Originally posted April 2016.
Disclaimer: I currently work solo on this blog and could only fire myself – so this isn’t veiled threat. I have done my best to mentor individuals and lead teams aways from these dysfunctions; and disrupt processes that perpetuate them. These are also part of my personal introspection process. This is not an accusation of anyone in particular. Instead, these are traits we can all continuously work to improve. On the other hand – “You’re so vain, I bet you think this song is about you.”
The Top 5 Reasons I Would Fire You
Tech professionals on teams trying to innovate: Speaking on behalf of managers, your peers, and individual contributors everywhere, these are the top five reasons you aren’t just a poor performer, you’re bringing down the people around you as well.
Reason #1 – You Default to One-Way Communication
Collaborative problem solving cannot happen without meaningful and timely feedback. There is a time for group chat and a time for well-argued prose (email). To avoid death-by-chat and long CYA email chains, you need to set clear expectations about when you need to focus and when you can discuss issues – and respect that prerogative in others.
Whining about documentation, instructions, or a process as document brings you no closer to a better workplace experience for yourself, improved team health, or a product you can feel a lasting pride, prestige, or sense of legacy about. Bring a solution to the table, own your responsibility for following up, and escalate to a scheduled meeting if needed. Folding your arms and leaving work unfinished is childish. You know you can do better – do it.
Mantra – There are no documentation problems, only communication problems.
Reason #2 – You Repeat the Same Words When I Say I Don’t Understand
Speaking of childish, self-advocacy is an important milestone. It requires enough vocabulary, understanding of abstract concepts, and recognition of similarities and differences to allow a child to not only imagine a future state that is desirable, but also solve the most likely path to attain it, and make a rational statement to an adult who can permit, empower, or provide. My three-year-old daughter, forgivably, needs an enormous amount of assistance, and patience, when she attempt this. As an adult, you should not.
As a leader, I will do my best to bridge the gap between your words and my words. I will cue you when I am unable to build that bridge, repeat back to you what I understood you to say, and ask you to demonstrate or show me where and what you mean so that I have the context I need for a deliberate and logical decision. I will do all of this without patronizing you, even when it is mentally exhausting for me.
Not everyone has learned to lead this way, and I admit I can be imperfect at it as well, so you absolutely need to learn to self-advocate.
That said, I cannot heroically be an adult on your behalf. The real dysfunction that brings down team performance through your own sub-par performance is the continued repetition of the same words when I (or others) explicitly ask you to re-word the request, argument, or question. You are obstinately anti-try-something-else. You refuse to paraphrase, assist my incorrect understanding, or demonstrate the meaning of your words. It is only through my strong personality and insistence that I convince you to show me exactly what the problem is so that I solve it rather than answering a question that sounds like utter nonsense out of context. Unfortunately, even that is not always effective. I can carry my pre-school daughter to the cabinet and let her pick the exact afternoon snack she wants. I cannot “carry” you as an engineer into a realm of creative solutions where emerging technology and emerging market segments meet.
Mantra – Communication is the responsibility of the communicator.
Reason #3 – You Feel No Pride of Ownership Over Your Work
Having coached, worked with, or heard the complaints of hundreds of tech-focused professionals in various, I have found this can often be more a symptom of the dysfunction of an organization than the root cause of poor performance. The tech industry today is too mentally demanding and excitingly disruptive to attract genuinely lazy people, looking for a free ride. So when you start giving into distraction, procrastination, or laziness, my leadership spidey-sense goes off. I will tell you the secret to motivating innovation-based technical teams – empower them to know the impact a line of code will have on an end user.
Karl Marx’ philosophy describes this exact phenomenon in its examination of the individual worker’s separation and alienation from the product. Superficially, the question seems quite simple: Which is more rewarding, a carpenter who makes custom-installed wooden shutters, getting to know the customer, their home, and tastes in the process, or working in a factory running a machine that produces millions of shutters for a big-box store’s generic one-size-fits-all product line?
If you have lost pride of ownership over your work as a software professional, though, shame on you. You have no excuse for complacence, apathy, or becoming disengaged. Your skills are a premium product in a seller’s market. Companies of every size will fight to win you to their side. With one idea and a few colleagues, you could start a company of your own in a heartbeat.
Now, let’s be adults here. We all have to collaborate and negotiate. When the majority or a manager makes a call that goes against your individual dissenting opinion, don’t stomp away and pout. Losing pride of ownership over work, and settling into a free-rider paradigm brings down the team, the product, the end user, and your career. You better woman-up or man-up and either do a great job that you can be proud of, work to change the organization that is stifling you and your peers, or move on.
Change takes courage, but our virtue is the outcome of our habits. When you accept and justify your childish, dysfunctional, lazy, sub-par effort and excusing yourself through an external locus of control hurts no one more than you.
Mantra – Anything worth doing is worth doing well.
Reason #4 – You Hide Behind Uncertainty
Deconstructionism is a dangerous game, especially when you are part of a team that is teetering on the edge of a cliff overlooking the seas of chaos, moments from falling into market risk or technical risk that could engulf you. Since I coach teams on how to become a room full of adults solving the pains of a real person through a collaborative, unified, inspired collective brilliance and sheer power of will, I have a radar for someone who is hiding.
You are playing a dangerous game. You signed up for this, after all. You wanted to be brilliant, in the thick of it, defining emergent market segments using emerging technologies – but the minute you lost faith in the cause, lost hope for your job security, or lost belief in yourself as a builder and creator of new tech that can change the user’s world… that was the moment the inherent uncertainty of our goals became apparent. You shut down. You got stuck. You became intolerant of technical risk AND market risk and looked to your leaders to spoon-feed you.
At first, a good leader can give a big speech, host a team-building event, or roll up the proverbial sleeves to help. When the team as a whole needs some slack but they still have their eye on the prize, I have a long list of tools and tricks to re-energize the whole team. When an individual begins the process of deconstructionism, and moves every conversation into an infinite regress in which the certainty of any word or any intention or any risk is now more important than the product discovery process, that’s when a tough love heart-to-heart happens. Agile demands small increments. Innovation requires trial and error. You must remain infinitely curious. You must self-advocate for the size of the risks you take. Escalate when time-to-feedback is hurting you. Sturdy yourself and your tenacious attitude about the “failure” intrinsic to empirical discovery – otherwise you don’t belong in this work space.
Mantra – Fail fast to succeed sooner.
Reason #5 – You Give Up Before Attempting to Solve a Problem
This issue if often comes hand-in-hand with insecurity toward uncertainty. When it comes to coaching a product visionary in agile, this means whipping them with the importance of setting goals for the product, an end user to empathize with, and a pain to solve in the target user’s particular context. Once that is in place, a team – as a whole – may need some encouragement that a 100% success rate is not the goal. Innovative, defect-free software that fits the user’s needs is the goal. As it turns out, some people fear failure too much to risk it. If that’s you, make sure you are in the least innovative technical space possible. Sink your teeth into a legacy system and never complain about the spaghetti code you manage again. That slow-moving space is perfect if you prefer to play it safe.
Innovation may not be important to SOME people, but it is VERY important to the REST of US. The courage to risk failure is essential to experimentation.
The real issue, of course, is not the fear or the failure. It is a lack of proper perspective that puts your short-term ego ahead of long-term viability. It is a base rate logical fallacy in which you are ignoring the most important variables. Pretend for a moment that we have a product for which any given User Story – which we’ll restrict to less than two weeks of effort to get from planning to production – has a 70% chance of success (completion in two weeks) due to technical uncertainty and 20% chance of success due to market uncertainty (i.e. “is it really what the end users need?”). If you take the risk of a false-positive – succeeding in releasing a working product increment that the market doesn’t demand – as the only indication of your own failure, you are sure to be unhappy.
Now, imagine a breathalyzer has a 5% probability of a false-positive. A police officer pulls over drivers truly at random at a random time of day. What is the probability that a driver who tests positive is actually drunk? Guess what! A dreadful 2% chance. Luckily, officers are trained not to play the odds like that. The time of day, the day of the week, the location selected, and driving behavior all weed out the risk of a truly random selection. Then recognition of symptoms, through human interaction must give probably cause.
When you stop trying to overcome technical risk or market uncertainty prior to even attempt to solve a problem, you’re like a cop who stops pulling over anyone due to the statistical uncertainty of a false positive. If you attempt to solve 0% of the problems you face, you’ll come away with a 100% lack of solved problems.
Tackle 100% of the tough challenges tenaciously, courageously, and look for an assist as needed. Anything else makes success incredibly unlikely. The market risk of success is hard enough. Don’t ruin the odds further by quitting in the face of technical risk.
Mantra – You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
Grow Up or Move On
If these sound like you, work to grow as an individual or you are likely already on your way out the door. If you, your peers, and even your manager exhibit these traits and the organization seems unlikely to change despite a heroic group effort – it’s time to move on. Complacence, apathy, and passive aggression is terrible for your career.
I’ve taken to saying, “Some people just want to watch the world burn – the rest of us build it anyway.” If you aren’t a builder, at least stop burning down what the rest of us will happily accomplish with you.