Companies today place huge efforts and resources into hiring. Hiring the right people is important in the short term, but retaining them is an important long-term goal. Getting this wrong means that we are stuck in an expensive hiring loop, and that a good chunk of our people’s productivity is lost as the newcomers have to get up to speed, and the resident employees have to train them.
Note: The idea for this article resulted from a visit to Greenwich, where the columns of the Queen’s House were reminiscent of the story of Sir Christopher Wren and the Windsor Guildhall. It has nothing to do with any particular work experience I’ve had.
An ideal scenario for building a successful team could look something like this:
- “Get the right people.
- Make them happy so they don’t want to leave.
- Turn them loose.”
— Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (page 91), Third Edition. DeMarco & Lister. Addison-Wesley, 2003.
If you are not hiring the right people, then you are getting yourself into a long-term problem that is very hard to fix. Conversely, if you are hiring the right people, then you should be able to trust them to do their work.
“Creating a pool of autonomous teams and letting them loose without leadership is a recipe for disaster.”
— The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master. Hunt and Thomas. Addison-Wesley, 1999.
Trust has nothing to do with absence of leadership, supervision, or direction. It simply means taking a step back and letting the people do what they are good at, and pitching in to give direction and support, but not getting involved in the little details of how they do their work (micromanagement).
“The most obvious defensive management ploys are prescriptive Methodologies (“My people are too dumb to build systems without them.”) and technical interference by the manager. Both are doomed to fail in the long run. In addition, they make for efficient teamicide. People who feel untrusted have little inclination to bond together into a cooperative team.”
— Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (page 145), Third Edition. DeMarco & Lister. Addison-Wesley, 2003.
There really is no point in hiring great people if we don’t trust them to do what they are good at. This means that great resources are being underutilitised. They will often notice this themselves, and leave for companies that can better realize their potential.
The previous quote from Peopleware says a lot about the way we work today, especially in the context of agile methodologies. I have already written how standups are excessively childish and counterproductive, and that important management responsibilities are being delegated to “Scrum masters” or “agile coaches” who are neither personally invested nor have the right abilities to give direction to the team.
“The maddening thing about most of our organizations is that they are only as good as the people who staff them. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get around that natural limit, and have good organizations even though they were staffed by mediocre or incompetent people? Nothing could be easier–all we need is (trumpet fanfare, please) a Methodology.
“A Methodology is a general systems theory of how a whole class of thought-intensive work ought to be conducted. It comes in the form of a fat book that specifies in detail exactly what steps to take at any time, regardless of who’s doing the work, regardless of where or when. The people who write the Methodology are smart. The people who carry it out can be dumb. They never have to turn their brains to the ON position. All they do is start on page one and follow the Yellow Brick Road, like happy little Munchkins, all the way from the start of the job to its successful completion. The Methodology makes all the decisions; the people make none. The organization becomes entirely deterministic.”
— Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (page 176), Third Edition. DeMarco & Lister. Addison-Wesley, 2003.
It is a real shame how the Agile Manifesto, a simple set of guidlines focused on reducing bureaucracy, adopting flexibility and enhancing productivity, is often corrupted into a set of dogmatic rites. People are encouraged to follow procedure rather than to think, communicate and work effectively. That’s the exact opposite of what the Agile Manifesto suggests.
And why else would people not be encouraged to think of their own accord, and take initiative, if not due to a lack of trust?
In the next sections, we’ll look at some historical stories relating to the problem of trust. In each of these stories, experts were commissioned to carry out a piece of work for which they were renowned. Each story shows how these experts cleverly defied silly orders (resulting from lack of trust and/or incompetence) in order to prove a point.
The Columns at the Windsor Guildhall
Image credit: taken from here.
There are four columns inside the Windsor Guildhall that seem to be there just for decoration: there is a gap between the top of the column, and the ceiling.
As the story goes, Sir Christopher Wren, the architect responsible for the Guildhall, was 100% confident in his design for an open space. However, the councillors insisted that he add some more columns on the inside of the building in order to support its weight.
“[Sir Christopher Wren] said the columns were unnecessary. Eventually, however, he relented, and built the columns.
“But to prove he was right, the columns were constructed so they did not touch the ceiling, and were merely decoration.”
— “Is this an architect’s 300-year-old hoax?“, Deceptology
While doubts have been cast on the veracity of this story and on Sir Christopher Wren’s role in the Windsor Guildhall’s design, it serves as an illustration of how an experienced professional alienates authority in order to prove a point.
David by Michelangelo
There is a similar story about how Michelangelo, satisfied with his work on the statue of David, dealt with criticism from the man who commissioned the project.
“There were no detractors, although the sponsor of the project, Piero Soderini did make a suggestion that was slyly dealt with by Michelangelo. Soderini, commented that David’s nose was too thick so Michelangelo climbed the scaffolding to attend to the problem.
The young sculptor pretended to alter the nose and even sprinkled marble dust to complete the effect. Michelangelo then asked Soderini’s for his opinion of the ‘new’ nose. ‘Ah, that’s much better,’, said Soderini. ‘Now you’ve really brought it to life.’”
— “Michelangelo’s David“, Italy Magazine
If this story is true, Michelangelo took advantage of the fact that Soderini was artistically incompetent, and would not notice any difference in detail. This is very much like how errors in live performances often go unnoticed by those who are not musically trained.
The point is that Michelangelo was cunning enough to appease the man who commissioned his work, without compromising its quality. In the software development world, this problem often manifests itself in the form of client requirements which are in conflict with the nature of the product, and require radical changes while adding negligible value. Because of this, a very important aspect of the software professional’s work is to negotiate requirements, rather than just accepting them as-is.
The Queen’s Duck
This last story is much closer to the software development world, and is probably true.
“This started as a piece of Interplay corporate lore. It was well known that producers (a game industry position, roughly equivalent to PMs) had to make a change to everything that was done. The assumption was that subconsciously they felt that if they didn’t, they weren’t adding value.
“The artist working on the queen animations for Battle Chess was aware of this tendency, and came up with an innovative solution. He did the animations for the queen the way that he felt would be best, with one addition: he gave the queen a pet duck. He animated this duck through all of the queen’s animations, had it flapping around the corners. He also took great care to make sure that it never overlapped the “actual” animation.
“Eventually, it came time for the producer to review the animation set for the queen. The producer sat down and watched all of the animations. When they were done, he turned to the artist and said, “that looks great. Just one thing – get rid of the duck.”“
— “New Programming Jargon“, Coding Horror
The producer always wanted something removed, just to show that his role had a purpose. Thus, the developers had to choose the lesser evil between compromising the project’s quality, and wasting time on something extra that would serve as a decoy. This shows how incompetent managers can have a detrimental effect on a project, whether it is on quality, productivity, or morale.
Give developers direction, but trust them to do their work. That’s why you hire good people. Good developers take pride in their work, and will not stick around an environment that stifles their creativity rather than empowering them.