imagesAs I’ve worked with teams engineering teams big and small – in both enterprise and startup contexts – over the last 20 years I’ve noticed two distinct patterns in leadership and their impact on the culture and productivity of those teams.

Pattern: Risk Focused Leadership

Risk focused leadership emphasizes the up front identification and mitigation of risk in any program or project. It attempts to know as much as possible before committing and rewards engineers who can identify and articulate risks.

Impact on Culture

Since the engineer’s perceived worth is derived from her ability to identify reasons things won’t work – or more precisely to avoid mistakes – the culture tends to favor inaction and exhaustive research and analysis.

Impact on Productivity

Predictably, these teams tend to have low output. Generally the output they do generate is both expensive and highly reliable. In enterprise contexts there tends to be a reliance on proven vendors – usually with a bias toward those with long market histories which can be analyzed.

Pattern: Opportunity Focused Leadership

Opportunity focused leadership emphasizes the potential gain of any program or project. It – often aggressively – attempts to capture opportunities as they present themselves. These leaders reward engineers who can grasp the opportunity and rapidly implement solutions which might capture the opportunity.

Impact on Culture

Since the engineer’s perceived worth is derived from her ability to create solutions which may capture the opportunity – or more precisely move quickly with imperfect information – the culture tends to favor rapid cycles of activity and an ability to “change gears” rapidly.

Impact on Productivity

Predictably, these teams tend to have very high output, however, much of that output goes unused. Generally – but not always – the output is proof of concept quality with a bias toward open source tools, frameworks and platforms. Since the long term viability of the opportunity and feature/product were not exhaustively analyzed teams learn to implement low cost solutions which can be “thrown away”.

Leadership Lessons

What should be obvious by now is that neither is bad or good – each is appropriate in certain contexts and, more often than not, a project, program or organization requires a well defined, understood and articulated balance between the two leadership focuses.

Some leaders are naturally opportunistic, some are risk managers. As a leader of a engineering or product development team it is your responsibility to understand:

  • The opportunity/risk profile of the program/project/product.
  • The relative opportunity/risk propensities of your team.

Most importantly, you must ensure that the opportunity/risk profile is articulated and the stakeholders understand and agree with the inherent tradeoffs for any program, project or organization. Failing to do that is the unacceptable risk you must avoid at all costs.

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