Jay Shirley

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The Daily Practice

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Failing at solved problems, or, identifying bad leaders.

Published: 11 Dec 2011

It’s been nearly 30 years since Mythical Man Month was published. Yet to this day, inept leadership throughout the world tries to do the same things studied and shown to fail from the book. I am amazed by this.

Bad Leaders make bad products.

The leader of a software product is under tremendous stress. They must deliver, or they must answer for their failures. That’s how they earn their money. When delivery dates start to slip the beads of sweat start to form. Then, one of two things can happen.

The first is that the leader adjusts expectations. They may strip features. Simplify the product. They don’t add more resources. They don’t pressure developers to work faster. Neither works. Go read Mythical Man Month before trying to debate this point.

The second option is really just noise. Lots of it. Yelling at those involved to work harder, work faster. Absurd things are said. Earn the fraction of a fraction of equity. They add resources. Then, the project slips more. They get more angry and the cycle downward continues.

The outcome of the bad leader is a bad product. Pressuring developers to work faster and harder just moves the time to the QA and final stages. If it’s not paid for there, it’s paid for in the final product and with customer good will.

Recognizing a Bad Leader.

I believe bad leaders are fairly easy to spot. I’ve worked for many, many bad leaders. I’ve been promised fantastic wealth (though only a fraction of what they would earn) and a “set career”. When I finally caught on, they yelled and even told me the cliché, “you’ll never work in this town again!” (I went on to make a lot more money immediately).

In retrospect, they have all shared a few things in common.

They don’t listen to ideas that don’t fit their world view. What’s worse, they get angry when presented with ideas that run counter to it. The first sign of a bad leader is someone who only accepts evidence to support their conclusions. If they actively sabotage or ignore contrarian constructive opinions, they are the worst type of bad leader.

They get angry at inevitabilities. When schedules start to slip they get angry; this makes them a bad leader. A good leader shows constructive ways to succeed. Often times this means changing the final product. That’s ok, it means ambition was too high. The bar was too high. It’s better to succeed where you can, than fail and claim success. The product is for the users. If the users hate the product it’s a failure.

Bad Leaders, can they be taught?

I like to think that nobody sets out to be bad. It’s a case of under-education, not people waking up telling themselves they want to be the worst possible at their job without getting fired. That just wouldn’t make sense.

The problem is when ego gets in the way and people believe they know best. Nobody knows best. There is always room to improve and learn. To try new things. To analyze, revisit and approach in fresh new ways. The best leaders are those who are constantly finding weaknesses and mitigating them.

More importantly, they focus on strengths. Focus on strengths to make weaknesses irrelevant. They read books. They talk to other successful leaders. They embrace challenges and constructive opposing views.

Good ideas are created through natural selection.

If an idea is not challenged it can never be better than any other idea. If an idea cannot not be modified to embrace positive changes from counter ideas, it is a weak idea. Ideas grow and evolve through natural selection. A weak idea is killed off, unless kept alive by inept leadership.

Ideas are not conjured up, completely new and untested. Ideas should be grown. Inspected and analyzed, verified and changed in deliberate ways. This makes sure the risk is minimal. The idea slowly gets better.

Ideas become better because they weather countless challenges. It has incorporated additional merits in each debate, growing and changing through time. They don’t get strong because of noise and mandates.

A good idea is not a mandate. If others cannot be convinced of its merit, it’s entirely likely it is meritless. If people get angry about this I find they simply resist learning new methods.

Thus, we come to the final trait of a bad leader. Bad ideas are maintained because that’s the way things have always been done. Familiarity is not a reason, it’s an excuse.