It's no secret that as technology executives we're working in an uncertain environment, a difficult economy and an unprecedented era of upheaval in our industry. While we try to shape the future, we can unwittingly get stuck in some ruts; some of them can also get quite deep. This is the second in a two-part series addressing these ruts. In part one, we looked at the first three ruts; here we'll address the last two. Part one can be found
The Five Common Ruts
According to Robert Hargrove, author of Masterful Coaching, there are five common rut stories:
1. The "I need other people's approval" rut
2. The "I'm afraid to lose what I have" rut
3. The "artful victim" rut
4. The "tranquilizing" rut, and
5. The "why bother?" rut
Without any other explanation, I bet you can pretty much figure out if you're in one or more of these ruts, but let's look at how they manifest themselves in the IT world. We'll cover the last two ruts here.
The Tranquilizing Rut
Imagine being able to anesthetize a problem away – to shed an error as a snake sheds its skin. This is pretty much what happens when we fall into the Tranquilizing Rut. Actually, I like to think of this as the Teflon® rut, as your goal is to ensure problems don't stick. When we make mistakes or miss the mark somehow, we don our non-stick material to redirect the blame. In an era of Teflon accountability and zero job security, it's easy to fall into this rut under the banner of self-preservation. Ultimately, though, we lose out on the chance to grow from our mistakes, while becoming masters at covering them up. This leads to more mistakes, more cover up, and on and on. Some Teflon Rut examples include:
• You know your project will not come in on time, but you don't say anything and pray that somehow things will work out OK.
• Your project goes badly and you place all the blame on the consultants. In some cases this might be justified, but it would be extremely rare to find a project where none of the blame rests with you or your team.
• If you're a consultant, you blame the client. You deliver documents, meeting minutes, issue logs, whatever it takes to prove you are right and they are wrong. Ultimately, though you end up with an unhappy client with a project in the ditch and who's unreceptive or even indignant to your evidence.
• You over promise and under deliver. This is very common when you're up against tough competition or unreachable goals. You promise one thing to get the job, and spend much of the time thereafter figuring out how to spread the blame when things blow up.
• When you have an issue with someone in the accountability chain, you write a scathing letter or email or leave a caustic voice mail. You may even carbon copy as many people as you think are necessary to ensure the recipient gets in big trouble. Think about this one.
It's probably obvious, but the best way out of this rut is to catch yourself before falling in. When you make a promise or develop a proposal, ask yourself: am I promising something I know I can deliver, or am I compromising my integrity just to win the business? When things start to go awry with a project, address the problem head on, do your best to correct it collaboratively and come clean about the impact to the project.
Above all, avoiding this rut requires two things: personal accountability and honest communication. When things go wrong, before writing that blistering email or leaving a tirade on voice mail (we like to avoid people face to face in this rut), consider what you could have done to prevent it and what you'll do to make it right.
Did you over promise and under deliver? Or worse did you over promise on someone else's behalf (your project team) and they fell short despite Herculean efforts? Being totally accountable for your actions, promises and commitments will offer you a learning opportunity, and – believe it or not – gain you a great deal of credibility in your firm or with your customers.
In the rare chance that your screw up gets you fired – it's still better to admit it and move on than to lose sleep waiting for the day your boss finds out the truth. They will eventually, they always do. The net result: you still get fired but with zero credibility.
Honest communication can only happen when you've centered your accountability. If you're personally accountable, then you can begin to address the issues with clear and open communication. This might mean delivering that tough message, but please, not via email. Or if you must use email to address a personal issue, don't copy anyone. I regret every time I've sent a nasty-gram and copied the world so everyone knew I was wronged. I've never regretted picking up the phone and saying – we need to talk.
The Why Bother Rut
When I consider this rut I seem to come back to one term: Budget Cuts. As technology executives, we're faced with the challenge of squeezing more out of our teams with less budget to do so. Just when it seems you've been cut to the bone, you need to cut some more.
In the mean time, your clients or users are becoming restless about their backlog of requests. You try mightily to satisfy users or clients who may not fully appreciate the service you offer, only to be told they want more. And they want it now and they want it free. As you're squeezed tighter and tighter, you throw up your hands, sigh, and shrug: "why bother?"
Like the Artful Victim rut, the Why Bother rut is all about giving up power. In fact, it is a proclamation that not only are you powerless, you're also throwing in the towel. You cast your eyes to the heavens and proclaim your defeat and so again absolve yourself of responsibility. This is a very destructive and infectious rut that can draw others in like a black hole. Some examples of where you may see this rut are:
• You personally develop and deliver a proposal to senior management only to have it shot down without discussion
• You develop a system or program that exactly meets specifications but is rejected or resisted by the end users or their management
• You are constantly out-maneuvered by your competition losing bid after bid despite elegant and aggressively-priced proposals
• You are forced to down-size your team against your judgement
A key element to avoiding or escaping this rut is once again communication. The Why Bother rut is very isolating and I would submit it's also the result of isolation. Further, it's easy for the Why Bother rut to lapse into "Why ME?" When this happens, you may retreat, turn inward to find the solution, shut others out and in doing so dig a deeper rut.
Why Bother can be a wonderful catalyst for creativity and open communication. By purposefully reaching out to your management, users, clients, peers – even those outside your industry – you open your receptors to new ideas. You realize that there may not be a perfect solution to the issue, but there may be one we can agree on. And driving toward consensus can create a cooperative atmosphere and open up everyone's receptors. In effect, you've moved from isolation and resignation to cooperation and a "can do" attitude, which is also infectious.
All of the five ruts described here have three things in common: 1) they can be significantly improved through open communication, avoiding them requires a high degree of personal accountability and integrity and 3) they are magnets for others in the same ruts. Look around and see who you're attracting. If you don't like who you see, maybe it's time to start attracting people who seem to run across the tops of the ruts. They see the ruts, they may even slip in once in a while, but they spend little time dwelling there.
Avoiding or escaping the ruts can be hard work, yet by small changes in perspective you can begin to traverse across them without falling in.
Paul Scherer is a personal coach and president of Diagonal Consulting, an SAP consultancy. He was the former Director of IBM Global Services' ERP practices and has over 20 years' experience in the IT industry. He is a graduate of CoachU, and coaches individuals to help them realize their goals, both professionally and personally. He is also a professional musician, composer and performer and has sold over 10,000 copies of his CDs.
To subscribe to an email version of this series, to comment on this or other articles in this series, or for information about coaching, please contact Paul Scherer at email@example.com. For more information on Paul Scherer's coaching practice please visit www.standupcoaching.org.
This was first published in November 2003