On Politics in software organizations

The reason I hate politics in software is that it makes us worse.

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Let me start by offering a definition, that I think is common to how the term is used in software, and maybe also reveals what I don’t like about politics. What I mean by politics is any convincing or forward progress of an idea or decision that is not based on its merit (e.g. back-channels, personal-career-focused, wearing people down intentionally, purposefully excluding people who disagree, forming cliques of power, emotional persuasion, trade-in-kind, etc.).

Politics are a valid way to help ideas spread when people disagree about vision, principles, or strategy. (for example, in governments)

However, the best we can do, is not to use politics. It is to get aligned on vision, principles, and strategy.

In business, we have the opportunity to choose who we work with and where we work. It’s our choice to follow the vision, principles, and strategy we all agree with.

By making that choice and then having open, honest, and merit-based discussions, we will develop better ideas, make better decisions, and create more buy-in. And, ultimately, lead to greater success.

Any time spent requiring politics in business is time wasted — and, we all have other work that adds value we could be doing. Moreover, it’s time spent getting a lesser idea moved forward or lower quality decision made.

A couple of actionable tips you can do. First, to take care of the accidental political decisions — promote a safe environment and awareness on avoiding politics, then have everyone identify and callout emotional arguments. Second, to take care of more serious offenses (e.g. malicious intent) you need to make sure you build your team and culture with the right values.

It is worth noting, that some complexity comes from how we perceive the merit in other’s position. We often won’t see the merit. However, it is not important for us to always see the merit. In fact, it’s beneficial to our ideas and decisions when we do not see the merit ourselves. Rather, a key means by which a team/organization adds value is by providing diverse perspectives, where individuals often will not see the merit. This is where alignment on values, principles, and strategy is important.

Having that alignment through who you choose to work with you (or choosing where you work) is key to having trust and safety, which is crucial here. Because, when we do not perceive the merit, it’s easy to wrongly perceive motivations. Misperceived motivations is only natural for humans, which further enhances both the need and the benefits gained from avoiding political moves.

Any move can be for political (“political” as defined at the start) or merit reasons. It’s impossible to know motivations all of the time. However, if you create a culture filled with trust and safety, you can have open, honest, and merit-based discussion — leading to better decisions, stronger ideas, more buy-in, and greatly reducing time wasted on politics.

Perhaps, the best part of a non-political cultures is that it become self-fulfilling. Being open, honest, and debating on merit builds trust, which then further improves engagement in using those effective methods.

Coach. Leader. Manager. Passionate about helping people. Curious about problems, especially customer. Create environments for delivering software people love.

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