Perception of Control

one of the biggest challenges facing any lead position [particularly in an agile domain, but not solely within that domain] is wrestling for control. the processes, frameworks, tools and values are established in order that some kind of control may be exerted over the chaos. and in a position where you are required to lead, you are perceived as controlling, to a greater or lesser degree, those systems. a kind of lion tamer, if you will. the tricky bit though is not to buy into the perspective that you are controlling anything. once you do bite, settle in for a fight. how so?

you have a great architecture all planned [or semi-planned]. you’ve been collaborating on it for some time and you [your team visionaries] release it for implementation. inevitably, it doesn’t go strictly according to plan. and that’s ok, as long as what does get implemented is not a deadly wound, right? likewise, you have an iteration all neatly planned, but once it gets started Mr. Murphy makes his appearance. and suddenly you need to deal with unplanned, _urgent_ stories. from requirements gathering to release, when you are tasked with leading any of the above, it’s _hard_ to control it. and depending on your personality, ethics, team-size, professionalism, culture, your reaction will fall somewhere between the extremes of HeartAttack and Whatever. Or for the more detailed, see The Stress Continuum.btw, this also applies to any lead position in commerce. any business manager, CEO, financial director- they can all fall into the same trap. my disclaimer here is that i am nowhere near close to any sort of expert in commerce, but i have seen remarkably similar behaviour where the issue of control is concerned.

now control is very difficult to get right because of the linear mindset we have engrained. inputs and outputs, objectives and outcomes, incentives and goals; all work well. defining them is cognitively sound, striving for them is rational, even good. getting to them is difficult. and it almost seems that the moment we think have control of the system, we lose it. we use terms like “hit a bump, snag or hitch”. we may even resort to phrases like “sabotaged” or “hijacked”. but that perception of losing control is more likely a result of something completely ordinary. ie, not always an intentful diabolical plot to thwart your efforts. even if paranoia is a virtue 🙂

and why the linear midset does not work is because we are not strictly dealing with a linear system in anything that we collaborate on. life is not linear. yes, we’d love to ignore the impact of home on work and vice-versa. it’s just not realistic. yes, we’d love to tell people to leave their problems at home, and vice-versa. you’re blinded. and don’t let something like a terrorism impact on this delivery. when you come to work, you work. you leave all that behind, right? mmm…. of course, we do recognise major events. particulalry, the ones close to home. and there’s also good reason why we simply can’t factor all those things in to our planning. it’s just too much. we’d never get started with anything. and we also have to draw lines about what we can _allow_ to affect us, for the sake of moving along. but truth be told, things completely unbeknown to us wrestle against our perceived control of any system.

so how to combat this? abandon your perceived control. recognise you have no real control and focus on influencing the system. a leader, and we can look to world leaders here for examples, doesn’t control a nation, or even group. the ones that do we recognise as cults. great leaders influence. and since this is not about morals, but about successfully achieving, we can ignore the good and bad when it comes to using the word “great”. if you can but exert the right type and amount of influence, you will probably achieve far more than when you try control.

architecture. don’t try and control it. influence your team to get it right. that involves education, imparting values and a lot of rhetoric. process, agile or not. don’t control it, again, influence it. gathering requirements and planning the iteration likewise requires a lot of influence to get it right. how do you stop unplanned, _urgent_ stories from distracting your attention 2 days into an interation? you can not control it. but if you have influenced your sales team and product managers correctly, they’re less likely to interrupt. but that’s not to say they won’t ever do it 🙂 how do control a junior developer from not writing tests? you can’t. but you can influence them to. and so every situation you’re faced with when leading something is never about control. if you think your job is to control it, you’re more likely to be frustrated than not.

so leading any position where control is perceived, your first task in accepting the role is to recognise that you have no control. even if others expect you to. there too, you can influence expectations to a greater understanding that life is non-linear. we don’t live in a box. we don’t achieve outputs based on linear inputs. there’s too much beyond our control [and influence] to even try cater for, so we don’t. yet, in some way, we do try cater. just differently to what we might expect would work.