Giving Direction and Guidance to Your Team, Effectively

When you’re in a leadership or management position, being “nice” and being pleasant to work with can be an interesting balancing act. When I have studied management theory and leadership in a formal training or classroom setting, it seems like most modern education leans towards “Beta” leadership, i.e. influence and consensus building, instead of the more authoritarian “Alpha” style of leadership. (Servant leadership and all that.) But there’s a balance to be had here; you can ask for advice, listen to all the points of view, and try to build consensus, but at the end of the day you’re the boss and you need to just make a decision and present the expectation that people will follow you.

There are several specific approaches and tactics to keep in mind, as a manager and influencer, when it comes to making decisions or guiding direction. I try to keep these in mind as I’m entering a meeting or a conversation, or even starting or joining an email or instant messaging thread, and then, depending upon the situation, deciding which of these is appropriate to use.

Delegation

The first style is what I think of as letting the team, or the other person, make the decision. The situations where this is effective are, for example, when you have a strong and mature team and they are deciding on how to plan a Sprint, or what programming framework to use, or which design pattern or algorithmic way to solve a problem. If you’re not directly involved, in a hands-on way, as a developer, and none of the approaches misalign with requirements or best practices, then letting the team or other person take ownership of the decision is useful for several reasons. The selection, in the long run, probably doesn’t matter that much from a strategic perspective, and the team is also going to be more likely to eagerly implement and support a decision that they have made, instead of feeling like something was forced upon them. This approach is also good for building trust with your team, showing them that you can trust their judgment.

Consensus Building

Another approach is when you have a solution or a decision in mind, but there are enough time and enough trust with the team that you can walk through the conversation (probably on a whiteboard) and come to a consensus. Think of this as not just telling the team what to do, but convincing them that your direction is indeed the correct way. Note that this approach also does not have to be “my way or the highway”, and also doesn’t have to be “all or nothing” with your idea. Maybe your direction needs some refinements or adjustments, and getting input from the team and talking through it can make the solution that much better. Be willing to hear what is said by other people and keep an open mind. But the goal is for everyone to walk away all on the same page, and all in agreement that the approach is the correct one (or at least “good enough”).

Giving Direction

Sometimes, though, there are situations that require you, as the leader or decision-maker, to give direction and move forward. This can happen when time is of the essence, or it is a critical decision and you have lots of information that the other team doesn’t have. Sometimes there are circumstances that you know about, but the team doesn’t, that is forcing the decision in a specific direction. You have to remember that at the end of the day you are the boss, and

One example of this approach that I had to use was when we were in a situation where we had multiple timecard systems in use. We were using our corporate timecard system for billing and invoicing but were also using another system to track actuals in the Sprint. Many of the developers were frustrated that they had to fill out two timecards at the end of the day, and thought this was a waste of time and didn’t want to do it. But as the manager, I knew both were important because a) the company needed to invoice our work and b) we were still maturing as a development team and I wanted those actuals tracked for a couple of sprints so we could have data to understand how to improve. So at one of the team meetings where everyone was (again) complaining about having to do two time tracking systems, I said, “Look, I know this is annoying and you don’t want to do it. But the reality is, for right now you need to just do it, and fill out both timecards every day. When it comes down to it, you’re being paid to help accomplish the goals of this organization and right now filling out both timecards helps the organization accomplish those goals. So if you need to carve out 12 minutes of time at the end of every workday to do this, we will set aside 1 hour a week in everyone’s Sprint plan and consider this one of your tasks to accomplish.”

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Deciding which tactic to use above when you have to give direction or guidance can help you build trust and build relationships with your teammates, while at the same time ensuring the best decisions are made for your organization, your customers, and your team.

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