Have you ever been on a project where it feels as though someone is unwittingly playing defense against a successful outcome. Either they are doing things that actively run counter to the group or are doing things poorly that require others to pick up their slack. I do not mean those who are trying to tank a project, I mean those whose incompetence on the project produces a result indistinguishable from sabotage. What do you do with this member if you are not responsible for assembling the team?
Generally in this situation there are a few basic options:
- Advocate for that person to be removed from the team.
Now there there are different ways to go about this. I don’t recommend advocating to the whole group in the middle of a meeting in the presence of this individual. This may produce results, but it also produces the undeniable perception that you are a total douche. Instead I recommend speaking with whoever was responsible for staffing the project. Approach them one on one and be fair but straight forward in your words. Above all make sure it does not come off like you simply don’t like the incompetent individual, even if that happens to be true.
- Assign them work of the lowest importance.
If the above option is unavailable for whatever reason, or if you would rather not pursue it, you can always change the kind of work assigned. Perhaps this person can schedule and build agendas for meetings. They can take notes and follow up with people. Perhaps there are work streams that are “nice to haves” rather than “must haves”. This requires a bit of the benign deception and people skills that make many managers great, the ability to decrease someone’s importance to a project without them feeling slighted enough to blow up.
- Mentor them to bring up their performance.
I personally feel this is the ideal state, but because of that it of course is the most difficult to bring to fruition. It would be excellent if you could bring someone from dead weight to contributor while they are on your project. In order for that to happen three things must be true: the participant must be willing, the mentor must have at least a little skill in teaching others, and there must be enough time. This is the calculus that you must perform if you want to pursue this option. Is this person willing and do we have anyone able to bring them along in time for the value to be recognized in this project? That is a tricky and situational decision, but the rewards offered if successful should make this a consideration each time.
- Stop assigning them work.
I personally find this to be a bit passive aggressive, but some may see it as the only possibility in their circumstance. This is pretty self explanatory, you simply stop assigning work to them, or have someone always paired with them who is actually responsible for the work. This has a high risk of turning the incompetent member of your team into a disgruntled member of your team. That can cause friction in the working environment that may spill over, so caution is required if you decide to go with this approach.
Obviously this is not some panacea, but by weighing out the options available you can drive the result that provides the best outcome for a given situation. Always consider the risks that accompany each solution and take mitigating action at the same time you start to implement your solution.
A few weeks ago I overheard a common complaint while in a meeting with technology experts.
“They don’t know what an MVP is. Our business partners just aren’t thinking as well as we are about these things.” The promulgator of this complaint was looking around the room ready to soak in the approval of their peers, who certainly would agree that “those other people” did not understand. Indeed most of those centered around this table nodded and smiled knowingly. While this situation of “us vs them” is common, the issue that arose in my mind from this comment was actually their use of MVP.
An MVP, for those who have more exciting lives than mine, is a Minimum Viable Product. It is a phrase that became popular in the software sector around 7 years ago. A basic definition would be “a product with just enough features to gather validated learning about the product and its continued development.” This definition is vague for a reason. While I am not going to get into too deep of a discussion about what qualifies as an MVP, it is important to know that there is no formula for an MVP. The MVP in any situation will change based on what is attempting to be delivered.
Going back to the comment I heard, I felt a disconnect around what was being defined as an MVP. The picture above, taken from here, is a general metaphor for what the goal of an MVP is. The technology being delivered worked, but did not provide what the business needed to give to the customer. In the diagram you can see that the MVP asked for was a skateboard. This is because what the business needed was something that moved the customer. In this situation, the individual was complaining about the business partner who was asking for software. What they were getting from the technology partner was an excellent wheel, whose code ran smoothly and would be a critical component of the car to come. But you cannot give your customer a wheel and ask them how well it moves them. My complaining colleague was assigning blame, but not accepting that it was the technology group that had misunderstood the meaning of an MVP.
Thus far we have noticed that there is a disconnect between to business partners and the technology group. Next we will look at what may cause this disconnect, and finally we will look at ways to overcome this disconnect.
In business, efficiency is often placed on a pedestal and revered as a demigod. Six sigma could serve as its Franciscan order. Agile was born of the pursuit of efficiency. There exists, however, a vast amount of work that lives in the qualitative and communication based setting known as a meeting. It is here that the rudder event occurs.
A rudder is small, yet controls the whole course of the vessel. In the same way there are often small actions, questions, or comments that control the whole course of a conversation. Learning to control these events, and guide conversations without having to dominate them is an important form of efficiency. The length of a conversation is not proportional to the value of its content (I would like to coin this as the McClain Axiom) and nothing exemplifies this more than rudder events.
Imagine if you will a conversation about implementing a new workflow. Because this will only be of interest to a few in the room, the conversation can definitely list from its destination without much effort. How can this be prevented? By keeping a steady hand on the wheel, with timely and direct comments and questions that keep conversations focused. This does require someone to be monitoring the conversation more than providing content, but in almost every meeting there are those who are there for the purpose of providing direction. An expert application of rudder events saves time in every meeting, and keeps people engaged. Saved time equates to efficiency.
The window view is of traffic and a park a little further off. This tenth floor window peers out of a modest conference room where a group of successful men and women are mulling ideas of progress and transformation. The group of a dozen or so has segmented into two groups, one on each side. Both sides have circled up to throw around their dreams and weigh them on the scales of opinion. Collaboration on a superfluous level comes easy but true collaboration is fleeting. With success comes a well won ego.
The ego is Homeric in flavor, as the Greeks believed that the strong deserved to be the proud. That an ego wasn’t hubris as long as it was supported by a record of success or a true ability. Now these managers lack the pantheon of gods telling them it is fine to continue as they are, but they seem to have overcome this issue by the monetary rewards or professional titles they have received. The observer however may have difficulty with this. How do people know that these egos are just?
The world proposes a simple test. Listen to the ideas, listen to the words. No epics or ballads exist to tell of heroes, men are left to search for themselves. In a conference room, on the tenth floor of a simple office complex this test was in motion. Testing their thoughts against each other these men and women were writing their own modern day epics. Epics written in strategies and progress. Having an idea accepted and acted on would cement one’s right to an ego. This ego justly won would be attested to by the future they had set in motion with their own words and ideas.
Years ago I had a seminar on “Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origins of Algebra“. While that topic may not fan the cockles of the average heart, I found it to be a fascinating study in how ontology (theory about the nature of being or the kinds of things that have existence) can shape our scientific tools.
To cut right to where I am going with this, consider the case of a child growing up right now. Whereas technology used to be the domain of wealthy adults, now it has become much more available to children and the middle class. Consider children growing up with a digital device such as an iPhone, tablet, books on the computer or digital learning games. It will be fascinating to see how their minds are shaped by these experiences approaching the problems of tomorrow. Issues such as virtual reality, digital privacy, and access to internet as a right rather than a privilege, are all potential situations where generations may have a different way to conceptualize truth simply due to the way their minds were exposed to technology while growing up. I am fascinated as to whether an ontological shift will occur over the coming centuries as the digital and physical continue to track towards each other in the future. I am not nearly informed enough as to whether we will see a collision between the two or if they will act as an asymptote drawing ever closer but forever distinct.
I would never declare any of what I have said unassailable truth, but I am continually ruminating on the idea that how we conceive of our world will allow us different glimpses of the truth that may underpin human understanding. Its an exciting and sobering idea that there may be ideas of which I could not conceive because the understanding of the world formed in me from my youth could be completely different from someone a mere twenty years younger than me.
Early philosophers made a big deal of separating “true belief” from “knowledge”. The spiritual father of this distinction would have to be Socrates as a character in the Dialogues of Plato. He constantly harps on about how knowing a good deed is different from knowing why it is good. He believes strongly in the value of knowledge, mostly because it has been tested through inquiry. Knowledge gives one a standard by which to judge other actions. Socrates might even tell us that those with true belief are lucky, while those with a knowledge of good are truly virtuous. Another way to understand Socrates would be thinking about the difference between people who are intuitive versus people who have researched a topic. The intuitive thinker may get the right answer, but Socrates fears that without research he may not completely understand the core of the topic.
Philosophical inquiry is not the only field in which this distinction makes an appearance. Imagine you are collaborating with a coworker, Drake. We have had several stories of “Drake” and his foibles in the office setting. In this case Drake is working with you on implementing a solution to a Customer Experience issue in a retail setting. Drake previously worked in retail and is ready and willing to throw all else to the side and dredge up his considerable experience. Here Drake runs into an issue, he has had success with specific approaches in the past and refuses to investigate our topic any further. He has confidence that he knows what the issues are, because he has had success solving problems before.
Now when you believe you know something you do not have to ask others about it. You do not conduct interviews, nor do you examine the core of the issue at hand. Drake quickly deploys tactics he has used before. He fails spectacularly. Drake is a failure because he does not understand the difference between “true belief” and “knowledge”. Socrates would righteously chastise Drake for failing to ask the right questions. Drake did not test his belief to see if he had knowledge.
The take away is simple. Ask a damn question. All inquiry begins and grows by asking questions. If Drake had gotten of his high horse and asked questions of those who he was professing to help he may have realized that he didn’t actually “know” what was going on. He merely had beliefs informed by previous success. You cannot be sure of knowledge unless you have tested it, all else is equivalent to belief. Who would rather act on belief over actually knowledge when given the choice?
Woe to thee who has cast thy lot with this tyrant. The breaker of workweeks and crusher of work/life balance, this tyrant stands lofty upon the prow. Superfluum Opus helms every project as though it were a galley, and the oars should never be silent.
Superfluum Opus will often look good when the job is done. This tyrant has a very long shelf life and often has upwards career trajectory. How is this the case? The tyrant’s problem is not that they cannot assign meaningful work, it is that they cannot distinguish meaningful from meaningless work. They will simultaneously assign someone to think about the core of their project and also adjust a single slide in a presentation that will never see the light of day. They will command research into things that are non-sequitur to the scope of their work and they will ask everyone to duplicate tasks.
Task duplication is the key stratagem of Superfluum Opus, as it can quickly hide this meaningless duplication of labor under the thin veil of “collaboration.” Those who may complain about repeat work will simply not be team players because they do not wish to collaborate on a project with their coworkers. This is the end of Superfluum Opus, where labor masquerades as progress.