Developers: The Owner Is You

Over the last two days I’ve written about a variety of contexts – from those that are clear (answers are obvious) to complicated (answers require analysis) to complex (answers require exploration).

As you can imagine your role and my role change in those varying contexts. There is no single model of leadership that works best across all those different contexts.

Everything is contextual.

As we shifted into teams, there’s a natural inclination to expect your team leader to make all the decisions. That makes perfect sense in both clear and complicated contexts.

They were put in a leadership role because they had the kind of experience that would enable them to answer questions when you find yourself in those spaces.

But like I said yesterday, we don’t spend a lot of time there.

For example, “Should we publish this site to a staging environment first, so we can test it out?” is a clear question with a clear answer. Yes.

They can answer that for you.

But seriously, you can answer that for you. Because once you know what a staging environment is, it’s hard to think of a situation where the answer might be anything buy yes.

More complicated situations also are great for your team leader. If you want to know the pros and cons of using a particular approach, their experience will come in handy and they may be able to share an insight that solves it for you.

If your work primarily was in those two contexts (Clear and/or Complicated), we’d probably hire younger kids in high school. Because once you give them best or good practices, the work is rinse and repeat.

But our work isn’t rinse and repeat.

Leadership – the kind that we need for the work we do – starts not with your team leader, but with you.

Because, like I said yesterday, our work requires exploration. And you’re the explorer. Not just your team leader.

So the person who has to take ownership of their work, and take initiaive in their projects, is you.

Which raises a question of role, right? If you have to take ownership and leadership in the place where you are, why have a team leader? What’s their job?

Team leaders are coaches. Not the manager. Not the owner.

If you've watched Moneyball, maybe you have a slightly skewed view of a coach. He wasn’t portrayed all that well in the movie.

But the role distinction is helpful.

The coach doesn’t necessarily hire or fire players (though they influence that decision). That was Brad Pitt – as the General Manager.

Instead, their job is to make sure the players are put in roles where they can do their best work.

So your team leaders are there to provide guidance, answer questions where their experiences will help, and to make sure that projects are assigned well.

Assignments are their strategic weapon.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about management in the last twenty years, it’s this: the allocation of assignments is a strategic tool that is often overlooked.

If you’re tired, I can pick an assignment that lets you rest. If you need to be challenged, I can pick an assignment that helps you grow. If no one knows you in the company, I can pick a project with executive-level interest.

So beyond guidance, coaching and encouraging you, their chief focus is the allocation of assignments.

This isn’t baseball.

While it’s my job to help us focus on direction and make sure that you have the tools and space to do your best work, and while it’s your team leader’s job to coach and allocate assignments, none of us is the owner.

This is very different than in the NFL, NBA or MLB. You’re not under contract, and the owner isn’t someone else.

The owner is you.

This last part is critical for you to understand. You’re a constant free agent, able to go anywhere anytime.

I’ve tried to create an environment where you’ll be challenged, where you have someone who can talk to you in a moment’s notice (not like me, who may be on a call), where you’re getting assignments that will challenge you, and where you can do your best work.

In the context we’re in, it’s hard to make predictions.

In complex environments we can’t predict what will be challenging, rushed, hard to accomplish, or impossible.

That’s why I spent two days focusing on context. Because we’re in a place where we can’t predict those things.

And I’ll do everything I can to protect us from crazy stuff, but in a complex environment where there aren’t “best practices” because there are so many different approaches to solve problems, I can’t predict when something will go sideways.

I’m not suggesting we have tons of work that is going sideways. But if it happens tomorrow, you can bet it will surprise me as much as it does you.

Which is to say, in a complex environment, we should always be prepared for it. And not be too surprised.

Common Sense Prevails

So we make the very best decisions we can, with the information we have. Not just me. You too.

You will never get in trouble for making the very best decision you can make with the information you have. 

And we learn from everything. So that we get better at navigating contexts. Together.

Tendencies, not Rules

I’ll end my note today with something I’ve learned from my time as a parent.

I can’t predict what my children will do. Ever.

I don’t control them and they’re not robots. So they do a lot of things I would never predict.

But they do have tendencies.

Nine out of ten times, my son will crack a joke in a tense moment.

Nine out of ten times, my daughter will absorb any of the emotion anyone else is having in the room – to an extreme.

I can’t predict their moves, but I can declare and prepare for their tendencies.

Your job, our job, in the world of complex contexts where we can’t make predictions isn’t completely lost on us.

The work we do, with the clients we work with, all have some tendencies we can prepare for.

More on that tomorrow.

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Chris Lema
Chris Lema has been working with WordPress since 2005. Over the years he's been a blogger, a speaker at WordCamps, a coach for WordPress product companies, and the founder of the conference for WordPress business owners, called CaboPress. Today he's the VP of Products at Liquid Web, where he manages the world's first managed platform for WooCommerce stores.

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