Not In Front of Me!

Legendary bank robber John Dillinger was reputedly asked why he robbed banks. His answer, at least according to the aforementioned legend, was, “Because that’s where the money is.”

When you think about it, Dillinger did have a point: it would be silly to go to all that effort and risk if there was no money there! However, Dillinger did not rob just every bank: he was actually somewhat picky. In particular, Dillinger did not rob banks that the police were actually watching. That’s not to say that he was never rudely interrupted as he went about his business, but, as a general rule, John Dillinger did try to avoid committing his crimes in front of the police.

Somehow, though, the police had no trouble figuring out that he was involved.

Recently, several employees at a particular technology company came to the CEO with concerns about the inappropriate behavior of a certain manager. After listening carefully to their concerns, the CEO then told them that they were obviously mistaken: he had never seen the behavior, so clearly it could never have happened.

We can but imagine just how much John Dillinger would have appreciated having this man in charge of the police!

“Sir, John Dillinger just robbed the bank.”

“Nonsense! I didn’t see it, so it couldn’t have happened.”

While this would have been great for Dillinger, perhaps it would not have been so great for everyone else. As a form of leadership, well, it might be considered a bit thin.

One of the less attractive parts of leadership is dealing with unpleasant situations and badly behaved employees. This often means dealing with a situation that is not well defined: some people are unhappy, and someone else is claiming that nothing at all is going on. As a leader, it’s often easier to just shrug and decide that it’s not your problem; as long as it doesn’t happen in front of you, then you can just ignore it. That, however, is not leadership.

As the leader, you are the model for how people in your department or your company will behave. What you do sets the tone: show people that it’s okay to ignore problems that you don’t want to deal with, and they’ll quickly learn to do the same: unhappy customer? Didn’t happen in front of me. Product defect? Didn’t happen in front of me.

The “didn’t happen in front of me’s” can be quite contagious. They’re easy to use and they make the difficulty go away, or at least become someone else’s problem.

So what can you do about it? After all, it can be difficult to figure out just what is really going on.

Start by asking questions. Not just any questions but particularly difficult questions, at least for a leader: genuine ones. It can be challenging to acknowledge how much we don’t know about a particular situation and ask the sorts of questions that show our ignorance. However, when we put our preconceptions aside and start asking about what people are actually experiencing, it’s amazing how much we can learn. MIT social psychologist Edgar Schein describes this process as humble inquiry. It involves taking the time to speak with people and enable them to become comfortable with you, and it involves being honestly curious about what they are doing even when it doesn’t matter. Building those connections is what enables information to flow upstream to you.

One of the most important lessons of leadership is that most things don’t happen in front of you. And, most leaders are very unhappy when they suddenly realize that things are happening in the company that they didn’t know about. Unpleasant situations are much easier to deal with when you’ve established the groundwork and shown genuine curiosity and interest. The question is not whether or not it’s happening in front of you, but what you are doing to make sure you’ll find out about it when it does happen. If you’re nervous, just remember, odds are extremely good that it won’t involve John Dillinger.

Is The Blob Eating Your Business?

(originally published in Computer World)



Nothing can stop it…

If those three phrases seem oddly familiar, it’s because they were used to advertise The Blob. The Blob, for those who were never eaten by it, was a 1950s campy horror movie in which a mysterious blob of protoplasm crashes to Earth in a meteor. Meteors have few amenities and are not known for their food service. In short, a meteor is not the most comfortable way to travel, so it is not big surprise that when the Blob gets out it starts absorbing everyone in sight. Despite the best efforts of Our Heroes, as the movie progresses, the Blob also progresses from a little tiny grey lump to a giant red Blob capable of engulfing small buildings in a single bound. Fortunately for the world, Our Heroes figure out that the Blob does not like the cold and are able to freeze it solid using fire extinguishers. At the end of the movie, the Blob is flown off to the Arctic where it will remain so long as the ice never melts.

All in all, the Blob is a fun movie, although it is probably considerably less enjoyable to be living in the town being eaten by the Blob. Thus, it is odd that people voluntarily choose to create blobs that then eat them. I am not talking about the giant red Blob of the movie, of course, but rather the giant mass of red tape that devours so many businesses. Although bureaucracy is not the Latin word for “giant tangled ball of red tape,” there are times when it might as well be!

All right, it’s no big shocker that bureaucracies and red tape go together. So what? Well, the interesting question is not do they go together, but how do they come about? And what can you do about it once your organization is being devoured by a giant red blob? Fire extinguishers, sadly, do not work in this situation. Fortunately, understanding how that blob gets started can help you figure out how to deal with it.

At a very basic level, red tape exists to make people feel safe. All the procedures and processes of the organization exist to prevent mistakes. Mistakes, after all, are Very Very Bad: they could lead to a lower grade and might go on your Permanent Record. More to the point, they might cost the company money or actually make you look bad in front of your boss.

But wait, this seems counter-intuitive: doesn’t a lot of red tape cause people to make more mistakes? Well, yes, a phenomenon aptly demonstrated by a company which I will refer to as ShrinkWrap. At ShrinkWrap, management was so afraid that people would make mistakes that they instituted elaborate paperwork requirements to make sure that every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed. The paperwork is so complex that it inevitably leads to errors, which convinces management to add checklists, or meta-paperwork, to make sure the paperwork is done correctly. Think of it as kind of like a pearl: something irritates the oyster, so it surrounds the irritant with nacre. This, of course, make a larger irritant, so it adds more nacre, until eventually we have a pearl. Red tape works much the same way except that in the end all we have is a giant red Blob.

The issue here is that the longer a business exists, the more time there is for something to go wrong. Sometimes these mistakes represent serious problems that need to be prevented. Sometimes, they are the normal cost of doing business or of trying out new ideas. Innovation, for example, is an activity filled with mistakes: it’s that old, but true, line about a thousand ways to not make a light bulb. Unfortunately, telling the difference between different kinds of mistakes can be challenging. Understanding which types of mistakes must be prevented and which ones only help feed the Blob is not always simple. The net result is that they all feed the Blob.

However, on the bright side, dealing with the Blob really only requires recognizing that it exists. Unlike the actual Blob, bureaucracies are famously slow moving: red tape is sticky. The reason it is sticky is that provides people with a sense of security. No one can be blamed for following procedure, even if following procedure means that nothing gets done. The trick, therefore, to getting things done or getting new ideas accepted is not to rush people: rushing people only makes them dig in their heels. Instead, ask how you can make it easy for them to do what you want? How can you allay their fears and make them feel safe as they grease the wheels?

It can help considerably to take the time to hear their concerns. What are they afraid of? What’s really bothering them about your ideas? Much of the time, it’s simply that the idea is new. Help people become familiar with your idea: when it’s no longer quite so new feeling, it’s easier to accept. Take the time to ask them questions about how the status quo is getting in their way. Let them tell you what’s wrong, and then ask them for suggestions on how to improve the situation. Your goal, simply put, is to ask the questions that will let them have your way. Do it right and they’ll end up volunteering to cut through the red tape for you and then trying to convince you why your idea is good enough to run with.

In other words, you can’t defeat the Blob but you can get the Blob to defeat itself. It’s less exciting than in the movie, but a whole lot more effective.

What a Hissing Cat Teaches Us About Teamwork

One of our cats recently needed a course of antibiotics. Now, this particular cat is quite large, but also very sweet and has a purr that would put a motorboat to shame. Giving her pills is really a very simple task: pop the pill in her mouth, give her a treat, and we’re done. She never runs away, never puts up a fight, just gives me a dirty look and then gobbles up the treat. Thus it was that when we realized that we’d be out of town for a few days during the cat’s course of antibiotics, we didn’t think it would be all that big of a deal to have a friend come in and give the cat her pill.

As it turned out, the cat had a different opinion about this. The first night we were gone, we were treated to a series of text messages detailing the ongoing adventures of the friend who had come by to pill the cat. Apparently our sweet lump of a cat had transformed into Demon Kitty. She was loudly expressing her opinion, while ducking under pieces of furniture and also demonstrating her willingness to remove any human limb that happened to come in after her. At the first opportunity, she dodged past our friend and disappeared.

She did not get her pill that night. On the other hand, our friend was intact.

The next morning went somewhat better. Eventually, the cat did agree to eat the pill. The basic problem was that the cat didn’t really know the friend who came over, but once she came by the house a couple of times, the cat began to accept her. At that point, there was a relationship and the cat was willing to submit to being pilled. Cats don’t like people they don’t know sticking things down their throats or doing other unpleasant things to them. They don’t necessarily like it when someone they do know is doing it, but at least they are more likely to tolerate it.

Cats are suspicious of people they don’t know. They approach carefully, if at all. They want to take their time getting to know the person before they will tolerate much, if any, contact. Although we are less likely to hide under chairs hissing and spitting, people are surprisingly similar to cats. We are also suspicious of people we don’t know, although we do a better job of hiding it than a cat might. I’m not sure whether this says something profound about people or cats!

Like cats, we have a variety of social rituals and behaviors that we use when we meet someone new. These behaviors are the moral equivalent of cats sniffing at each other and checking each other out. These behaviors become increasingly important when a team is coming together, when a new leader is assigned to a team, or when a new person joins an existing team. In each of these cases, different members of the group need to build relationships with each other.

At first, those relationships are professional: distant, polite, and, above all, superficial. No one is quite sure of where they stand or what behavior is appropriate. What will offend someone else? What will embarrass us or another person? Which behaviors will help us gain status and acceptance, and which behaviors might get us thrown out of the group? Push people too hard at that point and the reaction can be quite strong. Think about groups you’ve been in: how often did you find yourself agreeing with an idea or a suggestion because you assumed that other people knew better or because you didn’t want to upset anyone? How often did what seemed like a simple suggestion or off-hand comment provoke an unexpectedly angry or intense response? Conversely, think about who has the right to criticize you: people whom you know well, or people whom you don’t? Superficial relationships produce lower quality work.

It takes time for those relationships to move from keeping people at a safe distance to actually engaging with the other person at a deeper, more productive level. It’s easy to say that in the office we need to focus on the issues, not the person, but it’s hard to do. The less we feel we have good relationships with our colleagues, the more we’re likely to feel that they are trying to shove something down our throat. It’s only after we’ve been working with them for a few months that we might really start to develop a sense of trust and comfort. That’s assuming, of course, that the process is handled correctly. Try to rush it, and it only takes longer. That sense of trust and comfort is vital, though, for actually doing high quality work.

As with cats, we have to take it slowly. Everyone involved has to recognize that mistakes will happen. So long as you don’t take anyone’s head off, it is the process of making mistakes and recovering from them that actually builds the relationship. Of course, sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes the cat runs and hides. Sometimes the relationship gets destroyed and people flee the team or the company. But the only way to achieve high quality relationships, and do high quality work as a team, is to take the risk of being scratched.

That Was Obvious!

The solution always seems so obvious once Holmes explains it.

I’ve been reading the Sherlock Holmes stories to my son. Even though I read the stories years ago, I find that I can rarely remember the endings. As a result, I’m puzzling them through along with my son. While it’s certainly true that sometimes Holmes is taking advantage of information not available to the reader, such as his encyclopedic knowledge of mud or cigar ash, quite often the clues are present. Even when Holmes doesn’t clue us in until the end exactly what about the cigar ash was important, we do get to see that he was interested in it. Quite often, that should be all a reader needs, except, of course for the fact that it isn’t.

At the end, Holmes finally reveals how he solved the mystery. Watson expresses his astonishment, Holmes shrugs and, despite belief to the contrary, usually does not say, “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

Whether or not Holmes says it, what he is doing is not elementary. Putting together the apparently unrelated clues to assemble a picture of how the crime was committed is a very difficult skill: consider how many readers are unsuccessful! Yet once we know the answer, it is equally difficult to imagine the pieces fitting together any other way. Harder to imagine is putting the pieces together to anticipate the murder before it has even happened! I suspect that Holmes himself would have trouble with that: indeed, in the stories where he had to do just that, he was rarely able to do it fast enough to prevent the crime from occurring. The reader, of course, is even more in the dark than Holmes: even knowing that he’s solved the case from the information presented, we still can’t figure it out.

When reading Sherlock Holmes, the resultant feelings of frustration, amazement, admiration, and feeling like an idiot for missing the obvious clues, are all part of the enjoyment of the story. In a business setting, however, it’s not enjoyable at all.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard statements like:

“I can’t believe he made a mistake like that. He should have seen it coming!”

“If Fred was as good as he claims he is, he would have anticipated that.”

“I can’t believe she was taking the project seriously!”

I could go on, but you get the idea. When someone makes a mistake, we often confuse hindsight with foresight: while hindsight might be 20-20, foresight is not. In fact, in a great many cases it’s more like 20-2000. But, because things are so obvious in hindsight, the tendency is to assume the person who made the mistake must have been careless, or foolish, or goofing off, rather than making the best decision they could with the information they had at the time. Perhaps there was some way of looking at the information that would have suggested the problem was in the offing, but, like in a Sherlock Holmes story, putting together the disparate pieces of data in just the right way in the time available is no trivial task.

Conversely, there are times when people do correctly recognize the clues that suggest a serious problem is in the offing. At one technology company, several engineers saw the clues and put in the time necessary to analyze them and avert the impending disaster. Their thanks was being yelled at for wasting time: the problem was clearly obvious, even though no one else had seen it, and they had clearly not been working very hard if it took them “that long” to figure it out.

Lest this be viewed as a problem unique to the tech industry, I had a similar experience running a management training predictive scenario game. At the end of the exercise, one of the participants told me in no uncertain terms how the outcome of the game was clearly predetermined. He explained in great detail how the different factors in the exercise could play out only the one way, and that this was basically unfair. I gently broke the news to him that I’d run that particular exercise over a dozen times, with wildly different outcomes.

“Impossible!” he said, and stormed off.

Mixing hindsight and foresight isn’t such a good thing, but is it really anything more than what amounts to an annoyance? In fact, yes. When we fall victim to the 20-20 foresight in hindsight trap, and disparage people for not spotting the “obvious” problem, what we really are doing is telling them they are incompetent. Done often enough, they might start to believe it, reducing performance, motivation, and innovation in the company. When someone does successfully anticipate a problem and we dismiss that accomplishment, we are implicitly telling them not to bother doing that again! The results of that should be obvious.

Neither of those points, though, are the most serious problem: when we convince ourselves that problems are always obvious, we don’t spend as much effort trying to anticipate them. If it’s not obvious, it must not be there. It’s sort of like saying that if you close your eyes when crossing the street, there won’t be any cars.

That is a good way to get blindsided by some very big problems indeed.

The Less You Do…

When I started practicing jujitsu, my sensei would teach a technique and then tell us not to over-control our partners when we attempted to do it. We’d all nod and successfully fail to execute the technique. My sensei would demonstrate it again, and we’d grab our partners and attempt the throw, jerking and hauling, and adjusting position until our partners completely failed to leave the ground. Sensei would demonstrate the technique yet again, and eventually we might notice that he really didn’t do very much. There was none of this jerking and adjusting and fiddling around. Rather, he’d start the technique and then just wait while the person he was doing it to reacted. He seemed to be not exerting any control or effort at all, yet his partners just fell down.

What my sensei had learned, and the rest of us had not, was patience. We would start a technique and when we didn’t get immediate results, we would assume it wasn’t working and try to fix it. Our attempts to “fix” the technique were, in fact, the reason it wasn’t working. How rapidly a technique works depends on the specific technique and the person you are doing it to: a taller person simply takes longer to go over your shoulder than a shorter person. A lock takes longer to run through a long, flexible body than a short, tight one. By not giving those bodies time to react, we were actually negating the effects of the techniques as fast as we started them.

I find a very similar problem playing out in the work place: a manager tells his group to get something done and before they’ve really had a chance to react, he’s running around exhorting them or trying to figure out why they aren’t moving. In fact, they were moving. Now that he’s in the way, they’re not moving any more. It takes time for a group to process information and then figure out the best ways to move forward. That critical planning time is essential to the group’s success. In short, the group needs time to react.

When the leader starts running around, he is effectively negating the progress of the group just as beginning students in jujitsu negate the progress of their techniques. What is worse, though, is that the manager’s frequent interventions themselves become the focus of attention. Instead of concentrating on the work that needs to get done, everyone is paying attention to the interventions and trying to change course each time something new is said or some new instruction is given. As people become steadily more frustrated, the quality of information processing only declines.

In one company, a particular VP had some issues with the way managers in his department were working. He instructed them to make changes, even brought in coaches to help them with the changes. Each time the coaches showed up, he had a different critical problem that they had to focus on “right now!” The coaching ended up having little consistency from one day to the next. The net result was that the company spent a good deal of money and got very little to show for it.

So how do you avoid the trap of too many interventions?

Start by defining what your results should look like. In jujitsu, this is often pretty easy, usually involving a person lying on the ground. In a business environment, it may be a bit more complicated but is still eminently doable. It just takes some up front investments in time and energy.

As much as possible, define the steps you will take to get those results. What are they and how do they connect to the results? Sometimes you can’t draw a perfectly clear path, so you need to make sure you include steps to evaluate and adjust course as needed.

Then determine how you’ll know you’re making progress. What things will happen that will give you early feedback that you are on course or off course? Having some clue about both is important: if no warning signs are appearing, you don’t want to mess around. Depending on what you are doing, the first signs of success may take a while.

This brings us to our next point: how long will it take to get results? Everyone wants results Right Now, but rarely does the universe cooperate. Indeed, as we’ve already seen, the more we demand Right Now, the longer things end up taking. It’s important, therefore, to consider how long the first steps will take. Of course, if you really want to make success more likely, make sure you start with some easy steps that can be completed quickly and will build momentum. Once you start succeeding, it’s easier to keep going.

Like in jujitsu, it often really is the case that the less you do, the more you get.

Time Blindness

Imagine for moment that you are back in college. In fact, you are a divinity student. Okay, I realize that some people might find this difficult to imagine, but bear with me. You’re a divinity student and you are about to give a talk on the Good Samaritan. On your way to the chapel, you see someone lying on the ground, clearly in distress. What do you do?

Now, the fact is, most people given this scenario state that they would help the person, or at least call 911. The reality, however, is sometimes just a bit different. In this case, fully half the divinity students walked right by the person lying on the ground. What was going on here? Why did half the students stop and help and half ignore the apparently ill person?

It turns out that in this particular little experiment, all the divinity students received a phone call while they were in their dorm rooms preparing for their talks. Half of the students were told that, although they had plenty of time before their talk, the organizers would appreciate it if they came down to the chapel right away. The other half were told they were late and need to come down to the chapel immediately. Which group ignored the person on the ground? If you guessed the second group, you’d be right.

It turns out that time has some funny effects on how we process information and manage our goals. When we think we have a great deal of time, we consider new information more carefully, we make adjustments, and we revise our plans if necessary. But when we feel rushed or under a tight deadline new information is easily ignored. Those students who were suddenly feeling rushed? They were so focused on their goal of giving a talk on the importance of helping others that they were not processing the information in front of them, even though that information was directly related to the content of their speech.

Practically speaking, what does all that mean?

I worked with a client where everyone believed that their problem was that they were not communicating. They made great efforts to make sure that everyone spoke to everyone else, and that important information was communicated across the company. Despite all these efforts, nothing would change. People would still pursue goals even when those goals were no longer possible.

Well, one of the great benefits of goals is that they help us focus our attention on the things that matter. They also help us to ignore distractions. Unfortunately, one of the great drawbacks of goals is that they focus our attention and help us ignore distractions, particularly when we’re on an aggressive schedule.

The problem at that client wasn’t that they weren’t communicating. The problem was that they were not taking the time to evaluate the new information. Even worse, the very fact that they were feeling time pressure meant that they were already inclined to ignore any new information. Like that person lying on the ground, the new information was treated as a distraction from the important task ahead. Figuratively speaking, they simply walked past it.

So what can be done to prevent this from happening?

A critical part of goal planning is including time to check for new information and then consider what that new information means. Part of doing that successfully is allocating time for that one task and only that one task: what is new and what does it mean to what we are doing now? If you try to evaluate new information late in a meeting or mixed in with other material, it just doesn’t work. Rush people and they rush past the new data.

It’s only when we both create time for new information to enter the conversation and create time to process that information that we can see the man on the ground and take the appropriate actions.

A Street Called “Brid Geout”

“Beep Beep!”

  • The Roadrunner


Remember the classic Roadrunner cartoons? Each episode would feature Wile E. Coyote, rated one of the nastiest villains of all time, pursuing and attempting to eat the Roadrunner. Always imaginative, the Coyote used all manner of elaborate and complex devices to catch his prey. Sadly for the Coyote, the devices would either fail spectacularly or work perfectly but in ways that always came out badly for him. It was not unusual for the Acme speed skates, for example, to let the Coyote almost catch the Roadrunner, only to have the Roadrunner make a sharp left leaving the Coyote to go straight over the side of the cliff. Don’t worry, the Coyote was tough. He could fall thousands of feet and only injure his dignity.

Wile E. Coyote may be a villain, but he’s also someone who never, ever, gives up. He hits the bottom of that cliff, dusts himself off, and embarks on his next cunning plan to catch the Roadrunner. You have to hand it to the Coyote: no matter how many times he got blown up, fell off a cliff, run over, had boulders fall on him, or had his Acme products malfunction in countless other ways, he never hesitates, never doubts himself. Truly, the Coyote has a bias for action.

“A bias for action,” is, by an interesting coincidence, exactly how Zenefits CEO Parker Conrad described his company in a recent article titled, “Engineer asks Quora which job offer to take. CEO replies: not ours.”

According to this article, an engineer with job offers from Zenefits and Uber speculated on Quora about which company would be the best place to start his career. Apparently, the fact that the engineer wasn’t sure was just absolutely unreasonable in the mind of Parker Conrad, who rescinded the job offer. Conrad further stated that one of his company’s values is a “bias towards action,” and so when someone has doubts that’s a bad sign.

Now, let’s face it, too much doubt can be a problem. There is real truth to the saying that “he who hesitates is lost.” However, there is also something to be said for stopping to think and consider the consequences of an action. The Coyote might have benefitted from the occasional doubt; perhaps it would have helped him plan better, or at least consider buying his gadgets from someone other than Acme. Tom Watson, Sr., the founder of IBM was famous for, amongst other things, getting feedback from people. He knew everyone in the company and he listened to what they had to say. Conversely, when an emergency struck, he also knew how to jump into action: in one famous Tom Watson story, a train bringing IBMers to the World’s Fair derailed in the middle of the night. Watson got the phone call and was within an hour was out in the middle of Nowhere, New York, organizing the rescue effort.

There’s an important lesson here: in a real emergency, it’s time to act. Much of the time, though, pausing to think is not a bad idea. Even in an emergency, correct action is critical!

Another famous Watson story is that when the United States entered World War II, Watson seized the opportunity to provide high tech equipment to the government. No hesitation, not even for an instant. Of course, the reason he could act without hesitation is that he had been planning that action for a very long time. That was the moment that transformed IBM into a global powerhouse. The lesson: rapid, unhesitating, successful action is the result of extensive preparation. Of course, if you don’t mind dropping the word, “successful,” then you can also drop the extensive preparation. Wile E. Coyote is an expert at skipping the preparation step.

It may surprise Conrad, but most people do not expect that their first job will be their last job. Speculating about and exploring options is hardly a bad thing; would you rather someone accepted your offer while secretly wondering if they should have gone elsewhere, or that they satisfied their concerns and concluded you were the best choice? I suspect that most people would prefer the second. People who feel they are making the choice of their own free will are going to be much more loyal than those who are afraid to express their doubts and concerns. If your company is as good as you say it is, then they’ll stay and they’ll become your most ardent fans.

Again, there’s a lesson here: if your goal is to build loyalty, give people the space to convince themselves that you are the right choice for them. If they can’t express their doubts or if they feel pressured into making a decision, they won’t own their decision. When someone is thinking, “I only did it because…” then they already have one eye on the exit.

Beyond that, though, there is a difference between effective action and action for its own sake. Taking action is easy. Taking the right actions often requires planning and consideration. Indeed, one of the surest signs of a bad leader is someone who refuses to stop and consider alternatives or the possibility of failure. If you’re zipping down the road at high speed, it’s not such a bad idea to hesitate if the sign you just passed displayed the rather unusual street name, “Brid Geout.”

After reading countless articles that appeared in the days following the 2012 elections, we know that Mitt Romney truly believed he was going to win: he viewed it as inevitable. He even had the internal polls to prove it. Why was no one pushing back on those internal numbers and questioning their internal assumptions? And if someone was pushing back, why was no one listening? Teams work better when someone plays the role of “Devil’s Advocate,” asking the uncomfortable questions and pushing people to justify their assumptions. The Devil’s Advocate is only effective, though, if the leader is willing to be questioned and there exists sufficient trust on the team that members don’t believe they’ll be punished for bringing up unpleasant topics. A leader who appears to lash out or act impulsively, as Conrad certainly appeared to do by publically rescinding the job offer, is sending a very clear message that you cross him at your own peril. That is not exactly the best way to engender trust.

I would imagine, though, that Conrad viewed the engineer’s speculation as implicit criticism of Zenefits. Either that or he just could not stomach the idea that someone might turn down his company in favor of Uber. Better to just rescind the offer rather than face rejection. An attitude like that is bad enough in a low level manager or individual contributor, but it can be downright dangerous when it’s the CEO. Change it: fear and insecurity only lead to harmful, and avoidable, errors.

It takes confidence to make a job offer, and even more to accept the fact that you might be rejected by the candidate. A leader who is truly confident can accept the loss and move on; someone whose confidence is brittle, however, cannot. He needs to protect his ego. Say what you’d like about Wile E. Coyote, he isn’t afraid to fail. Failure is only a problem when nothing is learned from it. Properly done, the interviewing process can also be used to build the sort of excitement that will have a candidate eager to say yes. Unfortunately, it’ll be lot harder now for Zenefits to find out how they missed. That’s the real failure, not having a candidate express doubts.

In a very real sense, Parker Conrad did this unknown engineer a real favor. His actions say a great deal about his style of leadership and his company. It’s much better to find out that the CEO can’t handle criticism or lacks tolerance for questions before you’ve taken the job rather than after.

The engineer who posted the question got the best possible answer: a demonstration of what working for Zenefits would be like. It’s hard to do better than that.

Controlling the Little Things

One of the more painful experiences I had in jujitsu was when my instructor taught finger holds. We assume that because our legs are generally quite strong, it would be difficult for someone to force us to go somewhere we don’t want to go. That assumption lasted as long as it took my instructor to apply a finger hold. All he had to do was take control of the smallest joint of one finger and suddenly my legs would go exactly where he wanted them to go. By manipulating one little thing, he could convince people much larger and stronger than he was to become extremely cooperative. Controlling one small joint gave him control over their entire body, however controlling the body did not produce the same control over the arms and legs: the hands and feet still moved freely, and would regularly engage in what may be politely referred to as “nose seeking behavior.”

Now, you might be thinking, “Well, so what? That’s just leverage!”

Well, yes, it is leverage. And if that was the whole point, the correct reaction would indeed be “so what?”

Leverage, as we all know, enables us to move something large through control of something small. Jujitsu is merely a fairly straight-forward application of this principle. However, the principle is not limited to the physical. Our perception of control is determined not by the big things in life that we control, but by the little things. To put this another way, if we want people to tackle big, challenging projects, we have to convince them that they have at least some control over the outcome; they have to believe that their actions matter and have a reasonably good chance of producing positive results. Conversely, when we don’t have control over little things, we tend to assume that we can’t control the bigger things. Even worse, that feeling of not having control translates into a loss of initiative and creativity. Leverage cuts both ways.

In any organization, those stressors that decrease our sense of control are thus the most damaging. Organizational politics are one obvious example, but at a more direct level, the less control employees have over their immediate environment, the less initiative they take overall. Being able to, within reason, decorate your office or cubicle creates a sense of control. Conversely, when companies have elaborate rules that unduly limit personal expression, control is seriously decreased. Without that sense of control, employees become more like the person whose finger is being twisted rather than like the person doing the twisting: they might be compliant, but they are not enthusiastic or committed.

A recent article in the NY Times discussed how Google addresses exactly this issue. Google doesn’t just allow employees to decorate their work area; employees get to design their work area. Google provides them with the equivalent of high tech tinker toys that employees can use to build the work area they want. Feel like having a treadmill? No problem. Walking desk? Sure. The article pointed out that Google doesn’t even have an official policy about coming in to the office; rather, the assumption is that the employee will work out a reasonable schedule with her team. This is control in action: employees are given control over their environment, even whether to come to the office to work. This control, coupled with making the office an very enjoyable place to work, leads to employees who exercise their control to work longer and harder than anyone could ever force them to work. Indeed, one of the problems Google has is that sometimes they have to chase people out of the office! What would you do to have problems like that?

When we have to force someone to do something, either through threats or through lavish rewards, they don’t get a sense of control or commitment. They are being controlled, but they are not in control. Now, if all we want is compliance, maybe that’s just fine! Indeed, if the task is easy, that may even be sufficient. However, if we want a committed, enthusiastic work force that believes themselves capable of tackling big projects and overcoming apparently overwhelming obstacles, the secret to getting there is to give them control of the little things.

Princess Bride Problem Solving

Once upon a time there was an organization. It was a fairly good sized business, not too big and not too small. It was a business, in fact, much like your business. And it came up with a way to apply the battle of wits from the Princess Bride to dealing with some long-lasting and thorny problems. For those who may not recall this scene or, hard though it may be to imagine, have never seen the movie, it occurs relatively early in the film. Vizinni the dwarf has kidnapped Princess Buttercup and is fleeing with her to Guilder. In pursuit is the mysterious Man in Black. The Man in Black defeats the master swordsman, in a duel, and Fezzik the Giant in a wrestling match. He then confronts Vizinni in a battle of wits: two goblets, one supposedly containing deadly Iocane powder, sit before the two men. Vizinni must deduce which goblet contains the poison and then both men will drink.

What follows is a dizzying, and often hilarious, chain of logic as Vizinni attemps to solve the puzzle.

Vizzini: But it’s so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you: are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy’s? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool, you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

Man In Black: You’ve made your decision then?

Vizzini: Not remotely. Because Iocane comes from Australia, as everyone knows, and Australia is entirely peopled with criminals, and criminals are used to having people not trust them, as you are not trusted by me, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you.

Man In Black: Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.

Vizzini: Wait till I get going! Where was I?


Now, the fact is, none of the problems the business was facing were particularly unique or new problems. They were problems that the organization had had for many years: difficulties in setting priorities and making decisions; allocating resources and providing clear direction to employees. In other words, the sorts of problems that many businesses struggle with.

These problems were the topic of much discussion, but despite all that discussion nothing ever changed. Attempts to solve the problems almost resembled the classic model of two steps forward, one step back. The resemblance broke down in the second half: they usually took two steps back.

Eventually, someone suggested bringing in a consultant to help with the problems. This is where things got creative. It turns out that there are two types of consultants, at least for this particular business: those who were closely connected to the business and known to people there, and those who had no connection at all.

We now come to Vizinni and his Dizzying Intellect.

Consultants in the second group could clearly not be hired because they knew nothing about the company. How could they possibly be of assistance? Therefore we must look at consultants in the first group.

Consultants in the first group were too close to the organization. Clearly they too could not be hired. Therefore, we must go back to consultants in the second group.

But consultants in the second group would clearly not care about the results. So they could not be hired. Back to the first group.

But consultants in the first group could not be hired because they might care too much. So they too could not be hired.

And so it went, on and on, until eventually nothing was done. People continued to complain about the problems, but no one wanted to act.

In the movie, of course, Vizzini finally chooses a goblet and drinks the deadly Iocane powder. In reality, it didn’t matter which goblet he chose as the Man in Black had developed an immunity to Iocane powder and poisoned both goblets.

Similarly, in this case it wouldn’t have mattered which choice the business actually made: bring in someone totally unconnected or someone close and known to the people there. The important thing was to make a choice and actually take action to deal with the long-term problems that were interfering with their productivity. Whichever choice they made would have different benefits and different drawbacks, but either could have helped them. It’s only the choice to do nothing that has no hope of success. Let’s face it, if the problems haven’t gone away on their own after months or years, odds are pretty good that they won’t be going away on their own tomorrow or even next year.

Choose a goblet. Take action. Nothing will change until you do.

Slush in the Schedule

It’s snowing as I write this. Of course, these days that means I could be writing this article almost anytime. In the last three weeks, we’ve had some 7 feet of snow, or maybe 8, in the Boston area. That makes for a lot of snowmen! It also makes for a lot of slush in people’s schedules. It’s no wonder that the police in one New Hampshire town issued an arrest warrant for Punxsutawney Phil.

In fact, this sort of weather really makes a dramatic point about just how hard it can be to plan and schedule just about anything. A couple of blizzards and it’s amazing how disrupted everything becomes.

Schedules are a funny thing. When I was giving a workshop a few years ago on project management, one of the people in the audience became quite irate when I suggested that the point of a schedule is not to make sure that you optimize every minute, but rather that a schedule exists to prevent us from trying to do everything all at once.

This person insisted that it was possible to precisely calculate the amount of time that each step of the schedule would take and thus there was no need to waste any time. Had this actually worked for him? Well, it turns out that he was (in)famous for missing deadlines and burning out his teams trying to hit arbitrary targets. No matter how precisely he tried to calculate the schedule, something would always derail it: the flu has no respect for precision. Once a tight schedule is disrupted, it can easily become a game of falling dominos.

In the end, the goal is to beat the schedule, not create a schedule that beats you. It’s quite amazing: when we’re ahead of schedule, we are simultaneously more relaxed and more energized. We focus better and come up with more creative solutions to problems. Unexpected obstacles are fun challenges. When we are behind schedule, we feel rushed. Every delay feels like a crisis. We take shortcuts and make more mistakes, which, in turn, only further disrupts the schedule.

The secret, it turns out, to effective schedules is not to try to be extremely precise, but rather to recognize that your schedule will need some slush. Things do not always happen when they are supposed to: some things will go faster than expected, and others will go more slowly. The goal is to be able to adapt to that: when the US military started conducting war games with the Japanese, the hardest thing for the Japanese military was that US forces wouldn’t attack on time. Sometimes they were early, sometimes they were late. This was very frustrating for the Japanese, who were used to extreme precision in their war games. Eventually, they figured out the lesson: warfare doesn’t happen on a clock.

When you’re building your schedule, don’t just estimate how long something will take. Break down each task, think about the different moving pieces involved. Consider which pieces can be disrupted by someone getting the flu or by a freak storm. Where are you implementing a known and tested solution and where are you trying something new and different? Exploration will always take longer if only because you don’t know ahead of time what you’re getting into: Boston’s famous Big Dig certainly had its share of bad planning, but it also had its share of discovering that the problems being solved were much bigger and more difficult than anyone expected.

As I explained to someone very recently, always put breaks in the schedule. As every endurance athlete learns, mostly by ignoring this advice, you need to stop and rest periodically. When you decide to skip a rest or a meal break, you set yourself up for failure. Just as the silence between the notes is what makes the music, it is the breaks in the schedule that enable the team to maintain high productivity over the long term.

Take time in your schedule as well to put in checkpoints to evaluate progress. That doesn’t mean fighting about why something didn’t get done, but rather to understand what is working and what is not. Make adjustments and shift resources as necessary: part of good scheduling is the ongoing process of refining the schedule.

But what about 8 feet of snow? Surely no one can plan for weather conditions like that! Of course not, but that’s not the point. When we are used to the idea that schedules need regular tune-ups and adjustments, when we recognize that unexpected obstacles are just part of the job, then it becomes easier to role with whatever storms arise. The blizzard isn’t a crisis, it’s just a more dramatic version of business as usual.

Are you beating the schedule or is the schedule beating you?