“There is no one who knows all the stuff that needs to happen. The solution is to let the decisions be made where they’re executed, and maybe partly communicated upwards. That means there’s stuff that happens at the company that no one knows about …. That means someone in the organization who comes across a decision, they can answer it by themselves by comparing it to the mission. Having a vision-driven organization is really healthy.” Putting Games To Work, Alex Handy, Software Development Times, March 2012.
I love a good system. You know, something where we have a methodology and we all follow it. It helps us be very good at what we do. We deliver projects, products and services on time and the engineering and quality are rock solid.
There Is A Tension Between High Productivity And High Flexibility
The catch is that such a good system also has a tendency to make us less flexible. There seems to be a natural tension between high efficiency with high productivity and flexibility with innovation.
I’m often guilty of preaching flexibility with innovation while pounding into folks the need to have a system and a methodology that we follow with high fidelity. I stress that we need to understand how we work and why we work well and then use this to our full advantage.
The trick is how to balance these two in such a way that we get all the benefits of our innovations (productivity, quality, etc.) but with a steady drumbeat of new innovations to get us more productivity and quality and also allow us to expand in new innovative directions.
Alex Handy in the Software Development Times talks about a company in the gaming world which seems to match my experience with being successful at doing this kind of balancing act. They’ve a culture where key decisions can be made at the level of work where they need to be made.
The catch with this approach is how do we keep everyone in sync? It can be pretty chaotic as we find ourselves rapidly adapting one part of the project with a brilliant change where the change simultaneously sub-optimizes another part of the project. We can reach a point where we think we can never finish or even convince ourselves the product is rock solid, because a new change comes along before we can even catch a breath (and why should we try — it will change again anyway!).
A Vision Can Enable Teams To Make Good Decisions and Tradeoffs
While some of this will inevitably happen, I’ve found the most powerful way to keep folks in sync, besides keeping information and projects in a public place, is to have an overall vision for what we are doing. Having such a vision, that anyone can look at and make product or project decisions based upon, can have a huge positive impact on efficiency and innovation.
Instead of having to call meetings to get agreement or approval to do something, we can decide on our own based upon knowing the overall vision of the product.
I was working in a Fortune 50 company where the project plans were pretty much kept as closely held secrets within the core project team. There were many reasons for this, some good (security) and some not so good (control, power, etc.).
When I started to manage these same kind of projects, I would put plans and objectives on-line and advertise them to … everyone. Since plans and objectives had a tendency to change, I took a bit of criticism for publishing “incomplete” information. This was a “waterfall” based organization and so the culture was not to officially publish anything until it was “done.” Which meant it was rarely fully published.
A Vision Will Naturally Coordinate A Worldwide Project Team
As this was a worldwide company with significant teams in multiple timezones, languages and cultures, it just made sense to me to push the information out to everyone. I got a lot of “thank yous!” (in various languages) for proactively pushing out the plans, information and vision as early as possible and for daily keeping it up to date.
In these projects, we had regular status meetings to sync up everyone and to resolve issues. I was continually amazed how “issues” were being simultaneously resolved around the world, because our remote teams had seen the plans and objectives, recognized things that could or would go wrong, and adjusted what they were doing based upon it. By the time the core team had noticed the problem and started to alert everyone, we had folks who had already resolved the issue or adjusted to the situation.
In another organization, I recall a senior manager reporting humorously the status of one of his big projects. He admitted that he had reported yesterday they were on track for rolling out a large change when it fact it was not quite true. The truth was the roll out teams had, knowing the objectives and goals, had seen ways to do more things simultaneously — and felt empowered to adapt — and so they were not on time, they were done. The senior manager admitted his job now was to be daily surprised about how much more got accomplished than they had originally planned.
A Vision Empowers High Productivity And High Flexibility
In all these cases, the team’s ability to both know the overall vision and purpose and have the freedom to adapt based upon these, allowed the teams to be hugely productive. I find I still have to remind teams to understand our approach and methodology and to use it with rigor because when that isn’t done, our hyper-progress starts to become hyper-chaos, fast. Yet if they maintain both vision awareness and process discipline they can operate almost autonomously and still attain or exceed the goals of the company.
But consider some cautions: Why Hands-Off Leadership Does Not Work
Do your teams understand the overall vision and goals of the project and are they empowered to adapt plans based upon that information?