Joel Spolsky – On “Getting out of the way” style of Management

I was sent a great article today written by Joel Spolsky.

In short he summaries Top Down Management.  One where the CEO makes all of the decisions and hands it down to the team.  Joel argues that this approach no longer works and we need to flip the pyramid.  The developers, product managers and sales team are at the top making the decisions that matter.  The management team is really the administration team that is there to support the real decision makers.

The last paragraph of the post caps the story off perfectly:

For every Steve Jobs, there are a thousand leaders who learned to hire smart people and let them build great things in a nurturing environment of empowerment and it was AWESOME. That doesn’t mean lowering your standards. It doesn’t mean letting people do bad work. It means hiring smart people who get things done—and then getting the hell out-of-the-way.

It was a great post and I enjoyed it.  Now I have some thoughts and questions to raise.

Who makes the decisions?

In the comments of the post there was a lot of discussion around where to draw the decision-making line.  Joel makes a reference to a CEO not wanting to make the decision around which storage drives to use. The front line engineers who have debated the issue for days should be the ones who make the decision.  I agree with this analogy.

The CEO however still needs to retain full control over the vision and making decisions around that vision.  If the front line engineer was to make those decisions then you would end up with a beautiful piece of code that doesn’t truly serve the customers (a PM‘s job) and ultimately nobody buys (a Salesman’s job).

Where then do you draw the line between decisions that the CEO needs to make and the decisions that front line employees need to make?

To me the answer to this question comes down to ownership.  Do you have an owner for the decision that needs to be made.  If so – then as a manager you need to put full responsibility on that owner for being able to make the decision.  Sounds simple right?  Well – it really is a little more involved then that.

The owner needs to maintain the right to make the decision.  If you have a “desired” decision that you feel the owner should use – then you need to work with and help the owner see the benefits of the decision you are trying to make.  Ultimately however the owner needs to be the one who makes the decision.  As a manager you cannot deprive your owner of opportunities to learn from failures or bad decisions.  This might mean that it might take longer to arrive at the desired outcome compared to you simply telling the owner what to do.  At other times this might mean that you have to work with the owner after a failure and help build them back up in order to learn from the mistake.  Regardless the key is that the final decision stayed with the owner.

You and the owner have different opinions.  In the field I like to call these “religious differences” even though they have nothing to do with religion.  In short you prefer apples and the owner prefers oranges.  Who is to say which fruit is better?  As a manager it is important to recognize when a decision is one that will result in a great bottom line or end product regardless of which decision was followed.

Trust in your decision maker is a requirement.  There will be times when the owner and you completely disagree.  I am not trying to say that you should always let the owner do whatever they want.  Rather I am trying to say that you need to recognize the times when trusting in your owner, even if you disagree with it, is important.  There will be times when you are pleasantly surprised by what the owner is able to accomplish as long as you were able to show that leap of faith.


Posted in , and tagged .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *