In Praise of Mandates

I have come to praise mandates and not tear them down.

This post is a response to a lengthy Twitter thread by Noah Sussman on the necessity of quality mandates from the top for product development organizations to deliver “quality.”

The thread went in various directions, as threads are wont to do. The conversation spurred a desire to write a follow-up to the conversation about the role “mandates” play in organizational life and how we can use mandates effectively.

It is common for some people to suggest we abandon certain practices because they are misused. Let’s toss out estimates and measurements because people routinely misuse them. While sympathetic to this viewpoint, taking such thinking to its logical conclusion will have us getting rid of humans!

And so, I understand that organizational leaders routinely weaponize and misuse mandates. I get it. I aim to offer thoughts on how leaders can use mandates effectively in their organizations.

A mandate is a directive speech act in which the one mandating (the requester) wants the one receiving the mandate (the receiver) to do something for the requester. In many cases, based on the requestor’s authority. The request is non-negotiable and could be considered a command. The desired result of a mandate is that the “world should match the word.” 

We deal with mandates all the time. In many cases, we are not bothered by them. However, we tend to notice them when the mandate asks us to do something we disagree with or do not want to do.

Sometimes mandates gain a level of notoriety in a community, as Jeff Bezos’ “API Mandate” did in the software engineering community some years ago. Mandates show up in all domains and functional areas of organizations. When your company directs everyone to use a new system for one activity or the other, that’s a mandate.

So mandates are a constant in organizational life.

When can we use mandates, and what can we use them for? And how do we determine what should become a mandate?

When to Use Mandates

There are two situations where I find the use of mandates beneficial. The first situation is when we’re trying to increase clarity and reduce organizational ambiguity around what (or what does not) matter.

Organizations of meaningful size grapple with ambiguity and confusion. There are times when it is unclear what people should do. Confusion can also exist around what matters (and does not matter). Organizations can use mandates to indicate what does matter and what people need to give their attention to. For example, a “No Meeting Fridays” mandate makes the organizational position about meetings on Friday clear. It gives people the right to decline meetings scheduled on Friday.

Mandates are also valuable for establishing governing constraints. Organizations have reason to limit or constrain options, and mandates clarify the options. Jeff Bezos’ API mandate falls into this category.

What to Mandate

We can only mandate desired behaviors and actions. We cannot mandate outcomes. For example, you cannot mandate quality. You can mandate specific actions and behaviors that you believe will produce quality.

And this is where those issuing mandates must be careful because mandating the wrong actions or behaviors will lead to unexpected and undesirable results. We must remember that mandates have the side effect of reducing variety and stifling innovation.

Another way we create mandates without realizing it is through our measurement, evaluation or assessment programs. What we measure leads to unspoken mandates, resulting in behavior we didn’t anticipate. I once worked in an organization where Product Owners had to write X number of stories in a Sprint. Many of the stories provided no value.

How to Create Mandates

As a general principle, I believe that the more a mandate directly affects HOW an individual or team achieves their goals, the more vital it is that the individual or team have the opportunity to participate in creating the mandate. If the organization is too large such that it’s not practical to involve everyone (even using large system intervention methods), then use a representation-based approach.

For example, software engineers should participate in creating mandates that will significantly alter how they perform their roles. Don’t have managers represent (for example) software engineers.

And yet, because this is life, there will always be exceptions. Sometimes urgency demands that senior leaders immediately create mandates in the organization’s best interest. In other cases, it is the functional responsibility of specific individuals to create the mandate, e.g., the organizational strategy may not be the purview of everyone in your organization, and that’s probably okay.

I encourage leaders to adopt an invitation-based approach (even when they have functional authority) to create mandates. When people create a mandate, they are more likely to commit to it. And once they are committed, they will do all they can to make “world will match word.”

Other Considerations

I’ve focused on mandates’ why, what, when, and how; however, while mandates may be necessary, they are often insufficient for change. Unfortunately, many leaders often blame individuals and teams for not following organizational mandates. The truth, however, is that the same leaders have made other organizational decisions that discourage individuals and teams from fulfilling the mandate. I know this because I’ve made this mistake.

Other things that must be in place to support the mandate include:

  • It must be easy to fulfill the mandate. Too often, leaders issue “difficult to follow” mandates. Organizational friction makes it impractical, rendering future mandates hollow.
  • There cannot be mixed messages, i.e., messages that lead to internal conflict—for example, mandating certain quality practices while simultaneously mandating software delivery by a specific date, thereby encouraging shortcuts. 
  • Mandates without sanctions are a joke. If leaders mandate some behavior or action, the expectation should be that there are consequences for not following the mandate without good reason.
  • Even though the mandate’s purpose is to clarify, mandates are still subject to diverse interpretations, so mandates require continued clarification.

These considerations (and several others not mentioned) reinforce the need for thoughtfulness when establishing mandates, especially when they affect how people do their work daily. Leaders must understand the conditions required for the mandate to succeed and must commit to eliminating organizational obstacles to the mandate. Leading by fiat is rarely a sustainable approach.

So, yes, I have come to praise mandates. It’s up to us to use them wisely.

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