Tag Archives: Teams

What is the leadership style in your software teams ?

Do you like to believe that the so-called ‘command and control’ is an exceptionally distasteful idea for intellctual work such as software development?

I don’t particularly disagree with you, but just wondering – have you ever worked for a stereotypical ‘command and control organization’ in software industry, where things were forcibly thrust down your throat without taking your views, or you not having any freedom to question or disagree? We all seem to have romantic ideas and idealistic opinions about what it means (rather, what it should mean) but let’s ‘inspect and adapt’ our understanding with the real-world experiences so that we have a correct understanding of an incorrect idea.
 
In my close to two decades of working with European, Chinese (yes – contrary to what most people believe, Chinese also disagree with their managers very passionately just like anyone else, and won’t take a so-called ‘command and control’ directive lying low) and US product companies, I am yet to see one. Prior to that, I worked for Defense Research (not as a military officer but as a computer scientist) where I closely interacted with defense personnel, and as far as I can tell, I never saw a blind ‘command and control’ anywhere – if the guy taking ‘orders’ was not convinced, there was an element of positive negotiation about exploring better ways to do things. It is probably the bollywood style ‘command and control’ (“koi shak ya sawal (Any questions)?”. “no sir”) or the Hollywood-style action-packed patriotic flicks where soldiers are constantly getting instructions on radiosets from generals to “do this, and do that” that makes us think it is all about one-sided communication?

So, is the military really a bad C&C model that serves as good reference for how software teams shouldn’t be run, or it is just our figment of imagination to ringfence our own position and call everything outside as C&C – perhaps taking a safe position without really understanding what is C&C really ? Here, let me share three purely unrelated but relevant pieces of knowledge that might make you think and question how much prevalent ‘command and control’ really is in the military:

  • The Swiss Army manual says “if there is a gap between the map and the terrain, trust the terrain”. I don’t think it is for its literal meaning alone, and it couldn’t be made any more expilcit that the on-field judgment is considered far more supreme and much more critical than the plan you start out with or made by the generals in the war room. (kind of similar to one of the recent Tiger Woods ads for Accenture where actual golf course has trees instead of an open field in the simulation practice that he had done).
  • Second one is unverified, but I read this long back. I could not trace any source on the net on it, so take it for what it is worth, and if you can get a reference, please do let me know whom to thank for it. Here is goes: in Malaysian army, the highest military honor is not given to a general, it is given to the solder who takes on-field decision, even if a wrong one.
  • This comes from Indian Army. Most of us have no clue what the life at border posts is (even I have not lived that life, but just being a medium here to share with you all). We all have heard of terms like Post #5648 that was recaptured during Kargil, etc. In reality, most such ‘posts’ are a small bunkers probablay not any bigger than a few square feet where two soldiers man the country’s borders – living there at a stretch for 6 months, completely cut-off from the world, and often from their own commander. Whatever might be the state foreign policy, state of armistice, or any such macro-level condition – these two soldiers are constantly under the threat of being fired at and they must survive against all odds. Their micro-level policy is not dictated by any macro-level national policy told to them through ‘command and control’ – for them it is just a matter of survvival. They either kill or get killed. If they have to wait for real commands from the top everytime, you and I won’t be enjoying a comforting life far too long.

During my 16-month scientific expedition to Maitri, the Indian research station in Antarctica in 1993-95, I have seen airforce and navy pilots work with airmen and technical staff in hostile weather conditions (freezing conditions and high winds), and I have seen the general respect, bonhomie and camaraderie between ship’s officers and its seamen – the lives of these pilots depends on an airmen not latching some bolt properly (I have also seen accidents happening when that was not done – and no, no one had to die for screwing up) and the captain of the ship must trust that his instructions to turn or slow down have actually been carried out by the seamen – and none of this could work if it really were command and control as we think it is. Every single armed forces officer of India that I have met would be willing to lay down his life to save even one of his men. And that’s why when he asks his soldiers to do something a particular way, the soldier doesn’t think twice. A very narrow definition of command and control doesn’t capture such human interactions and a two-day dependency and respect for each other.

So, what is the real explanation of C&C: the unverified explanation that we carry in our minds, or the one that actually happens in modern-day military? Before answering this question, it might help us to understand the various models of leadership and how they have evolved. There is a general consensus that leadership styles have evolved from ‘Great Leader’ to ‘Command and Control’ to ‘Empowering Leader’ to ‘Learning Leader’:

Great Leader

The Great Leader relied on their personal charisma, leadership traits, personality, oratory skills, negotiation skills, unique talent, superior physical powers, etc. to motivate and lead their followers. People like Churchill and Gandhiji could fit in that. Typically, the leadership and decision-making responsibility here was not shared – it was basically centralized, whether for good or bad.

Great Leaders were like a one-man force – they did not have to rely on an organizational hierarchy to support them. The were capable of thinking the strategy, leading their forces, motivating their staff, handling contingencies and replanning, removing roadblocks and political opposition -essentially all by themselves. They might ask someone on their staff to do a small chore for them, but they were the masterminds, the elite brain behind the idea. Rather, they were the idea, and they were the force.

In today’s context, such leaders would soon find themselves out of place. Still, it might not be unusual to find such Great Leaders leading their companies, perhaps a small company, or something in a startup phase.

Command and Control

Command and control was created as a step towards democratization of the workplace. From a small trade shop run by a founder-manager, Taylor’s Scientific Management created a new model to build huge production facilities that required complex coordination between thousands of people to carry out a task most effectively. Naturally, this was a problem of scale, and the Great Leader just couldn’t be everywhere to manage things. Since Taylor’s model (rather the way Ford implemented in his famous Ford Production System) relied on typically illiterate and semi-skilled workmen (who could often start theiw new job with little over 15 minutes of training), special roles like supervisor were created to coordinate the work and monitor the work progress. Workmen did not have to think a lot – they just had to follow the instructions but that was something they were not able to figure out by themselves. So, there were layers of management, each lower layer working on a problem with more focus and details and less scope than its immediately higher layer.

In my view, this was essentially creating a job specialisation to manage scale. Imagine your startup. In the initial days, you can do everything and you are able to do everything. As you grow (as you eventually will), you can’t handle everything – either because that is so routine (and hence, relatively risk-free) that your doing takes away lots of cycles that could otherwise be put elsewhere on some other important task, or it is different from your special expertise, or some other similar reason. So, you get other specialists in your team to man specialized functions like Sales, Marketing, Operations, Manufacturing, Program Management, R&D, etc. (“Horizontal Differentiation”) and also create levels of hierarchy to deal with the size of problem effectively, like Project Leader, Project Manager, Senior Project Manager, Director, Regional Direction, VP, etc. (“Vertical Differentiation”). Why do we do that: ask anyone to effectively manage more than a handful of tasks. It is not necessarily bad to create such differentiation – however, misusing it definitely is bad.

It won’t be unfair to say that C&C was a half-step: it delegated the responsibility but generally retained the authority at the level that was delegating the work. While this in itself was a substantial improvement over the Great Leader, where not even responsibility was delegated, its limitations were soon exposed as soon as all low-hanging fruits had been picked up.

So, is Command and Control useful: in some situation it is. In military, the soldier can maximum engage the enemy in front but doesn’t know the big picture. Maybe he has to move out to give aircover to his buddy who just got shot, but he has no clue about that. Who can give him that ‘command’ – by himself, his line of sight won’t ever give him that perspective, but someone at 30,000 feet view can see the big picture. So, it was a division of responsibility to ensure that people at each level in the organization had enough expertize, resources and authority to take decisions in a decentralized fashion. We might not believe it, but C&C is actually an improvement over Great Leader model in decentralizing the authority and decision-making power. It was never designed as a model to stifle people’s talent or limit their potential, or any other generally considered ills of C&C model.

Empowering Leader

Then came the age of flattening the hierarchy becuause people felt stifled by too many levels of decision-making and often an ineffective middle management that was more of an obstacle than facilitator. Along with changes at workplace, the socio-economic changes and the general maturation of democratic ideas in society also made sure that people were not going to accept the tyranny of the hierarchy, as C&C had indeed degenerated to in many cases. Along the same time, markets were becoming dynamic and technology advancements were picking up pace. This mandated further empowering the lower levels of managerial and technical workforce without having to seek permission every time.

In came the era of empowering leader: the one who delegated work and shared authority with his team. The power was decentralized further down to where people actually required them in their day to day work. This reduced the dependency on a central role in the hierarchy for every small thing. The workforce was able to become more productive because along with responsibility, now they also had the commensurate authority to carry out the work. Management tools like MBO (Management by Objectives) eveovled in this era that allowed a manager to identify objectivtes for his subordinates who was then ‘free’ to decide how to go about doing it, and as long as he was hitting those objectives, his manager was not really required to get involved. Manager’s role changed from constant supervision and directing in C&C (a la “micromanagement”) to one that was empowering his team members.

Needless to say, this was a great improvement over any of the previous models. The workplace democraticisation was (almost) complete. There is still a remnant of hierarchy and authority in thie model, as it perhaps always will, but that is not so much of a bother for teams who get much more independence and authority that they are perhaps more than happy to ignore it. After all, some aspect of work specialization will always be there, and the teams that are engaged in a specific function might not be competant or interested in understanding the higher-level business issues.

Empowering model could also be misused, as leaders have been found completely abdicating their responsibility to teams in lieu of maintaining excellent relations with them. Some managers don’t understand their new role, and hence either resist such changes, while some are clueless about the transition to a coach, mentor, facilitator-style of management. While these are not the mainstream issues anymore, managers from the past era surely find challanges at times, especially working with Gen X / Gen Y workforce that is highly self-driven and fiercely independent as it is.

Learning Leader

Today’s age is of a learning leader. It is widely acknowledged that a senior professional might not have all the answers (in fact, his skills might be so outdated, a newcomer might be more informed than him on some technology that just came out 3 months back). So, in this model, authority doesn’t flow from the hierarchy – it flows from the source of knowledge. A positional leader must continuously upgrade his skills to be able to serve and lead the team. But, the true source of leadership is not positional anymore in this model – anyone who knows can lead. A learning leader is someone who goes out to the world and learns what could make his/her team perform better and effectively. He/she comes back and shares such learnings with the team. For example, it could be learning about a new technology, or a new management method, or a new tool. There are no monopolies on knowledge or skills to a chosen few anymore. With enough interest and efforts, everyone is allowed to acquire new learnings and ‘lead’ the teams.

Some organizations have taken this idea very well. VPs in some comapnies are paired to be ‘mentored’ by junior engineer on new technologies. Most companies now routinely have continuouing education / skill upgrade as part of everyone’s development plans – and perhaps the most important of it all, for the first time in history of leadership, we have a model that says it is ok for a leader not to know everything. In all earlier models, leadership was expected to know most answers, if not all. But in this model, we have turned the concept on its head. A leader is someone who can lead by virtue of his/her knowledge, skills and unique abilities. He/she doesn’t need to have organizational support (like hierarchy or titles) to help him/her get legitimacy in that ‘role’. Further, there is no constant or perpetual leadership – depending on the type of work, leadership is like the honeybee that keeps going to the brightest flower with the freshest aroma of the sweetest nectar!

It is also important to understand that continuing changes in society, values, economy, globalization, outsourcing and virtual teams, understanding of cross-cultural issues, mutual respect for people with different skills, diversity at workplace, legislation that bars any kind of discrimation in society or workplace or public, etc. have made a huge impact in getting the leadership to open up to this stage.

 

Conclusions

Different industries and even companies could be in different stage of evolution based on their unique characterstics. In my personal view, software industry has come out of Great Leader and Command and Control (if it ever was in any of them – however it is not unusual to find companies in Great Leader mould, especially where founder of the company is also the function expert and the company has still grown to the stage where it needs to create horizontal or vertical differentiation) and currently in Empowering / Learning leader phase, but there might be certain organizational decisions that must be taken right at the top, and that doesn’t make it a C&C organization. In fact, every organization will probably require all 4 leadership styles, albeit in varying proportion – we are looking at a predominant method of problem solving and must acknowledge presence of other competing methods as well.

Goes without saying, not every social setup and national or organization culture can overnight adopt or adapt to a single preferred way of doing things. Also, not every problem in any organization can be best solved by always taking same style of leadership approach. As we have seen the Situational Leadership model, an effective leader changes his style from Directing to Coaching to Supporting to Delegating as the team matures through their development phases.
 
Good leadership requires not having a perpetual preference or disdain to some “all-weather” leadership style, rather adjusting the style to suit the context.

What is the leadership style in your software teams ?