In our fast-paced modern world of web development, speed is of the essence. Indeed, innovation often takes a back seat in order to get 'something' into the wilds. This pioneering spirit allows businesses to capitalise on a new market segment and lead the industry. Myspace, Friends Reunited and Yahoo! all did this to varying degrees of success, but they are all testament to finding a niche and doing it quicker than anyone else.It isn't often you are celebrated for being a good second place! Of course sustaining first place is an entirely different issue, which I may explore in a future post.
This growing obsession with speed often collides with product quality; but it does it have to? Surely there is a win/win situation here? How can we as leaders adapt to the demands of the business without sacrificing quality?
The are two opposing leadership strategies in order to respond demands of the business. Without realising it, we may default into a particular style - especially when working in an unfamiliar environment or with unfamiliar people. It is rare that anyone stays on one extreme of the scale, so I feel it is important to remind ourselves of the pros and cons of each approach so that we can adapt and change when appropriate.
Command and Control leadership
Command and control is derived from a military style of leadership where it has been used extensively for thousands of years. It is an authoritarian regime where one person holds absolute power and responsibility for the project and people. This enables total coordination and accountability for their subordinates.
Do exactly as I say
This style of leadership is appropriate for tasks and projects where there are uncomplicated simple tasks with little room for human error. A good example of this might be a car factory or a food plants where conveyor belts and other machinery are utilised.
Many theorists have suggested that command and control is now extinct in the developed world, however there are a few notable leaders who have more than a 'nod' to the command and control style. Steve Jobs has ultimate control and authority over the products that Apple produce. This has enabled disparate disciplines within the company to produce products of exceptional quality. In other companies (such as Microsoft and Blackberry) design and user experience often takes a back seat and encourage a culture of 'engineers are king'. Apple decided to actively enforce a customer focused regime using some elements of 'absolute authority'.
Nick Park of Ardman Animations (Oscar-winning animation studio) has openly suggested that he prefers absolute control over the creative process. This again has enabled a number of quality films each of which feature an unmistakeably 'Aardman' style, an effective way of marketing the companies efforts in a crowded industry.
The downside of this approach is that communications can become a major overhead. If you have a hundred people reporting back to one person requesting a review or instruction you may run the risk of slowing your company down to the rate of your communications rather than the speed it takes to make your widgets.
Another downside is moral and business flexibility. People who work under these regimes are normally nominally paid and they have very little ability to influence the decisions made at the higher levels. This can incur suffering or neglect when a new change is imposed.
Often, only the leader will get rewarded for the results of the project.
Finally, because communication is often in a silo from one leader to many, there can be little room for exploration or serendipity. Finding the win/win solution between speed and quality will be more difficult and can rely wholly on the insight and experience of the leader...and as any leader knows, information and context is the only way to make 'good' decisions.
If you hear someone on a project saying something like 'I am doing X, but I don't agree with it', there might be a perceived command and control culture and opportunity to adopt a more autocratic style of leadership.
This is probably the most prevalent leadership style in modern industry. It works on the principle that the folk we employ have professional skills whom we empower to make decisions on our behalf.
Do as you see fit
Generally the tasks of these projects will involve a high level of complexity and numerous stakeholders. The employee will be required to make their own decisions and instigate or influence ongoing communications with other members of the project team.
In an autocratic regime, employees will often display high levels of responsibility for the tasks they conduct and are more likely to establish a win/win consensus when faced with unforeseen complexity.
The benefits of this regime are that employees can show high levels of confidence and motivation around tasks. Moral is generally higher as the project team have a high level of control and influence over the future direction of the project.
Companies will be more flexible and can change rapidly to meet the demands of the industry.
Employees will be paid highly depending on the supply and demands of their skills.
Projects which empower staff will encourage collaboration between (often) contrasting disciplines. This will often result in more ideas and strategies to respond to the project brief.
Loose or vaguely defined projects are more likely to succeed in an autocratic culture as the professionals you employ will quickly seek to fill in the gaps.
Employees are more likely to get rewarded for their efforts.
Innovation is more likely to occur in these teams, but it will often require an astute executive to recognise the opportunity as the empowerment to make it happen may outside the responsibility of the project team.
Communication can become excessive and may itself kill a project. Project managers may often assist this process by offering reminder of time and schedule during ongoing project discussions (this is another nod back to the 'command and control' style).
Sometimes a consensus may not be possible due to the competing demands of the project team and it may not be clear who can escalate the issue.
Motivation and morale will be important factors in sustaining an autocratic culture and much time and effort must be spent on producing personal development schemes or social events (this enables easier communication/collaboration).
You may unknowingly create superstar 'employees'. High achievers who could become less likely to collaborate with others and may reduce the moral of other employees.
There is no right or wrong way to instigate a leadership culture within a company. What matters is that you select or utilise the right methods for the appropriate scenario.
If you have bad results from utilising one approach, why not try another? The results may surprise you.