On the topic of “management by context, not control”, I wanted to write a bit about a realization I came to just recently. Reflecting on how my year had gone, I couldn’t help but think there was something innately self-defeating about setting too many rules in your team.
Rules – restrictions, deadlines, quotas – are basically “controls”. They allow you to set boundaries to what is acceptable behavior. That’s perfectly fine. The problem comes when rules are set without any context at all. To be clear, “because I say so” is definitely not an acceptable context and neither is “other companies are doing it”. What tends to happen in this situation is that people bound to these rules will end up doing the bare minimum to meet what’s required. Likewise, people might feel challenged to push the boundaries of what’s restricted, often to their personal gain.
One of the recent things I accomplished at Synacy was to discontinue clock ins for our team. They were pretty much a formality at that point as we had always been flexible with our time. In the end though, the clock ins were still a form of “control” that really didn’t make sense anymore. A clock just encourages people, at some point, to idly wait for their time to leave. Also, if 8 hours is a hard requirement, you know people will be itching to get out of the office the moment they make time.
The thing is, we believe people have to make decisions, like how long they work in a particular day, by themselves. At the same time, we assume them to be willing and able to make the best decisions in their context (both at work and in their personal lives). Otherwise, we wouldn’t have hired them. When we write policies, we always start with the intent of it. The rest of the policy is, in essence, a “suggested application”. Regardless of what is suggested, we trust our team to make the right choices based on the intent. We don’t judge them for not following rules by the book, as long as they had clearly thought it through and were well-meaning in their actions.
When you establish too many parameters to how your team works, your team eventually lives and dies by those parameters. You lose flexibility, and in software especially, situations change fast enough that being rigid doesn’t make sense at all. If you want your team to grow, empower them to make the right decisions – regardless of what the rules say.
Dexter is an engineering manager at Synacy, a co-founder of ATeam Business Software Solutions, and founder of TechManagement.Life. He loves to share his experiences and thoughts on managing software teams and running businesses.