Monday, July 03, 2006

Heroes and Soldiers

I want to talk about two of the many types of people you will work with. As with any attempt to categorize people, my examples will fall short of illustrating the true complexity of people. However, I hope this will be helpful when you are looking for candidates and trying to understand some of the motivations others (and maybe yourself). I know that these terms may raise some controversy for those of you in the states; I am using the archetypes here and not trying to make any judgment or inference.

We all know who these are, from Beowulf to Superman these are the people who slay the dragons and save the day. This is the “go to” person who can always solve the problem that no one else can deal with. Heroes live for the impossible task, the life-or-death struggle and the insurmountable challenge. Many of us probably were heroes at one time, getting juiced by the challenge, long hours and impossible odds and finally pulling it off at the last minute. We all love heroes, but everyone is not a hero, and sometimes you just don’t need a hero. Heroes have some characteristics that we need to understand whenever we work with them:

  • Heroes are responsive: Pick up the red phone, turn on the Bat-signal, yell for help and your hero is there.

  • Heroes get the job done (whatever it takes): If it absolutely, positively has to be done, then a hero will get it done. Great, but pull out your checkbook, heroes do not come cheap.

  • Heroes are Fast: Faster than a speeding bullet! A hero will be there, solve the problem and make everything right in a flash – there is no comic hero called “slow man” or “the Slug”, heroes fly to the rescue, they don’t walk.

  • Heroes are loners: The only place you will find a team of heroes is in the comics. Heroes don’t want to be bothered with others – sometimes they have a side-kick or trainee, but that’s often a dangerous job. To paraphrase “Q” from Star Trek Next Generation – “it’s hard to be a team player when you’re omnipotent.”

  • Heroes make a mess: When Superman battles it out with giant robot invaders, they usually tumble a city block or two causing billions in damages. Ever see a hero cleaning up afterward? No, they are gone on to the next crisis. This happens a lot in programming where the hero comes in and writes some obtuse code that invariably fails 3 months later.

  • Heroes are direct: Heroes act on problems, they “go for the jugular”, they are “can do” people who are “results-oriented.” Heroes go straight to the problem and solve it.

  • Heroes need contests (conflict): A bored hero will find a dragon to slay, princess to rescue or go on a grail quest. Simple tasks like farming or filling out a timesheet are beneath them, not worth their talents. Without a test of their talents, heroes are not heroes, they are just like you or I so a hero will always be looking for the next dragon or quest.

  • Heroes are egotistical: Some exceptions with reluctant heroes, but for the most part, these people are good and they know it. This means that they will have special needs that you will have to meet.

  • Heroes are lousy leaders: While a hero may lead a charge up the hill or be the first to attack a problem, they are not leaders. A hero is a terrible mentor. Heroes are not generally patient or circumspect or thoughtful. Heroes act, they do not talk or think or plan.

  • Heroes ride off into the sunset: Let me beat these clich├ęs to death. A hero leaves, they’re off to the next challenge, and they often leave a mess. Guess who gets to clean that up?

  • Heroes are dangerous: Just ask every Security officer on the Enterprise (red shirts). Standing too close to a hero can be a problem; our hero may be impervious to nuclear weapons, but those of us nearby are slightly less durable. When a hero comes in to save your project, if they succeed, they’re the hero (again). If they fail you will be watching them ride off into the sunset while you clean up the mess and count the cost.

    Sounds like I am against heroes. I am not against individuals who are heroic, I am opposed to hero cultures.

    The Hero Culture

    This is an organization that worships heroes. In these, everything is an emergency; it is all about getting it done and not about planning. Thinking is looked on as ineffectual since doing is paramount. In these organizations, there is always another fire to run to, another urgent problem to solve. People in these organizations are seen as heroes and only those who put forth heroic effort are viewed as valuable.

    Unfortunately, this culture thrives on these situations. It is far more exciting to pull the project out at the last minute by pulling 90 hour weeks than it is to just plan the work correctly and finish on time with no fuss. In a heroic culture, the latter type of project is looked on as if there was a failure. Projects that do not require heroic effort must have been underestimated and the team members were lazy. Think about a football game. Who is the bigger hero, the team that puts 7 points on the board every quarter and shuts out the opponents or the one who wins in the last 10 seconds by a hail-Mary pass?

    Problem is – projects are not contests, they are projects, and that is where the hero culture fails.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You state: "Sounds like I am against heroes. I am not against individuals who are heroic, I am opposed to hero cultures."

But you also state" "Heroes act, they do not talk or think or plan."

Sounds like you are indeed against heroic efforts, some of your points are valid but please don’t let your/the writer’s personal disappointments cloud the minds of other readers. Project Management is a major problem area were errors are made, don’t blame the heroes for a lack of PM. And remember individuals do make a difference, looking after gifted staff is paramount to project success.