Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Congratulations − I won the lottery and you're all screwed!

I have worked at several companies − both as a consultant and as a full time employee − where one key person had unshared knowledge about some critical aspect of the business. Meeting such people fills me with a feeling of foreboding. I wish I could tell the manager of such a person what I know to be true.

"You're one resignation away from temporary operational seizure."

It is surprising to me − although less so each time I find such a case − that more managers do not find this situation as worrisome as I do. It is not as if people haven't seen such operational seizure in reality before. It appears that the same kind of nonchalance that sanctions other reckless behavior propels managers to think "it will never happen to me; Joe will never quit on me like that".

And yet, it happens every day in organizations small and large across the land.

It could be that we deny the possibility of operational seizure because it is not a pleasant thought. We have to force ourselves to think about unsavory outcomes before we can think about solutions. Crossing that valley of doom before we may reach any safety is perhaps too depressing for many people. However, simple refusal to consider unsavory outcomes doesn't reduce the probability of those outcomes by one iota. Positive, can-do thinking is good until we have to think about risks.

Lister and DeMarco talk about risks at length in their book "Waltzing with Bears". The one example they give that has stuck with me is the kind of thinking most parents subconsciously do with regard to their children. We, as parents, fashion all sorts of negative scenarios in our heads − some of them quite fanciful and even whimsical − and then undertake plans to protect our children from the effects of such accidents. No one begrudges us such negative thinking; indeed watchful observers would think of us as neglectful parents if we were to ignore the dangers that could possibly befall our children. Yet we fail to take the same lessons when dealing with responsibilities at our workplace. We willfully neglect possible risks, including the risk of unexpected staff attrition, when planning projects or setting goals.

The core values of Extreme Programming; especially feedback and communication; are geared towards mitigating this risk. One of my professional goals is to help people realize the effectiveness of these values (and courage, simplicity, respect and others). I want to help create a culture where people are treasured because of the value they add by their presence, not the feared loss of value they would cause by their departure.

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