Systems of Working - The Role of Leadership

August 24, 2019

There are as many systems of working as there are development teams. One important dimension in evaluating a system of working is identifying the role of leadership in the team.

Here are a few systems of working that you may encounter in the wild:

In this corner: Command and Control

On one end of the leadership scale is what I call "Command and Control". This is the typical single-leader taskmaster model. In this system of working, there is a fleet of "resources" (they are never referred to as "people") who answer to a leader. This leader's primary activity is to delegate tasks across the team. The team members are judged based upon how many tasks they complete in a given amount of time. The team is rewarded for shipping a set of predefined tasks by a particular date. The date is normally determined outside the team.


  • Outside parties are happy to have received a date where their work will be "delivered".
  • Fixed scope of work decided early on facilitates resource planning.
  • One way to work with a team of disengaged or low-skilled employees.


  • Encourages apathy, discourages individual ownership.
  • Guaranteed waste (padding delivery date too much) or burnout (delivery date too aggressive).
  • Individual development is secondary concern.

In the other corner: Self-Organizing Teams

At the other end of the scale is the "Self-Organizing Team". This is a team of leaders. They collaborate to define the best outcome for the success of the business and divide tasks between themselves. They know each other's strengths and weaknesses and operate with their individual strengths when necessary. Priorities and commitments are decided within the team after collecting input from stakeholders. Roles within the team are fluid and decided by the team.


  • A great environment for a motivated and engaged team. Encourages such behavior.
  • Individuals feel like individuals, not cogs in a machine.
  • Provides an opportunity for Agile principles to spread through the organization.


  • Other parts of the organization (Finance, HR, other dev teams) may not know how to work with such a team.
  • At its extreme, the role of the people-manager becomes unclear, especially regarding reviews and compensation.

Somewhere in the middle: People Garden

At some point between these two extremes is a model that I call a "People Garden". This is a team with a manager (gardener) whose top concern is simply the growth of their team. Growth has many contexts -- empowerment, capability, maturity, depth, emotional intelligence, etc. The team collectively shapes its roles and responsibilities, work style, hours, communication mechanisms, tools, policies, etc. This is the model where the org chart looks less like a power structure and more like a tree -- where the trunk, limbs, and branches exist only to position the leaves and flowers for maximum effectiveness. The manager is judged on the improvement vector of their team and their team's ability to satisfy the needs of the business.


  • Grows an engaged team of expanding capability.
  • Encourages team members to become invested in deciding priorities and setting expectations, which builds a sense of ownership.
  • Provides an opportunity for Agile principles to spread through the organization.
  • Fits into typical corporate model of private compensation, reviews, and rewards.


  • May not work well with expectations of the rest of the business.
  • Requires a mature, capable team (most are!)

In my experience, the People Garden yields the happiest, most productive teams that fit in with normal work culture.

What team do you want to lead? What kind of leader do you want to be?