I just finished taking a new manager training class at Sun. (I’ve been managing for a year and a half now; I only recently learned that I was supposed to take this class. Oops.) They gave us a copy of a book called First, Break All the Rules which, despite having a title guaranteed to annoy me, is really interesting. It will take me quite some time (and more than one reading, spread out across time) to process the book, and a few blog posts just to talk about my first impressions.

It’s based on what seems to be a well-done study designed to measure what’s necessary to “attract, focus, and keep the most talented employees”. The measurement that the study comes up with is that you want your employees to answer “yes” to the following twelve questions:

  1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
  3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  5. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?
  9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do I have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?
  12. This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

Which is an interesting enough list, and they do further analysis of the list: which questions are linked to productivity, which to profitability, which to retention, which to employee satisfaction; how different questions are important at different stages of an employee’s time with company. But, actually the book (or at least my perception of the book) doesn’t focus so much on these questions as on a quite different issue.

The first question suggests that managers should clearly set the expected outcomes. They then follow this up by saying: managers should give their employees as much leeway as possible in how they accomplish those outcomes. Different employees will find different paths to accomplishing outcomes, because they have different tastes, different talents.

Reasonable enough so far, though certainly some people (maybe even I) would disagree. Next comes: a manager should spend their time figuring out what their employees’ talents are, and focusing the employees on getting the most out of those talents; they should spend essentially no time trying to get employees to shore up their weaknesses. And they’re quite serious about this: if employee A is great at X and lousy at Y, find another employee who is good at Y and match them up. If employee B is great at Z and annoys everybody else, see if you can find a way to separate employee B from everybody else so you get the benefits of his or her talents without screwing up the rest of your team’s. If employee B isn’t so good at V, and you really need employee B to do V, then you made a mistake in hiring.

Which is, I think, an unusual approach: if you say “let people do what they’re good at”, then you probably won’t get much disagreement, but if you then follow that up by saying “and don’t worry about what people are bad at”, that’s a different matter. And, despite being given this book by a Sun course, I don’t have any reason to believe that this is really part of Sun’s corporate philosophy; in fact, at several places in the second half of the training course, recommendations were made that seem to contradict what the book says.

For example, in a discussion on hiring, the course (like the book) said that you should ask people to talk about their actual experiences in an area (“tell about a time when you convinced somebody to change his or her mind on an issue”), but the book says, if you don’t get a clear answer immediately, you shouldn’t trust any later responses, while the course talked about followup questions to probe the issue. As I read it, the difference is that the book is designed to find out what people are genuinely talented at (which are things that people think about enough to always have answers at hand), while the course is designed to find out what people are acceptable at (so as long as you get a real answer eventually, then the person is capable of acting competently in the area at hand).

More blog entries coming up: one about how, as a manager promoting XP practices, I should think about this, and one how this might affect me as an employee.

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