Leaders Need to be Clear and Fuzzy

January 14, 2011

You might be thinking that fuzziness cannot exist if clarity is your objective, but in the realm of software leadership, both are required. It’s a question of where one or the other is needed.

What needs to be clear: Direction and purpose.

On a strategic scale, the entire organization needs clear direction and a strong sense of purpose. A strategic goal should engage people’s hearts as well as their minds. The classic example is the goal of landing a man on the moon. There was a strong purpose, the goal was specific in its objective, and it articulated a definitive time frame; the clear objective of landing a man on the moon (and getting him back) and allowed for automatic prioritization: anything not related to achieving the objective of landing a man on the moon was deemed a lower priority.

Some companies have a strong sense of purpose. Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon.com, Salesforce.com, Facebook and Twitter all come to mind. Even if you can’t quote their corporate mission statements, do the names of these companies evoke thoughts of what they are all about and what they are trying to achieve?

In order for people to be productive and engaged, the following questions need to be answered:
  • What are we all about?
  • What is our purpose?
  • Where are we going?
  • Why does our organization exist?
  • Why should I get out of bed every morning?
What needs to be fuzzy: How people approach their work.

Knowledge workers, like those in software development, need space. In order to be motivated and engaged they need to understand what is important and why. But how they will achieve that work is best left up to them. If you want to encourage initiative, give people the latitude to define how they will approach their work. And there should be a negotiation on the target dates for when the work will be accomplished.

While it is understood that business drivers exist, imposed dates without consideration for who is performing the work and at least input from those who understand the work sets you up for failure right out of the gate. If hitting a date is important, communicate that and discuss what it will take to realistically hit that date – and if hitting it is even possible.

Bridging the gap takes time. As a leader, you can’t “mail in” your strategy and sit back. You will need to engage in repeated dialogs to help the organization understand how their day-to-day work is aligned with the overall strategic direction. And you may have to make some calls about what to stop doing in order to make room to do the right things.

It’s all about balance. If you lean too far in one direction, you’re likely to fall over! As a leader, you need to provide just enough structure to avoid chaos, yet not so much structure that you stifle the initiative and innovation that is so highly prized these days.