Key Ingredients

Drowning in a sprawling new project, a team spins in trial and error, fumbling around and trying to discover the shape of the desired outcome. Realizing they need to ground their work, the leads come up with a simple principle. “Whatever we ship, it needs to have these ingredients: speed, stability, security, and simplicity.” These key ingredients can come in many forms, but they must be present. This simple formula energizes the team, giving just enough organization to retain individual agency while providing enough structure to keep everyone is on the same page.

There is power in framing fluid, ambiguous, and flexible environments in terms of a few key ingredients. Especially in organizational cultures that trend toward being non-hierarchical, capturing the essence of desired outcomes can provide a valuable organizing technique. Chosen well, key ingredients can become a team’s core values. Finding the right set of ingredients is definitely a challenge — though veterans of your domain can provide you with a good starting list.

Taken too far, though, this approach falls into essentialism. We are tempted with a quest to find the ultimate key ingredients: the essence of it all. Essentialist adventures tend to end badly. They shift focus from the utility of a loose categorization to the inflexibility of finding the perfect one. If you’ve ever spent too much time arguing about the names for phases of a process or the one true way to refactor code, you’ve experienced essentialism’s gravitational pull.