Where I work now, we have a position known as “Delivery Manager”. From an outside perspective, the role is a middle-management position, responsible for ensuring the smooth delivery of software to agreed upon budgets and timelines, as well as reducing the complexity and amount of information that the CTO has to deal with on a daily basis. Fairly standard stuff.
For most of my time here, I had a delivery manager. I liked him and I feel like his overall effect on the team was positive. He knew when to involve himself and when to get out of our way, though this was helped somewhat by the fact that he was located in a completely different city, so contact was sometimes sporadic, and he had to make sure that those times where we could get together were as useful as possible.
Unfortunately, a few months ago his position was made redundant for a variety of reasons, but I suspect the primary one was the location (with the organisation choosing to focus more effort in their Brisbane location).
Somewhat ironically, change is actually the only constant in life, so being able to adapt quickly is an important skill to have. If you were to choose just one thing to improve, I would recommend choosing the ability to adapt and function whatever the situation. Hone that skill to a razor edge, because it will always be applicable.
For us, the initial assumption was that we would simply get another delivery manager, except this time actually situated in the same office as us. It was getting close to the end of the year though, so we were going to have to do without for a little while, at least until the new year.
Well, its the new year now, but the question we’re all asking, is do we really need one?
The Romans Tried It
Beyond developers, there are a few other roles present in my team:
- The product owner, who is focused around what the deliver, when and how that fits in with the greater business strategy.
- The iteration manager, who is focused around the process of delivery and how to ensure that is as smooth and efficient as possible.
- The technical lead, who is focused around how to deliver and ensuring that what is delivered can be maintained and improved/extended as necessary.
It feels like between those 3 roles, a delivery manager should be redundant. Working together, this triumvirateshould be able to make decisions, provide whatever is necessary to any interested parties, and deal with the management overhead that automatically comes with people, like recruitment, evaluations, salary adjustments and so on (assuming they (as a group) are given the power to do so).
Each person in the triumvirate has their own area of speciality and should be be able to bring different things to the table when it comes to steering the team towards the best possible outcome.
Decisions made by the triumvirate would be owned by the group, not the individual. Allowing the responsibility to be shared in this way means that there are less likely to be issues resulting from a singular person trying to protect themselves and the likelihood of poor decisions is lessened by the nature of the group being able to take into account more factors than a single person.
Ego and personal ambition is reduced, because all parties should have approximately equal power, so an individual should never be able to become powerful enough to control or subsume the group as a whole.
Finally, with an odd number of people, any and all disagreements should be able to be resolved via voting, assuming no-one abstains and the options have already been reduced to 2.
It Didn’t End Well
Of course, its not all puppies and roses. All 3 participants in a triumvirate need to be mature enough to operate towards a common goal in a highly co-operative way. Like most roles in an organisation, powerful egos are detrimental to getting anything done. The upside of a triumvirate is that the impact of a powerful, out of control ego is lessened, as the other two members should be able to act and mitigate the situation.
The other downside of a triumvirate is the speed at which decisions are able to be made. A singular person in a position of power is capable of making decisions very quickly, for both good and bad. 3 people working together are unlikely to be able to decide as quickly as 1, due to a number of factors including communication overhead and differing opinions. Again this is another reason why all participants in a triumvirate must be highly mature people without ego, willing to listen to information provided and quickly construct informed opinions about a situation without colouring them with their own internal biases. A pretty tall order, if we’re being honest.
Finally, to an outside observer, having 3 people performing a single role might look inefficient, especially if they ignore that those 3 people have a wealth of responsibilities beyond acting within the triumvirate.
Google Did Much Better
A leadership structure consisting of 3 equals working together is not a new concept.
The ancient romans had at least 2 triumvirates, but to be honest, they did not end well. From the small amount of reading that I’ve done on the subject, it seems like one of the main reasons for their failure was the motivation behind their formation. In both cases, a triumvirate was established in order to avert a war due to succession disputes, so every party in the triumvirate was still acting in their own best interests rather than in the best interests of the people they should have been serving. A valuable lesson that can easily be applied with forming a triumvirate in an organisation.
A successful triumvirate can be seen in the management structure of Google back in 2010. Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt worked together as a team at the very highest level of the organisation in order to help turn it into the juggernaut it is today. Each one brought different skills to the table and provided different experiences and opinions that no doubt helped them to make the best decisions that they could make. Of course, the Google triumvirate is no more as of 2011, with Larry Page stepping up to head the organisation on his own, but whatever factors went into that particular change are not easy to discern from an external viewpoint. Still, much has been written about the triumvirate structure that helped to make Google what they are today.
At best, all of the above is an interesting thought exercise that occurred to me as a result of my current situation. After discovering that the idea was not new, and doing a little reading, it looks like the construction of a triumvirate as a leadership structure seems to relatively uncommon. At least as far as I could see when searching on the internet. Of the examples that I did find, only 1 seemed to have an overall positive effect on parties in play (though, Roman politics is probably significantly different to organisational politics).
Being that there are a lot of people out there who have probably given this a lot more thought than I have, combined with the lack of successful case studies, I have to imagine that I have overlooked or understate some of the downsides inherent in the structure.
I imagine that its the human side of the equation that I’ve understated, which is a common mistake of mine. For all my bluster and jokes around the nature of people, I mostly assume they are good at heart, willing to subsume their own ego in favour of a better outcome for all.
The concept is also very similar to a committee, and anyone who has even interacted with a committee (especially in government) probably knows how ineffective they can be. Hopefully limiting the number of participants to 3 is enough to prevent that same level of inefficiency. The focus of any sort of structure like this needs to be around getting results in acceptable timeframes, something that I’ve never experienced from a traditional committee.
In summary, the idea seems solid on the surface, removing a layer from an organisational structure that honestly does not look like it needs to be there, but I might not be taking all the factors into account.
In contrast, writing software looks positively trivial.