High-Performance IT Organization: get out of the way of your employees

Becoming a high performing organization is all about culture. Go to any conference, read any book on this subject, and they will tell you that culture is the key. It’s easy to state. And not hard to believe either. I do not know anyone that does not agree with that statement.

However, what is that culture? And how are you doing on this culture thing? At the beginning of this series on high performing organizations, I want to discuss culture. Let’s see what it is before we find out how we can influence it. And with ‘we’ I mean the leadership and members of the organization. And that’s actually you and me.

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In this blog-post, I will focus my attention on the (middle) management, a role that I have fulfilled for quite some time. So, if you are a manager, please keep on reading.

Get out of the way of your employees

Let us start with a nice anecdote by Brian J Robertson. During his first solo flight as a pilot he noticed an unfamiliar light on the instrument panel.

“Low Voltage, it said. I wasn’t sure what that meant— they don’t teach new pilots much about the plane’s mechanics. I tapped the light, hoping it was just a glitch, but nothing changed. Unsure how to respond, I did what seemed natural at the time: I checked every other instrument for anomalies. My airspeed and altitude were good. The navigation aid told me I was perfectly on course. The fuel gauge showed plenty of gas. All these instruments were telling me I had nothing to worry about. So, I accepted that consensus and effectively let the other instruments outvote the low- voltage light. I ignored it. It couldn’t be too serious if nothing else was amiss, right?”

Even though he obviously made it back so that he could tell this story, everybody can feel that this decision was a mistake. It left him completely lost, in a storm, with no lights and no radio, nearly out of gas, and violating controlled airspace near an international airport. Ignoring signals is dangerous. The Low Voltage light had unique information which should have led to a different insight. Everything in the cockpit functioned fine, everything but Brian.

He got all the necessary information and still made a misjudgment. In many organizations, managers are the ones that sit in the cockpit. We are constantly bombarded with signals from the organization and due to information overload, limits of knowledge, time and focus, we all make similar mistakes. We will, for example, dismiss minority voices and overlook critical information. So, get out of the cockpit, and let your organization handle the lights, signals and buttons. You as manager should just pick a sunny destination, make sure the plane has the necessary airspace and fuel, and enjoy the flight.

Dear manager…

Somehow, managers think they have to have a say in almost everything, like the lights in the cockpit. And somehow, employees think so as well. In a lot of cases, employees will ask for permission before they decide on a course of action. That, in turn, gives the manager the idea that he has to decide for them. But she (or he) shouldn’t.

It also works the other way around. Because you, as a manager, make decisions, and your employees will ask you to keep making them. They are used to do so because that is the behaviour that you show them. And that is hard (if not impossible) to change if you do not actively change it.

The key is to get out of their way. I assume you hired the people in your team because they are good at what they do. Probably better than you are. Otherwise, why did you hire them? So then let them do the thing that they are good at. And do not tell them how to do that. They know better.

And if they ask you, do not decide for them. It could be a great idea to start a discussion on it. But your focus should be to help them to make the best decision possible. Not to make the decisions for them.

So, you have to change your behaviour. Help your team to become the best they can be. Instead of prescribing everything. And by changing your behaviour, you will change the culture. Decisions can be made quicker. And they will suit the team better. You have to trust the autopilot of your organization.

You might be afraid to lose control. Or you might think that this is not allowed in your organization (that is actually the same thing, it is about control). Think about this: why do you want to have control? Do you think you know better? Then either you hired the wrong people, or you do not know them well enough. Either way, it is not a scalable situation. You are the bottleneck.

Or do you try to avoid risk? If you are a decision bottleneck. If you are the single point of failure? What are the odds you will make the same mistakes as Brian did in the plane? Would you even recognize the mistakes?

And what if your own manager will not approve or the company policy is not OK with it? In that case, change that. Talk to your manager, change the company policy if needed. It is not about making your internal part of the organization as efficient as possible. It is about adding as much value to your customer as possible. And in many cases (not all) these do not go well together.

The most important thing you can do as a manager is to enable your people to exercise their skills with their tools to do their job in the most meaningful way. They know the best what they need to tackle the challenges. And it’s our job to provide that trust, freedom, tools, time and other resources. Check out our DevOps Assessment on High Performing Organizations to learn more.

Next blog-post coming soon

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Daan Brüggemann

Consultant DevOps

Gert Jan van Halem

Chief Technology Officer