Archive | January 2015

Scapegoat and Messiah

A friend of mine once said, “My goal is to make my position irrelevant.” She was at the time a semi-reluctant VP in a 15,000-employee organization, and she thought all the functions of her cohort were trite. Further, she has always believed that a good manager would ultimately render his/her position unnecessary. I sympathized with her philosophy, akin to Lao Zi’s Zen teaching, but always teased her that she was born in the wrong era, though I wouldn’t know what the right era would be.


One of my favorite quotes from Lao Zi (perhaps better known as Lao Tzu) regards leadership:

As for the best leaders,

the people do not notice

their existence.

The next best,

the people honor and praise,

the next, the people fear,

and the next,

the people hate…

When the best leader’s

work is done

the people say,

‘We did it ourselves!’”

— from “The Way,” ca. 6th century BC China

Of course, this poses an immediate dilemma for modern management: How do you measure “success?” let alone what constitutes “success?” In Lao Zi’s way, the best leader’s role was rendered unnecessary.

On reflecting this conundrum, I am reminded of another aspect of group dynamics: messiah and scapegoat, both often manifested in the same person who has been regarded as the group’s “leader.”

The more dysfunctional a group is, the more the members hunger for positive leadership. (Ahem, how does “negative leadership” work?) By definition, exemplary leaders are rare, and are even rarer in a dysfunctional group (axiomatically?). So, when a wise leader shows up in a dysfunctional group, he becomes a magnet for advice, approval, attention, counseling, etc. This wise leader assumes a messiah aura whether he wants it or not. The one who wants to bask in such aura – which would automatically compromise his status as “wise” – would easily and quickly get caught up in the dysfunctional gyration and ultimately run the risk of being scapgoated when something goes wrong. And something always goes wrong anyway, but is guaranteed to happen in a group stuck in its pathology. Often members in such a group are either ignorant of their pathological nature, or they don’t know how to correct the wrong even if they are aware of it.

A true “wise” leader – not necessarily in a managerial position — embedded in a dysfunction group would acknowledge immediately, at least to herself, that she alone cannot save the group. With this starting point, while she undoubtedly feels the pressure to respond to all the pleas from her direct reports or colleagues, she would not break herself putting out all the little fires. However, ironically and/or paradoxically, there are times when a leader may have to “sacrifice” himself and take on the scapegoat role, absorbing all the blame. There are times when a group may only need a symbolic figure to assume that repository function. After some catharsis, the group may be able to restart. More often than not, though, what a dysfunctional group really needs is an outsider (yes, consultant) who can help intervene in the pathological process, guide the group to recognize the various traps it has unintentionally set up for everyone (leaders included), and eventually get the group unstuck. In theory, consultants can help tremendously; in reality, the process gets messy without any guaranteed success.


Group process work is never easy, just like personal therapy. It takes time, commitment, and resources, almost always in shortage when a group, or an organization, needs them most.

Sadly, I have not found a way to get even a large-ish organization to take necessary steps to recognize and acknowledge its own ills, let alone to commit time and money to address their “issues.” Instead, there is always the tendency for the whole organization to look for that “savior” to do the impossible, be it a CEO or a top director. And when inevitably the “savior” fails, the vicious cycle perpetuates.

If you recognize these symptoms, and if you have suggestions, please share. My readers would greatly appreciate your help.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Chasing After A Pot Of Gold…collectively, creatively, with discipline

I am privileged to have known, and to know, many brilliant scientists, artists, writers, entrepreneurs, teachers…professionals across of a wide range of disciplines, and every single one of them has had to work really hard to achieve their status. Behind every success and accolade are hours of passionate pursuit, with plenty of failures and efforts that just fizzled out; yet, to casual observers, these talented people seem to have it easy. Similarly, we collectively take technological breakthroughs for granted. While our society’s inventors have brought us an untold number of conveniences and pleasures, the statistics behind innovation and invention are stark and grim. The widely-quoted statistic is that on average, each commercial success begins with at least 3,000 raw articulated ideas. These 3,000 ideas on average get whittled down to about 300 formal “disclosures” which companies deem worthwhile for widespread internal consideration. The process then leads to approximately 100 patents, out of which one may succeed brilliantly and may bring to us ordinary people something we hadn’t dreamt of before.


The various models of “Strandbeest” probably are patented; after all, much engineering creativity went into the design.

While these numbers are already sobering they do not begin to tell the stories about generating the raw-but-articulable ideas themselves– stories of self-selection and hallway chats, uncounted brainstorms never articulated – nor the stories of articulated ideas going forward – the angst that underlies decisions to disclose, the time spent on experimenting, writing, rewriting, and filing patents. From that patent to that commercial success there is another book of stories about trials, errors, taking risks, balancing acts, and myriads of other human toils. Oh, and there is the little matter of money invested along the way, somewhere between a few million to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Most business organizations would claim that they have the best “new business development” (NBD) model to help steer them toward that one successful product that would eventually bring them years of profit. In reality, studies have shown that companies that follow their own beloved models do not on average do better, or worse, than companies that don’t have any NBD model. In addition, many self-appointed “experts” claim that “most NBD efforts succeed,” which is true if you compare the number of successful NBDs against the number of those patents predisposed to succeed, but based on the statistics I cite above, most efforts fail. From the perspective of creativity, I have always preferred erring on the side of allowing failures, but only if we can learn from them.

Monty Python’s John Cleese contrasts the learning-compensable failures of the guided missile (“good” failures) with rock-bottom-stupid failures such as “spelling ‘rabbit’ with three m’s.” In the NBD process, a key to “good” failures is having them in the early stages where they cost less than when they occur later. Once a product is launched, failure can lead to bankruptcy.

As a complement to “having failures in early stage,” a component to successfully projecting out the product is placing the “right” people in the “fuzzy front end” stages of NBD. One article describes models for these right people, or Rainmakers, based on Myers-Briggs personality types. Of the Myers-Briggs dimensions Introvert-Extrovert, Intuition-Sensing, Thinking-Feeling, and Perceiving-Judging, the authors correlate successful Rainmakers with dominant intuition and thinking, addressing the simultaneous need for creative instincts (intuition) and disciplined pushing (thinking) in the NBD process. The authors claim that NBD efforts driven by individuals scoring in the top third of Rainmakers enjoy financial success that is a factor of 95 better than NBD efforts driven by individuals scoring in the bottom third of Rainmakers.

Copyright or not, who'd want to copy an icon's work?

Copyright or not, who’d want to copy an icon’s work?

In other words, putting the “right” people on your team is profoundly important for finding that sweet success. (Sound familiar?) Of course this does not mean that people manifesting other Myers-Briggs personality dimensions have no place in the NBD model; much depends on tasks and contexts. Many individuals who are skeptical of intuition/creativity do, by using impeccable discipline in planning and executing sequential steps, contribute profoundly to getting a new product launched.

Certainly identifying talents and skills is important, but it is just as important to ensure that there is a good fit between a job and the person performing the job. And this should hold true whether it’s about new business development or other business operations.

I will be off to visit my son and hopefully get in some skiing with my family. Until 1/25,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Do Geeks Have Three Ears & Eight Fingers?

Geek toy #1

Geek toy #1

Go figure. Right after I mentioned in the last post, before the holiday, that is one of the sites that can generally lift my spirits, I “stumbled upon” an article that impacts me like a particle landing in my eye.

The title of the article is The Unspoken Truth about Managing Geeks, by J. Ello, “currently managing IT for the Krannert School of Management at Purdue University.” In essence, his view is that geeks in IT are logical beings, always pursuing the “right” answers and solutions, not suffering fools easily, willing to share credit (except with fools or managers), sociable in the right context, and more than willing to help if you don’t abuse their beliefs, skills or talents. Managers need to understand these principles to avoid messing things up.

Hmmm… Not surprisingly, managers need to understand a lot about human behaviors and emotions, including those associated with all professional backgrounds of all the people reporting to them. Some do this well and a lot don’t. Nothing much new here. In fact, after finishing the article, I feel as if Ello manages to reinforce the stereotypical images of “geeks,” rather than ameliorating them as he intends.

For instance, “…for IT groups respect is the currency of the realm.” And here I have always thought that respect is the fundamental element in all, all, interpersonal transactions. Further on, he states, “Gaining respect is not a matter of being the boss and has nothing to do with being likeable or sociable.” Isn’t that management 101? However, I take issue with this: “While everyone would like to work for a nice person who is always right; IT pros will prefer a jerk who is always right over a nice person who is always wrong. Wrong creates unnecessary work, impossible situations and major failures. Wrong is evil, and it must be defeated.” Yeah, tell that to other professional scientists at National Labs or R&D centers in big companies. And pray tell, how do people defeat these “evil” managers who seem to get things wrong more than 50% of the time in the eyes of the “geeks?” Even in geekdom, organizational dynamics still operate under the principle of “socially constructed reality.” Technical solutions however logical do not always converge on one ultimate answer.

There is more in the article that rubs me in the wrong way, but I’ll hover around these points for now. First of all, it doesn’t matter whether you have PhD or stopped with high school education; all working groups are subject to thorny group dynamics. Scientist, engineers, and the like may pride themselves upon thinking logically (by the way, is there a standard for logic in the human world? countless times and in countless ways humans have proceeded flawlessly logically from flawed premises, with consequences varying from humorous to horrific), yet they are equipped with the same basic emotions as all other human beings. I hope they experience sadness, happiness, joy, hurt, despair, disappointment, etc, just like the rest of us. Logic alone will not get you out of group and intergroup morasses. Perhaps it’s because the IT people think that their “logic” trumps everything that they fall so unwittingly into the typical patterns of group and intergroup dynamics? Mr. Ello suggests that organizations “actively elicit these stereotypical negative behaviors,” and I contend that there is just as strong a possibility that the geeks dig holes for themselves.toy 2

When Mr. Ello uses Dr. House (a fictitious figure of a TV medical drama) as the idol figure for IT people, I just about lost it. Admitting that I have seen only a handful of full episodes of this TV show, that’s been enough for me to understand what Dr. House is about. A brilliant physician with no humility and often with nasty streaks, Dr. House does not represent the kind of personality you want to instill in your children…or, at least, I hope not. So, why do we celebrate a jerk like this – a doctor who’s always convinced he’s right every time, even though in almost every episode he initially inflicts inappropriate treatments on his patients only to stumble upon the right diagnosis and treatment just in the nick of time? (Thank goodness, it’s only a TV drama formula.) And I absolutely reject the notion that we have to choose between being a self-righteous jerk who does eventually get it right vs being a nice person who knows up front that he could be wrong. Dr. House’s medical brilliance would not dim by one molecule if he could be just a little kinder and more considerate.

Now, about geeks and management — and they aren’t mutually exclusive. A possible scenario of the tension between management and geeks is that managers deal with market forces, issues of timing, legal ramifications, etc. that might escape the notice of – or are deemed irrelevant by – the geeks. While it behooves the managers to explain situations clearly to their people, it wouldn’t hurt for their direct reports to occasionally look beyond their own professional horizons. After all, when geeks get involved in their own startup adventures, they succeed in getting and attending to the big pictures. They do have the capacity.

Geek toy #3; it can be pretty too!

Geek toy #3; it can be pretty too!

I have family members in the “geek” categories; I have many friends who are hardcore scientists, and I rarely experience them as the stereotypically narrowly focused geeks whose self-serving logic dominates everything. Okay, there are a few, but then I also have known plenty of non-geeks who are self-centered and ornery. The majority of the scientists, engineers, and computer analysts in my circle are considerate, generous, kind, with wonderful senses of humor, often creative, quite impressive in their grasp of human nature, and above all, beautiful human beings. And from my management education background, I find their gripes about their managers are pretty standard issues that are found in almost all industries. Managing geeks may require a little tweaks here and there – like managing every other groups – the management fundamentals are still the same.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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