I’ve told this story before but it is fundamental enough to be told twice. In the early days of Facebook there was a constant tension between the engineering team who built consumer features and the operations team who scaled the infrastructure that served those features. I was new to web development so this dynamic was entirely novel to me. While it only occasionally became antagonistic it felt like a constant overhead to be managed.
Jeff Rothschild, our most senior engineering leader, assured me this was quite common. The ops team was responsible for stability and thus naturally hostile to things breaking. And the number one cause of things breaking was almost certainly the engineering team building new features.
As soon as we had this talk I realized this phenomenon was all around us. There are lots of teams tasked with risk reduction: legal, security, and finance just to name a few. These teams generally err on the side of moving more slowly or saying no entirely. Other teams like sales, engineering, and design are generally in roles that involve risk creation. They tend to be inclined to say yes to new ideas in the pursuit of new forms of value.
Recently Alexandra Ressler introduced me to a more formal term for this organizational phenomenon: Stars and Guardians. Stars have the potential to create a lot of value. Guardians prevent the loss of value. Guardians are nearly invisible when they are successful and only gain prominence in failure. The opposite is true of Stars. Both are critical to the success of any meaningful organization.
There are teams which are not naturally one or the other who sit closer to the fulcrum, for example comms or product management. One can often tell whether the organization as a whole is balanced by whether their work is properly balanced.
The tensions between stars and guardians may be natural and even inevitable. But left to their own devices it can devolve to open hostility. The goal is to achieve a productive tension where the concerns of each group are balanced in pursuit of a common goal. In my experience that requires four things:
1/ Shared long-term vision. If a company doesn’t have a collective vision then the balance of power skews heavily in favor of guardians. This is seen most often in successful companies deep in the throes of the innovator’s dilemma Only a clear and agreed upon destination gives guardians what they need to navigate the risk they are managing and enable change.
2/ Peacetime relationships. If the first time these teams discuss something is when one is asked to make a sacrifice for the other then it is already too late. It takes time for stars to adapt their plans to respect the needs of the guardians, and vice versa. Leaders need to have a relationship and mutual understanding at the outset of work.
3/ Transparency. Surprise is the enemy of all great collaborations. Each team needs to trust that if there is a development that will affect their work, they will hear about it directly in real time. Trust and transparency go hand-in-hand.
4/ Shared credit. Guardians deserve credit for wins and stars deserve blame for losses. They must be recognized together. This can be a challenge in highly functional organizations. If either side can externalize blame for an outcome then their incentives are fundamentally misaligned and bound to devolve to hostility. I particularly enjoy Facebook’s Service Oriented approach where stars are invited to take direct responsibility for their externalities.
Which term describes your work best? It can be helpful to understand the role you are playing and how this tension might affect you. Stars and Guardians need to be in balance and realizing how you affect the scales can help.