It’s time for another re-run – this time from the ancient days of 1999. It’s about … well, if you read on you’ll find out. – Bob

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A recent column (recent when this column first ran) addressed the frequent complaint that “I only need 10 percent of the features. The rest are useless frills.” It suggested that instead of complaining about feature bloat, you should learn more features, because there’s a lot of useful stuff in there. (Code bloat, of course is a different matter entirely.)

Somewhere in the lively discussion that followed, a question occurred to me: The people who claim they only use 10 percent of the features don’t know the features they don’t use. How do they know they’re only using 10 percent? Since you don’t know what you don’t know, you only know the numerator, not the divisor.

No matter: If software follows the everyday laws of probability, you’ll use 10 percent of the features 90 percent of the time. The two questions are: (1) What’s your personal point of diminishing returns? and (2) If you don’t use a feature, does its presence constitute feature bloat?

And then a colleague of mine asked one of those questions that make you lose interest in the original issue: “Never mind the software, Bob,” he asked me. “Do a lot of managers only make use of 10 percent of the capabilities of the people who work for them?”

Now there’s a question to conjure with. Can’t you just hear the feature-bloat arguments extended to employees?

“I only asked you to document the network, Jill,” a systems manager might say. “Your recommendations on how we can optimize it wasted space on the server and made me spend more time reading your report.”

The answer to my colleague’s question, then, is a resounding, “Yes, and ain’t it a shame?”

We’ve come a long way from the check-your-brains-at-the-door days, but nowhere near far enough. Most of us do understand the benefits of empowering employees, pushing decisions out to the people who do the day-to-day work. We do require thinking rather than forbidding it like we used to. That’s good.

It’s good, but it isn’t good enough, because when you’re in a leadership role you don’t get the most out of your employees by keeping them in their comfort zones.

Here’s an exercise for you. For each of your direct reports, list three responsibilities you think they’re capable of that aren’t part of their current job but are part of your department’s charter. Now ask your direct reports to do the same for themselves, and compare their thoughts to your own. Your list is a set of menu options the employee has never clicked on; their list describes features and capabilities you’ve never tried to use.

Every employee should have stretch assignments – responsibilities that require unproven skills and abilities – on a regular basis. In the list you and your employees have just created are the opportunities. Stretch assignments are good for both of you. For the employee, a stretch assignment is the fuel that propels career growth. For you, stretch assignments expand the capabilities of your department.

The rules for stretch assignments are simple. First, they have to be important, but not vital. By definition, they’re riskier than other assignments, so while success has to generate real benefit, failure shouldn’t result in serious harm.

Second, don’t expect perfection. People rarely do things perfectly on the first try. Sometimes, a feature is buggy in the first release but gets better in the next one. Employees should se stretch assignments as opportunities, not as potential career busters.

Third and last, you must offer enough support that the employee can succeed, but not so much that you eliminate the risk of failure. When employees can’t fail … when they don’t make real decisions, deal with real uncertainty along the way, and make the correct choices when doing so … they can’t succeed, because without the possibility of failure there is no success, only completion.

Is alcoholism a disease or a character flaw?

I’m reading Ron Chernow’s Grant, a useful complement to Grant’s own personal memoirs. Grant’s memoirs are a must-read for leaders of all stripes, whether or not you have any interest in the Civil War. It’s also, fortunately enough, compellingly readable — so much so that Chernow’s book would be unnecessary except for three elements Grant didn’t write about:

(1) Read Grant’s memoirs and you’ll discover who he was. Chernow tries to explain why he was who he was. (2) Grant didn’t mention his presidency, which was more distinguished than most of us know, possibly because his throat cancer killed him a week after he delivered his manuscript. And (3) Grant did not mention his struggle with alcoholism, even though it played a prominent role in his personal history.

In your career as a leader and as a manager, it’s a statistical certainty you’ll find yourself dealing with substance-abusing employees. And while it’s doubtful any of them will bring as much drive and ability to their responsibilities as Grant did to his, the odds are better than even that most are capable of being valuable employees.

As a manager, how you deal with a substance-abusing employee is reasonably straightforward: You contact Human Resources and have them walk you through your responsibilities and boundaries. Or, you ignore the substance abuse and focus on job performance, on the grounds that as a manager your job is to get work out the door, in large part by making sure the men and women in your organization get their work out the door.

As a manager, if other employees complain to you about the situation, you ask whether it affects their ability to do their own work.

As a leader your responsibilities are considerably more complicated than that. I think your response has to start with the disease vs character flaw question.

I confess I’m old and judgmental enough that it’s hard to jettison the perception that addicts are weak-willed, pathetic when they aren’t harming anyone else, and bad people when they drive while under the influence.

Reinforcing this bias are those who find ways to overcome their addictions: If they can, why can’t everyone else? Which isn’t a fair assessment, as there’s no way of knowing whether someone who can’t has less willpower or a more profound compulsion.

Also reinforcing my bias: Research showing significant neurophysiological differences between psychopaths and the rest of us. I say reinforcing because I’m just not quite ready to say, to myself or anyone else, “Aw, that poor sociopath. If only he had a better amygdala! I feel for him.”

No, I don’t. Maybe I should, but I don’t.

The deeper we dig into the root causes of human behavior, the harder it is to differentiate between character flaws and psychological syndromes. Maybe that’s good. It’s certainly gives you as a leader a reason to fall back on the managerial solution of I don’t care who you are, just how you act while you’re on the job.

And yet.

One of my regrets is an employee I inherited when I took over a department early in my managerial career. He was an alcoholic, on the wagon when he first started reporting to me.

Then he started drinking again — moderately at first, but for a recovering alcoholic, moderation isn’t stable.

But he was what we now call a high-functioning alcoholic. His work performance remained satisfactory, and so I never once had a frank discussion with him about his drinking. It eventually killed him.

What would that conversation have entailed?

Not threats. He was doing his job well enough. Not “Speaking as your friend,” because he wasn’t my friend. We were friendly, but we weren’t the kind of close that gave me the right to discuss personal matters.

I’m pretty sure I should have let him know I was aware of the situation. I’m certain I should have reminded him that if he ever wanted help, the company had an employee assistance program and made sure he knew how to make use of it.

But he was an adult, and as an adult he had the right to make his own choices, whether or not they were choices I agreed with.

Life is all about choices. One of the interesting things about choices is that while we can and do make them, life doesn’t always let us choose what we have to make choices about.

So while it’s true that an alcoholic can choose to respond to their alcoholism by being a drunk, or by abstaining, that’s different from those of us who don’t have to make that choice in the first place.