Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Cost Of Doing Nothing

Recently, a friend told me about a little problem at her company. A number of years ago I worked with her at a startup that didn't do a very good job at failing.

I've written about this company in the past, it's a dysfunctional mess.

I saw a lack of leadership there and left at the first good opportunity. The lack of competent leadership, once I recognized it, scared the crap out of me. It also motivated every competent colleague I knew there to leave as well.

What do you get when you fail to establish boundaries and fail to enforce any boundaries with a youthful and rambunctious IT staff? They continue to be rambunctious and push the boundaries. They get older too.

What happens when nothing happens to stop the boundary pushing? What happens when nobody steps in and says that the BS is going to stop? William Golding wrote a nice book about what happens when you let a bunch of unruly youths run amok. Imagine the mess and the carnage that would happen if there were no deus ex machina officer to stop the insanity?

Ok, they are well short of cannibalism and murder, but compared to the other engineering gigs I've had, these guys might as well be donning face paint and shouting "Kill the Pig!".

I think my first tip off that something wasn't right was the first time I left my workstation unattended. I learned that an unlocked work station was an invitation for pranks. My first lesson, an email to the entire company informing everyone that I left my workstation unlocked. In retrospect, that was a nice way of saying 'welcome to the jungle'. The same introduction to others were messages like one that simply said 'I am stupid I left my computer unlocked'.

There isn't another place that I know of where openly insulting a person like that is tolerated. The person who is responsible for sending the message is one of the most abrasive, arrogant, and abusive people I've ever had the displeasure to work with. Nothing was said to him about the stunt. There wasn't a reprimand. Nobody said anything, yet everyone in a leadership position knew it happened. And by not doing anything about it, they allowed it to continue to happen. 

If you ask the VP of IT what his leadership philosophy is, he'll probably tell you that he leads by exception. He may say that he gives his people freedom and doesn't interfere with them unless there's a problem. It's probably more accurate to say that he will avoid any confrontation unless a situation gets completely out of hand, he then will overreact with a department wide edict.

This happened when our friend decided that he'd work from home on Fridays. Not only would he work from home, but he'd only be reachable by cell phone. There was something weird with his land line that made it hard for him to receive calls. 

Here's a pro tip for everyone who thinks about defrauding their employer: be nice to the people who have administrative rights on your workstation. The Linux system administrators in operations keep a record of all the commands that are entered on their systems. If it were one's job, as a software developer to develop software on a linux system, one would expect that that person would enter commands on said linux system during the course of a workday. Imagine how interested the people were in the history file of their work at home friend when week after week it showed inactivity on his account?

They had this guy dead to rights. He was caught red handed not working when he said that he was. The evidence of this was brought to the offender's manager, the VP. Any manager worth their salt would have stopped this long before, but all but the most ineffective would have done one of two things, fire the guy on the spot or let him know that the BS is going to stop. Then again, there's always option 3, nobody works from home now.

As if the jerk's peers didn't have enough reason to not like him now they have their privileges taken away because one person abused the system.

That was years ago. That jerk finally bailed on the company. But that didn't solve the problem. The VP hasn't changed and the inmates are continuing to run the asylum. 

The latest boundaries to be pushed are personal hygiene and cleanliness. One person in particular is doing his best to discover new grounds on what will be tolerated by the company. His workspace is a mess. There's the typical mess of scattered office supplies and papers. Nothing big there. The leftover plates, the rotting food, the mold that is allowed to grow on it. It's having an effect on everyone else. Similar complaints are also arising around how Mr. Messy takes care of his body. It's, well, I don't want to disgust people. I also have a lot of pity for the people who, for whatever reason, are forced to work around this guy.

As much pity as I have for those who cannot escape this abomination of a work place, I reserve the that much anger for the 'leadership' of this company. Something needed to be said long ago, and nothing was said at all. More importantly, nothing was done. Instead of dealing with a problem as a leader, everyone else has to endure the effects of the problem and suffer. 

The 'leaders' of the company have located themselves in a different area of the building and don't need to deal with the stenches on a regular basis.  They are ostrich-ing themselves.

When a bunch of twentysomethings work together there's a certain level of boundary discovery. When young people work together, there's a certain amount of goofing around. It's only natural. It's typical that someone will rein in the young developers and add some structure, either that or the company collapses. Imagine what happens when the company is successful enough to keep going despite their total lack of leadership or discipline. Combine the fact that the twentysomethings are approaching their forties and still pulling the same stunts. It gets kind of sad.

The net effect on the people who work there is anyone who can leave does when they smell the coffee, or the stench. It's way past the point where simple actions by leaders can right the ship. Unless radical and competent action is taken, the company will be doomed to exist as a success struggling to fail.

No comments: