In August, Tim Duckett, CTO at finleap will be speaking at Leaders in Tech | Berlin. His talk “Hacking Power and Politics – A Tech Leader’s Framework” will tackle how technology leaders can frame their challenges aligning culture, habits, and teams. He’ll share ideas from social psychology and organizational behavior and how technologists used to linear structures can apply them successfully.
I interviewed Tim about his journey from electronics engineer to software consultant to MBA to CTO of a fintech company builder, and how it’s informed how he thinks about power and politics and people.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to be where you are now.
My background is software engineering, predominantly, although I came to it by a fairly weird route. I started life as an electronics engineer, so it was all about the hardware, and fell into software development by accident. I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time in consultancy and building and designing things for people. I’ve always had a hybrid role of sitting between the business side of things and the development side of things. At finleap, most of my time is split between recruiting teams that build ventures and working on the early MVP stages of ventures themselves. That split between that varies depending on where in the cycle we are.
Why is going from software engineering to leader or a manager so difficult?
Ultimately, when you dig down far enough, software is binary. When you pull that back up into higher levels, it’s very consistent: if you do certain things, then certain results will happen.
The problem is, as soon as you start applying that to people, it just goes horribly wrong, because people are non-linear. When you get to the stage of your career where you are managing people as a software engineer, you actually have to get people to do things. You find all your tools and models that you have from the software engineering world are useless because people are completely non-linear.
This is where a lot of people struggle. They try to apply the same kind of linear thinking that they have in the software engineering that has got them to be very successful in that world to get people to try and do things. It goes horribly wrong and they really struggle.
Is there a framework that helps tech leaders change from this linear thinking to a more nuanced way of understanding this human power relationships?
Let’s get away from the stereotypes of power being just shouting at people and threatening them with a big stick. What does that mean? How is it that some people or organisations manage to get shit done?
They get shit done by understanding politics. And politics is like applied power. There’s a kind of cliché:
Physics is applied math.
Chemistry is applied physics.
Biology is applied chemistry.
And psychology is like practical applied biology.
There’s an XKCD cartoon of this, and the punchline is that the mathematician is way over on one side, “Hey guys we’re over here!” because math underpins everything.
Sometimes you get a team of people who seem to be all square edges and corners and they just bash together. If you don’t have any knowledge of what drives and motivates people, if you have no models you can use to figure out what the hell is going on, all you can do is try things at random. It’s so much more efficient and effective if you can try and figure out that maybe this person is more motivated by being seen as the expert within the team than they are with responsibility or monetary rewards.
Are there any particular experiences that you can pinpoint, that have shaped how you think about these relationships and these dynamics within software engineering organizations?
There are a few occasions I can look back on where I got comprehensively outmaneuvered by somebody. I thought I’d won, whatever winning means in that situation. You know that saying “You win the battle but you lose the war”? That’s happened a couple times.
In one particular situation, I thought I had got my way on something, and then six months later I find I completely shafted myself by taking that particular tactic. I failed to understand the political relationship. I won the technical argument: the organization ended up doing something the way I wanted it to be done. About three-four months down the line when performance review time came along, I realized the person I had beaten had a really close relationship with the person who signed off on my performance review. Instead of my performance review being about what a wonderful job I’d done on delivering this really hard project, it was all about how I’d really upset someone three months earlier.
Are there any other thoughts you’d like to include for people considering coming to the talk?
Hopefully what’s come across in the teasers and the summary: this won’t be really dull or dry psychology research. What I’m hoping for is that there are two or three things you can take away and use tomorrow, make it practical.
It’s not a grand unified theory of everything. It’s not going to be a transform your life overnight so you’ll bounce back into the office tomorrow morning a completely different person. If you can hear one or two of the stories where I completely fucked things up, get a nice bit of schadenfreude out of it, then make your life a bit better by not fucking up in the same ways, then my task here is complete.
To learn more about the frameworks around hacking power and politics that Tim has to share, join Leaders in Tech | Berlin on Wednesday August 14th, 2019: