04 March 2009

Let 'Em Eat Cake

The Case of the Missing Piece of Birthday Cake

Recently I spoke with a friend (let's call him Pete) who manages a software project, and he was telling me that his division had recently stopped paying for employee birthday cakes. More accurately, they had discontinued the funding of petty cash expenses. He apparently told his team "Would you rather have jobs, or cakes?"

Pete's small, profitable division of a struggling gargantuan company had been a small, profitable company of its own. It was sold, and the founders had all departed with well-deserved wealth.

Employee birthday cakes were a carry-over from the good old independent days. So the thinking in upper management may have been this: "It's unfair to the other divisions to be giving this perk only to the new acquisition, and we can't afford to give such a perk to all divisions."

Pete's solution was to collect a small bit of funds from each person on the team, so that the tradition could continue. It sounds reasonable, and Pete seemed pleased with himself. But then he continued...

There is one guy on the team (Carl) who conveniently forgets to pay in, yet eats a piece of cake, "or possibly two!" On one recent occasion, Sally (another team member) had purchased the cake with her own funds, and "now she is still going around trying to collect from everyone else," including Carl the Cake Thief.

Pete finished his story with: "Carl is lazy, and he's been in trouble before, and people talk about him behind his back, but he has a lot of product experience, and I can't let him go..."

Biting My Tongue

At the time that Pete and I had this conversation, I was acting as host, not consultant, and kept quiet. Pete was on vacation, and simply needed to vent. But my response would not have been as simple as this post's title would suggest.

It's true that I would encourage Pete to find a way to continue the birthday cake tradition. Sharing a meal is a natural team-building activity, and small, simple rituals are good for morale. But imagine how Carl's perceived pettiness is generating bad feelings. And surely Sally has some critical task, more important than collecting dollar bills and gossiping about Carl's second slice of cake.

And did Pete really say "...jobs, or cakes?" to his team, during a difficult transition and a very deep recession? I can't imagine how one could deliver those words without it seeming like an ultimatum, and thus putting everyone on the defensive.

I see two management anti-patterns at work here. First is the "Penny Wise, Pound Foolish" approach taken by upper management: cutting off a cost without regard to the long-term effects on profitability. How often do we need to see the proof that employee morale has a strong impact on corporate profitability?

The second misstep is Pete's attempt to make things better by "Treating Symptoms."

Go Lean

I'd start with two principles straight from the Lean playbook: Look to eliminate the greatest waste, and respect your people.

Had upper management worked to identify the largest waste in the whole organization, cakes would probably not have been at the top of the list. And if they were, what about the costs of chipping away at a profitable division by removing its small rituals?

Whatever is at the top, the next step is to use Root-Cause Analysis: A heavy phrase for a simple technique of repeatedly asking "Why?" and looking deeper each time until you find the underlying "root cause." Perhaps these cakes were originally Black Hound cakes overnighted from New York...

Then we try one or more of the proposed solutions: For example, Pete (who is a fine baker) could start baking the cakes from a boxed mix.

Much of the burden of change probably falls upon poor Pete. He needs to bring any issues that will affect the performance of the team directly to his superiors. Honest communication must flow in both directions in order for a team to succeed.

For a manager from an acquired company, during a monster recession, telling the boss that a proposed change carries risks may seem like political suicide. Rightfully, Pete is concerned about keeping his own job. But for the long-term health of his team, his company, and his own career, this is the very point where Pete needs to take a few risks and show off his leadership skills. He needs to keep the team running smoothly and generating valuable results, not quietly bickering over a slice of cake.

One of his first tasks should be to talk privately to Carl, the cake-eatin' code-cowboy. Is Carl having tax-time troubles after exercising his stock options? Does he need to hang on to every dollar, and eat every calorie he sees because there's no food at home?

Was Carl the top technical guy before the acquisition, and now he's buried somewhere in a 20-layer org chart?

There are people who are truly, simply lazy, but more often people are just exhausted, depressed, bored, or unnerved by all the organizational change. Pete needs to find out what's motivating Carl, and Carl should be encouraged to find his place in the new organization, or perhaps look elsewhere.

Touchy-Feely Psycho-babble?

I tend to give people who are causing trouble the benefit of the doubt. When people are able to see how their actions impact their organization, the people around them, and their own careers, they tend to behave helpfully and professionally.

Has it ever backfired? Oh, yes. I've worked with people who repeatedly ignored requests to alter unprofessional behavior. (Yes, we fired them. We also adjusted our hiring practices, but I'll save that story for another post...)

The successes will always far outnumber the failures. Getting a key player to enjoy his work again is much more valuable in the long-run. Were I to focus on the failures, I might stop trusting people, and immediately fire poor performers. Results: The team would lose all trust in me, and would stop providing critical information regarding the project. Deeper failure lies in that direction.


What if Pete talked with Carl and gave him a second chance, but Carl doesn't try to improve, or abruptly quits? Remember, Carl was a key part of the product team prior to the acquisition.

Well, it would be too late for Pete, then, unless he had the foresight to mitigate the impact of Carl's departure.

No single team-member should be able to effectively ruin a team by quitting. To allow such a situation to arise is what I would call "Believing in Superheroes," another managerial anti-pattern. When the team first discovers that there's a player who is pivotal to the success of the team, that player needs to take on an apprentice. (That simple act, making Carl a coach, could be all Carl needs to regain his enthusiasm.)

On Agile teams, we have people working closely together, and sharing ideas and techniques. No one has to be able to do everything. In fact, the team doesn't even have to have two experts for a particular topic. Just one expert, and someone else who knows where to look, what to learn, and how to fix minor problems. In a crisis, the team can pick up the pieces and move on.

Leadership Emerges

Within days, I had another visitor with a similar story: A Business Analyst visiting from the Midwest (we'll call her Betty) was discussing the economy, and she told me that her team had added up the cost of "Wednesday's Bagel Breakfast" and had voted to stop expensing it. The next Wednesday, there were still fresh bagels. Apparently the managers had decided to pay for "Wednesday Bagels" out of their own pockets.

Perhaps management was impressed by the team's self-organizing attempt to reduce waste. And perhaps the managers realized that their success was by virtue of their team's success.

Uh, Just Checking

Rob (paraphrased): "Bagels every week?"
Betty: "Or other pastries."
Rob: "Is the team successful?"
Betty: "Yes!"
Rob: "You know this?"
Betty: "Of course. Why work on an unsuccessful project?"
Rob: "Do you like your job?"
Betty: "Yep!"

I'm not surprised. Pete, are you listening?