Monday, March 11, 2013

Being American

There is an interesting thing about America - it tends to creep to all areas of our lives. It is a funny thing, and everything we do tends to reinforce it. From sports, to work to politics, to religion - we now need it to "be" American. It was not always the case, but as we progress more and more, it creeps into our culture in unavoidable ways - and leads to an interesting condition and dysfunction. In our current culture, we see things in pairs - always two, and ONLY two sides to everything. There has to be a winner, and a loser. There has to be a "good" and a "bad". It is summed up in the immortal words of Ricky Bobby "If you ain't first, you're last". And it is now true in almost every activity we try to do.

True, this is a bit of a generalization. But it becomes harder and harder to find exceptions to this rule. A two party system, most major sports not accepting a "tie" as a result, views on outdoors or even, and especially, "two types of workers". I saw this recently on LinkedIn, and it was an interesting thing. Two blogs/articles in the defense of a staffing model. A Dichotomous staffing model. The argument was basically about "superhero" employees being necessary for start-up success, the other about "just in time" or "anti-unicorn" approach. Interestingly, both agreed that there were basically two types of desirable workers - those who overachieve at every level, and the few that plod along their work and are capable but just don't overachieve at EVERY thing they do. There is a third type of worker in these articles, the incompetent oaf. And if you only read these articles, those are all the workers you have to choose from.

Now most consulting agencies I work with only have one criteria for their workers. They express it as "we are only looking for top X% resources. Are YOU a X% employee and why?" Normally "X%" varies from 10 on the low end to 3 in the ridiculous shops. And, if you interview with these companies, you are expected to immediately answer this question. Hesitation, after all is NOT an "X%" trait. Interestingly, once you work with a few people in the firm, you realize it's all a game. A ridiculous game at that. But it is a game we take so seriously in America, we dare not speak out against it. This seeps into the organizations, and now you have a dysfunction built in that will echo in all other areas of work. There is no better example of this in America than in major sports - with teams spending millions of dollars fixing issues that do not address core problems. Due to legal concern, I cannot name any names. But in North Texas, we have managed to underachieve in every major sport for a few years now, with a single lone championship on a multi-million dollar investment by at least 4 organizations. The problem is evident - until the organizations speak to the press. Then you realize - these people cannot see the issue due to the big American lie...

I work with teams. I help teams get better, and I HAVE to know what makes teams work well. I am an agilist and a scrum evangelist. And my value proposition comes in leadership. To that end, I constantly look at teams and organizations in order to help them better themselves. At AI, we specialize in cultural change. And that "two position" view of ours is one of the main culprits of the decline of American organizations. I am familiar with the superhero/unicorns. And I am familiar with some extremely good "let me do my job" types. As it turns out, I have seen more damage done by "unicorns" than by "mere team players". Some chalk this up to a risk/reward paradigm, the way I have seen things it tends to be from a low accountability threshold for the "superhero" employees. But, all things being equal, it takes BOTH of these employee types to make projects, teams and organizations run. They both bring value, and it is up to leadership to structure them for optimum performance.

I do see an additional type of employee - this is a kind of person who tends to hold a team together, they tend to make things go easier. Usually, their function requires them to work with others, and indeed, to help others get along better. They tend to not be looked at as "super" or "followers" and sometimes people do not see much value about them. But they serve as a "lubricant" or "glue" to the team, both holding the team together and allowing different personalities to work well together. I call these people "gammas" because like glue, the word starts with a "g" (and I did a lot of math getting an engineering degree). They are essential to make a team go, and can be, like everyone else, at the top, middle or bottom of the performance stack for their discipline.

It is interesting to see three kinds of essential people when everyone else only sees two. It is even more telling that I actually see PEOPLE, and not resources. Because there are a lot more than three types, with different experiences, focuses and lives. Esther Derby tends to focus on the human aspect of Agile, and I am a huge fan. But working in the world of a one eyed organization that only sees in pairs, it becomes difficult to argue the obvious with those that cannot understand more than one language. So for now, I hold to three types of useful people. And hopefully, with my help maybe some in your organization can start to "shed the scales" and see how to structure the team you have to be as optimal as possible, and not judge them with an American lens.

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