The ‘Black Box’ is a something whose complexity precludes comprehension of its inner workings. I’ve explored all sorts of ‘Black Boxes’ to date. One big category of Black Box in the workplace are specialist experts. And managing such experts can be the biggest challenge that a leader ever faces. Working in the field of technology 30 years now, I have immersed myself in the world of incessant complexity. Complexity is not the exclusive domain of technology, but it is hard to find an innovative technological enterprise that is not drenched in it. Complexity exists in all sorts of fields especially those with specialist domain knowledge. The following are a few dynamics I have identified where team members try desperately to Black-Box-ify their work so as to keep the upper hand over their manager and other stakeholders…
- Technobabble Gambit – “If you can’t explain the problem to me like I’m a kindergartener, that’s your problem, not mine.” All sorts of domain so-called experts often use big words as a weapon to ward off encroachments into their cosy existences. The stereotypical example is the contractor/plumber/mechanic who baffles with bullsh*t to charge more (<deep intake of breath> “I’m afraid the manifold transgression to the spar pump is mangroving. We can fix it with a new flatulence credenza, but it’ll cost ya.”). Such big words are particularly effective against managers who don’t want to appear as if someone less senior to them knows more than they do. So rather than admitting that they have no idea what the team member is talking about, they nod politely with a stern brow of thespian comprehension and conclude with “Hmm…well carry on then.” The majority of the time, I find that someone using big words actually doesn’t understand what’s going on either. REMEDY: The art of precision questioning allows only precision answers. Don’t stop until you understand.
- Data Grenade Tactic – “Close doesn’t count except in horseshoes and hand grenades.” Unfortunately, too many managers think ‘close’ is good enough when it comes to KPIs and other indicators of how things are going. They ask for 27 data points, when there are really only about 3 that really matter. The first problem is that they don’t understand the black box well enough to determine which 3 really matter. Then, they collect lots of the other data points, but none of the few that do matter. On the face of it everything looks fine and under control. Lots of data about the project. The problem is not only are the 3 key things missing, but really they’ve wasted the team’s time collecting 24 other KPIs that aren’t essential. REMEDY: Minimize the quantity of data requested from staff, and maximize the discipline around and the quality of the few pieces of data that you do collect.
- Prima Donna Syndrome – “Great work does not excuse bad work.” Paradoxically, a large number of problems come from staff who are otherwise described as valuable or talented team members. Often that value is derived from wizard-like, privileged understanding of the Black Box’s inner workings. What I observe is that these staff feel that their great work in some areas buys them the ability to be slack in others. Sometimes they think that they are indispensable to the organization so they can get away with more because the organisation wouldn’t dare fire them or even risk pissing them off. Too many Line Managers do fall into this trap of indispensability possibly aggravated by the pressures for tight staffing levels and a business that often has strict performance criteria. Very often prima donnas are veteran staff who confuse their depth of ‘experience’ and with depth of ‘expertise’. Often I observe a sense of entitlement where they feel that their seniority should merit greater rewards or prerogative. REMEDY: Avoid being held hostage to indispensability by fostering redundancy of skills and responsibilities. Manage the behaviours and outcomes, not the person.
- Licking the Hand that Feeds – “Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde.” When people across the organization complain about an individual’s cooperation, the Line Manager responds that it must either be an isolated incident or it must be the person reporting the problem who is a fault because the Line Manager never has any problems with that worker. Sort of a corollary to the ‘Prima Donna Syndrome’ (‘My great work for my manager excuses my crap work to everyone else’). The corollary to the “Not My Job” syndrome is the “Not My Manager” attitude. This is when the team member understands which side his bread is buttered on. As a result, they perform dutifully to every request from their manager, but atrociously to everyone else in the organization. This issue become problematic when organisation complexities extend across teams and unpicking the break points by management becomes intractable. REMEDY: Managers must solicit 360 feedback and cross-group collaboration must be weighed as highly as directly assigned tasks in their performance reviews.
- The Big Rug of Complexity – “The best place to hide dirt is the room with the biggest rug.” Sloppiness in time keeping and KPI management is directly proportional to the size and complexity of a project. The bigger the project, the greater the sense that “no one will notice” or “the project can afford a few extra hours or a few missed reports.” The problem is those little bits add up. The problem is compounded by the sense of “they are paying my salary anyway and it’s all one company so who really cares what I bill to.”