jade rubick

Velocity role 2 - the Mole


What do the most effective people do to increase the velocity of their teams?

There are several roles people take on teams, that make their teams move faster. I describe one of these roles today, and how you might learn from them.

Role #2: The Mole

Moles spy on the rest of the organization to give you intel.

They help an organization coordinate better. They might have insights like:

  • Our dependency on that team’s project is a risk, because Angela just got transferred to another project.
  • The support organization is about to go through a reorg so they are more aligned with product engineering. They’re doing that because the product requires a lot of specialization.
  • The way we’re thinking about building this is nonstandard and could cause issues for the tools teams. We should let them know what we’re doing.

Moles are obsessed with communication. They tend to move across the organization a lot, and consume a lot of information. They read more Slack channels than anyone. They talk with more people. They also act as double agents, passing information on your team to the rest of the company.

(Also, for the non-native English speaker, a Mole is a spy)

How do Moles work?

Moles speed things up because they improve the flow of communication. They reduce surprises. They ask questions like:

  • Who needs to know about this?
  • How is this going to be communicated?
  • Did we put this update in the wiki?

I am a Mole. I always have a mental model of who is good at what. I generally have a better understanding of what is going on than the people around me. I have found that I am able to help the people around me coordinate more effectively, because I monitor a lot of information, and talk with a lot of people.

A tip for fellow Moles: if you are a Mole, you can accelerate your learning by playing a game with yourself. You have an internal catalog of the skills of the people around you. You can pretend that they are characters for you to call upon. “What would Nadya do in this situation – she’s really good at getting people on the same page”. “What would Alex do in this situation – he’s really good at giving big areas of responsibility to people.”

If you’re working with a Mole, consider asking them questions like:

  • Who would be the best person to talk with about X?
  • Who are the people we might want to keep in the loop as stakeholders?

What are the dangers of being a Mole?

  • At their worst, Moles can be gossips. Just passing on rumors.
  • Moles also have to be careful to center themselves on the work. Some moles can enjoy the connections over the results.
  • I use the idea of “spying” on other teams for fun, but if a Mole is truly passing on secret information, that would undermine trust. Moles should be transparent about the fact that they’re communicating with other parts of the organization.

Want to practice being a Mole?

  • Deliberately expand your information network. Look at adjacent teams, and consider how you would monitor what is going on there. Evaluate external meetings by the possibility you would acquire useful information, divided by the amount of time it will take. Look at the people around you and consider whether more communication with them would be beneficial. Then experiment and see what you learn.
  • Take a skill inventory of the people around you. A fun way to do this is to create “character sheets”, which have various attributes: project management, ability to align people, technical depth, ability to get people to work together. Then score the people around you based on your subjective guess. These are people you can learn from, or use when you’re needing help in these areas. (They might also be people you can help if they have low scores in particular areas).
  • Think of yourself as a liaision. Read about liaisions, which is a formal way of using Moles. Try to represent your team elsewhere. And try to represent other teams at your home team.

Other velocity roles

Implementing velocity roles: team approach

Having someone on your team with this role can speed things up. But there are some things you can do to practice these roles. Here’s an exercise you can do on your team.

  • Have each member of a team choose one of the velocity roles. Have them choose so that each person has a role, but there are no duplicates.
  • Have them keep it secret which one they’ve chosen.
  • See if after a month everyone else on the team can guess which role the other team members chose.
  • Rotate the roles each month, so everyone gets to try each role.
  • Talk about what you learn.

Your team should be more focused, efficient, and productive. And the team members should have an appreciation for different work styles.

Implementing velocity roles: individual approach

If you are practicing velocity roles as an individual, it’s easiest if you have someone to observe. So start out by looking to see if anyone you know is good at that role. Then watch what they do carefully, and emulate anything you think is effective.

If you don’t have anyone in your work life that is good at that role, then you can create reminders to yourself to practice that behavior. I’ve also found it useful to set aside some time to think about how I could act if I were better at that Role. Thinking through it should give you some concrete actions you can take if you were better at it. Through practice, you may find you exhibiting that role in a lot of your daily life.

A speech, resurrected

I’ve presented this content in a couple of forms: several talks, internal to a company, and external. I’ve also written it up on a corporate blog (it’s since been deleted).

For some reason, this content has resonated more than perhaps anything else I’ve done. I’ve had people come up to me years after one of those presentations and talk about it! After I gave the presentation at an internal company event, someone made laminated cards for all of the roles and handed them out to every team in engineering!

I’m reworking the roles a little as I write them up, so many years later. And let me know what you think – I have never had a reliable way to understand what resonates!

Have you known a Mole?

Are you a Mole? Have you known other people that you now recognize as Moles? Let me know if I missed any observations or could describe this role better!

Thank you

The first version of this was created when Kirby Frugia, Darin Swanson, and I huddled in a room and brainstormed behaviors. I believe Keizan Shaffer and I also brainstormed a version of this for managers. Thank you to Paulette Johnson for the point about Moles undermining trust.

Image by Roberto Lee Cortes from Pixabay

Jade Rubick

Engineering Leadership Weekly & Frontline Management

Point me at your organizational problems. I advise startups and help in a variety of ways.

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