Thinking about managing IT

Phil Dawes made sure I didn’t miss this recent piece by Joel Spolsky. BTW, anyone interested in the semantic web should tune in to Phil’s stuff. [Thanks, Phil!]

In classic management speak I guess you could categorise Joel’s three methods as (a) stick (b) carrot and stick and (c) carrot. But that’s oversimplification.

Personally, I think my management methods were influenced more by Max De Pree than anyone else, though Peter Drucker looms large in the background, aided and abetted by Tom Peters. If you haven’t read De Pree’s books, please do.

I first read Leadership is an Art sometime in 1988, about a year after it was published. And it set the tone for my management style ever since; over the years, that learning was augmented by my understanding leadership in the voluntary sector and “quiet” approaches, and I found all this very valuable. I’ve probably given away fifty copies of the book.
The elevator pitch for Leadership is an Art was:

  • The first job of a leader is to articulate strategy and vision.
  • The second and last is to say thank you.
  • In between, a leader should be a servant and a debtor to the led.

I found it very powerful for many reasons, just one of which I feel I must share here. De Pree was CEO of Herman Miller, who make the chairs you are likely to be sitting on right now. A venerable man running a venerable manufacturing concern, showing immense humility and humanity in his management style.

Here’s an excerpt from a Publisher’s Weekly review:

The artful leader, he argues, should recognize human diversity and make full use of his or her employees’ gifts. Further, he believes, a leader is responsible not just for the health of a company’s financial assets, but for its ethics. Advocating management through persuasion, and the exercise of democratic participation rather than concentrated power, he favors covenantal relationships with employees that rest on shared purpose, dignity and choice.

What I found particularly exciting at the time was that De Pree, CEO of a major manufacturing firm, somehow managed to avoid thinking Taylor-meets-Assembly-Line-Any-Colour-You-Like-As-Long-As-It’s-Black. That he understood the value and richness of human diversity, and did not set about seeking to destroy it systematically.

Now, back to Joel’s point. I think there is something subtle, something very important, in his Identity Management approach to managing technology teams.


People want to make a difference. Young people want to make that difference quickly and energetically. Older people want to leave a legacy as they ride into the sunset.

They want to make a difference.

When you allow people to participate and make it simple for them to do so, you release their creativity and satisfy their urge to make a difference. In some respects, that’s what opensource is about. And what the critics of altruism fail to grasp.

And this is also what Web 2.0 and the Read-Write Web and The Writable Web and social software are about.


Some time ago, speaking at a conference, I wondered aloud why anyone would fight to hire intelligent people and then proceed to prescribe precisely what they should do. I still wonder about that.

3 thoughts on “Thinking about managing IT”

  1. I found The Art Of Captaincy by Mike Brearley very useful when I first became a manager. His philosophy is quite similar to your portrayal of DuPree; a slightly Buddhist and non-confrontational strategy of management, relying on alignment of goals rather than pushing too hard.

    It’s been a while since I read it – thanks for making me think of it again. I’ll dig it out and blow the dust off.

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