Building Clocks: the mindset for operational autonomy

I always had a knack for building clocks. It started as a necessity, later on an obsession, and now my greatest strength in the workforce. If you are picturing someone hunched over an old wooden desk fiddling with the gears and springs of an antique watch, you might be disappointed. You see, I am a metaphorical clock builder. I make tools to give everyone I work with the agency to know the time.

The difference between clock building and time telling

You might be familiar with the concept of building clocks from the classic Built to Last by Jim Collins. He used the metaphor to describe building companies that don’t rely on a single person to drive success. Instead of relying on the vision and charisma of a “time teller”, companies are better off building clocks, or systems to distribute knowledge, so that success can be repeated over time, even when the time teller has moved on. An example of a clock could be a company’s set of core values, because that framework helps the team stay consistent and aligned as they make individual decisions.

Time Telling relies on a single individual to reactively inform the actions of the group. Clocks centralize that information, so that teams can access it without being exclusively dependent on a single person for guidance.

I often relate this metaphor to the somewhat morbid thought exercise referred to as the bus factor. The bus factor asks the question, “if this team member were to be hit by a bus tomorrow, would the project fail?” In other words, it is a means of measuring how dependent a company is on specific individuals to make decisions and interpret process. Centralizing knowledge can help teams and organizations circumvent the bus factor.

Although Collins mostly focuses on the importance of clocks at the top-down leadership level, like building a strong culture, I also see it as a bottom-up mindset for improving the way teams solve day-to-day tasks. Individuals at the front lines are constantly collecting data about what works well, and what doesn’t, but they aren’t necessarily using that feedback to improve the system. If they are empowered to use that experience to make clocks, like contributing to a company knowledge base, documenting processes for handling specific tasks, writing playbooks, and creating explicit conventions, those systems will improve constantly. A team of clock builders uses every experience to improve the system.

The benefit for early stage startups

I learned how to build clocks at my first job, a property management technology startup called Castle. I was the third employee and entering an industry where I had no background or experience. I asked my boss tons of questions daily, seeking guidance on how to accomplish various tasks. “Someone is moving into this property tomorrow, how do I confirm the electricity is on?”, “The tenant just reported bees on their porch, what should I do?”. After a while, instead of relying on my boss to be the time keeper, I began writing down what I was learning and centralizing those instructions.

This habit paid off in dividends when we brought on more employees who, like me, were searching for answers on how to succeed at their job, and thrilled to find reference materials to cut through the ambiguity. If I wasn’t around, they could still do their work, and when they found something out-of-date or confusing, they could update the documentation to help us all do our jobs better. Later I would build out an entire system of documentation representing the end-to-end customer lifecycle, which enabled a team of over 50 local and remote employees to handle complicated tasks with minimal guidance.

This clock was organized by trigger events in our customer lifecycle, with links to detailed processes to accomplish the associated tasks as well as their defined ownership.

At my next position at May Mobility I was once again one of the first operations employees. Here I led the way in formalizing standard operating procedures for our transportation services, establishing programs for training new employees, and implementing a centralized knowledge base for all teams to build and refine their clocks. I am proud that even when I am no longer with the company, the knowledge I gained won’t leave with me; it will live on within those systems.

Practical guidelines

From my experience building operational teams in startups, I have developed a few practical guidelines for building and using clocks within organizations:

  1. Look for a clock before you ask what time it is. Even if it seems faster to tap someone on the shoulder or shoot them a Slack message to ask for their guidance, your first step should be to search for existing documentation or internal resources to guide your thinking. If it exists, you were able to solve your problem without using someone else’s time. If it doesn’t exist, you just identified a knowledge gap. Whatever you learn next by asking for guidance is a clear candidate for documentation, so that the next person doesn’t run into the same issue.
  2. Build clocks if you find people asking you what time it is. Remember, if you’re the only one who knows how to do something, you risk becoming the bottleneck for your team, and you also might waste a lot of your time getting others up to speed. Do it, document it.
  3. Empower your teams to adjust the time. Never get too attached to your systems, because they are going to break at some point. Your success as a team is in building better systems over time. If a process no longer suits your organization, empower your teams to iterate and document those changes.

Teaching the power of clock building

I teach the importance of clock building using a hands-on exercise involving legos. I invite a group to get into 3 teams and nominate a team leader. Then each team must follow the instructions I’ve provided to build a specific lego construction as fast as they can. Seems pretty straightforward, right?

What they don’t know is that each team has a different set of instructions.

Team 1: team leader is the only one permitted to look at the instructions. They are only given a picture of the final product.

Team 2: everyone can look at the instructions. They are only given a picture of the final product.

Team 3: everyone can look at the instructions. They are given a picture of the final product, along with step-by-step guides on how to build the various components.

You’ll find that Team 1 always finishes last, and has the most frustrating experience. Team members are forced to sit on their hands and wait for guidance from their leader. Team 2 does a bit better, but it requires some complicated problem-solving and critical thinking to get to the finish line. Team 3 enjoys the experience and tends to finish first; they build an assembly line, delegate responsibilities, and before they know it they’ve built the construction.

This exercise, which by the way, you can facilitate for your teams using these instructions, helps groups see the practical implications of documenting how they do their work, so as not to be the bottleneck to their teammates.

Taking yourself out of the equation

The true power of clocks is their scalability; instead of one person calling the shots and making decisions, clocks can be shared across an entire team or organization, reducing bottlenecks and preventing the whole thing from collapsing with the loss of one individual contributor.

Good leaders understand that teams, companies, and communities are made up of dynamic and creative individuals who are capable of great contributions. Companies that are overly dependent on their leader’s personal objectives do not effectively utilize the talent of the whole, and therefore cannot reap the benefits. Building clocks can help teams become more efficient and consistent, but most importantly, they are a representation of humility and the recognition of fallibility. Clock builders have a goal and a point of view, but they also know they do not have all the answers.

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