James O'Neill's Blog

February 10, 2008

Who makes a good decision ?

Filed under: General musings,Working at Microsoft — jamesone111 @ 11:50 pm

I provided Eileen with a quote to use in the Management Excellence programme she’s been involved in.  She called me a "Non-manager who championed management Excellence", and I replied I was "in favour of all kinds of Excellence*. My view was summed up in the quote

If you can’t do it excellently, don’t do it at all. Because if it’s not excellent it won’t be profitable or fun, and if you’re not in business for fun or profit, what the hell are you doing here?

The quote is from Robert Townsend’s Up the Organization and the bit in bold was on the cover of the original version.

I think managers divide into Organizational people and Leaders. Townsend was a leader, but companies need both types. This set Eileen and I off into talking about Myers Briggs – which is a classification system we use on some of our soft skills training. It uses 4 axes: Introvert <–> Extrovert ,  Sensing <–> iNtuiting, Thinking <–> Feeling, Judging <–> Perceiving. Based on the letters (initials, except for iNtutiting which gets the N) people get to a shorthand . You could be an INTP, an ESFP or …you can work out the combinations.

Like Strengthsfinder (which we also use), or more whimsical tests or other, coarser, classifications (gender, age, cultural background), these divisions aren’t good/bad or suitable/unsuitable. The Equal Opportunities Commission had a good slogan Women. Men. Different. Equal.  Classifications can help us to understand and predict a little more accurately what people do in difficult situations.With people who are too similar you’ll get similar answers which may not be the best for the circumstances (hence my view that diversity isn’t something patronizing we do for the benefit of the different groups, but something we do for the strength of the company). Sometimes it seems as if we are trying to build hugely complicated taxonomies to classify people or perhaps that we see behaviour as something like a very complicated, undocumented, computer program for which we’re trying to discover the input parameters.

I have another axis which, rather politically incorrectly, I call Apparatchik vs Autistic. "Autisitism" isn’t a term one should throw around too freely, it is a spectrum which runs from little more than a personality trait, all the way to serious disorder. Surveys I’ve done suggest that I’m on the spectrum (not unusual in this business) and a few people think I have Asperger’s syndrome – though having done some reading I don’t think so.  So my use of the term is not out of disrespect to those with more serious forms of autism but because one of its characteristics is a failure to understand the world, and see why some things must be the way they are.  Apparatchik is almost as dangerous a term to use, but I can’t find a better one for people who live within the system and believe that everything should be the way it is. There is a famous "Serenity prayer" asking for "grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other". The "Apps" are short on courage to change things, and the "Auts" long on short on serenity to accept things, it’s a rare person who has them both in balance and even they aren’t necessarily granted the wisdom to tell the difference.

As the Vista SP-1 saga unfolded last week I quoted the famous “Colin Powell on Leadership”"Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off." is one of the key points; in the body it says "Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity"; but it’s also the "living within the system" mentality of the excessively apparatchik . The right thing regardless of what people think is the mentality of the excessively autistic. The word SOMETIMES in the quote is important; the person who always gets people mad is a lousy leader, and the person who never gets people mad is no leader at all. As I said in a post yesterday (which I wrote while this was in draft) I pulled out the quote that "Real leaders are  vigilant, and combative" over things that have an adverse impact on their people. Townsend advocates the same thing: in his view purchasing departments "cost ten dollars in zeal for every dollar they save through purchasing acumen." his solution "fire the whole purchasing department". In my world of "apps" and "auts", no  app would come to that conclusion. The implication this has for my classifications is problematic.

This SP-1 business has not been great for the field people. At the root of it, some independent hardware vendors have delivered packages with lousy installation software (the problem isn’t with the drivers themselves) – computer world has a piece on this . Do we go out and name and shame these vendors ? It would be so tempting; and if they got mad we’d just quote Colin Powell at them; it would be only OK to annoy the IHV community (who are our friends and partners) if customers got something out of it, otherwise it’s pointless: would customers get the revised package any sooner if we did this ? No. So we need a different option: should we let the software out and pretend there isn’t a problem ? Hardly the act of a responsible leader is it ? Go ahead with the release to OEMs, set the disk making process running and hold the downloads back ? That’s going to annoy some customers… (computerworld covered that too following Kathy’s post on the Technet plus blog). 

Making the right choices is difficult.. And perhaps we made the wrong one on SP1 (an update to went up yesterday). As a field person in Microsoft, when these cases come up it’s hard to know whether accept what the product group say or fight for changes, or what specifically leaders in the company should be combative against. The the more I think about the vista SP1 case, the more I think all the answers are wrong 


* Footnote. Saying you’re in favour of Excellence is a bit like the famous story of the Bishop who was asked for his views on sin. He said he was against it.

This post originally appeared on my technet blog.


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