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Global Domination

Locations of visitors to this page

Tuesday, February 21

Agility vs Indecision
I remember a low point in my previous leadership experience. I was in an awkward position. I had to lead someone who
  • Didn't want to be lead
  • Couldn't lead themselves
  • Couldn't really do their job
  • Didn't respect me
  • Didn't understand much of what was going on around them
I had to apply management impetus (pressure?) at a much lower level than I like to. At high points in my leadership experience, I've had a team of people whom I trust, like, and can ask to do something high, medium or low-level and they'll just do it. I quite like taking some control over fine details, but I don't like to have to do that. Anyway, back to the problem. I'm having to intensively drag this person along the path to achieving something. I would give a task, get the results, not like, them, make suggestions for change, not like the results of that, and so on. On top of all of that there was huge uncertainty in my own mind about the required direction. In truth, I got a different answer from management every time I asked. I did my best to keep my underling pointed in what I believed to be the right direction, but I was constantly having to stop, bin most of what we'd done and start again. This was frustrating for me, so I imagine that it must have been almost crushing to the person I was leading. I was doing my best to keep them happy and focused, but it was a losing battle.

I complained to my management, but it did little to help. I likened the feeling to that of an indecisive scout leader with a gang of scouts following them on some sort of walking trail. It would be like this:

Come on kids. It's this way. Hurry up. Right, just over the brow of this hill... wait. Sorry, it's this way. Come on. Hurry up. There we go. Just round this corn... ah... right, back the way we came. Come on slow-coaches, here we go. Past the farm, there should be a barn... let's try this other farm...

And so on. Not very encouraging. The leader develops a healthy lack of credibility and the gang of scouts come to hate every move along the way.

Now, that's what happens when you dither about with your underlings. It's no good. However, you have to face the possibility that you don't really know what you should do, where you should go, or how things should be done. So, there is the more agile approach, which is to say that we'll do this thing, then see where we are, then decide what to do next and so on. This can actually work. It's a bit like the way that they assemble odd contraptions on Scrapheap Challenge. They envision what they need, start to build its infrastructure and keep in touch with what's going on along the way. If they hit any problems, they do what they can to change direction - subtley, or in a worse-case-scenario, grandly. Then, they deliver.

Naturally, we do this when doing a series of tasks alone under some sort of pressure. Or at least, I think we do. I certainly do. You do the best you can. You adjust your expectations for when things don't work and you try to get things actually done. So, I realised that I couldn't pack up all my books and put them in the loft, so I put them all on the one shelf, taking out the few I wanted to take away with me. I realised that I couldn't completely empty my garage, so I left it in a reasonable state, but not the one I planned. And so on.

Along the way, I had a series of successes. I didn't just dither. My requirements and my understanding of the problems changed as I went along. Had next-door had a fire during my garage packing, I would have gone next door and helped them put it out. I would have understood why I was doing that.

I've gotten lost a bit. What I'm saying is that one can embrace change while doing something, without dithering. You have to focus on delivery, though. The scout-leader above might have had a better trip with his scouts if he'd said something like this:

Okay gang, we're going to look for the treasure. Now, I know it's near a farm with a barn. We're going to first investigate a series of destinations until we find it. The first destination is just over the brow of that hill. Let's all go there and see what we find...

In the second scenario, the gang wouldn't feel messed about with the changes of direction. They would actually be achieving a series of goals - reaching each investigation point. So they would, at least, get the sense of closure that the dithering pack didn't get.

In production?
Ah yes. Where am I going with this as far as production is concerned? Well, let's move the scenario to a group of people trying to cure diseases. These people are probably producing a series of drugs for a series of diseases. They can't realistically work on them all at the same time, so should focus their efforts on one or two.

So, they start work on a few drugs and should be aiming to get testable drugs quite often - they need to track the progress of their research. They may not cure anything, but at least they should get many intermediate waypoints so see how they're doing. Meanwhile, during their work, a particular disease might become more urgent. So, they might need to change direction. When should they do it? Should they all just stop and move to something else?

Here's where you might think that they should just stop, turn on their heels and jump onto the biggest problem. I don't think that that will ever work. If they do that in such a way as they don't complete anything ever (or over any mid-term period) then they're not actually achieving anything, nor are they getting any sense of satisfaction. So, my feeling is that a team working to cure a disease should, at least, continue until they find a drug that makes life measurably better for that disease. They might not cure it first time, but they should still make their drug available (to testing and FDA approval etc) once they have something. This gives them a moment of closure and a chance to take stock.

If, during the development process, some other disease becomes a huge issue, there are three ways of looking at it:
  • We can look at it in due course as we're going to reach an interim way-point soon
  • Oh my god - this is a global emergency, all hands on deck
  • This is important, let me get some people to volunteer to leave the one team to join the other
I don't believe that you can afford to stop work on problems you've started solving unless those problems turn out to be intractable (in which case, don't throw good money after bad). You need to release inventory, or it's all been a waste of time. So, unless it's a huge global emergency, don't stop the team. The alternative suggestion of increasing production capacity on another problem with volunteers makes a lot of sense (see below). The idea that we can start work on something else at a natural interim way-point is the most attractive.

We can make the interim way-point thing even more attractive by scheduling many of these way-points in our project plan and making them worthwhile way-points. Each way-point, in my drug analogy, will be a non-poisonous pill-shaped (or whatever) commodity which gives improved performance over anything we made so far (by some sort of amount, though perhaps not as much as we ultimately aim to achieve).

Voluntary?
People work best when they think that they've chosen to work in that way and they're rewarded. Reward should come in two forms. Firstly people want recognition for what they've achieved. Secondly, people want money. Money is secondary, because a shit job is still a shit job, even if you're paid a lot to do it. Reward in terms of praise is the most beneficial - it contributes to satisfaction, self-esteem and motivates further work. Money reward comes into praise too. If someone sees that they're paid less than someone else, it suggests that there's less confidence in their abilities than that other person. If they think that their pay is especially low, then they feel like they're not necessarily worth as much as they would like, or that they're not necessarily thought to be worth as much as they should be. Finally, if someone is actually unable to lead the lifestyle that they aspire to, or has to spend their out-of-work time scraping money together, then it can have a negative effect on their sense of achievement in life.

If someone is in a job which cannot afford to pay them much, then they should at least feel that they're doing well, which is where praise-reward comes in. Even if someone can be paid a lot, good praise/reward/leadership can mean the world.

My last recent experience of management was in a voluntary organisation. There, nobody was paid. My role came down more to being a consistent voice of leadership, asking people to do things, balancing a series of ongoing requirements, all of which were important, some of which were temporarily more urgent. People had to opt-in to everything we needed of them. I refused to give commands, I asked for everything. As a result, the team self-organised around the problem. I constantly polled them for feedback and gave them praise. My team worked well.

Summarise that!?
So, in summary.
  • Don't mess people about.
  • Don't shit on them from a height.
  • Be reasonable about changing direction.
  • Give people their success.
  • Involve people in the uncertainties if there are some.
  • Try to have a plan.
  • Try to give them consistent leadership.
  • Don't stop people mid-flow.
  • Give people nearby waypoints if there's a chance of change.
  • Make the waypoints have a sense of closure about them.
  • Treat people with respect.
  • A voluntary force always get more satisfaction - so get people to choose their own fate.
Above all, remember that respect is hard won and easily lost.

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