Success or failure hangs on the questions managers and technical people ask when planning releases, making decisions, considering strategy alternatives or looking for improvements.
Yet we don't often stop to consider the questions we ask. Every question contains assumptions and while the question opens one avenue of inquiry, it closes others.
The question you ask determines the answers you will receive. The assumptions that are implicit in the question constrain the inquiry. So let's look at some of the questions I've heard managers ask when things aren't going as they'd like and make the assumptions explicit.
In one large corporation, the executives weren't satisfied with the service or speed with which the IT department delivered projects. The sacked the VP of the IT department and brought in a new one with a reputation for a no-nonsense approach to management.
Here are some of the questions she asked:
Where is the dead wood?
How can we get them to work harder?
Who are A/B/C players?
How can we trim the fat?
How can we make them (the developers and testers) go faster?
How can we cut costs?
I suspect this is a fairly typical set of questions for someone brought into turn around a struggling organization.
And there's an interesting set of assumptions. Where is the dead wood?
Presumably, all the employees in this department are still alive, and had been live wood when they were hired. The assumption is that there are people in the organization who are not doing anything the contributes to the vitality and productivity of the department.
The unspoken part of the sentence relates to what gardeners do with dead wood--they don't revive it but coaxing in nutrients and restoring productivity, they cut it out. The implication is that, once the deadwood people were found, they'd be fired. Because obviously, becoming deadwood is the fault of the individual. The question doesn't allow for the fact that sometimes--perhaps most of the time--when employees disengage from the work it's a result of the nature of the work and their attachment to the company, which is nurtured through relationships with managers.
How can we get them (developers and testers) to work harder?
The obvious assumption here is that people are not working hard now. The secondary assumption is that inducing other people to work harder is the way to improve results.Who are our A/B/C players?
This is a ranking question, and assumes that people can be sorted into buckets based on some criteria. The next step of this question is the assumption that eliminating C players will improve results. The meta assumption is that individual effort is the main source of department results and that work isn't interdependent or accomplished through social networks.How can we make them (developers and testers) go faster?
Like the question about working harder, this assume that developers and testers are not going as fast as they can now. It assumes that speed is a matter of will, and the terrain has no impact on speed. It also assumes that the role of management is to whip other people to go faster.How can we cut costs?
The assumption is that spending less will improve the economic equation.
The VPs questions led to predictable actions.
Managers applied more pressure to the technical staff. People cut corners to go faster (now, and slower later).
People who were confident in finding new jobs left. The people who were afraid they didn't have the skills to face the job market hung tight. There were rumors of layoffs. Fear lead to people to choose CYA over do the right work the right way. Competition undercut cooperation and collaboration.
The VP to an ax to department budgets. The balance sheet looked better (in the short term), but costs went up.
If the VP had questioned her assumptions, she might have asked different questions. And with different questions, she would have seen different possibilities for action.
Labels: management, personal effectiveness