It's Not All About You: Truly Empowering Your People

It's Not All About You: Truly Empowering Your People

The deeper Armory goes on our journey to help the world innovate faster by creating an Open Source Culture that empowers our tribe with Roundabouts, not Stoplights so we can productize our cultural values into  Armory's software delivery platform, the more people (especially other founders) look at me wondering what the heck I'm talking about. I'm realizing that as a society we don't have a well defined vocabulary to describe what Armory is endeavoring to do.

Let's talk about pain

So I thought it might be helpful to start with the pain we're solving for. Specifically:

  • Why do ICs often feel an "us vs. them" mentality with management & leadership at their companies?
  • Why do developers not have access to production environments at most companies?
  • Why don't companies have the psychological safety to treat failure as learning?
  • Why are executives afraid of being vulnerable in front of their reports?
  • Why do ICs execute half-heartedly on top-down initiatives they think are a waste of resources? What keeps them from speaking up?
  • Why isn't every employee trusted with a company credit card?
  • Why are companies not more transparent (with comp / challenges / etc)?

I've come to the conclusion that the answer to these questions typically revolves around an abundance of fear which breeds a lack of trust – and usually that starts from the executives. We often hear executives say things like:

  • It's way too dangerous to give developers access to production environments. They could destroy customer trust with one bad deployment, and the brand equity of our company took years (or decades) to build.
  • Failure has to be treated as "bad" so it doesn't happen. If we treated failure as learning, we would fail way too often, which would completely break our customers' trust.
  • I have to be a strong leader in front of my reports. Being vulnerable would mean I'd have to admit I don't have all the answers, and they are depending on me for answers.
  • We want to be transparent, but some things are better kept confidential so we don't needlessly distract our employees.

I typically get the strongest pushback from other founders. In their telling of events, everything is perfect at their companies. The company looks to them for vision and execution guidance, and although it's stressful, hard work, as the founding CEO they have a responsibility to step up and be that hero the company needs them to be.

To them, I say: What if you truly empowered your people?

What if your employees had full context and information from your business, to make the best possible decisions in real-time?

What if your employees didn't have to wait for permission to execute on the things they thought needed to be done (many of which they're probably not even telling you about) to move your business forward?

What if all of your developers had access to production?

What could you achieve? It's probably hard to answer that question, because you can't see beyond your current reality.

If you're interested in going on your own journey to truly empower your employees, I've got an easy starting point, via two books that have done some great thinking on these topics. And better yet, you can use the Blinkist app to listen to a summary of these books in 15 minutes each (or in under 8 minutes if you're comfortable at 2x speed!).

Foundational Reading: Reinventing Organizations

In this book, you'll learn about concepts like "Teal" organizations that go beyond the traditional "Achievement Orange" industrial age company top-down command and control hierarchy.

You'll learn how throughout history, humans have organized in evolving ways to deal with more complexity, from hunter gatherers, to structured institutions like the church and military, to the corporations of the industrial age. The question this book asks is "what's the next step-change in how humans will organize to deal with the complexity of the modern information age?"

Moving beyond a "Legacy OS": Brave New Work

This book picks up on the "what's next" question, defining industrial age command and control thinking as a "Legacy Operating System" for human organization. Brave New Work sees the Legacy OS as companies acting like complicated systems, which are causal, in which relationships can be predicted & controlled (like a watch, or an engine). This is why you always hear companies described as "machines" and humans as swappable cogs, or "resources." But the book argues that human systems are actually complex, dispositional systems, in which we know what’s likely to happen by interacting with them without being able to control them fully (like the weather, or traffic). This is why company re-orgs never achieve their intended promise. All we can do is influence employees vs. control them. Companies are more like a complex living organism than a complicated machine.

Brave New Work serves as a practical field guide to figuring out how to de-construct your command and control structure and re-construct it as something more distributed that empowers the edges of your organization be successful.

Here's a good thought exercise: How can you, as the CEO or executive, think you are making the best decisions top-down when you don't have as much context or information as the employees at the edges of your organization who are interacting with customers, partners, or prospects all day long?

We've used these two books to tackle concerns in moving beyond command and control, like:

  • There’s no accountability to output: If there’s no “boss” or “manager” telling me what to do, then nobody is responsible for the outcome.
  • Anyone can do “whatever they want”: If there’s no “boss” or “manager” telling me what to work on, then everyone works on different things and is not aligned on getting work done.
  • Decisions take longer because there has to be full consensus: Everyone has to agree in order for a decision to be made.
  • Everything has to be decentralized: Nothing can be centralized if there are no "bosses" or "managers"

We'll be soon be publishing our approach to overcoming these concerns in detail in our Armory Tribal Handbook, but here's a peek at some of the approaches we're taking:

  • Instead of "enforced policies" we pursue golden path "best-practices" and we encourage tribals to go "offroading" by conducting experiments to try something new, and then report back with their learnings, so we can improve the golden path
  • Using continuous, participatory change to identify tensions in the business by asking “What’s keeping us from doing our best work right now?” and find solutions. Everyone impacted by the change has a voice. We figure out what's "safe to try" and run experiments to learn. Rinse and repeat to achieve a fast-looping iterative improvement
  • Treating managers as coaches who aren't directing what work gets done, but rather helping reports unlock their best selves. See this Buurtzorg case study for a number of learnings & best-practices
  • Learning to experiment in ways that are "safe to try" by recognizing the difference between simple, moderate and complex decisions, and using the Integrative Decision Making process to tackle complex decision making
  • Creating cross-functional pop-up teams that use a distributed Action Meeting format to get through meetings quickly and effectively
  • Understanding the difference between "consent" and "consensus" in decision making (TL;DR: asking "does anyone object" vs. "does everyone agree")
  • A “push vs. pull” model to separate signal from noise, where any tribal can “pull” relevant information whenever they need it to make decisions (i.e., information is not hoarded / locked away), and Tribals are “pushed” relevant information (i.e., signal) they need to know
  • Being vulnerable and empathetic with each other to foster a culture of psychological safety where failure can be seen as learning, with retrospectives to improve, and together we can be a continuously improving learning organization

It's incredibly impactful to empower our own tribe to bring their entire selves to work so they can do their best, most innovative work, and also to bring these concepts to Global 2,000 executives who are desperate to learn how to innovate faster.

The simple place to start is: It's not all about you. Get past your fears and learn how to truly empower your people. Find what's "safe to try" and start by starting.