Sucking Agency

A genuinely autonomous team that takes the initiative can be a game changer for most startups. This isn’t an exaggeration. However, there are many founders and executives who routinely cripple their team’s agency “momentarily” without realizing the long-term effects. Most talented people cannot be “turned on and off” at will. Are you sucking the agency out of your top people?

Story Time

Here’s a scenario I’ve seen happen several times already. The founders are faced with a strict deadline or tight budgets (or just being control freaks). Thus, they decide to do things differently “just for a while.” They go into micromanagement mode or become the sole decision-makers to a ridiculous extent. They mistake “wartime mode” for being kindergarten teachers.

These teams then spend weeks or months in a very gloomy mode. Even trivial things are taken out of their purview. I saw teams literally working on source files spanning thousands of lines of code—to the extent their IDEs were having trouble working—for months. That’s because they did not have the “mandate” to “refactor” and break things into smaller pieces.

Now, you’ve heard the analogy about working hard and achieving little as opposed to taking the time to sharpen your saw and getting more done. While that’s right, I want you to consider the long-term effects these bursts of little agency have on your people.

What’s Lost Is Not Easily Regained

As much as being so micro-managed is frustrating at the moment, the problem is how these periods end up shaping teams. Humans are incredibly flexible, which means that we are capable of adapting to things a lot more than you’d expect. However, what we pick up under duress is not always easy to undo later.

For example, I’ve seen teams go through things like the story above, only to never find their agency again. After months in crunch mode, when the founders finally wanted to “return to the right way of things,” they found they no longer had partners. It takes much longer to regrow lost agency, especially if we’re talking about long periods of time.

The same applies to companies that think they can wield micromanagement “as a tool.” While it may achieve the short-term goals you’re looking at, what it is doing is only contorting the organizations bit by bit to become organizations that expect that form of management. Therefore, the only path forward if you feel the need to “double down” is not to turn into a kindergarten teacher but, if you have to, take the role of super coach for a while. The difference is ostensibly subtle but significant.

Further, I’ll say that in about 90% of the cases when I work with leaders who think they need this doubling down, we realize that wasn’t even necessary with the right tools and approaches. That is probably the case for you as well. If you want to chat and learn whether you’re here or there, let’s talk.