The lure and peril of quick-fix

I recently was called into a meeting to review an alternate approach to a technical problem I knew very well. The presenters smiled a lot, joked incessantly with one another (though not with their audience) and showed how their approach would deliver a solution faster than another other way. As I spoke with my management friends afterward, I didn’t even have to prompt their reactions. “It won’t work, not at scale” and “I don’t see this working” came from those who are not paid to be technically savvy.

Those reactions were right. And though the work is only beginning, the approach is not sound and is destined to known dysfunction and hand-waving, compromised workmanship. I don’t say that from an envious heart of “not invented here” but from the perspective of one who’s seen too much and too many fail for the same reasons.

QuickFixEgg

The deep lure of the quick-fix has repeatedly astounded me. In the corporate world, it happens when those in power don’t understand the work it takes to produce goods and services and develop suspicion based upon reports of others who don’t understand the work. They come to the conclusion that they are over-paying and over-indulging their most productive workers.

But quick-fix can happen any time that impatience is adopted. Any group or leader can fall prey. Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign was wildly successful because it attacked procrastination. What other footwear would you buy to attack your complacency? But projecting complacency, inefficiency and practical waste onto those who work hard and with integrity is misinformed.

Despite all the spin and Teflon-coating on those responsible yet not accountable, a quick-fix is very often disastrous.

This is not to say it’s easy to fight. Those prone to it want to be process heroes. And there is legitimate process evolution to be done. But it’s also the job of those who know quick-fix when they see it and are called to speak up. Here are some alternatives to offer:

  1. Planning and design. Eisenhower said “Plans are worthless but planning is everything” – meaning that contingencies can’t possibly be known beforehand but they can all be considered beforehand. An obvious and usually required phase of any project, but overlooked or partially done for quick-fix, the need to to brainstorm, write down and bat around the details of how the desired goals will be met is indispensable. The battle for doing planning/design is a hill to die on, truly.
  2. Do it right – quickly. Are there ways to correctly accomplish the task that get you and those waiting for you to the goal faster than traditional means. Nine women can’t have a baby in a month, but they can have nine babies in nine months. And that’s just citing parallel labor (intentional pun). A solid antidote to quick-fix is innovative process. Tools and technique, all that.
  3. Do it right – in phases. Software, even that in the Cloud, has the notion of releases or versions. For sure there is a bare minimum of what is viable – call that Release 1, which is never very useful. So you do need something that is standing, even on crutches, which meets impatient demands. But after that, amendments and replacements are less noticed but vital. You can even correct go-faster mistakes. Caveat – this does require buy-in from the powers that be who will be tempted to declare “all done” and move you on to other things before you are really “all done” – to their own discredit and at their own cost.
  4. Patience. When people cite their goals in their field of endeavor there is an implicit time line. And there is inherent impatience with the project not meeting the time goals. Therefore, impatience is highly valued trait in leadership. Now, the time aspect is not imagined – it’s very real. Whether I am working with people, machines or markets, there are such a things as “late”, “very late” and “too late”. That said, the virtue of “early”, “under budget” or even “on time” is often overblown. It is the folly of quick-fix leaders to blow that trumpet only and never consider – or be called to account – for the long-term effects of what they have produced. It’s a ploy, and one that sacrifices value for appearance. So, a balance needs to be struck here and doing a job right needs to be tempered by doing it quickly.

This is not a call for sloth or unionized slowdowns or overarching process. And sometimes quick-fix is the way to go; it’s important to be real about that.

But the time to oppose and suggest alternatives to a quick-fix approach is earlier than later. Citing the past and asking hard questions.

It’s a good fight to have.

Cancelled

The business world is unpredictable. I have learned over many iterations and through the depths of devastation NOT to cement my hopes to promises of management and plan my future according to their word. When I do, I will almost invariably find myself awash in the emotional muck of betrayal, futility and just fatigue.

The problem is that I want to be passionate about my work. It has to matter to me to do it right, with excellence and diligence. I want to finish the job. And I’m good at what I do. That’s not a boast; it’s the testimony of those who regularly review and evaluate my “performance”.

So it happened again.

Cancelled.

canceled

The cycle goes like this:

  1. A project starts up, designs happen, maybe a prototype.
  2. Preliminary results roll in and they are somewhere between auspicious and stellar.
  3. The meat of the project gets underway. People work hard, together and intermediate results are produced.
  4. Management reviews the project or there is a business event or shift.
  5. The project is cancelled.

Now, I’ve been on projects that are canceled earlier than point e). And this most recent cancellation was after point b).

And most painful were those project canceled who had lasted 2-5 years before point d).

I had someone once tell me to “just get over it” and that stung almost as much as the cancellation. You don’t just turn your passion off like a switch.

They say it’s not failure; that 70% of all projects never finish. You can imagine how much that helps.

Now it is a business fact that management loses confidence if a deliverable is not produced in months and not years. They are not paid to be patient or risk-tolerant.

In engineering it’s supposed to be adult and well-adjusted to just produce. Anything. For any amount of time. Dispassionately. Without attachments or emotions.

I can’t do that. Or I won’t. And I don’t really care which it is. It’s not me.

So where do I go when this happens? I go to loving people; it’s all that keeps going.

  • There will be a new team with people I can love, encourage and do stuff with. I don’t know how long it will last but the people are what matter, not the work. No matter what management says.
  • I will love management. Those people live in fear and under constant criticism. They don’t need more from me. It’s not that I won’t speak my mind – they also need to know they don’t manage robots.
  • I will love my wife, my family, my friends and my church. They are always there for me and .. they are a big reason I go to work in the first place.
  • I will love my work. Picking up the pieces, assessing what I’ve learned, I will dare to try again. In smaller places. Even unapproved ones. Because that’s where I’m a genius.

Canceled. It’s not the end of the world. Just another disappointment.

The reign of the dysfunctional

At the advice of my friend Pastor Phil McCutchen, I just finished reading Edwin Friedman’s Failure of Nerve Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix . It’s not an easy read, but one very worth the investment, particularly if you are in leadership in any capacity.

The premise of the book is the very observable phenomenon of the anxiety of the most dysfunctional members of any family or organization being allowed not just to influence but to rule.  This has grown into a world-view and Friedman attacks it – as the prevailing view of west culture at large – in the name of the word “empathy”. That its expression and working out should be the primary governing directional focus cripples the entire group but particularly the leader.

He uses the phrase “well-differentiated” throughout the book – only defining it about 60% through – to describe a leader that has distinguished him/herself from the anxiety-driven weight of group judgment. If empowered, the least stable and productive and functional in a group will elect itself as a jury to approve and disapprove of every decisive whim and movement taken.

I think he makes good points. Points to be taken in balance, but good ones nonetheless. As a reaction to over-reaching and oppressive leaders, checks have been established. They are found in laws, in labor movement structure and lots of other places. They are legitimate and have done good. In America we celebrate something good on Labor Day.  And civil laws protecting individuals from those who would victimize them are a good thing too.

But in some cases and in the general cultural mindset what these counter measures have morphed into is stultifying. If all leadership is suspect, how will anything ever get done? Friedman likes Christopher Columbus for his adventuring spirit, admitting he was a lousy governor. To hear people talk today, Columbus was nothing more than a butcher of native people. Good case in point, because the truth is somewhere between.

And Friedman does not advocate oppression as part of “self-differentiation”. That’s as dysfunctional as ruling victims. I think he strikes a good balance. And those of the prevailing culture will necessarily be up in arms at his conclusions. Because they are out of balance.

My recent experiences as a leader have been traumatic. It has felt terrible each time because I want to people to work and serve together. But my biggest accomplishment over the past year plus, if you could call it that, has been watching or helping people leave my teams. I’ve seen people leave who haven’t gotten what they wanted, like an unseen alarm clock had gone off. I’ve seen people whose departure I aided when they were a bad fit and/or were poisonous to the team. I haven’t always communicated well – and that’s a big learning point for me going forward.  And there are other lessons learned – painful though they have been.

But I was blessed to read what Friedman said because it put labels on things I have seen – as we all have.

We have gone too far in calling dysfunctional people victims. In so doing, we have valued their state and have let therapeutic language and action too powerfully into governance and policy.

The modern polarity lacks the ability to balance these things. It cannot reconcile empowered, decisive (and yes, wealthy) leadership with benefit. It cannot value or nurture the resiliency of hurt people as they overcome and heal.

There’s no question that in the popular ideological stamping Friedman’s ideas are on the right politically.  But those who dismiss them like that will dismiss a reasonable, sane voice that offers good balance.  And at some level, in some endeavor, adopt inertia.

Again it’s NOT a blind eye to suffering or those who cause it that’s advocated, just a reality-based view that moves on spite of it. We take measures to help the poor – really help them – but do not let their poverty steal and reign.

And I guess if you call this a dangerous stance, you should consider the danger of the anxious inertia that keeps things from happening. Because that is just as real and just as bad as oppression and even abuse. We must fight both, not just one or the other.

Instructed by healthy compromise

It’s no surprise that I can have conflict in life; we all do.

As we age, if we’re perceptive and reflective in the least,  we acquire principles by which we navigate the tasks and work with the people at hand.  The principles work – that’s why they’re principles, but I have found that the people can have little or no respect for such notions as efficiency, priority and even agree on goals.

When that happens, I generally sink into moods and actions that are quite unbecoming of someone so .. principled.  Maybe I need a new layer of principles crafted for just that eventuality.  Ok, will work on that.  Well, I am working on that and have been working on that.

And it’s taken me to the area of negotiated compromise.  If a principle is held to so tenaciously it can make me completely unpractical and useless.  Not to mention destructive for all the wrong reasons.

So I compromise.  I wait my turn to say what I have to say.  And I remember in truth how these principles became established in my life – usually from being wrong.  (It’s never been about being right).

Relating to those to whom I report – I take orders and offer constructive commentary.  Now, fortunately those are both in my job description.  But even in the most regimented, unforgiving environments – let’s say the military – it is possible and important to ask permission to speak off the record.  And if one’s words are edifying, even if contrary and summarily ignored at first, one’s principles and cause will generally be advanced.

Dealing with peers, I state my position without yielding its learned driving tenets (I “stick to my guns”) and defend those for whom I am responsible (my “reports”), both in practical and personal terms.

Towards those who report to me, I persuade and listen, taking in alternative suggestions so as to incorporate the best we all have to offer.  No doubt there are those who have felt and still feel slighted by my not taking their approach or advice, but I’ve learned that’s part of leading.  Honestly, try it sometime.

Now, lacking this practice of pragmatism turns me turn into someone quite poisonous and distracting.  My principles, given too much power,  take me completely out of the game.  That’s not good.

This has be taken to the grand scale, because tribal and national relations are a very good area displaying the dynamics of conflict resolution and compromise as well.

America is a melting pot.  It’s not the only one by any means.  But there are wildly divergent opinions, things to advocate for or against and groups formed around the promotion of those ideas and policies.

The conflict can get nasty – more on that later – but we basically get along.  We vote people into and out of office and mostly we submit to the results of that voting process, even if we don’t like the results.

Some years ago I spoke to a Moroccan man and our conversation turned to the government of his country.  They have a king.  I asked him what happens when it’s time for a new king.  Now, I have no idea if he spoke for most Moroccans, maybe not, in what he said and particularly how he said it, but he announced, with unflinching matter-of-fact-ness “We shoot the king and another rises up to power” (paraphrase).

I will unabashedly say elections is a better way to transfer power and this is as extreme a difference in process as may exist, but it reveals what I call (and I’m trying to be redemptive, believe me) an immature approach to conflict resolution.

At this writing the people of Crimea are preparing to vote whether or not that part of today’s Ukraine will rejoin Russia.  Ethnic Russians comprise a majority in that state and the vote is likely to go their way, say the experts.  The aftermath will be interesting and possibly horribly tragic.

In America,we have ethnic people of every stripe yet we haven’t had secession and war since the 19th century Civil War which was really about slavery and the economics of the south (Lincoln said it was to preserve the union, but that was a union split by those factors).  We vote.  We live with the results.  Mostly.  Now and then a president is assassinated, but not like Moroccan kings, to establish a succession of power.  It’s not a coup d’etat.

But truth be told we also have conflict resolution issues even within our election-based system.    There’s always controversy, always disagreement.  And that’s good because we need each other’s principles, agree with them or like it or not.

Our current problem – and it’s always a problem – is civility, or the lack thereof.

Let me make a statement I made in isolation on Facebook today:

A key measure of the maturity of any party or movement is its civility – its raw treatment – of those who, breaking no law and in all good conscience, simply disagree and pursue the “competition”. The shaming mockery of those who differ from us does nothing to establish our superiority; instead it degrades and regresses our argument to that of a 12-year-old..

So, I think we need to chill and be instructed by pragmatism.  To humble ourselves and remember that we’re all just learning.  We know a lot less than we think we do.  And knowing that is extremely valuable.

Principles are vital – we worked hard for them after all – but we’re not done accumulating them – none of us.

And if truth be told – and it will be told no matter what we think – principles within us conflict and jostle for prominence.  Balance in all things, including balance.

I won’t go into the scriptures here .. those tenets and principles that I believe trump all others.  That belief would seem to establish an unfair advantage to a particular tribe and its ideas.

And I have many friends who would shriek at the idea of compromising on scripture.  But I’m not.  And I won’t.

That’s because the full counsel of scripture also has a very balanced approach to life.  Its principles temper one another.  Iron sharpens iron among people of faith.  It’s a whole different level.  And a whole different blog entry.