Every Achievement Has A Denominator

One of the classic failure modes of management is the empire-builder — the managers who measure their own status, rank or value by the number of teams and people “under” them.

Everyone knows you aren’t supposed to do this, but most of us secretly, sheepishly do it anyway to some extent. After all, it’s not untrue — the more teams and people that roll up to you, the wider your influence and the more impact you have on more people, by definition.

The other reason is, well, it’s what we’ve got. How else are we supposed to gauge our influence and impact, or our skill as a leader? We don’t really have any other language, metrics or metaphors readily available to us. 😖

Well… Here’s one:

✨Every achievement has a denominator✨

Organization size can be a liability

Let’s say you have 1,000 people in your org and you collectively achieve something remarkable. Good for you!

What if you achieved the same thing with 10,000 people, instead? What would that say about your leadership?

What if you achieved the same thing with 100 people?

Or even 10 people?

Lots of people take pride in their ability to manage large organizations. And with thousands of people in your org, you kinda better do something fucking great. But what if you instead took pride in your ability to deliver outsize results with a small denominator?

What if comp didn’t automatically bloat with the size of your org, but rather the impact of your work divided by the number of contributors — rewarding leaders for leaner teams, not larger ones?

Bigness itself is costly. There’s the cost of the engineers, managers, product and designers etc, of course. But the bigger it gets, the more coordination costs are incurred, which are the worst costs of all because they do not accrue to any user benefit — and often lead to lack of focus and product surface sprawl.

Constraints fuel creativity. Having “enough” engineers for a project is usually a terrible idea; you want to be constrained, you want to have to make hard decisions about where to spend your time and where to invest development cycles.

More often than not, scope is the enemy

As Ben Darfler wrote earlier this year about our approach to engineering levels at Honeycomb:

There are times when broad scope may be unavoidable, but at Honeycomb, we try to cultivate a healthy skepticism toward scope. More often than not, scope is the enemy. We would rather reward engineers who find clever ways to limit scope by decomposing problems in both time and size. We also want to reward engineers who work on the most important problems for the business, regardless of the size of the project. We don’t want to reward people for gaming out their work based on what will get them promoted.

The same is true for engineering managers, directors and VPs. We would rather reward them for getting things done with small, nimble teams, not for empire building and team sprawl. We want to reward them for working on the most important problems for the business, regardless of what size their teams are.

What was the denominator of the last big project you landed? Could you have done it with fewer people? How will you apply those learnings to the next big initiative?

Can we find more language and ways to talk about, or take pride in how efficiently we do big things? At the very least, perhaps we can start paying attention to the denominator of our achievements, and factor that into how we level and reward our leaders.


P.S. I did not invent this phrase, but I am unfortunately unable to credit the person I heard it from (a senior Googler). I simply think it’s brilliant, and so helpful.

Every Achievement Has A Denominator

5 thoughts on “Every Achievement Has A Denominator

  1. What is “a denominator?” It a thing others are divisible by. So . . . title is nonsense. Googly or not, nonsense.

    Let’s talk about radiative effects, instead. It’s not about the actual problem-solving. It’s about the information shared before/during/after. That is the stuff of social people like engineers. How did and can?

    How can we share what we do better? Have it critiqued better? Evangelize what works (and what to avoid!)? Isn’t that signal what we need instead of magic numbers and orders of magic numbers and . . . oh, look, what’s that in my navel?

    1. it means how much work divided by how many contributors. if the work was done by 10 contributors, each contributor is two orders of magnitude more impressive than if the work was done by 1000 contributors. i am not sure why you find that so difficult to understand. nor do i have any idea what you mean by “radiative effects”.

      1. “Could you have done it with fewer people?”

        If you achieve a goal with 100 people. Those 100 people get paid and generally soeaking they spend that pay in their local communities helping them the flouriish.

        Achieving the same goal with 10 people means 90 people don’t get paid. The pay they would have got goes to shareholders instead. Shareholders generally speaking squirrel that money away where it does no further good.

        Is that really what we should be aiming for?

      2. YIKES. No, it means those 90 people can be off using their creativity and labor building other cool things, instead of wasting their time doing make-work just to pull a paycheck. This is how we create more value and wealth, and how we build jobs and careers of meaningful, high-impact work. Your argument makes no sense.

        I happen to agree with you that the distribution of wealth is currently extremely out of whack, but we don’t fix that by being deliberately inefficient. By your argument, we should create more potholes to employ more construction workers, and force construction workers to use picks and shovels instead of heavy machinery. Both of which would create more jobs. 😉

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