I must admit that I couldn’t resist the urge of using such an easy pun like “Turning the Tides”, since the company I work for, Marine Press, is obviously in the maritime industry. Also, “Turn the Ship Around” was already taken by David Marquet!
But we are actually turning the tides of traditional management, though. And since we are a small team, it’s an ideal environment to test the waters – HA! – with some innovative management and leadership approaches.
A Matter of Principles for Us Managers
Before going deeper into what we’re doing and how we do it, you need to know about the managers in the Product and Technology department at Marine Press, and what they believe. There are five of us. We don’t always think alike and we’re not all full-time managers. Some are executives, some are still working hands-on with the products. However, we pretty much agree on the following principles:
Principle 1: People = Awesome
The most important guiding principle of Modern Agile: Make People Awesome. A manager’s job is to take care of people. Not just the employees “under them” (I really don’t like to consider this relationship a vertical one), but any colleague, even other managers and executives.
The lack of humanity, of caring and nurturing towards people in the workplace is, in my opinion, a rampant plague that keeps companies in a chronic state of underachievement. Recently, I vowed to devote my career to fighting this problem, and when I joined Marine Press I made it clear: “If I’m to be a manager here, I won’t be telling people what to do. I’ll be taking care of them so that they can do what needs to be done. I’ll actually be working for them, and not the other way around”. Turns out that this is exactly what they wanted and needed.
My colleagues joined me in this mindset, and sentences such as “Take care of your people and they will take care of your business” isn’t a cute quote anymore. It’s a principle we live by.
Principle 2: Trust > Control
We believe in structure, but the minimal necessary amount of structure. We agreed that we don’t have to come up with strict rules and processes for employees to follow. We provide people with business objectives, and they can come up with their own way of reaching them.
The end goal is more important for managers than the path taken to reach it. Once everyone agrees on the goal, the employees have full decision-making power – yes you read that right – to make things happen. “But what if [insert your worry here]?”. Turns out that we simply choose to trust their judgement. If we don’t want to tell people how to work, you can imagine we’re not much interested in telling them what they can’t do as well. The only rule is “Use your judgement, gather feedback from your peers, and if you’re not sure, ask for help”. We’ll figure it out together. And if management is worried about something, we engage in discussion with the teams.
Processes imposed by management can be easily and unscrupulously manipulated. Adhesion to the process becomes the rule, and people have no trust relationship with a process, so they can cheat it without any kind of remorse. It’s much easier than risking to break the trust of your peers.
In our setting, we mainly care for the end result and we trust people to create and improve their own processes to achieve the best results. By being in full control of their processes, the team members won’t (and can’t) hide behind it. I can’t imagine a colleague saying “Well it’s not my fault we’re not delivering, I’m just following the process”. The process is theirs. In these conditions, manipulating or cheating the process becomes nonsense.
To reduce control and accentuate trust, we try to keep everything as simple and flexible as possible. If we need to talk and adjust, then let’s talk and adjust.
Principle 3: Creativity > Tradition
In a recent article that I posted on the Agile Partnership’s blog, I stated that “We’ve always done it like this” was actually a toxic statement, as it’s pretty much the motto of organizations with a fixed mindset.
Things change, needs evolve, contexts fluctuate, and people mature with experience. What once was cannot remain the same for very long. Based on that, we actively try to break old habits and reflexes. We have developed a very interesting mentality between managers: if we all agree quickly on something, it’s probably worth investigating more.
This allows us to be creative where we would normally just do “the usual thing”. Sometimes, we figure out that the “usual thing” makes no sense, is too heavy, too complex, or completely obsolete. I have now learned to grow a little more suspicious of situations where everybody agrees instantaneously. It reminds me that “If everybody thinks like you, you don’t need them”, and it also encourages healthy conflicts to arise rather than artificial harmony.
Becoming a Squad
For those who aren’t used to the concept of squads, know that it was made popular by Spotify and their engineering culture. Squads are basically people from different backgrounds working together to achieve a common goal. Autonomy is the cornerstone of squads; its members have all the necessary power to make things happen.
Forming a squad of managers was not really on purpose at first. There are a few things we wanted to achieve and consolidate, and we eventually figured that we were just creating the ideal context for a squad. Here’s what happened :
We got rid of our job descriptions
We actually got rid of the concept of the job description, but responsibilities, of course, are still important. We knew that some people were responsible for some things, others took care of other things. Historically, that’s how we used to work. The main problem was that if one person is entirely responsible for this one topic, what happens if this person is sick, on leave, on vacation? If others don’t know, whatever needed to happen won’t happen.
So instead, we spent an afternoon in a meeting room, and we listed on the whiteboard everything that needs to happen in our department. From recruiting to personal and professional development, release management and product roadmap. We actually forgot some at first, which proves that when responsibilities are assigned to us, well, selective memory becomes a real danger.
What happened then was quite magical. There were 30+ items on the whiteboard, and we then decided to put our names on the topics that we wanted to champion.
I was very impressed by the results. Not only people put their names on topics that they already knew, liked and mastered, but also on topics they knew nothing about and wanted to learn. Moreover, out of 30+ items, only one was left out (and eventually found a caretaker). Even better, some topics got 2, 3 and 4 names beside them.
The lesson I kept from this is that volunteering is much more powerful than delegation. Now that we do things we chose to do and are curious doing, they do happen and are done better. There is a true sense of ownership, as we’re not doing them just because “it’s in our job description”. We’re happy to deliver because we wanted to do it, and we care.
And to ensure that these things happen outside of a vacuum, the champion’s job is not to do everything by themselves. Their job is to make sure these things happen, and we decided together that whenever someone is to work on one of these items, others had to be invited. We’re only starting, but so far it’s going very well.
We’ve become a support squad
That’s the way we found to ensure that we’re working for our colleagues, and not the other way around. Becoming a squad that’s supporting other squads ensures that we’ll better answer people’s needs.
Just like product squads, we commit to deliver certain things in a fixed amount of time. Our colleagues are our stakeholders, meaning they can refuse what we deliver, or ask us to change it if it doesn’t fulfill their needs. We select what to deliver based on the feedback we get in 1-on-1 discussions, in OfficeVibe, or simply during team workshops and discussions.
We started this a few weeks ago, and we are very positive that people will feel like management is much more active at supporting them and attending to their needs. As we are using OfficeVibe to measure the happiness in our organization, I’m thinking of using this data as a measurement of our squad’s performance.
Now, only time will tell if this approach works for people, but so far, it’s been working wonderfully for me. I feel engaged, empowered, motivated. What I think, what I say and what I do are aligned. Let’s see what happens…
Owner of Primos Populi, partner and coach at Moabi. As a former manager, I prefer to use a “people first, the rest will follow” kind of approach. My favorite topics are organizational culture, safe work environments, and lowering the center of gravity of the decision making process. I cultivate people’s awesomeness.