There is this concept that has followed me around from team to team as long I’ve managed, coached, or otherwise led people. The description of the concept changes team-by-team—”shit umbrella”, “distraction barrier”, or (currently) “human meat shield” to name a few—but the core idea remains constant; a key attribute of my leadership style is that of preventing the enormity of the weight of the organization from ever falling on the heads of those I lead. Continue reading Managing Safe Spaces
As a leader, I have been unbelievably lucky to be surrounded by some pretty amazing teams, and my current team is no exception. I have consistently asked a great deal of them, and they have always found a way to meet my lofty expectations; they have treated each other with respect, even when things are difficult; and they have remained reliably focused on our goals, even when the pace of a project and external forces work to bump us from our path. Nothing that I could do at work could have done a better job of making me look good than the excellence of my team.
I think, at times, it’s easy to look at your successes and assume them to be of your own making—it’s important to me to remember that most of mine relate more to the company that I keep than the actions that I take.
In my last post, I alluded to a set of criteria that I use to determine whether or not it is reasonable to ask a team to work significant extra hours—such as going over 45-50 hours in a week or working a weekend at all. What I didn’t do was describe the composition of that criteria.
I typically am looking for three factors to be met; so when I’m determining if it is appropriate to ask for the additional work, I look for:
Is there a defined, specific, goal? This doesn’t mean “finish the project,” as that is the sort of down-the-rabbit-hole trap that ends up dragging teams to an early exit. This means “we have these clearly defined tasks with clearly defined success conditions that must be done.”
Is the goal possible? My criteria used to be 2-items in length, until I was at a job that delighted in giving clearly defined criteria that were clearly impossible. Nobody should be sent on a death march.
Is the duration and severity reasonable? Saying “we have a clear, specific goal of working 80h weeks for no more than 2 months to do these 100 items” might be sufficiently specific and plausible, but the duration and severity virtually guarantee that quality is going to be thrown out entirely.
These are not the only factors that I consider—length of time since last the developers involved have been asked to do this, how did we get in this predicament in the first place, is this a reasonable thing to ask to get us out of the predicament; these are all also considerations to varying degrees—but the above are the primary drivers of my decision making.
In practical terms, this is handled as a conversation. By way of example, on projects for my current employer, working considerable extra time was brought up in two distinct situations on two separate occasions. In both instances, I sat with our senior management team and walked through the above thought exercise.
In one instance, it was determined that while the scope of work was relatively well defined and possible, the duration of the overwork would be such that it was very likely to destroy quality. It was also likely to have a significant impact on the development team as a whole. In that instance, we decided together that it wasn’t worth the risk, and found a plan that would yield more reliable results.
In the other instance, while the same risks were very much present, the volume of work was more reasonable and we all felt comfortable in using over-work as a strategy.
In both cases, working together first with my management team then with my development team was an essential piece of the decision making process. It has been my experience that this criteria has both served as a gatekeeper for preventing burnout and low quality due to overwork, but it has also served as a educational opportunity for all involved every time it has come up.
Today, I tweeted the following:
It was brought to my attention that the last two tweets in my message were unfair to companies that are trying to do better in many ways, but are trapped by past performance and slow-moving internal politics.
I disagree, and I’ll explain now what I explained then…
Until recently, I did not have a good name for an element of my approach to the world in which I have long taken considerable pride. A friend pointed out that the name for it was “integrity,” in the sense that I reliably adhere to a code and to my values. In short, if I say it, I do it, to the best of my ability (and, of course, the converse is also true). I try to be a “man of his word,” even when doing so causes me significant difficulty.
I think that we spend an awful lot of time at our jobs trying to explain away why our codes don’t apply in one circumstance or another; especially when we’re talking about our corporate values rather than our personal ones. Perhaps profits are down and we’re just trying to get through this one ugly time then we can practice our values again. Sometimes we just don’t have the political clout yet to enforce our values, but given some time, we’ll earn it. Most often, though, it’s just not time yet—but soon, soon it will be time!
I would argue that that is bullshit; a code that you only follow when it isn’t being tested isn’t a code. If I don’t steal because it’s too easy to get caught, my code of conduct isn’t “don’t steal,” it’s “don’t get caught stealing.” Likewise, if my dedication to quality is such that I forsake it when it would make me unprofitable, my value isn’t “deliver maximum quality,” it’s “deliver the best quality you can without hurting profits”—which is really just a long way of saying “deliver good enough.” I value my integrity BECAUSE of how difficult it is to maintain when it’s being tested, and as a customer, I value the integrity of companies that do the same for me.
So when I say “my team won’t work extended hours unless it meets a very particular set of criteria,” I mean PRECISELY that. It is too easy to have your values outshone by every exception and edge case that comes up—and it becomes increasingly easy each time that you do it. In practical terms, this means that I walk a very fine line at times between having my team made no-longer-my-team by virtue of a very abrupt demotion or termination; and I walk that line knowingly because I WILL follow a set of strictures that I know is correct and best for both my team and my business. If I lose my job or my team, I will do so knowing I did the right thing, and I will find an employer whose values are more similar to mine in the future. I have been lucky my nearly 20 year career that this has not actually happened—I suspect that this is at least partially because I actively select companies whose values are in alignment with my own, and I am very quick to leave if I find that no longer to be true.
It is also incumbent upon me, though, to assert my integrity—to honor my code if you will—in a way that makes it easiest for my company to help me follow my values. I spend tremendous amounts of energy in educational efforts in all organizational directions to PROVE the value of these points of view, and I spend even more energy in ensuring that my values benefit both team and company; there’s no point in making a stand that leaves us all the former employees of a former company at the end. Integrity, be it personal or corporate, is profoundly exhausting, challenging, and—as a result—rewarding.
So, do I think it is unfair to say that your actions when things are challenging convey your real values? Absolutely not—in fact, I’d turn the question back to you, if you think that it’s unfair. Is your integrity sufficiently important as to make your actions match your values? And if not, why not?
This is a placeholder that I will almost certainly fail to update later; but I hope that this will one day be a blog post version of the talk I gave at Self.conference 2015.
Notable: I used slides for the first time in a while. It wasn’t the worst. It wasn’t my favorite way, but it wasn’t the worst :)
The slides in PDF format.
Apparently, I’m now going to be going a LONG time between updates.
I’m in a pretty good place, which feels like it’s the right place to be when one is a middle-class desk worker with a job he/she loves, a loving family, great friends, a fridge full of food, and precious little of any legitimacy to complain about.
This and last week has been a mixed bag. My boss has been out, so I’ve been helping out in a more ‘leadership’ role…I forgot how much I love stepping in and helping guide the work flow, running interference for the team, and making sure things are prioritized correctly and getting done. I wish this was an actual job I could be paid to do; why isn’t there a job somewhere that would allow me to be hands-on in the code while giving me the opportunity to apply my project management experience to process development and work-flow management that doesn’t automatically come with the baggage of being client-facing and managerial.
I want to write code and manage projects, I don’t want to assuage clients and manage people.
So this week was awesome in that respect: I got to do a thing I do pretty well, in managing a formidable workload. Unfortunately, much of that workload management was because we were short several key players…it was the equivalent of being told that I can coach this world champion team, but several of the stars won’t be allowed to play.
Thankfully, this team is full of stars.
On a down note, I think I’m going to have to delay finishing grad school by a semester. I just don’t feel like I can do a good job of work, school, and family by cramming everything into this last month of school. Hell, I’m not convinced that I can do a passable job of even ONE of those if I try to do them all. It stings to admit it, but I can’t do it all.
It’s been so long since I’ve posted, I feel like I should post more…but I am flat out exhausted. A side effect of this week’s massive work load was that I finished my 3-day work-week with just over 50-hours…and that’s a long week to wedge into 3 days.
Until next time (which could be a crazy long time)
Today should be a day of victory. By all reports that I’m seeing so far today, this weekend’s ConFusion went brilliantly. Our numerous author guests had an enjoyable time, attendees seem unanimous in agreeing that the event was amazing, and most of the staff has expressed a wish to return in the same capacity because of the fun they had putting this thing together. I should be glowing, but I’m not.
We fucked up big.
Instead of feeling elated and spending Sunday evening and Monday morning celebrating, I spent much of the time receiving a well-deserved dressing down from the director of events and the general manager. A relationship that has lasted nearly a decade has been damaged severely, and it that stings considerably.
As the hotel liaison, I have several responsibilities, but the most important ones include ensuring a consistent channel of communication between the hotel and the convention, protecting the convention’s interests and facilitating the throwing of the event we are trying to create, and protecting the hotel’s interests to ensure that the trust they have placed in our treatment of their considerable investment is not misplaced.
The first I achieve principally by serving as a single point of contact between all of the various departments of our convention and the various departments of the hotel. In this way, I am able to collect all of the information that is available and use that big-picture view to coordinate with the chairperson to ensure that his or her vision for the convention happens. Sometimes, this means that I must whine, beg, borrow, and cajole in order to get special concessions from the hotel and its staff. Sometimes it means I have to engineer cooperation between multiple convention departments to make sure their desires match the physical realities of the convention space. Sometimes, it means that I have to tell the hotel or the convention “No” or “Not in that way” during planning.
During the course of doing all of the above, so it is that I protect the convention and the hotel from one another. This is not to say that there is an adversarial relationship—nothing could be further from the truth between ConFusion and the Troy Marriott (although I have certainly worked events where calling the relationship “adversarial” would be being very kind)—but it is to say that both parties are understandably focused on their own goals and often have difficulty seeing the goals of the other party. It is my job to smooth that out…to establish what is the most important to both parties and to convey that sufficiently to each side.
One of the many reasons I adore working with the staff of the Troy Marriott is that they, more than any facility I have ever worked with in all of my years of doing events, see our “side” of the event very clearly. They readily grasp what is important to our event and its attendees in a way that has made the event a pleasure to put together. Our convention staff, conversely, have very little understanding of what is important to the hotel. It makes for an interesting dynamic that is quite the opposite of professional events I’ve managed where the corporate-types all readily grasp what the venue needs and the venue neither knows nor cares what the event needs.
I present all of this as a necessary backdrop for the disrespect that we displayed for the hotel this year. During the setup of the convention we destroyed the planning that the banquets staff had put in by running them around undoing things that had been requested (and in some cases re-doing that which they had undone), giving contradictory requests, and in several cases being outright verbally abusive to their staff. Throughout the convention itself, we repeatedly ignored their rules on signage, attire, and food and alcohol consumption.
Then, we started really misbehaving.
By weekend’s end, we had flagrantly ignored several issues of considerable importance to the hotel, and in many cases caused literally THOUSANDS of dollars in damage. We undid much of the benefit of their remodeling in a way that, were this a sitcom, would have seem hyperbolic and unrealistically absurd. We were complete assholes.
Let me take a moment to clarify, though. This was not the attendees…this was the doing of our staff and department heads. If you were an attendee, guest, or volunteer, you very likely did not do anything untoward at all. Every single major issue that occurred was perpetrated by the people who should know better than anybody how to behave.
It is this fact, more than anything else, that really adds sting to the insult. It would appear that when I indicated to the staff and concom that we were not allowed to do certain things and that we were allowed to do other things but only in certain ways, the take-away from that was that I was simply being a dick and could be ignored. Clearly, it seems, I only say these things to pick on people. Obviously, I’m just being mean. So I was ignored.
When I saw the wreckage we caused (and heard about more that I hadn’t had a chance to witness), I was enraged. When our event director—and later the general manager—described to me the things that they had seen, that rage turned to shame and embarrassment. These people had treated us like friends and family for years. I have had a relationship with them that is longer than most relationships I’ve had with individual people; and I’m relatively new on the scene. We were never treated merely as clients and we treated them worse than we would even vendors. We abused staff, we violated their property, and we did so with ruthless aplomb.
I am not generally disposed to tears, and when Christie, the director of events, shared with me what she had found I had to literally put down my head and fight back tears. Whatever betrayal I might have felt must have been pitiful compared to sitting on the other side of that desk.
The worst part of it is, the vast majority of this can be hung directly on me. It was my responsibility. With departments directly by my friends and by associates I trusted implicitly, I was lax in surveying their areas. I spent less time doing circuits of the convention and, when I did, I expended precious little focus on those areas governed by people that I had known for years, that had stood up in my wedding, or that had done admirably in the past. I allowed my trust and my natural propensity toward laziness to result in a piss-poor performance.
Perhaps the lake of beer that soaked carpet in one room would have been a mere puddle had I been more conscientious. Maybe the furniture that was to varying degrees damaged would not have been had I been on the scene more frequently to prevent its movement. Even the food chunks and grease that were run down bathtub drains by individuals doing dishes might have been prevented by closer inspection of the property. Perhaps if I had been more vehement in preventing certain individuals access to the hotel staff, they wouldn’t have been given the run-around as much as they were.
Certainly the actual perpetrators of these acts (and countless others) are in the wrong and should certainly feel their own sense of shame for a job done poorly, but that does not ease my share of the burden. I failed, and I failed miserably. It would not be inaccurate to say that I failed epically. Epic ConFusion indeed.
I would like to apologize for the torrent of words this became, but it’s been weighing on me for nearly 48 hours now. I’m still not okay with this, and I have some significant decisions to make as to how to proceed with…well, pretty much everything.
For now, however, I have to return to the tasks of real life while dealing with the wreckage that we have caused. There’s a set of tasks I really look forward to…