Thursday 2 October 2008

Resisting the urge to do something

I figured out last night why we have so many problems in this world. By that, I mean "problems that need solving", as in when something happens, and there is an immediate hue and cry from the media/activitists/a political figure to "do something".

We end up in the soup because there is an unlimited supply of problems, but a limited supply of resources to deal with them. By "resources", I don't mean money and things like bulldozers and buildings and computers - I mean competent people who can actually get things done.

If we assume that competence in getting things organised and done is distributed according to a normal distribution, then there are only a small number of "super stars" that are really brilliant in delivering things - whether they be social services, kicking goals, flipping hamburgers or doing footrubs.

So let's start with the idea that in any given population (whether they be social workers at DOCS, school Principals, Nurses or Police), there are a small number of really, really good people; a large mass of competent followers and a tail of completely useless drones.

Now in my experience, the really good people are always being siphoned off - they tend to get promoted up the ranks into management, where they then get sorted again according to theBell Curve. Some turn out to be great managers, whilst with others we find that others never make the transition properly - they make terrible managers. The great bulk muddle along somewhere in the middle. Then people get promoted again and the whole sorting process starts anew. In some cases, the truly incompetent continue to get promoted simply because they are unbelievably good in interviews, and their management is always too weak to get rid of them.

I have generally found though that the people that get tapped to be managers are those that are doers. The inert, the lazy and the dozey never get considered - most of the time. So what you find is that the ranks of management are full of people who are looking to solve problems - the reason they ended up there in the first place is probably because they were seen to be good at fixing things, and had the gumption to wade through shit six feet deep in order to make things happen.

Politicians are the same. You can say what you like about the policies of our current crop of politicans at council, state and federal level, but one thing you can't accuse them of is laziness. Some might be intellectually lazy, but the reason they get preselected is that their selection committees saw a history of action. Look at Malcolm Turnbull for instance. You can't accuse him of being a work-shy shirker. Or Bob Brown. Brown might be a meat head, but I'm sure he is an extremely busy meat head.

I personally know quite a few politicians at all three levels of government, and none of them sat down at 18 and decided that a career in politics was for them. All of them went and did lots of stuff, were quite good at what they did, and they eventually fell into politics because it was an extension of getting stuff done. They entered politics not with the aim of grasping power for themselves, but instead because they figured that they could do a better job than the useless bastards currently giving it a go. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions....

Newspaper editors and TV Producers are the same - they are people who have made their bones at a newspaper or TV station by being people that make shit happen.

The biggest problem all these people face - public service managers, media people and politicians - is that they can't resist wanting to take action whenever a problem rears its ugly head. They are congenitally unable to sit back and say, "Fuck it, just leave it alone". They want to throw money and resources at the problem and fix it, because that is what they do. They fix things. They don't care what they are fixing or why they are fixing it - they just enjoy the process of fixing. They are full of the restless energy of the high achiever. They need an outlet for that restless energy, and they find it in solving problems and doing stuff.

(I did a very interesting psych test a few years ago that showed that I am one of these people. Some people like to talk about things, others want to know why we should do something, and another group wants to know how to do something - the process driven people. I am part of that group of people that don't care about they how or the why - we just need to be told to do something and we'll figure out a way to do it and just get it done. We also hate gas-bagging about it.

That's a big hint to my fellow managers by the way - you'll always find yourself having to deal with a certain number of underlings who can't even start on a task until either the how or the why is explained to them. That is immensely frustrating to people like me, who just expect people to salute and get on with it, but now that I understand that this is how some people tick, my life as a manager has become a lot easier).

Anyway, here is the big problem with wanting to fix the problems of the world - there is a strictly limited supply of people who can solve problems. When you look at the Bell Curve as a manager, you will have a few people that are utterly brilliant and priceless, a large mass of people who will work for food and a couple of complete drongos bringing up the rear. However, a can-do manager, or a can-do politician, does not regard his or her resource base in this manner - they think that everyone should be as capable as them, and therefore capable of tearing in and massacring problems as they arise. If only everyone had as much get up and go as me.... that should be the sad lament of every burnt out problem solver that has been run into the ground after 20 or 30 years of effort trying to get this or that organisation to do something.

I started off being a "we can solve every problem" kind of guy, because I worked in a small company with a staff of very capable people - all of them were A class people, both in their technical knowledge and their approach to work. We ripped through stuff because we had no one slowing us down. I didn't need to spend all day managing them - I simply pointed them at a problem and left them to it. Stuff got done. Lots of stuff. Mountains of stuff.

Then we had a merger, and got a lot bigger, and suddenly I went from having 4 very good underlings to a staff of 12, and I now had 4 x A and 8 x B. We still got a hell of a lot of stuff done, because even the B types were very good. All I had to do was partner an A and a B and the A would lead the way and the B would lift their game and they'd make short work of whatever I'd given them.

Then we had another merger, and I found myself with 40 staff. I inherited a couple of A's, but I now had something like the following:

  • 6 x A
  • 20 x B
  • 10 x C
  • 3 x D
  • 1 x F-
The F- was a real problem. We couldn't sack him, so we had to wait for him to resign or die. Thankfully, he died on the job, which solved a really big problem for me. But apart from him, it suddenly because really difficult to get anything done, for we had this big boat anchor of 1/3 of our staff slowing the rest down. The D types were actually obstructive and did their best to destroy every initiative - and we couldn't sack them either, and they were all too young and healthy to die on me. They were a shovel-full of sand in the gearbox.

Apart from them, we also went from having a management team that was all A types to having the following after our first merger:

  • 3 x A
  • 2 x B
  • 1 x F-
I have dealt with the F- in other posts; he was our fuckwit, and he was in charge of a critical team of people. Under his tutelage, they all went from go-gettum A types to D types in about 6 months. He managed to wreck every initiative that we managers tried to put up, and he was a deadweight drag in every meeting. But that was not the worst of it. After our second merger, we had:

  • 3 x A
  • 2 x B
  • 3 x C
  • 1 x D
  • 3 x F-
Yes, we ended up with more boneheads in management positions than capable people. You can imagine the debacle that ensued. We went from being an operation that had a reputation for getting things done (in the small company) to an operation with a reasonable reputation (after the first merger, when things started to go wrong thanks to Fuckwit) to having the most shithouse reputation you can imagine after the three amigo boneheads got together and wrecked everything.

I believe the root of our problems though was that the next level of management above us had not performed an evaluation like I had, so they thought we were a team of superstars, able to achieve any task thrown our way. If they had taken a realistic view of our capabilities, they would have scaled back their ambitions in a big way.

But no manager ever gets ahead by telling their boss that their team should be doing less. So they agree to take on things that in reality, they have no hope of implementing with the people that they have on hand (I am generally talking about the public sector here, but I am sure that there are many people with lots of private sector experience that have seen the same thing).

I once shocked the hell out of our GM by drawing a pyramid on the whiteboard, and took them through my evaluation of my team - so many A's at the top, then a mass of B's, then the C's, the D's and the F- at the bottom. The shock was when I told them that we were working on 30 separate initiatives, and that I did not have 30 people each working on one initiative. Instead, I had my top 3 people working on all 30, because the other 37 people on my team were incapable of delivering what was required. Until that meeting, they had this amazing expectation that because I had 40 people, we could easily handle 30 different initiatives. I think that meeting was a real eye-opener. They left the meeting trembling in shock at what they had got themselves into. The worst of it was that with only 3 really good staff, we could only handle about 10 initiatives at once.

You have to wonder though about how people can get to that level of management without ever going through that sort of sorting and sifting exercise at least once in their career.

Anyway, next time you see a newspaper editorial screaming for "something to be done", or a politician promoting a new program of spending to fix a problem, just do us all a favour and tell them loudly to JUST FUCK OFF AND DO NOTHING for a change. They really don't have to spend our money in the vain hope of changing the world.

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