Starting Fires on Purpose — When and How Leaders Need to Break the Rules

When Paul Berry was CTO of The Huffington Post — where he grew their audience from zero to more than 110 million monthly readers — President Greg Coleman and CEO Eric Hippeau had a running joke that they needed an armed military vehicle to bring him to and from work, because he was too darn valuable.

“If you die on the way here, Paul, we’re all screwed,” they’d say. “You have to start hiring people who are as good as you so that we can replace you if we have to.”

So that’s exactly what Berry did, and his management style attracted incredible talent. His secret: he instituted very little process for the technology team as it grew. As you'll see, structure isn’t really his thing.

Now as Founder and CEO of publishing platform RebelMouse, Berry compares the magic of a startup’s early days to the way Jimi Hendrix pursued his music career.

“We were the startup that never knew the startup rules,” he says. “I did everything very intentionally not by the book. We never talked about management, team, structure, or process. The rules felt wrong to me.”

But inevitably at both The Huffington Post and RebelMouse, Berry had to shift gears from operating like Jimi Hendrix to implementing structure and procedures that would allow scale without stifling originality. To keep things fresh, he built a rule-breaking mindset into this structure.

In order succeed and do something really creative, you have to know when to break your own process.

In this exclusive interview, Berry details the four scenarios when the best leaders should break the rules, and how to rally the people who will lead the charge.

How to Start a Fire on Purpose

The first step of breaking the rules is distinguishing between projects that are important and projects that are truly vital — being very conservative and brutally honest about these labels, and actually documenting what falls into each category.

First, accept that 70% of the features you develop will and should follow some sort of traditional process. This will keep business as usual on the rails.

“But for your most critical projects, the 10 to 30% of projects that absolutely change the game for you and separate your company from competitors, you have to break the process completely,” says Berry. “If you follow process on those, it will take far too long, and you’ll lose your advantage."

For example, let's say a huge industry leader is about to release a product that will change your company's market. Your team has the chance to build a feature that will tie directly to this release and allow you to ride its momentum.

When confronted with this type of situation, your first course of action should be to assemble a small breakout group with the synergy to rapidly execute and achieve your goal. For the 30% of projects that break the rules, these team members will operate in ‘firestarting mode’ while the rest of your employees follow traditional process.

Berry cites Ze Frank, President of Buzzfeed Motion Pictures, for the three phases of this rule-breaking framework — Firestarting, ember tending, and managing the bonfire. These are the phases Berry communicates to the "breakout groups" he charges with breaking rules on purpose.

Breakout groups are generally comprised of five team members: A fire-starter, ember tender, two engineers (four at most), a product manager or business lead, and the bonfire manager.

Fire-starters are engineers who spearhead the backend development of these projects, such as single handedly coding a new feature. They think obsessively like a product person and derive energy from creating something out of nothing. They need little direction and are often capable of working alone and very quickly.

As your team grows, you’ll have a few fire-starters who you should keep incredibly close to you. Berry’s been working with pretty much the same ones for over eight years.

“You need to know who they are and have a really good relationship with them that you build on over every project. You want history and legacy with these people,” he says.

Ember tenders are project leads who excel at maintaining, scaling, and iterating products. They work closely with your fire-starter to cultivate a thorough understanding of how and why the work is being done. Once the project is complete, your fire-starter will pass the baton to your ember tender who will integrate and manage the new feature in the broader company’s process.

The engineers, product manager, or business lead are added to the breakout team to streamline communication across departments. Long feedback loops can be detrimental to the group’s success when operating under a tight deadline.

As a founder or senior leader, your role is to be the bonfire manager. You’re responsible for distinguishing which projects are vital, assembling the breakout group to execute them, and maintaining the pace by providing nearly instant feedback and removing high level roadblocks for your fire-starter.

Below, Berry walks through the four scenarios when you'll want to bring a breakout group in to do some serious rule-breaking, why it's necessary, and how to do it responsibly so the fire you set doesn't get out of control.

Scenario 1: Catching Industry Waves

The first and most urgent indication that you need to break the rules is when you have an opportunity to connect your product to an upcoming, influential release in your industry.

When Facebook announced Connect in 2008, media companies were skeptical about giving up their logins to a social network. But under Berry’s leadership, Huffington Post was the first to lead the charge.

“We knew it was going to be hard to build our social graph on top of Facebook’s, but having a really strong integration was something that Facebook could take to the entire industry and say, ‘Look what Huffington Post did,’” he says. “It was a lot of work that suddenly had to happen in its own bubble. In a way, protected from all of our other priorities. It changed and elevated the way that brands thought of us.”

Berry immediately assembled a breakout group to ensure that the project would be completed by Facebook’s targeted launch.

“You want the people who derive energy from this kind of work,” he says. “It’s not something that’s going to bog them down or make them feel uncomfortable.”

He cites, Valery Jadlovsky, Senior Developer at RebelMouse, as a demonstrative example of a fire-starter who is capable of excelling under an industry related deadline.

“He understands a project, puts his headphones on to hardcore death metal music, and disappears into a cave until he emerges five days later with exactly what you need,” Berry says. “If you make him follow the normal process of communication and passing the baton it would take twice along.”

Breaking process in the right way is about instinctively knowing when to give people that creative freedom.

Rapid feedback is the driving force fueling these projects and is the chief reason that you assemble a breakout group to support your fire-starter. “The CEO, CTO, or a product person needs to be there to obsessively answer questions for these people.”

Fire-starters are obsessed with very quick feedback. Every spark they create is an exciting moment that needs recognition.

For the 70% of projects that abide by your company’s traditional process, taking 12 to 24 hours to respond to a product or sales related inquiry is acceptable. But when breaking the rules, extended feedback loops are “extremely demoralizing to developers.”

“They’re working like crazy on a tight deadline. They can’t wait hours to hear back on an answer,” says Berry. “Everyone has to move at the same speed together.”

As CEO, or a senior leader, your involvement plays a critical role here, requiring you to go back to your Jimi Hendrix roots to help execute a project.

You should be on call to give nearly on-demand feedback as your fire-starter executes. At RebelMouse, Berry responds to developers on these teams in minutes.

When the project is complete and ready to be tested, rather than undergoing extensive QA and client feedback checks, the feature may be tested by the fire-starter themselves and the teammates working in the breakout group.

“It can be done at midnight, released at 2 a.m, and pulled back at 4 a.m. It’s a very unique type of process because the risk and reward ratio is so different,” Berry says. “The reward for being on time for an announcement like this is so impactful to the business that you can take on higher risks.”

In late 2015, when Facebook announced that they were going to release Instant Articles, “It became a huge obligation for RebelMouse to have a team that would do nothing but make it to that first release.”

There are moments when a major titan in your industry releases something that you can get early access to and you have to be ready to react.

“It’s hard for companies because they already have a product roadmap, but these are the moments that you have to pay attention to. You need to break the rules on everything and build an extremely fast track to integrating and building something the right way.”

Fire-starting is like a performance. When you launch a product in time for an industry release, Berry encourages founders to give their fire-starters a few weeks rest.

“They can’t work on fire starting projects too long,” he says. “Even your rock stars need sustainable lives where they aren’t under pressure every day.”

This is when your ember tenders — the individuals who worked alongside the fire-starter in the breakout group — will take the lead and oversee execution.

“They’ll come in and say ‘I get it. We need to refactor this piece, touch on this, and update this. Alright, I’ll take it from here.’ Ember tenders are really good at maintaining, scaling, and iterating the product.”

For example, when The Huffington Post rallied around creating their first iPad app, the fire starters coded the app while the ember tenders now maintain and improve the features in existence today.

“The best way to balance your fire-starter is to pair them with someone who is going to be a good ember tender. They have to be there as a part of the logical process of the fire starting so that when they inherit the ember they understand what they’ve received.”

Again, your desired goal is that your ember tender approaches the situation as if the fire-starter passed him or her the baton. Consider this the revival of your traditional process.

External forces are a constant influence on your company’s growth informing Berry’s assertion that you will always have at least one fire-starting project thriving amidst your established roadmap. The best way to prepare and capitalize on them is to identify your fire-starters, inform and involve your ember-tenders, and be ready to helicopter in and out when you’re needed as a leader.

Scenario 2: Speeding Up Your Product Roadmap

Internally, you're responsible for identifying which of the projects your team is currently working on that are vital and convening breakout groups to catapult them.

The obligation on the CEO level is to know better than anyone else on the team what things are really important.

Reflecting on his experiences at Huffington Post, Berry cites Huffington Post Chairman Ken Lerer’s instinctive vision of where to lean forward as a company to gain recognition.

“He’d tell me ‘You’ve got to work on Twitter. Twitter is going to be huge. Have a team work on it. He said that before it was certain how big Twitter would become. He was just certain of it,” he says. “The difference between an okay CEO and a great CEO is the ability to have that vision for the company, understand where you fit into the industry, and know which things are most important for your team to focus on.”

If you’re a CEO but not a product person, it’s important to establish your Head of Product as a right-hand team member who you can align with, trust, and delegate that responsibility to.

Berry inhabited this role when Eric Hippeau was CEO at Huffington Post. The ability to distinguish which roadmap stops are vital is “part art and part science," he says.

You can achieve this by unveiling and exploring projects that your team members, particularly your senior leaders, deeply believe in (similar to Ken’s conviction on Twitter), as well as ensuring that you’re delivering a product that far exceeds your customers conscious and unconscious expectations.

It starts with your whole team having a strong understanding of company priorities.

“You don’t want to be sidetracked by an attractive distractor — something that looks really cool and sparkles, but if it’s not at the core of your business you end up breaking the process too often. It’s about picking the right moment, and aligning it with the core things that you’re looking at.”

To identify and manage your own vital projects, ask these three questions about the change at hand before assembling a breakout group:

How much will this affect the business when it’s live?

Will this change our audience and revenue numbers when we release it?

How challenging is it to execute?

You want your team to actively generate a hypothesis. “Sometimes people like an idea in the abstract and think, ‘Oh my god! It will be so cool when we have it.’ But when you ask them ‘How do you think it will change things? They have to really think about it.”

Berry is currently spearheading this at RebelMouse as the team pioneers new features to elevate their clients’ social discovery.

“RebelMouse clients don’t necessarily know where to ask for features. They just want growth and for us to power properties that will help them achieve that,” he says. “Your customers will have requests but many products have to come from inside your organization when you know something is going to make a difference.”

This recently occurred with the team’s release of RebelMouse 2.0. Their new product Rebel Runner is specifically designed to enable clients to seamlessly share their content across multiple media properties amidst the conversations surrounding ad-blocking and the rise of social publishing platforms like Facebook Instant Articles.

“We knew that if we could make the best practice clear for their workflow that it was something that would be vital for us,” Berry explained.

“To get that done, we had three breakout groups who each took a piece of the project and worked super fast. They weren’t waiting for tickets to get updated or for code to go to QA. They worked knowing that Megan, RebelMouse’s Head of Product, or myself would answer in minutes,” he says.

Breakthroughs in social discovery are a paramount initiative for RebelMouse and has enabled the team to scale partnerships with companies like General Electric, Time Inc., and Sports Illustrated.

Scenario 3: Quashing Internal Politics

The next critical tenet of breaking of the rules, which Berry often witnesses being neglected at startups, is managing your team’s internal politics. This manifests in two ways: New and past projects that arise during intimate conversations with your senior leadership team and when you have to make thoughtful exceptions to traditional process.

While it’s important to engage your entire team in creative discourse, critical roadmap goals often arise during unfiltered conversations with your co-founders and senior leaders.

Jonah Peretti (Huffington Post’s CEO at the time) and I used to chat from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. One night, during the early days, we realized that we could build a search tool to optimize results for editors,” Berry says. “We knew it would move the needle on traffic and it was a fun one where Jonah could see how fast we made it a reality, and the team could feel how quickly something they did made an impact on the company.”

Other late-night conversations will highlight pipeline projects that may have been neglected and are critical to the company’s development. In the early days at Huffington Post, Paul made it a habit to check in with Jonah, Ken, and Arianna Huffington to uncover when and if a project dropped off the roadmap.

There are moments when someone on your management team needs something and you have to get it done for them very quickly; To make sure that they feel the momentum, you need to break from business as usual.

Not all of your internal rule-breaking scenarios will be complex which is why cultivating a fluid approach to process enables you to make minor, but influential, exceptions when necessary.

“The things that people often miss are the last touches that make an enormous difference,” Berry says.

There are times when your fire-starter needs “three days of hyper focus” to get the job done and other situations where a few hours, or even minutes, of heads down work will drastically influence your final product.

For example, if a feature can be ready for a partner meeting you have the following day it’s wise to make an exception and have your fire-starter finish the project so you can present it to your client.

As you make these decisions, be prepared to justify breaking the process to your senior leadership team.

“That’s where it comes back to the science,” Berry affirms. “It’s not just about the people on the product and engineering team understanding it. It’s about educating the management team too.”

This reinforces the value of sharing quiet time with your senior partners like Peretti and Berry did during the early days at The Huffington Post. This is where you’ll discuss, choose, and validate which breakout projects to pursue.

It’s equally important to balance aligning your senior leadership team with ensuring that everyone in the organization understands what is happening and why it’s happening.

“The more support there is inside of an organization for this way of working the easier it is for everyone.”

Regardless of your scale, you want to foster an environment where everyone can help shape and understand how things get shaped at your company. This will inspire deeper involvement from your team, leading individual members to pioneer solutions that further your mission.

Scenario 4: Finding Your Future Fire-Starters

The last rule-breaking situation that Berry encourages leaders to actively address is giving their creative team members the ability to explore and develop their own individual passions. This often uncovers a company’s next generation of fire-starters.

“One thing that comes up regularly, is that you have a very creative person on your team and you want to give them space, with blind faith that they’re going to go out and come up with things that are important,” says Berry. “You want to look out for these individuals and let them come up with the ideas that will lead to breakout groups.”

The drawback here is that when someone introduces a project that they spent the whole weekend on and are super excited about it, the team reflects on the 70 things that are already on your roadmap.

This happens at RebelMouse frequently.

“Without asking permission or collaborating with anyone, a developer falls in love with an idea, works all weekend on it, and brings it in on Monday,” says Berry.

Most recently, a developer created a simple solution to represent tweets on a page related to a specific vertical.

“It was an awesome project that he did over his own weekend, yet it bugged a bunch of people, including the team member formally in charge of Twitter,” he says. “There are so many things to do and then there’s this prototype. The funny thing is that projects like these almost always ring alarm bells in an organization rather than celebrating a person who worked overtime when they could have been recovering.”

Not every weekend project will be the catalyst of a breakout group. However, the manner you acknowledge your team members efforts is critical to the way ideas are generated in your organization.

Many team members will question why you’re focusing on a prototype during a meeting when they feel that previously established projects are more important.

While they’re addressing valid points, according to Berry, you do have to control it because some things are right and useful, but others are wrong. However, it’s a good thing, not a bad thing because this was someone’s passionate moment. As much as possible, you want to recognize and guide those people to build the things that matter most to them.

“Where organizations regularly mess up is that they give bad feedback to a person for all of the extra credit hours. These projects and individuals are extremely meaningful to your organization,” he says. “Your job as CEO is to to walk them through why these features are awesome and how you can learn from them.”

In short, breaking the rules isn’t a one size fits all act. However, by cultivating an awareness for these four instances, you’ll be capable of recognizing vital projects and assembling the right breakout teams to get them over the line.

As you navigate each, you want to establish a shared understanding among your team that these are vital internal goals that must be hit or a catalyst. They cannot be delayed. Your company’s future is dependent on them.

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