cordThere is a supply-and-demand paradox brewing in the software business, and it’s getting worse by the day. Companies are searching for rock-star talent, while at the exact same moment talented people are searching for great work. People on both sides of this issue are frustrated — companies can’t find the right workers, or enough of them and talented workers feel stifled, bored, and in many cases exhausted, and even oppressed, by the work they do find.

It’s an easy field for employers to stand out in, and yet so few fail to create the kind of engaging workplaces that attract top talent. Most blame their troubles on the market or a lack of money, but it’s hard to take this argument seriously when Wikipedia attracted an army of volunteers with seemingly little effort, and then produced so much value it drove Microsoft’s well-funded Encarta out of business. How did Wikipedia attract and motivate so much unpaid talent, and how does this hugely popular project keep doing it?

The secret to hiring top talent is simple — but not easy.

Most workplaces seem diabolically designed to kill creativity, intelligence, and productivity, and thus drive away talent. If you want to hire well, you need to first engage and inspire the talent you do have, and that’s not about money. It’s about treating people like people. It’s a matter of helping them align toward a compelling common vision, giving them the tools and environments they need, then getting out of their way.

This is not only good karma; it’s also good business.

Fuzzy Guiding Principles

In 1986, Craig Reynolds, with his groundbreaking computer simulation BOIDS, discovered he could get a set of computer objects to “flock” like birds in ever-changing, emergent, beautiful patterns. He accomplished this not by programming each object’s individual trajectory — a complicated, heavyweight, and defect-prone task — but by giving each object three simple rules:

  • Separation: steer to avoid crowding local flockmates
  • Alignment: steer toward the average heading of local flockmates
  • Cohesion: steer to move toward the average position of local flockmates

It turns out that these simple rules, when applied to the system, allowed beautiful and complex behaviors to emerge. The same thing can happen in our organizations if we set the stage right and then get out of the way.

Command and control management, our business-as-usual system, is complicated, heavyweight, and defect-prone. It’s much like trying to program the individual trajectory of each computer object. At best it creates a kind of begrudging compliance, and at worst belligerent opposition.

Instead of micromanaging hierarchical controls, companies need simple rules, healthy environments, and ultimately dynamic cultures that encourage the emergence of complex and beautiful behaviors and products. The task of the modern manager and business builder, therefore, is much like that of an organic gardener — create the conditions from which value can emerge, then stand out of the way and let nature take its course — always learning and adjusting the system when needed.

There are two points of influence for companies that want to encourage the growth and development of such dynamic systems: the structure of the organization, and the behavior of managers and leaders.

Structure

Structure includes tangible and explicit things like org charts, buildings, processes and tools, and also intangibles like the habits and unspoken rules that govern “the way we do things around here.”

Teams: An organizational structure based on small, cross-functional teams whose membership stays relatively consistent over time is essential. I don’t mean a group of people with a loose affiliation. I mean a tight group whose members communicate daily, if not hourly — a group to which people are 100 percent dedicated. Work may be done individually. However, all work is visible to that person’s teammates and flows through regular team meetings and tracking systems. This provides each individual with the support and accountability he or she needs to do the work well.

Transparency: The free flow of information is also essential to good work — information about the vision of the product, the viability of the company, and whether the team is on track to meet their commitments. Even the emotional state of coworkers is important and should be surfaced. You can’t have enough information flowing through a system — it is literally the lifeblood of your organization.

Autonomy: In his acclaimed book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” Daniel Pink points out that self-direction is a primary driver for human engagement. Our systems need to support our people in having autonomy over how they do their work, within the agreed-upon constraints of quality and interoperability, of course. If possible, people should also be granted autonomy over what they work on, and when they work on it. If you think this sounds crazy, read up on the incredible work done on Results-Only Work Environments (ROWEs).

Managerial Behavior and Leadership

As the saying goes, “the fish rots from the head,” and this is particularly true of process changes within organizations. The tone set by leadership is an important indicator of whether the organization will revert to familiar dysfunction when the going gets tough — as it always does — or lean into the discomfort and learn — learning being one of the most important skills any organization can develop.

It’s About Culture

Processes come and go and should remain secondary to the culture they help create. Ultimately, Agile thinking is a structured and formal way to create a culture of safety where collaboration, cooperation, and innovation can take root. And if managers and leaders are to create the kind of organizations that can weather turbulent markets and create a better world, this must be their goal.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]