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“Let’s clarify our mission, strategy, tactics, and execution.”
BALANCE

The four layers of communication in a functional team

Cate Huston
By Cate Huston

Engineering manager, Automattic

Functional teams have four layers of communication:

  1. A mission (also known as a vision)
  2. Strategy (made up of proximate objectives)
  3. Tactics and process
  4. Execution

This list might seem like it includes categories of action—it does. But it’s not just doing these things, but also communicating them that ties teams together. Communicating the items on this list plays a major role in scaling teams and leaders. With these things in place and communicated, it’s much easier to add people to a team, and then entire teams to an organization.

The mission

Personally, I hate the word “vision” because it has undertones of delusion, so let’s use the word “mission” instead. An effective team has a mission they can cluster around. It provides a guide for what to take on—and what not to. On my own team, the goal is giving my company’s mobile-only and mobile-first users a great experience. Having this mission gives us something to aim for and a sense of which feedback is important. It also connects us to our company’s broader mission of “democratize publishing”.

If the mission is missing, the team risks falling into an analysis paralysis or abdicating decisions entirely. Analysis paralysis can result from having no tiebreaker on decisions because data can be the only answer: There is no guiding principle, so it’s easy for people to pick and choose the data to support their opinions. Abdicating decisions entirely can involve emphasizing the way the work is done, rather than the work itself—either drowning in process or emphasizing a “culture” that is by its nature unsustainable, because it’s not in service of anything else.

The strategy

It’s not enough to have a mission: We need to have a strategy that pushes us toward it. Strategies are proximate objectives that support the mission. For example, we might want to “deliver a sign-up flow that allows people to create a mobile-optimized website from their mobile devices” or “improve the media experience, resulting in more people uploading more media.” These strategic objectives can be owned by sub-teams.

If the strategy is missing (or lacking), then the case can be made that almost anything supports the “mission,” creating overwhelm, indecision, and conflict. Having an explicit strategy allows you to decide how the team you have can best move toward the mission.

The tactics and process

Tactics and process turn strategy into something that individuals can deliver on. They break down how work and communication are managed across teams. Adding this layer without having a strategy risks an elaborate performance of process in which most people will not see the value. This layer must support, not overpower, the strategy.

If both strategy and tactics are missing, it might be tempting to start with tactics, but you can’t go too far without the missing strategy layer above. On my team, this involves things like how we define features, how we measure performance of new features, how we make architectural decisions, and how we plan out and report on the roadmap within the theme of work the strategy lays out.

If tactics and process are missing, then there is a huge overhead to any kind of coordination, and status is challenging to find (and maintain). No one knows what is going on, and whether or not they feel like it’s “good” rests entirely on emotion—the most inconsistent and challenging to measure of “metrics.”

The execution

The perfect mission-aligned strategy, even perfectly managed, still needs to be executed. This involves day-to-day communication around day-to-day work. It includes things like stand up meetings, and the way new task requests are made, reviewed, and merged. Having a lot of execution without the other pieces results in a lot of churn and detail-level activity that doesn’t roll up into a coherent whole.

When execution is missing, it’s obvious because very little happens. Projects might be well defined and communicated, but they don’t move. The strategy might be clear, but no progress is made toward it. Everyone might buy into the mission, but it doesn’t really matter when so little is getting done.

Other ways to define team communication

You can think of the four levels of communication as:

  • Execution: how individuals work
  • Tactics: how teams work and what enables them to work together
  • Strategy: how a part of the organization delivers
  • Mission: what the entire organization is setting out to do

Or:

  • Execution: today/this week
  • Tactics: this month/this quarter
  • Strategy: next quarter/this year
  • Mission: indefinite

These levels build on each other in both directions—the goal is not top-down or bottom-up, it’s balance. Functional teams have harmony between all these things. Dysfunctional teams have confusion at one or more levels. The irony, in my experience, is that often the concepts are there, but the consistent communication—the tying them together—is not. It’s that absence of clarity that is allowing disconnects and disillusionment to grow and grow.

Cate Huston is an engineering manager at Automattic.