Let it happen

I come across this frequently enough that I’m sure I’ve blogged about it before, but context dictates that I do it again. The story I hear goes pretty much like this:

My team really needs to improve X, but nobody is taking responsibility for it. The fix is obvious – we need our exec / manager / project owner to mandate that we do X and measure Y & Z to make sure people are doing the right thing.

Here’s a concrete example. I was on a team once where quality was in the toilet. We couldn’t even get a build to run for over a week. The solution was require everyone on the team to perform a list of actions before every check-in. Of course, the list including using flaky tools, and getting sign off on every step, even if the step wasn’t applicable to a particular check-in. Given the extra work required for check-in, developers queued up weeks worth of check-ins for one big check-in rather than go through the steps in the checklist multiple times. Day to day build quality was slightly better, but velocity was way down. While slower velocity is not necessarily a bad thing, the big problem was culture. Someone honestly thought the mandates would create a culture of quality – but the only culture they created was a culture of finding ways to skirt the damn checklist. Team morale sucked, and the product we built sucked too.

To be fair, I’ve seen some successful mandates in my career. The push for improvement in every developer to write secure software at MS worked. But that culture change was also pushed by huge monetary losses.

In general (and in every other case I can think of), mandates don’t work – especially if you are using the mandate to change culture. Yet I see mandates suggested as a solution for changing culture time and time again. I just don’t get it.

The folks at 37 Signals say it best, “You don’t create a culture. Culture Happens.”

So help let it happen. Instead of a mandate, help your team see where you want to go. Make it personal. Appeal to their own pride and values. Show them how change will help them. Find allies who think like you do. Experiment.

Let it happen. Make it happen.

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