Today we cover a variety of ways that managers uplevel each other by meeting in groups. Some of these variations are variations in the Mini-M format, but we also include some practices that are completely different.
This post is third of a series:
- We first described what Mini-M manager support groups are and why they’re so effective.
- Then, we learned how to implement Mini-M management support groups.
- Now, we discuss variations of Mini-Ms and other ways to encourage manager growth.
- Next, we’ll cover the history of Mini-Ms, including where the name came from.
There is no right way to run Mini-Ms, as long as it is working for participants. So let’s dive into the variations!
Rotating members in a Mini-M
One topic we discussed periodically was whether it was best for groups to be long-lived, or for there to be a lot of variation in members. We settled into a combination of the two. Groups were long-lived, but we would rotate a couple of members from the group to another group every six months. This led to more cross-organization relationships, but allowed the groups to feel relatively stable and preserve their identity.
Mini-Ms can be like a conspiracy
Another perennial topic was whether the Mini-Ms should be a source of work and a force for change. Or whether the groups should mostly be focused on supporting each other.
At New Relic, we actively encouraged the idea that managers were responsible for improving the organization around them. So it seemed natural that Mini-Ms would be a place where change would originate. And the original Mini-M was a sort of cabal, or cell, within the larger organization:
“I deliberately modeled the group as a conspiracy, where anything could be discussed privately, then I would take the meaningful results (without names) up to my org peers and boss. Every system has official and unofficial ways of getting things done. One of my goals with the Mini-M was to blur the lines and officially build that structure for doing things the unofficial way.” – Nic Benders, one of the cofounders of Mini-Ms.
It was fun to plot improvements with co-conspirators, and make them happen. You can encourage this, or let it develop naturally.
Mini-M demo management work
If you have Mini-Ms doing work, you can also try this variation.
Management is often seen as this mysterious group doing work behind closed doors. We use demos in Engineering organizations to show the work we have completed. Mini-Ms can demo as well: presenting iterations on process or a different bit of insight on performance reviews. A secondary benefit is these demos can pique the interest of those who are management curious by showing the tangible work that managers do.
Mini-Ms with managers from adjacent departments
When we started Mini-Ms, we included managers from just Engineering. But we tried to make the participation seem like you were meeting with people from across the organization.
“As the program grew in popularity, we started to have folks join from outside Engineering (e.g. support, design, security), as they’d heard the program was useful. This worked pretty well for “engineering adjacent” orgs” – Marty Matheny, former Organizer
Hearing the challenges of design managers helped me to have more empathy and understanding for their challenges. And that helped me work more effectively with design. The same thing happened with support managers and managers of product managers.
This probably works most effectively with roles just adjacent to engineering. If the work doesn’t overlap, it will probably be less effective.
Organizationally aligned Mini-Ms
In the original formulation of Mini-Ms, people from the same organization were not allowed to be in the same Mini-M. The intention was to improve connections across the organization. We even allowed people in from outside engineering, and encouraged cross-timezone groups. We also wanted to maximize psychological safety, and thought it would be easier if you weren’t working closely with the people you were talking about.
This had a lot of advantages, and I think a lot of the people that participated viewed this as a core benefit of Mini-Ms. So it might be heretical to say you could design Mini-Ms to focus on the opposite extreme: organizationally aligned Mini-Ms.
I haven’t seen this in action, but I can see a lot of benefits. You would combine managers from closely organizationally related groups until you had large enough Mini-M groups.
This would encourage stronger working relationships within the sets of people working most closely together. They would probably need to share some of the results with their management hierarchy, but they would need to meet without leadership involved.
Probably the best reason to choose this variation is if you’re unable to do an organization-wide change, and your area of influence is within a smaller part of the organization.
Manager coaching circles
This next way to level up managers comes from Molly Graham:
“Every start up I know struggles with “manager training” at some point, meaning they feel that the layer under their leadership is under-served and possibly under-powered. My main point to start-ups is that you can (and should) invest in things like manager training but one of the most powerful and lightweight things you can do from an early stage is create manager coaching circles that meet either monthly or bi-weekly. I called them “manager breakfasts” but Mini-M is better :) It is a scalable way to create a culture of managers helping and learning from each other. If you ensure that there is a range of experience within each group and do the work to ensure the groups have a light structure that is easy to maintain, it is very scalable and less expensive than training all managers every N months.”
Random 1-1s with other managers
Apparently at Slack there is a practice of having the Donut app schedule managers for random 1-1 time with other randomly paired managers.
The advantage of this is it is quite easy to set up. And you get to build some shallow relationships with a lot of the other managers. This type of acquaintance type relationship can be really valuable in a large organization.
The disadvantage is that you don’t build deep enough connections with these people to really improve your practice much.
Managers can build community outside of the company, in other forums.
Many managers participate in the Rands Leadership Slack. It’s probably the largest community for engineering managers in the world. It can be a good place to find certain types of support. However, it is also so large that it is basically a public group, so any topics that are sensitive are harder to bring up there.
Smaller, private groups can be an alternative. It is easy to spin up a free Discord or Slack server, and invite some people you know to participate.
A few suggestions for building communities of this type. First of all, the initial group will largely set the tone for people that come later. So try and optimize for some initial participants that will be active, but also show vulnerability and empathy with each other early on.
Be deliberate about adding new people. You essentially want the rate of growth to be slow enough that the people are indoctrinated by the current participants into what behavior is to be expected. Some groups are invite-only for that reason.
However, groups like this also can have a minimum viable threshold before they begin to take off. I was pretty aggressive about adding people to one of the communities I started until I began to see people participate.
You will need to model the behavior you desire of your participants. And you might conspire with a couple of other people to make sure there is enough content and dialogue that other people decide to invest in participating themselves.
A growth-focused management meeting
Bjorn Freeman-Benson founded Mini-Ms. Early on at New Relic, our management meetings were a blend of tactical topics and topics intended to grow our management team. He treated it like a professor would, in an upper-level seminar class, with discussion amongst participants.
Here is an example agenda:
- Review Nic’s new engineering hire first day/week/month checklist.
- Big release positivity: what is working to instill excitement and urgency on your teams? Bring specific examples, and your continued action plan. (For me, I shared context with the team on why we were doing this release and how it was important)
- Improving/expanding experiment. We are four weeks into the experiment. What has changed and what is working for your team and process?
- Management Growth. How are you doing? What can the team be doing for you?
- Manager Hiring Retrospective. We had two manager interviews last week, and have two more next week. What worked? What can we improve on?
As you can see, there was a lot of room for discussion, but we had a full agenda and didn’t spend the whole meeting in discussion. The meetings were tightly run and had action items that came out of them that resulted in further improvements. But he did involve us in thinking about the ways we were improving the organization. And he had us share examples of how we were solving management problems with each other, to help each of us learn from the other.
If you experiment with Mini-Ms, please let me know your experiences and variations. I’d also love to hear of any other ways groups of managers have learned from each other. Please share your experiences, and perhaps I’ll incorporate them into this post!
Bjorn Freeman-Benson was the founder of the Mini-M practice. He shared a lot of his thinking about the principles behind why Mini-Ms were successful and what they were aiming for. He advised me to break up this post into sections and make it easier to get to the implementation section. And shared overall feedback.
Nic Benders ran the first Mini-M, and established and evolved the practice. He also ran one of the more influential Mini-Ms for years. He reviewed this post, offered feedback, and contributed to the history section and described some of the design goals for Mini-Ms.
Darin Swanson authored some content that were inspirations for large parts of this article. He and I have worked together on helping other companies implement Mini-Ms, so contact me if you’re interested in help. He also provided feedback and suggestions on drafts of this article. He encouraged me to explain the first team concept more fully, and to describe why pre-product market fit companies may not be a good match. And he suggested I split the content into separate articles.
Elaine May provided feedback, some of which was so good I just ended up quoting her. She was gracious enough to offer some talk to talk about her experiences setting up or participating in similar programs at other companies. And she talked about her experiences with me in New Relic’s Mini-Ms. Elaine introduced me to the Chatham House Rules, which I incorporated into the post.
Merlyn Albery-Speyer helped me improve the section on “when to use Mini-Ms” by pointing out some preconditions for success. He pointed out that the structure became less important after the Mini-M is established. Merlyn pointed out that we tried to keep people from being in the same Mini-M as their managers, or other people reporting to the same manager. He also shared the theory about VPs not being willing to be vulnerable as a possible explanation for why the Mini-Ms never took off in manager of manager groups to the same extent they did for frontline managers.
Jason Poole shared his experience as an Organizer of Mini-Ms. He pointed out a now mostly disappeared second post on Mini-Ms. He also suggested ways Facilitators could counter unproductive ranting, and pointed out how effective the Mini-Ms were for improving our performance reviews.
Marty Matheny shared feedback based on his experience as an Organizer. He helped improve the advice for Organizers. And he pointed out that engineering adjacent departments participated.
Chris Hansen pointed out that confidentiality was an issue with whiteboards. He noticed an error that would have been embarrassing. He pointed out the value of M-teams in distributed organizations to counter isolation among managers. He also added some advice for participants. Chris also helped with a point about the value of the first few meetings.
Teresa Martyny reviewed a draft of this post and pointed out some redundant assertions I was making. And she recommended I break this into multiple posts or edit for brevity.
Natasha Litt was another early Mini-M leader, and she reviewed a draft of the post and contributed to it.
Marco Rogers influenced some of my thinking on building communities in a recent conversation, so some of his ideas were reflected in that section.
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