April 15, 2017

...Learn TDD with Codemanship

IT's Original Sin: Separating Authority & Expertise

I'm recalling a contract I did a few years ago, where I was leading a new team on an XML publishing sort of thing. The company I was working for had been started by two entrepreneurs who had zero experience of the software industry. Which is fine, if you can hire experts who have the necessary experience.

On our little team, things were generally good, except for one fly in the ointment. The guy they'd trained up in this specific database technology we were using had his own ideas about building the whole thing in XQuery, and refused to go along with any technical decision made by the team.

Without his specific skillset, we couldn't deliver anything, and so he had the team over a barrel. It should have been easily fixed, though. I just had to go to the bosses, and get an executive decision. Case closed.

Except the bosses didn't know whether to believe me or believe him, because they knew nothing about what we were trying to do. And they were unwilling to concede authority to the team to make the decisions.

This is a common anti-pattern in the way organisations are run, and it seems to be getting worse. Our whole society now seems to be organised in a way that separates decision-making authority from expertise. Indeed, the more authority someone has, the less they tend to understand the ramifications of the decisions they're making.

In Britain, this is partly - I think - down to an historical belief in a "leadership class". Leaders go to certain good (fee-paying) schools, they get classical educations that focus on ancient languages, history, literature etc, and they study purely academic non-technical subjects at university like Politics or History. They're prepared for the burden of command by their upbringing - "character building" - rather than their actual education or training. They're not actually qualified to do anything. They're not scientists, or doctors, or nurses, or engineers, or designers, or programmers, or builders, or anything drearily practical like that. They're leaders.

These are the people who tend to end up in the boardrooms of Britain's biggest companies. These are the people who end up in charge of government departments. These are the people who are in charge of TV & radio.

And hence we get someone making the big decisions about healthcare who knows nothing about medicine or about running hospitals or ambulance services. And we get someone in charge of all the schools who knows nothing about teaching or running a school. And we get someone in charge of a major software company whose last job was being in charge of a soft drinks company. And so on.

Again, this is fine, if they leave the technical decisions to the technical experts. And that's where it all falls down, of course. They don't.

The guy in charge of the NHS insists on telling doctors and nurses how they should do their jobs. The woman in charge of UK schools insists on overriding the expertise of teachers. The guy in charge of a major software company refuses to listen to the engineers about the need for automated testing. And so on.

This is the Dunning-Kruger effect writ large. CEOs and government ministers are brimming with the overconfidence of someone who doesn't know that they don't know.

Recently, I got into a Twitter conversation with someone attending the launch of the TechNation report here in the UK. It was all about digital strategy, and I had naively asked if there were any software developers at the event. His response was "Why would we want software developers involved in digital strategy?" As far as he was concerned, it was non of our godammed business.

I joked that it was like having an event called "HealthNation" and not inviting any doctors, or "SchoolNation" and not inviting any teachers. At which point, doctors and teachers started telling me that this has in actual fact happened, and happens often.

The consequences for everyone when you separate authority and expertise can be severe. If leaders can't learn humility and leave the technical decisions to the technical experts - if that authority won't be willingly given - then authority must be taken. The easiest way - for the people who do the actual work and make the wheels turn - is to simply not ask for permission. That was our first mistake.

Posted 1 week, 1 day ago on April 15, 2017