I was having a coffee and a chat the other day, wearing my “consultant hat” as one guy I know describes it.  The fellow I was sitting with was a manager who was almost beside himself with frustration.

“Why can’t people make a decision and stick with it?  How come people always leave the decisions to me to make when they should be able to make them and not bother me about them?”

Wow.  I can see where there is a good deal of frustration here.  “What kind of decisions are people expecting you to make?  Have you tried working with your staff so they understand what you expect them to do?”

“Everything!  Every. Little. Thing.

He pounded the table top at each word to emphasize the point – I actually was afraid he’d spill the coffee which was quite tasty – and quite hot. 

“Everything from what junior developer should be working on what functions to how those functions should be designed.  They don’t come to me with questions around how to design solutions, or to settle something where there are two designs that can be chosen.  They come to me to make the design!  I don’t have time for that!  Yesterday a guy that is supposed to be a ‘senior development analyst’ came to me to ask if a simple search function should use cache or not?  He’s a senior level person and is asking this kind of question?  Why can’t I get people who are really motivated and self-starters?  This is making me NUTS!

With another pound on the table for emphasis that rattled the spoons and rocked the cups.  A little bit slopped over the rim of my cup and was caught by the saucer.  I was saddened a little by this.

I slipped a paper napkin between the cup and saucer, took a sip of the very nice coffee and said, “It seems there is a disconnect somewhere.  Can you tell me about the people you bring on and the types of people you are looking for?”

He slumped back in his chair and actually looked kind of sad, almost defeated.

“I bring in people who seem really sharp in the interview.  Their references are fantastic.  Their experience looks great.  Lately I’ve been using LinkedIn to check them out.  They seem really good and I think they’ll help turn the team around when they come in.  But it turns out that most of them aren’t as sharp as they seemed.  I’m not sure why the last guy had as many recommendations on LinkedIn as he did.  He made so many mistakes and did so many things wrong, I could not believe it.  He’s just not very good.”  (Pause while he drank some coffee.)

“Still he’s not the worst person in the group.  He does OK as long as he gets close supervision.  But that means I need to watch him like a hawk, every day.  That is really hard when I need to watch what the rest of the group is doing like a hawk as well.  If I don’t they’ll screw something up and then the QA group, they’re pretty worthless too from what I can see – they never test the right things, won’t find the bugs they’re supposed to find and it gets to production and then there is hell to pay.”

And here I get the first real clue what is going on.

“So, let me see if I understand.  You have hired a team where every person you bring in you think is a motivated, expert self-starter and it turns out they are not.  So you need to direct everything they are doing to the smallest detail.  That means you are spending so much time overseeing their work that you are working far more than you should to do that and get the work done you need to get done.  Correct?”

“Wow!  That is exactly my problem!  What can we do about it?”  (Possible break though? he said ‘we.”)

“Let me ask another question.  If you’re spending all this time on stuff you should not have to, are you able to get work done you need to get done on time?  Is that getting in the way?”

“Oh man, That’s IT!  I have a hard time getting things in on time – sometimes its at the last minute that I deliver it.  Sometimes I can’t turn it in until a day or two later than I needed to get it in.  My {company buzzword for ‘boss’} is beginning to think I can’t do anything on time.  That is a problem.”

“Ouch.  Yeah.  That kind of stinks.  Are your developers able to get their work done on time?  Do they meet the Stage Gate and Code Complete dates in the model you use?”

“Well, sometimes.  Sometimes they need to work late nights over weekends to finish code.  Then when I go over it with them, I find a lot of problems.  Sometimes I see that they completely ignored the design I told them to follow.  I can’t keep up with them when they are working at home at night or over the weekend.  When they are not giving me regular updates on progress I can’t make sure they are doing it right.”

“I can see that might be a problem for you.  Tell me something else.  When you hire someone, is that to expand the group or replace people?  If you are replacing people are they people who quit voluntarily or are they let go?”

“Well, fortunately, I have not had to let very many people go.  It seems the worst of them know they are under-performing and quit on their own.  I feel bad for the companies that hire them.  They are not very good.”

“But you hired them and thought they’d be amazing when you hired them.  What happened?”

“I made a mistake.  They were not as good as I thought I guess.  While we were talking I was reminded of something.  Its like when you get a puppy.  Have you ever had dogs?”

“Yes.  Our last dog was a rottweiler – she was 100 pounds, very sweet, a wonderful baby sitter and lived to be 11 years old.”

“Really?  I don’t trust rottweilers, they are too violent.  Maybe you got an exception.  Well, my wife got a puppy when the kids were in school.  We thought it would be a good thing.  It was all sweet and played a lot when it was little.  When it was older, its true personality came out.  It growled a lot, growled at my wife a lot.  It was ok with the kids, but we had to watch it all the time.  It growled at me a lot.  When it tried to bite me, we had it put down.  A dog that changes that much can’t be trusted around kids.”

As a response was forming in my mind on the similarity to how his “motivated, self stater” developers and the family dog showed similar changes, he said.  “Well, think about this and we can talk.  I need to get this problem sorted out soon.  Thanks for the coffee.”  And he headed out.

As he walked for the door, the Unicorn over in the corner caught my eye, looked at him, then rolled his eyes. 

He looked kind of sad.

I agreed with the Unicorn.