Posted On: Tuesday, 23 December 2008 by Rajiv Popat

When I walked into my first day at work at my very first organization I literally called my manager ‘sir’. Early on in my career I saw a few ‘friendly managers’ wanting a lot of your ideas and feedback without giving you due credit for any of them when they worked. Then there were others who were primarily not even interested in feedback and ideas. There were days in my career where you felt like you were a part of army of robots working for a boss, who was supposed to be the only one capable of thinking, coming up with awesome ideas or getting anything useful done.

Over a period of time as I lived the yes-sir life I realized how messed up it was. Slowly I turned myself into an opinionated individual who wasn’t ashamed to express his opinions. Long story short – I developed a thicker skin and to an extent a stronger spine to speak my mind.

Even today as I look around I see countless individuals lacking the courage and the conviction to speak their mind at their workplace. If I were to sample the last fifteen organizations I’ve worked at, visited or been at in the past, at least thirteen of them had the problem so blatantly visible that you could hear whispers of dissatisfaction in the corridors even during your first visit to the organization.

Most of these organizations were doing something so blatantly wrong and stupid that even the junior most developer writing HTML knew it but they’d rather prefer to keep their mouth shut. No-one seems to have the conviction to bring the problems out in the open and throw them out there such that they would have to be tackled.

Scott Berkun describes the problem of how problems exist within the corridors of most modern organizations, where everyone knows about them but no-one brings them out or discusses them openly. Scott explains this issue much more articulately than me in his post on ‘how to fight management incompetence’. He explains:

Since my cranky post last week titled Do we suck at the basics? I’ve had an eye out for writing on incompetence and suckage. Over at Harvard Business John Baldoni, author of a slew of bestsellers, had a recent post called How to fight management incompetence.

He offers three bits of advice:

  1. Link competency to promotion
  2. Hold people accountable
  3. Keep competencies relevant.

Ok. Got it. This is good and sensible, sure. But the platitude part is easy. The real thing missing is conviction. Being accountable takes courage, something that doesn’t come with a degree or years of experience. Plenty of cowards have lurked in executive circles for decades. I believe most people just don’t have the guts to do the thing any idiot knows is right and this includes many managers. How many courageous people do you know? It can’t be more than 1 out of 10, maybe 1 out of 5. There is no special courage pill yet for VPs, so they have the same kinds of spines as the rest of us.

The big incompetence crime committed by VPs is leaving incompetent managers in place for too long. My theory: by the time the CEO knows a VP stinks, the whole org has known about it for months. The smart people have been making plans to leave or are working to cover their assess. By the time the CEO gets around to taking action, it’s way too late. And often the action taken is whitewashed: no mention is made of how the VP or middle manager utterly failed (e.g. “Fred has decided it’s time for something new.”) The denial lives on, the lie propagates, making it easier for more denials and lies the next time around.

All most employees want is for the people above them to be honest more of the time. Even if things stink, honesty makes it possible for people to maintain their sanity (”ok. So you at least see what I’m seeing. Thanks.”). But it also makes solutions possible, since people are trying to solve the same issues. Bob can go to his boss with suggestions and feedback only if he understand what it is his boss is really concerned about. 

Walk down the corridors of any of these modern software development shops and you’ll see hush-hush discussions of things that stink and no-one willing to discuss them openly. Openness and transparency is something you cannot preach to your team. You can only set up transparency and flatness by making it a way of your own life and then expecting your team to reciprocate.  Of course pushing for transparency and success in projects is not as easy as it sounds. It requires conviction, genuine belief and above all a very strong spine at all levels within the organization.

Jeromy Carriere advices managers and programmers to develop a stronger spine by pushing them to turn themselves into ‘intrapreneurs’. He explains:

When I get frustrated with the ponderous bureaucracy characteristic of large enterprises, and long for the hopeful, entrepreneurial and innovative environment of a startup, I lean on a set of principles that try to bring the spirit of a startup, through the actions of individuals with dreams and drive, to any organization. Until recently, I didn’t know these principles have a name – Intrapreneuring. Intrapreneuring is an idea initially formulated by Gifford Pinchot in the 70s, and is based on the idea that anyone can innovate, be entrepreneurial, within a corporate environment. Mr. Pinchot described ten commandments to be followed by the intrapreneur:

  1. Come to work each day willing to be fired.
  2. Circumvent any orders aimed at stopping your dream.
  3. Do any job needed to make your project work, regardless of your job description.
  4. Find people to help you.
  5. Follow your intuition about the people you choose, and work only with the best.
  6. Work underground as long as you can – publicity triggers the corporate immune mechanism.
  7. Never bet on a race unless you are running in it.
  8. Remember it is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.
  9. Be true to your goals, but be realistic about the ways to achieve them.
  10. Honor your sponsors. 

It doesn’t matter what your role is or what it is that you do, chances are that you’re going to make decisions even when you are in a corporate environment with a very limited and well defined role. The decisions could be as simple as picking up variable names or deciding who to promote. Before you go ahead with implementation, make sure the decision are yours and when things don’t go well, make sure that you stand by them for these decisions and take ownership; just like you support your code when it has issues. If these decisions are being imposed on you, speak your mind and express your concerns; in a civilized yet very open and completely blatant fashion.

Long winded meetings where even the junior most person in the room knows the stupidity of the suggestions being proposed and the correct solution to the problem; but no-one in the meeting brings the correct solutions out in the open, blatantly and honestly as everyone goes round and round sugar coating the issue, are fairly common in most corporate environments.

If you work for a software development firm, look around you and ask yourself a few simple questions about the people you can see or think about:

  1. How many them are capable of speaking their mind, even with their bosses sitting in the room?
  2. How many of them are capable of speaking their mind even at the risk of getting fired?
  3. How many of them are capable of giving you their blatantly honest opinions?
  4. How many of them are capable of breaking any bad news to you by looking at you in the eye?
  5. How many of them have a clear succession plan prepared for the day they are fired or quit?
  6. How many of them aren’t afraid to discuss this succession plan openly without any insecurities what-so-ever?

I could go on with the list, but the primary million dollar question I’m trying to ask is simple: how many of them have a strong spine?

If you can name a huge number of individuals who do, chances are you are in an organization that’ll survive the hostile attacks of bad times. If not, chances are, you’re headed for trouble and when trouble strikes, you won’t even know because everyone you’re looking at or thinking about right now, will either be busy sugar coating things or indulging themselves in a CYA exercise.

The software development word is going round and round in the infinite loop of failure; Managers and Developers with a strong spine are desperately needed in the software development world. How many do these individuals you know? How many of them work with you? How many of them are in your team?

When you hire, do you make a conscious effort to hire people with stronger spines? When you have hired them successfully do you even appreciate them and give them the due credit they deserve? Next time you’re hiring, don’t just check their technical competence, education qualifications and their IQ level before get them in. Follow your intuitions about the people you hire and try to figure out how strong their spines are before you go ahead and bring them onboard.

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