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How to Build Engineering Operational Cadence

We’re introducing you to the concept of an operational cadence, and how to build one in your engineering team!

By Alexandria Hewko  •   July 7, 2022  •   7 min read

You know that feeling of “getting into the flow of things”?  

Across your organization, the routines, plans, structure, and speed of work that you practice every day all help define how work gets done. As it turns out, there’s a real word to describe this characteristic in your team, and it has the ability to significantly affect the efficiency of your work.

Here we’re introducing you to operational cadence, and specifically, how to build one in your engineering team!

What is engineering operational cadence? 

Operational cadence is the pace at which work is organized and completed. In engineering streams, this is often found in agile practices such as sprints. Sprints are one- to three-week sessions during which a specific task or work unit is to be completed. The frequency and length of each sprint would determine the operational cadence. 

Engineering operational cadence is often strongly tied to a company’s corporate culture, but can also be determined specifically by each team. Industry competitiveness, the type of work, the number of team members available, and the time of year can also impact if the operational cadence picks up speed or slows down.

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How to build engineering operational cadence 

1Identify your goals

Every organization has a set of objectives and key results (OKRs) that teams are supposed to strive for within a set timeframe (for example, every month, quarter, or year). Typically, organizational OKRs are defined by upper management, then independent teams, like the product development or engineering teams, will be required to derive their own team OKRs from the organizational-level goals. Having defined engineering OKRs enables your team to easily track project progress, be more aligned on upcoming projects, and overcome blockers faster. Plus, you can stay on top of your team’s goals by clearly recording, defining, and tracking the progress of your OKRs in Fellow’s Objectives tool.

2Create a timeline

An important part of building cadence is considering the timeframe in which the routine will flow. For example, an organization may choose to run one-week sprints, which is a considerably faster cadence. This organization may choose shorter sprints to break down more complex projects into smaller, workable units. However, another organization may need more sign-offs from stakeholders, which would require the organization to have longer sprint times. 

Not only will you need to think of the timeline for how fast or slow your actual operating cadence will be, but you should also consider your timeline for implementation. Consider the human effort and financial resources that may be needed to establish your ideal cadence, as these factors will affect how much time is needed.

3Include other engineers in the process

When determining the successes and challenges in your operations, keep your wider team involved in discussions as they may have additional insights and opinions on what’s working best in their functional area. Some engineering processes may take longer, and others may be super quick. Requirements change as industry practices and technology adapt, so be sure to check in with other engineers on their requirements regularly. 

4Document things along the way 

Part of reviewing and optimizing best practices for the future is having a solid understanding of what does and doesn’t work. Documenting your practices, insights, and best solutions to challenges will help your team overcome future blockers. Also, when you spell out things that need to happen, who the responsible party is, and when to expect different activities to occur, you’re ensuring everyone is aware of the purpose of a process and helping everyone have a sense of shared ownership. Additionally, when you begin to onboard new team members, having adequate documentation will make it easier for them to get up to speed on how you work and why you do the things you do. 

5Set aside time for reflection

The tricky thing about building an engineering operational cadence is that it isn’t one-size-fits-all. As your company grows, you may continue to see changes in the industry or team development which will require you to adapt your cadence. Regularly reflecting on what’s working and what’s not will keep your processes working as efficiently as possible. 

6Define clear roles and responsibilities 

Assigning roles and responsibilities to team members will contribute to an efficient process flow. As new tasks and challenges arise, team members will be able to jump into action faster as they’ll already know who is supposed to take charge of what tasks. Defining these roles and responsibilities is also helpful for knowing with whom to speak about key performance indicator (KPI) reporting on specific project components or for assigning OKRs across the team. Team members can be assigned to brainstorm, document, conduct research, review past work, and make decisions as you build out your cadence. Additionally, you may choose to assign some team members to train others on the new processes as they develop. 

7Focus on learning

Conducting research is a great way to keep the focus on learning. Other departments, companies, or research journals may be good places to start your investigations into new technologies or operational trends that you could integrate into your own processes.

Creating an operational cadence that works for your engineering team will take some time, especially if your team is new. The most important thing that you can do for your team is take extra time to reflect, understand challenges, and optimize for future cadence flows. Perhaps you can even integrate a project review meeting into your cadence flow so you’re regularly learning, reviewing, and improving as you go!

5 things to avoid when building engineering operational cadence 

1Holding only alignment meetings 

Alignment meetings are ones like standups or daily scrums where your team is only meeting to stay informed on what else is going on. However, these meetings don’t often lead to new, actionable processes. If you’re really looking to get a move on your OKRs and build a strong cadence that will work for the long term, it might be more helpful to focus on meetings where your team is involved in brainstorming, planning, decision-making and reviewing.

2Hosting meetings with no purpose 

Part of building a smooth cadence is integrating efficiency into your operations. Holding meetings without a purpose can leave meeting participants confused, allows the topic to get off track easily, and doesn’t usually result in a lot of progress or action items. In other words, if you don’t have a clear, one-liner reason for why you need your meeting to happen, you’re better off working on something else in the meantime. 

3Providing too much feedback 

Feedback rounds are fantastic for improving work as they’re one of few instances in which you can get direct insights from another team member who may have a unique perspective or experience to help move your project forward. However, too much feedback is a thing, too. If you’re spending more time talking about past work than you do planning for the future, you risk delaying your projects (which can have other consequences in themselves).

4Neglecting communication 

When building your engineering operation cadence, you need to remember that your whole team will be affected by any decisions made to the cadence plan. Switching up the speed of work, introducing longer or shorter sprints, or even adding more team members or steps along the project development life cycle can put your team out of sync if these changes aren’t communicated well. Setting up regular meetings with your team and sharing meeting agendas ahead of each call is a great way to keep your team in the loop and ensure that everyone remains aligned.

5Lacking transparency in decision-making 

In the same way that you should keep your team in the loop about upcoming changes, you should also keep your team close when actually making each decision. Your team members were hired because of their expertise and unique experiences, so they’re bound to have added insights that can influence your decision-making if considered. A long-term effect of not including your team in decision-making may be feelings of isolation or decreased motivation for the project, which in turn will put your cadence out of sync and reduce employee morale.

Parting advice

Now that you know what an engineering operational cadence is, how are you going to start building one in your team? While it can seem like a daunting task, building an engineering operational cadence is a piece of cake when you take small steps and make the most of the knowledge your coworkers already have! When building as a combined effort, you’re more likely to build an operational cadence that works for all departments in the long term and is easy for new team members to flow into.

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