The next few posts will be a bit of a wander. I promise we will get back to software design with new tools for thinking about our fundamental dictum: software design is an exercise in human relationships.
CEO: I take full responsibility for these layoffs.
Iñigo Montoya: You keep using that phrase. I do not think it means what you think it means.
Software design is an exercise in human relationships. Fine. One’s relationship with one’s self is the foundation of healthy relationships with others. Fine. Confidently, effectively answering, “Should I tidy first?” is part of a geek’s healthy relationship with their geeky self. So far, so good. That’s the topic of the first book. (Publishing news to come soon!)
So what about when geeks relating to each other? What role does software design play in building & maintaining those relationships? That’s the topic of the second book in the series but (it turns out) not a topic I understand well enough to jump right into.
I mean, I kind of know. I know that I want to say, “Align authority with responsibility,” but what actually do I mean by that? Every time I tried to write it up I wrapped around my own axle.
Responsibility for Layoffs
In seemingly unrelated news, layoffs are sweeping tech. In almost every layoff announcement, the CEO says something like, “I take full responsibility for this decision.” But do they? Really?
Doesn’t feel like it to me. Again, though, I couldn’t explain exactly why not, not at first. This series of posts (eventually to become chapters of the second book) is my attempt to comb out my thoughts.
Get Along Principles
Boss/employee. Coach/player. Officer/soldier. Each of these relationships is based on a power differential. In each relationship the individuals with less power need to consent & cooperate if the whole organization is to achieve its maximum potential.
Power differentials are subject to abuse, those with power wielding it to their own benefit & to the detriment of those with less power. How to reconcile these forces?
The need for cooperation
The potential for abuse
Many human societies rely on a set of principles to encourage mutually beneficial relationships across power differentials. (Much more on this in the following post.)
The first principle states that consequences flow to those with the power to act. As a kid I remember signs saying, “You bump it, you bought it.” That’s this principle at work. Somebody else bumps it, you don’t have to buy it. (I still reflexively stuff my hands in my pockets when entering a store full of touchables for fear of invoking exactly this principle.)
Relationships governed by this principle are safer for the disadvantaged. If there are negative consequences to be borne, everyone bears them together.
We want to recover from situations with negative consequences. We think we can escape the situation. However, we need more cooperation than during normal business. At the same time the potential for abuse of power differentials is also higher than during normal business. So this principle is more important in difficult times.
This principle, of consequences flowing toward power, is close to the dictionary definition of “responsibility” (however corrupted that word has become—more on that later too).
the state or fact of having a duty to deal with something
(Another interesting side note—different cultures have quite different principles to encourage voluntary participation in power differentiated relationships. Again, more later.)
(We are talking about negative consequences here, but the same principle applies to rewards.)
Responsibility for Layoffs
Sometimes business employ too many people. When that’s true a bunch of disadvantaged folks are going to lose their jobs. Consequences will roll down hill. That’s what being on the downside of power differential is always like.
What would it look like for a CEO to “take responsibility” for layoffs?
Quit. Say, “I got us into this situation & I can’t think of how to get us out.” If the CEO loses their job, that’s the consequences flowing to the person with the power.
Take a pay cut. “The board thinks I can best serve our customers, investors, & the remaining employees by continuing as CEO. However, I cannot in good conscience continue collecting the same salary.” Again, consequences flowing to power.
Work harder. If it would help, put in more effort at the margin. (Sprinting can’t last long, too easily becomes a habit, etc. but losing leisure hours is a consequence.)
None of these actions will restore the people who were laid off. None of them will compensate for the pain caused them, nor the anxiety & disruption to those who remain. At least, though, taking responsibility (in this sense) sends the signal that everyone is in the same boat & that rowing together is still the best strategy.
Power differentiated relationships are inevitable (we can debate this later).
Maintaining the principle that consequences flow toward power make those relationships safer for those with less power.
“Responsibility” is a pretty good word for this principle.
In the next post we will talk more about the social contact & why counterfeiting the principles that modulate it is so tempting & so prevalent.