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Posted on: Thursday, 24 September 2009 by Rajiv Popat

Where There Are Human Beings --- Shit Happens.

I was once told that the difficult part of story telling is when you stop writing and the story starts writing itself. That isn't really the difficult part of story telling. What I have learnt with this book is that the difficult part of story telling is not just letting the story write itself; but wrapping things up brining them to a graceful end when the story is really busy writing itself.

Yes; there is a lot more to be said about building remarkable work and play environments. We can sit here all day and talk about all the specifics of creating an amazing work and play environment and then you can go out there in the real world and realize that every single problem that you face at your work environment is not even close to the problems that you read in this book.

Or you could spend years of your life as a manager; sixteen hours a day; trying to build an environment that absolutely rocks and then one fine morning be told that even the best of your builders aren't even remotely happy in the environment you've built for them.

This is probably not because you went wrong with or were inattentive to every minute detail that this book talked about.

It is probably because of the simple cardinal fact of life --- where there are people; shit happens.

No; seriously. Before you snicker and smile at that statement harp on its reality a bit.

Human beings by their very nature are complicated creatures moved by different motivations.

The story of a seriously interesting builder who supposedly loved working at Multiplitaxion Inc, comes to mind. The guy was a decently good builder who was pretty good at the craft of getting things done. We had given him all the tools he needed to get things done; got out of his way; gotten him salary hikes; promotions and big fat bonuses.

When the guy left he was in serious need of more funds and a higher salary. Understandable. What was not understandable however; was that as soon as he found a better job offer; he admitted having written two really long and interesting anonymous emails. One consisted of blatant, non-constructive criticism about the organization and how it was a pathetic organization to work for. The other was a blatant criticism for 'the man' who worked for the organization.

We read the emails with a meticulous eye; looking for any piece of constructive criticism that we could pounce on and improve the overall work environment. I even went so far as assuming that he referred to me when he talked about 'the man' and tried to read the email with an objective eye looking for anything where the organization or I; as a manager; could go out there and improve myself.

As far as constructive criticism was concerned - there was none of it.

'Multiplitaxion Inc, was too materialistic to give out employee loans and advance salary to their older loyal employees' --- the email read.

As a matter of policy we did not give employee loans and salary advances back then. Everyone knew it. It was common knowledge.

'The man who works for the organization does not not even like listening to music' --- the email read.

Well as a matter of fact, there were quite a few of us who found the idea of listening to loud music while programming a little distracting. We preferred people used their headphones. We even went all the way; had the organization buy these headphones and gave them out to the music lovers absolutely free of charge.

After reading the emails over and over for a couple of times; feeling down for a few minutes; we decided to leave the emails behind and move on with our lives.

There were multiple reasons why we could do that without having to rage a major war with our guilt or consciousness:

  1. As an organization we; at-least most of us; had been just, fair and open about our policies and everyone who stuck around were aware of these policies. Everyone who decided to stick around had made a conscious decision to stick around. None of it was confusion or deception. 
  2. As managers; we were all learning and we were working our asses at it; giving our level best to our job which included removing impediments from the way of builders. We were serious about creating environments which were great for serious work and play. Yes; we made our share of mistakes; but we learnt from them; and we survived by moving forward --- consistently
  3. When we made mistakes; we said sorry; and we fixed things. Obviously; when we got these anonymous emails with no constructive criticism what-so-ever; just whining; it seemed logical to ignore them and move on. There was nothing to say sorry about; nothing to fix. After all; we had an organization and projects to run and we could not afford to let the bozos get us down.

Every work environment is different and so is every human being that you work with. Yes; when the young and budding engineer you pushed hard to promote turns around and criticizes your whole idea of openness or flatness; it sucks; but at some point in your professional life and even as organization's life; you will have to take a stand and realize one simple fact of life --- you cannot please everyone in your organization.

Funny But Interesting Donkey Story.

It is probably floating around in emails trails somewhere. This is a fable of a man who about to embark on a journey decides that he wants to carry his old donkey on his back.

Somewhere along the trip the donkey slips into a big mud-hole.

The man spends hours thinking of a way to get the donkey out but finding no rope or help near-by decides to put an end to the old-hurt-donkey's misery by covering the hole with mud and cremating the donkey alive before he moves on.

He takes a bucket full of mud and throws it on the donkey's body.

The donkey shakes it off; and steps on top of the mud.

Bucket after bucket; the man keeps throws the mud on the donkey's body to cremate the donkey live.

Bucket after bucket; the donkey keeps shaking the mud off his body and stepping up on it.

Soon; the hole is covered and the donkey walks out alive.

As funny as narrating this story in a book connected with software development seems; it should actually be taught at management and software development schools across the globe.

Why?

Because if you are trying to build truly remarkable work and play environments or trying to bring about any change in your organizational environment, you have to develop an overall attitude that has uncanny resemblance to the donkey's attitude in the story. 

Shake It Off. Get Over It. Move On.

When you are trying to bring about change; or build amazing work and play environments chances are; that you are going to be criticized heavily. Someone somewhere in your organization is going to have serious issues with what you are trying to do.

It is going to hurt even more when the people who you were hoping to become your change agents have serious issues with what you are trying to do.

If you want to have any chance of survival in the long run; remember the three very basic; simple rules:

  1. Do 'not' forget the magic word - 'Empathy' - if you lose it you lose everything.
  2. If you genuinely believe in what you are doing; keep doing it consistently; and hope that people will 'see it' and 'get it' sooner or later. 
  3. When the criticism comes in; analyze it objectively; see if there is anything you can do to improve yourself and if the criticism was just directed to let you down  --- shake it off; get over it and move on; just like the donkey you read about in the story.

Remember; you get just a couple of human beings in a room and shit happens. In a typical organization; you're dealing with quite a few human beings. Having said that; If you remember these three simple rules; improvise and adapt as per these rules; you should go a long way at creating amazing work and play environments.

Of course things will feel shitty at times.

Of course things will feel like nothing is even worth-doing at times.

But stick around and you should be able to build an environment that is different, fun and stands out; despite of all the shit around that happens around you; and then if you are lucky; the shit that happens around you will slowly keep on reducing over time.

Having said that; don't expect all of it to go away completely. It wont. But if you keep showing up; keep doing what you think is the right thing to do; sticking to the three simple rules; you might actually start loving what you do and you might witness change happening. Slowly. Over time.

I wish you good luck.

Note: This article is a part of a Work In Progress Book. To Read connected articles read the Builders At Work category of this blog..