software solutions / project leadership / agile coaching and training

A culture of empowerment

Posted on January 24, 2013

Much has been said recently about companies like Github, Valve, and other places that create these open corporate cultures of empowerment where employees can do pretty much whatever they want. This manifests itself in many different ways, from allowing employees to work where they want when they want to allowing them to even decide what they want to work on and not limiting their time off. A great example of this is Valve’s new employee handbook. Stop reading this post and go read the handbook, it’s worth the read.

(……………)

Hey, welcome back. How do you feel after reading something like that? It gets you a little excited, doesn’t it? Personally, I love the idea of getting to move my desk wherever I need to, or being able to decide what I want to work on. In a place like that, there’s no limit to what you are able to accomplish. You are only limited by your own abilities and time.

Let’s be honest though, most of corporate America can’t be as free wheeling as a video game company. When I go to work, I’m doing work for people who tell me what project to work on, and they get to decide what projects are most important to them. That’s the nature of the company that I’m working for, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

I care more about the principles behind these empowerment cultures. The main theme that I see is that they hire awesome employees and then let them be awesome. How many times do you hear about developers who feel like that can’t be as successful because their team lead or manager won’t let them use a certain technology or framework or technique? Maybe those people feel like their control is doing good (and maybe it is), but the trade-off is that they are stifling their top performers. In that case, the side effects might be worse than the perceived decrease in risk.

Control

Since most companies don’t have an empowerment culture, there must be a reason.

It is really hard for people in control to give up control. Say you’re a manager, and your lead developer comes to you and says that he wants to use MongoDB instead of SQL Server on his new project. Immediately you think of reasons why it’s not a good idea (Our infrastructure team doesn’t know how to host it properly! Our DBAs don’t know how to use it! What about reporting?). Those are all important questions that need to be answered, of course, we don’t want to be reckless. Ultimately it comes down to a choice – you can choose the safe option (SQL Server), or the more unknown (MongoDB) which might have some new challenges that you need to work through, but also might provide developer productivity increases, better application performance, and increased morale of the team.

If you don’t let top performers be top performers, why do you have them? If you stifle them, you are losing out on one of the main reasons you have them in the first place! If it lasts long enough, they will leave and try to find another place where they might be able to use their skills.

Trust

It takes a lot of guts for a manager to give up control. If that manager were to let his developer go ahead with MongoDB, that would take a lot of trust. He’s basically putting the project at risk (maybe not really, but in his mind) and placing a lot of trust in his development team. And you know what, it might fail.

But let’s be honest, if we can’t trust our development team, why do we have them? Why don’t you just get rid of them and have the managers and architects do the work? Are they really the only ones who can be trusted to make big decisions, and even small decisions?

Fear

Employees that live in a culture of control often live in fear. These cultures often try to remove risk because failure is seen in such a negative light. As a result, you can’t try new technologies (because it might fail), you have to use the approved enterprise development frameworks (so that we use something that we know has worked last year), and heaven forbid you say the “A” word and want to implement agile practices (because the project managers don’t have as much control). This may keep some projects from failing, but it pretty much guarantees that every project will be sufficiently average.

Do you want to work in a place like this? I don’t.

Freedom

In a culture of empowerment, you have the freedom to try new things. And since some of those things won’t work, you also have the freedom to fail. When it does work, we all win, and when it doesn’t work, we learn something so that we are better next time. But everyone wins when it comes to that feeling that you get when you go to work believing that you can change things for the better and that you can make a difference. Now I truly have responsibility, because I’m responsible for the success of something and I will be held accountable for my decisions. But this just motivates me to do better.

That freedom is what really gets people excited. When you don’t feel like you have anything holding you back, your mind is free to dream of anything, including those crazy ideas that might actually work. This is incredibly motivating, because now we’re only limited by our team’s abilities and time.

Side effects

There are certain types of people who tend to prefer empowerment cultures. The ones who don’t like it are the ones who want to play political games, have a bad attitude, and are afraid to try new things because they are afraid they might fail. The ones who like it are the innovators, the people who embrace change, the motivated, the top performers. These people don’t just value a salary, they value autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Every company tries hard to recruit these people, but few realize the importance of the empowerment culture.

1 Comment »

  1. I have read the valve handbook and watched the github open source presentation. I like both approaches first of all because they do something differently and are successful because of it.
    In our very small team, I think the biggest benefit of the process and behaviours both companies encourage and allow for is autonomy. And as you say, it has it’s risks, however everything else but autonomy and responsability leads worse products.
    I was reading “impact mapping” by Gojko Adzic, and there the same thing happens: As soon as you do not involve people in the whole business-decision-making process, they become drones that just react and reproduce what is already there.
    In our industry we need more innovation, ideas, room.

    andrej — January 27, 2013 @ 9:17 pm

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