Leadership Divide

3 August 2005

As a company grows, you have to worry more about how it's led and who's responsible for choosing the leaders. Most companies have owners (shareholders) and they ultimately select the executive management. Executives then make most decisions for the company (or at least they like to think they do).

In case you haven't noticed, we are trying to be different. Although Roy currently is the majority owner, he's keen to devolve decision making away from himself as much as he can - and intends to change the company so it's truly employee controlled. Quite what employee controlled means for international company is still an open question. But there's no interest in becoming a public company.

The idea of pushing decision making out through the company is fine, but how do we make it work in practice? We have lots of bright people with an opinion on how the company should be run. Trouble is most of them are working for clients. Most ThoughtWorkers are quite busy enough doing client work to have much energy to think about the company's operations and strategy. So we have an operational management team that concentrates on that.

But there lies the problem. How do we avoid this operational management group turning into a traditional executive group who are distant from the day to day delivery issues? There is already more of a 'us and them' mentality developing than I would like - (although like most things, it's better than most places I've seen.)

A goodly part of the problem is that most delivery folks, in particular technical folks, aren't really interested in the operational management issues. They're interested in the project they're on, and on technological issues generally. That's quite enough to keep the brain full. Questions such as the balancing act between hiring and demand, doing the resource management dance, finding and keeping clients, watching the balance sheet - these just aren't interesting.

I must admit I'm guilty as anyone at this. When I joined Roy gave my carte blanche to crash any meeting I wanted to. But even when he's dragged me to operational committee meetings I have to confess I have little interest in the issues they are discussing. I know they are important - it's just that I'd rather have someone else worrying about them. Who knows I might be good at operational management (though I doubt it), but even so it doesn't excite me the way my regular work does - and I have precious little time to do that.

I'm not in favor of pushing geeks into ops against their will, or even their inclination. I've always felt we should get people to do what they do best and aim for well-rounded teams rather than getting people to work on their weak areas to try and round out individuals. So it's good that those with a liking and talent for ops do the operational management. But since their decisions have a big impact on delivery people, a painful gap appears. Delivery people complain about ops people making decisions that mess up their life (and the Thoughtworks promise) and ops people complain about delivery people not understanding the business realities.

So by now I hope you grasp the problem (I doubt it's an unfamiliar one) and are gasping for the solution.

So am I.

In a smaller organization there's more personal contact, so that help alleviate the gap. Certainly we try to do that, but it's very tough to scale. Roy has an unbelievable ability to network with lots of people, but he has his limits. The other leaders don't share that skill but bring other vital ones to the table (like the ability to organize things). Being a social network hub can't be mandatory for operational management, even if it could scale.

One pond we dipped our toes into was the idea of a council that acts as a channel to help this communication. The idea is that we form a council from the delivery (and the support) sides of the company that meets regularly to air issues and provide the communication channel that both sides need. Maybe this council could evolve into a strategic leadership group. But so far that initiative has frankly fizzled. We haven't given up on it, but like most of these initiatives it's an expensive business (in all sorts of ways) to pull our top delivery people away from clients for a week.

Another thing we are trying to do is encourage rotation around operational management, so that anyone who goes into operational management only spends a few years there and then returns to delivery work. This would also bring out the point that operational managers aren't 'higher' than delivery people - just different. Roy's doing this at the moment, spending time in a regular delivery role.

But these techniques so far are just experiments. We are still trying to find techniques that work to bridge this very difficult gap.