Beware the Corporate Dramatic
Corporate drama is a killer of organizations and if left to grow unchecked it will fracture relationships, kill innovation, create politics, and force people to build safety zones that they use to hide away from the rest of their organization. Eventually, enough drama will strangle companies and rid you of your best employees.
Drama can come from many different sources and exist for a variety of different reasons. This is not to be confused with high stress situations or a corporate push to achieve a goal quickly based on an external event. These are different and can cause evolutionary progress that brings a company to the next level.
Meet Client X. This is a large corporation that’s business is not related to technology but there is a huge technology component to what they do. They have a large number of in-house developers and an equally large number of employees who are not very technologically savvy. This corporation has built relationships with external and captive consultancies, agencies, and third party businesses who help them achieve their technical goals.
Client X has struggled to bring quality software to the market in a timely manner. It takes them years to plan products and even more time to implement. Software development practices are antiquated and focus on maintaining existing technology. They reward a few key individuals rather than focus on building quality, autonomous, and empowered development teams.
Because the product development process is slow, key projects are often restructured, scrapped or abandoned. To make arbitrary timelines, innovative features are constantly thrown out or devalued without using a method to rank project priority or determine what brings the most value to the organization and the end user. By the time a product does reach the market, it is too late and not valuable or effective enough to enhance business or bring new clientele.
Client X’s newest problem is that they cannot hire the next generation of developers: those who think differently, ask questions, and can bring the company to the next level. This is partially because of the issues listed above (all of which are fixable), but mostly because Client X has a culture driven by corporate drama and is completely flooded with individuals who I call the Corporate Dramatic.
These are people within the organization who create high stake/high stress situations that need to be “handled/managed” and when “managed” these people transform into heroes when they are able to “manage drama effectively.” Often times the “drama” is a non-issue and can be completely avoided.
In one situation, we were brought in by Client X to run a series of planning sessions designed to help a new team build a greenfield piece of software hailed as a means to bring this client to the next level. They recognized that the current way of planning and implementing projects was impeding progress and not putting the company in a competitive/innovative space and unless a drastic change was made, the company would be obsolete in less than a decade. This is an example of an external factor that could drive an evolutionary event.
However, half way into the workshops, a contract project manager came to the team and said, “Our stakeholders are not happy with the way our workshop is progressing and they are planning to pull the plug early. We need a Plan B to fit the model of how things have always been done to help us get through this.” The plan was to have this project manager “take control” of the project and get the team to agree to a pre-defined list of features that “she and stakeholders” had put together overnight.
The immediate knee jerk reaction of the team was disappointment, stress, fear, and worry about what the future looks like for them, their happiness, the project, and everyone’s job. They were excited about learning new ways of developing software and were disappointed that suddenly we were going back to old, ineffective patterns.
After a bit of digging, no such conversation had ever happened between the PM and stakeholders. This was drama created to attempt to force the team to agree to a project plan in half the amount of time, an unrealistic and arbitrary goal; the Agile decentralized decision making process was making her feel uncomfortable and was taking away political control over the team. She thought that if she could get the plan in half the amount of time, she would look good and save everyone time. She evolved into a Corporate Dramatic.
However, this Corporate Dramatic put process change, innovation, and corporate success at risk and immediately demoralized the team. Suddenly, a lot of energy was spent “managing expectations,” calming team members down, and trying to get ahead of the drama when instead we should have been focusing on creating a fine tuned list of valuable features that would benefit customers. The drama temporarily derailed progress towards success.
In this particular situation, the impact was immediate. Product owners became protective of their work, which was being discounted by the PM. Ideas that they had spent weeks discussing were suddenly “thrown out.” This caused an immediate rift between the two groups and broke a fragile relationship that was still in its fledgeling/growth stage. This was the first time technology and the business were collaborating on an Agile software development project.
The rest of the team became suspicious of innovation. They asked questions like, “are our ideas too radical for our organization?” “Is this project simply not doable?” “Do stakeholders not trust us?” They began to focus on things like scope, money, and feasibility instead of change, differentiation, and team happiness. They immediately believed the message because they had heard it before from previous managers.
After discovering that no such conversations had happened and the ulterior motives, the relationship between the corporation and this consulting group was fractured. One dramatic moment put millions of dollars and an entire captive team at risk and the only “survivable” outcome was to remove this PM. The resulting drama and eventual end result was needless because one person did not realize the impact of drama event on larger, important organizational goals.
And if given enough time, a Corporate Dramatic will undermine the business.
Company X had a very large drama problem and because it had existed unchecked for so long, this became the normal way of working and communicating with each other. People adapted and had developed a number of unhealthy habits/behaviours to cope (e.g. passive helplessness, hiding from each other, reluctance to make decisions, bullying, finger pointing / blame / scapegoating, reluctance to communicate or have working discussions). During one session, I noticed that developers would wring their hands nervously or chew their nails whenever we reached a point where discussion or a decision was needed.
As we started to try to untangle some of these dramatic behaviours we discovered that they were so ingrained in the company culture that the knot of bad behaviours / drama tightened almost defensively whenever we poked at it. It took on a life and personality of its own and we became to refer to it as the Drama Knot created by the Corporate Dramatic.
Ask the Right Questions
Instead of entering triage mode, we started with the question, why?. Why are we being told this now? Why would stakeholders suddenly not let us finish the work we had all discussed/planned together? The team was obviously very happy and pleased with their progress. They felt great about their decisions and the direction the project was taking. Why would people change direction so quickly when things were going well? This was the beginning of disbelief and in disbelieving the message, we decided to start gathering facts.
Next we asked the question, who did this message come from? Can we talk to this person to get an understanding of the concerns and work out a different path that doesn’t dishonour the work that has been done, but includes them in a successful outcome. It was here that the drama unravelled and we discovered that the message was fictitious and came from the project manager.
After this, we asked the final most relevant question: How do we prevent this unnecessary drama from happening in the future?
Continual and Open Communication
In most cases your biggest ally against the Corporate Dramatic is knowledge. When faced with the unknown you are unable to determine what is false or real based on the information you have and the investigative process needs to start.
In this case, we communicated progress daily and involved stakeholders in all decisions to alleviate any uncertainty. So, when drama appeared, it was relatively easy to recognize and mitigate.
Having information radiators that you can point to for discussions (e.g. a story wall or project roadmap) gives the team an impartial place to resolve dramatic discussions.
Look for Patterns of Drama
I use patterns of drama (or what I call “drama vortexes”) to determine the difference between drama-for-the-sake-of-drama and what is a risk/issue that needs to be resolved. Drama tends to be cyclical, predicable, and never ending; and, it also tends to revolve around certain people who spin helplessly when caught in the drama. Whereas risks are linear because once the risk/blocker/issue is resolved, it goes away and the team moves on normally.
On Client X we noticed a pattern of intense drama every Thursday. This was because on Wednesday afternoons we had a showcase and our rapid progress unsettled people who were uncomfortable with the success of the decentralized decision making process. And, because there was no real “issues” to contend with and no opportunity to be a hero, drama was created out of an unconscious (or insecure) desire to disrupt progress so fictitious problems could be solved.
Because of the consistent pattern, we were able to predict when the drama vortexes would happen and disrupt before the spinning could start. Also, there was conscious effort put into keeping these away from the team so they could feel psychologically safe and proceed normally. As a rule, once you are able to identify drama vortexes, you need to determine the cause and find a solution before toxicity sets into the team… and erodes away at company success.
Look for Corporate Bloat or Wasteful Practices
Corporate bloat grows rather innocently in large organizations. It starts with a person or two who get overwhelmed in their job; possibly by handling real problems or because of an increase in the size of the company. So, more people are hired to help these people.
But soon, the same thing happens again as the company grows or as new problems present themselves. And, rather than flex with the change, more people are hired.
Eventually, the number of problems flatline but people don’t move on. And, people become bored. As a way of showing their importance or to keep busy, they create dramatic situations or extraneous policy to keep busy. This is how the Corporate Dramatic is born.
This is a difficult problem to address because it means being vigilant in recognizing demand-capacity mismatches. This is not always easy in a large organization where there are silos built around technology, geographical location, and product information. And, in many situations, how the company is structured not only allows bloat to grow unchecked, but also gives people plenty of places to hide unnoticed.
For example, at Client X, teams were built around software systems instead of around features and programs of work. So, no one developer was able to build an end-to-end user story. Instead, it took cooperation from several engineers who worked siloed in different parts of the organization (and sometimes for different companies); this means building relationships, managing competing work priorities, and navigating through ridiculous layers of middle management to simply get a tiny piece of work done.
On top of this, risky dependencies between teams and systems prevents independence and autonomy. And, rather than allow people to self-organize and talk to each other, at Client X a team of managers were added to coordinate and communicate the work between teams. This opened the organization up to power struggles, miscommunication, finger pointing, blame, and many other forms of drama that keep people from simply working together.
One way to find and mitigate bloat is to create small, empowered, cross-functional, self-organizing pod teams who focus on building software solutions. It’s hard to hide bloat within small teams, especially when they are performing well.
The key to the success of pods is being “cross functional” so all the skills needed to do the work are within one team. This minimizes the need for cross team coordination, extraneous roles, and allows developers to work quickly as a team.
Realize that you have a people problem
Finally, drama is not a software development problem, it is a people problem. In a world without the Corporate Dramatic and the problems caused by them, software is developed at a consistent pace and team members are happy to plug away and do what they do best: use technology to solve problems. People grow as technologists and because of this you have gentle but natural attrition/team changes.
When drama enters a team, people start to focus less on the code and more on the drama… and how it makes them feel. If left unchecked, the team starts to rot and it becomes a harder problem to fix without some sort of extinction event (e.g. people quitting/being let go). Sometimes the drama is simply caused by a bad role fit or bad dynamics between two people, which can be resolved easily by changing up the people on the team. Other times is is caused by the Corporate Dramatic.
I want to point out that Company X’s problem is a massive problem that affects many corporations; and, their story is not a success story with a happy ending: it is a learn from the mistakes of others type of story.
We did see progress and change when we implemented the items above, but the people problem was so vast and complicated that we often felt like we were building a life raft or moving deck chairs on the Titanic as it was sinking.
Corporate drama had been left unchecked for so long that the Corporate Dramatic and resulting drama knot became their corporate culture. And, as quickly as we made change, the Corporate Dramatic was equally as quick to counter and undermine any progress forward without the realization that they were undermining the company as a whole.
As such, in this case it will take years for them to undo the damage without some sort of mass extinction or evolutionary event like a mass exodus of people, removal of an entire role within an organization, or government/regulatory interference.
This article was originally posted on March 11, 2016 on LinkedIn Pulse.