April 7, 2024 Leadership

Organizational Changelog

Change is coming; I hope you're ready.

Leaders must build teams and organizations that thrive on change, not just survive it. Yet change is hard. It’s uncomfortable. It’s often surprising. It’s hard to understand, hard to manage, and surprisingly hard to track. But it doesn’t have to be.

An organizational changelog can help: the simple practice of explicitly tracking change in your organization. By remembering your past, you’ll come to understand your present and shape your future.

What goes into a great changelog?

I see the changelog as the story of an organization, told through its change and evolution. Practically, you want to track key changes with the context and perspective that help you remember why they happened. Think strategy and your big bets, but also the tactics that underly them. Think of your large structural shifts and your inner-team refinements. Think of operating defaults that impact everyone as well as those that only leadership relies on. Like any good autobiography, don’t shy away from the uncomfortable (yet real!) truths; lean into each and every moment you live through.

While that’s a lot of space to cover, we don’t shift our organizations dramatically all that often. Keep it simple: A bullet-point list in a shared document. You’ll be surprised how quickly this comes together by simply tracking change across 3 buckets:

  1. Aims and strategy
  2. Structure and teams
  3. Defaults and programs

There’s enough richness in these buckets to grow your collective memory and make better bets. Similarly, they keep your changelog straightforward, ensuring it’s easy to maintain and easy for your org to consume! Let’s dive in.

1. Aims and strategy

The why and what. The reason this organization exists:

  • Your clear and succinct vision captures why you exist. 1–2 sentences at most. Stable, but that makes all changes meaningful.
  • Your motivating metrics bring cold reality to your vision. Think star guides over Google Maps; you won’t see your movement immediately, but you’ll know you’re going in the right direction.
  • Your short-term roadmap highlights the real work ahead (often linked out). What your teams do day-in and day-out.

2. Structure and teams

The who. How we assemble ourselves to get things done.

Reporting lines are what everyone cares about, so track that while also thinking wider. Identify your other structures, from cross-functional teams to working groups, as these are often the drivers of progress. Give them the power they deserve by naming and tracking them with the same rigor as your reporting structures.

3. Defaults and programs

The how. Your defaults on how teams work day-to-day.

Capture the defaults you’ve adopted. Remember: we are what we do — so think about your culture here too. Identify and track the systems and programs that keep your product running, tech debt down, and people energized. Elaborate on your socials, how you work, and everything in between. Altogether these describe who you are collectively far more than many realize.

Packaging this all together

Everything we just covered, when brought together, forms an excellent “release” for your organization. But beyond the changes themself, we can also signal intent through the use of versioning. Let’s build off Semantic Versioning: It’s simple, clear, and easy to understand. And it easily communicates magnitude, which is a powerful tool in itself.

The framework’s MAJOR.MINOR.PATCH approach works surprisingly well, but these terms require tuning to match an organization:

  • MAJOR signals fundamental change. These are the big shifts that change the way you work with a wide-reaching impact. Think of significant reorgs, pivots in purpose, or overhauls in operations.
  • MINOR signals non-disruptive additions. These are meaningful additions to how you work, but don’t dramatically change what already exists. Think new teams, a new product bet, or an emergent operating default.
  • PATCH is for tune-ups. These are simply the little refinements that happen regularly. Your use of PATCH will vary based on org maturity and size; don’t be surprised if this isn’t used as much.

Major versions are rare, but they’re the big moments that define your organization. Minor versions are more common, but they’re the steady drumbeat of progress. Patches are the small tweaks that keep everything running smoothly, often made with no commentary.

Given that you’re using this on an organization full of humans, don’t feel beholden to “the spec.” Sometimes a major version is not much on paper, but is instead a clear message about the moment. Sometimes a minor version involves wide-reaching changes, but you’re still charting the same course. Your choice of version can have as much impact as the changes themselves — they broadcast intent and magnitude.

Altogether these versions tell the story of your organization. They’re the chapters in your autobiography, each building on the last and setting the stage for the next.

Let’s ground all of this with an example

There’s a lot here, but it’s all quite simple. Let’s review the fictional CodeCraft Inc. changelog.

Even this short snippet shares surprising insight into the company. You get a sense of culture from the changelog simply existing, but also in how it’s written. You see what they care about from what is tracked and where change happens. And so much more! The story of this company is reacting and evolving as it goes…

Expand to review a changelog for "CodeCraft Inc."
# CodeCraft Changelog

_Living document capturing key organizational changes of CodeCraft. Helps us remember where we came from and how we got to where we are today. Part of _treating our human organization more like_ a product itself._

## v3.0.0 - 2023-10-17

Announced at the company-wide Town Hall ([slides](#), [recording](#)). Pivoting our aim to AI-driven education for the next generation. We're flattening our structure, but keeping many of our practices the same. Adding our first written 'Who we are' document as well.

**_Key docs: [v3.0 Org chart](#), [v3.0 Roadmap](#), [v2.1 Operational defaults](#), [v1.0 Who we are](#)_**

1. **Aims & strategy**
  - **[MAJOR]** Mandate got extended: **AI-driven** education for the next generation.
    - Even with this, our motivating metrics remain the same: increase the total of college-equivalent expertise; while decreasing total education spend.
  - **[MAJOR]** [v3.0 Roadmap](#) (from [v2.2 Roadmap](#)): With the focus on AI now, we've dropped our VR projects (that bet didn't pan out).
2. **Structure and teams**
  - **[MAJOR]** [v3.0 Org chart](#) (from [v2.2 Org chart](#)): Our biggest structural change so far! A lot of folks are in new teams with new managers. We've been hearing everyone's feedback and have finally rebalanced skills and tenure. We also made sure teams line-up to the new roadmaps.
  - We've also adjusted titles to match the new formalized company title system (Tech Lead → Staff Engineer OR Manager).
3. **Defaults and programs**
  - **[MINOR]** [v2.1 Operational defaults](#) (from [v2.0 Operational defaults](#)): Mostly the same, but clarified some of the emergent norms around remote work and Fantastic Fridays.
  - **[NEW]** [v1.0 Who we are](#): Finally capturing a more detailed take on _who we are_, and what will help you be successful here. This is a place for high-agency actors through and through.

## v2.2.0 - 2023-04-08

Shared as a video recording ([link](#)) in Slack. The team and product have been crushing it! We're codifying the dynamic structure we've been using for a while now, and we're adding a new VR team to double down on the tailwinds.

**_Key docs: [v2.2 Org chart](#), [v2.0 Operational defaults](#)_**

1. **Aims & strategy**: N/A
2. **Structure and teams**
  - **[MINOR]** [v2.2 Org chart](#) (from [v2.1 Org chart](#)): We've added a new VR team to double down on the tailwinds we're seeing in the market. We've also added a new 'floating' team to help with cross-team coordination.
3. **Defaults and programs**
  - **[MAJOR]** [v2.0 Operational defaults](#) (from [v1.5 How to scrum](#)): We do a whole lot more than 'scrum' (and we're so far from scrum at this point why keep calling it that). So introducing the revamped _Operational defaults_, spanning the full suite of how we operate. Give it a read if you're new or want a refresher.

## v2.1.3 - 2023-01-23

... and so on ...

The power of an organizational changelog

There’s more to it than simply “tracking changes.” While it’s an incredibly powerful way to communicate change, an organizational changelog is so much more than that.

Shaping what comes next

It’s too easy to forget the past. Our memory is selective and overly influenced by our current moment and mood. Without safekeeping, we lose key insights and lessons learned through our experiences. We forget “the why” behind our decisions. We forget the context that drove our choices, left only with the outcomes that followed. That’s a dangerous place to be. As the saying goes:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

— George Santayana, The Life of Reason.

A changelog protects our past from our unreliable memory. It lets us learn from our mistakes and build on our wins. It clearly shows the bets we’ve made, so we can judge their success. It shows the story of our growth and the incredible progress we’ve made. Most importantly, the past gives us the context to understand the present and the foresight to shape the future. This is the most obvious upside of a changelog, but there’s another important one.

Your organization as a product

It might feel weird at first, but your organization is a product in its own right. It has an incredibly rich history full of change and reaction. It has a deep personality, coming from both the people but also what they do together each day. It exists to do something in this world.

There are many ways to think about your organization as a product, but a changelog is a powerful starting place. As your product organization goes through changes, updates, and improvements, you are packaging these together to tell a powerful story. By tracking these stories — collective bets across strategy, structure, and defaults — you’ll get better at future bets you have to make. By tracking these changes, you’ll see more opportunities to shape your organization like a product.

So what are you waiting for? Embrace change and build your organization’s changelog. Capture your rich past; bringing a deep understanding of your collective progress. Drive successful bet-making; instilling an ethos of constant growth and change. And take the first step to treating your organization like the product it truly is.