Monday, September 29, 2008

Unionized product development

imageThis is not what you are thinking, I don’t want to form a union. In fact I wouldn’t want to join an union even if someone bothered to form one.

However, in a large organization, whatever power is not lost to organized labor is often lost to disorganized operations, diluted through excessive, and often unnecessary, divisions of power through the ranks.

Separating function by excellence and capacity

I think specialization is a wonderful thing. Focusing on a particular skill can transform a merely competent engineer into a good engineer, if not a great one. If someone is excellent at, let’s say, database development, and I mean walking-over-the-water excellent, it is counter-productive to try and make that person spend part of his time dragging himself through product planning meetings. Assigning database development to him just makes sense. That is the “excellence” criteria.

I also have no problem with delegation of responsibility spawning from an overworked function, where a single person clearly cannot execute both tasks. While separating the function, I tend to prefer *delegating* the function from the overworked person, rather than *separating” the function, unless the receiver of the new function is clearly excellent at it and can operate virtually independently. That is my “capacity” criteria.

Favoring delegation over separation tends to favor a democratic decision process over a distributed one. In a democratic process, one or few people make decisions after consulting subject matter specialists. In a distributed process, there are endless meetings because no one has the skills to know what should be done, but plenty of other ‘deciders’ to scatter the blame when the inevitable failure ensues. There should be no confusion between a centralized decision process that is transparent to many with a distributed process carried out by many.

Arbitrary separation, or “the unionization”

A distributed (or diluted) decision power is often the result of arbitrary division of responsibilities, where the functions are separated without meeting either the “excellence” or the “capacity” criteria. It is interesting to observe how otherwise wilful colleagues suddenly fall in “union” mode when placed in a team setting like this, avoiding making a decision they are clearly capable of because the responsibility owner is the one who is assigned to make it. Let it fester, and a team can be thrown back to the hellish days of GM assembly lines being shut down for a day because the guy who screwed the lugs of the left-front wheel called in sick.

When you need a better player, not a new one

If you ever watched a rally race (highly entertaining,) you observed an optimal separation of function: one person drives, the other navigates. Navigation says “hard left”, driver turns left…hard.

Now imagine that sometimes the driver misses a shift or two. Is it better to assign extra practice to the driver or move the navigator to the backseat, install a clutch pedal on the passenger side, and introduce a secondary driver that can focus only on shifting gears? It shouldn’t take more than a rollover or two before someone can answer that question.

What if I have many players, but not excellent ones?

In my experience, a team leader should make a point of making each of them excellent at something. If you have someone inexperienced, choose something small and make him excellent at it. And by “make him” excellent, I don’t mean assigning the responsibility for something and hoping experience will make up for it. What I really mean is “train, orient, and demand results”, which implies you mastered the skill yourself or have someone onboard who has. Don’t think “coaching” here, coaching is but a technique and a wrong one depending on the occasion. As a colleague and great team leader once wrote: “don’t be a team hugger, be a team leader”.

Think drill sergeant minus the cursing. Once your team members start to fall in one area of excellence or another, you should need less team members, be able to cut down on your communication matrix, and focus on delivering results versus keeping the illusion of collaboration through communication chatter. The team members you must lose will have marketable skills to bank on, not to mention that while learning to be excellent at something they will also have learned how to become excellent at anything they choose.

I used to be upset about training someone just to see him taken away to work on another project, but come to think of it, after shipping a successful product, the next best, and more frequent, accomplishment in my career has been the drilling training of green new hires that were later disputed by multiple teams.

For managers, I think this means approaching task assignment with a tighter grip on the deep technical skills available on the team and the skills required to complete the project, focusing on keeping the team as small as possible. Someone with excellent social skills may not always be the better choice over that zOS-expert-perennial-jerk in “B” isle; a jerk can always be told to be less like himself for three months, the smiley face cannot be urged to absorb years of experience before the project begins. The alternative? Forming a little “team-union” of two.

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