Rank and File

I’ve spent a good part of the evening (amidst some light-headedness that seems to point to my having caught something – hopefully not the flu) mulling how much of my post regarding the 20 year anniversary of my course wasn’t a sub-conscious attempt at kick-starting my memoirs.

For you see, I’ve always wondered if I would ever live long enough and have the time or the inclination to do so in earnest, secluded in a house somewhere and combing years of memories, notes and e-mails I’d squirreled away somehow, weaving them into an entertaining (if not particularly gripping) narrative not just of my personal track record, but mostly of the way the world changed around us during these years.

As it turns out, a lot of that may well not happen – like many others my age, I’m facing the prospect of never really retiring, have very little “free” time (most of my current writing, including the first draft of that post, is tapped away in an iPhone or iPod Touch in brief spurts, often in the midst of the night after some nocturnal kid-related disturbance) and digital archives have a marked tendency to be more ephemeral than dunes, so I’m unlikely to ever be able to indulge myself that way.

The trouble with that situation is that, if in former times History was written by the victors, in this digital age it is often written by the losers – and by that I mean, of course, the folk with far too much free time on their hands, usually ones who contrive to spin the words “journalist”, “researcher” – or, these days “social media expert” – into something that has been dipped in scum and yet comes out smelling like roses.

I therefore fear that we’ll be losing a significant part of the real motivation behind getting the Internet going if we leave it up to those people to write our modern kind of History.

For, after all, the Internet’s tale is not one of idealism and technology – it’s also a tale of politics, power and greed (and therefore sure to be of tremendous interest to future generations), although I’m afraid it will always involve little sex other than that in porn sites, because geeks don’t really get laid that much, especially not while marinading their neurons with Jolt or Red Bull during late night coding stints at startups.

But tonight, I’d rather tell another tale – that of corporations and consultants, of management structures and people – the one thing that I tried to pay attention to over the last 20 years and engagements with a number of different companies and industries.

Their common factor is, of course, having people to manage.

And “the trouble with people” is one of those sentences that you hear a lot but that I instinctively frown upon for a number of reasons, not because of the inherent arrogance but also because it is often used in management contexts as if the people uttering it could set themselves apart from, well, the entire human race simply by mouthing it as a sort of warding spell.

The trouble with those people is that they naïvely believe themselves beyond reproach and with the divine right to pass judgement unto others with the semblance of detachment, as if they were not themselves emotional beings and (quite often) losing track of their own (sub-)conscious motivations to expect and demand certain things from others.

And thus is rank wasted inside corporations by giving it to people who cannot possibly ever be so humble as to acknowledge their very starting point towards addressing “other people” is inherently flawed.

Worse, they often lack the initiative or humility to actually go and fix things, preferring the time-honored art of passing the buck, for God forbid that they actually create something – they are, after all, supposed to manage the process of creating something (which is seen as the long-term benefit they can deliver to the company), and thus focus on the processes and politics required to reach a goal without actually having to, say, get their hands dirty trying to get the actual ball past the quarterback (or goalie, depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re reading this metaphor).

The obvious consequence to anyone who values effectiveness of leadership as a key indicator for a company’s success is that under this kind of approach, leadership becomes a mere statistic – it does exist, but it is often more of a casuistic phenomenon than a matter of rank, following a normal distribution at best and becoming a definite casualty at worst.

What I’ve concluded over the years is that this is a self-perpetuating meme both in terms of time and hierarchy, and that even the new, trendier matrix-based organizations are vulnerable to it – I will probably not get that far tonight, but that particular topic (complete with appropriate Matrix-related puns) will be something I intend to explore in a later post.

So let’s stick to hierarchical models for now, which are fairly simple to understand if you take the two extremes:

Whereas the military will trust (and risk) people who have the ability (often through field experience) to deliver results and walk a fine line between having initiative and following orders for ranking officers (for they value flexibility, expertise and quick thinking in decision-making), your average corporate hierarch will, if left to his/her own devices (and no, I’m not going to go into HR influence on matters) tend to pick yes-men, regardless of actual ability to perform independent analyses of problems or roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty.

(True military leaders gain followers through respect, at the very least. Bogus corporate leaders think e-mailing folk – preferably with fancy signatures overstating their importance – and holding meetings fixes everything.)

Which is why some organizations are built like a set of Matryoshka dolls of the Peter Principle.

Pop a lid, and it’s Peters all the way to the bottom1.

Now, I have this knack/ability to talk to people regardless of their background, dig up stuff, and hit a hierarchy where it hurts the most – by actually fixing problems that the “normal” organization can’t address. Like I wrote before, I fix things that other people design broken. It’s not something I started out doing of my own free will, though – it sort of happened along.

Like a few others, I’ve tried to follow a track that avoided the pitfalls of becoming incompetent at what I do while witnessing first hand others reaching that very point, but now I find that I’m quickly running out of room, and that few (if any) organizations allow you a sane mixture of both management and hands-on control of what is happening.

It’s sort of like being in a permanent slow-motion car crash – a sensation that indeed started happening for me 20 years ago.

The interesting thing for me is that I am self-aware enough to realize that although portions of this ability of mine are innate, the bulk of it comes from my having, over the years, consciously overcome almost pathological shyness and the usual anti-social (or rather, para-social) behavior usually associated with those of an intellectual bent2.

My rewards have so far been mixed (if any) and regardless of what I do people keep trying to “define” me into a box (usually making the crass mistake of assuming I’ll be more interested in technical things), but it’s clear for me that this is a path of diminishing returns – as long as people mistake me for “the techie guy” instead of focusing on the results I deliver, I’ll never really find job satisfaction.

Which, together with the following comment on that 20 year post left by one of my teachers (the guy who taught us most of what I know about chip design, and who was our graduation project counselor):

Speaking as one of the sergeants who made the grunts sweat, you guys were good.

Happy trails.

…makes me pretty sure that a) the Army has the best take on leadership and b) it’s time to break ranks and look for that trail again.

Update: Pedro Santos pointed me to the Wikipedia entry on the Dunning-Kruger effect and its Bertrand Russell quote, which resonates with the above rather nicely:

The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.

1 I prefer the Dilbert Principle myself since it states that the majority of real, productive work in a company is done by people lower in the power ladder, but fully agree that It is possible for both Principles to be simultaneously active in a single organization.

2 The key to that was, of course, my rather peculiar sense of humor, which I try to put to good use whenever possible, either as an outlet or as a way to get my points across.