Posted On: Tuesday, 13 January 2009 by Rajiv Popat

If you study some of the awesome kick-ass managers you've worked with in the past or are currently working with, chances are that you'll begin to realize that all kickass project managers and the best team members in your team are much like the 'Men In Black'.


Consider this conversation between agent Jay and agent Kay from the 'Men in Black' for instance:

Kay: We do not discharge our weapons in view of the public!
Jay: Man, we ain't got time for this cover-up bullshit! I don't know whether or not you've forgotten, but there's an Arquillian Battle Cruiser that's about to...
Kay: There's always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet, and the only way these people can get on with their happy lives is that they Do... Not... Know about it!

As funny as it might sound, the conversation to a large extent sums up what most kick-ass managers do. Honestly, it does. However there is one subtle way in which kickass managers differ from the 'Men In Black'. Unlike Jay and Kay, most kick-ass managers I've seen in action or worked with aren't even aware of the fact that they are saving worlds and changing cultures. They do so, silently and instinctively.

Tom Demarco and Timothy Lister explain the point I'm trying to make here, much more articulately than I will ever be able to explain it, in their classic book, Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams. They explain this using the classic example of the Spaghetti Dinner:

Picture yourself a technical worker who's just been assigned to a new project. You know the manager and most of the other project personnel by name, but that's about it. Your first day on the new project is next Monday. On Wednesday before that Monday, you get a call from your boss-to-be. She's having a get-together, she says, for people on the new project. Is there any chance you could come by her place on Thursday evening for dinner with the rest of the team? You're free and want to meet the new group, so you accept.

When you arrive, the whole group is sitting around the living room drinking beer and telling war stories. You join in and tell a few of your own. The client liaison, who has also been invited, does a bit about his department head. Everybody has another beer. You begin to wonder about food. There is no smell of anything cooking and no sign of anyone working in the kitchen. Finally your boss-to-be admits that she hasn't had time to make dinner, and suggests that the whole crew walk over to a nearby supermarket and assemble the makings of a meal. "I guess we must be capable of putting a spaghetti dinner together."

Team Effects Beginning to Happen.

Off you go. In the supermarket, you amble as a group through the aisles. Nobody takes charge. Your boss seems to have anything on her mind but dinner. She chats and laughs and offers up a story about the IRS. In spite of a general lack of direction, some things do get thrown into the cart. One fellow has already gotten the salad pretty well taken care of. There is some talk of making a clam sauce, and when nobody's opposed, two of your new mates begin to talk out the details. You decide to make your patented garlic bread. Someone else picks out a bottle of Chianti. Finally there is a consensus that enough stuff is in the cart for dinner.

If you weren't able to make out what just happened in the little story above or where I was trying to go with this post 'Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams' also provides a very insightful explanation of what just happened in the story:

So far, nobody has billed a single day of effort to the project, but you've just had your first success as a group. Success breeds success, and productive harmony breeds more productive harmony. Your chances of jelling into a meaningful team are enhanced by your very first experience together.

Presented this way, the spaghetti dinner may seem like a contrivance on the manager's part. But it probably wasn't and wouldn't have seemed like it had you been there. If you had asked the manager in question what she had in mind for the evening, she would have probably replied in total sincerity, "Dinner."

A natural manager has got a subconscious feel for what's good for the team. This feel may govern decisions throughout the project. The entire experience is organized for small, easy joint successes. You have to look twice to see the manager's hand in any of this, it just seems to be happening.

The act of implicitly, innocently and unknowingly creating excellent work environments and cultures is a well known ability in kickass managers and true leaders. Michael Lopp describes this same act of unknown, silent, subtle and true leadership; in his post on the culture chart; where he talks about a core group of men who defined the engineering culture at Netscape by playing the game of bridge right in the middle of the cafeteria every Wednesday. He explains:

If you looked up the four core bridge players on the org chart, you'd learn a bit. One engineering manager, another guy from some oddly named platform team, another guy who had a manager title, but no direct reports, and the last guy who looked like a program manager.

My org chart assessment: Meh.

What I learned months later was that the folks sitting at that regular bridge game not only defined much of what became the Netscape browser, they also continued to define the engineering culture or what I think of as a culture chart.

Unlike the org chart, you're not going to find the culture chart written down anywhere. It doesn't exist.

Irrespective of how big or small organization that you work for, run or own is, chances are really high that the culture chart has more influence on your organization than any other single factor. Michael, in his post describes elaborately how the culture definers innocently shape a positive environment around them and how you can detect the culture chart within the organization:

To deduce the culture of a company, all you have to do is listen. Culture is an undercurrent of ideas that ties a group of people together. In order for it to exist, it must move from one individual to the next. This is done via the retelling of stories.

“Max was this nobody performance nerd and three weeks before we were supposed to ship, he walked into the CEO's office with a single piece of paper with a single graph. He dropped the graph on the table, sat down, and said, 'No way we ship in three weeks. Six months. Maybe.' The CEO ignored the paper, 'We lose three million dollars if we don't.' Max stood up, pointed at the chart, and said, 'We lose ten if we do. We must not ship crap.”

Whether this story is true or not is irrelevant. The story about how Max saved the company ten million dollars by telling the CEO “No” is retold daily. In hallways. At the bar over beers. The story continually reinforces an important part of this company's culture.

We must not ship crap.

There isn't a corporate values statement on the planet that so brutally and beautifully defines the culture of a company.

Most organizations don't seem to realize the importance of these silent culture definers and the role they play in the overall scheme of things. Michael also does a great job at describing how the culture chart has a deep impact on the organization and particularly on the best of your team members:

Culture assessment is an information game and it's never over. Your job is to continually situate yourself in such as a way that, as quickly as possible, you can assess subtle changes in the culture of your company.

I wasn't concerned when Netscape started losing market share to Microsoft. I didn't sweat it when the stock price stalled. The reason I started thinking about my next gig was, months before either of these two events occurred, one of the lunchtime bridge team left.

The game stopped. The small group of four no longer spent a long lunch quietly, unknowingly defining the culture of the company and everyone who was watching noticed.

They noticed when one of those who had humbly done the work that defined the company no longer believed enough to stay.

If you've been reading along so far it does end up sounding like these guys put in a great deal of effort to create an amazing work culture around them; but most of these kickass managers or culture defining team members I've had the privilege of working with or seeing in action, hardly have any such specific intent in mind. The same post on culture charts describes the intent with which the real culture definers work:

The people who are responsible for defining the culture are not deliberately doing so. They do not wake up in the morning and decide, “Today is the day I will steer the culture of the company to value quality design”.

They just do it. The individuals who have the biggest impact on the culture and company aren't doing it for any other reason than they believe it is right thing to do, and if you want to grow in this particular company it's a good idea to at least know who they are and where they sit. You need to pay attention to this core group of engineers because as they do, so will the company.

These difference makers, culture definers or whatever it is that you want to call them, are not really thinking of changing the organizational culture, making their teams flock, developing deeper bonds between team members, saving your world or any of that crap. Helping the team in whatever small way they can; an awesome dinner or a nice game of bridge; that's all they have on their minds; especially when they are dealing with their teams.

After our brief digression into books like 'Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams' and the post on the Culture-chart let's get back to what we started off with in the first place, shall we?

Men In Black. That's where we started, and we said most managers are like them; didn't we? Ok, here's how it goes:

Kay: We do not talk about project timelines in public! It distracts people in the the team and takes their focus off the real work.
Jay: Man, we ain't got time for this cover-up bullshit! I don't know whether or not you've forgotten, but there's a stupid client who wants all this work done, deployed and running on production in three weeks...
Kay: There's always an impractical, slightly lost, confused client that is about to wipe out all chances of success on all miserable little projects like this one, and the only way these developers can get on with their happy lives and code away to glory is that they Do... Not... Know about it!

Or should we say:

Kay: We do not talk about project timelines in public! It distracts people in the the team and takes their focus off the real work.
Jay: Man, we ain't got time for this cover-up bullshit! I don't know whether or not you've forgotten, but there's a stupid client who wants all this work done, deployed and running on production in three weeks...
Kay: You want to play a game of bridge? Hungry? Let's go grab a sandwich.

And before you know it, magic! The team suddenly has six months to ship, the pressure of deadlines has disappeared, people are nicer to each other and work is fun.

Here's another one:

Kay: We do not talk about crappy status reports and project plans in public! It distracts people in the the team and takes their focus off the real work. We help them ship!
Jay: Man, we ain't got time for this cover-up bullshit! I don't know whether or not you've forgotten, but there's a vice president sitting at the client's office who wants who wants a weekly status report and a detailed project plan...
Kay: You want to play a game of bridge? Hungry? Let's go grab a sandwich.

And before you know what happened, magic again! The neutralizer has been used on the client; those specific details have been wiped off their memory; they don't miss those status reports anymore and everyone seems to be getting the real work done.

The next time your manager calls a lengthy meeting and talks to you about how he plans to change the culture of the organization; chances are, that he has just picked up an inspirational management book from somewhere and is pulling on his awesome-manager-mask. Simply put, most probably, he's faking it. The ones who really change cultures, hardly ever plan to do it. In fact, they tend to do it one small step at a time, without even their own conscious knowledge that they are doing it.

Unlike the ones who spend their careers trying to pull acts of heroism, I've had the pleasure of seeing the real heroes in action working rather silently; taking one step at a time. These are genuinely inspirational individuals who influence and move others without even knowing or realizing that they do.

They will change you, they will influence you, they will make you work harder and turn into better human beings; and the funniest part of it is; you won't even realize they're doing that. I didn't; till I looked really hard and then I saw a couple of them; in action. They were right there; in my very own life and they were making silent, subtle changes in it.

Does going to office on a Monday morning suck? It always used to? If you answered yes chances are you haven't had the pleasure of seeing them in action or the pleasure of working with them. I have one little advice for you; be patient; and keep looking; the world has a very limited supply of these guys and if you're lucky you just might find them. On the other hand, if you do love and feel excited about coming to work on a Monday morning chances are that you have some of these guys around you.

If you do happen to have some of these guys around you, chances are that they are saving your world right now and you don't even know it. In fact, if they are genuinely good at this stuff, there is indeed a high probability that they themselves, don't know it. Now go find them; watch them closely and learn from them. I wish you good luck.

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