Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Hey, You! Call 911

I got my CPR training from a Navy Corpsman, Chief Raniowski.  Chief Ski is an awesome guy and was an awesome teammate.  He lost an eye in Fallujah (non-combat) and came home from our deployment early in 2006.  I was sad to see him go, and was thrilled to see him back in Virginia Beach, still his same upbeat, highly-motivated self.

Anyway, when 'Ski trained a group of us, he stated that we should NEVER just yell out "Someone call 911!" during a civilian situation emergency.  Without just leaving it at that, he asked why that might be sound policy.  I remember not having a clue.

The answer, he said, is that in any group situation, no one is certain to take on the role of that 'someone.'  It's more effective to point directly at a particular person and state in the loudest, most authoritative I-am-in-charge-now tone of voice, "YOU -- Call 911 RIGHT NOW!"  If that person freezes up or runs away, you can choose someone else.  You get the idea.

I never forgot that lesson.  

I since spent another six years on the active side, including lots of time overseas (3 of the past 6 Christmases...seriously), and I know that when you're delegating within a small group, you need to get a l'il specific.  Because when you don't, there's ambiguity.  And ambiguity leads to mistakes which can lead to...really bad days for really good people.

Fast forward to today, where I had some frustration regarding group dynamics during a Core meeting.  Our seven-person "Core" team that handles a lot of group projects, meets regularly, and works as a tiny sub-unit within our 70-person cohort (6 x cohorts per class, total).  They are all great people and come from a widely diverse background set of professions, educations, and places in the world.  I enjoy all their company individually, and I would also say we get along well as a team.  If anyone was guilty of rocking that boat a bit today, it was me...and here's why:

Our last two projects were basically "crowdsourced."  No one was really in charge, everyone threw in a little something, and they got done.  However, the process was imperfect -- there was role confusion, deliverable confusion, and we wound up submitting the last edit of the document.  When the stakes are low, that doesn't really matter.  But there's something inherently broken about that...just imagine a system in which whoever had tabs on something last would determine what it said (Congress?  Memos to Fortune 500 CEOs?  Newspaper editorials?)  Also, that doesn't factor in that someone's "edit" may have warped the English language to the point where clauses become sentences, verbs disappear, and implied intent changes.  Or that tasking "somebody" to do something becomes less effective as available free time diminishes...the busier you are, the easier it is not to be that 'somebody.'  No shocker what happens in these scenarios (regardless of time, place, or circumstance)...20 percent of the group winds up as the sled dogs with some heavy rucksacks on their backs, with the other 80 percent seeing 'no problem at all' with the arrangement.

So I piped up today to say, "This worked okay up to now, but the model is kinda sorta broken.  It might be wiser to appoint one single person as the project lead for each of these things.  That person can delegate, collect everything, sort it all out, draft it into a coherent whole, and then "own" the document.  People would be able to recommend whatever changes or edits they want, but that person (who would of course rotate each time) would run the show, control the edits, and submit the final deliverable."

This went over like the proverbial turd in a punchbowl.  I'm not entirely sure why -- was it because I was being the Domineering Military Guy? The Grumpy Old Man?  Even worse than outright disagreement was the extremely awkward silence that followed this proposal.  Honestly, I would have given anything at that moment for someone to just say, "I don't like your idea, and here's why..." followed by something thoughtful and rational.  Instead, I got a group of six staring at their shoes.

And since I like to think I "know when to fold 'em" I just took my cue to shut up and move along.

I thought about it a lot on the train ride home, and much like the protagonist in a business case, weighed my two basic options:

(1) Stand up, puff my shoulders, flex my chest, and declare "I'm in charge here," knowing the benefit would be more efficient outcomes and a leadership void filled, but at the risk of alienating the entire group and ripping apart the team dynamic; or

(2) Choose the 'strategic backslide" option, in which I simply let go a little, let the system be broken and chaotic, and just embrace it.  After all, Christmas is three months away -- it will eventually get here no matter what (again, military experience comes through...I'm familiar with how to conceptualize difficult but temporary stretches of time in my head).  This could lead to some short-term frustrations, but is better for group cohesion, and ultimately might lead people to come around and realize why "somebody will just do it" isn't the right answer at work, at home, or anywhere else (unless you're sure not to be 'that somebody' in which case it's not so bad...just ask anyone who litters or vandalizes public spaces)...

If you know me pretty well, you might've been able to guess that I chose Option 2.  If there were lives on the line, or heck, even shareholder value or company profits on the line, I would NOT be so complacent.  However, I thought long and hard about it (between Wedgemere and North Billerica, anyway) and came to the conclusion that a few typos on a case solution, and some last-minute, unneeded panic are not worth the risk of upsetting the apple cart.

As I was walking through Gallagher Terminal, I bumped into a very close friend:  a Ph.D. holder who lives on one of those cool row houses on Cabot Street (they are amazing on the inside, trust me) and teaches at LHS.  He is a remarkably wise man, and when he offered to drive me home (actually his wife drove) by way of McDonald's on Plain St., I told him about the issue I came across, but without the decision info.

His answer almost gave me goosebumps:  "Greg, you're a Captain.  These people around you are all extremely bright, but they're a bit younger than you and they've never really led anything.  Your job at this point is to back away, take on a role as more of an observer, and just jump in when you think it's absolutely necessary.  Sooner or later what you're saying [about delegation, clear roles, and a 'deliverable owner'] will become obvious.  You need to let that happen on its own."

Then, I walked through the door and talked to my wife (as the days keep stretching and stretching on both ends, that's becoming more of a novelty).  She could tell I had something on my mind, and I explained the dilemma, along with the fact that I was more frustrated by the (lack of) response to my proposal/explanation than to the original issue that it sprang from.

She listened to everything, thought about it for a second, and then said the exact same thing that Julio did.

My Lesson:  Sometimes it's extremely important to take a step outside of whatever bubble you're in, take a breath, and get your bearings.  

1 comment:

C R Krieger said...

I like going with Number 2.  This is a crowd and they don't yet have cohesion as a group and a sense of themselves as a group.  I bet they are a lot more "I" than "We".  The test will come when the Professor dings them and their egos over the deliverable.  However, you have told them that you have some ideas on this and thus they can turn to you.  Remember, if it was going to be easy they could have sent anybody in your place.

Regards  —  Cliff