No Drivers Needed

June 30, 2011 Luke Walter

Business buzzwords come and go (remember “synergy” and “leverage”?), but one I’ve been noticing more lately is “drive”. I once used this word in my resume to describe my ownership of an initiative that I’d wanted to highlight, but it never quite sat well and I rewrote it using another word. As I notice it more, I think I’ve identified my discomfort with it: I worry it engenders a view of work and workers inconsistent with agility.

Besides its relationship to change and “strategic initiatives” and other amorphous concepts, the word seems most often used to connote a push, or perhaps with regard to workers, a shove, maybe backed up with a stick. The associations are not explicit, but are important. For what is most often driven? Horses, oxen, and cattle are driven, as have been slaves, soldiers, and enemies throughout history. Think ‘cattle drive’, ‘slave driver’, ‘driven before them’, ‘driven by demons’. This word’s appeal in the lexicon of business seems due to the images of pushing reluctant but useful subjects to perform the will of the driver.

This attitude toward work and workers is endemic in software, which is unfortunate, as the construction of software (or at least quality, successful software) has very little in common with forced marching, dragging freight or plow, the digging of ditches, or being pushed to the brink of some physical barrier.

“Lead” would be a more appropriate word. But leadership is more difficult – not least of all because it usually requires the assent of those being led. Also note where most of the risk is in the leader-follower relationship: At least as much on the one in front doing the leading as on those doing the following. Not so much with teams of sorry subjects being driven from the rear.

Yet we continually hear questions from clients such as “How do we know the team is working as hard as they can?” or “How do we know they’re not padding their estimates?” These comments seem to come from a boss/worker perspective that assumes employees are dim, lazy, or inept. Knowingly or not, these attitudes are a hangover from the “Scientific Management”  movement from turn of the last century, whose main proponent – Frederick Winslow Taylor – held general contempt for the abilities of workers in the newly fractionalized mode of industrial production.

The clear delineation of roles in Scrum ensures we don’t confuse leading with driving. The best Product Owners are leaders, who encourage effort and commitment by setting clear product vision and project goals, and distilling these into clear priorities. The team, motivated intrinsically by their own desire to perform, and by the regular measure of progress toward attainable goals, needs no driver. They’re motivated internally by the satisfaction of meeting their own commitments, and the ability to exceed their own expectations of their own accord.

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