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Posts about Management

Assume Positive Intensifies

Lets talk about that well-worn bit of wisdom: “assume positive intent.” On the surface it’s excellent advice: practice empathy by mindfully assuming that people may create issues despite their best intentions. You’ve heard the parables, from Steven Covey’s paradigm shift on the subway to David Foster Wallace’s latent condemnation of gas-guzzling traffic and soul-sucking supermarkets. Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi has popularized the notion to ubiquity in corporate America.

In practice, the assumption of positive intent enables some pretty serious anti-patterns.

First, focusing on intent downplays impact. Good intentions don’t change the outcomes of one’s actions: we still must deal with whatever broke. At best, good intentions enable openness to feedback and growth, but do not erase those mistakes.

Which leads us to a more fundamental dilemma. In a piece for Medium last year, Ruth Terry, quoting the Kirwan Institute’s Lena Tenney, summarizes it aptly:

By downplaying actual impact, assuming positive intent can deprioritize the experience of already marginalized people.

“All of this focus on intention essentially remarginalizes a person of color who’s speaking up about racism by telling them that their experience doesn’t matter because the person didn’t mean it that way,” says Tenney, who helped create interactive implicit bias learning tools for the Kirwan Institute.

This remarginalization of the vulnerable seriously undermines the convictions behind “assume positive intent,” not to mention the culture at large. But the impact transcends racial contexts: it appears wherever people present uncomfortable issues to people in a dominant position.

Take the workplace. A brave employee publicly calls out a problematic behavior or practice, often highlighting implicit bias or, at the very least, patterns that contradict the professed values of the organization. Management nods and says, “I’m glad you brought that up, but it’s important for us all to assume positive intent in our interactions with our co-workers.” Then they explain the context for the actions, or, more likely, list potential mitigating details — without the diligence of investigation or even consequences. Assume positive intent, guess at or manufacture explanations, but little more.

This response minimizes the report’s impact to management while simultaneously de-emphasizing the experience of the worker who voiced it. Such brave folks, speaking just a little truth to power, may start to doubt themselves or what they’ve seen. The manager has successfully gaslighted the worker.

Leaders: please don’t do this. The phrase is not “Assume positive intent for me, but not for thee.” Extend the assumption only to the people reporting uncomfortable issues. There’s a damn good chance they came to you only by the assumption of positive intent: if your coworkers thought you had ill-intent, they would not speak at all.

If you feel inclined to defend behavior or patterns based on presumption of good intent, avoid that reflex, too. Good intent may be key to transgressors accepting difficult feedback, but hold them accountable and don’t let assumptions stand on their own. Impact matters, and so must consequences.

Most importantly, Never use the assumption of good intent to downplay or dismiss the crucial but uncomfortable or inconvenient feedback brave souls bring to you.

Assume positive intent in yourself, never assert it in others, and know that, regardless of intent, problems still must be addressed without making excuses or devaluing or dismissing the people who have suffered them.

Humane Agile

This Jan Wischweh piece surveying the recent literature on the the so-called “agile crisis” is a bit of a slog, but these bits caught my attention:

One striking symptom of the Agile Crisis is the impositions of Agile on teams, which seems to be a common practice today. If Agile is so great and really gives more power and autonomy to the developers, why is it commonly imposed by upper management?


Trust is the basis for any good communication. But Trust cannot be demanded. It needs to be earned. This Problem is highly related to Agile as trust is essential for any Agile team. But it can never be imposed.

And the issue of trust cannot be addressed without looking at the problem of power. Agile, especially Scrum, is more about efficiency than about empowering developers and it is not a shift away from Taylorism. On closer inspection, this will be visible in every single conflict within companies trying to transform towards Agile. Quite the opposite is true: it makes people more replaceable and controllable and is a modern and competitive form of Management.

Indeed, management’s focus on process and reproducibility (as in Taylorism) often drives the adoption of agile development processes. But truly autonomous agile teams must be empowered to make their own decisions. That means inviting them to adopt agile practices, rather than imposing those practices on them, and it means trusting teams to make decisions.

In other words, unilaterally determining team composition, deciding that they’ll do “agile” or “scrum” or “kanban”, and reserving the power to override their decisions perpetuates a traditional focus on repetitive tasks and control, rather than autonomy and craft. It demonstrates a lack of trust in the team, and without that trust, the team won’t trust management, either — an untenable, potentially catastrophic situation. No wonder “Agile” fails so often that we now have an “agile crisis”.

I keep coming back to the fundamental idea that teams are made out of people, and management should always support, promote, and empower the people in the company with the autonomy to excel and to do their best work. People over process.

Compassionate Sacking

Jennifer Kim, in a Medium post based on her Twitter thread:

#1 rule: No one should ever be surprised with a “you’re fired.” That’s how you create disgruntled employees, embarrassing Glassdoor reviews, dip in team morale, etc. An out-of-the-blue firing is a failing on the manager’s part, not the employees.

So how do you do that? The most important bit:

  1. Give them a fair shot to improve. As a leader, it’s your job to try to make it work, each employee is owed that.

Practice listening skills. Demonstrate that you believe in them, and you want to see them improve. Commit to giving a LOT more feedback (specific & documented).

If you have little faith that the employee will be able to improve, taking these and the other steps Jennifer recommends might feel like a waste of time. But unless the employee’s actions involve violence, harassment, fraud, etc., you need to give them every chance possible for not only their benefit, but the benefit of their coworkers. Of course you don’t mention it to your other employees, but people talk, they know what’s going on, and they all need to know that if they step out of line, you’ll support them as much as you can.

In other words, a firing should never come as a surprise to either the employee getting the sack nor their coworkers. Because worse than negative Glassdoor reviews is the erosion of trust among the people you continue to work with after the event.

Founding Fodder

We the People

Photo by Anthony Garand on Unsplash

Tone is set from the top, they say. I once started a company and ran it for 10 years, but I rarely thought about leadership, let alone setting the tone. It mattered little, since I was the sole employee for most of that time. Now I ponder these topics a lot, as I watch leaders fail to consciously create and promulgate an ethical organizational culture. I don’t mean they’re unethical, though some might be. I mean they, like me, never gave it much thought, or recognized its importance.

This myopia degrades long-term prospects, leaving employees and partners to invent and impose their own interpretations of the organization’s nature, motives, and goals. Without a clearly-defined direction, people make their own way, and despite the best intentions, those ideas surely don’t quite align with the underpinning ideas and expectations of leadership.

Constituted Outline

Next time I find myself in the position to shape an organization — found a company, create a new group, organize a team — I will give careful thought to these issues, and formalize them in foundational documents that provide focus and direction for the duration. A sort of Organizational Constitution. And like any constitution, its articles will both set the tone and encode the rules.

Preamble: Culture

Culture establishes an environment in which members of the organization feel cared about, respected, valued, and physically and psychologically safe; where they understand what they’re a part of and fulfilled by their roles. Culture recognizes what people can contribute, and finds ways to let them do so. It lets them know there’s a place for them, and that they actively contribute to the Mission.

Culture cannot be legislated, of course, but a preamble announces intentions, sets the tone, and establishes the foundation on which the rest follows.

Article 1. Values

A clear articulation of the organization’s Values — its principals and beliefs. These comprise both internal-facing expectations for members as well as global values and beliefs defining the organization’s place and role in the world. Ideally, they’re the same. Such values inform expectations for partners, investors, customers, and users. Leadership must demonstrate these values in their everyday work, and always be mindful of them when making decisions. Examples of values meaningful to me include:

  • Humaneness
  • Empathy
  • Privacy
  • Security
  • Diversity & Inclusivity
  • Respect
  • Empowering the disempowered
  • Making the world a better place
  • Advancing social justice
  • Doing the right thing
  • Making people happy/​​productive/​empowered/​independent/delighted
  • Innovation
  • Integrity
  • Quality
  • Teamwork
  • Accountability
  • Responsibility
  • Passion
  • Sustainability
  • Community
  • Courage
  • Focus
  • Excellence
  • Collaboration

Article 2. Vision

The Vision lays out how the organization wants to make its dent in the universe. It focuses on the future, and what the organization ultimately seeks to become. It should align closely with the Values, bringing them to bear to define the organization’s purpose, and describe the long-term, measurable goal. The Vision answers questions such as:

  • What are our hopes and dreams?
  • What problem are we solving for the greater good?
  • Who and what are we inspiring to change?

Article 3. Mission

The Mission focuses on the now, and defines how the organization goes about achieving its Vision. It must never contradict the Vision or Values; indeed, they shape the Mission. It’s the core of the business, and from the Mission come Strategy and Execution. A mission statement embodies the Mission by answering questions such as:

  • What do we do?
  • Whom do we serve?
  • How do we serve them?

Article 4. Brand

Closely aligned with Values, the Brand defines the organization. The brand commits to the Values, Vision, and Mission, recognized both internally and externally, so that anyone can say what the organization stands for and how it goes about achieving its goals. Decisions that might erode the Brand or violate its underpinning Values must be avoided.

Article 5. Strategy

The Mission is the “what”; the Strategy is the “how”. The Strategy describes how the organization intends to execute on its Mission to achieve its Vision. It should be high-level but practical, goal-focused but not methodologically imperative. It defines objectives that clearly demonstrate value for existing and prospective constituents (customers, users, etc.) while adhering to — and never corroding — the organization’s Values and Vision.

Article 6. Execution

Everyone in the organization should be aware of what the Strategy is, what its objectives are, and how it furthers the Mission while adhering to its Values. Recognition of and continual reinforcement of the Strategy and objectives creates focus, providing a guide for decision-making. Ultimately, Execution means delivery. It requires meaningful goals to fulfill the Strategy and the achievement of its objectives: shipping product, meeting deadlines, effectively promoting products and solutions, and acquiring happy constituents who enjoy the fruits of the organizations, who derive benefit and value from them.

Article 7. Structure

The organization Structure must enable it to effectively execute the Strategy. That means cohesive teams with with clear mandates and the focus and autonomy to effectively execute. Strong coupling of deliverables across teams ought to be minimized, but expert consultation should be provided where needed. Everyone in the organization should be aware of the Structure, and understand their roles and the roles of other teams.

Article 8. Communication

Leadership must be aware of all of the above tenets and invoke them them regularly. Speak every day about what the organization believes in (Values), what it wants to see in the world (Vision, Mission), and how it contributes to making that world (Strategy, Execution). Communicate consistently and constantly within the context of the products made and services provided — toward the output of the Strategy, the organization’s deliverables. Demonstration of the alignment of the Strategy to the Values of the organization must be continuous, and always consulted when making decisions.

This Communication must be verbal, but also written. Guiding documents must outline all of these aspects, and tie all the pieces together. So in addition to the constitutional articles that define the Values, Vision, Mission, there must be living documents that articulate the Strategy for achieving the Vision and Mission. These includes road maps, planning documents, specifications, promotional plans and materials, organizational structure, team and role definition, etc.

Pursuit of Happiness

Inconsistency of these articles abounds in the business world, since companies seldom convene a constitutional convention to create them — but sometimes because internal- and external-facing messaging varies. It need not be the case.

Perhaps working through these topics with a team will help constitute the grounds on which the organization functions and presents itself to its members and the world. Even if some members disagree with or are indifferent to some of its tenets, all will appreciate the clarity and focus they engender. And an organization with purpose gives its members purpose, meaning to their work, and satisfaction in the furthering of the mission.

Flex Your BICEPS

I’ve been thinking a lot about what creative professionals want and expect out of their jobs. We require certain base features of a job, the absolute minimum for even considering employment:

  • Fair, livable compensation for the work
  • Comprehensive, low maintenance, effective benefits (especially health care)
  • Equitable work hours and conditions (vacation time, work/life balance)
  • Safe work environment

Employers attempting to skimp on any of these items devalue the people they employ and the work they do. Don’t do that.

Assuming an organization meets these fundamentals, what else gets people excited to go to work? What makes employees happy, committed, and productive members of the team? Fortunately, I’m far from the first to explore this topic. Paloma Medina reduces the literature to the muscular acronym BICEPS:

There are six core needs researchers find are most important for humans at work. Not all are equally important to everyone. You might find that equity and belonging are most important to you, but choice and status are most important to your employee. Getting to know them and coaching to them is a shortcut to making others feel understood and valued (aka inclusivity).

The BICEPS core needs:

  1. Belonging
  2. Improvement/Progress
  3. Choice
  4. Equality/Fairness
  5. Predictability
  6. Significance

Beyond the utility of having these needs enumerated to think about collectively — with obvious implications — I find it useful to examine them from varying frames of references. To that end, consider each from the perspective not of rewards and perks, certificates and foosball tables. Ponder them with the goal of creating a virtuous cycle, where the work improves the company, engendering greater satisfaction in the work, and encouraging more of the same.


Organizations serious about encouraging friendships and closeness often highlight social gatherings, team-building exercises, and outings. But don’t underestimate the motivation of the work. Small teams given the space to collaborate and accomplish their goals might be the best structure to create a sense of belonging to a tight-knit group — and for employees to find joy in their accomplishments.

Then reward those accomplishments. Not just with compensation or perks. No. Put the full force of the business behind them. If a team finished work on a feature or shipped a product, don’t limit recognition to a cocktail hour and a raised toast. Promote the hell out of it through all available channels: marketing, sales, blogging, support, community forums, whatever. The surest road to satisfaction and a sense of belonging is to turn that work into a palpable success for the organization.


Funds for conferences, training, and formal education clearly help employees make progress in their careers, or to sipmly improve themselves. But people also get satisfaction from work that helps the company to execute its strategies and meet its goals. Assuming the vision aligns with an employee’s values,1 contributing to the material achievement of that vision becomes the employee’s achievement, too.

So be sure to create opportunities for all employees to grow, both in their careers and contributions to the company mission. Avoid artificial divides between those who make the execute and those who support them. Not everyone will participate; still, encourage ideas and suggestions from all quarters and, where possible, adopt them. Beyond the old canard to “act like an owner”, clearly link organizational success to the ideas and work that created it, and give everyone the chance to make a difference. They improve as the business improves, and that’s progress.


Typically, “choice” means different healthcare plans, Mac or PC, sitting or standing desk. Such perks are nice, but not materially meaningful.2 The choices that warm the creative worker’s heart have much more to do with autonomy and decision-making than fringe benefits. Let teams choose their projects, decide on technologies, self-organize, make the plans to execute. People empowered to take initiative and make decisions without micromanagement or post-hoc undermining find motivation and reward in the work itself. Let them do it!


Yes, grant employees equal access to resources, to management, to the decision-making process, and any other information necessary for their work, benefits, etc. That only stands to reason. But give them equal access to interesting work, too. Where possible, avoid unilaterally appointing people to teams or projects: let them organically organize and pick their collaborators and projects. Such decisions mustn’t be made in isolation; it wouldn’t be fair. Rather, you’ll need to hold regular get-togethers of all relevant teams to make such decisions collectively, PI Planning-style. Give everyone a voice, leave no one out, and they will mostly work out the optimal distribution of tasks.


In addition to paying employees on time, every two weeks, make the work cycle predictable, too. Everyone should have a good idea when things happen, what the iteration cycle looks like, what the steps are and when they get slotted into the schedule, when projects complete and products ship. Just as importantly, make it clear what will they be working on next – or at least what’s in the pipeline for the teams to choose and plan for in the next iteration of the development process. A predictable cadence for the work lets people understand where they are at any given time, what’s next, and what successful execution looks like.


Titles and industry recognition, obviously, but this item brings my commentary full circle. Make sure that the work employees do gets seen not only by immediate managers, not simply lauded at the weekly dessert social. Make it a part of the success of the company. Promote the hell out of it, let customers and users know that it exists and solves their problems — no, show them — and shout it from the rooftops so the entire world know about all the stuff made by your super valuable team of humans.

They’ll be happier, more satisfied, and ready to make the next success.

  1. A very big assumption indeed. I expect to write a bit about company strategies and alignment to employee values soon. ↩︎

  2. Okay, sometimes a choice is no choice at all. Mac or nothing for me! ↩︎