April 18, 20226 minutes to read — Tags: leadership, mental models, systems

Humans constantly construct narratives to make sense of a messy reality. If a new product launch went well, we could say it was because of the team’s good planning and coordinated execution, or one person’s heroic last-minute effort. Did another team miss their targets? We could say that’s because the higher-ups keep changing their minds, or the team lacked the necessary skills. We can construct wildly different stories to understand the same situation.

Effective leaders construct compelling narratives for their team to understand the present reality, and inspire them to achieve a shared vision. It’s hard to say any particular narrative is right or wrong. Rather, let’s ask which narrative is useful and evocative? Let’s break it down.

In this post, I’ll describe 3 distinct perspectives or “lenses” to use when building a narrative and vision: 1️⃣ rational decisions, 2️⃣ organizational process, and 3️⃣ people and politics. Many leaders tend to lean heavily on one particular perspective. I’ve found myself becoming a more resilient leader by being mindful of all 3 perspectives, and incorporating them into the narratives I use to lead.

This post draws from Graham Allison’s Essence of Decision, and Core Strengths SDI leadership assessment, and Ron Westrum’s 3 types of organizational culture (original research paper). See the appendix for more details.

Perspective 1: Rational decisions

The rational decisions lens assumes that all the appropriate information was gathered and evaluated. It uses a dispassionate, objective analysis focused on unambiguous, quantified results and expected outcomes. We presume people behave like Homo economicus.

The advantage of this perspective is that its conclusions seem logically justified—the optimal outcome may be deduced from the present facts. The disadvantage is that it’s woefully incomplete way of understanding how humans actually behave.

Perspective 2: Organizational process

This perspective focuses on the small set of things that a particular team, organization, or institution is capable of doing well.

Unlike the open-ended possibilities of the ‘Rational decisions’ perspective, the organizational process strongly prefers the well-known options.

Any initiative that fits into an organization’s established processes and leverages existing competencies has a greater chance of success than one that requires novel processes and decisions.

For example, a manager may have an easy time promoting an employee during their organizations’ semiannual performance review period, but have difficulty doing an off-cycle ad hoc promotion. When the employee gets a promotion may have more to do with the quirks of a bureaucratic process than the particular moment they merit it.

An engineering team composed of, say, Frontend and Backend engineers may struggle to hire and onboard a new specialty, like a Site Reliability or Security Engineer. The novelty of the role increases the risks and the amount of effort required.

The advantage of this perspective is that it focuses on leveraging familiar solutions. The disadvantage is that those familiar solutions may become increasingly outdated and insufficient to new challenges. There’s a thin line between “strategic laziness” and “narrow mindedness”.

Perspective 3: People and politics

This perspective focuses on the zero-sum game of political power and influence. The only way to gain power or influence is to take it from someone else. If you don’t please the people who are the source of your influence (your employees, peers, manager, customers, shareholders, etc), you’ll quickly loose it.

A ‘people and politics’ narrative focuses on individuals or groups with rising or waning influence or recognition. Who gets their way, and who doesn’t? Who’s life gets easier, and who’s life gets harder?

Many people, including myself, are uncomfortable dwelling in this lens. The zero-sum logic can breed unhealthy competition, even combativeness and Machiavellian manipulation rather than collaborative, constructive dialogue.

But humans are social, competitive creatures. Our brains inevitably focus on whether the people we like are rewarded, and the people we don’t like get what they deserve. People around you are constantly evaluating your reputation, and weighing whether they should hitch their fate to yours. Leaders neglect this perspective at their peril.

An advantage of this perspective over Rational decisions is that it better captures how people actually behave. But the disadvantage is that it does not, by itself, reveal effective strategies. A leader who baldly declares, “Our strategy is do whatever most improves my reputation” would often be abandoned as a sociopath. Leaders must incorporate other perspectives.


Okay, let’s see how these 3 perspectives can apply to the same hypothetical story.

Say your software team is building a new service, and an early decision is what programming language to use for the project. After some discussion, Typescript emerges of the language of choice. Why?

The rational decisions narrative could be that the leaders of the team carefully considered the suitability of various programming language attributes for the project, e.g. typed vs dynamic languages, security and operability concerns, the ecosystem of tooling and shared libraries, the current expertise of the team, the learning curve to train new developers, and the size of the community. The leaders wrote up a decision doc weighing all these factors and ultimately choosing Typescript because, e.g., type safety would benefit the project and ease maintenance, the language had a large and growing community, and a rich ecosystem of developer tooling.

The organizational process narrative says that the tech team only had the infrastructure tooling and expertise to support, say, Ruby and Typescript. Choosing anything besides Ruby or Typescript would have required a lot of persuading and training that the project leaders didn’t think was worthwhile. The platform/infra team recently announced a lot of new tooling to support Typescript services. The team chose Typescript because they perceived organizational momentum towards it.

And finally the people and politics narrative is that tech lead of the project had spent years maintaining a poorly architected Ruby service. They were eager to try a something different, and had recently cajoled the platform/infra team to better support their new favorite language: Typescript. When their manager asked them to lead the new project, they accepted on the condition that the manager would support their choice of language. The manager agreed since they did not have a good alternative to be tech lead.

Personally, the rational decision narrative is what I want to believe, but the last 2 feel more realistic.

One final point: I think Camille Fournier really nailed these perspectives in her post about build vs buy decisions. The ‘rational decisions’ lens says teams should ‘buy’ more often than they actually do. To understand the discrepancy between theory and practice, she highlights some institutional and political factors that encourage building:

our whole style of teaching computer science is first-principles based, which encourages the default to build ourselves. … Companies reward people who create new things … which creates a pressure to build in order to grow your career.

The lesson for me is that none of these perspectives are right or wrong—they’re all incomplete. And that I’m well-served by bearing in mind all 3 when understanding or explaining decisions.


Appendix

In my recent research about organizational effectiveness, I was struck by the congruence of 3 models for understanding how leaders make decisions:

  1. Ron Westrum’s 3 types of organizational culture: Pathological, Bureaucratic, and Generative
  2. Graham Allison’s Essence of Decision examines the Cuban Missile Crisis through the lens of a Government Politics, Organizational Behavior, and Rational Actor.
  3. The Core Strengths leadership assessment charts personal styles on 3 axis: People, Process, and Performance

Here’s how I organized them into analogous lenses:

Model Lens 1: Rational decisions Lens 2: Organizational process Lens 3: People and politics
Graham Allison's model Rational Actor Organizational Process Bureaucratic Politics
Ron Westrum's model Generative culture Bureaucratic culture Pathological culture
Core Strengths SDI model Performance Process People

Aaron Suggs
Hi, I'm Aaron Suggs. 😀👋

Welcome to my personal blog. I'm a software engineer at Lattice, previously Glossier and Kickstarter. I live with my family in Carrboro, NC. Find me on Twitter, GitHub, and LinkedIn.