Sheepdog management: Nip heels, keep ’em moving

As a manager, I have experimented with a number of management theories and strategies. I have tried micromanagement, delegation and empowerment. I’ve played around with Theory X management techniques – “crack the whip” – and Theory Y techniques – “you love your job and want to work so I’ll just leave you alone.” I’ve had resounding success with some techniques and dismal failures with others. What works for one project or team may not work for another.

In an ongoing attempt to find a management technique that can be used across the IT board, I’ve studied management theorists, philosophers, psychologists and military leaders. However, my newest inspiration comes not from man, but from man’s best friend – the dog. Specifically, the sheepdog.

The sheepdog does not try to manage each sheep individually; rather, he is concerned with moving the entire flock toward the desired goal. He does this by setting up boundaries, keeping the sheep within the boundaries and nipping at the heels of stragglers to get them moving. Within the flock there is a degree of freedom to move about, and the sheepdog allows this “chaos in motion.”

Technical personnel are a lot like sheep in this regard. They need a certain amount of freedom. They want to have their voices heard, their experience respected and their knowledge utilized. Additionally, many want to have a certain amount of control – whether it is over their work hours, their systems or their networks.

A manager who tries to use a “command and control” style of management is doomed to failure. Just as a flock of sheep scatters in all directions when a sheepdog dives into the middle of it, so too will a team of experienced technical people scatter when a manager dives in and tries to exert control over every aspect of their job.

About a year ago I was pressured to go back into the command and control mode and “whip the troops into shape.” The results were dismal. Morale became low, key personnel left and the remaining staffers became bitter and uncooperative. It wasn’t until I loosened the reins that I had any success.

The successful technical managers are those who acknowledge their team’s expertise, respect their opinions, request and use their advice, and provide an atmosphere that is conducive to creative expression.

Some of my most successful projects have involved teams that from the outside appeared to be very chaotic. And in truth, there was a certain amount of chaos. In fact, I even encouraged it. Chaos is creativity in action. As Nietzsche said, “Out of chaos comes order.”

Good technical managers do not try to control their teams. Instead, they try to move the team forward. Just like the sheepdog, these managers set up boundaries, allow their teams a certain amount of freedom within those boundaries, and strive to move the team as a whole to the stated goal. They may nip the heels of the stragglers every now and then, but their focus is on guiding, not controlling.

Yoke is an IS manager in Denver. He can be reached at