Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Three

I've gotten better as an engineer and as a manager and leader over the last 20 years or so, I hope.  There are lessons I can point to having learned that have been material in the last year, and the year before that, etc, but there are three major, "life was different before I figured this out" lessons that have left an indelible impression on me, and materially changed the way I look at doing my job.

Every once in a while, when the moment calls for it, I share one of these lessons with someone.  I realized at some point it might be better to just write them down once and share the blog post.  So here they are, in no particular order of importance.

Being Right

Back around 1997 or thereabouts my boss sent me to the Center for Creative Leadership's Leadership Development Program.  It was a great program overall, but one particular exercise sticks with me to this day.  In this exercise, we were supposed to learn the value of synergy ("the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.").  

The exercise was simple.  We were given a puzzle: After an earthquake, what is the right sequence of events to deal with the aftermath if you're in an office building (think "turn off gas," "evacuate," "find missing colleagues, etc").  There were 19 steps, and a canonically right order (as provided by the Red Cross) that we weren't aware of.  If you order these steps, you can then evaluate correctness by looking at the sum of the absolute difference between where you ordered a step and where it should have been.  For example:
If the right order for A, B, C is
1 C

2 A
3 B

And you ordered them
1 B
2 C
3 A

A: Should have been 2, you put 3, so that's a distance from correctness of 1
B: Should have been 3, you put 1, so that's a distance from correctness of 2
C: should have been 1, you put 2, so that's a distance from correctness of 1
Total distance: 4

Ideal, minimum distance, is 0.

So the exercise was simple: come up with your own, individual, answer to the puzzle.  Then, get together as a group and come up with the group answer to the puzzle.  The distance between the best individual answer to the puzzle and the group's answer to the puzzle was the efficacy of synergy within the group -- ideally, synergy would result in a group answer that's materially better than the best individual within that group had come up with.  

I was a relatively fresh manager at that point.  I came up with my own individual answer, then joined the group discussion to come up with the group answer.  I found the group's answer to be pretty different from my own, and tried to help them understand why they were wrong, but didn't make much headway.  I remember at some point someone telling me "Roy, you're looking at this like an engineer," and responding (I think somewhat loudly) "God damn it, of course I am.  That's what I am. Take advantage of that.

After the group answers were created, we were given the 'answer key' so we could calculate the individual distances from correctness and the group's distance from correctness and look at, essentially, our synergy scores.

And here's where the fun comes in:
A. My group had the largest negative distance between the group answer and the best individual answer (in other words, the best individual answer was more better (with my apologies to the English language) than the group's answer than any other group); 
B. I was literally the only person in the room who got a perfect individual answer.  

In other words: The only person in the room who got the answer perfect was me.  And I was utterly ineffective at communicating with my team and actually helping my team take advantage from this.  It was a shameful failure, and one I carry to this day as a lesson.

Because here's what I got from this:

You may be smart.  You may be right.  Inevitably there will be a point in your life that you are the only right person in the room.  And being right is a booby prize.  It's useless.  Worse, if you're right then you have a holy duty to your group, to these people you're committed to helping succeed, to be persuasive, to do whatever you need to do to make sure they see it. 

Lesson: Being right and later saying "I told you so" is you failing.

On the Importance of Keeping Horses Hydrated

Amusingly while I was taking the above course, I was dealing with a performance problem at work.  One of my more junior people, who'd had a spotty track record, had done some bad things.  Maybe not terminal, but definitely "We Need To Have a Talk About Your Future."  In order to stem the bleeding, I had a phone call with him and told him "Listen, this is a big deal, but I want to deal with this in person, and figure out with you how we recover.  Take the rest of the week off, don't work, don't worry about this as PTO, I'll cover it, and we'll talk on Monday when I'm back."  

The next day, he dialed into a conference call at work and participated.  Poorly.  

I was pissed off, and confused.  I mean ... what the hell?

I was having dinner with another LDP participant that night and shared my situation with him, and he told me "Listen, you can't actually make people do good work, or stop people from doing bad work.  All you can do is set context and enforce consequences.  The rest is up to them."

This is true, of course, not just with people reporting to me.

Lesson:  I can't make my reports, or boss, or my boss's boss, or my peers, or my CEO, do good work or not do bad work.  All I can do is effectively communicate, and then set and enforce consequences.  

Context, Not Control

Years later -- January, 2009, to be specific -- I took another leadership class.  This was Rapport Leadership's Leadership Breakthrough One course (I'm rather less enthusiastic at recommending RLI's courses than I am at recommending CCL's courses for $reasons).  Their courses have a certain weird almost cultish flavor and are run a bit like how I imagine boot camp might run.  If anyone in the class was a minute late to class, this was a pretty awful and noteworthy thing, for example; also, there was a lot of yelling.  

When the rules were established (e.g. the aforementioned "nobody's late" rule), they suggested that the group set up someone who'd pay attention to the time and try to get the group in on time.  I'm a timely sort of fellow so I volunteered.  

This was an awful experience.  The next day or so, I managed to alienate most of my classmates and was somewhat ineffective to boot.  Tensions were rising, people were getting annoyed, I was getting angry.  

And then at some point I gave up.  I sat down with my colleagues and said something like "listen, I've been trying to make you do something you're clearly not all that interested in doing, at least the way I've been trying to make you do it, because you're not doing it.  And it's pissing you off, and it's pissing me off.  So I'm going to stop doing it.  It doesn't work.  I want to help you to do whatever it is you want to do, in whatever way you want to be helped.  If you want something from me, I'm here, and I'll do it.  Otherwise ... it's OK too.  And sorry for being an ass over the last day."

And things immediately changed, and we started working as a group.  And we stopped being late, and I stopped feeling like the asshole who's making people do shit they don't want to do.

Lesson: Stop.  Listen.  Help people with what they want, how they want.  Don't force it -- it doesn't work.


  1. #1 and #3 both seem like 'judo' moves, using the momentum of your audience to your advantage, rather than trying to stop it, full force.

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