A second blog post written originally in long hand while camping at the Wheatland Music Festival.  The first one is here.

September 7, 2013

The idea behind “empowered” workers, staff, whatever, is a fantastic one.  It sends us off dealing with problems left and right.  We slay giants, send dragons to their doom and overcome all sorts of obstacles.  This model works amazingly well, until we run into a situation where it doesn’t work and we need the support of a boss-type to knock a hole in the wall or find us a bigger ladder or help dig the tunnel under it so we can get on with what we are supposed to be doing.

Managers are good at that sort of thing, usually.  I had one manager several years ago who laughed at me once saying “Walen, can’t you, just once, bring me an easy problem?”  My response was, “I don’t need help with the easy problems.  I can deal with those.  When the problem is another manager, I need someone with at least as much stuff on his collar as he does to deal with it.” (He was a retired Army officer, such references carried a certain weight with him.)

Usually, he’d deal with it.  Sometimes, he’d propose a solution I had not considered.  I’m not certain, but I suspect I contributed to him deciding to retire.  (If you’re reading this – “Hi Gay!  How’s things?  That M47 still looks pretty impressive.”)

Then I’ve had other managers who were closer to the pointy-haired boss type from Dilbert.  The ones who apparently have no idea what their staff does, nor any appreciation for the complexities of the problems they are describing and need help with.  The result sometimes is “help” that is no help at all.

An Example.

Maybe you’ve heard the joke about a fellow walking through a field and observes (astutely) a hot air balloon roughly 100 feet above the field.  A fellow in the balloon’s basket calls down to him “Can you tell me where I am?”

Being a very accurate observer, the fellow walking through the field calls back “Yes. You are in a balloon approximately 100 feet above the ground, 25 feet ahead and slightly to my left.  You are over a fallow field with tree’s roughly 300 yards ahead of you, relative to me and 50 yards to the right, relative to me.” 

The fellow in the basket calls down, annoyed “You must work in IT!  You have given me very detailed information, none of which helps me at all! Thanks for wasting my time!”

The fellow on the ground calls back “You must be a manager, probably in upper management.  You got yourself into this situation and now its my fault!”

And What Prompted This

These things came to my mind listening to some folks playing music in or campsite last night (Friday).  One fellow was a guy I used to play in a traditional/folk band with.  We used to play a mix of Irish and Scottish songs and traditional tunes.  He was playing guitar and singing with his sister, doing a bit their parents did when they were kids.

Maybe you’ve heard the some “There’s a Hole In My Bucket?”  Where a fellow says to “Liza” “There’s a hole in my bucket.”  She very helpfully says “Well, fix it.”  He does not know how (hence the problem.)  Which in turn Liza says “With some Straw, dear Henry” (the names sometimes change, but you get the idea.)

Well, poor Henry needs more guidance, “But the straw is too long.”  “Then Cut it!”  Well, Henry does not know what to do about cutting so Liza suggests a knife.  The knife is not sharp enough to cut the straw, so sharpen it on a stone.  Except the sharpening stone needs to be wet to effectively sharpen the stone.  So get some water to wet it with and then sharpen the knife to cut the straw to mend the hole in the bucket.

Which leads Henry to respond “With what shall I fetch it (the water)?”  Liza serenely (more likely very frustrated by now) says “the bucket!”  

Which brings us back to “There’s a Hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza.  There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, a hole.”

As a children’s song, its rather funny.  Henry is obviously clueless.  So Liza needs to explain everything to him. Except maybe he’s tried these ideas and is still stuck. 

How many times have managers and leads and seniors leapt to a conclusion on how to fix a problem without considering the problem from the perspective of Henry.  The “obvious” solution may be not so obvious after all, when you look at all the pieces.

And So, 

Dear Liza, don’t write off the problem before you understand Henry’s frustration and his perception of the problem.

Managers and leads – Please take the time to hear what your people are really saying when the words sometimes fail them.  They will appreciate you more and you won’t look and sound like Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss.