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Spontaneous combustion of rancid management

What’s good for you isn’t always good for your group. Obvious, right? You can call it local versus global optimization. You can get geek philosophical about it and say, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one.” Or you can simply notice the difference you feel between zany ideas from the intern (cool) versus zany ideas from your general manager (scary).

For example, spontaneity in an individual is a good thing and unvarying predictability makes Jack a dull boy. But when Jack is running a large enterprise, unpredictability can wreak havoc. There are managers who grow up and learn this lesson, and there are managers who are Randomizing Ambiguous Nimrods Causing Incessant Distraction, or rancid for short.

I despise rancid managers. They think they are responsive and flexible when in reality they are the fastest means to team dysfunction and failure. If you are a manager and you tell your team, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea,” and they look back at you seemingly saying, “Does it involve tying yourself to a tractor and driving off a bridge?”, then you might be rancid.

It’s not that bad

What’s so bad about being a rancid manager? Isn’t consistency and predictability boring? The answer lies in Brownian motion, which describes the movement of particles under random bombardment. Particle movement in Brownian motion could best be described as erratic.

Consider a large team of engineers who are constantly being pushed in different directions at random intervals by their general manager. You’d expect the same erratic movement from that team. Their chances of actually accomplishing anything as an organization are negligible.

Alternatively, if the team is consistently pushed in the same direction they will gather momentum and make significant progress toward their goal. Therefore, a successful manager sets a clear direction, points the team in that direction, and consistently pushes in that same direction until their goal is achieved. Course corrections that naturally come along should translate to gradual team nudges, until the correction is made. Only severe circumstances should prompt major changes in course.

I’m talking about high-level direction, not the day-to-day details which require more agility and flexibility. The key is aligning the day-to-day detailed decisions to the high-level direction. You can’t do that if your high-level direction constantly changes.

Do I look all rancid and clotted?

If teams run by rancid managers are erratic and make little progress, why are there so many rancid managers? Here are three reasons:

§  Being rancid seems responsive. Instead of always pushing in the same direction, rancid managers respond quickly to outside influences, giving their management a nice warm phony feeling of agility.

§  Being rancid means never having to achieve anything. Since the world of a rancid manager’s team is always changing, there’s a self-fulfilling excuse for why nothing gets accomplished (“Hey, a bunch of stuff happened!”). If these managers weren’t rancid they’d risk being accountable. They’d have to do the hard work of setting an achievable vision and direction for their team and then achieve it.

§  Being rancid keeps you occupied. Where’s the fun in consistency? What do you do all day to stay busy? What value do you bring to the team if you’re always saying the same things? Making a call and sticking to it is difficult. It’s scary and you might need to do real work to support it.

Of course, rancid upper management breeds rancid middle management. It’s hard to escape. Often people don’t even know how good consistent management can be until they finally experience it.

It’s a path made of principle

When managers stop being rancid and start being consistent, a number of wonderful things happen. First and foremost, teams start achieving results. Managers move from creating havoc to preventing havoc. And team members actually understand what they are supposed to do each day, and know they have to do it because it won’t be different tomorrow.

All this leads to a higher sense of purpose and higher morale. At first, the team may struggle to get fully aligned, but soon the job of a manager becomes easier. You’re not always changing your story. Once the team is aligned there are fewer problems to resolve. It’s easier to track and show progress.

What challenges does this leave for managers? The biggest is to paint the picture of where the team is going. You need to be clear and understand it deeply in order to describe it consistently and repeatedly to the team. Once you have your story of the future, the challenge is to stay on course at a high level as team members and external factors change. You must discover and communicate adjustments as needed, and prevent upper management from inappropriately disrupting your course.

It’s not easy. You need confidence in your convictions and strong thinking behind your direction. It helps to have principles you follow and communicate. They let people know what you expect and how you make decisions. Doing so helps them align their decisions with yours and gets the whole team behind you.

Eric Aside

Upper management edicts can sometimes be hard to discern. Are they appropriate customer or business driven changes worth disrupting your team’s course, or are they inappropriate distractions you should filter from randomizing your team? The best way to find out is to ask your manager or a trusted mentor within your organization. Be direct. Find out the background and thinking behind the change. Even if the change is distasteful it might be the right thing to do. Even if the change is alluring it might be wrong to follow.

Picking your battles is a critical skill to master if you hope for a long and prosperous career. Understand the context. Learn who you’d have to fight, how tough it would be, and how much you’d stand to gain or lose. Then make an informed decision about whether the battle is worth engaging. Discretion can add years to your valor.

Oh, the noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!

“But things change!” protest the rancid managers, “Is your team supposed to blindly follow some ancient plan? Our agile competitors will beat us every time.” Of course things change and plans, architectures, and designs must adjust. Details and understanding constantly evolve, driving continuous iteration of our work. But if your goal today is to build a social computing experience, no detail or external influence should be switching you to build tractor tires.

Strong managers know that all kinds of variation in team structure, competitive landscape, market fluctuations, and technical challenges precipitate changes to the best laid plans and designs. However, it’s rare for those variations to necessitate a complete shift of direction. A strong manager welcomes change and contextualizes it for their team so that their momentum toward a shared goal stays strong through many corrections in course.

Eric Aside

Great managers directly confront distractions to keep them from disrupting their teams. Some have a regular “rumor mill” portion of their staff meetings to discuss the latest gossip. Shining a light on these issues and nipping them early keeps teams focused.

All progress has resulted from people who took unpopular positions

Being consistent as a manager may seem dull, but it’s the kind of dull teams truly appreciate—the kind of dull that leads to results. While it sounds easy to be consistent, it requires courage. Courage to stand your ground and stand behind your words. Courage to be accountable for the direction you’ve set.

I’m talking about commitment. I’m talking about integrity. I’m talking about shaping the world to fit your vision rather than mindlessly following the latest trend or circumstance.

Our vision should be shaped by the needs and aspirations of our customers and the imagination of our collective minds, but in the end our vision belongs to our leaders as individuals. Our success depends on them having the courage to speak it and steadfastly pursue it. Do you have that courage?

Published inUncategorized


  1. Bertan ARI Bertan ARI

    This is another good article on a very important topic. Identifying the relationship between being consistent and courageous was brilliant.

  2. Anonymous Anonymous

    Hmm. I like the advice provided. But what about that popular "organizational theory" approach which states something like "running your organization on the edge of chaos tends to produce better results since people are pushed to work outside their comfort zone"?

    If their people aren’t hopping like jumping beans then management is of the belief that work is not getting done or "enough work" is not getting done.

    I personally do not agree with this Org. Theory approach. I prefer Mr. Brechner’s approach above. I’m curious what other readers have to say about these seeming opposite ends of the spectrum.

  3. ericbrec ericbrec

    "Pushing people to work outside their comfort zone" is a fine theory regarding risk management. It doesn’t mean randomize your people.

    The idea is to always carry enough risk to scare people, but not so much that people freeze or panic. The theory goes that this creates challenge and tension which drives high performance.

    I like maintaining a balance of risk. Projects should be difficult to acheive, but not impossible. Stretch goals should be barely reachable.

    As I’ve written before, you constantly need to adjust your risk as situations change. If a scary dependency comes through and the risk drops you might consider adding back some bold features. If a key team member must go on leave which rasise risk you might consider dropping a dependency or a significant portion of functionality.

    Regardless, carrying a health amount of risk is good. Being a rancid ninny isn’t.

  4. Anne Onymous Anne Onymous

    And there’s really a lot more to it than that. First and foremost, the complexities of developing and delivering enterprise scale products, be they interactive software suites or a new jet plane (way to go Boeing ;)) could never be completely captured and properly discussed within a single line theory or approach reference. In fact, ultimately, success in such endeavours would almost certianly require an amalgation of multiple approaches, with one of the strategic decisions being, "how much of each of the theories used will be applied to the ultimate strategic solution?" So, for example, Eric’s point about consistent and predictable management, with which I agree as well, is one approach, and I would make it an ingredient of any such strategy I developed . At the same time, relying solely on such a strategy has its own, inborn risk – if you strive for nothing but consistency, the first revolutionary shift in process/technology/etc., will kill you. As Eric says, to address this, you maintain a balance of risk, and towards that end, you decide how much change you would be prepared to, "ignore," and what the risks of ignoring those changes would be, and set the consistency levels of your approach accordingly.

    Next, with respect to the term, "Edge of Chaos," while, as I said, every effort and endeavour has a degree of uncertainty, the amount of, "chaos," (and, in reality, there should be a term that better captures the desire to branch off in new directions but in a managed fashion) that is acceptable must be considered as a function of the maturity of the organization and of the product or product line itself. Chaos, Innovation, "Out-of-the-Box" thinking, etc., whatever you want to call it, can be immensely productive in an incubation phase of a product line, but once you’ve developed a customer base that has started to define their own requirements and expectations around your product, making this the majority of your managment approach would be almost suicidal. And, to tie this all together, again, both phases (incubatory and mature), benefit from a mix of consistency and chaos – it’s just a question of getting the, "percentages," right for each phase, and of being very aware of what percentages you’re using, and managing them properly so that they align with your vision, your strategy, and your teams. To me, this is mature management.

    Thanks, sorry this was so long-winded.

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