Twelve score and one year ago as our nation was born – a huge shift in thinking moved its way into practice with regards to how we structure ourselves as people and ultimately as nation-states. This was, of course, the culmination of the thinking and experimentation that had taken place prior to this big occasion. But none-the-less, it marked an important milestone as we put into practice the theory that had been slowly cooking over the preceding years.
The ultimate goal was the good of mankind – the freedom to think, act, and be who the Creator made us to be – which, as it turns out, is also highly productive way to be – and has led to much prosperity.
We have zeroed-in on a (reasonably) decent system of organizing ourselves at the macro level – government that balances the passions and energies of a massive society, while maintaining order and freedom. There’s a fractal nature to this though – and as we’ve worked our way down into the smaller scales in the organizations that we work for – we find that the same impulses that have led to despotic oppression and systematic mistreatment of people are still very much alive and well. More importantly they remain unbalanced by thoughtfully laid-out systems that direct and harness our in-built not-so-perfect nature.
I have worked at a number of different organizations, of different sizes, industries, cultures and levels of distribution. And I’ve found that with regards to delivering software – the problems and challenges are very much the same regardless of any of these variables. And further, the challenges boil down to the EXACT same thing that the founders of the United States grappled with as they attempted to create a sustainable government.
The challenge and tension is this – we know a few things – we know that people should be given as much freedom to act as possible and as much context as is available to handle their affairs. Our short-term human passions sometimes override our reason and our understanding about these things that we know. That is, in the short-term, I can be convinced by how I am feeling emotionally that I should hold back context, and dictate specific actions.
I’ve seen the results of this personally. I’ve seen something which I am betting, because it is based on the same fundamental realities, is an echo of the past. I’ve seen organizations oscillate between liberty and despotism – to use the modern lingo, between “agility” and “waterfall”. And it’s very much because of this singular reason – we know the right things we ought to do (providing liberty and context) – but we don’t do them because the passion of the moment can override our reason.
I propose that we begin to rethink how a modern knowledge-work-based organization should be structured. I always say that good artists borrow and great artists steal. I propose that we brazenly steal the methodologies and tactics that the founding fathers applied at the macro level and apply it in the micro.
For example, it should be difficult and consensus-building to change certain fundamental parts of working method. One of the most fundamental parts of achieving liberty/agility in software is to ensure that teams are broken down by functionality or value actually provided to the customer, rather than by technology capability (e.g. api, front-end, etc). WHAT IF…and hear me out, here, because this might sound crazy….WHAT IF – in order to move away from that (or to make any change) meant either gaining a 2/3 majority of all employees OR paying bonuses of half the net-worth of the company.
This would COMPLETELY remove the idea that “hey, short-circuiting things here is really a means to more money for the company” (a short-term passion overriding the bigger picture good). And if it was REALLY important, it’d still be possible – but force either real serious consensus building…or a bunch of cash paid out to the employees. Both of which would tend toward buy-in (or at a minimum anesthetization) for any short term pain.
So – perhaps we write a constitution about these things. Perhaps we appoint people (that can’t be un-appointed on a whim) to interpret if something really is a violation of that constitution. Perhaps we have a body of employees that are co-equal with executive managers – that can tweak the specifics of the rules.
I don’t know what all the details might look like – this idea only struck me this morning. We’ve never thought this way in the past – but reality is shifting – more and more the expertise and intelligence about the operation of the business is in the hands of the leaf-nodes in the organizational graph – and so the old approach might be ripe for change. This shift, coincidentally, is very similar to the shift of expertise and inherent productivity that was taking place just prior to and during the founding of the United States.
Anyway – thanks for listening – in the comments, please share thoughts, rebuttals, or any snide remarks.