Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Leadiing Your Leaders

Wayne Hale is the head of the Space Shuttle program, and recently distributed a memo discussing (with a wink in his eye) the disconnect between those actually doing the work, their middle managers and the top leadership.

It's applicable to most technical organizations. There are the guys in the trenches who are the experts on what they do. The middle managers used to be technical but are now distracted by budgets, schedules, and endless paperwork. They mostly understand what their people tell them, and with this partial understanding they decide what information goes up the chain to upper management. Upper management may have been technical at some point in the distant past, but now spend their time with "vision" and thinking Deep Thoughts about strategic plans.

Wayne makes some suggestions about how to "lead your leaders" into making the right decisions. For example, he writes
"Banish the words "We just don't know" from your vocabulary. When you say those words you empower the dumb upper level managers to make the decision based on their inadequate understanding of the problem and on other factors (like cost and schedule). Do you really think the guy at the end of the table that just came from the budget meeting is a better expert than you are on your gizmo? No."

And there's this pearl of wisdom:
Remember to explain the problem. Even though you have been working on a problem as your primary effort for the last year, your leadership may have heard about this once in a briefing a decade ago and now they are basically clueless. Pretend that you are talking to your daughter's 5th grade class. Explain how your complicated gizmo works. Do not use acronyms if possible. Define your terms. Put it in context. If you think I'm kidding, you would be mistaken. Assume your leader has no idea what you do, who you work for, what your gizmo does. That is a good place to start.

Now, think about this for a second. Here we have the head of the Shuttle program telling his engineers to talk to NASA top management as if they were 5th graders.

Good advice for any technologically driven organization!

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