Herding Cats

The management of a group of creative intelligent workers is often referred to as Herding Cats, or as Wikipedia illustratively describes it:

An idiom that refers to a frustrating attempt to control or organize a class of entities which are uncontrollable or chaotic.

Creative intelligent people such as software developers and designers of any kind, are the cats which can’t be herded. It’s in their nature to think, and live, outside the box. Like cats, they are individuals and they certainly won’t respond well to authority. When thinking of these people the term “Hacker” comes to mind.

In a professional environment where difficult problems are solved, how do you “herd” your “cats”? It has been a question of debate for years, decades I should say. Many companies who employ creative intelligent workers still organise themselves through Henry Ford style management, also known as Fordism, a style of management applied to factories and factory workers since the 1920’s.

The reason Fordism finds it’s way into the creative intelligent workplace is mostly because of the CEO’s of businesses. When a CEO thinks of a factory he or she probably thinks of words such as “streamlined” and “efficiency”. All CEO’s imagine that their business encapsulate those words, and in a true factory type environment this might very well be true.

The reason a factory can accurately predict their output is because a factory is a large collection of simple tasks, e.g. screw lid on jar, it’s easy to measure the average time it takes to screw a lid on a jar and therefore to accurately estimate how many lids on jars there can be screwed in an hour and a day, multiplied by the number of workers who are screwing lids on jars.

A creative intelligent workplace is the opposite of a factory. A creative intelligent workplace is a small collection of complex tasks. E.g, how long does it take to play a game of chess? Or, how long does it take to do a crossword puzzle? Its difficult to estimate, it will depend on a lot of variables even though most crossword puzzles are pretty similar and all games of chess use the same pieces.

Its by understanding this where management of a creative intelligent environment begins.

When you become a manager in a creative intelligent environment it’s not your job to be the “leader” nor is it your job to be the smartest person in the room. It’s not your job to make all the decisions either. Believe it or not, its your job to be a “facilitator” to the team, to get shit out of the way so the team can focus on getting their work done without being interrupted by trivial issues.

As a manager of a creative intelligent team it will be your job to keep your team members grounded. E.g, in a software development environment the team might come up with the best technical solution to one of the clients problems. However, something that might be the best technical solution might not actually be the best solution to implement. Maybe there are budget constraints, or maybe there will be a major maintenance overhead cost coming with the solution proposed. As a team lead it will be your job to think for the client, to present of yourself as a representative.

Leading is hard and leading with humility is even harder. When you lead a creative intelligent team it’s your job to make sure the team you lead loves their job. Don’t try or feel its up to you to make every single decision because it’s not. You are the catalyst and it’s up to you to set the stage for great things to happen.

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