January 09, 2015

The longer the ship is at the sea, the slower it sails, the worse manoeuvres and the more fuel it burns. Thus by the end of the season the velocity of the vessel can fall by as much as 40%. The reason for this is that the hull of the ship is overgrown with various marine creatures, mostly colonies of crustaceans and mussels, so called benthos.

Submarine overgrown with marine creatures

In this respect the leaders and ships are alike. The difference is that what leaders get overgrown with is not benthos, but ineffective managerial instruments, practices and processes of varying toxicity levels.

Low Toxicity

At this level the instrument makes little difference. It does not do any direct harm and its low effectiveness does not trigger any negative consequences. It is just that we do not have a problem the instrument is designed to address. This may mean that:

  • the problem – in principle is a non-issue;
  • the problem – in principle exists but it does not concern us;
  • the problem – does exist, does concern us but currently is not of immediate importance;
  • the problem – does exist, does concern us but is addressed through another instrument.

Even though it is seemingly innocuous, any instrument is a drag on time, organisational and financial resources, which could be put to much better use.

Story #1 told over a glass of beer by the businessmen I happen to know, lets call him Victor (name has been changed)

Victor used to have daily half-hour stand-up meetings with all his staff. Over time the company had grown and the meetings where no longer the place where real problems were solved but were held nevertheless by inertia.

Victor has a son. He is in primary school and in his math class they studied the topic of time and measuring time. Trying to help his son with his math to give an example Victor added up the time of all the daily meetings in a year. It came as a surprise to him. After putting his son to bed Victor counted the time once more, allowing for holidays and weekends. He also added 5 minutes needed to come to the meeting and another 5 minutes to get back to the workplace. The result he got was over 19 working days, which meant almost a working month for every single company employee.

Victor made sure that every project had an effective communication channel and cancelled the daily meetings.

Average Toxicity

If a certain managerial problem does exist, an ineffective instrument used to solve it can play a nasty trick on you. Often times the mere existence of the tool creates an illusion that the problem is being handled. Consequently no effort is being made to search for a truly effective instrument. As they say, you can’t fill a full glass.

Story #2, from personal experience.

There was a time when I used to try to address the problem of my teammates coming in late by having a system of penalties. We used to have a box you had to put a certain amount of cash in if you were late. From time to time the box was emptied to buy beer and pizza for the team. This practice served well to pay for our frequent sorties to the pizza place but did nothing to improve punctuality. Nevertheless, as long as the box stood there in the room the problem was solved inside my head.

Then I had a lucky strike. One day more than half of my teammates were late. As I stood there in a half-empty room I could not ignore the objective reality any longer and had to admit that the tool was not working.

So from then on the box was disposed of, everyone had to pay for their pizza and beer themselves and I was finally confronted with trying to find a real solution to the problem.

High Toxicity

Not only is the instrument ineffective, but also it inflicts direct harm, stifles development and blocks solution of the problem. Moreover the malignant repercussions are often manifest in areas remotely connected to the tool itself.

Story #3, which I brought from Lviv PM Day 2014. After my presentation on leader burnout one of the participants came up to me and we had a conversation along these lines:

  • You know, everything you said is true about me. First I was a programmer, I had a good understanding of what I was doing and came up with good technical solutions. Then I was promoted to a managerial position. It suited me well and I took up my new duties. However the developers still expect me to make all the technical decisions. We have a technical meeting, everyone stays silent and waits for me to come up with something. I put in 10-12 hours a day and I am hardly coping…
  • OK. Is there anyone on your team who would handle it?
  • I’ve got one – he is quite good and responsible too. I talked to him, he is keen to develop in this direction.
  • … so?
  • You see, it’s like this: when we discuss the tasks eye-to-eye, it’s OK, but at the general meeting, when everyone is there he doesn’t come forth and keeps mum and I end up handling it all myself again…
  • OK. Do I understand it correctly that you have a thing called technical meetings. This is where you think through technical implementation of the project and break it down into tasks?
  • Yep.
  • The problem is that the engineers do not contribute, the discussion does not take off and it boils down to you coming up with all the solutions and telling everyone what to do and how to do it?
  • Exactly!
  • Engineers do not buy in, are demotivated and you have to be keep egging them on?
  • Well, it must be like that…
  • On the other hand it is the meetings that hamper your promising programmer?
  • Correct.
  • Why do you need them then after all?
  • What!?…do you suggest cancelling the technical meetings!!?
  • In this format they are counterproductive anyway.
  • Uhm, you must be right…

Then we talked for another half hour. Unfortunately I don’t know if our conversation resulted in any decision, but it illustrates well that an ineffective managerial tool can be a blocker to solving current problems.

In this post we discussed and classified the damage done by ineffective managerial instruments. In the following posts we will consider how they came to be in our toolset, why they are difficult to handle and what we should do about them.

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