Occupational therapy for managers

Published 2014-06-23 by Jochen Lillich

In the “What’s Hot, What’s Not” index in a recent Irish Times Magazine, I found two work-related entries:

What’s Hot: Annual leave approval – Sweet, liberating relief.

What’s Not: Annual ‘Goal Setting’ at work – Taking your ambitions and shaping them into corporate jargon. When dreams get replaced by deliverables.

This brings back memories of my corporate past, and they’re not fond ones.

“Annual leave”. Just the name brings out the cynic in me. “You don’t have to work your ass off all of the year. We have reserved a few days in summer where you may take some PTO. But make sure that you’ll be back refreshed and ready to work for the next 11 months!”

And then there’s the “goal setting”. Done in a regular fashion in order to keep you on target. But only within intervals like quarterly or even yearly to not bother the manager who’s responsible for your performance too much. In between goal appraisals, you’re on your own, of course. Didn’t get the resources you needed approved? “You have to do more with less.” Got your priorities overruled by your own or some other manager again and again? “You need to keep focusing on your responsibilities!” Changes in strategy made your goal senseless? “You should think more big-picture!”

I’ve come to think of these practices as occupational therapy for managers who don’t have the skills to do any better. It’s passive management. And passive management is bad for the business.

Active management

That’s why we’re taking a radically different approach at freistil IT. In 2010, just when I was getting started with my company, Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson published their book “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution”. Reading it, I recognised many of the the bad management patterns they described because I had experienced them.

A Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) is based on trust and accountability. If I trust my employees to put in the hours stated in their contract, I don’t need to count butts in chairs. If they deliver appropriate results, I don’t need to ask when or where they worked on achieving them. Treating people as trustworthy adults frees a lot of time to do actual management, e.g. creating individual career development plans or helping employees overcome problems they can’t solve left on their own devices. The catch: a ROWE requires active management.

Active management is what happens between meetings.

In today’s world, things change far too frequently for annual goals to retain any value. In software engineering, we’re using agile and lean methodologies to continuously resharpen our focus, to keep up with moving targets. Software is developed in weekly sprints instead of annual big-bang releases. Why should these agile approaches not also be applied to relationship and performance development (a.k.a. management)?

Unlimited PTO

At freistil IT, we don’t count work hours and give our employees unlimited time off. All we ask for is to give as many days advance notice as the vacation is going to have. You’ll probably ask: “And what happens if someone abuses this?” Then it’s probably time to talk to the employee about how they’re damaging their professional relationship with the whole company. It’s also necessary to look at the conditions in which this misbehaviour was able to develop. Were there mistakes made during the hiring process, since cultural fit is one of the most important selection criteria? Were there events that turned motivation into frustration and self-indulgence? Giving employees freedom and making sure that it’s not abused is active management.

Self-defined goals

In order to give our work the right direction, we use the V2MOM model that Marc Benioff created at Salesforce.com and described in his book “Behind the Cloud”. On every level of the company, we define

  • the Vision for our business,
  • the Values our work is based on
  • the Methods we plan to employ
  • the Obstacles we anticipate on the way and
  • the Metrics we’re going to use to judge the success of our work.

We discuss and define these 5 aspects for the whole company, we break them down to the team level, and finally, every team member defines their own V2MOM based on the company and team model. Since transparency is one of our core values, we publish all V2MOM’s on our company wiki. Each V2MOM gets revised regularly, generally every quarter or biannually. Longer intervals are okay here because a vision is not necessarily a concrete goal. V2MOM is just the framework that helps us decide what is going to advance the business in the right direction and what not (the “V2” part). It also provides the basic tools (the “MOM” part) that we’ll need to make daily progress towards these goals. We then communicate our progress via IDoneThis and discuss it in weekly one-on-one talks. Aligning goals to an overarching strategy and continuously adjusting our aim is active management.

These two approaches actually go hand in hand. We are convinced that employees who fit our culture will not abuse their freedom. Because they understand the company’s vision and values and have discovered how their own vision and values fit into this framework, there’s no need for any micro-management. Instead, we let people make their own decisions and trust that it’ll be for the best of the business.

And judging from the results so far, “That’s Hot”.