December 18, 2011

...Learn TDD with Codemanship

Leadership Without Leaders

Distracted today by interesting discussions on That Twitter. One in particular about the folly of giving decision-making power to one group of people ("leaders") and tasking another group with understanding the implications of those decisions ("workers", if you like).

Why do we have dedicated leaders on teams - people who have to seek expert advice so they can make "informed decisions"? Why aren't those decisions being made by the experts themselves?

I don't have a problem with leadership, I should stress. At some point we all need to take the lead so the team can move forward in a specific direction.

My concern is that we appoint someone as leader. Leader as job title is what I have a problem with.

I also don't dispute that a single point of contact between the team and the business is a often a good idea. But let's not confuse the role of "team representative" with "leader".

In politics, and management, the distinction is often blurred. We elect "representatives" who then say they are "in power" and start telling us what to do, rather than asking us what we think should be done. Many of society's ills can be traced back to this confusion between people who speak for us and people who decide for us.

A team can find ways to make decisions that don't require a dedicated leader. I've done this many times in the past. When a decision needed to be taken, the team put it to the vote. Should we use Ibatis or Hibernate? Show of hands. Hibernate it is, then?

At this juncture in the debate, there are a couple of objections that tend to come up:

1. What if your team tends to make uninformed decisions?

Well, that's probably because you hired the wrong people. If you don't trust the majority opinion of your team, then you don't trust your team.

2. Who is accountable for the ultimate outcome of decisions, then?

The team. We stand or fall as a coherent unit.

There may be someone on the team the customer gets on best with. Y'know, one of those "people persons" people tend to bang on about. Dandy. It's like having an expert in talking to the customer. If you have someone on the team who excels at something the rest of you don't, it makes perfect sense to let them lead in that area. Empower them to act as the "face of the team", by all means. But be very clear as a team where that power ends.

Similarly, if someone on the team is acknowledged as the expert in, say, code quality andf is good at spotting code smells and SOLID and all that good, healthy stuff, then empower them to lead in that area.

Generally speaking, empower people who excel in key areas to lead in those areas, and take your lead when you're not the best person to be making those decisions.

When the team can't agree, have a simple constitution that kicks in - a basic democratic decision-making process, with checks and balances for changing course when the team discovers they made a wrong call as early as possible.

If we're unwilling to do this, and, as dedicated leaders, unwilling to relinquish decision-making power to experts and to the team as a whole, we are essentially saying "I know better than this team". And maybe you do, but the fact that they're your team suggests perhaps you didn't. Either you hired an inadequate team, or you joined an inadequate team, or you just stood back and let someone else build the team for you, and didn't insist on getting the right people. None of these makes you look good, frankly.

One very interesting Twitter response suggested that leaders "carry the can". To quote: "Do-ers don't go down if the org goes down". This is patently not true. If the org goes down, we all go down. In fact, in many businesses, it's the workers who go to the wall first. Middole management, when ordered to cut costs, are not in the business of firing themselves.

Why can't the whole team carry the whole can? Teams succeed or fail as a whole. They should share the risks, and share the rewards equally. We are grown-ups, after all.

Posted 9 years, 2 months ago on December 18, 2011