Setting you up to fail

I want to play a game with everyone.  I am going to call it, proving myself correct.  The point of this game is to prove to myself that you won’t guess the right answer if I make it almost astronomically impossible for you to do so.  The rules of the game are simple.  I am going to pick a number, one through 100 thousand… and you have to guess it.  Every time you are wrong I get to punch you in the face.

Sound like fun?  🙂

I once worked on a project with a lady who was notorious for not being abundantly clear about what she wanted.  So, to mitigate this my boss met with her and drafted out a document about what she wanted… EXACTLY.  She even signed it with her name to prove she really really meant it.  After creating a working mock based on that paper, we sat together and reviewed the work… she freaked out.  It was nothing like what she wanted.  When leaving she said, “The problem with developers is that they think that everything I say is what I want”.  To that I replied something to the extent of, “My wife seems to think I can read her mind too… however, until I can figure out how hers works, I highly doubt I will figure out yours.”  *

In a later scenario (same place), a temporary boss of mine once berated me after a meeting for not agreeing with him on something.  I told him I was more than willing to carry the company flag if he told me what it was.  How can I succeed if he takes away my ability to do so?  Instead, he set me up to fail… and then proved to himself that I would.  I once asked a teacher how she managed her classroom’s discipline.  She said it was easy.  She set all of the rules, and didn’t allow the possibility for anyone to break them.

I believe it is ENTIRELY managements responsibility to set me up to be successful.  This includes; never giving me a task I cannot handle, clearing obstacles that come up to enable me to work, and finally (go figure) communicate.

With regard to giving people what they can handle… I have a rather simple rule.  I will ask a person to do something once, and give them some leeway.  If they fail, I am going to take them by the hand the next round through.  If they fail again, I start to scale away the responsibility.  I once had a co-worker who demonstrated this rather well.  When we gave him bigger projects, he couldn’t complete them in time or he would whine about how they were too complex.  I sat with him and tried to help him grow into solving his problems.  That didn’t work either.  When we started to scale that back, and give him more time and less complexity, he would complain about how all he did was “finger painting”.  What he really wanted was all of the responsibility and none of the accountability that comes along with it.  You cannot have it both ways.

Obstacles at work are a funny thing.  Some times obstacles are good, such as aggressive time lines.  Sometimes obstacles are really bad… such as impossible time lines.  I would expect that managers would be willing to remove as many of the hoops I have to jump through (and how fast I jump through them) to make our team successful.  If I need something done by xyz team and xyz people… I would hope that my boss would give me the support I need to get that done.  I also expect my boss to support me on decisions I make and helping run them up the flag pole.  This even means telling me I am an idiot before they do.  If I am going the wrong way, I am looking to my boss to help keep me focused.  If I am the obstacle, show me.

As a software engineer I love information.  Information allows me to make informed decisions.  However, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be involved in every decision.  I also don’t want to be ignorant of every decision either.  I am generally a meet in the middle sorta fellow.  Everyone has different domains of responsibilities… the same is true at work.   Give me:  appropriate context, clear direction, and clear expectations… I can do LOTS with that sort of juice.  If you can’t, I can figure out some of the gaps.  But, if you give me nothing, don’t except me to understand.  Just as the lady who expected me to read her mind, I cannot read yours either.  It’s simply unfair to mandate it.


* I would not recommend this as an appropriate response btw…

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  • scaryreasoner  On March 1, 2009 at 5:47 am

    “This includes; never giving me a task I cannot handle,”

    How is management to know this? You expect them to read your mind? You expect them to *have* a mind? So naive.

    • pinvoke  On March 1, 2009 at 5:55 am

      Good question. Giving a beginner developer a senior architect level task would be highly inappropriate. If titles don’t equate to skill, management could start off with basic tasks and see how a person can handle it. As the develop trust, they give a person more and more responsibility. I don’t expect them to read my mind. I expect them to think, communicate, and be generally invested in succeeding. If management is oblivious, then you are right… but I am not sure it would matter at that point either.

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