Thursday, November 25, 2010

When Ego and Common Sense Collide ….

…. or ….

“The noise in your car will go away if you turn the radio up loud enough”.

This thought came to mind today as I spoke to a good friend and Wall St. client as we exchanged Thanksgiving pleasantries.

My friend, whom I will name “Frank”, is working on a project of considerable cost and complexity that, after starting and being cancelled three times mid-project, is now gaining traction for a fourth go-around.

As a strategy guy, I was intrigued by this and asked him what was different about this version of the project versus the previous incarnations that had gone down in flames.

Are the measurable outcomes different than before? –> No

Are the tools and processes being used different than before? –> No

Is the technology that it is built upon different than before? –> No

Are the regulatory influences different than before? –> No

Are there different people designing the solution? –> No

Are there different people implementing the solution? –> No

Is the solution being developed for a different group of users? –> No

Is there ANYTHING substantially different between this incarnation and the previous ones.

“Not that I can see.”

So, Frank, how do you know this one will be successful when the others failed?

“Well, Harry, there are no guarantees in life.  You do the best you can with what you have and hope for the best”.

Well, Frank, you are about to be burned by the Bread Recipe Rule (first coined by Gerald Weinberg) which states:

If you take the same baker, ingredients and recipe, you will always bake the same bread.

Frank paused and then acknowledged that given everything he could see, the fourth incarnation will probably end up being the same as the rest.

If you know this, Frank, why are you participating in the project?

In the conversation that ensued, Frank described a process where past project experiences could not be discussed. To do so was considered a negative practice and thus a distraction from the bright future they were manifesting.

He described a process where it was decided that to rethink a different way of doing things was deemed unnecessary.  After all, the best solution, process and team had already been created and so why should anyone waste time revisiting everything from the beginning?

For those on the project who had a sense that they were about to bake another loaf of the same bread, their voice of reason was drowned out in a cacophony of accusations of “not being a team player”, “being a pessimist”, or some other insult, most of which was encouraged by the project leadership and dutifully shared by the project team members.

Some people who strongly expressed their opinion that they were repeating history were transferred out of the project. 

Two were fired for being a negative influence on the project, for daring to suggest that the fourth incarnation will probably follow in the footsteps of the prior attempts.

Ego Overrules Common Sense

The ego of the team, particularly within the leadership of the project, is shouting so loudly that it is preventing them from seeing that they are repeating history – a very expensive history.

The killer for me was when I asked Frank, if he knew that what they were doing was wrong, then why he didn’t just find somewhere else to work.

His answer summed it up:

Do you know how much I would give up in stock and perks if I walk away from my employer?

His personal values, common sense and life experience, which told him that what they were doing was wrong, had been compromised by the extrinsic motivator of money.

The life experiences of the team’s leaders and how they viewed the knowledge of the team members were being compromised by their ego.

Common sense, like Elvis, had left the building.

I realized as we spoke that many of our corporate leaders still don’t get it, despite assurances to the public, to shareholders, etc. that bailouts, regulatory changes, a few rah-rah team building exercises and other things have produced a different way of doing business.

Key Element of Leadership – Influence and Values

They miss a key element of leadership.

You can regulate a business all you want.

You can offer incentives and punishments to organizations and the people within them all you want.

You can write corporate rah-rah statements that make people jump up and down with excitement.

You can hang those nifty motivational posters all over the office and feel smug that you have changed an entire culture with a couple of cute expressions.

However, if you forget that the demonstrated values of the leadership at the top of the organization grow and amplify as they move down through the rank and file, then the leadership has missed the whole point of leadership.

The point is that the leaders influence their entire organization through their actions and behaviors and that as they demonstrate their personal values on a daily basis, so will the people within the organization embrace and emulate those same values.

This is the power of strong leadership, good and bad.

And so when I see poor actions taking place within the bowels of a large organization, I don’t think that the core of the problem, the “thing” that needs to be fixed, is at that specific level of the organization.

Instead, I look at the leadership of the organization, the behavior of the leaders and the values that they demonstrate.

And when I do that, I can tell exactly what type of “bread” their organization will bake throughout the different levels of the organization.

Avoiding the Negative Impact of Excessive Ego

Many leaders use their ego to brazen and bully their way through many situations, ignoring or covering up the issues that are all around them.

So will the people who follow them.

The problem is that, as with a car that is making a bad noise , “turning up the radio” can provide you with an opportunity to ignore the problem.

But sooner or later, you end up broken down in the middle of nowhere – just as we were in the spring and summer of 2008.

The only way to avoid breaking down is to turn down the radio and honestly assess the problem.

With a focus on collaborating.

With a focus on acknowledging the respective skills, knowledge, talents and life experiences of others that may shed light on a better way of doing things.

With a focus on mutual respect and trust, in an environment where every opinion matters.

Without excessive ego.

Otherwise, the organization may be about to experience a significant problem.

It’s like car brakes that make a very loud screech when you apply them.

You can always turn up the radio.

And that makes everything ok.

Doesn’t it?

In service and servanthood.


For my Musings-in-a-Minute version of “When Ego and Common Sense Collide”, please click here.

1 comment:

  1. Honestly assessing the situation is one of the toughest things in the world to do. You know this and this is why you are here, sharing with us. To remind us of this.

    Sometimes we want what we want, regardless of anything else. That kind of childish behavior tends to get us into the most trouble - just like it does children.

    Thank you Harry for how you look at things and communicate them.