More astounding IT utterances

A few months back, I wrote a post on various “Astounding Sayings” that I’ve encountered in my career in information technology.  It turns out that it’s been one of the more popular posts I’ve written, judging from page views, so in true Hollywood fashion, it must be time for a sequel.  I am retitling it slightly, though, to distinguish it from the Peterisms I post from time to time.  The point of writing about the “astounding” sayings was that they usually reflect misguided energy (or, to put it bluntly: wrong-headed thinking); the point of the Peterisms, on the other hand, is to distill and communicate absolute, undeniable, sublime truth and wisdom at every possible turn. (Hopefully it’s unnecessary, but just in case, <insert smiley face here>.)  Hence, I’m now going to call these non-truthful, unwise sayings “astounding utterances” instead.

Here are two more such utterances, with moral-of-the-story observations for each.  Note: as before, these are true stories.  I may have changed some of the facts, lightly, to make them less identifiable.  They also always come from at least several years in the past, to provide a healthy amount of distance for everyone.

The utterances that I consider to be astounding, in their context, are highlighted for you below in bold.

  • Looking out for #1, and, um, that would be ME.

Regular and formal goal-setting, to my mind, is one of the key managerial ways to focus and align everyone’s efforts in the business world.  Done well, it ensures that people are working on the right objectives, and are incented to achieve things for the common good of the business. The exercise often also brings to light any number of disconnects (teams working at cross-purposes, etc.) that would otherwise go undetected.

Usually, the way I’ve found this kind of goal-setting works most effectively is to actually collaborate with the employee on establishing meaningful goals for their role.  This isn’t exactly a jaw-dropping insight.  Workers themselves usually are quite expert in what needs to be done in their area; managers can help prioritize, push for improvements, and “ripple down” the larger goals of the company at that particular time.  So, the manager will typically draw up a list of suggested goals, ask the employee to do the same, and then they work together on aligning the two so that it all makes sense.  Goals should of course be “SMART”—Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely—but I won’t go into the specifics of that here; check out the links at the bottom for more information.

All of that’s pretty obvious, right?  Well, during one such goal-setting exercise a few years back, one of my managers came to me and reported that one of her employees had gotten upset at the draft suggestions the manager had drawn up for possible goals.  The employee didn’t like seeing specific targets for her work, such as measurable throughput, successful completion of projects, improvement of operating results.  Her response to seeing her manager’s suggestions was to snort, “Those aren’t my goals—those are the company’s goals!”

We can of course laugh at how obviously misguided this person was (just why she imagined that the company was paying her, if not to push for improvements and to help achieve certain company goals, I have no idea).  But I think the incident reveals an all-too-frequent attitude in the workforce, sometimes at all levels.  People who aren’t focused and actively driven to working on achieving meaningful overall company goals will simply hold everyone back. They’re in it for themselves, first and foremost.  If you find someone who doesn’t innately understand that having the company succeed will almost certainly tend to augment their own situation (salary, position, etc.), you need to work with that person quite seriously to see if you can bring them around.

  • We wanna do what WE wanna do. Why are you asking these annoying questions?

You’ll note a theme, as usual, in this pairing of utterances.  For my second story, I’ll describe just a bit (tip-of-the-iceberg style) about a situation I walked into several years ago, where a development team had gone whole hog, tooth and nail, hook-line-sinker-and-the-whole-nine-yards, into Extreme Programming as their operative model.  Now, my purpose here is not to bash Agile or Extreme Programming, because there are actually quite a few positive aspects of those approaches, and discussing them fairly deserves at least a whole separate post. 

But when I started my CTO role at the company, I needed, as always in a new position, to ramp up quickly on current projects, deliverables, time frames.  And I could find nothing to go on.  Far from being Specific, Measurable, Attainable, etc. in their goals, this team had come to a style of work (and had been allowed to do so) where next to nothing was ever written down, and few goals were concrete other than (it seemed) just getting through the day.  In fact, I’d been hired precisely because top management was growing ever more concerned at how little was actually getting delivered.  I sat the project manager down and asked him how they hoped to know when they were really done, or whether what they were delivering would meet the business needs, or how they hoped to test what they had produced if they didn’t have definitions of what the specific goals were.  Where, in short, were the guiding definitions and documents that would serve as their touchstones during such projects?  He looked at me, arched his eyebrows, and proudly stated, “We’re parsimonious on documentation around here.”

Whatever one thinks about Agile and Extreme Programming (and let me reiterate that that is a complex topic that deserves a separate post), this was clearly a situation that had gone to a bad extreme, one where accountability and purpose had gradually drifted out of the picture.  There’s room for a lot of different and viable approaches in software, but almost completely eliminating accountability and direction isn’t an approach that I’ve seen bear a lot of fruit.

And there’s nothing astounding about that.

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