Thursday, August 4, 2011


Last night I was talking with a friend about a team and a manager who was asking for excessive status updates. The manager was new to the team, was asking for updates in two places (on a wiki and email), and the team was getting demoralized. So what's going on, and how do we fix it?

Let's step back a second, and talk about contracts. Most contracts between people are implicit contracts. They're implied promises of behavior and trust. To use a non-software example, when I cross the street at a light, I have an implicit contract with the driver that he won't run me over, and I won't stand in front of him when he has the right of way.

The same is true in organizations; there is an implied contract at all levels that, "if you give me the information I need and get out of my way, then I will provide acceptable work at a reasonable pace that matches your needs". Teams producing software make that contract with their team leads. Team leads make that contract with their managers, and so on up the line.

When an implicit contract is being violated, angst ensues. This is what's happening to the team we were discussing last night. Someone is violating the contract. It could be a lot of things:
  • Maybe the manager is asking for status too frequently or the wrong way (not staying out of the way)
  • Maybe the team isn't producing good work, or not at a reasonable pace
  • Maybe the team isn't producing work that meets expectations (garbage in? or possibly just going off in their own way)
  • Maybe the manager doesn't know how to produce good work (in her case, a productive team is her good work), and this is a proxy for it
  • Maybe the manager's manager is not staying out of the way
In other words, we don't yet know where the contract violation is. Just to throw an interesting twist into things, sometimes the contract violation happened in the past, and people are still nervous about it. It takes time to relearn trust after a violation, and this may be that time period.

Is there a problem? Absolutely.
Where's the problem? Don't know yet. Follow the contract, and we'll find it.

Look beyond the immediate complaint (too much status!), check the implicit contract, and fix the underlying problem. That's the way to productivity and great teams.


  1. My manager and I had a great rapport. I thought I had found the best manager to work with in 7 years of my experience as a testing professional. I burnt the candles at both ends for almost a year in my current testing project. Last month, she scuttled my promotion that was due. Not sure if this is really an implicit contract. But it stands violated. The trust is lost.

    I am no Atlas. But I am gonna shrug for sure.

    Not the right attitude, but what the heck!

  2. Yowch - sorry to hear that. It sounds like at least one of you thought there was an implicit contract; that word "due" is a real indicator. I hope you're able to have an honest talk with your manager and figure out why there was a difference in expectations and reality. Best of luck!