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One Is the Loneliest Number…

Published: September 19, 2017

CEO and OTHER PERSON have a chat…

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

CEO: “We have to move faster! We have to be more innovative! We have to stop these issues in production! It’s all killing us!”

OTHER PERSON: “Understood. What is that costing you?”

C: “Well…we’re losing market share. Our customers are anxious for improvements. And the stuff we do release just isn’t having enough impact. I’m sure you can understand the pressure I’m under!? The last couple board meetings have been pretty tense.”

OP: “I’m sure. Must be tough. This all sounds like it could be costing you a considerable amount of money. Do you…”

C: “And it’s getting worse! Or at least it feels like it is getting worse. Every quarter it is the same old story. We started to bring the consultants in last quarter to help out. Some of them are OK…but who knows? They talk the talk…that’s for sure.”

OP: “Are you learning anything from them?”

C: “I’m learning how to pay their invoices! Hah! But honestly, in most cases they are repeating things that people have said internally —especially during exit interviews. Of course the consultants are a lot more polished, and have better PowerPoint presentations. Plus, there is a never-ending buffet of the services they’re willing to sell us. But who knows?”

OP: “Do they?”

C: “It’s almost like everyone has read the same ten books or something! You know…single-word title, airport book bullshit: Spark, Magic, Disrupt. Then they tell me what Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, and Google are doing. We’re not Google by the way…we don’t print money.”

OP: “Very few companies are unique. I’m guessing your problems are not all that unique, and neither are the potential paths forward. How about your direct reports? What are they saying?”

C: “It is like a formula. First, they need money and headcount. Second, it isn’t their fault. Third, they try to pitch something. Fourth, they kiss my ass while simultaneously telling me how hard it is to meet their departmental goals. I should have them fill out a form before they meet me.”

OP: “Backing up…how much would you pay to make a big dent in these problems, and turn things around?”

C: “That is a very theoretical question. I mean for fuck’s sake, this is what I’m paying my leaders and managers to do right now! I’m already paying for this! I pay people to keep this under control. And now they turn around and tell me it is all messed up. Why didn’t they bring up these issues earlier? Who was on watch?”

OP: “With all due respect… you were on watch. Right? I seem to remember this bubbling up from the front-lines in quarterly surveys.”

C: “Touché. But I wasn’t getting actionable information! No solutions! Imagine having six people basically complaining and pitching to you non-stop. And let’s face it, none of them are going to admit their side of the house is in disarray. Plus I admit that saying No to me can be pretty tough. With all that static, how do you know where to double-down?”

OP: “That must be hard. Back to the original question. Do…”

C: “Wait, another thing. Do you know how lonely this job can be sometime?”

OP: “Pretty lonely, I imagine. And not a lot of time to see your family. I’m sorry.”

C: “Continue…”

OP: “OK. Let’s just accept that you’re in a tough spot. Getting out of a tough spot takes work. There are no silver bullets. Something is going to need to change. What if I told you that you could cut the lead times for your most valuable work by 80%. Would you pay for that?”

C: “Well sure…in theory! We would spend tons of money for that. Send me the bill. But you just told me there are no silver bullets!”

OP: “Alas, this isn’t a silver bullet. The payment would be: removing a whole layer of middle-management, combining two departments, bringing the outsourcing in-house, attempting 50–70% fewer projects, focusing on a small number of high-value efforts, leaving many teams idle for the time-being if they can’t swarm on the bottleneck, hiring some key expertise, addressing the retention issue, investing in dedicated tooling and infrastructure support for teams, hiring full-time coaches for front-line teams and managers/leaders, doing a major refactor of the core product, and missing your revenue goals for the next 2 or 3 quarters.”

C: “You’re fucking with me. Do you think I’m an idiot? Do you think I can just march into the board meeting and lay that giant stinking turd on the table? I’d get fired.”

OP: “You’re not an idiot… this isn’t easy. I know how hard that would be…”

C: “Plus we have consultants here in-house teaching our teams to be more Agile. You know…the standups and sprints and all that. Twice the Work In Half The Time! I’m pretty sure that is the book I saw on that managers’s desk. Sounds like this was a waste of time. It obviously didn’t scale, which probably explains why the consultants are pitching this SAFER thing. Hey, I don’t care what they do as long as I get my red/orange/green dashboard and they hit their deadlines.”

OP: “That stuff is fine, but there is only so much you can do on the team level, or even just on the engineering department level. It starts with the pressure to ship new stuff. It starts with when you incentivize output over the overall health of the system. The signs were there, but somehow they never reached you. Which suggest an even more important need…the need for psychological safety and openness. Those feedback loops need to be tightened. You’ll need to claw your way out of the hole. Or…”

C: “Or what? I’m all ears. We both know that most turnarounds happen after someone like me gets fired.”

OP: “You can just keep the ship rolling. Shake up the org-chart a bit. Keep things up and to the right. Maybe buy some companies to help with growth.”

C: “You are so cynical. Those aren’t terrible ideas. Companies buy revenue and talent all the time. We’ve got the cash. And no steaming turd for the board.”

OP: “So it sounds like it is too late?”

C: “Honestly, I’ve lost trust that we can actually execute. Maybe we just don’t have the right people in the right roles? I’m beginning to seriously doubt…”

OP: “…Doubt your people? The people around you?”

C: “I guess. And I’m sure they are doubting me as well.”

OP: “As you said, that must feel kind of lonely?”

C: “It does…”