Using selective pressure to break though norms

So, this week I set out on an elephant

hunt. I didn't mean to; it just kind of happened. My team got

beaten up, again, by situations created by the elephant and its

various attendants. I just snapped after watching it happen yet

again. The good news there involves another new manager who decided

to try to go after a different part of the elephant. Between the two

of us, we almost accomplished something. The bad news involves some seriously complicated politics, a handful of potential

new sometimes allies, and a couple of team members who have good

reason to seriously challenge my sanity.

It's that last part that gave me pause.

Team building is a long-term process. Changing the principles by

which a team develops and maintains its approaches takes even longer.

Accomplishing organizational change though suggestion, taking

mentoring moments, and gentle pressure takes bloody near forever.

I am not a patient man. Knowing that

team-building, principle change, and organizational evolution though

influence take time does not make it chafe any less. Nor does it

help when I see things that I could, with a bit more power and a bit

less need to cajole, just change for the better. That frustration

sometimes leaks into my body language when I deal with my coworkers

and various layers above me in the management chain. Unfortunately

it also comes across as slightly erratic behavior to my team.

Sometimes my behavior is erratic. I'm

not perfect; no one is. Sometimes I get distracted. Other times I

get focused on something I should probably let slide down to the

team. Heck, occasionally I'm just addled for the day and do

something boneheaded.

That admitted, though, there is also a

method to my madness. Every group forms behavioral norms. Every

team creates unspoken rules about who will do what work, when, how,

and why. These norms become, over time, accepted to the point where

no one even questions their existence. In effect they become chains

on the team's productivity and ability to deliver service, chains the

people involved with the team cannot see.

One of my first tasks as a would-be

team leader is always to analyze those group norms. More

importantly, I assessed the degree to which each of my team members

had absorbed the less functional norms. The assessment took all of

two weeks; deciding what to do with it took a lot longer. Frankly,

I'm still making up a bit of the “what to do with it” part up as

I go along.

However, I'm also constantly working

and interacting with my team in ways that operate just outside of the

non-functional norms. Not, I hope, too far outside least I scare

them off. But just far enough that it challenges them to think about

their assumptions, goals, and intentions towards what they think of

as their work.

Let's take a concrete example. I'm

trying to help one of my team members demonstrate his analytical

skills. Some of this help comes in what you would think of as

“typical” analytical assignments: find out why X happens,

discover the root cause of Y. Other bits of it, though, take on a

form he is still grappling with – seemingly mundane little tasks

which fit into a larger overall scheme. These later tasks seem

pretty frustrating to him, as I seem to drop them off at completely

random intervals. To some extent I do, but there's also a method to

the madness. I want him to stop, think, and assess the overall

picture before just accepting the task. I also want him to start

looking at things in that sideways way that distinguishes a great

analyst from a decent IT guy.

Sometimes the approach backfires;

people do not always like to be challenged. It's hard, sometimes, to

know when to keep pushing people and when to back off. That later

idea rarely sits well with me, as I personally like to push myself as

hard as I can then shove it that last bit to total meltdown.

Fortunately I have friends and an occasional bout of sanity to keep

me alive.

On balance I find this approach works

reasonably well most of the time, though. I don't take it too far

and I try to keep things light. The combination of ignoring norms

and humor, though, does give me a bit of a reputation as a nut-case.

Which is, if you think about it, probably all to the good.

So, one one hand I'm trying to build

strength in my team by making them slowly challenge the way things

were done. On the other I'm every so carefully building up bits and

pieces of alliances to hopefully get an elephant hunt going. On the

gripping hand, I've still got to go chasing down the rabbit holes

left by an incredible number of incidents every day.

Still, I can honestly say its been a good week. We'll see what next week brings.

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