Archive for the ‘Politics’ category

August 1, 2005: “Controlling your boss for fun and profit”

August 30, 2007


I. M. WrightThere’s a great gesture you can do to show just how little you care about someone who is wallowing in self-pity. You lightly rub the tips of your thumb and forefinger together saying, “This is the world’s smallest violin playing, ‘My Heart Cries for You.’”

That’s how I feel when people complain about their helplessness in the face of the seemingly invincible power of their manager. “Oh, management will never give us the time to improve our build or change our practices.” “I wish our manager took this training. That’s the only way we’d ever take up inspections. (See “Review this” in Chapter 5.)” “I’m really uncomfortable with our product’s current direction and group’s organization, but there’s nothing I can do.”

Grow up, you weenies. Based on your pathetic excuses for inaction, nothing would ever get done. Don’t you think your bosses say the same thing regarding their bosses? If you don’t make desired change happen, it doesn’t happen. Period. The difference between you and someone powerful is not your level of control; it’s your willingness to act.

I have no hand

“Yeah, but my boss won’t listen to me,” is the common retort. “She has all these reasons why we can’t change.” Well, good. At least you’ve made the transition from being pathetic to being ignorant. You’re trying to do something about your situation; you’re just inept. Relax, most people are.

Unfortunately, influencing without authority rarely comes naturally; it is an acquired skill. When trying to enact a solution, most people jump right in. They go straight to their bosses with their idea, only to get shot down. Sometimes people even do a tremendous amount of preparation, writing a long white paper or presentation, only to be summarily rejected.

What you may not understand is how to prepare appropriately, how to present your idea effectively, and how to get your idea enacted. Let’s break it down.

Eric Aside

I gave an internal talk on this topic. Registration filled in minutes. The moral: many people want to know more about influence without authority.

Know the enemy and know yourself

Start with appropriate preparation. I’m going to list a bunch of steps, but they can all be done in less than a day (minutes for small issues).

First you need to scout the landscape. Only fools walk into a minefield without a map. Most people know how they want things to be, but that’s an endpoint, not directions to get there.

§ Understand your proposal.

What is risky about your idea, and how do you mitigate the risks? What can change about your idea, and what are the core principles you can’t compromise? Be realistic and honest with yourself.

§ Understand your history.

What were the reasons for your current processes and organization? Could you regress by changing them?

§ Understand your enemies.

Who prefers the current state and why? Are any of them strong enough or passionate enough to make change difficult? How would you placate them or even draw them to your side?

§ Understand your friends.

Who is unhappy with the current state and why? Do they like your idea? How strong, considerable, and passionate is your body of support?

§ Understand your management.

How is your management being measured or judged? What benefits would be worth the risk from your manager’s point of view? Can you increase the benefit to management or reduce the risk?

It sounds complicated, but if you have been paying attention to how your coworkers interact, you and a friend or two can scout the landscape in a candid short discussion. Talking to a few people is often necessary to unearth the history or understand the issues. Regardless, scouting is essential to success.

They succeed in adapting themselves

Now that you know what you’re up against, you need to adapt and refine your original idea accordingly:

§ Choose who to please, who to placate, and who to ignore.

Sure, you want to please everyone, but sometimes it’s better to just make sure nobody gets upset and focus on the few you really need to make happy—like your boss. Some folks will be fine if you just keep them from harm. Others can be ignored if they follow whatever your boss decides or simply don’t care.

§ To please people, focus on the benefits in their terms and negate the risks.

Use your scouting information to frame the benefits in ways that impress the key players. If your manager cares about efficiency, talk about productivity gains; customer satisfaction, talk about quality and connection; on-time commitments, talk about predictability and transparency. To negate risks, talk about backup plans, go/no-go decision points, redundancy, and/or clear prioritization.

Eric Aside

This is the negotiation step of removing threats and fulfilling needs I talked about in “My way or the highway—Negotiation,” which appeared earlier in the chapter.

§ To placate people, neutralize whatever they find threatening.

Use your scouting to uncover what’s scary. If it’s risks, negate them. If they have a competing solution, embed it and give them ample credit and the limelight (“It’s our idea”). If they have extra requirements, satisfy them either immediately or in the “next version.”

In the end, you’ll have a plan with a bunch of backers, no one will be apprehensive enough to fight it, and you’ll be aligned with what the key decision makers care about. Now you’re ready to present it.

Selling water to fish

Selling water to fish really isn’t that hard, assuming their credit is good. You simply need to show them what life is like without water. The same thing goes when you are driving for change. You need to frame the problem before you talk about your solution.

The focus is on the key players, usually management. In the same way you use your scouting information to frame benefits in key player terms, you frame the problems in terms that speak to key player concerns. This should be the first slide after the title in a very short deck.

A few important notes here:

§ Anything about you or your ambitions will poison the proposal.

The proposal needs to be about the key players, the team, and the customers, not about you and your desires for fame, glory, or a high rating.

§ To target your presentation on the key players, you must slip inside their skin.

Use their terms, talk about benefits to them, and address their concerns. While the solution may have been spawned by what you care about, the solution will belong to the team, not you. It will be owned by the key players, not you. You must leave your feelings out of it.

Eric Aside

Generally speaking, slipping inside the skin of key players and leaving your own feelings behind is the hardest step. It’s also incredibly important to success.

§ If you talk about the solution first, no one will care.

If you skip over the problem, there is no impetus to change. If you talk about the solution and then the problem, people will fixate on the problem and forget your solution. Always start with the problem and then move on to talk about the solution.

§ You must keep your presentation short—very short.

Change drives discussion and debate. The debate will expand to fill any allotted time. If you can’t get through your ideas in two or three slides, you’ll lose all sway over the argument.

Eyes on the prize

Your second and possibly third slides speak to your vision of the future state. The vision should be clear, concise, and practical. The goals should be clearly stated in terms of benefit to the key players. Simply put, you cannot reach a destination if you don’t know where you’re going.

You’ll likely have many more slides with all sorts of data and detail about your vision and proposal. You might even have a 30-page white paper. That material is important to document the basis for the change, but relegate supporting material to appendix slides and resource links. You must be crisp to be successful; everything else is there for reference only.

Your last slide addresses how you get from the current state to the future state, or how to reach your destination. There are only two sections to this slide:

§ The issues section, which addresses how risks and concerns are mitigated. It’s where to put your backup plans, go/no-go decision points, redundancy, and/or prioritization.

§ The next steps section, which addresses who does what and when. Too often people focus on what needs to be done and not enough on who will do it and when it will happen. Without specific people assigned and specific target dates, the change flounders.

That’s it: a title slide, problem statement, future state, and transition slide. Now you are prepared to bring your idea forward. For smaller ideas, you can do all this in an e-mail message, but the preparation is the same.

Eric Aside

A number of people doubted you could put all this information on three slides and asked me for an example. My best example was a Microsoft confidential proposal that put all the information on one slide. It had vertical and horizontal lines dividing the slide into four quadrants: problem (four bullets in the upper-left quadrant); solution (three bullets in the lower-left); issues (six bullets in the upper-right); and next steps (four bullets in the lower-right).


You are now ready to engage with the key players. There are dozens of ways to do this, and none is dramatically better than the others. Sometimes the landscape may suggest one approach over another. In general, there are three basic types of approach:

§ Talk to key players one at a time.

This works well when the key players don’t get along or each has different key issues. It’s more time-consuming, but it’s usually a safe and effective approach.

§ Meet with the key players together.

This works well to build consensus and bring out hidden issues. It’s also a bit faster, but it works best if some consensus already exists about the problem and the issues. If necessary you can start with the first approach to gain that initial consensus, and then seal the deal with a meeting.

§ Target only the top player.

This works well when the top player is particularly strong or the organization is particularly compliant. Use this approach when no one really matters but the top player.

Go through your deck and be prepared to own the process you’ve created. Remember that it’s not about you—it’s about the team, the product, and the customer. Let people discuss and debate as much as they want, as long as they stay focused on the problem you identified. If new issues or risks arise, be sure to note them and devise mitigations.

Dare to dream

This whole process may seem like a great deal of trouble, especially when there’s no guarantee your solution will survive, let alone thrive. You may feel that it’s not worth it; that the status quo is acceptable or at least tolerable. Maybe that’s true, or maybe you’re spineless.

Just don’t start complaining about how powerless you are or how management won’t listen to you and doesn’t care. If the current state is acceptable, then accept it and move on. If it isn’t, then do something about it. Regardless of what happens, you will drive awareness of the problem and likely cause change. In addition, you’ll gain leadership experience and perhaps even gain leadership responsibility. In the end, you will become more powerful by matching your willingness to act with the courage to focus on your team instead of yourself.

August 1, 2005: “Controlling your boss for fun and profit”

September 1, 2005: “Go with the flow—Retention and turnover”

August 30, 2007


I. M. WrightReview season is here. As entertaining as that can be for managers and employees alike, it’s just a primer for what follows: musical product groups. The music starts when review numbers are released. A whole bunch of engineers get up out of their office chairs and try to find an available chair in a different group. The music stops when all the interesting positions get filled. The same game gets played at the end of product cycles, but product cycles aren’t quite as predictable (different problem).

It’s tough on the folks left without chairs. Often they get alienated from their current teams for trying to jump ship. Tough luck? I don’t think so. Managers should encourage their people to pursue new opportunities, including people they like. Anything less is selfish, stupid, and shortsighted, not to mention destructive, delusional, and deplorable. When managers make business decisions that put their interests ahead of Microsoft’s, they’ve clearly stopped working for Microsoft. I think Microsoft should stop paying them.

Don’t tell me, “Oh, but the project depends on this person. It’s necessary for me to alienate him and stifle his personal development. It’s for the good of the company.” That’s a crock-load of dung. What you’re trying to tell me is that you didn’t plan for turnover, and now that it’s come, you want to avoid all the work to recover, recruit, re-educate, and reassign people. In other words, you’re brain dead and lazy, but you’re making up for it by being selfish and self-serving. Only ignorant nimrods are unprepared for turnover.

Eric Aside

Okay, I’ve held back till Chapter 9, but I have to say it, I love re-reading these columns. Writing them has always been a cathartic experience. Reviewing them for this book has allowed me to relive the satisfaction of unmitigated rage directed at behavior I truly despise. It’s nice in its own twisted way.

I’ll just walk the earth

Good managers should expect around 10% turnover a year. Bad managers should expect more, but they probably don’t recognize it, and I certainly don’t care.

If you’re a good manager of a group of 20, you should expect two people to leave your group each year, sometimes more, sometimes less. Even a lead with five reports should expect at least one person to leave every couple of years. People leave for all kinds of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with you or your team: friendships on other teams, new technologies, a change of scenery, and relationships outside work to name a few. You shouldn’t take it personally.

Nice dam, huh?

But how should you deal with turnover? Some managers go to extremes to prevent it:

§ They blow tons of money on extravagant morale gifts and events, when having more frequent, cheap events would be far better.

§ They promise larger roles and promotions—promises they don’t completely control, promises they can’t keep.

§ They deny permission to interview for everyone on the team, which poisons morale and makes the team feel like indentured servants.

Eric Aside

Microsoft has since changed its rules so that managers can no longer refuse to allow their employees to interview. Only vice presidents still have that privilege.

Trying to prevent turnover is like building a dam to prevent a river from flowing. It works for a short time until the dam breaks or overflows and your team gets washed away in a torrent of transfers. What’s worse, such measures lower morale and make your team less attractive to the new members you’ll soon need.

Flowing like a river

Instead, the best way to deal with turnover is to expect it and embrace it. How? Think flow, flow, floooooooow.

Think of your team as a river instead of a lake. A lake stagnates. There’s no energy or impetus to change. The same is true of groups that stagnate. They cultivate mediocrity and complacency; they abhor risk. A river is always running and changing with lots of great energy. You want a river.

A river depends on the flow of water, and your team depends on the flow of people and information. You can think of the people divided into three groups: new blood, new leaders, and elders ready for a new challenge. Here’s how those groups should balance and flow:

§ The largest group should be the new blood. Not all of them will become technical or organizational leaders.

§ Sometimes you’ll have more new leaders than elders, sometimes the reverse, but ideally you should maintain a balance.

§ For flow, you want a steady stream of new blood becoming your new leaders, and new leaders becoming elders.

§ The key to flow is new blood coming in and elders moving out. For this to work, you WANT your elders to transfer before they clog the stream and disrupt the flow of opportunities for others.

Not all technologies flow at the same rate. Central engines, like the Windows kernel, flow slowly, while web-based services, like MSN Search, flow quickly. You need to adjust for your situation, but even the most conservative technologies do change and flow.

How do you successfully encourage and maintain a healthy flow?

§ Keep a constant supply of new people.

§ Instill information sharing as a way of life.

§ Shape the organization and roles to create growth opportunities.

§ Find new challenges for your elders.

Fresh meat

For a constant supply of new people, nothing beats interns and college hires. Obviously, you’ll also recruit industry candidates and internal transfers, but interns and college hires should be your primary choice for their fresh perspectives and long-term potential.

Your number of annual college hire slots should be at least 5% of your total staff, counting open positions. So if your team has 20 devs, you want at least one college hire slot, more if your team is increasing headcount. Even in a flat headcount organization there is still at least 5% attrition, so look for young talent to fill openings even if none are currently available. College hires sometimes don’t start for nine months; anything can happen over that time, so plan ahead.

Interns are the next best thing to college hires, but they take an extra year to join your team. Therefore, you want as many intern slots as college hire slots. DO NOT plan on shipping interns’ code. At best, they should be pair programming shipping code. However, DO NOT give interns menial labor either. Instead, give interns strong mentors (people who’ll be your next leads) and exciting projects (buddy them up on the coolest features or incubation work). You want to measure them as future full-time hires and convince them that there’s no better job in the world than working for you at Microsoft.

Sharing is caring

When you have new folks on your team, you want them to grow into your new technical and organizational leaders. The only way this happens is through sharing information and knowledge. There is a cornucopia of ways to do this. Here are just a few:

§ Keep an online knowledge warehouse of how your group works. It can be a big, versioned Word doc; a SharePoint site; or a wiki—whatever works best for your folks. The key is to make it easily accessible and up to date. The first month’s assignment for a new person should be to update the content.

§ Use buddy systems for all projects and assignments. The arrangement can be anything from mentoring to assigned reviewer and backup to full-on pair programming. The key is to have no one working alone, no information isolated.

§ Get people together regularly, ideally daily, to discuss progress and issues. Nothing encourages sharing of information like regular high-bandwidth communication, even for as little as 15 minutes a day.

Buddy systems are particularly important for growing your new leaders and transitioning your elders. It’s never safe for an elder to leave if you lose key knowledge and capability in the process. By constantly sharing information, you release the stress-inducing stranglehold on your elder team members, and you make flow and transition a positive and natural experience.

Room to grow

Just like with repotting plants, you need to give your people room to grow. You can encourage this through how you structure your organization, how you issue your assignments, and how you design and promote growth paths for people to follow.

First think about growth paths. The new career models provide excellent and detailed guidance. How do growth paths apply to your team? You should know every employee’s desired growth path and current stage. Then you and your leaders should discuss if those desired growth paths are available for everyone, and if not, how will you adjust?

Often how your group is organized blocks your employees’ growth. All your senior people may be on one team and newbies on another. Change it, fix it, rebalance, reshuffle. The longer you leave your org unbalanced, the more trouble you’ll cause and risk you’ll carry.

Restructuring your organization can create dozens of new opportunities for growth. It’s critical to take advantage of them. Give your people assignments and new responsibilities that stretch them out of their comfort zone. Naturally, buddy them up with more experienced partners to reduce the risk and enhance the learning, but don’t just have the same people do the same things. Choose the assignments based on desired growth paths, and everyone wins.

I must be traveling

Of course, no one can move up if your most senior people stay put. Unless your group is expanding, the only way to make room for growth is to have your elders transfer out. Luckily, that’s exactly what they need. If they’ve been in your group long enough to reach the senior positions, then the only way for them to keep growing is to take on new challenges elsewhere.

Because you’ve focused on flow, losing your senior employees is no big deal. They’ve already shared their knowledge and experience. Their project buddies are already familiar with their work. Now all they need to do is find a good fit elsewhere with you supporting them every step of the way. This kind of loyalty and support will not only be appreciated by your senior people, but will be returned in loyalty and respect by the whole team.

Remember, the whole team watches how you treat your most senior folks. It’s an indicator of how you’ll treat them some day. Nothing wins over a staff like seeing the elder members being treated fairly and generously; leaving the group with praise, well-wishes, and a great future ahead. The message: “Stay with this team and you’ll be well rewarded.”

Surrender to the flow

When you fight turnover or let it catch you unprepared, you risk your project and the effectiveness and health of your team. When you embrace turnover, it becomes just a natural consequence of life. No fear, no worries, just healthy flow for an effective team.

What’s more, driving for flow of people and information in your team creates growth for Microsoft people and value for Microsoft customers. Less stress, more opportunity, greater flexibility, compounded knowledge, higher morale, and a stronger team. What more could you possibly ask? It’s time to surrender to the flow.

September 1, 2005: “Go with the flow—Retention and turnover”

Banned: Mobile calls while Bush in Sydney

May 17, 2007

Now this should be interesting:,130061791,339277444,00.htm

Maybe we should get out with our laser pointers and point them towards the helicopter 🙂