Four devs good, two devs (and a project manager) better?

by stevew on January 22, 2010

When I re-read my last article, it struck me that I was perhaps being a little unfair to the many people who have a regular job that they find rewarding, enjoyable and satisfying.  I didn’t intend the article to be dismissive – after all, if everyone was out there starting something new, nobody would ever be able to build anything beyond a 2-3 person company. As Google testifies, there are lots of great reasons to stay in a regular job, whether it’s the enjoyment of working with real friends, the desire for financial stability, the opportunity for technical challenge, etc., etc.

Of course, I too am looking to create a work environment which people genuinely want to be a part of, hence all this analysis of organisational structure. Two questions struck me from feedback on the last article – in a democratic organisation, 1) how to make sure stuff gets done? and 2) how do you motivate people?

(Incidentally, for an alternative perspective on why getting a regular job isn’t such a great idea, read Steve Pavlina’s blog article on the subject. For the record, I don’t agree with everything Steve says, but he makes you think.)

Getting Stuff Done

The premise is that without a conventional management hierarchy, nothing will ever get finished. Having unpleasant first-hand experience of working without any project management disciplines in the early days of my first software business, this seems like a perfectly reasonable concern. However, I don’t believe eschewing hierarchical management is the same thing as attempting to operate the business without the appropriate skill-set on hand. Building software in an effective fashion requires talent across a wide range of disciplines: programming, testing, program management, business analysis, and so on. I just don’t believe that the challenges of complex personal interaction in a software project are solved by putting a project manager in charge.

Some might ask, how do you deal, for example, with opinionated developers, if there isn’t any one person able to take that unpleasant executive decision at the end of the day? One approach is of course not to hire them in the first place, but in my experience, just because an executive makes a decision, that doesn’t make it the right one – often the opposite is true. In this article now nearly a decade(!) old, Joel Spolsky describes one of the factors that made Microsoft a great company to work for in his time there – the fact that managers were hands-off – they always refused to resolve conflicts or to make arbitrary decisions they weren’t qualified to make. I think there’s a lot to learn from this approach.

In short, shipping product at Cornerstone will be a shared experience (as it should be), with project management functions serving the project in much the same way as everyone else. People will get something done because they believe it’s the right thing to do, not because someone tells them to.

Motivating People

So this second question was provoked by the suggestion that a democratic workplace is fundamentally a Marxist notion, and that by making everyone equal, a number of opportunities for motivating people will be lost. I confess I thought long and hard about this – for sure removing ‘management’ as we have come to know and despise it has some communist undertones, and the lessons of George Orwell’s Animal Farm were not lost on me as a young person. (Though I don’t believe most Western firms are in the business of exploiting their staff, which for me is where the analogy breaks down somewhat – I guess that depends on your political leanings.)

However, regarding motivation, this is a wrong conclusion based on some wrong assumptions. As I alluded to in the previous post, true employee motivation doesn’t come from the clever application of carrots and sticks (what I have referred to previously as manipulation), but rather it comes from within the individual. Whilst deep down I knew this was true, it wasn’t until I saw this great TED video featuring Dan Pink that I understood why. (Thanks to two ex-colleagues for pointing this out to me).

As Dan points out, having control of your own destiny and environment (autonomy), the opportunity to master something and/or the opportunity to work on something with genuine purpose are the real motivators in an intellectual property creation business like ours. There is no doubt in my mind that a democratic workplace is a key enabler in achieving staff autonomy, so it would seem that we’re (as in the royal ‘we’) on the right track…

I’ll talk about how the other motivation factors of mastery and purpose apply to Cornerstone in a future post.

Developing software without a classic management hierarchy – do you think this is the way to do, or is it a recipe for disaster? Do you have any relevant personal experiences to share? Leave a comment and let me know.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ole Klinkby January 28, 2010 at 7:34 pm

I think the issue isn’t “getting stuff done” – it’s more get the right stuff done at the right time. Management is necessary but management has to stand of details and give the specialists space to decide in each of their their fields they are often better equipped to take relevant decisions in their area of responsibility, but in borderline issues the management often have to participate in the decision making it may bee in a coaching role. It’s also important that management talks to their specialists to be updated about progress and timing issues.

Motivation for staff is often that they feel they are on a winning team and that management cares about their problems and address them. By the other hand management also needs to cut the crap and whining – Management have to set (optimistic) goals for the team and encourage people to reach goals – and then celebrate the small victories that are achieved.

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stevew February 19, 2010 at 9:19 pm

The whole issue of what management is and isn’t is an interesting one. I definitely favour light-touch management, who sees its job as getting the obstacles out of the way so staff can get (the right) things done. It remains to be seen how this pans out in practice at Cornerstone once I start taking people on…

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