Jiri Lundak

Archive for July, 2012|Monthly archive page

About Goal Setting

In Antipatterns, Collaboration, Leadership, Management on July 18, 2012 at 5:35 am

A good friend of mine, in a large company, is in conundrum:

He has a boss made of classical clay: top down, cascading setting of goals is his mantra. Each level of management has to break down the goals for his subordinates. They are not given reasons, but just goals. Just execute and do not ask too much “why”.

He likes to say phrases like:

  • “The simple people at the bottom of the pyramid might not bear the complicated decision making process at the top. So we tell them just the information, they need to know.”
  • “They just might get confused, and abandon the ship, when we are undecided. So we have to make decisions before we tell them anything.”
  • “Those at the top are the wise men, with lots of experience. That is why they are at the top, right?”

When my friend asks about why certain goals are set, he gets no real answer. He just gets a lot of meaningless blah. If he repeats his question, he just gets another bucket of dubious and long-winding explanations, that do not lead anywhere.

Does this situation sound just too familiar? Unfortunately this is the case in many companies.

But what about goal setting at your company?

  • Is goal setting a one way street, where lower ranks have assigned goals in a cascading manner?
  • Do superiors explain the context and the reasons behind goals or do they just impose them?
  • Or even better: do they – together with you – discuss and elaborate goals, that are meaningful for both of you?
  • Or better yet: do they – together with all their colleagues and “subordinates” – elaborate them as a team?
  • Do top executives find excuses, why they should not explain in sufficient detail, why they expect certain behavior, like: “not all employees are able to understand them”; “they might ask too much”; “they might criticize the goals”?
  • Do your leaders explain the “why” behind certain decisions, instead of just communicating the fact.
  • When you offer some help, is it accepted – or at least considered – or just downplayed as an idea of somebody not able to judge the situation.

If you decide to stay at such a company (you may have your reasons), then what can you do to turn that situation around?

There are different things you can try:

  • If you feel, that the goals presented to you by upper management are shallow and dull (or are just placeholders for the real goals), you can use the “5 why”-method: for each answer you get, ask why again, until you arrive at the real goals, hidden behind the imposed goal. You can do this in private for yourself (this produces only suppositions, from which you might jump to wrong conclusions), but you can ask directly your boss. On your ways to unearth real goals, you just might bump into not so obvious reasons, why the imposed goals might not be the right ones to pursue.
  • If you are asked to pursue goals, that do not correlate with your own goals, then you have some choices: 1.) Try to adapt your own goal to the superiors' goal, if the gap is not too big, or 2.) try to offer an alternative goal, that might be in your bosses' range of acceptance, or 3.) leave it, or 4.) ignore the goal and still try to do good work (this only an option, if not meeting the goal does not impose serious punishment).
  • If you see a chance, that you can convince your boss, that it is a good idea to elaborate goals together, then you can try to help choose them. Try to set yourself meaningful goals, like “Let us put good quality software faster into the hands of our customers”. Why is this goal better, than just setting the goal: “We need to hire 10 more people!”? This has two reasons: 1.) Hiring additional people is just a means to reach a goal and not a valuable goal in itself. 2.) Setting the hiring option as a goal limits choice. It precludes, that your boss knows the solution to the problem, which simple might not be true. And it narrows your creative space for solving the real problem.

So do not let yourself limit by the choice of goals of others. Goals that do not match your own goals hinder your creativity and well-being. So act, if you do not want to be acted upon.

On The Dangers Of Managerial Incompetence

In Collaboration, Competence, Leadership, Management, Mastery, Personal Development on July 16, 2012 at 12:06 am

As I have become a manager myself in the last two years, I experience manager’s life, but do still have a (vague) memory of being a developer. I struggle to maintain a close contact to our developers in the company and to our code base. The latter becoming more and more difficult.

I recently had a talk with my boss about being professional as a manager (as head of development, to be precise). He urged me to be closer to him and thus he urged me to appoint deputies in teams, that I trusted, so I would have to spend less time with our people. At first sight, this might be a proposition that makes sense, there being the need to be able to scale. I am part of the management team after all. So as a team we must work closer together than with our subordinates, right? Wrong!

Introducing a level of indirection might be a good idea in software design, but with people this is more than harmful. It actually introduces a bunch of new problems in any organization. But more about this in a later post.

What is currently eating me, is my obvious personal devaluation. Although my management peers might tell me otherwise, insisting, that we – as managers – now have more power and possibilities to steer and decide things. I also was told, that somebody has to structure how the company works, somebody with experience, that looks farther than the mere developer, that just sees the next line of code. This also is sensible advice. Things work like this in a “professional” company, don’t they?

Hmm…why do I think, we are betraying ourselves, thinking and acting like that? For the moment it is just a gut feeling. I still struggle, trying to formulate my preoccupation with what I hear and see around me.

I know we need to grow as a company, to be able to satisfy our customer’s many needs. But how can we still maintain an agile and effective way of doing things? I am at a loss of seeing a solution, without sounding like a mere naysayer.

I just want to list some things, that bother me personally, regarding my own competence:

  • I do not want to make decisions alone at the top, thinking I know better, just because I am older than my peers. Like young people tend to overrate their abilities, old people underrate young folk’s abilities and interest in contributing to the big picture.
  • I do not want to loose my past knowledge and capabilities, as a programmer, as a ScrumMaster and as a Product Owner, even while I am acquiring new skills, for example in mediation or in taking care of a business.
  • I think the pure manager, seen as a grand seigneur, that understands the big picture and thinks it to be his job to model the company and make it more efficient, is a thing of the past and a brick stone in the yellow brick road to corporate mediocrity.
  • Don’t misinterpret me, I know that seeing the “big picture” is necessary, but I just don’t believe a single person is able to see it, and just validating with your fellow management team members does not cut it.
  • I believe that a management team just limits its possibilities, thinking, that it should make the grand decisions, without involving the mere “foot soldiers”. A company is full to the brim of partial knowledge. Involving the right people is key. But who are they?
  • I do not want to create an efficient organization, instead I would like to make it more effective. Introducing slack and sharing information to all people in the organization might often be seen as waste, but not doing it makes people act on dubious grounds and this leads to desaster.

I know it will be hard to continue to maintain a sound competence level. But I am sure it is worth it.