The position of the manager is subjective and context-dependent. He is either inside the system, or outside in the environment, but he is never an objective observer.
The manager is traditionally depicted as the commander of an army, the captain of a ship, or the leader at the top of a hierarchy of “followers”. There is some usefulness in these metaphors. But when applied to management of software teams they are like candy sticks: hard to resist, good for waving at others, but bad for your health, and with a tendency to break.
When we realize that we’re working with complex adaptive systems, we can see that the manager is either part of the system or part of the environment, which depends on how the manager perceives a situation. Boundaries of complex systems are fuzzy. You can choose where to draw them, depending on the way you want to address problems. However, the manager is never an objective and independent observer. This mistake is often made by those who treat teams as if they are created, like cars and clocks and factory lines. And candy sticks.
Management in the System
Software teams are not built. They are grown, in the same way as cities, beehives, brains, and poodles are grown. Managers can sometimes consider themselves to be part of the system they are growing. In many ways they are similar to the other parts, but they have a few “special powers” that the others don’t have. Like the mayor in a city, the queen bee in a beehive, the neocortex in a brain and the stem cells in a poodle.
Management in the Environment
On the other hand, when managers don’t participate in what’s going on in the system they can consider themselves to be part of the environment. They can influence and steer what goes on in a team (sometimes using their “special powers”) by tweaking the environment, modifying boundaries, and changing resources. This causes the system to respond and adapt.
A manager who socializes with team members, discusses their projects, and suggests ways for them to improve, might be acting as part of the system. A manager who selects projects, decides which people are on the team, and defines the types of customer contracts, might be acting as part of the environment. Both perspectives can be applied at the same time, because borders of social systems are fuzzy.
Either way, the position of the manager is subjective and context-dependent. He is either inside the system, or outside in the environment, but he is never an objective observer. The message may not be sweet, but for growing a healthy organization it is much more effective.