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Leadership, Positions of Power

So Craig and I had a discussion about what to do when you are a member of a team and are faced with a leader making a decision you feel is wrong (or being a leader who makes a decision a vocal member of the team feels is wrong). Leaving aside edge-conditions (the whole company will fail on this decision!) moral issues (the CEO wants to feed people into ovens) or entirely pragmatic decision making (what if the leader being a jerk just had a death in the immediate family? I wouldn't totally cross-examine him then!) we can look at the philosophy of this. It broke down like so:

When faced with a perceived bad decision in the chain of command does the employee:
  1. Take One For The Team. Put aside your differences and work to make it happen even if you don't agree with the direction--because you're a team player!!
  2. You Gotta Fight--For Your Right. You are right. You're success oriented and "appeal to authority" is a logical fallacy (it says so right on Wikipedia! Look!!).
  3. Consider Me Gone. I won't argue with the referee--but I will leave the game! It's a free country.

I came down as a #1. Craig was #2 or, if he couldn't take it any more: #3. And he's done it--successfully (kinda: he got resurrected as a consultant for his old company but the salary increase was maybe worth it).

The Point of View Of The Leader

When we started this, I discovered that I relate to this question from the point of view of the person who is in a leadership role--because in my life I am. So here's what it looks like from the manager's view. In case you don't know.

Myths About Command
I think that for guys at the bottom of the chain of command looking up, the thought process often goes like this: "Man, if I was responsible I'd have the authority to really make a difference ... unlike the current crop of bozos. Then I'd get all the relevant information and make a smart decision! Yeah!!"

The problem with this is that it's a fantasy. You often have responsibility without authority (the for-real executive will not burn precious credibility giving you command until you have proved yourself: they expect you to exhibit leadership before being given an HR-panic inducing hammer) and you almost never have all the information necessary to make a "smart decision." Think you can calculate ROI? A lot of enterprises can't even calculate TCO! And Opportunity Costs? Dream on. If you don't know what all those acronyms meant it's "Return on Investment" and "Total Cost of Ownership." These are central elements to making "smart" decisions. Usually they are incredibly expensive and time consuming to determine for large enterprises.

What The Arguer Looks Like To The Leader
If you are the leader making a decision and you've made it and the guy keeps arguing this is what it looks like to me: it looks freakin' first and foremost scary. Here is why: you need the team to work--you are center of the bulls-eye for blame if it goes wrong. The guy running his mouth? It's not his career on the line: it's yours. When this guy isn't following your direction the team may break down--collapse: anyone who's been around enough has seen it happen.

So you realize that authority (or just "leadership") won't work and then you have to convince this guy (or escalate to group-a-geddon where you initiate action--something that always looks bad for you).

But that's okay, the arguer thinks: "Go ahead and convince me: I listen to reason!"

Everyone thinks they listen to reason--everyone. Crazy people think they are sane. That means nothing (NOTE: Craig is one of the smartest and most reasonable guys I know--but not everyone who holds a #2 philosophy is ... so consider that). But even if the guy is pretty "reasonable" if you are counting on their support (i.e. do not have firing authority) then you know that every disagreement with them is a huge amount of work.

You may have 10 years of experience. You may have information in your head you cannot "cite" on demand--no matter: if you are counting on the guy's performance you must plan (in your plan--your daily time budget) for a debate at any time--because they, like Tom Petty, won't back down. You have a zillion other things to deal with and getting the guy to work with you requires a complex argument and back-and-forth. And that's a best case--that's if the guy can be convinced.

If you are not in charge of people you may not really dig this--but maybe you can: ask yourself how good does that guy have to be before you want him on your team.

Ask yourself: are most people actually that good?

Point of View Of the Employee

This is harder for me for two reasons. One of them is NOT that I'm in charge. Today my boss disagreed with me about something I felt strongly about and I argued it until he made his decision and then I decided to back him up.

No, the reason I have a hard time with this is the following:
  1. My model of human behavior has some pretty negative things to say about that.
  2. I don't believe that there's usually a "right" answer to these questions in a practical (and maybe philosophical) sense.

Would You Rather Be 'Close' or 'Right'?
That's a question counselors ask battling couples when they go round-and-round about some trivial (but life-wrecking) issue like who's turn it is to do the dishes. The point is that if you are focused on arguing after a leadership decision has been made that looks to me like an intent to be in power struggle. I'm not saying it always is--and for any given person it certainly may not be the motivator.

But on the whole, that's what it seems like to me--and mostly when I have seen it in the wild (not with Craig) that is how it has played out.

I Don't Think There Is A Right Answer
This freaked Craig out. Here's the deal: I do, in fact, believe that at the very bottom of reality things may not be as "logical" and "sensible" as we'd like. QM posits some things that are very counter intuitive. Relativity gives us "actual paradoxes" (like the Ladder Paradox which demolishes the notion of simultaneity). Even in the mundane every-day world I do not necessarily believe there is a "correct set of decisions" for a given problem. Firstly making any decision could (and often does) by its nature change the problem. If you decide to just-in-time develop vs. over-engineering the way that plays out after the decision is made could effect the "rightness" of it from the time it was decided* (i.e. making the "right decision" can turn to the wrong one in implementation--simply because of the act of making the decision through argument*). So I'm not sure that there's a real "right answer."

But I am totally sure that given most questions constraints there is no practical right answer. Ultimately it comes down to a judgment call and if I'm a team member I'll debate--but eventually defer to the leader. If I'm a leader, I'll listen--but ultimately I'll make my call and I want my team behind me when I do.

I think that the kind of total knowledge you need to know if, for a start up, lowering the barrier to sign-up or having more valuable information about your user-base is simply unavailable. Worse, I think it's a conceptual error: if you continue to argue about this you are deep into diminishing returns on any potential value since you could be doing other things at the same time.

* This is a bit complex to explain in a blog post--but I have seen these things happen. The decision making process itself effects the implementation of the decisions even when everyone has good intentions.




( 23 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 14th, 2008 10:55 pm (UTC)
I raise an argument and if overruled acquiesce but make sure there's a record of my view for the inevitable disaster and mop-up.
Aug. 14th, 2008 10:56 pm (UTC)
I approve!

Aug. 15th, 2008 01:01 am (UTC)
I actually raised a question about this a long while ago. At one point do you smile, nod, & CYA while the organization self-destructs? At what point do you simply not take it any more? (For me the answer was "when there's a better (or at least new) opportunity at hand").
Aug. 15th, 2008 12:58 am (UTC)
When we started this, I discovered that I relate to this question from the point of view of the person who is in a leadership

And for what it's worth, I've never *been* in a real leadership position (at least not official; I try to lead in the absence of other leadership but I've never held title).

Also, I should state that I have actually "taken one for the team" on many occasions... I'm just not happy about it, and think that it's ultimately counterproductive. But I do pick my battles.
Aug. 15th, 2008 01:19 am (UTC)
Being the guy responsible--when your career really can be effected by success or failure ... that's a perspective changing event if I've ever seen one.

Aug. 15th, 2008 01:18 am (UTC)
I do, in fact, believe that at the very bottom of reality things may not be as "logical" and "sensible" as we'd like. QM posits some things that are very counter intuitive.

Note that, while QM definitely posits stuff that's counter-intuitive (at least to us humans), and thus are "non-sensible" (depending on whose "sense" you're comparing to), it's not necessarily "illogical". It is "non-deterministic" (in favor of "probabilistic"), but everything does follow logic once you get your assumptions/axioms right. That's why QM is a science as opposed to something subjective.
Aug. 15th, 2008 01:33 am (UTC)
Without going into my lay-knowledge of QM and Relativity--which won't get us far--what I'm suggesting is that a view that says "I must get to the RIGHT solution by rigorous logic and debate" is, to my thinking, flawed from the beginning.

I believe that rigorous logic and debate are valuable and should be engaged in--but I do not believe they will lead to a RIGHT answer. I don't believe that any amount of work would prove you or I correct in our example controversy.

The best we could do is make one or the other rigorous argument and ... would that convince the other? Not necessarily. If you could show stats about how secondary questions cause a fall-off in signups / usage I might not be convinced by your market segment.

If I could show stats on how low barrier to entry creates "stickiness" you might object that my stats were Web 1.0.

These objections are maybe-valid / maybe not. Who can say? And the process of debating--of taking the time and effort to prove these things--of using that energy which might be spent doing other things? That effort alone could change the dynamic around the initial question.

Over all, I'm not opposed to logic and process--it is an absolute necessity. But I also don't hold much stock in getting the 'RIGHT' answer--I'm not arguing my position because I think it is cosmically right--just because I think it is a good idea.

(This is a long way of saying not only don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good--but don't be seduced by the notion of the perfect in the first place).

Aug. 15th, 2008 01:40 am (UTC)
But I also don't hold much stock in getting the 'RIGHT' answer--I'm not arguing my position because I think it is cosmically right--just because I think it is a good idea.

This seems contradictory to me. If you think it's "a good idea", couldn't you also say it's "the closest idea we have to the RIGHT one"? You're not choosing an idea that's *less* right than another, are you?

Definition time: "Right" = "most likely to generate the most favorable results"
Aug. 15th, 2008 01:50 am (UTC)
The all caps RIGHT indicates that the idea is objectively the best path to favorable results. I'm not sure mine is. Mine could be. But it might not be. It would give us leverage options if we did a lot of other things around that.

Chess masters (according to psychologists) play this way: they do not think moves ahead quite like a computer. They analyze entire positions and then apply experience (your weakest form of proof) to the equation.

I suspect that my solution could bear fruit down the line--but I cannot trace a direct path from here to there. I still suggested it because I felt it was a best-practices approach to some kinds of value props. But it's not necessarily the RIGHT one.

Aug. 15th, 2008 01:31 am (UTC)
i.e. making the "right decision" can turn to the wrong one in implementation--simply because of the act of making the decision through argument*

That's not quite what I meant when I was talking about "right decisions".

A decision involves a choice between one of many actions. Each action will have a consequence. Those consequences will have varying levels of "good" (which is definitely subjective, but that's beside the point here; assume for the moment that goodness is objective and universal). Except for ties, you can say that one choice in the decision would be the "best" one, as it resulted in the most "good".

Looking backward through time, it's relatively easy to determine the best choice in the decision. Figuring it out while looking forward is often very difficult (approaching impossible).

Naturally, you'll try to make the best choice you can in order to get the best consequences you can. You may not succeed; in retrospect what you thought was the best choice may turn out not to be, and there's usually nothing you can do about that.

That does *not* mean that the best choice does not exist... it just means that you may have a difficult/impossible time picking it. And the act of choosing doesn't mean that the best consequences suddenly jump from one choice to another.

At least, not in the universe as we humans understand it... I could be proven wrong by some weird QM theory. But it does apply to nearly every situation that we can comprehend today.
Aug. 15th, 2008 01:44 am (UTC)
I'm not sure I agree with this on a philosophical basis. Firstly a choice is between one and many sets of actions (a choice usually results in a whole decision tree of new actions).

Most Basic Disagreement: The Decision Process Effects the Decisions
But more importantly: if we draw the tree at Time t1 and say if we choose approach-X or Y which is the most successful. Then we do both (with no discussion--just a choice) and then at t2 evaluate both (in alternate time-lines) we can, in theory tell which was better?

Maybe (I say 'no'--but let's assume the answer is not only "yes"--but "yes, and we presume we have the ability to do alternate realities and maybe time travel).

If instead at t1 we start discussion about X and Y we may, running the time-lines, find that the original best-choice would now be the worse one because the act of the debate changes the dynamic of the team (and I'm not just talking about hurt feelings--it could be missed deadlines or even just subtle changes in approach).

The discussion is most likely not going to be able to see the effects of the debate and correct for them (this is very hard--nearing impossible).

More Complex Disagreement
We can't travel in time and we can't view alternate universes. I am not sure that there is, really, a best path for a lot of decisions. It's like the paradox I linked to: things from one frame of reference are simply different in another. Perhaps that's true of success and failure?

(Again, this is a bit cosmic--and I'm willing to accept that I'm wrong: just fire up the trans-dimensional viewer and I'll change my mind ... probably ;) )

Aug. 15th, 2008 04:29 am (UTC)
Wow, I had actually written "actions or sets of actions" before I changed it for the sake of simplicity. :-P

Whether you're talking about a single decision or a full-blown decision tree is mostly irrelevant; although the complexity of the outcome increases the principle I wrote of still stays the same. Each decision/decision path will have a particular set of consequences.

It's like the paradox I linked to: things from one frame of reference are simply different in another.

Be very careful applying that paradox to the argument. The Ladder Paradox is a particular consequence of physical objects traveling at relativistic speeds. That doesn't mean that it is valid for speeds that we normally live in, and it definitely doesn't mean that it's valid for decision making. It may be a useful analogy, but I wouldn't use it as the foundation for your argument. :-P
Aug. 15th, 2008 11:04 am (UTC)
The relevant discipline, I think, is Chaos Theory
If by "the right decision" we mean "the one most-likely to produce a successful outcome" I think that in a reasonably complex project (i.e. most of them) the cohesion of the team is far more important that the approach.

They say in the army that "no plan survives contact with the enemy" and I agree -- whatever course-setting decisions are made, the plan is likely to change. People will be wrong about their assumptions. Things we thought were true going in will turn out to be false. The budget will be cut, etc.

I say that the key to success is the ability to adapt to changing conditions; the team needs to be agile and reactive. Some of this is methodology (have periodic check points to measure progress and re-adjust -- a somewhat recently re-learned principle in software development)... but a lot of it is people getting along and being good team members.

There's some threshold for where engaging on discussion and debate becomes counter productive even if he eventual decisions are high-quality.

Does anyone have examples (from real life, but with names and PII changed) of legitimate arguments over course where there was clearly a RIGHT decision? Most of the ones I can think of are in a much more gray area:

- We're asking for too much detail; we can estimate costs without all this data (maybe true, but how credible will our estimate be?)
- If, in some hypothetical 3-years-out future scenario requirements change, we will want a different foundation technology.. if they change in a certain way (that could be said for almost any foundation technology decision; 3-year-plus predictions are notoriously hard to get right...)
- The sales pitch isn't exciting enough / clear enough / etc. (said by the boss demanding a re-write; the guys who would have to do the re-write were certain everything was fine). This is always arguable, but it's more about policy than RIGHT or Wrong
- This architecture is too complex to fully test (said about a distributed network data system) -- that one was the most-likely objectively right or wrong, but like everything in real life it was less a math problem and more of a time/priorities/how-good-are-we-at-testing issue. We *could* have tested it, but it might have made us slip critical milestones.
- I don't like the names we're calling system components... even though there's no published standard (this was presented as more than pure aesthetics and opinon; were we using common words in a non-intuitive way?) -- Everyone in the room understood the naming convention, but they were afraid people who came after them wouldn't... and there would be confusion and delay. The guy who wrote the architecture (not me) wanted to keep his convention. We spent like... 8 hours over 2 days arguing about this. The system never got built and it was all completely pointless; we should have been spending our time elsewhere.
- Etc.

Maybe I'm thinking of radically different kinds of issues than the ones people here are talking about but I RARELY see right and wrong arguments.

Marco's Bro.
Aug. 15th, 2008 12:04 pm (UTC)
Re: The relevant discipline, I think, is Chaos Theory
This is exactly right: the idea that any point of discussion will, in fact, lead us closer or further from success is, I think, badly framed.

The argument around component names is exactly right: was guy A or guy B wrong? No--they were probably both wrong.

Aug. 15th, 2008 03:24 pm (UTC)
Re: The relevant discipline, I think, is Chaos Theory
Maybe I'm thinking of radically different kinds of issues than the ones people here are talking about but I RARELY see right and wrong arguments.

You don't need to think of it as a black/white right/wrong dichotomy; obviously it's never that simple.

Perhaps a better perspective is to look at it as a spectrum of options that follow some sort of curve of desirability. It could be a bell curve if that helps you but other curves work as well. One of the options will have the highest level of desirability, so you can call that the "optimum" decision. The others are necessarily "sub-optimal", but some of them may still be "acceptable".

Obviously, all things being equal, you want to find the best option possible, to maximize your results.

Each of those options come with some sort of cost; these reduce the desirability. That cost may very well be "determining what the other costs attached to this option are will take too long". That's a biggie; in fact, the "too long" immediately means that the option is down into the "unacceptable" range of desireability.
Aug. 15th, 2008 06:46 pm (UTC)
Re: The relevant discipline, I think, is Chaos Theory
I'm with you on shades of gray -- but if we're spending a lot of time arguing over which shade-of-gray we should go with (i.e. two different acceptable options), I'd rather just choose one and charge at it.

Most arguments of the type we're looking at here --that ones that are problematic (go on too long, hurt morale, etc.) -- are ones someone thinks will doom the project to failure.

Aug. 15th, 2008 06:50 pm (UTC)
Re: The relevant discipline, I think, is Chaos Theory
Most arguments of the type we're looking at here --that ones that are problematic (go on too long, hurt morale, etc.) -- are ones someone thinks will doom the project to failure.

And those are the ones that need the *most* analysis, if only to reassure the dissenters that it's not the case. If it *is* a critical decision, then you can bet that I want more than one person's input on it... I want to see objective details on why it's the right way to go.
Aug. 15th, 2008 11:59 am (UTC)
It's a foundation for me saying that I'm not sure that there's a "way it really works and we fully understand it." I think it's pretty likely that given "all existing knowledge" there is a "best choice" for many if not most decisions.

(And that since we don't have "all existing knowledge" we are just doing a best-effort)

But ...

I am not 100% convinced (which means I am not convinced) that the way it seems to us that it should work is actually the way it does. When we assume that there is a 'RIGHT' decision out there and we can get closer and closer to it with rigorous though, I think that may be an incorrect way of framing the issue.

Our best thinking and getting all available knowledge may be wrong whether that's because the data leads to the wrong conclusion or because raw cause and effect around our decisions simply isn't as straightforward as we think.

But the take-away here is this: someone arguing with me because they feel they are ethically compelled to bring "teh [sic] RIGHT' to the process? That guy doesn't hold a lot of water with me.

That's not any kind of validation to be in continuing power-struggle with team leadership--it's just (if the dynamic is dysfunctional) rationalization.


Aug. 15th, 2008 02:31 am (UTC)
In my experience
When I put someone in charge it's because I want them to use their discretion -- I believe they can be successful. I trust their judgment.

I expect that their team members will support them. I don't expect unquestioning obedience or anything, but I expect everyone to realize that Leader Guy is, in fact, Leader Guy because I thought he was the best person for the job.

Now: For me, Leader Guy is usually someone who listens to people and is easy to get along with. I wouldn't put Tyrant Guy in charge of a team under any remotely normal circumstance.

In my experience the other non-leader guys are usually *not* people I expect to be setting direction (if I have 2 leader guys, I will invariably use on 2 separate projects... If, for some reason, I put 2 leader guys on one project and the fight, I'm hugely disappointed)

If someone on their team is arguing with them enough that I hear about it my basic assumption is that the team-guy is the problem. I can't, off the top of my head, think of a situation where that hasn't proved true, but I do listen to reason.

One other point: My approach to running projects is to staff them with experts and ask the experts to figure out how to do their piece (so the technology guy does the tech part and the business guy does the business part and so-on) -- the leader is expected to set parameters ("You may not take 2 years to get the design document done") based on clearly understood program or project goals... so arguments over how something gets done usually means that someone is outside of their area of expertise (Tech guy trying to tell Project Guy how to project manage or something.

Yer Bro
Aug. 15th, 2008 04:27 pm (UTC)
Re: In my experience
(Deleted comment)
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 15th, 2008 12:01 pm (UTC)
Yeah: I didn't talk about the myriad responsibilities that come with leadership. None of what I've gone into here excuses poor, reckless, or egotistical behavior on the part of the team lead.

That's another post.

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