Managers don’t assign people to projects. Instead, projects grow organically, based on how many people want to work on them; employees with new ideas actively recruit others to join them. This Darwinian model involves a natural selection process, in which strong (i.e., really cool) projects staff up quickly because employees see them as valuable. Valve Software believes that, because everyone working there is really good at what they do, they can be trusted to make good decisions and work hard.
Does this sound anything like the place where you work? Probably not. Valve’s total autonomy in project choice wouldn’t work for most organizations. But your organization can take steps that allow employees a level of autonomy that bolsters work engagement and creativity.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to adopt a mindset of “checking in” with your subordinates rather than “checking up” on them. If you are mostly asking employees whether they finished this task or that task, then you are checking up on them. If you are constantly monitoring how people achieve their goals, then you are checking up. This is classic micromanagement, which makes people feel that their judgment, talents, and skills are not valued; it also constrains experimentation. As a result, it kills both motivation and creativity.
Instead, try asking questions like, “What do you need to get this project done?” “Is anything getting in your way?” or “What can I do to help out?” In this way, you can check in with people and find out how their projects are going without making them feel as if they are under constant surveillance. And, more importantly, you will be in a much better position to provide your people with the resources and help that they really need.
Finally, checking in — if done well — means sharing information about what you are up to, especially if it might be relevant to what your team is doing.
If you believe, as managers do at Valve, that you hired people because they are good at what they do, then checking in makes much more sense than constantly checking up.