Apply for early access →

Back to blog

Why thoughtful decision-making is the key to building high-performing engineering teams

VP Engineering James Trunk on what it takes to build a thoughtful engineering culture driven by effective decision-making.

Portrait of James Trunk
James TrunkThursday 24 March 2022

Why do some engineering teams perform better than others? If you’re a CTO or VP of Engineering like me, you will have thought about this million-dollar question many times in your career.

Building high performing teams is a cornerstone of any leader’s role. And now, in the era of hybrid working, it's more important than ever for leaders to create a culture and environment where teams feel empowered to do their best work.

At Griffin, this starts with how we make decisions - more specifically, how we embed our value of thoughtfulness into the rituals and processes that underpin our decision-making. In this post, I’ll share five key principles I use to make more informed, value-driven decisions, and share some tips to help you create your own.

Why thoughtful decision-making matters‍—‌especially in engineering

Every decision we make carries risks and consequences. For engineering teams, making the wrong call can have a serious impact on your products and your business. From design to delivery, decision-based errors can hit your bottom line and reputation hard. But decisions don’t just shape what you work on‍—‌they also shape how effectively you work together as a team.

To make the right decisions, you need clear priorities, a consistent approach, and of course, a cool head. This can seem like a tall order even on a calm day‍—‌when you’re stressed, time-poor, or juggling many competing priorities, it can seem all but impossible. But, this is where decision-making principles come into their own. If designed well, decision-making principles help to frame your thinking and consistently keep your values front and centre, no matter what demands you have on your time and attention.

Articulating your decision-making principles

It’s essential to make sure your decision principles are as easy to remember as possible. Mine is based on the Agile Manifesto’s format of "we value X over Y".  For example:

  • We usually prefer X over Y (based on our collective learnings and experiences).
  • We’ve seen X work well, but Y is an alternative we know can lead to potential problems.

This framing means that we’re not ruling out Y as an option completely, but rather emphasising X as the choice we know works better.

Based on this, here are five of my key decision principles.

  1. Fast feedback over silent failure
  2. Experiment over opinion
  3. Focus over context switching
  4. Transparency over tribes
  5. Innovation over safe bets

Below, I explore each principle in more detail and how we put them into action at Griffin.

1. Fast feedback over silent failure

When feedback happens regularly, it becomes a normalised, natural part of your decision-making process. At Griffin, fast feedback is a core part of our culture: it helps us avoid wasted effort, align expectations, and stay laser-focused on what we need to achieve.

For this principle to work, the emphasis must be on fast. That’s why we follow a 30% Feedback approach (and sometimes even 5% feedback cycles). This fits well with Shape Up, our product methodology, which is about cutting a horizontal slice through any new feature before you build it, then focusing on getting the core part of that feature up and running fast. This means you can test assumptions early and invite feedback from internal stakeholders or customers before you’ve sunk time and effort into building the wrong thing. Getting early input means that when it’s time to execute, you can do so quickly and confidently.

2. Experiment over opinion

Too often, we get paralysed over a decision because we can’t be sure of the outcome. Sometimes the best solution is to pick an approach and see how it works in practice, rather than circling endlessly through your options. When you approach decision-making as a chance to experiment, rather than an irrevocable choice you must make, it will help make change feel more comfortable. It also encourages a culture of meritocracy, where the best ideas win through a process of trial and error.

It’s important to hold regular retrospectives to assess what’s working well vs. what you need to do differently. This means you can then focus on targeted changes you want to make within your processes and tools, rather than abandoning the entire idea because some parts of it are not working as well as others.

3. Focus over context switching

When everything is urgent, finding focus can be challenging. One of the core principles behind the Shape Up method is to focus on one thing at a time, rather than trying to do everything at once, i.e. one team working on one feature at a time. This approach is particularly helpful in a high-growth environment where time is precious, and resources are finite.

Shape Up’s betting tables are designed to help you prioritise the right features to focus on next. It’s about bringing your key stakeholders together to discuss all the options available and make a decision based on the big picture, the current business climate, and your customers’ needs. It’s a great way to instill ruthless prioritisation and ensure your short-term roadmap reflects the current reality of your business.

4. Transparency over tribes

Without transparency, it is difficult (if not impossible) to make the right decisions. In my experience, people want to understand the big picture‍—‌knowing what’s going on at a high level helps them understand how their work is contributing to the company's success, which in turn helps them feel motivated and invested. As a leader, it's vital to involve people in your decision-making process and give them the information they need to perform at their best.

At Griffin, transparency is one of our core values and we put it into action at all levels. We hold regular cross-department and cross-team meetings where we talk about what we are working on, what the goal is for the week ahead, what’s next on the agenda, and if we need support from another team. We make a habit of using public channels on Slack and open documentation in Notion, so people can feel free to join in on any discussion if they are interested.

It's worth mentioning that the meaning of transparency will change as you scale, so it's always good to revisit and adapt your approach.

5. Innovation over safe bets

As a startup, you can’t innovate everywhere. At Griffin, for example, we invest the most energy and innovation in the areas that we consider to be core to our business and that will add the most value to our customers‍—‌a value they can’t get anywhere else.

The general rule of thumb we follow is “build when it’s core, but buy when it’s peripheral”. For example, we’ve designed and built the ledger that underpins our Banking as a Service platform from scratch, to achieve the levels of performance, scalability, and ease-of-use that will provide our customers with the best experience possible. But, in other areas of our banking platform, it sometimes makes more sense for us to integrate with solutions that already exist in the marketplace.

How to build your own decision principles

There is no one size fits all approach to decision principles. My own decision principles have evolved over time and I revisit and refresh them regularly depending on the context I’m operating in and the goals my team are working towards. I recommend that every leader takes the time to work with their teams to build their own unique set of principles that align closely with their values and goals.

It’s valuable to involve your team in the development of your principles. If they are part of the creation process, they are much more likely to embrace the results. A brainstorming session with your team is a great way to get everyone on the same page and bring shared values out into the open. You could start with the following questions.

  • What do you value most as a business?
  • What common behaviours have you noticed in teams that achieve success?
  • In contrast, what behaviours have you noticed that lead to undesirable outcomes?
  • When you think of a person or company that has made great strides in tackling a specific challenge, what’s different about their mindset/approach?
  • What was the culture of the most successful team you’ve worked in?
  • What was the culture of the least successful team you’ve worked in?
  • When you think of a successful team or company, what’s unique about their culture?

Take time to reflect after your brainstorming session. What did you learn? What common threads surfaced? Go through all the ideas raised in the session, but only keep those that align with your values, and best reflect the collective learnings and experiences of the group. Similar to my decision principles, you could agree on a list of five shared “X over Y” principles‍—‌but whatever format you choose, the important thing is that your principles are easy to remember and clearly express your goals and values.

Thoughtful decisions over perfect decisions

We all have to make decisions every day, some more difficult or serious than others. There is no such thing as a perfect decision and there will always be things you could have done differently or better. But having a clearly defined set of decision-making principles will encourage you to pause, reflect, and decide if you’re going in the right direction or not‍—‌and, crucially, what action you need to take next.

Building a set of thoughtful decision-making principles will not only lead to better business outcomes‍—‌but will also help create an environment where people are able to experiment, learn, and move forward with confidence. And that’s the answer to our million-dollar question. Why do some engineering teams perform better than others? Because they understand where they’re going and why, and because they can clearly see that every piece of work they do is built on a foundation of thoughtful, principled decision-making.

If you’d like to hear more about how I use my principles to make better engineering decisions, check out my interview with Karolina Toth in the Level up Engineering podcast.