It All Comes Down to Doing

Posted October 14, 2015 | Technology |

Clarity, conditions, and constraints must work together to create the right balance of freedom and responsibility for teams. Without appropriate freedom, companies waste the experience, intelligence, and creativity of their employees. Without appropriate responsibility, teams may miss the mark or do foolish things. Conditions make it possible for teams to do work. Clarity and constraints bound autonomy and maintain the balance between freedom and responsibility.

Unfortunately, in my experience, many teams are either overconstrained or underconstrained, and freedom and responsibility are out of balance. Overconstraint can be direct or indirect. Direct constraints explicitly limit discretion, self-determination, and decision making. I visited one team that was granted permission to decide its team name, its meeting times (and penalties for showing up late), and how to spend its snack budget. The team's managers made all the significant decisions: what stories to work on, how to implement functionality, task assignments, vacation schedules, tools, training, and so on. In another project, testers were forbidden to talk to developers and customers. Each person was given a weekly task list but not permitted access to the overall plan. The direct constraints on these teams depressed engagement and limited use of people's creativity and problem-solving skills.

Other teams have the appearance of reasonable autonomy but are hampered by organizational rules and standards. These indirect constraints come from formal processes for procurement, long lists of (sometimes contradictory) standards, required documentation, gates, finely grained job descriptions and levels, work rules, and so on. Such constrains can originate in any domain, and many of them seem reasonable when looked at one by one. The problem is, they all cascade to the Doing domain and make it nearly impossible for doers to accomplish the organization's purpose. Taking initiative puts people at risk for censure -- but breaking rules is the only way to produce tangible results. True leadership is not part of the equation.

Some very unfortunate teams are overbound with both direct and indirect constraints. All they can do is wait to be told what to do and accomplish what they can as they navigate the maze of restrictions. There's not much hope of tapping into experience, creativity, and intelligence here.

Underconstrained teams slog toward uncertain results, but for a different reason. A while back I was consulted about one such group. After two years and zero tangible results, their manager called me to ask what to do. This team had been arguing about what problem they were trying to solve for two years. Several members held strong and nearly opposite opinions. They argued back and forth, and when it looked like one view would prevail, a third member would interject a different idea. Off they'd go again! The team had neither an appropriate attractor (clarity about the problem and organizational need) nor appropriate constraints regarding decision making and delivery. So, predictably, they were flailing. Also predictably, the endless (and needless) conflict eroded trust and relationships.

Teams need to be able to do their own adaptive planning, make their own commitments, and organize their own work -- and thus have clarity for how they will accomplish the organization's purpose. They can and should adapt and improve their own internal conditions. They should be able to decide on their own approaches, working agreements, and lateral linking. I see no reason why teams can't make boundedly autonomous decisions about hiring, tools, training, and more. When this happens, it's much more likely that innovation, engagement, and commitment will thrive.

[For more from the author on this topic, see "Managing Complexity: Creating Leaders at All Levels."]

About The Author
Esther Derby is a Senior Consultant with Cutter Consortium. She is a recognized leader in the human side of software development, including management, systems thinking, organizational change, collaboration, team building, facilitation, and retrospectives. Since 1997, she has run her own consulting firm, Esther Derby Associates, Inc. Ms. Derby helps managers create the conditions for success and works with companies that want to do better at… Read More