Mechanisms are complete processes built around a tool, owned by a leader, that get adopted broadly and are regularly inspected, and improved to ensure things get done, not because everyone has good intentions, but because the elements of the mechanism structurally force the desired behavior.
“Good intentions never work, you need good mechanisms to make anything happen.” — Jeff Bezos
I’ve written previously about how Good Intentions are Never Enough and why mechanisms are needed, but I didn’t go deep into how to make mechanisms actually work. This post starts to rectify that.
Below are the elements of a mechanism.
In a complete process, you build a tool, drive adoption of the tool, and inspect the results in order to make course corrections. A complete process has a “virtuous cycle” that reinforces and improves itself as it operates.
Within the complete process of a mechanism, the tool is the structure that a leader creates in order to implement large-scale change. The tool is what transforms the set of inputs into a set of desired outputs.
Each mechanism must have an owner. This is a leader (a human being) who defines, drives adoption of, audits, and inspects the mechanism. The owner of a mechanism can change over time, but for a mechanism to work, there must be an owner.
Leaders create mechanisms in order to accomplish things that cannot be done by one person alone. The larger their goals, the more leaders will need to rely on others. Leaders cannot “do” anything without getting others to broadly adopt and implement mechanisms.
Leaders need to be able to see if a mechanism is being adopted, and to understand if the use of the mechanism is leading towards the desired outputs. Inspection requires leaders to audit the output or results of the mechanism and to course correct and improve the mechanism.
(this is where Mechanisms get recursive)
A complete process has a “virtuous cycle” that reinforces and improves itself as it operates. The leader that owns the mechanism, based on inspection and auditing routinely improves the mechanism.
Examples of mechanisms
Here are a few examples of mechanisms.
- The Amazon Andon Cord is probably the most famous example: https://blueboard.io/resources/amazon-andon-cord/
- A weekly staff meeting.
- A yearly operating plan process.
- Quarterly Talent Reviews.
Types of mechanisms
Over the years of designing and driving mechanisms, I’ve found there are multiple flavors. Here are a few common types:
- Do it Regularly Mechanisms. Every business has a cycle, and we need to regularly engage on topics. For example every year the company needs to go through a cycle of long-term planning, budgeting, and planning for the next year. We define and uses mechanisms to ensure these regularly occurring activities are effective and efficient. For example, an annual Operating Plan or Three Year Planning mechanism.
- Ass-u-me Mechanisms. The word Assume stands for “make an ‘ass’ out of ‘you’ and ‘me'”. Ass-u-me Mechanisms ensure the right questions are asked at the right times, the right data is presented clearly, and the right people are aware such that team members aren’t just assuming something, but they know. I also think of Ass-u-me Mechanisms as Details Matter mechanisms because they can ensure all the little details that might get forgotten, get surfaced early and often. Working Backwards Narrative Reviews are an example.
- Audit Mechanisms. An audit mechanism is a system or process that forces details to be surfaced regularly. For example, in a weekly operational excellence review, use a wheel-of-fortune style wheel to randomly select a project each week where the lead must explain their metrics dashboard. This forces every project to be prepared, but scales because not every project has to be reviewed each week.
- Behavior Change Mechanisms. A behavior change mechanism can be effective at getting results where an organization has underlying behaviors that need to change. A recent example at SnapAV is our Broken Window Mechanism. This mechanism is enabling individuals throughout the organization to take the time to fix little issues that wouldn’t otherwise get prioritized.
- Anti-Silo Mechanisms. Organizational structure and geography naturally create silos (parts of organizations that become disconnected from the broader mission). A set of lightweight anti-silo mechanisms can mitigate the negative aspects of these natural silos. For example, a Weekly Release Readiness review where representatives from all parts of the org are required to attend makes everyone aware of what products are about to ship, while also acting as a Ass-u-me Mechanism.
In a future post I plan on dissecting one or more mechanisms I’ve invented that have worked well. Is there a particular mechanism you’d like me to discuss? Comment below.