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Agile Culture at Pinterest

So Learnfest, which I spoke at on Wednesday, has been quite an experience. A very difference conference with a very positive vibe run by enlightened people. The theme was Agility, under the banner of the ‘Brave New Workplace’, and one of the talks there that I took a lot from came from Joel Constable, who does people development at Pinterest.

Joel defined agility at Pinterest as: AGILITY = VELOCITY x FLEXIBILITY. Which I rather liked. He then showed us a framework that Pinterest use to bring this to life at an organisational and individual level which I’ve reproduced below (please note this, and the write up, are based on my sketchy notes of the session so my apologies to Joel if I’m doing his talk a disservice):

Agility_pinterestTaking the top left quadrant first (organisational velocity), Joel talked about the importance of the word ‘focus’, and how they had brought this to life through a quarterly planning cycle, regular ‘mission control’ meetings between the product owners (who update on progress) and the leadership (whose job it is to remove blockers to progress), company-wide progress meetings (re-iterating the vision, updating against quarterly goals at every one), and short sprint cycles focused on a single stretch goal. Small, full-stack, multidisciplinary product teams (sound familiar?) with clear decision-making structures help speed of delivery. And they work hard to maintain an envrironment that makes it safe to take risks. Sharing of ‘highlights, low-lights, no lights’ (stuff that worked well, stuff that could have worked better, stuff that didn’t work at all), regular open Q & As with the CEO, and a mantra of ‘progress not perfection’ (which staff often use as a rationale for moving forwards in tricky circumstances) bring this to life in powerful ways.

WIth organisational flexibilty (top right), Pinterest have strong shared values which are built into performance reviews, enlivened through workshops, and highly visible in the physical work space. They even have ‘cultural interviewers’ – people who have been trained to interview for new staff who share the same values as the company. These shared values are supported by some key principles (which are defined by key subject areas and are there to define how they do stuff e.g. how they build product) which are identified in project proposals. These in turn are supported by some strategic anchors, which are more temporary and tied to specific goals, but are the filters through which they make decisions.

Individual velocity (bottom left) is all about ownership – they work to create a mindset that builds accountability through expectation – it’s not only about what’s on your job description. And engagement – through a focus on autonomy, mastery and purpose (sound familiar?).

They also work hard to enable individual flexibility (bottom right) by creating a tight feedback loop and emphasising the importance of reflection. This latter point I found really interesting. With all the focus on ‘learning by doing’ and ‘execution’, Pinterest make a point of creating enough space for thinking and reflection. There are 3 key steps in this process for them: ‘Go’ (testing, data gathering); ‘Reflection’ (they use external coaches to faciliate this); and ‘Adapt’ (translating learnings into action).

It was a fascinating talk, and good validation for a lot of the thinking I’ve been banging on about for a good while now. My thanks to Joel for the inspiration.

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