I. M. Wright: “Spontaneous combustion of rancid management”

Catching up on an I. M. Wright podcast from November we missed posting. Here’s the “Hard Code” blog post, and here’s the podcast of that post.

I. M. starts like this:

What's good for you isn't always good for your group. Obvious, right? You can call it local versus global optimization. You can get geek philosophical about it and say, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one." Or you can simply notice the difference you feel between zany ideas from the intern (cool) versus zany ideas from your general manager (scary).

For example, spontaneity in an individual is a good thing and unvarying predictability makes Jack a dull boy. But when Jack is running a large enterprise, unpredictability can wreak havoc. There are managers who grow up and learn this lesson, and there are managers who are Randomizing Ambiguous Nimrods Causing Incessant Distraction, or rancid for short.

I despise rancid managers. They think they are responsive and flexible when in reality they are the fastest means to team dysfunction and failure. If you are a manager and you tell your team, "Hey, I've got a great idea," and they look back at you seemingly saying, "Does it involve tying yourself to a tractor and driving off a bridge?", then you might be rancid.

It's not that bad

What's so bad about being a rancid manager? Isn't consistency and predictability boring? The answer lies in Brownian motion, which describes the movement of particles under random bombardment. Particle movement in Brownian motion could best be described as erratic.

Consider a large team of engineers who are constantly being pushed in different directions at random intervals by their general manager. You'd expect the same erratic movement from that team. Their chances of actually accomplishing anything as an organization are negligible.

Alternatively, if the team is consistently pushed in the same direction they will gather momentum and make significant progress toward their goal. Therefore, a successful manager sets a clear direction, points the team in that direction, and consistently pushes in that same direction until their goal is achieved. Course corrections that naturally come along should translate to gradual team nudges, until the correction is made. Only severe circumstances should prompt major changes in course.

I’m talking about high-level direction, not the day-to-day details which require more agility and flexibility. The key is aligning the day-to-day detailed decisions to the high-level direction. You can’t do that if your high-level direction constantly changes.

I. M. continues by describing how you (and all of us) can avoid being a rancid manager.

If you enjoyed this podcast, check out I. M. Wright’s “Hard Code,” by Eric Brechner (Microsoft Press, 2008). Eric Brechner is Director of Development Excellence in Microsoft’s Engineering Excellence group.


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