Protecting Fish and System Administrators

I work for a company with a big open office space, in the Van Nelle Factory in Rotterdam. About 100 people work in an office that was the first of its kind in Europe, when it was built in 1929. And 80 years later architecture lovers from all over the world still come to visit and admire it, taking pictures and making drawings. We sometimes wave at them.

A big open office space has many advantages, and some disadvantages. The main disadvantage is that it is a shared resource for all who work there. Climate, sound, and light are hard to manage in a space like that, and the optimal configuration for the whole is never optimal for all. But our office manager does the best she can in trying to maximize pleasant working conditions, while maintaining tight rules to keep things under control. A shared open office is not the ideal environment to give people full responsibility over their own working space.

When shared resources are not managed by a central authority, self-organization often results in the Tragedy of the Commons. The name refers to a situation in which multiple self-organizing systems, all acting in their own self-interest, overexploit a shared limited resource, even when they all know it is not in anyone’s interest for this to happen. The impact that humanity has on CO2 levels in the air, trees in the forests, and fish in the sea, is right now the most debated and intensively researched case of the Tragedy of the Commons.

Organizations also have shared resources, like budgets, office space, and system administrators. We could see them as the business-equivalent of the air we breathe, the landscape we change, and the fish we eat.

It is imperative that you instill some form of governance to protect these shared resources. (I realize that most modern day governments are not setting a good example of how to do that.) In the case of shared resources, whether it concerns money, space, or system administrators, someone outside of the development teams must act as a ruler, keeping an eye on long-term organizational stability instead of short-term individual gains.

The Tragedy of the Commons proves that multiple self-organizing teams cannot share authority over a shared resource, because the systems will optimize for themselves, and not for the whole. They can only solve this problem by installing a form of governance… that is… a (resource) manager. You perhaps?

This article will be part of the book Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders. You can follow its progress here.

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