Glance up at the sky and you’re sure to see a “flying V” move across it. “Flying V’s” are formations birds teach themselves to alleviate the strain of flapping their wings for miles upon miles. Birds create air flows in specific directions when they flap, and allow birds behind them to exert less energy. The birds in the front of the formation — the flock leaders — rotate with one another so that no one bird exhausts itself. Birds are the perfect example of a group following not one, but multiple flock leaders to create a cohesive, efficient team.

When an organization needs to create change or transform an existing atmosphere, business team members must form their own version of a “Flying V.” Flock leaders and the rest of the team alternate with one another and work in tandem to make change happen with less effort and confusion. We used flock leaders at PagerDuty with the rollout of our Objectives and Key Results (OKR) process, and it paid off.

Build a flock

We started with OKRs in 2014. It was hard getting traction at first, and only a small group of Dutonians — aka PagerDuty employees — even knew we were using this system for developing quarterly goals. There was no cross-company agreement as to what OKRs were or how to produce them effectively. We needed to standardize the PagerDuty process for OKRs.

With more than 150 employees, there’s lots of room for interpretation, and, if nobody could settle on a shared understanding, it would be impossible to get them all working together. We planned an all-hands company meeting and announce the new direction and format, and we anticipated there might be confusion and a certain amount of chaos afterwards.

Several weeks before that meeting, we asked for volunteers to create a group of what we called “Flock Leaders.” Drawn from a pool of both managers and individual contributors, this group comprised a half-dozen or so Dutonians from all departments. Enthusiasm was the key quality for this role because it would help these folks connect with the rest of the organization as we rolled out the new OKR format.

Together we reviewed our OKR thinking. We developed a consistent set of definitions for what OKRs are, and we agreed on the basics of how people at PagerDuty ought to create them. As we solidified our shared understanding, the Flock Leaders turned into ambassadors of the new process, ready to help influence ideas across the company.

Send them out

At the company meeting, our chief executive unveiled the corporate OKRs, and I explained how we would roll out the new process. As was only natural, everyone walked out of that meeting with divergent ideas about what would happen next. Instead of being avalanched by questions, however, I was able to direct the great majority of that confusion toward the Flock Leaders. Within each team, people quickly learned who to talk to who knew about the tool and the process.

Different teams made use of their Flock Leaders in different ways. Some Flock Leaders were asked a few questions; others were invited to give short presentations to their teams. Most of them actively helped their teammates make use of the tool and document their OKRs. On a couple of teams the Flock Leaders served as data entry clerks, adding team OKRs to the system themselves. It was not a particularly glamorous job. Hence the enthusiasm requirement. But they did it!

Reap the rewards

Having a cadre of dedicated, united volunteers with a shared understanding made all the difference in our OKR rollout. When we first made use of the Flock Leaders, more than half the company needed help documenting their OKRs. But the very next quarter, the Flock Leaders reported exactly … zero.

That’s right. Conversely, had I been on my own running training sessions and giving direct guidance, there’s no way I could have gotten the entire organization to get so quickly up to speed on this new process. Some Flock Leaders got asked to do a ton of work in that first quarter. Some not so much. Having a crew of like-minded compatriots — reliably reinforcing the desired direction — spread the word faster than any organized process could have done. The Flock Leaders embedded in each team made all the difference, and, in the process, made themselves obsolete. Once the message had gotten through and a common understanding generated across the organization, we no longer needed people to continuing serving as Flock Leaders.

Organizational change is difficult and frustrating at the best of times. Communication is error-prone, and following up across an organization is often impossible. Instead of endless training sessions and mind-numbingly precise documentation, invest some time up front in creating a set of flock leaders who can supply the helpful air flows your organization needs in order to grow and change.

Corey Reid is engineering talent manager at PagerDuty.


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