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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Two Rules of Autonomy

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One thing that we are doing at Lunar Logic is we evolve toward no management model of leadership. This means a lot of small changes that all happen with the same attitude at heart: to distribute more and more decision-making power across the whole company. This by the way also means systematically stripping down the management from that power.

The latter is easy in our case as the management is limited to me and I kind of launched the whole process. I would have to be either a hypocrite or a schizophrenic to resist the changes. Luckily enough I believe I’m neither. (Unless that other me has something else to say, that is.)

I don’t say it’s easy. One challenge in each step toward participatory leadership is that we, humans, don’t like to give up on power. I’m no different. I like that warm feeling that I can make a call and it shall be as I say. It’s not only that. Sometimes I simply know which option is good and the temptation to intervene and tell people what’s the best choice is strong. It would mean, however, taking a step back on a path toward democratizing leadership. So I keep my mouth shut.

On other occasions I just feel like we are going too far from my comfort zone and I slow down the process.

Giving up on power is a prerequisite to go further. While I don’t say it will go as easy in every case it isn’t enough to get that part working. In fact, despite being vocal how much I don’t want to make all sorts of decisions and how much I appreciate autonomy I still get loads of the questions that start with “Can I…”

If I’m lucky enough to suppress my System 1 reaction that would be either of: yes, yes but, no, no but answers I’d reply with “Can you?” The ball is back in your court and as long as you take responsibility for the call you make I’m OK with that.

The interesting thing is why these questions are popping up over and over again though. Despite the fact that on a conscious level we promote autonomy our natural behaviors means retreating back to the old pattern of asking for permission.

We simply don’t claim autonomy even if it slaps us in the face.

Besides years of programming our brains by education and work system that make it hard to act differently there’s another reason for that. Most of us want to be good citizens and we don’t want to use our autonomy to do stuff other wouldn’t like or even would be against. So we back up to the ultimate decision-making authority who is supposed to know what everyone in an organization likes or approves or more likely who doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks – a manager.

The interesting thing is that the fear sometimes is well-grounded. We have different sensitivity toward different things. Behaviors that we consider positive or neutral may have negative connotation for others. If I’m a manager and I use my ultimate decision-making power and I don’t give a damn then, well, I don’t give a damn. But what if I’m just a team member who cares?

The idea we came up with is a set of two very simple rules.

1. The Nike Way
If you want to do something just do it.

2. Speak Up
If you don’t like what someone else is doing speak up.

Yes, that’s it. There’s one underlying principle, which is mutual respect. We don’t need to love each other. We need to respect our autonomy and our right to have different views on stuff.

The nice thing about this setup is that it is a self-balancing mechanism. It takes only one person try something new. It doesn’t require permission or even extensive up-front discussion. Pretty much the opposite, as a default we assume that every initiative would be awesome and everyone would love it or at least have nothing against.

The Nike Way is verbalizing the attitude described by famous Grace Hopper’s words: It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.

What we do know is that despite best intentions it won’t be true all the time. Occasionally, OK more often than occasionally, someone would do something that somebody else is not OK with. Then we have Speak Up rule that triggers a conscious and meaningful discussion (sometimes dubbed a shit storm) that provides additional insight for both sides and most likely some sort of consensus.

Speak Up rule was designed with a positive scenario in mind, i.e. someone unintentionally stepped on someone else’s toe. It works however in malicious cases as well. When someone intentionally crosses the line or pulls an organization in an unwanted direction someone else will speak up too.

The best part is that the same way it takes only one person to just do it, you need only one person to speak up.

One might point that there’s a risk that it would end up in indecisiveness. So far I don’t see that happening. First, speaking up doesn’t mean the ultimate veto power. It simply triggers a discussion. Second, the respect bit that is a hard prerequisite keeps the discussion civilized.

There’s a little more sophistication to balance that. Naturally extroverts would have an upper hand in unstructured discussion. That’s where empathy plays its role as helps to facilitate these weaker signals. On a basic level there are just these two simple rules: The Nike Way and Speak Up rule.

in: software business, team management

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