No one can guarantee success in war, but only deserve it. – Winston Churchill
It’s a Monday during spring 2016. My team at Facebook walks away from the open space and into a garage with “WAR ROOM” spelled on the door. None of us knew that a month later we would be thoroughly exhausted and successfully ship a cursed project that had been stalling for the last 2 years.
That war room was the most invigorating experience I’ve had at Facebook. It was the biggest thing I shipped, the best teamwork my team has done, and the seal on the promotion I was looking for.
War rooms are a powerful tool to get anything shipped. Like wars, they create damage along the way.
What is a War Room?
A war room is a short and intense period where a team dedicates absolutely everything to achieve a single objective.
There are two types of war rooms: one for getting a new product shipped and another for dealing with a big crisis. This story is of the former type, whereas the FB election war room is an example of the latter.
The Outcomes of War
A well-conducted war room is incredibly powerful because it takes your team to its very limit. This is useful for two reasons:
Allowing you to meet hard objectives that are impossible to meet otherwise
When a war room fails, you know for a fact that the objective is outside of what you can achieve with your current team at the current time
War rooms enable this by taking focus, communication, and urgency to the extreme.
Focus. When a great team works on one single goal with zero distractions, magic truly happens. Speed of execution rises 10x, problems that usually take a week to solve are now solved on the spot, and people drive each other to be their very best. This feeling is what made this war room the best experience I had at Facebook.
Communication. War rooms are an organizational communication tool. During our war room, I went to meet with an engineer from a platform team. For several months, I had been trying to get his team to update an API that blocked our launch. When I used the words “we’re in a war room” I instantly became a god to him. He assigned someone to update the API the same day.
Urgency. War rooms transform soft deadlines into hard ones. That end date becomes an immutable finish line that nobody dares to question. When this happens, you see what people can do under the influence of true urgency.
These outcomes are not guaranteed. To achieve them, your war room must be carefully and strategically conducted.
How to Run a War (Room)
The most impressive thing about that FB war room was the product manager who ran it. Here’s how she masterfully ran it.
Objective. Define a single and concrete objective for the war room. Work hard to get full buy-in, if one person is not on board you’ve already lost. For us, the objective was to get the product shipped on a specific date and time.
Planning. Wars are won through preparation. Dedicate as much time as needed for this, even longer than the actual war room. Allow your team to do the planning, you’re just there to ensure it happens. The goals of planning are 1) get everyone on the same execution page, 2) identify and remove blockers early, and 3) understand who will own what and how.
Grandiose Kickoff Speech. You don’t have to be Churchill to give an inspiring speech. Explain the rationale, crystalize the objective and the plan, and be as energetic as you can. Make it a big deal because it is a big deal.
Space. Change the working space. If the team is a part of a bigger org, make sure it’s an isolated space. More generally, do whatever you can to make the war room feel different than your regular day-to-day. Running a remote team? Send them cool stuff and use a virtual office tool.
Zero Distractions. This is the one thing you can’t get wrong. No unrelated meetings and no scheduled meetings at all, no bug fixing, no vacation, nothing but all-out war.
Let the Pizzas Flow. Every war room in history that did not involve a lot of pizza failed. Get pizza, but more seriously, make it fun. Your team is going to spend long hours together.
Be the Toughest Warrior. The fastest way to lose your team’s respect is by not being 200% committed and immersed in the war room. No excuses, you must be present whenever anyone else is, and work harder than everyone else.
Micromanage. War is no time for freedom and creativity. Make and override decisions whenever necessary. The objective is above all.
To run a successful war room you’ll need to know the pitfalls.
Dangers of a Mismanaged War
I’ve seen and participated in failed war rooms. Those are not fun and happen for the following reasons.
Not Meeting the Objective. Failing to meet your objective is always a possibility, but do everything in your power to avoid it as it’s incredibly demotivating. My first war room at FB was kind of a failure and people left the team shortly after.
Too Long. A war room is so intense that it has to be short. The ideal is ~3 weeks and 6 is the furthest I would dare stretch it.
Too Frequent. War is an expensive tool. Use it only when absolutely necessary and twice a year max.
Lame Ending. After a successful war room, there’s a natural drop in intensity. Celebrate, recognize people, and then give everyone a break to recoup.
Shortcuts. Lots of ugly and beautiful shortcuts will be taken to meet the war objective. This is expected so just let it be, and bake in post-war time to pay those debts.
Mismanaged Stress and Anxiety. A war room can be stressful, especially the first time one goes through it. You are both the commander and team therapist for this period.
War rooms are scary because the stakes, stress, and chance of failure are high, high, and high.
They are some of the strongest and most vivid career memories I have. Painful at the moment but irreplaceable in hindsight. Working hard with people who care, and achieving something that in normal times is deemed impossible.
The framework shared here does wonders at Facebook, and it applies to the smallest startups and the biggest enterprises with minor adaptations. The only prerequisite is a good reason to go to war and a team that truly cares.
If you’d like to know what your team is truly capable of, take them to war.