Last week, I was watching some talks on Youtube and came across one that stood out to me. The talk was a Startup School lecture from Keith Rabois called How to Operate. Keith is widely known for his exec roles helping build some of the trademark tech companies of today like PayPal, LinkedIn, and Square.

In this talk, he introduces the concept of barrels and ammunition, which I thought was a really clever way to view organizations. I won't bury the lead here. This quote from Rabois summarizes the idea nicely:

If you think about people, there are two categories of high-quality people: there is the ammunition, and then there are the barrels. You can add all the ammunition you want, but if you have only five barrels in your company, you can literally do only five things simultaneously. If you add one more barrel, you can now do six things simultaneously. If you add another one, you can do seven, and so on.

In short, the output of your organization is dependent on the number of people that can own projects and see them through to the end.

This often manifests itself in the form of Leads and Managers, but it isn't limited to just management roles. Barrels can be found in just about anywhere (though they will rise up the ranks quickly).

One example of this from Keith was an intern at a previous company that solved their smoothie problem, a problem that a handful of high-performers had already failed at.

Another common example is the engineer that brings ideas forward, gets the team behind it, builds the feature, and then evaluates the results. Note that they don't necessarily have to implement each part of this process on their own, as long as they have the ability to bring in resources elsewhere and manage them within the scope of the project. Rabois further describes this:

Finding those barrels that you can shoot through — someone who can take an idea from conception to live and it’s almost perfect — are incredibly difficult to find. This kind of person can pull people with them. They can charge up the hill. They can motivate their team, and they can edit themselves autonomously.

He goes on to say that once someone demonstrates "barrel-like" ability, you should quickly put more on their plate. Keep pushing them until they hit their ceiling; everyone does at some point.

How to Identify Barrels

We've briefly described barrels as colleagues who own projects and take them from start to finish. This is a start, but it's important to break this down further into some common traits of barrels that you can be on the lookout for:

  • Barrels take initiative. They don't wait for approval or consensus.
  • Barrels ship high-quality work. They constantly looking for ways to improve.
  • Barrels value speed. They get the proof of concept out the door quickly and iterate on it.
  • Barrels take accountability. They are not only willing but excited to own the plan and the outcome.
  • Barrels are seen as a resource. Teammates frequently seek them out for help and advice.
  • Barrels work well with others. They know how to motivate teams and individuals alike.
  • Barrels can handle adversity. They push through friction and obstacles.

It's not easy to find someone who gets excellent marks in each of these characteristics, and that's okay. This isn't a set of requirements, but rather a list of indicators that should set off your "barrel alarm" and tell you to pay that person a little extra attention.

Whenever you find a barrel, you should hire them instantly, regardless of whether you have money for them or whether you have a role for them. Just close them.

How to Become a Barrel

People aren't born barrels while others are destined for life as ammunition. The question that I'm most interested in is still out there: How does one become a barrel? I think it comes down to a few things.

You should have an extremely sound mental model of the problem that your company or product is solving. This won't happen overnight, but you should be layering new insights, ideas, and learnings onto your model each and every day. This will help you identify opportunities out there, ideate on solutions, and prioritize accordingly.

Once you know what problems you should be solving, you need to take action. This could mean taking an “Ask for forgiveness, not permission” approach, depending on how your organization functions. It takes bravery to do this, but like anything else, it's a muscle that you can build up and improve over time. Don't be afraid to make the first move, the repercussions aren't as serious as you think they are.

You probably need to work with others in order to move the project forward. This takes many forms. Sometimes it might be selling others on the importance and impact of the idea. Other times, it might be burning some social capital and cashing in favors to make things happen. This step is much easier if you have built solid relationships with those around you already. If you are frequently helping others or have just been a friendly person, then most people will be happy to lend a hand.

Last but not least, barrels should be great at what they do. If you aren't in the top 10% of your domain, you should work on getting there as quickly as possible. This will make each of the previous steps a little easier. Others will respect you and look up to you. Not only will the output be better, but it will be easier to recruit partners and deliver impact in the end.

Let's quickly recap. In order to become a barrel in your organization, you should work on mastering each of the following steps:

  • Understand: Develop a mental model of the problem you're solving
  • Ideate: Think deeply about the problem and how to solve it
  • Take initiative: Create convincing proof of concepts for your ideas
  • Recruit others: Build relationships to bring in teammates to help
  • Deliver results: Level up your skills. Ship work that turns heads.

This all sounds nice and snappy (hopefully), but it's not all that easy. I'm still on my path to becoming a barrel. I've been making good progress, especially over the last year or so, but the reality is that stuff like this doesn't happen overnight.

At the same time, it really seems learning to function as a barrel is a life skill that pays dividends in ways that I haven't even foreseen yet. It also seems surprisingly attainable. I'm excited to get there and look back on this. Can't wait to see you there with me.

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