I had a discussion yesterday with Ed Lopit, one of the most insightful businessmen I know. That discussion led to this blog post. If you want to learn to master this stuff, talk to him
I’ve been called a lotta things over the years. Most of them can’t be written on a PG blog. But they all tend to point out that I’m “confrontational” or “litigious” or “an a—hole” (ok, PG13).
It’s actually not true.
I don’t like to argue. I don’t mind it either. It’s a necessary part of keeping organizations, teams and projects strong.
The ‘you go’ effect
In college, I played a lot of volleyball. Our coach had only one offense for which she’d send us running around the gym 30-40 times: If two people stand on the court while the ball comes towards them, look at each other and say ‘you go’ while the ball bounces, untouched, between them.
Every time we did it, she’d roll her eyes with disgust and point to the wall, as if to say “Start running, nubwits.”
That’s the ‘you go’ effect—everyone stares at everyone else, waiting for someone to do something.
When companies fall into ‘you go’ mode, they die.
Two things will fight the you go effect:
One way we avoided running around the gym was to agree, in advance, who would go for a ball that was in no-man’s land. A clear hierarchy meant we divided the court into sections. Each person policed one particular section. If that person was out of their section, another person knew they were supposed to cover for them.
That structure handled some of our problems and indecision. But it wasn’t enough, on its own.
Structure only helps, though, if the people within the it enforce and own it. Aggressively. If I casually walked towards the ball, it’d fly by me or bash me in my large proboscis. Players had to be on the balls of their feet, always ready to scamper towards a ball.
In fact, if a ball headed anywhere in your direction, you could almost feel it pulling you. The best players (not me) told me they had to actively resist the urge to dive after every ball that came within 12 feet of them.
That creates tension. In a way, the whole team is resisting the urge to dogpile on top of the ball. Which would be fine in American football, but not so much in volleyball.
That same state has to exist in a company, or on a project team. Marketing, Information Technology, Finance and Operations may all be resisting the urge to dive on top of, I dunno, the web site. That may lead to a lot of intense discussion.
That’s a good thing.
It’s a hell of a lot better than all of them standing around, or one person/group totally taking over. It’s a constant tug of war.
What the leader has to do
My coach would let us compete and exist in that state of ‘get-the-ball-now-dammit’. If we collided, though, she’d step in and point out how to avoid it next time.
A good leader at a company does the same thing: All those teams and individuals exist in tension because they give a crap about what they do. That’s good. The leader’s job, in part, is to step in when necessary to keep things running smoothly.
When I’m in a room, contradicting what another SEO, or a developer, or a designer is saying, I’m not doing it to be a jerk. Just like they’re not doing it to be a jerk when they contradict me, either. And I take none of it personally. It’s part of that necessary tension.
What will drive me bonkers is when a disagreement is allowed to continue for weeks/months/years while nothing gets done. It’s the leader’s job to break that logjam and own the decision. If he can’t, he’s a lousy leader.
I find it sad that so many people now just ‘let it go’ when they know they’re right, or hang on by their pitted fingernails when they know they’re wrong. Letting it go means they no longer care. Hanging on means they’re taking it personally to an unhealthy degree.
I find it tragic that so few in leadership positions will step in and respectfully get things back on track.