Hack the Dream: Control, Natural Consequences and Grace

Posted on May 26, 2011

As a follow up to my post last week about how appendTo was founded and Hacking the American Dream, I’m going to blog on some of the philosophical pillars we built the organization upon that led us here. If you have a question, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or contact me.

Control and Management

If you’ve spent any amount of time near children, they exist in a remarkable world. They don’t seek to control anything because they have a firm understanding that there isn’t much that they can control. They don’t control when they eat. They don’t control when they sleep.

If we’re honest with ourselves, the ability to live without the need to control anything, as long as our needs are met, represents a remarkable sense of freedom.

As we grow up, we realize that control can be a good thing. With control comes responsibility, and that’s generally good too. We control a car as it drives down the road. We control what we eat, we control when we wake up, we control when we go to sleep. Self-control is a sign of maturity, a positive step towards adulthood.

Where we get into trouble is when we try to control the actions of others. The fact is, there is very little we can do to control anybody else. This is where the nasty side of control shows up. Manipulation, carrots & sticks, passive aggressive behavior and reverse psychology are all examples of patterns where someone tries to control someone else. Sometimes they work, but they don’t always result in a win-win for both parties involved.

Control in the Workforce

Part of the reason central offices exist is because forced physical presence is a way to maintain control. There are positive benefits for face-to-face collaboration, but they don’t require full-time face-to-face presence. The internet is teeming with examples of distributed teams creating something just as compelling as face-to-face teams.

The realization that a typical company or workforce is built upon a leader or owner’s ability to control the output of a worker stood in stark contrast to my experiences in Open Source. Open Source is a place where the foundation of control doesn’t exist and all forward progress is built upon the willingness and intrinsic motivation of the people doing the work.

The major difference between Open Source and a business is that people get paid. Because money changes hands, explicit control is used as a technique to ensure output. That makes sense, unless you have another paradigm to work under.

Expectations and Natural Consequences

When we founded appendTo, we were more familiar with the management structure of expectations and natural consequences. Prior to appendTo, I spent some time freelancing. Freelancing is a great way to really learn how the world works. If you don’t sell, or don’t follow through, you don’t eat. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. Thus, we made the decision to implement a system of expectations and natural consequences within appendTo rather than utilizing control as a management style.

The system of expectations and natural consequences is black and white, which creates a really sharp edge. You are either delivering or you aren’t, you are eating or you aren’t. Most employees typically don’t like that, because part of their employment is the security that comes with knowing that they will eat tomorrow. In a small startup, where your performance today affects the health of the company tomorrow, this sharp edge can be a positive thing.

Another significant reason we chose to go with a system of expectations and natural consequences is because it can be a win-win system for both parties involved, and had the built-in feature of not requiring any manipulation or nasty control techniques. As long as the expectations were defined properly and both parties understood where the lines existed, everyone could operate with a certain amount of autonomy. Once again, it kept things simple.

The only downside that we could think of was that such a system could be too harsh at times. While you can allow for mistakes, or simple life happens moments, what happens when expectations simply aren’t met? What do you do as a leader when the natural consequence for missing an expectation is firing someone?

The Missing Piece with Natural Consequences

For the last piece of the puzzle, the only answer was to explicitly add an element of grace into the equation. Grace is an often overlooked, yet powerful tool. Humans typically understand when they have screwed up. If consequences for screwing up aren’t enforced, that sense of screwing up tends to fade and things go downhill in a hurry. This is where strong expectations are important.

The truth is, if we required everyone to constantly live up to a set of expectations the company created, nobody would want to work at the company, including me! That’s where grace comes in.

When someone realizes they screwed up and they honestly want to be at the company, a natural human reaction is to feel bad and apologize, especially when the natural consequences of their mistake are already understood. It is at this moment that you have the tremendous opportunity as a leader to build up that individual.

This is where the relationship between the human beings involved is key. If you have laid a solid relational foundation with the other person, extending grace can have tremendous positive effects. If that relationship is just beginning, extending grace is great way to begin building that relationship.

That Magic Moment

Something magic happens when a leader extends grace to someone who clearly deserves the natural consequences of their actions. The impact on the person receiving the grace will often motivate correction of the behavior in addition to building organizational loyalty and emphasizing the value placed on the relationship.

As a leader in your organization, implementing a policy of extending grace should not be underestimated.

Too Far?

What happens when someone keeps failing? If you extend grace multiple times in a row for the same offense, and there is no attempt at improvement, my advice would be to put that person on a documented improvement plan with concrete milestones. The details of this process are beyond what I intend to write here, but the point I want to make is that it is advisable to implement limits to the extent of the grace you are willing and able to give in order to properly manage people who may wish to take advantage of the process.

8 Replies to "Hack the Dream: Control, Natural Consequences and Grace"

  • Jonathan Sampson
    May 27, 2011 (9:07 am)

    I’ve had the great pleasure to work for, and observe, some fantastic team leaders for nearly half of my professional career as a developer. All of them had this quality about themselves; they were gracious and forgiving.

    As you rightly pointed out, this projection of understanding and patience from the top-down has – in my experience – resulted in a stronger bottom-up work-ethic. You now have people motivated not merely out of a selfish desire to eat tomorrow, but now out of a desire to please those who have shown you a measure of grace that you rightly could have been refused.

    Excellent insight for anybody having lead over any group. Keep up the great writing, Mike.

  • Bikash Kumar Patra
    May 27, 2011 (9:28 am)

    Mike, I would like to understand what you mean my “documented improvement plan”, I want to help myself .
    Your help is much needed.  If you are unwilling to post it here.my mail id “[email protected]

    • Mike Hostetler
      May 27, 2011 (9:30 am)


      I’ve got it queued up for a future blog topic.  Stay tuned!

  • Bikash Kumar Patra
    May 27, 2011 (9:38 am)

    wow.. pls dont make me wait for long..

  • Jim Cowart
    May 27, 2011 (12:15 pm)

    Mike – another great post!  I would be interested to hear your thoughts on how you approach finding people that fit into a culture like appendTo.  I’ve been involved in a lot of hiring over the years – and am constantly amazed at the challenge of finding people of the kind of character that will respond positively (like you described) when they’re extended grace (not to mention finding people that are humble and passionate about development).  The concept of “Expectation and Natural Consequences” is both exciting and terrifying! 🙂  I’ve seen a lot of waste at companies where the impact of poor development, lack of skills, etc. was abstracted behind layers of management and cost so that no one with decision making power really had the kind of visibility into the organization necessary to improve it.  It’s easy to be lulled into complacency if you’re not careful in those kinds of environments.  The developers on the team at my last job begged to be on revenue-generating projects (me included!) because we wanted to be tied to solid contribution to the company – it’s a memory & value seared in my brain, especially after the company collapsed….  Keep these posts coming!

  • Thirdcircle
    September 2, 2011 (2:01 pm)

    For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.

    (Romans 6:14)

    At this, those
    who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until
    only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”    “No one, sir,” she said.
       “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
    (John 8:11)

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    March 12, 2012 (5:06 pm)

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