by Leon Rosenshein

Lead With the Why, Not the Way

Taking a break from the book reviews, but sticking with the theme of software development being a social endeavor, there are many ways to get teams working on things together and doing them in a similar fashion. Some work better than others.

One of the best ways to make sure that everyone is working together and in a similar fashion is to work ensemble style. If the team is sitting together talking about and editing the same code at the same time then, by definition they’re working together and in a similar fashion. I’ve had really good experiences with this with small groups and small tasks, but folks I generally trust and respect have reported good results with larger groups and longer term projects. Seems like a good goal to strive for.

That said, that’s not always going to be possible. For any number of organizational and structural reasons, it often doesn’t make sense for an entire team to be working on the exact same thing at the exact same time. So how can you get everyone working together?

One way is by fiat. Lay down the law and demand that people do what you tell them, exactly when you tell them, and in the precise fashion or have ordained. That might work. Once or twice. As long as everything goes exactly as you expected. Sometimes that’s the right approach, but only sometimes, and not over the long term. Iif you stick with that method then pretty soon a situation will arise where your exact instructions cause things to stop, or perhaps make things worse. That’s probably not your desired outcome, so that’s not a good approach.

Or, you could go to the other extreme. Tell people that they should all work together and get things done, then walk away. Again, that might work a time or two, but pretty soon everyone is going to have their own interpretation of what it means and how they should be working. That ends up in one of two places. Chaos, with everyone doing what they think you mean, or someone deciding and enforcing, again by fiat, their will. That might be what you want, and result in a success or two, but long-term it still doesn’t work.

Which leads us back to autonomy, alignment, purpose, and urgency You’ve got autonomy and urgency. How can you manage alignment and purpose? You can do that with what Alexis de Tocqueville called enlightened self-interest. The idea that you get the best results when people are working for a desired common goal, not just because it’s the goal, but also because it’s good for them. Said another way, like this entry’s title, Lead With the Why, Not the Way.

The best way to get a team working together, towards the same goal, in a similar fashion, is to help them understand why they want to do that. How it helps the team reach its goal and how it helps them reach their goals. It aligns intrinsic and extrinsic goals. It sets shared purpose. It gives people a reason to want to achieve the goals. It’s even more powerful when your why has multiple levels. It’s what the customer wants. It increases sales. It reduces support burden. It makes it easier to add the feature everyone wants to build.

And now that I think of it, I am talking about Governing the Commons. That’s all about how to set up a system. To give the people in the system the appropriate why’s so that they do what’s best for the system. Because in the long run, that’s also what’s best for themselves.