I’ve been working with the incredible team at Section 31, part of SMC’s Kobayashi Maru, and I wanted to start sharing some of the things I’m humbled to be part of. After several rounds of feedback from the team, this is version 1.0 of a document I wrote on the importance of the narrative at Section 31. Special thanks to Carlo, Nick, Yuliya, and Mikey who have put in the extra time to provide a lot of thoughtful feedback!
Introduction of the practice
In January 2020, a narrative practice emerged organically to address problems we were facing as we began scaling. The first major product was the S31 culture document, and we struggled significantly with the length internal to the leadership team. One of us said, “It’s too long, people will TLDR this doc if we don’t shorten it.” Another quipped that as Mark Twain said, “I have made this letter longer than usual only because I have not had time to make it shorter.” Ultimately, though, we decided that because concise doesn’t mean short, we shouldn’t put arbitrary limits on length. We thought this would be a good opportunity to discuss the importance of the narrative at S31 going forward and our position on length, concision, and meaning.
The Power of the Narrative
At Section 31, we are going after the Space Force’s most complex problems–deep understanding is the prerequisite for coherent, well-informed action needed to solve them. Internally, we want to establish the narrative as a practice to achieve that deep understanding by encouraging meaningful and relevant writing, reading, and discussion. This is not a replacement for action and learning by doing, it is the foundation for it! It goes beyond the products, and includes the organizational culture, practices, and processes we implement to build them.
Additionally, it is important we provide a way for external stakeholders to understand S31 without spending months pairing, and without the leadership team having to create custom emails and presentations in response to every misunderstanding. The narrative doubles as a way for us to both clarify our own message and communicate it to external stakeholders with reduced communication overhead.
TLDR, Concise, and Pithy
We are ok with team members saying “Not Concise, Didn’t Read” (NCDR), and we should all strive to be more concise. But the “L” in TLDR places the emphasis on length, and often conflates being short with being concise. Concision is defined as eliminating redundancy without omitting important information. Arbitrary limits on length–imposed by the writer or the reader–are antithetical to a learning culture. Not everything should be condensed down into five key points, or kept shorter than two pages. If that were the case, we wouldn’t read books! So while we could all be better about eliminating redundancy, we don’t want to omit any important information to help you answer the question at hand. For example, in the culture document:
What does it mean to be part of the Section 31 team?–where team is defined as a group of individuals working together to achieve their goal with an agreed-to governance for how they will interact with one another.
We also want our writing to be meaningful. Pithy writing is concise and meaningful. With that, rather than a feedback on length, good feedback on narratives should focus on pithy: specifically, call out what information can be deleted without omitting important information needed to answer the question and without omitting meaning.
On a topic like culture, some of you may think we are omitting important information. After all, you can write an entire book on culture. That is why we scoped the question the way we did: the culture document is only intended to represent the core of our culture. What does core mean? From the question we set out to answer, core means: the team goal and the agreed-to governance for how individuals will interact with one another.
Our Strategy: Read and Write. A Lot
Core does not include other aspects of culture, like practices, but we do want to address those things in a meaningful way. Practices are reinforced behaviors. For the question of “what practices do we use to continuously deliver impactful software Space Operators love?”, there could be another narrative. Within that, if one wanted to know more about pairing and why we do it, there could be a resource for that. Again, we want to answer these questions for various audiences. Our strategy going forward is to use the narrative to help us scale culture, process, and technology.
That probably sounds like a lot of reading and writing. For junior positions on delivery teams, the amount will be minimal (by all means feel free to exceed it!). But for decision-makers and leaders, it will be much more. To be able to write, you need to read a lot. To be able to write well, you need to write a lot. Therefore, to be a successful leader on this team you will have to read and write, a lot. We don’t expect this overnight. Instead, the narrative will be a deliberate practice that we use to grow our team.
Finally, we recognize that culture is behavior–what people do based on collective values, attitudes, and beliefs. It’s a verb. That applies to most of the things we will write about and we know that writing it down doesn’t make it so. Our intent behind writing these things down is not to write them and be done with it. We wrote what we believe the culture is today, so that it can be explicitly reinforced through reading, follow-on narratives, discussions, and action. We want your inputs on what that looks like. Do we have a weekly reading focusing on an excerpt of these documents? Do we run a workshop or do activities that reinforce the ones that aren’t as automatic as pairing? We’d love to hear your ideas! You are probably wondering, why not just do those smaller, more focused things? There are several reasons in the SVPG link above, and a big one for us is not wanting to disperse the message. Doing small, continuous increments works for people on the team, today, but not for future members, followers, or stakeholders.
We recognize that some may TLDR our entire approach, and find it unreasonable to assume we can get internal and external stakeholders to read more. It might be unreasonable, but we leave you with this:
“The reasonable [person] adapts [her]self to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to [her]self. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable [person].” – Bertrand Russel