this tight-knit, small-group feeling at a progressively larger scale, Randy says. “You should always be able to say, ‘This is a little startup, and my team is responsible for this particular experience, whether it's for internal or external customers.’” 

There is Strength in Diversity

High performing teams are typically made up of people with a mix of skills – not just engineering. "The best organizations don't think of themselves as an engineering team that also has other people,” he says. "They see themselves as a team that also does engineering.” You might have people who generate the ideas, others who design and build the product, and still others who focus on understanding customer needs and figuring out the product roadmap. 

“Imagine a startup that only has engineers and nobody else,” Randy says. “It's just not going to last for too long. You need all the skill sets in there.”

What’s more, when you design teams that include a diversity of talent, you empower them to function independently, accelerating value delivery. “It allows teams to have really tight feedback loops and keep moving,” Randy says. 

Bringing 100 Percent to Work 

What else helps teams perform at the highest level? When Google studied the question, they assumed that the high performing teams would be those with the most tenure at the company, the most PhDs or the most industry experience. Well, it turns out that none of those factors matter very much. What really makes a difference is creating a “psychologically safe” organization. 

In a nutshell, psychological safety means that people should be able to bring their “whole selves” to work and feel comfortable without fear of negative consequences. “Whether it’s your racial identity, gender identity, political beliefs, whatever – the key thing is that we’re all able to be different and also respect one another,” Randy explains. 

But how does that drive high performance? “When people are bringing their whole selves to work, it's empowering, it's freeing,” Randy says. “You can get get the most out of people when they’re bringing 100 percent of their potential.” And that’s really the secret to a high performing organization.

What else is on Randy’s mind? Tune in to episode 80 of DevOps Radio and find out why The Manager’s Path and Accelerate are two of Randy’s favorite books – and how he used a “blameless postmortem” technique to turn an embarrassing misstep into a successful “reliability fix” at Google. 

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