Derek Neighbors, Jade Meskill, Clayton Lengel-Zigich, and Roy van de Water discuss:
- What happens when someone has central control
Derek Neighbors: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Agile Weekly Podcast. I’m Derek Neighbors.
Roy van de Water: I’m Roy van de Water.
Jade Meskill: I’m Jade Meskill
Clayton Lengel‑Zigich: I’m Clayton Lengel‑Zigich
Derek: We’ve got another fantastic, hypothetical situation.
Derek: You may spot this in the wild, I don’t know. We’re talking about things that could potentially maybe happen, someday, to some teams.
Say you had a czar of a department, or a unit, or a job function.
Roy: Like a real Russian Tsar?
Derek: Yeah, like an architect…
Jade: I’m a Marxist, sorry.
Derek: In the hypothetical situation, we would probably see this as being an architect, or maybe be a designer of some kind. When I say designer, I mean the chief of the companies, the [inaudible 00:55] top guy.
Jade: Or the head programmer?
Derek: The head jock honcho.
Jade: On the team, the technical lead or something?
Derek: Not even that. Above the technical lead, the top of the food chain. They have this stance that says, “The only thing that can done can only go to production if I have approved it.”
Roy: You’re saying everything has to go through this guy?
Derek: Everything has to go through this gal. She is totally 100 percent, “The design, every pixel has to be done by me,” or “Every single method has to be approved by me if we’re writing code.”
This person works in a large organization, thousands of people per se, and lo and behold, they can’t go to every planning meeting.
The good news is they have some mini‑czars that they can send out to these planning meetings. They can go to these planning meetings, and help the developers and the designers do things.
Then what happens is all sorts of decisions happen in a planning meeting. When these mini‑czars come back to the big honcho, the big honcho says, “Nope, I don’t like it. It needs to be this way.” Now they go back to the team and have to tell the team, “Sorry.'”
Derek: …What does that look like? What happens? How do you fix that? How do you rectify that situation? What are the downsides to that stuff?
Roy: First off, is there anything wrong with that?
Clayton: Yeah, I’ll take the devil’s advocate approach. The reason that all the design has to go through that one person is because if you want to maintain a consistent brand experience for the end‑user, you can’t just let people ‑‑ especially developers who don’t have any design sense ‑‑ to go off and do a bunch of crazy stuff.
Roy: There’s a bunch of awesome examples where I’ve seen exactly that with Google. In fact, I’ve heard, Derek, you complained about this specifically that Google has all of these products out there of totally different experiences, that are totally not integrating because they’re all being developed in isolation.
Derek: Ever since their designs are [inaudible 02:56] left…
Derek: They have not been on‑brand.
Jade: I’ve seen these on the development side, too, where you’ve got all these dumb programmers that we hired that are up there writing a bunch of crap. If they could just do it like me, everything would be so much better.
Derek: Yeah, where do you think our tech‑level of that comes from?
Jade: Yeah. [laughs]
Clayton: I suppose we pay these people six figure to be morons.
Derek: The dumbest, highest paid people, we have.
Roy: I get that. The guy at the top, his neck is on the line if should go south, he wants to make sure that everything goes north. Right?
Derek: Yeah, it’s pretty scalable, they are able to ship a lot of production software this way.
Clayton: That’s a trade‑off. If you go through this bottleneck where one person has to approve everything, obviously everything goes very slowly, and you don’t ship very often.
Jade: And you redo a lot.
Clayton: Yeah, you probably use a lot of rework, as obviously the market’s going to change, and you’re going to have to go back and fix things and change your strategy. But theoretically, everything looks pretty good, and it’s pretty close to being “perfect” when it does ship.
Roy: I guess that depends on their value system then. Do you value the ability to move fast, to make changes and respond to changing requirements in the changing world? Or do you prefer to have a perfect experience? Because I could see value in both of those.
Derek: Yeah, if a lot of people really applaud Apple and Steve Jobs and what he did ‑‑ he certainly was not interested in shipping on a very tight schedule and going very fast. He was much more concerned about shipping perfect products than he was shipping bad products more frequently.
Roy: Right. Another example is like Rolls‑Royce or something, where, I don’t care if it has the latest and greatest features, but…Hold on, let’s be clear here. I’m not buying a Rolls‑Royce.
Roy: I could see people don’t really care about [inaudible 04:46] features, they care about every product being extremely high quality. I don’t know if they actually have this, but I could see them having a philosophy like the CEO hand‑checks every single car before it leaves the factory, because they insist on having that premium experience, and that everything is perfect.
Jade: Apple’s an interesting case, because they’ve shipped a lot of great hardware. They shipped a lot of really poor software that is not consistent and not very good.
Derek: You’ve obviously used their online store before.
Jade: [laughs] Yeah.
Clayton: I’ve always had a tough time with the Apple comparison. I think that’s the first one that people jump to, but no one ever really acknowledges the difference in hardware.
Jade: It’s much harder to fix hardware once it’s gone up the book.
Clayton: Yeah, so that’s different. That’s something that we should clarify.
Derek: When I look at this hypothetical situation, the thing that I think is the biggest pain for me or the biggest thing that I see that people aren’t talking about, is what does it feel like being a team member who goes through a planning meeting with a group of people and comes up with a solution and an idea only to, an hour later or a day later or two days later, say, “Uhh, what you’re doing is really stupid and really dumb. This is the right way to do it. Throw away everything you’ve done and go do this other thing instead.”
What does that feel like as a team member, do you think?
Roy: I can see two parts to that. First off, we talked a lot about autonomous teams. I would feel like, as a team member, a large part of your autonomy gets taken away if someone comes back and says, “You have to do it my way.”
If it’s taken from the standpoint of, “Hey, have you considered using other options”? And they are truly better ideas. If you follow the core commitments and you choose to always seek to better an idea and to accept any idea no matter where it comes from, then that sounds like it would only be a positive experience.
I think that how that interaction takes place, and the attitude of both parties, has a huge impact on how that’s going to go down.
Clayton: I would feel pretty useless and like my time was being wasted. I would probably not even bother attending. Or if I did attend, it would just be for show. I would probably not even be paying attention because, really, what difference does it make?
Roy: But there is a difference. Clayton, if I came to you. Let’s say you plan on a Monday and I come to you on a Wednesday. I say, “Hey, I saw what you guys planned out on Monday. Have you considered using other possibilities”? Would you have that same reaction?
Clayton: If you said, “Had you considered these other possibilities”? We had some dialog, and I said, “OK, let’s talk about it next Monday.” I think that would be one thing. If you said, “Put the brakes on. Really think hard about these other choices, because you’re doing them no matter what.” Then I would feel like, “What’s the point. Why did I waste that time”?
Jade: I can tell you what it’s like to be on the other side of that. I’ve been that person. It sucks. You can’t trust anybody. You are paranoid and you need to be…
Roy: Just to be clear, what side are you talking about?
Jade: The person who’s the bottleneck. Who…
Roy: Oh, I see.
Jade: …is changing things for everybody.
Roy: And insisting that your rules be followed?
Jade: Yeah. It’s a very crappy position to be in. You don’t sleep well. You’re not relaxed. You’re always stressed out because everything is going wrong around you all the time. You don’t trust anybody. I think that’s really where…that’s the core of the issue. You don’t trust anybody.
Derek: In this particular hypothetical, there’s also a middle person. We’ve not talked about that middle person. Not only is the person that is doing the work probably leaving frustrated…
Roy: So you’re talking about the Vice Czar in this, right?
Derek: The Vice Czar goes into this thing thinking, “Oh, I totally represent the attitudes and the patterns and the thinking of my boss.” We go in and I walk out thinking, “Man, this is all going to be really good.” Then I go back and they say, “Why did you make this decision? You’re letting them do that? I can’t believe that”!
Now, not only do I have to feel like maybe my boss doesn’t trust me, but now I have to go deliver that news to a whole group of people to say, “Hey guys, even though I said that this was probably the right thing to do, as it turns out, the Grand Czar does not agree with me.”
What does that got to feel like?
Clayton: You lose face with the other people. I know that I told you that it was good, or that we agreed that it was good, but it turns out that it’s not. So either I can play that off as, “The czar guy is a real jerk. Man, what an asshole! I hate that guy too.” Or you would have to just hope that people aren’t thinking, “This person is really stupid. They don’t understand what their boss wants. Man, I’m not going to bother asking their opinion anymore.”
Roy: Right. Even the boss is probably getting frustrated with them. They’re coming back with ideas representing the team. It’s probably not what the boss wants in the first place. They’re never going to think the same way. So this person is probably just getting shit on from both sides.
Derek: So we’ve got the hypothetical. We’ve got some of maybe how it feels to be all of the roles in the hypothetical. How would you go about fixing it?
Roy: In my opinion, if you can figure out some way to have the team earn the Czar’s trust and rid the organization of the Czar, not rid of the person but rid of the role, I think that will go a long way. Somebody who is insistent on all of these best practices, good coding styles, good design, or whatever, they should be going out and championing all of those things and explaining why it’s so important and really convincing people and winning them over rather than telling them what to do.
Jade: A lot of times they do have a lot of really great knowledge and sometimes even some special insight that other people don’t have, but you’re right.
They should be going out and helping those other people to gain that skill and also experience things from the other side of the fence.
The things that are changing during planning or the real complexities on the ground of dealing with this on the fly, those type of things so that there is some empathy for what the people are going through while they’re out dealing with these situations.
But again, it comes back to building trust with those people. You believe that they’re doing the best thing that they can.
Roy: It gets tough though when you set up a system like that in which you’re like, “I’m the one who is going to decide on the design, so Clayton don’t even bother wasting time coming up with designs or whatever.”
“Don’t even bother coming up with the method definitions because I’m going to shoot it down and give my own implementation anyway.”
Now all of a sudden Clayton hates me, and it’s going to be really difficult for Clayton to earn my trust because he is going to be trying to get away as much as he can to please the people that are breathing down his neck without getting my ire.
He is going to be subverting me, which is going to cause me to trust him even less like that’s just going to be a feedback loop.
Clayton: There are definitely cases where people get in this situation like what Jade described like no trust and I don’t think most people would want to be in that, but there are some people who do enjoy the aspect of controlling everything.
They want to be the hero and they want to be seen as the smartest guy in the room and all that stuff.
I would say that probably is a pretty big component in a lot of these cases compared to the person who really doesn’t want it to be that way all the time, but it’s just like, “Oh, woe is me,” it just happened to be that way.
There is some aspect to that. I think unwinding some of that desire for control where they don’t feel like all of their self‑worth at their job is based on whether or not they got all the answers right all the time. I think that could go a long way.
Derek: When I look at it, Steve Jobs might be a good example. I didn’t know Steve and I certainly didn’t see him work, but I would…
Roy: Me and old buddy Steve, yeah.
Derek: I think that if I were to…
Roy: I call him Steve.
Derek: …guess how he operated, he trusted his people. Because I don’t think he could get the results he got without trusting them. What he wanted to control was the essence of the spirit of the products that were put out.
Not necessarily how they were built and so to me the difference is you come back from a planning meeting and I say, “Oh my God, you’re doing all the stuff wrong and this is how you should have done it.” I don’t think that’s how Steve operated.
He probably operated in a “I’m going to let you do whatever and when you show it to me, if it’s crap, I’m going to say it’s crap, but I’m not going to ship that and fuck you go do it right, and when you get it right, we will ship it. Until then, leave me alone, don’t waste my time.”
“Why did you call me to this fucking demo that sucks this bad”? What I think is very, very different than saying, “I’m going to tell you exactly how to do every little thing.”
I might tell you at the demo to say like “I’m not doing that and I had expected this.” And I think that’s a subtle difference, but that’s very different than trying to control how everybody does their job.
Instead of saying here’s the bar of expectation and I’m going to make you live up to that, I’m not going to tell you how to live up to it.
Jade: I think that’s right.
Derek: How do you get somebody to get to the point where they’re allowed to let the essence of what their standard is hold but not have total mistrust.
Jade: I think there are some systemic problems in that as well that that person is probably being held accountable for those decisions by their people.
Getting some understanding put in place there is a big help. To help their boss see that like they don’t need to be held to that.
They need to be held to the standard of they’re making everyone around them better and helping them achieve that essence and not being a control freak.
Because usually it’s people that don’t want to do that. They end up in that situation because of some externality.
Derek: Right, fear usually, they’re afraid of something.
Roy: I wonder if people that are successful at it and managed to climb their way to the top might not be the ones that enjoy it though.
Jade: There are people that enjoy having that control like Clayton said, and those people might not be able to help them.
Derek: All right. See you next month.
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