The Skeptical Methodologist

Software, Rants and Management

Engagement Versus Alignment

Engagement, or how interested employees are in their company, and alignment, or how well the efforts of disparate employees and teams are aligned with a single goal, are both important cultural metrics to track.

An unengaged work force is less productive, has higher turnover, and is a much less fun place to work. A misaligned work force can quickly become disengaged as it is at higher risk of infighting, wasted efforts, and missed opportunities for team synergies.

“Don’t work on that, work on this.”

An issue arises, though, when decisions can increase engagement at the cost of alignment, or visa versa. For instance, a micro managing leader may second guess their subordinates ideas or work. This is an attempt to improve alignment in some cases, as the lead does not necessarily agree that the work is in alignment with the teams goals.

Obviously an employee is going to be more engaged when she’s working on her idea and she believes her idea will help the company. So this micromanagement may have increased alignment but at the cost of engagement. In some cases towards overall organizational productivity, this may end up being a wash, as the rise in team productivity due to increased alignment may come at the cost of individual productivity due to lowered engagement.

But if we take a step back, there’s a third idea we’re not taking into consideration, and that is correctness. That is to say, alignment is the measure of how well the team is focused on the same goal. Correctness is some measure of how well that tactical goal achieves the overall strategic goal of sustainable profits for the company.

In many cases of micromanagement, the lead believes he better understands what’s wrong and what needs to be fixed. He believes he better understands the correct course of action, and thus the job becomes getting his subordinates to focus on that course of action (alignment) with all their potential (engagement). But what if this assumption is false?

Emergent Correctness

In the creative economy, knowledge often is much more highly distributed among the company than in more top-down organizations. At the assembly line, the foremen often has much more experience and often more education than the front line worker, thus the foreman supervising the front line worker in terms of correctness makes sense. But in the software startup, the front line worker often knows more about how any particular piece is architected, what new technologies solve lingering problems, and what problems they actually face. The foreman or tech leads role is to focus instead on the two remaining metrics, engagement and alignment. The correct goal emerges from a organization that is highly engageged and highly designed.

What are birds? We just don’t know

For example, take a flock of birds. No one bird, or set of birds, is in control of the flock. The flock itself, though, looks incredibly organized – both aligned and engaged. The flock behaves correctly, in this case, it flies south for the winter or moves towards food, due to the shared burdens on all birds in the flock.

Management’s duty in this emergently correct culture then becomes ensuring that lines of communication between each front line worker are open, to help ideas become shared and implicitly voted on by what interests people more. This might include removing organizational barriers such as one lower level employee not feeling comfortable talking to a higher level one, or emotional barriers if employees don’t naturally get along, or political barriers if employees start removing lines of communication to protect their own feifdoms.

Their duties also are to increase forms of engagement important in these emergently correct cultures – engagement in the company as a team, identification with the company as a team, and excitement about the future. This includes letting ideas that might just be more interesting than immidiately applicable fly for awhile, since the costs of shutting them down early are just too great.

Emergence isn’t perfect

The main argument against emergent correctness of decisions is that it is rarely perfectly correct. Often, indeed, in hindsight we can see exactly where the company made mistakes. We think this becomes, in turn, an argument for stronger hierarchical control. Indeed, this appears to be why over time and with size, companies become more and more hierarchical. Turning over control to the experts on the front always sounds good in theory, but we know they will make mistakes. We just don’t know, in advance, what those mistakes will be yet. It is said that it is often better to fail traditionally than to succeed nontraditionally. This tendency drives control freaks to argue – not only with each failure, but with each success – that they again be given more hierarchical control to ‘prevent the mistakes’ we just made.

This is an organizational fallacy. As we never seem to consider the opportunity cost of increased hierarchical control. In emergent organizations, the trade off between alignment and engagement never occurs. The addition of hierarchical control is the de facto addition of this trade off. It is, quite literally, the argument (using perfect hindsight information as evidence) that if we had given up engagement in some key areas and gained alignment, we would have been done faster or with higher quality. The core fallacy here is that you can never see those opportunities in front of you, only behind you. So it is never worth looking at those trade offs.

Engagement and alignment are both important for an organization. In many cases, it appears there is a trade off to improve overall correctness of our actions. But this is almost always a fools errand – we can only identify these actions in hindsight. Emergent control isn’t perfect, but this can’t be an argument for inferior forms of control in an organization where the front line, on average, really does know what is best.

January 10, 2015 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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