Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Dealing with Doody-heads

It's been way too long since I've had half a moment to organize my thoughts for a post.

In all fairness, I should probably be doing something besides working on this post right at this minute. But like a riot in the heart, sometimes you just need to get your thoughts out of your head. So let's begin...

We have all had to deal with crazies, sillies, and douche-bags in the workplace. My personal area of frustration right now though, is a the doody-head. That guy who is nice but slow. He's reasonably smart and probably educated, but utterly un-pragmatic and has no critical thinking skills in evidence. He insists on dragging everyone along on whatever wild tangent of drivel that currently occupies his limited field of vision. He's naïve about risks and costs, and blindly bumbles around like a cheerleader at a frat party, which is basically the role out of which he's never grown. When she drops your shiny new cell phone into the punch bowl, she just shrugs and says "Sorry" before stumbling off to puke in the bushes. Ugh, the doody-head.

So how does one handle having a doody-head in the workplace? Can you be productive? Can your team be productive in spite of their propensity to flutter after every shiny idea that floats past? Sort of.

Firstly, you need to recognize that they will not change. Just like a douche-bag is always a douche-bag, and a crazy is always a crazy. Once you are clear that you aren't going to change their spots, you can get down to figuring out how to entice, lure, seduce, and otherwise cajole them into a safe place where they can't accidently set fire to the backseat of your Mercedes.

Pay attention to their common interests and be prepared to use anecdotes and trivia to distract them from their subtle slide into irrelevance. Laugh at their jokes, and give them plenty of opportunity during the small-talk time before meetings to let them ruminate. Help them feel important by letting them spew their verbal diarrhea in out of the way forums and hallways. Give them tasks that involve spreadsheets, diagrams, process flows, and lots of writing. Make a big deal of out these special research projects. If necessary, let them present their findings during lunch meetings so as not to detract from actual work time. This has the added bonus of allowing you to look engaged as you plow through a turkey sandwich. And of course, the team will love you for the free lunch!

Lastly, you need to always have a backup plan. What happens if they notice that you aren't really listening to them anymore? If that small glimmer of awareness manages to clue them in that they aren't actually in the loop, you don't want them self-destructing and turning into a crazy. So keep an area or set of tasks that are actually relevant but are simple and already well understood. You wouldn't want a doody-head getting creative. That's a recipe for disaster.
When figuring out which types of tasks and roles work best, it helps if you can tie the tasks to external team dependencies. This way, they'll have meaningful work that should amount to following a pre-laid path. Put them in the driver seat of the train. As long as you've laid the track first and have other teams with an interest in keeping the train on the track, you should feel free to toss them a conductor hat and let them blow the whistle to their hearts content.

It's important to realize that there two things for which you never want a doody-head to be responsible. The first is planning. It's fine to let a doody-head drive a train or the backseat of a tandem bike, but not your speed-boat or even your tiny remote control helicopter you got at the mall. They will invariably face-plant into or run right over the largest, most expensive, thing it is possible to destroy.

The second to keep doody-heads away from is interfacing with other teams. It's fine to give them work that another team requires, or have them take the work another team produces. You just don't want a doody-head being the line of communication you have with that other team. Getting teams to talk effectively is a little like playing telephone even on a good day. Adding a doody-head is like putting the office gossip who's just a little bit tipsy in the middle of the chain. Everything coming through will just end up sounding dirty and not making any sense.

I hope these tips help you handle your doody-head. Try not to get any on you.

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