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The unstable optimum

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Etymology isn’t identity. Where words come from is a matter of historical interest, not proper usage.

So I hope you enjoyed your Memorial Day, even though it’s become little more than a day off and an opportunity for retailers to offer sale prices.

Not that Memorial Day is something to be cynical about. I think about the sacrifices men and women in uniform have made for us and I’m reminded of the Passover tradition, where parents explain to their children that God brought them out of slavery — them personally, not just their ancestors.

Most of those who made the ultimate sacrifice probably weren’t thinking of us at the time. More likely they were thinking of getting the job done, of their buddies, and of their families. And yet, they sacrificed themselves for each of us, personally, and we shouldn’t forget it.

Which has what to do with running an IT department?

Just this: Too often, business leaders cast the need to get the job done in moral terms. There’s a project with milestones and deadlines — employees who don’t meet them are letting the company down, aren’t taking responsibility, won’t “give 200%” (and can we please start respecting the field of mathematics by jettisoning this tired cliché?).

They’re bad people, even though the milestones, and deadlines, and staffing to accomplish them, were adjusted to the point of absurdity through optimism bias and political necessity.

Please remember — the success of a business project lacks the moral imperative of liberating Dachau’s prisoners, not to mention France.

What’s hard is that this isn’t binary. You have more alternatives than just death marches and clock-watching.

In business, a sense of urgency is a valuable dimension of the corporate culture. It’s just that more isn’t better. Even more urgent is equal to frantic — an unproductive state in which employees divert their energy and attention from getting things done to worrying about how they’ll ever manage to get things done, while managers divert their time and energy from making sure things get done to making sure employees look busy every minute of every hour of every day.

There’s a dimension of oddity to this, too. The best executive leaders project an air of relaxed confidence. They’re able to act with urgency without ever looking rushed and harried.

But many of these same leaders interpret an aura of relaxed confidence in their employees as apathy and lack of commitment.

Go figure.

Getting back to deadlines and making them, you want this to matter to everyone. You want this to be a matter of professional pride. You want to make sure “This deadline was never realistic” isn’t the team’s default conclusion when the deadline becomes challenging, even as you conclude it’s time to change the deadline because it was never realistic.

Which brings us to a broader topic.

In some situations, the point of stability is where you want to be. That’s when leadership is easy. None come to mind at the moment, but I’m sure there are situations like this.

Leadership is hard when the stable places are the extremes, because that’s where staying in the healthy middle takes constant attention, a great deal of energy, and constant vigilance.

Maintaining a balance in the healthy middle that bisects the line that has apathy on one end and frantic flailing on the other is just one example. Maintaining a healthy balance between the stable cultural characteristics of chaos and bureaucracy is another.

If you’re a metrics-oriented sort, ask yourself how you’ll measure this sort of thing. Take CMMI (Capability Maturity Model integration), which in many respects is an admirable approach to process maturity. CMMI doesn’t, of course, advocate bureaucracy as it promotes increasing sophistication in process management.

The problem: It doesn’t recognize the near-inevitability of an encroaching culture of bureaucracy as organizations become more process-mature, and incorporate strong management practices to prevent it.

For that matter, and it’s a related matter, CMMI, like most maturity models, has a strong focus on metrics, but tends to hand-wave over the difficulty of making sure the metrics used to measure a process are the right metrics.

Here’s what I’ve never seen: A multidimensional maturity model that makes too much just as immature as too little.

But this is exactly what mature business leaders have to do.

Comments (4)

  • Re: Can we please start respecting the field of mathematics by jettisoning this tired cliché of “giving 200%””?

    As a (former) engineer, I heartily agree.

    However, there may be some ManagementSpeak truth to that phrase. Turns out, they may be talking about hours worked, not dedication.

    A friend was asked to help out on a job by filling in until they could hire a permanent replacement. He was told, “It’s a part time job. What you do with the other 12 hours of your day is entirely up to you.”

    The thing is, it was accurate. He really did give 200% of his time (it involved weekends, too), and for part-time pay. And of course his permanent replacement never happened, either. Why would it when management got a golden deal like that!

    Well, at least they were honest about what was coming.

  • My father worked on a government contract in the 60s, designing the guidance systems for the U.S. ICBMs. In the 80s he advised the DOD on President Reagan’s “Star Wars” effort. I once asked him about the difference between the two efforts.

    His explanation was that in the 60s, he and the people he worked with were committed to their effort because they were working to save their children’s lives. In the 80s, the people working on “Star Wars” were in it for the money.

  • This column reminded me of the old aphorism that, “Bureaucrats often confuse activity with results.”

  • Classic cases of overload occur when software was delivered with a major flaw or is severely behind schedule. The CEO announces that the team will be working 110 hours a week until it’s resolved.

    Makes me think “Yeah, that’s what I want: an important application put together by people who are stressed and fatigued.”

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