I Had to Die to Save My Company
27 June 2013
Sometimes your worst enemy is yourself -- and you don't even know it.
I'm from northern Europe, a land of snow and ice. Some years ago I decided to turn my back on cold summers and embrace paradise in a land of indefinite summer. Weather was one factor in my big move, but there is no reason to hide the real truth: low salaries compared to my home country, and high competencies. I wanted to follow a dream of being an entrepreneur trying to build an IT company -- and a future. And believe me, as the saying goes, "all things are difficult before they are easy." It was not a walk in the park. The cultural differences can tear you apart bit by bit, day by day. Some of us are clever enough to understand when to give up and go home. Some of us get married and learn to understand the culture from the perspective of the people themselves. I was very lucky and found a supportive angel, so I have stayed and survived. But I had to die once for the company to survive.
I had to build a strong team on a shoestring budget, as it was never an option to hire a lot of senior staff -- not possible. I didn't have the money for that. I had to do with juniors just out of university. They all had a lot of energy and the urge to prove themselves, after having spent most of their lives in the school system. Then I found a couple of senior developers and one "king." I must have been the luckiest person in the world when I found him. I had managed to get an extremely good programmer, a very pleasant person who could talk to customers and train the developers. It was a real boon for me, since I'm lacking in technical expertise and needed someone like him.
After two years of hard work, we managed to develop a very good company with several teams and a few good customers. I invested a lot of time to build the company, focusing on becoming a Microsoft Gold Partner; I managed to get ISO9001:2008 certification as well as the Achilles certification for the oil and gas industry; and all the developers were certified ScrumMasters. We were well prepared for tough competition -- it felt good. We could let the battle of the customers begin.
Then we were hit by a tsunami, a landslide, and a flood, all at the same time. My "king" informed me that he had been offered a position in a large company as head of development. How could he say no to a chance like this? One month later I was left with my emerging company but without my king.
Some would call it a shock; some would name it depression or maybe even anxiety. In short, I didn't know what to do with myself nor how to move on from here. When my teams asked me what to do next, I raised my shoulders, shook my head, and said something like, "I don't know -- you do what you feel like." I could just as well have said, "I don't care." I didn't use those words, but my tone of voice probably told the story loud and clear.
But I had made one stroke of genius without realizing it: I had spent the money to get all of my developers certified as ScrumMasters.
When the king was out of the picture and I, as the top manager, had more or less given up and given the teams total freedom, something strange happened. The different teams started to self-organize in a totally different ways than before. There was no one they could lean on, no one from whom to get wisdom or guidance. They had to manage with the knowledge they had. They started to interact and they shared their knowledge. They just had to use each other. There is no doubt: They are smart people. But with a king and a gate-keeper around, they had previously had no real chance to bloom. There had been no stage on which they could perform and to shine.
After a while, when I finally managed to wake from my beauty sleep and self-pity, I found that my customers were still happy. The different teams had delivered what was promised, with the agreed-upon quality -- every sprint. I don't have to say that the teams were very proud of themselves, and I couldn't stop them talking about all sorts of problems they had solved, the difficult obstacles they had overcome, and the knowledge they had gained in new technologies. That doesn't even mention the commitment they made, the whole team working overtime and on weekends. No manager had told them to do this (without overtime pay). The teams had agreed among themselves that it was needed in order to give the customer -- the product owner -- what they had promised at the beginning of the sprint. It was one for all and all for one.
So I had to lose my king, and I had to pull back totally, in order to discover the true value of my people. I had, luckily, invested in knowledge, not just in one ScrumMaster to train the others but for the whole team, so they all understood what to do to when management failed. Everybody is happier, and we have an even flatter company structure than ever. We are all one large team, and everybody is there to make our colleagues better developers. I had to "die" to make the company a true success.
This was about two years ago. I'm sure you understand that I have not hired another manager in the same position. It did not feel right. Another amazing thing is that the "king" has now returned to us. He did some amazing projects in the large company and was part of an exciting time, but the world turns and things change, so it was time for him to move on to something new. That is what life is all about -- moving on from time to time. He is back on the team as a SuperScrumMaster, looking after his own "SWAT-Scrum team" and helping the rest of the company members when they need technical assistance. He is yet again a great asset to the company, but the role has changed somewhat.
A wonderful new world of development can emerge if you are able to kill off your worst enemy -- yourself.
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