Management (oh, and conflict, diversity, transparency, and efficiency)

A frequently (but often only partially) quoted segment of the Tao te Ching  describes the idea of invisible leadership. Let’s take a moment here to recall that this text is estimated to have been written in the sixth century BC. Despite hundreds and hundreds of years passing since then, the best managers I have known are described here:

A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. Fail to honor people, They fail to honor you. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will all say, “We did this ourselves.”

There’s so much to consider in management (of both people and projects), but I think a fundamental is that good management takes time. It’s work that is often unaccounted for, but supports teams, builds healthy organizational dynamics, empowers people, and removes obstacles from the team’s way, like the sweeper in curling. But learning how to be a good manager takes time as well. Learning isn’t efficient. It takes time and practice.

While we’re on the topic of efficiency, this is a great article about organizational efficiency, and what it’s tied to. The notion is that we are all living and working in systems, and you can’t flip one switch and expect it to work (“look, we’re efficient now!”). You have to understand first what the switches are, and then how they relate to each other.  The article includes a visual to explain the idea that they’re sliders rather than switches:


“The three sliders aren’t sequential; they’re deeply interrelated,” he says. When companies try to move just one, it almost always fails. “Let’s say your company is all the way on the left, totally efficient, and one day you decide to make things totally transparent. You push that slider all the way to the right — but only that one. Well, now everyone in the company can see all the problems, but they have no power or resources to fix them,” Pisoni says.

Here’s another one Pisoni sees a lot: A company resolves to experiment more, but doesn’t touch the other sliders. Now you have a situation where team members are asked to innovate, but can’t really take risks — in fact, they’re punished when experiments fail. “And with secrecy all the way to the left, nobody knows what experiments are happening, and they’re not armed with best practices,” he says. “Everyone is going off in different directions, with no communication.”

Nothing happens in isolation — no one person will save (or tank) a company in just the same way that no amount of planning will make an organization more responsive. Everything happens in relation to something else.

This is true in team dynamics as well, of course. Most of the time, individuals aren’t working alone, beside each other but not interacting. We’re collaborating, which means we’re sometimes in conflict. But just like happiness being rooted in process and growth, creativity is rooted in conflict.

Here’s a terrific piece about how important it is to accept conflict as not a necessary evil but as something valuable and useful in organizations. My favorite part is this, about the role of the leadership and hiring in creative conflict:

“With teams, the leader’s role is to channel conflict to fuel the journey. Seek to resolve but do not restrain conflict. The tensions are the magic touch. They force us to question ourselves and explore the full terrain of possibility. The tensions keep us uncomfortable enough to keep trying. Hire people that are willing to fight, and fight apathy ruthlessly.”

Building diverse teams is crucial for building enough conflict and tension to be productive and creative. That includes diversity of work experience, and diversity of background. I am never going to stop linking this article about Location Labs’ hiring and retention approach — they aim to hire people with differing backgrounds, focus on creating a work environment where people are engaged and empowered and feel appreciated, and they recognize that innovation and conflict go hand-in-hand.  COO Joel Grossman is quoted: “A healthy environment has disagreements, but they’re vigorous and healthy. Communication is open and ideas are debated.” It’s crucial to build an environment where it is safe to disagree, and that is largely the responsibility of management.

This Asana blog post by Rachel Miller is a great look at why diversity in organizations and building inclusive work environments is good for business. “I’ve found that making business cases for diversity have let me become a vocal advocate. Without that shift, it’s unclear how diversity should be prioritized inside a company when other social justice issues aren’t. I went from thinking that diversity was something I wanted from the workplace, but couldn’t necessarily expect, to realizing that investing in diversity is part of investing in a company built to last.” Miller lists several clear business reasons to support a diverse organization, including one related to conflict and creativity: diverse teams are coming with different perspectives and  are “less likely to practice groupthink.”

This joyful, pop-culture-gif-littered piece from the iDoneThis blog addresses tension and anxiety in teams, and how uncomfortable it can be to manage. It offers some very solid, very practical, and very applicable guidance to new managers, starting with how to provide feedback that will empower your team and help build their confidence, leading them to be able to be more autonomous:

Both novices and experts respond well to feedback given on a job that they feel is “finished,” rather than having a manager hover over them and interrupt their process.

Value their autonomy by giving feedback on finished projects, rather than interrupting employees at work.

The article goes on to talk about feedback loops ON feedback — doing retrospectives to see how your feedback is working, if it’s effective.

Practice makes practice.