One of the jobs of a leader is to lead. What often surprises new leaders however, is how quickly people begin looking to them for this leadership. This is especially true when you are hired from outside the group you are responsible for.
A group’s desire for leadership is usually a good thing, and if respected and used properly it is a powerful tool. But just like Star Wars or comic books heroes, every power has dark sides to watch out for. One potential dark-side, where leadership can have unintended consequences, is during group debates.
Consider a favorite topic for developers to debate: software process. Often these discussions are important and rather energetic. Sometimes the energy will even become heated. To add to this heat, developer discussions rarely have one true solution. Much of what we do, or decide to do, in software development is simply the result of experience, preference and opinion. I’ve yet to see a concrete evaluation that proves once and for all that Java is better than C++, or that two-week iterations are better than three-weeks (or even one week).
Because of the inherent opinion-ness of software development, teams often look to their leader to help break a stalemate or to make a final decision when the group can’t arrive at one on their own. As a leader, the feeling of control, or dare I say it, the power, that results from this expectation can become dangerous. A software manager is often hired because they’ve been through the development process multiple times and they’ve seen both sides of these debates before. When you have lots of personal experience with the item being debated, it is natural to share your experience and knowledge with the team. (What most younger developers haven’t yet learned is that there are only a few possible arguments in software development and everything is isomorphic to one of these archetypal debates.)
Two potential problems arise as soon as your open your mouth.
First, as I said earlier, most of these debates don’t have hard and fast answers. Any knowledge or opinion you share will be just that: an opinion. It may be a great opinion, with 40 years of experience to back it up, but it is still just an opinion. When you are the leader, with people naturally deferring to your perspective, it is easy to forget that your idea is merely one of many.
Second, you are the leader and everybody knows that. So long as your ideas aren’t obviously crazy, people will usually follow your advice. Depending on your relationship, people may be required to follow your advice or be out of a job. This simple fact ensures that your comments are often treated as the last word in any discussion.
Now, return to the debate your team is having about process. There they are, happily arguing back and forth about the relative merits of two- versus three-week iterations. The debate is intense, but the conversation is making progress and people are actively sharing their views. You find yourself getting caught up in the debate and before you know it, you’ve opened your mouth and shared the opinion that two-week iterations have a higher percentage of overhead than you now experience with three-week iterations. What have you just done to the conversation?
For a few self-assured members of the team you might have done nothing. But for the majority of your group you’ve effectively suggested that anyone who argues in favor of two-week iterations is arguing in opposition to you. That probably wasn’t your intention. Your newest developer, a recent graduate with a truly great idea your group needs, will now keep his mouth closed and his idea to himself. Everyone is poorer for the loss.
While you may have done a terrific job of convincing everyone that you encourage vigorous debate about your ideas, the fact remains that the discussion will never be the same once you join in. The debate won’t stop just because you’ve joined in, but the tone and nature of the debate will often change quickly and permanently once your opinion is known. This is a simple by-product of the responsibility you have.
So what do you do? Fortunately, the answer is pretty easy, but it might seem a bit unfair – especially if you like to debate. To get the best ideas out of your team, it is critical that you let them debate as long as possible before you get involved. In short, a good leader must learn to sit and listen to the debate for a while before she allows herself to take part.
So when should you get involved? That really depends on how much time you have and how productive the conversation is. If the debate has starting circling around, it’s time to get involved because nothing new is being uncovered. If the debate it still progressing but you are running out of time, you may need to get involved to force a quick decision. Your experience with the team should tell you when is the right time to step in. Until that time arrives, sit back, listen to what is said, learn what you can and enjoy the debate. There’s bound to be lots of them.