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How to be a Technological Maestro and not the “dope at the top”.

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Do yourself a favour and check out this podcast. I think there is a lot of great content in this podcast and the piece about the technological maestro really stood out for me. I explore it and organisational culture in this post, but first up let’s credit Gene Kim and Dr. Ron Westrum for this fantastic content.

organisational culture with Gene Kim featuring Dr. Ron Westrum
The Ideacast with Gene Kim featuring Dr. Ron Westrum

What is a Technological Maestro and who is Dr. Westrum?

I’m a big fan of the DORA (DevOps Research Assessment) program that has been running for several years. One of the organisational culture models used in that study was created by Dr. Westrum, a sociologist. It talks about 3 types of companies: Pathological, Bureaucratic and Generative and is based how the flow of information in a company can indicate company culture. This thinking is also widely covered in the excellent book: Accelerate by Forsgren, Kim & Humble.

PathologicalBureaucraticGenerative
Power orientedRule orientedPerformance-oriented
Low cooperationModest cooperationHigh cooperation
Messengers “shot”Messengers neglectedMessengers trained
Responsibilities shirkedNarrow responsibilitiesRisks are shared
Bridging discouragedBridging toleratedBridging encouraged
Failure leads to scapegoatingFailure leads to justiceFailure leads to inquiry
Novelty crushedNovelty leads to problemsNovelty implemented
The Westrum organizational typology model: How organizations process information
(Source: Ron Westrum, “A typology of organisation culture),”
BMJ Quality & Safety 13, no. 2 (2004), doi:10.1136/qshc.2003.009522.)

This is a groundbreaking model to describe organisational culture as we think about software delivery. A second idea raised by Gene and Dr. Westrum during the podcase is that of Technological Maestro:

So let’s look at the characteristic of a technological maestro. This is a term that is used in history of technology a lot, technological maestro. So first of all, you’re dealing with somebody who has very high energy, that’s critical. The second thing is they know what questions to ask, that’s critical. The third thing is they’re good on the details too, and that’s unexpected. You don’t usually expect people who are good on the big things to be good on small things. But they also have to have a high standard and they have to be willing to get immersed in the activity itself….. 

In a generative organization, you have good people at the top because they know what they know, and if the people at the top don’t know what they don’t know, that’s a very dangerous situation to be in…..

This is made even more profound by something else that Dr. Westrum mentioned, which is Rabinow’s Rule Number 23 of Leadership, which is if you have a dope at the top, you will have, or soon will have dopes all the way down.

Transcript from the podcast, “The Idealcast with Gene Kim, featuring Dr. Ron Westrum”.

A Technological Maestro or “dope at the top”?

If we peel out the attributes above, there’s a good question to ask yourself about your organisation. If you work in the dog grooming industry, the boss needs to know about dog grooming. How does the boss of your company shape up to these attributes:

1/ Do they have high energy?

2/ Do they know what questions to ask?

3/ Are they good on the details?

Technological Maestro doesn’t mean your boss is a Kubernetes expert (remember the term is over 50 years old), it means they know the business, the people and they have expertise. Expertise, in this case, means deep detail. If you are a software development company, your boss should be an expert in software development – past and present.

In other words, generic managers are fine, but they shouldn’t rise too far up the company. If generic managers start to run the company, then mediocrity will eventually take over the entire organisation – the existence of the company has become more important than the purpose of the company. Senior executives/bosses should have leadership capabilities and deep expertise. It’s the classic case of leadership over management.

The key takeaway for organisational culture:

As Dr Westrum points out, the flip side to a Technological Maestro is having “a dope at the top”. This is problematic as they will hire or promote people who are likely to also be “dopes” – which can slowly rot the organisation. I don’t actually like the “dope” phrase, a lack of expertise is not stupidity. No one who runs a company is a “dope”, but a person lacking expertise is damaging.

For employees, it’s a great way to size up your organisation by simply asking – “does the boss get it? Your boss may be a “nice person” or a “mean salesperson”, but do they get it? If the answer is no then you may be in the wrong organisation.

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