Posted On: Friday, 29 May 2009 by Rajiv Popat

Getting Genuine Builders To De-Hibernate.

When Fred, the young and budding manager disappears, and when you have spent your first few days trying to replace Fred fully and undo the crap he littered all over the place, you realize that it is already too late. The 'builder hibernation' has already begun.

Most of your genuine builders have left.

The ones who are capable of fixing things, don't care.

They've moved to a I'll-Follow-Orders mode.

They've gone silent and the whiners in your organization have taken over.

You can here them loud and clear through the silence and the sounds of crickets chirping.

Hollywood style inspirational speeches will not work here.

When this happens you are left with only two things do so.

The First Thing To Do --- “Listen”

If we were to take three most important things that you should know about hibernation here is what they would be.

One, there is a possibility that your system is being screwed big time right now as you read this.  There could be a dozen things that could be messing things up; Artificial deadlines, monkeys, mitigated speech --- the list is endless but if the builders don't speak up, chances are, you'll never find out.

If your builders are in hibernation they don't care enough to gate crash into your office with a big fat red light in their hand to have a fight with you to save the project, the team or the organization from absolute stupidity.

They've had it.

It basically means, you've been cut off from the sound-non-whining-genuine-feedback-loop of your organization or team.

Two, most builders are still going to give in reasonable effort to try and fix things even after they have moved into hibernation; the only difference here is that their opinions are going to be very soft whispers; not the loud shouts that they once used to be.


Because they have lost their 'attachment' with the organization, team or project.

There's a lot to be said about attachment; but the bottom-line is simple --- If you can't get them to feel the attachment again, you are going to lose your builders.

The third fact is most interesting however --- If you genuinely want them to feel attached to the project, the team or the organization again, they will.


All you need to do really is illustrate one simple quality consistently --- empathy.

Jack, is in hibernation. He hasn't quit.

Hibernation is Jack's way of telling you that you need to stop and listen.

When I say stop and listen I do not mean Lets-Have-A-Project-Status-Meeting approach to stopping and listening.

I mean Lets-Go-Out-For-A-Cup-Of-Coffee-And-Talk-Openly approach to listening.

If you are facing a hibernation and your organization, team or project is struggling through problems; chances are that every single problem that your organization, team and project is facing right now, has been solved.

There is a fully-working solution, or an individual fully capable of providing you one, lurching somewhere in your corridors. Solutions to the so called huge organizational problems your senior management is so worried about right now; have long been found and are being discussed in your cafeteria.

The questions you need to ask yourself are simple:

One, are you listening?

Two, do you have the power and the intention to do anything, even if a genuine builder was to tell you the solution?

The two questions are important; because here is the tragic part --- in most cases only one of the answers is a 'yes'.

That is what screws up most projects, teams and organizations out there.

Scott Berkun describes this inability to 'listen' in his classic post on fighting management incompetence. He explains:

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 assses. 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

If you genuinely want to do something about your organization, team or project, learn to talk a walk down the corridors and when people look like they want to have a talk with you, strike a conversation; and listen.

Then either gather enough power to do something about it; or you weave a remarkable story of how important it is to fix the situation and convince the big bosses in your organization to help.

Listening is the first thing you can do to de-hibernate your builder.

Ready for the second thing?

The Second Thing To Do --- Act.

“Dude, we have seriously cramped cubicals around here in the new office.” - Jack tells you.

“Half the time Fred doesn't know what he is talking about.” - Jane describes her current manager.

Jack and Jane are seriously kick ass builders.

You cringe.

You're sorry you even asked for then genuine authentic blatantly honest feedback.

This is a serious nightmare.


Because you know you're not going to be able to do anything. You're going to try your best to fix things. You're going to take it up with your Office Administration department and your senior management. Then you're going to die in the meeting hell.

You know deep down inside, that neither are the cubical going to change, nor is Fred going to be replaced.

That's how organizations handle feedbacks from builders.

Peopleware by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister describes this so much more articulately. The book explains this through a real life incident:

A California company that I consult for is very much concerned about being responsive  to its people.  Last year,  the company's management conducted a survey in which all programmers (more than a thousand) were asked to list the best and the worst aspects of their jobs.  The manager who ran the survey was very excited about the changes the company had undertaken. 

He  told me  that the number two problem was poor communication with upper management.  Having learned that from the survey,  the company set up quality circles, gripe sessions, and other communication programs.

I listened politely as he described them in detail.  When he was done,  I asked what the number one problem was.  "The environment,"  he replied. "People were upset about the noise."  I asked what steps the company had taken to remedy that problem. "Oh, we couldn't do anything about that," he said. "That's outside our control,"

Which is why when you have organizational meetings to discuss the direction and the vision statement of the organization, no genuine builder ever has a question or a feedback. Which is why when you do a meeting to talk about a project that's failing you hear the absolute silence.

The next time no-one emails you their feedback after a meeting, the next time no-one has a question after a presentation, the next time no-one in your team files in their feedback on the corporate intranet, the next time you hear the sound of the chirping crickets and “something” doesn't seem right, you know what's happening.

Your genuine builders are hibernating and you are either not listening or you don't care enough to act.

The next time you see a genuine builder-hibernation, avoiding the problem will only make it worse.

Listen. Act.

Get them to De-Hibernate.

Because if you can't --- you are screwed.

Have you ever worked with a team of hibernating builders and got them to connect back to the organization, the project and the team?

Did genuinely listening and acting on what they told you help?

Do you have a story to tell about your experiences on this front, dear reader?



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