Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Have Whip, Will Travel

In my dialog with other professionals about project performance I identified two distinct roles that seemed to emerge reliably throughout every engagement. The Manager and the Driver. The Manager usually interacts with the Client or between teams and sets direction. The Driver is usually just a higher-form of Grunt Boy who is brought in to deliver on the goals and direction established by the Manager. If your software project were a pirate ship, the Manager is the Captain and the Driver is his First Mate who whips the crew to shreds, yelling at them to "Row Harder!" and so forth.

One of my most common delivery roles is being the Bad Guy. The Driver, not the Manager. It makes me almost universally despised and loathed. Of course, since the Driver is a role that someone must play on any aggressive project, when I am willing to step up, it makes me a critical necessity without which little to nothing would get done.

In my experience the difference between the Driver and the Manager rests on a couple small factors that are easily observed. Having been in both camps at various times, I can tell you that there are pros and cons of each, and each is absolutely essential at various times and in different situations. The hard part is we often don't know we need one until we really need one. We also are typically annoyed the greatest by their respective behaviors when the role is being performed most efficiently.

  • Drivers realize that the maximum allowable time lag for a dialog is measured in seconds. Managers maximize communication lag to allow for spin and messaging.
  • Drivers demand transparency and enforce individual accountability. Managers package information for audience appropriateness, and assign credit or blame.
  • Managers review. Drivers do. I can't think of any more poignant or direct way to express this one.
  • Managers buffer personalities and styles. Drivers crash people into each other.
  • Managers plan and negotiate; schedules, costs, resources, environment, politics. Drivers push forward and either stop at or run over obstacles.
  • Managers put the work of others into context and therefore create Value. Drivers are less concerned with showing Value; the tend to be motivated more by Accomplishments (regardless of Value).

Next time you are struggling with someone in leadership around you, run through the list and figure out what role they are playing. When you see someone playing Manager, give them credit for tackling the squishy, important stuff. When you see someone playing Driver, put on a helmet before approaching.

If you want to be liked, be a Manager. Don't sign up to a Driver unless you've got skin thick enough to handle it.

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