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The Pit and the Pendulum

The Pit and the Pendulum – Lessons in Executive Leadership

Some executives believe that pitting managers or teams against each other will create vigorous competition, with the best leader(s) emerging on top. They’re wrong! The result will likely be the most divisive manager or team at the top, ready to sow seeds of distrust, suspicion, hostility and stress. Those ingredients kill-off creativity, innovation, collaboration and growth. In that Pit of conflict, the Pendulum may come to a complete halt. I had the experience of being called in to this kind of environment to conduct what can only be called “an intervention.”

The multi-year, enterprise-wide IT project that already cost many tens of millions of dollars, was way overdue and way over budget. The board of directors was more than a little concerned. It had reached a crescendo. The COO and CIO brought me in to work with the IT management teams. There were two teams and they were at war. I interviewed each manager individually and met with each team separately before daring to bring them together. The stress, anguish and frustration was palpable and poured forth in outbursts of rage and finger-pointing. The Delivery Team was responsible for the system design, software development, coding and delivery of the system. The Testing Team was responsible for every level of testing and for identifying bugs in the system. The Testing Team was dependent on the Delivery Team to understand every element of the system, in order to design the appropriate testing to identify flaws.

There was a powerful interdependency between the teams. That’s usually good.
But, the two management teams had two different sets of goals, and the goals of one team were in direct conflict with the goals of the other team. To add heat and fire to that situation, the teams’ incentive compensation was based on reaching their goals. The results – these management teams were in constant conflict and the project was in a quagmire. The Pendulum had stopped, but the clock and related budget dollars had been ticking on.

The first meeting with both teams had the feel and fireworks of marriage counselling.
Once they had the opportunity to air their differences, I pointed something out that they already knew – the status quo was unacceptable. The board was ready to step in and act. That’s why the COO and CIO sent me in and that’s why I had their full support. Now,
“What do you want to do about it?”

Unfortunately, their solutions were down in the weeds of the existing conflicts.
I asked them, “What is the overall goal for the company as a whole?”
It took a while, and they were able to articulate it and come to consensus on that goal.
Then came the tricky part. As I asked the next question, I felt a little like the guy on the high wire over Niagara Falls, because everything hinged on this.

“Now that we have identified the overall goal for the company, and since both teams have dependencies on each other that must be met in order for the system to be completed, would it make sense to have one set of goals that both teams are mutually judged on?”

There was silence, then grumbling. Finally, a couple of voices perked up. The logic was so compelling, so obvious, they slowly emerged to a consensus and embraced the idea. It was the crucial next step.

(I actually wanted them to be one team, but there was so much individual team identification and team pride – a good thing in most situations but not in this one. I left that as the next evolution.)

I took them a little by surprise at that point. I told them, “Stay right here. I’m going to try to get the COO and the CIO into the room right now to endorse this change.”

I scurried around the building fishing them both out of meetings, explaining the situation and prepping them for the need to approve this change right now. I brought them both into the room and asked one manager from each team to present the new joint goals the two teams had agreed to and the new direction they wanted to take. The CIO and COO approved it on the spot. The CIO immediately followed up with the Director of HR to change their incentive compensation to align both teams to the same goals and metrics.

There was one more small but important change we made. When testing showed up a bug, it was being called a “bug” or an “error.” The design and development managers felt highly insulted every time that happened and it destroyed trust and cooperation. We came up with a euphemism, “item to investigate.” It didn’t completely quell the issue, but it did take a lot of the hurt out of it and made it more objective. It turned out to be an important step.

I went on to meet with the management teams weekly for several months, which they came to refer to as their therapy sessions. The quagmire had been broken. They were clearly making strides forward. It wasn’t always happiness and joy, but sometimes it was, and the bite and battles had simmered down and mostly disappeared. At that point, my job was done. They went on to meet their new goals and their newly appointed deadlines. They delivered this huge system – a revolutionary change for the entire enterprise.

In retrospect, it all seems so obvious. But, it took a completely objective observer, one who could articulate the issues and, more importantly, gain the trust of the management teams and the senior executives, to allow them to embrace the change they needed to move forward.

©2017 Marshall Tarley, LLC