LTjg Kevin J. Schmidt is a Senior Manager of Software Engineering and a thought leader in the cyber and threat analysis space. He drills at NIOC GA in Augusta. Kevin is co-author of Essential SNMP, second edition (O’Reilly and Associates, ISBN: 978-0-596-00840-6) and also Logging and Log Management: The Authoritative Guide to Understanding the Concepts Surrounding Logging and Log Management (Syngress, ISBN: 978-1-597-49635-3). He is currently co-authoring a new book for O’Reilly entitled Programming Elastic MapReduce. Expected publication is December 2013. You can reach Kevin at kjschmidt@gmail.com.

People are an organization’s greatest asset. I believe this to my core. It is people who start companies, come up with innovative ideas, get the tough jobs done, win big sales deals and so on. But people can also impede progress. In this article I’d like to discuss a few things organizations do which can impede progress and kill the spirit of the worker.

Fitting team members to a bell curve

In late breaking news, Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer, has instituted the idea that all employees will be fitted to a bell curve. The worst part is that those who are ranked at the bottom will likely face firings. Speaking from experience, what happens inside of companies is that you and your manager create a set of goals for the fiscal year. You agree upon them ahead of time and you go off and execute against them. Now comes the end of the year and you have to start fitting your employees to the curve. You generally have to rate each team member in one of 5 or 6 categories, where the last one or two categories means you are less than stellar. What many employees don’t realize is that if they execute and complete all of their annual goals, but don’t go above and beyond, they have the potential to be ranked at the bottom. This is because someone else might have achieved 110% of a certain goal, while another only achieved 100%. The problem here is that some employees want to do their job, produce good results, and rise and repeat. They just don’t want to go above and beyond. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in going the extra mile, thinking outside of the box, etc., but we do need people who do a good job and produce reliable, consistent results.

You might be thinking that this sounds like a great idea. In a perfect world it would be. The problem with this sort of thing is that it doesn’t reward the best performers. It rewards those who play the game well. I have witnessed a manager refuse to allocate some of his resources to help another manager on his project. This sort of withholding of resources causes latter manager to not get his project fully completed, which impacts his overall rating at the end of the year.

Ultimately these kinds of programs instill a sense of fear in employees and can actually lead to lost productivity, brain drain, and unhappiness in general. This impedes progress.

Saying you care about the customer when you don’t

As much as I believe in supporting and developing your team members, I also believe in supporting the customer, too. Some companies genuinely care about customers, while others merely go through the motions. What I do not like is when an organization puts policies and procedures in place which inhibit growth, product development and delivery. Draconian policies lead to a slowing of product delivery which in turn can cause heartburn with your customers. Then when your customer threatens to fire you, for not delivering what you promised, it’s suddenly all hands on deck to get the product and/or features out the door. This drives down morale and causes team members to rethink why they are working for such a dysfunctional organization. Brain drain starts to happen and you are left trying to backfill people and get them trained up on the job. This impedes progress because it wastes precious time.

Saying you are innovative and entrepreneurial when you aren’t

I have seen this time and time again. CEOs, CTOs, leaders, managers and others love to spout off on how their organization is innovative and how entrepreneurialism is valued. In over 20 years in the IT industry, I have worked at only one company where the leaders put their money where their collective mouths are. Instead, most organizations will pay lip service about being innovative and not back it up. What this does is tell your team members they can think outside of the box and come up with new ideas, solutions to problems and in general flex their gray matter. Then when really good ideas are not listened to, your people no longer feel like they should go the extra mile. This leads to brain drain, which impedes progress.

Being a progress champion

So how can you be a progress champion? Here are a few ways you can change your thinking and mindset and become a progress champion.

  1. If you are unfortunate enough to have to fit your employees to a curve, you should vote with your feet and leave. But if you have to stay, be sure you understand the rules of the game. Then communicate this often to your team. The more you can do to help them go above and beyond, the better off they will be at the end of the year. But you will always have some folks who want to do their 9-5 and that’s it. That’s fine, just make sure they know the rules just like everyone else.
  2. The way to prevent reactive chaos in your organization is to change things from within. Start by asking yourself how you can streamline your policies and procedures. Get buy-in from your peers, stakeholders, product owners, etc., on what changes you want to make. Start small and prove that your way will work. When your proof is irrefutable, people have to listen.
  3. If you lead people who have innovative or entrepreneurial leanings, the key is to take their great ideas and convince the folks who control product development there is value in “productizing” their work. You do this by doing some leg work up front. If you know your market, you can do research to validate the work and show a genuine need. This could be as simple as speaking to your customer services group or technical support. These groups tend to be closest to customers and know them pretty well.