Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Failure of Us

[ As always: Not speaking for my company ]

A long, long time ago, in 2011 in my first 2-3 months or so in Engineering after moving over from IT in this company, I had to solve a technical problem.  In an example of Yak Shaving, this ended up involving building a Python library to talk to a security service here, so I ended up finding the engineer responsible for that service and working with him a day or two to get my Python library working.  We worked together for those two days while he dropped whatever he had been doing originally, without checking with his boss, and didn't stop until we were both satisfied my library was done.  That engineer, by the way, is Jay Zarfoss, who is still one of my favorite human beings here.

That happened, I believe, because when I came to Jay and asked for his help, he thought of me as part of the group that he loosely labeled as "us."  And when one of "us" needs something, the rest of us band together to get it done.  He didn't have to look at me that way -- he could have also seen me as someone from Cloud Solutions (a different team from his own), or a Python developer (a different language from his own), or a myriad of other "not Us" orientations.

My history here is replete with such experiences with other engineers, facilities people, purchasing people, hell even lawyers.

Today, as I was talking to some people about a (so far, we haven't given up on it) failed collaboration between one of my teams and another team, it struck me that this failure was a failure of Us.  The engineers on the ground were bright and well-intentioned (I'm biased -- I hired one of them, and recruited the heck out of the other one to come work here), but in the end fell into a work mode that while thankfully not adversarial, still ended up being an artificially distant one, one where they took on different roles -- one a customer, one a service provider -- that created distance and a lack of shared vision and intimacy.

We know already that having an "us vs them" mentality develop in an organization is probably always bad.  I'm coming to see the mere "us vs not us" mentality -- a far less obviously bad mentality, with fewer alarms and red flashing lights tied to it -- as a subtly corrosive influence on the way we think and operate.  This is a hard shift for me -- one of the ways I've been successful is being passionate (to the point of annoying peers in some cases) about my customers, their experience, and their needs.  Giving up on the idea of "customers" to simply think of "us" -- my peers, my coworkers, this group of people of which I am a part -- is odd and uncomfortable.  Ironically, I'm doing it at the same time that I worry that as companies get bigger, one of the consistent natural scaling pain points is around how to maintain Us, and correspondingly how to notice the failure of Us and remedy it.

From a technology and collaboration on a goal together, the difference in context is clear to me: It's the difference between "What do you need?" and "What should we do?" It's the next step beyond not throwing things over the wall -- it's not even make sure that  people get what they need from you, and it's good, it's moving away from "giving people something" completely.

From a relationship and communication perspective, I think it comes down to striving to consistently lower the bar to communication and -- stay with me, this may be a bit confusing for a moment -- being ever-vigilant about the trivial little annoyances the people we work with create, and developing an ever-decreasing tolerance of them.

Wait, what?

I can't think of any bad relationships I have at work, but I can think of some astoundingly good ones.  And I find that the astoundingly good ones are characterized by such open communication that we tend to deal with relatively small problems whereas in less intimate relationships we might let them go.  Today was a great example -- one of my favorite people gave a public presentation where he was going to characterize my team's stance on a topic.  We chatted about it, and were on the same page.  In the presentation, he described my team's stance and said "this might sound a little more reactive [than other teams], maybe it is."  That was at 1:18pm.  This is our chat history:

me, 1:19pm
"This sounds a little more reactive, maybe it is"
That ... didn't feel good.
(your characterization of [my team]'s posture with regards to [topic])
[he was still presenting for another 20 minutes]
him, 1:43pm:
@#%.  I'm sorry about that - I see how that sounded.  I meant it's mostly reactive at this point since you already did the work to make it work... which is... actually... a huge win already.  I meant that to be a positive thing, but it totally sounded negative.  !@%.
me, 1:44pm:
No worries.  You did a better job the second time around :)
Just wanted to be transparent.
him, 1:44pm:
I  got myself a little mentally twisted at that point, and was recovering.
You're absolutely right.
me, 1:45pm: 
Thanks for hearing me.
him, 1:45pm:
Of course.  Sorry again for goofing that up.
me, 1:45pm:
No problem.
Great presentation, BTW.
I think you did a great job making it pretty noncontroversial
him, 1:45pm:
Thanks!  :)

Two minutes of talking, and we were done.  And what I left that conversation with was "Yup.  That's one of my favorite coworkers."

There are a myriad other options -- I could have just sat on it, because it was such a trivial little thing.  I could have convened a meeting with him.  I could have tried to give him actionable feedback.  All of those would have been appropriate (there are a few inappropriate options as well, of course).  But none of those feel right when it's Us.  Because when it's Us, all I really need to say is "hey, that hurt."  And I trust him to make it better.

I worry that we'll see Us failing.  I'm going to fight it as hard as I can.  

Because I really love Us.

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