Too much management, not enough leadership

The title and inspiration of this blog comes from Chapter 7 of John Bogle’s book “Enough: True Measures of Money, Business and Life”. The theme of management versus leadership is a familiar one and the distinctions that Bogle makes are based on some fairly standard and familiar definitions. To clarify the distinguishing features Bogle quotes Professor Bennis as follows: “The manager administers, the leader innovates” … “The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust; the manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective; the manager accepts the status quo, the leader challenges it.”

Clearly the need for leadership is as strong if not stronger in IT as it is in the world of finance and business with which Bogle is primarily concerned. Tom and Mary Poppendieck, for example, make the point forcefully in their book Leading Lean Development: Results are not he Point that the role of leadership is to “Make sure everyone understand the overall purpose of their work, generate passion around meaningful goals, recognize that hard work and persistence are necessary to be successful, and give to everyone the opportunity to be proud of the way they work and the results of their work”.

These calls have been made consistently over a long period of time now by a large number of gurus and consultants, but still the landscape remains patchy in my experience. For every good piece of leadership I see, where teams are given clear direction and empowered to operate effectively, I see examples of micro-management where managers are insistent on predetermining the activities, tasks and man-day estimates and then badgering the team to report their success in following this predetermined plan.

One symptom of this problem that I see quite frequently is that when I am first engaged by an organisation as a consultant / coach is that I am often taken aside and told earnestly by a member of the management team that a key barrier to “adopting this agile thing” in their particular organisation will be the quality of their people. When I tell them not to worry, they’ll be amazed how, when teams are given genuine responsibility and empowerment, in my experience in every previous organisation, the teams and the people step up to the plate every time and show themselves to be more than capable of rising to the challenges that they are set and that they set themselves. To which they tell me even more earnestly “No really, you don’t know our people …”. We seem to have a vicious circle where the managers spoon feed the workers because they think they need spoon feeding, and the workers because they are spoon fed are not used to operating any other way.

Well, all I can do is continue to report that in my experience, without exception to date, when managers say they have a people problem, what they really have is a leadership problem, every time.

A simple and concrete example of this, and in my experience the best ice-breaker to immediately start the process of teams becoming empowered, is the team retrospective meeting. When I first came across these as a concept many years ago I thought, “Nice idea, a bit of a luxury maybe, but sure why not!” Over the years of experience in actually running retrospectives, however, I have completely changed my opinion. I see them now as absolutely pivotal and totally essential. Ask a bunch of people straight out to critically appraise their own modus operandi and take ownership of actions to improve the way they operate, and they deliver, every time. I have run countless retrospectives now, of all shapes and sizes and at many different levels within organisations, and I can report a 100% success rate. Every time every participant totally engages, gives their all and turns the event into a positive change event.

So from the teams perspective, there are in my experience no barriers to teams stepping up to the additional challenges and responsibilities of being “empowered” rather than “managed”.

On the other side of the equation there remains the challenge that there is often not a clear understanding of what role managers have to play in an environment where teams are genuinely empowered. For there is still a genuine role to play. As Bogle puts it, it is always a question of balance. We need managers as well as leaders.

Stephen Covey, the author of The Seven Habits of Successful People, uses the analogy of a group of people hacking their way through jungle. The leaders are the ones that climb the trees to survey the landscape and indicate the direction of travel needed to reach the goal. Managers are the ones who ensure that the team has access to a supply of sharpened machetes to enable them to make progress.

To make this distinction clear I often use the example of a football club. At the heart of a football club is the football team. The goal of the football club is the same as the goal of the team – to win football matches. Success for the football team is clearly measured in matches won. And winning matches is vital to every other aspect of the operation – attracting income through ticket sales and merchandising. The role of leadership is clear in preparing and motivating the team. The management roles need to cover off everything else – ensuring the club manages its finances in such as way that it can make the right investments in players and sustain its operation over time. There are also resource balancing concerns, for example across A Teams and B Teams, and to ensure that key players are in top condition for key matches.

So, in conclusion, we can say that in IT and software development, as in Bogle’s world of finance, we do indeed primarily need leadership to guide and inspire the team, but we also need management to ensure the smooth running of the overall business machine.

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