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Hard Lessons Learned as a Senior Manager – The Monsanto Challenge

The following is a series of personal thoughts and reflections on eight or so years of learning my way around what it means to be a senior quality assurance  or engineering manager. As some of you know I have recently found myself once again looking at the future of my professional career and wondering what it holds. The man who made the decision to change the entire organization of my department this week gave me some great advice. In our long and unofficial exit interview he challenged me to write down my thoughts on things I can personally take away from my successes and failures over a decade of different management roles.

Since I over share (according to everyone who loves me) this is the medium I’ve chosen to use. No names will be changed since I have no desire to name names or otherwise talk about specific instances, people, or companies.

Entry the First: The Monsanto Challenge

In which our hero finds himself experiencing blowback for not recognizing his full customer chain

A while back I worked for a company that was purchased by Monsanto. Monsanto meant business when they purchased our admittedly small little outfit in downtown San Francisco. They wanted everyone to feel like they were special and to know they purchased us because they had no idea how to do what we did and thus had no interest in telling us how to do what we do or interfere in any other manner. They purchased us because they wanted us and our data and our data models all to themselves. They spared no expense instilling the impression that both we were still going to be us but that we were also now in the “big boy pants” leagues. They chartered a jet and flew all of us out to three different facilities throughout the middle parts of the United States. We were given access to top research scientists, laboratories, executives, and even had an intimate dinner with the C-level executives and several board members. I got to meet men and women in one day who did everything from build Maker Faire sort of wild machines designed to strip genetic information from seeds without destroying them to people who advised Presidents and Prime Ministers on issues of national importance. Everyone I met on this magical mystery tour was very nice. They were to a person cheerful and helpful but most of all every single person from the assistants to the front desk personnel to the geneticists were all passionately committed to the idea of solving the world’s current and looming hunger crises. These were not Jurassic Park scientists playing with expensive toys. These were dedicated botanists, geneticists, engineers, and explorers who sought out, cataloged, studied, and genomed every single variety of crops like corn and wheat in existence looking for answers to complicated problems. When they couldn’t find answers in the species they realized they had to look outside the species. That’s when GMOs came on the scene.

Since I had what was essentially a captive audience who claimed to be willing to talk about anything, I asked the President of Monsanto directly why he thought his company’s public image was so wildly divergent with what I personally experienced just chatting with everyone. He told me it was one thing they completely screwed up a long time ago and didn’t even try to correct until lately. They didn’t look into anyone except the farmer’s buying their seeds and herbicides. The stopped at the primary connection in their value chain.

You see as much as a lot of people hate Monsanto, farmers around the world love love love them. Monsanto has done an amazing job of working with farmers, listening to their problems, and rapidly (in terms of seed) changed course several times to address their pain points. In most ways their movement into GMOs was a direct request from farmer’s who’s crops were being destroyed by climate change, water contamination, rapidly evolving pests & diseases, and the regulation of most herbicides out of existence. For decades Monsanto thought that was enough. When the suddenly felt the pain of people reacting emotionally to the idea of consuming what to them felt like “Franken-food” Monsanto reacted like the scientists and engineers they are by simply telling people to look at the science and research. To which what seemed like an entire planet replied with the phrase “Nuts.” Monsanto got hammered and is still being hammered. They’ve become the symbol of everything people don’t like about our current society and a repository for all the fears we have for what seems to be looking more and more like a bleak future. They ended up trying to enter a very pernicious and embedded opinion based on a decade or more of rumor armed only with facts.

Looking back at his now I wish I’d learned it years ago and had remembered it recently.

When you’re a manager (and especially a senior manager) you are responsible for a lot of things. Your team can feel like the most important thing that need concern you. You have reports and meetings with your direct manager who may be a director, vice president, or even chief officer of some sort. You have customers you need to keep happy be they external to your organization or internal to it. You can fall into the trap of making sure you do the best job possible, your team is chugging along fantastically, and your customers think you’re amazing. You want to believe that is more than enough to secure your reputation. Every company says it’s a “no drama zone” or something like it. Technology companies in particular like to say they’re data driven and that the rely on things they can measure. The reality is while you’re intensely focused on your primary relationships you are neglecting your secondary and tertiary relationships. These relationships are vitally important for the long term health and opinion of you and your team.

There is a tool consultants use called an influencer map. They use it to rapidly assess everyone on a project who has some sort of influence over the success or failure of that project and how they perceive it. People with direct influence are given priority but importantly people with indirect or even outlier influence are also mapped. The different people are mapped around who they can influence rather than where they occur in an org chart. Your job as a consultant is to be aware of people with influence who can have an effect on your outcome. You then turn around the ones you can to be supporters or even interested in your work. If you can’t change their stance you try and isolate them so they can’t scuttle your work through their attitude. As a manager you need to be aware of everyone in your organization in the same manner. it’s not something you need to address all the time but you don’t do it at the risk of how people perceive your work.

You see perception is often completely at odds with facts. People don’t trust facts or they selectively pick the ones that will support their perception. If a manager or director or a vice president forms a negative or even questionable perception/opinion of you or your team they will start to notice things supporting that viewpoint. You can present them with lots of Key Process Indicators (KPIs) showing you are doing great but they’ll come away remembering the one thing that may not have been awesome. At that point you are fighting a losing battle since you are actively working against an opinion formed from nothing. If you have enough time you can mitigate this issue with personal intervention and salesmanship but it’s a holding action until the opinion changes. If something like a re-organization or change in management happens before you’re turned that around you will find yourself on the list to be changed.

The best way to avoid The Monsanto Challenge is to never find yourself in it. Your first month as a manager should be spent personally meeting every other manager in your organization and every upper level manager in the company. You need to meet with them regularly and let them form their own impression of you, an impression you can hopefully control. Take the time to talk about the great things your team is doing and showcase their success. Ask them for advice or go to them with intelligent questions they can answer. Controlling your image in this manner provides some inoculation against other influencers who may be spreading a message you don’t want spread. It won’t prevent you from having your budget cut or being laid off or having your project shut down. These things happen all the time even in large companies.

It will remove one of the ways things like lay offs can happen in spite of success.

It’s a lesson I’ve paid the price for not following now at least twice and perhaps three times. I did not get on a plane and go meet with people face to face (the value of which I will talk about in another blog post). I didn’t control the message about myself and my team. In all of these occasions there was a price to pay; sometimes it was a very dear price indeed.

5 Warning Signs for a Person Interviewing a Candidate

Over the years I’ve had more than a few chances to chat with consultants, candidates, and contractors in circumstances that can best be described as “exploratory.”  The specifics leading up to the events are usually as varied as the events themselves.  The one constant is the actual conversation itself.  By that I mean it’s just that, a conversation.  The meeting is a chance for me to get to know this person a little better in order to take a wild guess about whether they’d be useful, compatible, or even “not crazy” if we were to invite them into our cozy little corner of the professional world.  I’ve often joked that it feels like a first date and it seems like that specific piece of humor resonates with people.  There are points of overlap between a “first date” and an “interview” even though the two are actually quite different.  Taking that viewpoint I’d like to see if I can help people who find themselves in the position of talking to a possible new presence in their work life.  I know there are several hundred (thousand) blog posts, articles, and even books on “effective interviewing” but this will not be another of those.  I’m not going to give you tips on how Microsoft, Google, or Amazon recruit and interview people successfully.  The best interview technique is one that feels natural to you.  Reading interview questions off a printed out sheet is an awesome way to kill the enthusiasm of a talented and sought after interviewee.  They’re looking for clues about you, remember, so it’s best to give them a taste of the real you … unless the “real you” is pretty dreadful.  In that case please have someone else do the interviews or read from a script of prepared topic points without deviation.

So what are some of the things you should watch for when chatting in these circumstances?  I’m glad I asked.  Here’s a quick list of five things I try and suss out while having the sort of informal and free flowing conversation I find works best for me in an interview.

Does this person know anything about your company or team?

Years ago, when I first started in the software industry, the internet was still a relatively new thing.  Companies bad websites and were all scrambling for a “web presence” but it was by no means common.  Certain companies had brand visibility but most companies still used printed out materials for company communications and advertisements.  At that time the only way to get any information about the average company, much less the specific teams, was to know someone on the inside already who was willing to talk candidly.  That is no longer the case.  In today’s world almost every company out there has a public facing website.  Most search engines can easily return nearly too much information on the financials, operations, and news stories of a specific company.  Social media sites allow you to quickly poll information on the people working at specific teams and departments with differing levels of anonymity.

To put it bluntly, the only reason a person would come into this sort of meeting with you unprepared is either a lack of access to technology bordering on Luddism or apathy about the position itself.  Simply asking a person what they know about the company will probably get you a rehearsed response unless you’re dealing with a talented salesman.  Reserve judgement on this topic until you’ve had a chance to talk for a while.  If the person seems to be going off on unrelated tangents or leaping on topics that aren’t at all relevant, then perhaps you should dig into what they actually know about you and why they want the position.

Does this person use a lot of “buzz words?”

As I mentioned before, buzz words are an excellent tool for obfuscating an actual lack of practical knowledge or benefit.  Buzz words are different from jargon in that jargon has an actual practical application for the realm in which it is used.  It’s easier to say “sproc” that to say “stored procedure” just like it’s easier to say “cloud computing” than it is to say “a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.”  Buzz words are an attempt to make the easily understood sound arcane … and therefore valuable.  This is the difference between “cloud computing” and “The Cloud.”  It’s the difference between “agile software development” and “Agile Software Development.”  A good rule of thumb is if you can read or hear words being capitalized and they are not proper nouns or acronyms, you’re probably reading or hearing a buzz word.

Does this person seem rehearsed or fake?

A person who sounds rehearsed, false, or otherwise disingenuous is a pet peeve of mine.  The meeting we’re currently having is usually to determine whether or not we can work together as colleagues or in some other professional role.  It’s best if we’re both honest and true to our natures or there will be some unfortunate surprises later.  The “surprise” part is the one that particularly puzzles me.  I know people who spend time reciting “best” answers to practice interview questions.  I also know people who spend a lot of time and effort researching ever more intricate and elegant interview questions to toss out at everyone who meets them.  What is the success criteria for this strategy?  Unless you are a brilliant performer attempting a new art piece, the task of being this foreign person forty plus hours a day is going to prove impossible.  Eventually the “real you” will surface.  This is going to cause problems because the people around you agreed to work with the other guy, not you.  Over the years I’ve learned to watch for people who think they can trick themselves into a job.  If they can’t or won’t leave their script on the table then you’ll need to be concerned about who and what you’re inviting into your team environment.

Is this person interesting?

Usually when we’re looking to bring on a new person it’s because either we need to replace someone who left or we need to augment what we’re already doing.  Unless you’re in an unfortunate situation this is an excellent opportunity to breathe some new ideas and life into your community.  I’ve found the best way to do this is to look for interesting people.  People I find interesting are ones who have no problems discussing things that are new to me or who cause me to look at something from a new perspective.  Because I like learning new things, I will immediately perk up.  I love “interviewing” people who end up feeling more like we’re having a really interesting chat over chai somewhere.  I detest “interviewing” people who reference the same old ideas and concepts in the accepted manner that have been agreed upon by the usual governing body.  I’ll hire the best reciter if that’s all there is available, but I’ll overlook at lot if I feel a candidate is going to take me and the rest of the group in new directions that might yield amazing things.

Do you feel passion when they talk?

The final one is the one that trumps them all when you come right down to it.  If I’m chatting to someone about coming on board to help us do a security audit, I’m going to want to hear the energy in their voice when they talk about things like DDoS attack detection and encryption algorithms.  I’ll want to hear if they’ve read books, attended conferences, or listened to speakers at a local Meet-Up on their subject.  This is a specific point of error for me as even today I still find myself talking to a lot of people who treat software test engineering as a stage in their longer computer software career.  All to often it’s not just a stage, it’s the initial stage.  I’ll be chatting with someone about a test engineering position only to hear them become passionate as we casually chat about the mobile app they’re developing with a friend in their spare time.  It’s awesome that you’re passionate about mobile application development and it’s definitely something you should pursue.  I, however, am hiring for software testers today but I’ll definitely pass your resume on to our HR department.  The danger in missing this clue is passion breeds excellence faster than any morale event or annual stock bonus.  If you look for and hire passion you’re job as a manager is pretty much done.  The only thing you then have to do is herd the puppies and keep them sort of going in the same general direction.


And honestly, who wouldn’t want to work with a puppy herd?

Warning Signs for a New Hire, Candidate, or Prospective Consultant

Over the years I’ve had more than a few chances to chat with organizations in circumstances that can best be described as “exploratory.”  We’ve all been there.  You’ve been invited down to the offices and are spending a few hours (or days) with the team and key members of the management staff.  You’re being walked around the office.  Everyone has made great pains to point out the free chai/coffee/jelly beans/whatever in the break room.  If you’re particularly “hot” you might even be talking to a hip company that has things like free parkur classes over the lunch hour or a selection of single malt scotches lined up for the Thursday evening tasting mixer.  My personal favorite was the time I spent an afternoon chatting with people at a (now defunct) company who shall remain nameless where everyone I met made sure I knew there was an onsite gymnasium with an on-call masseuse and physical trainer.

Ignore all of these things.  The perks and benefits of the workplace are not a good indicator of how much or little the company values their employees as people, much less how well the team works together as a cohesive unit.  Things like stock grants, vacation time, and commuter packages are nice but they are pretty close to the least effort a company can expend when proving itself it cares about its employees.  I’m hoping to impart a few lessons I’ve learned over the years so everyone involved can have a more fulfilling and enjoyable experience.  Before reading forward, please remember this list of five things should be in no way considered either exact or comprehensive.  For every point I make I’m sure there is at least one awesome company out there who would fall into this category if you caught them on the wrong day or met with the wrong people.  Unfortunately that can’t he helped.  This is an inexact process when you boil it down.  Going on a Meet-and-Greet is an exercise in awkwardness topped only by first dates or possibly any meeting resulting from an online personal ad or profile posting.  The following points are to be taken illiterally and with a very large grain of salt.

Does everyone seem to agree on the major issues?

A lot of times these meetings will consist of a series of people you meet at various times over the day.  You’ll hear a lot of the same questions being repeated which can be an indicator of a lack of coordination of communication, but it might also be nothing.  Of greater concern to you should be the sense that people are operating under completely different concepts about the whole process and what the successful end game will look like.  Nothing spells quick failure for someone coming into a new situation than disagreement on the core reason they’re being asked to join in the first place.  Being asked the same question multiple times is annoying but having four people think you’re there to help them with five unrelated issues can be an indicator of much larger problems with communication and cohesiveness.

Where are the mid career folk?

Really good companies are ones where people have a path to grow and build themselves a future.  These are the companies who first look to themselves for the senior staff and leads before putting out the general call for help.  Sometimes a company wants to start a new effort or the staff they have available to them is not the correct fit for whatever reason.  Being asked to interview for a leadership position is not an indicator of a lack of career growth opportunities.  Not seeing anyone you’d consider the equivalent of a non-commissioned officer in the military, however, is a giant red light that should be spinning in your face.  Companies without a clear channel for moving along in a person’s career have one thing in common, all the mid-level people quit.  At some point in time an entry level person gains experience and wants to advance to new challenges and … let’s be honest … more pay.  Companies that see their employees as more than a specific role or series of tasks to be performed will usually take full advantage of that by offering them a way to move upward and keep their tribal knowledge in house.  Companies that don’t won’t make a move until they’re threatened by the employee putting in their notice.  Really bad companies won’t care since they only see the employee as a series of tasks so replacing them shouldn’t be a problem.

Do people seem to bring up amusing anecdotes about problems or other departments a lot?

We all like to think we’re witty and personable.  Many people use humor to defuse tense or awkward situations.  Humor is a wonderful coping mechanism but “funny” can only occur if the other party has some frame of reference for your jokes.  The other side of this coin is humor used to obscure actual unresolved tensions.  During the turn of the century many people in the United States were feeling the pinch of an economic downturn.  People were losing their jobs and farms were in trouble as commodity prices dropped.  Into this mix came a large wave of Asian, European, and Baltic immigrants.  The newly arrived immigrants were willing to do pretty much anything to find a toe hold in their new country.  This caused some tension between the “native born” people and the immigrants from places like Italy, Poland, and Ireland.  It was at this time the popularity of things like “pollack jokes” gained traction.  Otherwise tolerant and normal people would give in to their tensions through (what they hoped was) a useful artifice contained in a joke.  Rather than simply say “I hate the Jews” a person could tell a joke about a Jewish merchant and feel somewhat safe because it’s just a joke, right?  The same mechanism applies to the people you’re talking to in these meetings.  Do they seem to have a lot of “funny stories” about situations that would otherwise be considered massive failures?  Do they talk a lot about friendly rivalries between departments?  Does it seem like they spend a lot of time talking about “others” rather than talking about everyone as if they were all on the same mission and team?

Does everyone seem happy?

This is a hard one to precisely define but I bet most people by the time they reach a certain age will have more than likely developed enough intuition or empathy to be able to take a wild guess at this one for themselves.  The trick to this one is to not try and parse out the “Why” of your instincts.  Rather than deconstructing your impressions you should rather focus on the things people seemed happy about.  Did it have anything to do with their jobs?  Did people seem to suddenly light up when they talked about the generous flex time benefits or the employee discount?  Did everything seem sort of flat until you began chatting about their band and the show coming up in two weeks?  The company where you want to land is probably the one where people seemed at least excited about what they’re being paid to do all day.

Does it seem like a diverse group?

Full disclosure … I am a middle-aged, white, English-speaking male who had full access to a modern (and free) public education system that did an excellent job of preparing me for a career in pretty much whatever it is I decided I wanted to do later in life.  With that out of the way, let’s talk about diversity.

It’s important.  It’s important to you as a prospective worker bee even if you are some one like me.  I will give the caveat that, again, you should go with your instincts and not talk yourself into seeing diversity where none actually exists.  Hiring people from all over the world can be seen as diversity, but if they are all males in their mid-twenties from engineering schools who binge drink after work and wear khaki pants with popped collar shirts is that really a diverse group?  Diversity means “differences” to my mind.  Does it look like the people you’re meeting are actually different from each other?  Are you getting different feelings from each of them or does it all sort of feel rather generic?  This is important because a management team that cultivates a culture of conformity is not one that will be open to differences of opinion or things which are truly innovative for the organization.  A homogeneous culture will reward adherence to the norm even if that norm is not serving the better interests.  It’s best if you don’t get involved unless you are comfortable in that sort of environment.

Are people using a lot of industry buzz words when talking to you?

Language is a funny thing.  The English language is particularly funny since it’s a mashup of several languages from different linguistic groups all together.  As a result the English language can be used to wonderful effect both for explaining and for obfuscating.  A particularly telling habit of some people and organizations is the use of what are called “buzz words.”  These are terms used commonly throughout certain sectors that have varying levels of popularity at different times.  Sometimes these terms are actually descriptive of actual concepts for which there is value, but more often they are actually a wall of noise thrown up by people in the absence of actual knowledge or ideas.  The problem has become so rampant the British Civil Service has actually banned some phrases in their official Whitehall Style Guide.  It’s a subject for a larger post of its own but for the purposes of this entry suffice it to say that an organization that uses such terms as “promote” (if you’re not a marketing company) or “advance” (if you’re not an education company) or “synergy” (if you’re any company) is practicing obfuscation through verbosity.  People use terms like “disruptive innovation” because they don’t actually know what it is they do or how they will make enough money to keep the lights on.

As a last piece of advice, I’d ask you to come up with your own list.  What are some of the warning signs you’ve come to trust when meeting a team or company for the first time?

Diversity Isn’t a Question of Biology

I keep hearing the topic of diversity raised at regular intervals since moving to the SF Bay area.  Having moved to what is unarguably still the center of cutting edge innovation in software development, it’s impossible to avoid references to “this thing we do.”  I imagine this must be what it’s like to live in Los Angeles or Mumbai and work in the film industry.  There are other industries around and plenty of people making money in other ways … but  what you do is so vitally important to the local economy that industry insiders are local celebrities.  All that was by way of giving context for why I can’t drive into work or watch television or attend an evening lecture without standing a better than average chance of being subjected to a talk on why there are so few [fill in blank] in the software industry.  It’s gone from interesting to amusing to noise.  Mainly because I think the entire premise is wrong.

To explain what I just said, I’ll refer you to a seminal work authored by Psychologist Howard Gardner back in 1993.  The title of the work is Frames of Mind and Multiple Intelligences and the concepts if not the work itself should be required for any manager working with any team.  The basic theory proposed by the work is that everything you know about intelligence is wrong or at least very narrowly defined.  Dr Gardner first asked the question that had plagued psychologists and behavioral analysts since the adoption of the “intelligence quotient” in 1912 when the German psychologist William Stern first proposed using it.  The problem was namely one of description.  If the intelligence quotient (IQ) was a good descriptor of intelligence and cognitive ability, why did some people who scored high never seem to do well while others who scored lower seemed to excel?  The attempt to reconcile this seeming problem lead people to such ideas as “cognitive maturity,” “fluid intelligence,” and a host of others all premised on the idea that IQ was not a flawed theory in itself but rather had a problem with a lack of tools to help explain it.

Dr Gardner took another approach.  He proposed the whole concept of how we looked at “intelligence” as a hierarchical structure with certain cognitive abilities at the top was essentially wrong.  The problem as he stated it was that there were/are approximately seven distinct types of cognition rather than one.  The intelligence tests and point system were designed to only measure and grade one type, meaning people who excelled in the others were ranked as having low or lower cognitive reasoning ability.

The seven types proposed by Dr Gardner as as follows:

  • Visual-Spatial – think in terms of physical space, as do architects and sailors. Very aware of their environments. They like to draw, do jigsaw puzzles, read maps, daydream.
  • Bodily-kinesthetic – use the body effectively, like a dancer or a surgeon. Keen sense of body awareness. They like movement, making things, touching.
  • Musical – show sensitivity to rhythm and sound. They love music, but they are also sensitive to sounds in their environments. They may study better with music in the background.
  • Interpersonal – understanding, interacting with others. These students learn through interaction. They have many friends, empathy for others, street smarts.
  • Intrapersonal – understanding one’s own interests, goals. These learners tend to shy away from others. They’re in tune with their inner feelings; they have wisdom, intuition and motivation, as well as a strong will, confidence and opinions.
  • Linguistic – using words effectively. These learners have highly developed auditory skills and often think in words. They like reading, playing word games, making up poetry or stories.
  • Logical -Mathematical – reasoning, calculating. Think conceptually, abstractly and are able to see and explore patterns and relationships. They like to experiment, solve puzzles, ask cosmic questions.

(Source: http://www.tecweb.org/styles/gardner.html)

Those of you who work in software development or IT in general can probably see where I am going with this article now.  Those of you who don’t or can’t, let me spell it out clearly.

The software industry is almost completely dominated by people with deeply evolved logical-mathematical cognitive abilities.  It is nearly impossible for anyone else to even enter this work force, much less rise to a position of authority.  Over the past few decades I’ve seen a lot more people with highly evolved cognitive abilities in linguistic cognition start to make inroads, but they are still a deep minority.

And to the people who correctly for some reasons want to see more [fill in the blank] represented in the software industry, I say go for it but stop saying hiring more of said person will result in “diversity of thought.”  If your entire culture is geared toward training, recruiting, promoting, and rewarding only one sort of intelligence then the only solutions or innovations you will generate are the ones available to that sort of intelligence.

It’s also an issue when you start looking at who you can make a team lead or a manager.  You can’t train someone to have high levels of interpersonal cognition with a few weekend seminars anymore than you can teach them to be a mathematician with the same … and yet that is exactly what we do in the software industry because we cannot conceive of anyone except a logical or possibly linguistic thinker being of any worth.

So if you want our industry to move into the 20th century you should stop trying to make everyone just like you and start looking for people who are not like you at all, but still have something to offer.

And in closing, here is the Ted talk by Temple Grandin that started congealing these ideas in my head back in 2010.

http://www.ted.com/talks/temple_grandin_the_world_needs_all_kinds_of_minds.html

Your Review Process is Hurting Performance

“Q: What are the three signs[ of a Miserable Job]?

  • The first is anonymity, which is the feeling that employees get when they realize that their manager has little interest in them a human being and that they know little about their lives, their aspirations and their interests.
  • The second sign is irrelevance, which takes root when employees cannot see how their job makes a difference in the lives of others. Every employee needs to know that the work they do impacts someone’s life–a customer, a co-worker, even a supervisor–in one way or another.
  • The third sign is something I call “immeasurement,” which is the inability of employees to assess for themselves their contribution or success. Employees who have no means of measuring how well they are doing on a given day or in a given week, must rely on the subjective opinions of others, usually their managers’, to gauge their progress or contribution.”

from an interview with Patrick Lencioni

So what does the above quote have to do with our performance review, you might be asking.  Well hopefully that’s what you’re asking.  You might be asking yourself what an essentially useless activity you and your team are forced to conduct semi or annually solely for the purpose of arguing about who should get more, less, or the same amount of money has to do with performance.  If you are, please stop reading.  You’ve just answered the question for yourself.  In your case performance is harmed because you and your team are being asked to stop all productive work just so you can devote a week to two weeks (or possibly more) filling out forms and completing online surveys about why you aren’t more productive and why the guy sitting next to you is driving you insane because he keeps popping his knuckles.

In your case just stop doing the performance reviews all together and move on with your life.  Base any bonuses or promotions on what you’ve actually done for the company and call it a day.  If the team has a kick ass year, hand out a few checks.  Or better yet, have a kick ass party somewhere to thank everyone.  At one company we did an amazing job with our launched product.  It was more successful than anyone had ever imagined.  That year upper management used some of the extra money to rent an entire private beach front hotel in Mexico and stock it with all the food and drink we could consume for a week.  Was that a good bonus in comparison to a check?  Let me put it this way, that happened about a decade ago and I still talk about it.  The bonus checks and stock awards are soon out of mind and out of sight nearly as soon as they’re awarded.

Yeah … lying on a beach in Mexico with a whole passel of computer geeks just as hung over, flabby, and sun-burned as me.  Good times.

So for everyone else, what’s wrong?  You are supposed to be doing this activity which helps people become better and move forward in their careers.  You honestly want to do this because you care.  It also helps retain employees who know they’ve got somewhere to go.  You’ve purchased the software.  You’ve read the books.  You’ve attended the training about “SMART goals” and “360 reviews” and “stack ranking” but it still feels like a chore to you.  It seems like every year you pull up the documents you painstakingly wrote the year before only to feel that sinking realization we all feel.  Most of what’s listed there is either out of date, unrelated to the work now, or makes absolutely no sense to you now.  So now you have to map out the things your team did this year that “rocked” and the things that were “lame” (you can take the boy out of the Seattle grunge scene, but you can’t take the grunge scene out of the boy it would appear) and somehow map them to what you promised.  That sinking feeling you experience is partly the knowledge of this task ahead, but also the absolute certainty you are going to run smack into the Dunning-Kruger effect or the self-serving attributional bias even if you are not a manager or lead.  If you’re even mildly empathetic you’ll probably also be aware of how seemingly purposeless this whole exercise seems.  The only thing people argue with passion seems to be whether or not they deserve a 5% or an 8% bonus or raise.  It will often feel like this is an excuse for the employee to demand more money and the employer to demand less money.  In short it feels like the initial salary negotiation has been converted into an annual event, sort of a masochistic bank holiday.

Why is this?  Does it have to be this way?

No.  No it doesn’t.  However the alternative is very very hard.  I’m not kidding.  It’s hard because it involves a radical shift in how you view your work and your employees.  Most people and companies don’t want to make this shift because … well … not to put too much emphasis on this, but it’s hard.  The answer directly addresses the three states of being listed by Lencioni in the quote I listed above and in his excellent book, The Three Signs of a Miserable Job: A Fable for Managers (And Their Employees) which I also linked above.

I’m bringing this up because of this blog post by Mario Moreira.  I really hate to pick on him but I can’t help it.  He just makes it too easy.  He seems to recognize there is a problem with trying to define someone as a role and base their performance goals on that alone.  He wants to somehow personalize the process.  Unfortunately he appears both in his article and in our subsequent chats on LinkedIn to fall short because … it’s hard to do it the right way.

So in honor of Mario and his compatriots who want to do more of the same because what they’re doing now isn’t working, get ready for another multi-part entry from yours’ truly.

Bacon.

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