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.
People have a singular propensity to place complete confidence in their own brilliance and clarity of understanding. I recently experienced an example of this a few a few months ago.
I was in attendance at an onboarding for a strategic project. The project could be considered similar in scope to IBM’s decision to divest themselves of their hardware business and bet billions on transforming themselves into a software and services firm.
Surprisingly, this example won’t be about the team presenting, but rather our dear friend Drake from the audience.
My go-to coworker, Drake, raised his hand near the end to ask a bold question: “didn’t we already do this?” Perhaps it was the simplicity of the question that proved monolithic to the presenter as they struggled to get a little more detail out of Drake. (Or perhaps it was that the vision invoked sensors and futuristic technologies that had yet to be invented.) Drake clarified “well, didn’t we make a website a few years ago?”
And there it was. Drake had only seen the ideas of others within the bandwidth of his own knowledge and would not consider the limits of that (certainly considerable, but finite) bandwidth. I ran into Drake after the meeting and tried to connect the dots with him, but he just sighed under his breath, “well, I guess we’re just doing the same thing with a different label. I wish I could be naive like you.” Rather than listening for how he might be misunderstanding, Drake dug in.
To me, seeing other’s thoughts in a limited bandwidth is unavoidable. However, the unwillingness to grapple with the limits of that bandwidth and seek to develop a broader receptivity stagnates learning and restricts progress in a dynamic, unknown environment.
This story could go on. Drake also struggled to understand the different responsibilities this role would demand. He thought of the greater autonomy as a license for power and was dissatisfied when others did not bend to his expectations, but that feels like a post for another day.
*I often take some license with Drake’s words and reactions to drive the point home. Don’t hate my androgynous punching bag too much.
Hegel is famous for one thing in particular, and that is the concept that history represents a progressive combination of diverse viewpoints as the Truth or Absolute slowly comes into focus.
Who knows what the hell that means, but the short version of most interpretations on this is that Philosophies and Ideas slowly become more perfect throughout history as new viewpoints appear to critique and enhance the original Idea as the result of this critique is a middle ground between extremes. (Think Democracy vs. Communism leads to Democratic Socialism and Socially Minded Democracy) For Hegel this virtuous cycle leads Ideas closer to perfection. While we wait to see whether he’s right on a meta-historical scale, let’s compare this to a small scale example: Corporate Projects
Ideas have this beautiful evolution in business, moving from thesis to antithesis in a wonderful melody of transformation… Except not necessarily in the divine, virtuous way Hegel posits, but also potentially in a vicious cycle that I affectionately call the Cyclone of Assistance.
The fundamental principle underlying the Cyclone is that sufficiently important activity has a habit of breeding attention in a corporate ecosystem. This attraction of opinion is healthy by bringing diverse thoughts to bear, but unfortunately can also bring a level of ego-driven intervention that disrupts progress and drains your energy.
This hindrance arrives most frequently in the form of too many requirements being demanded as a solution becomes over-engineered to diverse, yet highly focused implementations. Of course, the corporate ecosystem has a control on this behavior by limiting the scope of efforts once they’ve embarked, but for the one driving the work, deflecting interventions to bring about effective change is draining.
Effectiveness of the projects within the Cyclone of Assistance can degrade as time goes on and the intensity of opinions increase. It’s a reality of corporate work that there will be virtuous and vicious Cyclones and acting in the middle of them is the art of being effective.
Continue reading “Art of Being Effective: Cyclone of Assistance”