alacrity in action
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Every now and then my twitter stream comes up with an interesting statement or question that sparks some reflection. The latest one came from Paweł:

Should a senior manager veto decision of one of their team leads if they don't agree with it? Or should they do nothing and see results?
Pawel Brodzinski

I’m going to treat is slightly broader, speaking of a team rather then just a team lead.

This is not only an interesting question but also one which, I bet, often gets asked, especially as teams gain autonomy in organisations. Let’s leave out, for the time being, the more fundamental issue, whether we need managers at all, and Bob has some tasty thoughts about this.

Let’s consider the two possible solutions to this conundrum.

Veto the decision.

This is most likely the default answer in traditional, command and control organisations. When seniority and position in the hierarchy is confused with experience and knowledge senior managers fell obliged to make their stamp and protect their subordinates from doing the wrong thing. I hope this approach immediately raises your concern, at least a bit. First of all, the higher up you are in the chain-of-command the more removed you usually become from where the real work is done and your understanding of the context and specific challenges diminishes. More importantly however, to blindly veto your team’s decision is a stark demonstration that you don’t trust their judgment or their knowledge. It undermines their autonomy (assuming they had some to begin with) and demotivates them from taking responsibility for their own actions in the future.

Let the team fail.

If you care about your team accepting responsibility, about their autonomy and motivation you may think that the best outcome then is to do nothing and wait for the result. After all, you might accept that you are wrong in your opinion or you may want to give the team an opportunity to learn and fail. The team will continue with their own, independent decisions towards some outcome. They may succeed, or they may fail. If the latter outcome realises don’t be tempted to go and say “well, I always knew this was a bad idea but I wanted you to learn for yourselves”. Regardless, by not sharing your concerns you are withholding information from the team which can potentially harm the team and thus the organisation.

There is a third way.

When Paweł initially asked this question my immediate reaction was that it is irresponsible to do either. It felt very similar to the problem of delegation. “To delegate or not” appears to be a puzzle for many managers. Jurgen gives a good solution to this one reminding us that there are in fact perhaps as many as seven different levels of delegation between the two extremes.

I believe it’s better to aim for the middle in this particular situation too. My preferred choice would be for the manager to honestly and openly approach the team. They should share their concerns in a neutral manner giving the team the information and the context they might be missing. Seeking to learn their position on the problem, exploring the different potential outcomes, exposing any implicit assumptions that either side might be holding and then allowing the team to take an independent, but hopefully better informed, decision. And even though it sounds like a long-winded process it can all be done in a 15 minute chat at a cafeteria.

However, remember what Senge repeats after Argyris

If there is disagreement, it’s usually expressed in a manner that lays blame, polarises opinion, and fails to reveal the underlying assumptions and experience in a way that the team as a whole could learn from.

If that were the case, perhaps the question we begun with is not even the right question to be asking.

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No, it’s not going to be about the next version of the Android operating system.

I missed the Energized Work book club yesterday but managed to see the video by Benjamin that was being discussed. Together with this presentation I bumped into on twitter it prompted me to consider how we give feedback.

The traditional management approach to giving feedback was to get it all out, straight and with no adornments. Perhaps you might have experienced something like this:

You are really poor at wiring these specifications. No one can understand them. Developers are complaining, customers can’t read them. It really isn’t working. I know you can do better, you just have to try harder.

When I was doing my line manager’s training I was told we need to be more considerate and should use the “sandwich” approach when giving feedback; our information should come in threes: positive – negative – positive. Wrapping damning remarks in a cosy blanket of positive appreciation is supposed to make them more acceptable and easier to act upon. To improve even further we can go a step further and replace the negative critique with constructive criticism: positive – constructive – positive. Let’s try:

Hi. I have spoken to our customer recently. They really liked how you kept them engaged when you were writing the specification. Great job, it really worked. There was just this bit where you described the calculation rules. Nobody seem to have understood it, not even the developers. You should improve how you communicate the technical details and keep you positive attitude. I really like how you approach your tasks with enthusiasm and dedication.

I don’t know. Is it better? I followed good advice, will it really help the person improve?

Coming back to this dialogue later I was trying to remember and write what I might have been thinking during that meeting:

I have all these new ideas about being a good manager. I must try them out.

I’m off to a good start, nice piece of personal positive feedback. They feel good so I can get on with the real stuff.

Thy didn’t have a clue about the technical side of it. I should have written it myself! I’m not sure if they will ever learn.

Anyway, time to close off with a positive spin.

Am I not the best manager ever?!

Even if it’s a bit exagerrated it’s not very far off. How often do we think like that? How often do we even check what we think?

Well, at least I’m glad they didn’t hear that, right? Wait… No! It’s me who didn’t hear that. They, on the other hand, surely have picked up hints from my tone, gestures and posture.

Not that good after all.

So how about this:

– Tell me a little bit about your last piece of work. How did it go?

– […]

– Sounds like it went well then. I’m glad to hear that. I was speaking with out customer earlier today and they really enjoyed it too. Thanks. So did you find anything difficult with this task?

– […]

– Yes, those calculation rules looked very complex indeed. It would have been a challenge for anyone to document them well. What do you think?

– […]

– I think we could try to find ways to present such information in a cleaner way. Would you like to try that? Is there anything I could help you with…

Now this looks like it may actually lead to some meaningful improvements.

Less advocacy, more inquiry.