Loose leadership – Lavasoft lessons learned

Hey Kalle,

it’s read-an-article-and-then-read-what-Matte-thinks-so-we-can-discuss time!

Here’s the link:


I’ll give you a few minutes…

Back? Good!

This post from mr Brogan obviously ties into my previous post about The “Jack of all trades” department. He might have even read it. Or not.

Anyways, the idea about leader employees is pretty exciting. Pretty much a situation where you have succeeded with empowering everyone to be decision-makers, something that we worked hard on at Lavasoft if you remember (succeeding in some cases, failing miserably in others).

Brogan had four points that can make this style of leadership possible, I’ll illustrate with some examples from our shared time at the web department of Lavasoft for your reading pleasure (ah, the memories):

1. “Bumpers” to keep your team from making any grievous and irreparable mistakes. 

At Lavasoft, this would be the peer reviewing of design decisions and the sanity checks in stand-up meetings. Also, the whole back-up support from a manager in tricky communications with partners and other departments. When it comes to expenses and being able to drive parts of the budget themselves, we never came that far – I mostly took advice on which licenses and office equipment we needed and mad decisions based on that. That would have been an interesting thing to try, putting people in charge of different parts of the budget and managing that all by themselves.

2. Production- and results-based metrics versus “butt in seat” metrics.

We were never much about metrics for performance at Lavasoft, and we didn’t need to be since we had such a small team (about 5-6 members) and good daily communication that I knew what you guys were doing and how it was going. Not much need for metrics then, but in a larger organization they might form a good starting point for discussion and a fairly unbiased measurement (the bias, of course, lies in what you measure though).

Putting in the wrong measurements though might lead to everyone managing their own pet projects, the success of which they’ll be measured by, and competing for resources for these – not my favorite kind of workplace.

One solution might to be set metrics for the group instead (hewwow SCRUM sprints!) that are better indicators for if people are performing. And then coach the group to figure out what needs fixing.

I’ve heard example of real estate brokers (of all things) that get provision based on how they are doing as a group, which encourages them to send prospective buyers to other brokers properties as well which benefits everyone in the group – something that a straight bonus system based on individual performance traditionally discourages.

3. A more open communication stream. 

Hopefully you’d agree, but I tried hard to give you guys as much information about what was going on in the company as possible, barring sensitive information about co-workers and such that wouldn’t benefit you and actually would hurt someone else.

I think this is just common sense – the more information you guys have, the better you can make decisions on your own. You will always be more knowledgable about the technology than me anyways since that is your speciality so if I can impart as much relevant information about the business as possible, we’ll can cut out me as the middle-man in decision-making, making us less vulnerable.

This stream should always be finetuned constantly so only relevant and interesting information is passed on both ways (“I don’t think I need these numbers anymore, they are useless to me and I never take any action based on if they are high or low since I have better indicators if the application is performing as it should or not. If you say we’re doing fine, that is enough for me and more efficient.”).

4. An active learning culture and mistake-learning path.

It’s always healthy to question how things are done at the company. It’s important to keep this constructive though. The “What puzzles us?”- question in the heartbeat retrospective after sprints was a good way of catching organizational flaws that needed adressing by someone with a bit of clout with the rest of the organization (“Why does marketing always deliver their stuff a few days late?”). I guess if you have a group of leaders, you should coach them in optimizing these things themselves (advice them a bit on how to approach Marketing in a constructive way on this subject that might be a little bit touchy).

We had a lot of shifts in how we did stuff (build-your-own vs adapt-your-own, figuring out what the web department should focus on, adopting SCRUM) and most of these were results of employees pointing out flaws in the way we worked and suggesting that we examine alternative approaches.

So, did we have loose leadership at the web department at Lavasoft?

More so than some other departments I would say. We were a long way from embracing it completely I feel, but the aspects of it that we implemented (without ever labeling them “loose leadership” per se) worked pretty well and were beneficial to us.

And that is the key take-away for me:

If you are constantly trying to get better, you’ll never be fully optimized and content, ever.

So make sure that each step is a goal in itself and makes you happier, more efficient or more powerful by itself, while at the same time bringing you closer to a goal or vision of how you want things to work.

Let’s do lunch some day,


3 thoughts on “Loose leadership – Lavasoft lessons learned

  1. Inspiring! And good memories 🙂

    During the Lavasoft days I aspired to be a Servant Leader http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Servant_leadership, in much the same way I hoped that this would empower people.

    About measuring people, I (probably) say don’t, instead: Hire people who care – http://www.chadfowler.com/2011/03/13/caring-like-crazy.
    I agree that measuring the group performance like we did is better. However, at the end of the day nobody cares if we made a sprint or if we did five points in a day. It doesn’t reflect anything tangible or interesting.
    For example: “We redesigned the frontpage and made three mailers in one week! Can you believe that?!” That is amazing, but… we don’t necessarily talk about the fact that the new front page design wasn’t tested against the old one, for all we know we might have made things worse. Furthermore, one of the mailers was trashed and only one of the remaining ones actually turned a profit …potentially cannibalizing on other channels, we don’t really know.

    I think instead employees should be be aware of and able to affect things that matter and are interesting, like customer satisfaction and conversion rates.

    Scrum with its point system can perhaps be seen as gamification where the true incentive has been obfuscated and lost.

    Somewhere in here I also wanted to add “And this is why you need truly cross functional teams!” but it didn’t seem to fit in anywhere :P.

    The active learning culture is very compelling, I think we did a decent job growing that during the Lavasoft days. By the way, The Lean Startup goes quite deep into this subject, an interesting read.

    To get back your “Lavasoft lessons learned”, I definitely think that you nurtured leaders. Never thought about it that way before …but I guess that is what the self organizing team is about.

    I’ve completely lost myself a long time ago, but I guess I’ve sort of kept to the subject of empowering employees; turning employees into leader employees.
    …now this is also very long. I hope it was …good-ish or amusing :).

    Looking forward to lunch!

    Take care,

  2. I am going to resist the urge to do my own very long rant on this. Instead make some very short points.

    1) This blog is very though provoking and I really enjoy these discussions.

    2) If you are looking for a metric of some kind to judge your success, how is this?
    Matte, I would say you taught me more about managing people then anyone ever has. And I strive to be more like you in almost all aspects of my managerial style.

    3) My guiding principle is “a managers job is to make themselves obsolete”

  3. 1) We like to blow minds.:)
    2) Bro! Nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. No joke.
    3) Add “and then find somewhere else where they can make an impact on people’s work situation” and you’ve sold me, a manager’s job is never done (or you aren’t looking hard enough).

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