Why "One [Company Name]" Efforts Fail
Directional incoherence plagues modern software development. But a top-down campaign is unlikely to fix it.
Even before numerous and intertwined events roiled information workplaces, software shops suffered from team incoherence.
Our software is comprised of more things, asked to do more things, and processes more things than ever before. No single person or team comprehends the software's entirety at this grander scale. As a result, we continue to apply reductive techniques to software productivity; those that turn large problems into ever smaller, parallelizable, and compartmentalized ones.
This coping mechanism leads to team incoherence in the best of times, and if you've been paying attention, the last several years have not been the best of times. Our distributed and siloed solutions increasingly lack cohesion. Do you know that thing where you interact with a single company but need different logins based on what you're trying to do? Like with a financial services provider where you need one login to access your bank account and different credentials to access your credit card statement? That's what I'm talking about.
Companies recognize this as a problem. Over the past decade, I recall at least a dozen "One [insert company name here]" campaigns. Sometimes the effort is internal only. Other times, these declarations spill over into publicly available annual reports. Regardless of the scope, these campaigns acknowledge the drag that fragmentation, siloes, and divergent priorities cause. They are rallying cries for employees to band together and return to rowing in the same direction.
But these repeated, top-down efforts don't work.
"Designing an organization that remains cohesive even as it grows is hard work, and unfortunately, most leaders take the easy way out. Like new home owners who simply paint over rotted siding, executives take dangerously superficial approaches to unifying organizations, ignoring how splintered theirs really are."
Despite correctly identifying the barrier to change, these top-down edicts fail to incorporate and celebrate individuals' agency. These "One Acme" bandwagons are, at heart, calls to forgo employees' individual and/or team identities in favor of a manufactured, often strained, company one. Leadership attempts to impose procedural, architectural, and practice consistency under an abstract "oneness" banner, where the one way is defined opaquely by a select few (usually those with hierarchical advantage).
We know that homogeneity is problematic. Studies show that diverse, psychologically safe workplaces consistently outperform the alternative. At the same time, we've seen that coordination and alignment of those diverse talents are necessary for an organization to respond to challenging marketplaces. Instead of top-down campaigns urging adherence to the hive mind, technology leaders need the skills to connect with and relate to their peers.
In Better Bits, I write about the importance of understanding your audience when creating and communicating a compelling vision. Ironically, the essential element of sharing a better path forward is empathetically and curiously listening to where people are: asking what they value, avoid, wish, and work for. It's impossible to have "One Acme" because there is no single answer to those questions. But by learning the skills to better connect with fellow people, we can overcome our fragmentation and create better, more cohesive software connections.
It isn't as simple as a campaign. And you may not get a t-shirt when it is all done. But you'll have a chance at actually changing things for the better.
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