Very good question by a regular reader of the site who just joined a new company. Some excerpts -
Do you have any sources to recommend regarding the topic of Small-scale Team or Project Management? The background on my request is simply that I work for a large, very disorganized company that grew from a small "mom & pop" to a competitive industry leader in a 'short' time period (10 years or so). The management has not followed the change with the kind of organizational structure that large companies require for effeciency and they abhore 1) change 2) young people initiating change 3) publish initiatives for change with deadlines, and blame the 'young people' when they aren't completed, meanwhile they sabotage all efforts to work on them.
Now, I am no expert on creating the type of organizational structure we need here, but I witness its absence as a massive failure each and every day in my own department and all of the others as well. My team consists of 3 members, 2 analysists and 1 "manager". Our manager is inept. We have had projects for the last 4 years (prior to my hire) outstanding, which if successful could have significant positive impact on finacials, performance, effeciency, communication... I could go on. Our manager belives that such projects are superfuluois and openly harasses us when we work on them (despite the wild success of the first one...which he attributed not to hard work but to "magic"- literally, he said it must have been magic and denied any part we had in achieving the goal).
Ok- my goal is to manage the projects myself, and get the input from the experienced coworkers somehow. I don't have the technical industry related knowledge to complete the projects by the deadline, however, i do have the motivation and organizational skills and mindset to get the job done. How can I manage the project, get credit for it, and not offend the teammembers who have been doing this job for 20 years?
Okay, well, on a technical level, there's two books that are relevant -
E-Myth is about how small organizations can handle what's going on, but how they grow up to be dysfunctional organizations without processes. Also, there's a funny (in a morbid sort of way) story about how a motivated first hire comes on, starts bringing order to the chaos, but then gets frustrated and abruptly quits one day because they can't handle the chaos and the fact that they're running the entire business and not compensated or treated well enough for doing so. That story, incidentally, reminds me a lot of you.
"Who Says Elephants..." is about Lou Gerstner turning around IBM. He took over IBM when it was a sinking ship and a massive bureaucratic mess and he turned it around. Good story.
But the problem isn't what organization skills or processes you need, unfortunately.
The problem is that you don't have the relevant auctoritas or gravitas.
Those were core Roman concepts, they're Latin words, let's dive into them.
"Auctoritas" translates almost to authority, but not quite. Wikipedia gives this nice definition: "The 19th-century classicist Theodor Mommsen describes the "force" of auctoritas as "more than advice and less than command, an advice which one may not safely ignore.""
Auctoritas, roughly, is official authority/power in a situation. It's a mandate to clean things up and make them better. Now, technically, someone with a lot of auctoritas might have no actual command over a situation. They might not have the ability to mete out punishments if something isn't done. But they are, broadly, seen as important people who really ought to be listened to. It's not command (Latin: "imperium"), but the next level down from it. The ability to give advice which people can't safely ignore.
Gravitas is something else. There's no word in English quite like it - in conversation, I actually use the word "gravitas" if someone needs more gravitas. "Gravity" comes close. Wikipedia: "Gravitas was one of the Roman virtues, along with pietas, dignitas and virtus. It may be translated variously as weight, seriousness, dignity, or importance, and connotes a certain substance or depth of personality."
They're related concepts. In my mind, I see "auctoritas" as somewhat external (being a police officer) and "gravitas" as somewhat internal (having exceptionally good judgment). Of course, regardless of how much you have of either, you need whoever you're communicating with to know it.
The company you're in? It seems like you don't have auctoritas or gravitas in their eyes.
That's a big problem. If people won't listen to you, you can't change things. Your manager sounds like a bonehead, and boneheads are afraid of giving authority over to competent people who will likely replace or obsolete them quickly if put in charge. It's a bad thing.
For you to turn things around, you need to get some auctoritas or gravitas with someone relevant. Done correctly, they're largely cyclical. You conduct with serious gravitas, you get a reputation for excellent, you get relevant auctoritas given to you, you conduct yourself well in that role and build more gravitas, etc, etc, etc.
But having an idiot with imperium (command) in control of the efforts makes all of this tricky. Very tricky.
The "How to Get a Raise" post Three Minute Plan is relevant -
1. Work hard on tangible stuff, document and claim credit for doing it, and notify people with what benefit the work provides. This sounds maybe stupidly obvious, but a lot of non-technical people don’t understand the value in something. So, “Upgraded XYZ so our website loads faster, which is proven to make customers more likely to buy according to ZYX paper” – I know, what a waste of time, right? Wrong! It’s going to make you a lot of money. Tell people what you did.
2. Before you go to ask for more money, prepare a BATNA (Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement) – if they say no, what will you do? You need to know this. Having other offers is obviously good. Savings are good. You don’t even have to mention your BATNA, but you need a Plan B. Most people don’t make one of these, so if their first attempt doesn’t go swimmingly, they’re in trouble.
3. Go in and stress how much more you’d like to do going forwards. This is huge. Do not mention what you’ve done in the past, except in the context of how it proves how much more you can do going forwards. So go in and say, “Hi boss, as I mentioned in all my various weekly reports, I’ve been learning new stuff and kicking massive ass. [that was step one] Recently I’ve picked up some new skills, and I’ve been getting recruited for a bunch of projects [step 2], but I really like working here. Actually, I think I can deliver even more value here, if I take on new responsibilities. I’d like to train a successor to gradually take over my current role, while I do ABC-stimulating-enjoyable-task that will bring the business new money. I don’t even want to be compensated much more for it – I’m going to be bringing in lots more value/assets/sales/cash/whatever, but a moderately small raise is enough for me because I like working here so much.” Then lay out what you’re asking for.
But swap out "get a raise" with "get additional auctoritas given to you" (or hell, get a raise while you're at it).
But it's still tough going. Broadly speaking, you need tangible proof of all your wins and you need to get to the point where you can give them an offer they can't refuse - you'll take the company to the next level if given the relevant authority, or you're out the door.
It takes a while to get there, but I know people who have done it successfully. It's tough and not necessarily worth doing it, though - much easier to seek out a place you already admire and join up there. But if you bargain hard and you're willing to handle the stress, you could gradually take over where you're at.
And realistically, that's what you're going to have to do. You're going to need to officially or unofficially take over. The person you're working for sounds like a moron beyond all hope. It's easy enough to deal with people who are malicious, petty, selfish, greedy, corrupt, or controlling. All those people's motivations can be understood and worked with (though not necessarily enjoyably). But idiots? You can't work with idiots. You can't appeal to their interest, because they're too stupid to have interests.
It reminds me of Carlo M. Cipolla's Fifth Corollary of Stupidity from "The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity":
"A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit. The result of the action of a perfect bandit... is purely and simply a transfer of wealth and/or welfare. After the action of a perfect bandit, the bandit has a plus on his account which plus is exactly equivalent to the minus he has caused to another person... When stupid people are at work, the story is totally different. Stupid people cause losses to other people with no counterpart of gains on their own account."
Your manager sounds stupid. Thus, doing things to destroy others without commensurate benefit to self. You can't bargain with people like that very effectively...
Anyways. I don't mean to paint a bleak picture. You could fix things where you're at. You start by building your gravitas - your individual prestige, self-discipline, knowledge, and self-control, and individual personal authority. You leverage that into getting a bit of relevant auctoritas if possible. But it's tricky when the person with imperium is a mean-spirited moron. Mean-spirited is workable though unpleasant, but morons aren't workable.
Regarless, build your personal gravitas which will serve you everywhere, and document everything effective you to leverage that into auctoritas eventually, and you might eventually need to have a showdown over who has imperium. You don't need imperium if you've got enough gravitas, but you definitely need to get a moron's imperium off your back.
Good luck and keep us updated!
I just subscribed to your feed, and found this little gem. I'm going though something exactly the same where I'm working. I got a job right after college, about a year and a half ago. They guys I work with are dinosaurs, and don't want to even think about doing anything new, just because it's different. My boss is an idiot, based solely on the fact that he won't acknowledge the usefulness of a scripting language. Like, he won't let me install a scripting language because the rest of the (old) devs don't use scripting languages. So fucking frustrating.
Anyways, I really appreciate your advice here. I've read many and more of your blog posts, and I highly respect your opinion. I think I just need to let it go and find another job, but the problem is, the pay is fantastic and we get regular bonuses, like thousands of dollars. I now understand the idea of the golden handcuffs, and it's tempting to stay a while longer and see how long I can put up with shit. As you say, dealing with morons is difficult because you can't bargain with them effectively. I've been trying to bargain with my boss, even writing useful shell scripts that other older devs are using, and he hasn't budged. You've shown me that he's just a fucking moron, and you can't deal with those kinds of people rationally. Thanks again, and I look forward to reading more of your posts. Keep them coming.
Sebastian - Excellent post. Could you provide reading recommendations on Roman History as it relates to this post? Thank you.
I recall the first time I heard the phrase BATNA, and I thought it was ridiculous at the time. But I have used the phrase and concept countless times since. It is very empowering to know what you are going to do in a given situation before hand so you don't have to make that sometimes terrifying decision on the spot in a potentially hostile or competitive environment.
Very good question from a reader -
Reading one of your latest blog posts you mentioned that you used to be extremely slow at making decisions. I was wondering if you have any advice on that. I usually have trouble making decisions when there is no clear pro's or con's to a certain choice. For example I'm not sure which programming language to use for my next (web) project.
Does it matter? No. All you need to do is output HTML, JSON or whatever data format you need it in. Python/Ruby have major sites written with them. I'm comfortable using both and don't really have a preference.
Somewhat frustrating that this holds me back when I could have built a prototype in the time I'm searching for "the right answer".
One of the great sacrifices of subjecting kids to school is that it trains them to ask for permission for everything, from turning in work late, to changing to a different class, to more mundane things like going to the bathroom. It's a tradeoff, of course: condition kids to seek permission for everything, and by doing so enable a system to exist where they receive an education.
Maybe that's a worthwhile tradeoff, and maybe it's not. But the real harm in it, in my opinion anyway, is that when we leave school, we're still in the habit of asking permission for everything. That's dangerous.
A manifestation of this that I come across with frequently is the questions that people send me by email. Here's a paraphrased template, which covers a good 60%+ of the emails I get from strangers: