Dialogue based dictatorship

We’re planning some major improvements to how our products are used. It so happened that one project triggered the other, and we’re left with about 6-9 projects (depending on how you group them) that needs to be coordinated in order to achieve the aims.

Coordination takes time from developers, so we have to find an effective solution. This is a short story on how we have proceded this far.

One person is in charge of overall coordination of all projects. This person is the program director (which happens to be me). My initial job was to write about the common motivation for all projects, and a little more specifically about each project. Just a few short sentences.

The next step was to appoint project leads for planning each project that had dependencies. Our principles for project leaders are simple.

We trust you. Go ahead, be a dictator, make decisions.

So, you start out with trust. Trust is good. We are a competent set of grown-ups. To keep this trust during the project, and to avoid any doubts and second guessing at the end of planning, we encourage the following process.

  • Listen to opinions. All perspectives are valuable. (Customers and co-workers alike) This means that you have to seek these opinions out early in the process, before establishing assumptions and making decisions.
  • Disregard opinions if you have to. If there is a very specific opinion that you’ll like to disregard, document the opinion and the reason why you disregard it.
  • Inform, but don’t stop and wait. No approvals needed, we trust you, remember?

Consider the figure below.

Think of each colored circle as an opinion. It’s a good quality that there are difference of opinions due to differing perspectives. (Completely overlapping circles signals group think, be alarmed, be very alarmed.) The area where all opinions overlap are the design by committee area. This is the crappy solution where no-one disagrees, but no-one is happy. Have no doubt about it, design by committee is what democracy looks like. It is safe and, it is steady, and slow, and populistic. It’s good for society, but bad for risky innovation. Democracy is modus operandi for many companies, and they’re usually stuck.

Then, there’s the workshop

Interrelated topics requires a lot of back-and-forth coordination, and a workshop is a great arena for resolving these issues, as well as exploring more opinions.

We’ve recently gathered at a workshop, and each project has presented their current planning status, and then proceeded to address open questions and dependencies. This requires a bit of going back and forth between topics, but at the end of the workshop (we spent 2 days), there has been so much information and clarification back and forth, that the project leads are able to go back to the drawing board, and make wise and informed dictatoral decisions for the final stages of the design and planning.

We expect the dictatorship part to work, as it relies on trust, and is time-boxed. You’re not a dictator for life, just per project. If you get corrupted by power, and ultimately lose the trust of your peers, you will not be able to lead future projects with any efficacy.

We expect some controversial areas in the final designs.

The figure below might represent the different forms of decision making:

We’re not done with these designs quite, yet. So let’s wait and see how this goes before we congratulate ourselves too much.

(And if you’re left thinking that the process described above is what good leadership is all about: listening, careful intellectual consideration, but also being able to make the best informed decision regardless of some unresolved controversies, then you’re right. Easier said then done, though.)