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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Faulty toasters and cries for help

I want to tell a story about toasters. In so doing, I also intend to tell a story about how to listen to your people.

Let's say I'm a consumer who has a need for toast. I go out to a store to buy a whole bunch of toasters. Really, I'm grabbing whatever I can find on the shelves. This means I get a bunch of different makes, models, and styles. This doesn't bother me much, since all I really want to do is turn ordinary bread into toast.

I wind up buying five different toasters. I find a bunch of space on my counter and set them all up. Then I load in some bread and start each one going. A couple of minutes later, I check on them. Three of them have produced what is obviously toast. The other two have only returned my unloved and untoasted bread to me.

I repeat this with fresh bread. Again, I load all five of the toasters, and a few minutes later, three of them produce toast, while two of them accomplish nothing and give me back my cold bread. I can repeat this little experiment any number of times, and I get essentially the same results. The same three toasters actually deliver something like what I expect, and the other two never do.

There's obviously something wrong with two of them. The thing is, when I report this to someone, I'm told that maybe I should try to fix them myself. This just blows my mind. I'm not here to be a toaster designer, manufacturer, or even repair person. I just want to turn toast into bread and I shouldn't have to "teach" those two how to do it. They were purchased as toasters, so they should toast!

I wrote a variant on this story a couple of years ago when I was on a project where a bunch of people weren't contributing anything useful. I purposely wrote it to be somewhat vague about what was actually going on, but it should have been obvious that I was ranting about things which exist solely to do a task which can't even accomplish that. I'm not asking them to grow wings and start flying. They just need to do their actual jobs.

I wasn't the boss, and in fact, I had no real control over hiring or firing. I just had to work with whatever people had been around me. This only became a problem when it came time to rely on them to deliver things, and they let me down time after time. Now the connection should be evident: they were the toasters, and I kept handing them bread, but they kept failing to produce toast.

Upon reporting these anomalies to the local overlords, it was suggested to me that maybe I should train them how to write the code which needed to be written. Yes, so, okay, let's see here. I'm supposed to be writing code, and they are too, but they aren't, and somehow this is my problem? I refused to accept that responsibility without the power to actually make it happen.

In terms of my toaster analogy, imagine if you told me I had to increase my toast output but you didn't give me the option of chucking the two bad ones and returning to the store to pick up two better ones. That would leave me with all of the responsibility and none of the power, and there's a name for that: scapegoat! I knew better than to get into that particular quagmire again.

Ultimately, the joke was on them. I burned out and said "no more", and stopped working on the project I had once championed. They then had to rely on their "broken toasters" to get things done, and you can guess how well that turned out.

So, let's say you're the boss now. You're poking around and you see that one of your people has written a weird little story about malfunctioning toasters. Do you have any idea what it means? Can you possibly appreciate what might have inspired such a rant? Will anyone realize what it's actually saying before things go too far?

In an environment full of people who take everything literally and miss the nuance of analogies and parables, don't count on it. The story is a mere whisper in a hurricane. Oh, sorry, that's another metaphor. Try it this way, then: you're saying things they will never hear.