Integrated Interests

Monday, March 04, 2013

A writer calling himself "Articulate" poses an interesting question in communication, provides a couple of examples of bad solutions, and offers a better way to solve the problem. The question: "What to do when your non-technical boss is just plain wrong?" The bad solutions were exemplified by the behaviors of a programmer and his manager, who appear on the surface to be making opposite errors.

First, we have Arpan, a programmer who caves in very easily at meetings:

Our department head, who had been promoted via the finance track, would invariably ask for him to make changes to the architecture, even when it ran directly counter to what Arpan, the technical expert, just said. Without much commotion Arpan would register a weak disagreement (in the form of a question) and then nod his head in agreement- ultimately submitting to a sub-standard product.
Second, we have Arpan's boss, whose tendency to fight over everything had made him something of an office pariah:
Tom was one of those guys that argued over everything with management, refusing to give even an inch when he knew his way was better.  Initially Tom had been promoted to IT manager very quickly but he had stagnated in that role for almost a decade.  Although he was good to his subordinates, defending smart programming, he was highly disliked by management.
Articulate correctly sees that neither of these men knows how to stand up for himself properly, and suggests a different approach, which he calls "diplomacy". I think a more cumbersome -- but also more accurate -- label is in order: helping one's manager place technical considerations in their proper context. (This would include not making the boss look like a fool in front of his subordinates by smacking him down during a meeting.) Neither of these men were doing this, each implicitly, but wrongly assuming that the value of his point was obvious.

The problem Articulate addresses is the often unavoidable friction between the generalist and the specialist. How can the specialist best help the generalist see the importance of some technical detail? The generalist has a broader array of concerns than the specialist, and cannot have as good a command over the area in which the specialist is focused. He probably is not as interested in that area, either. This is where "diplomacy" comes in. Articulate is helping specialists learn how to help generalists integrate their broad interests and important issues in the area of the specialist's expertise.

Normally, a boss is not going to be keen on developing an inferior product, but he needs help from his specialized subordinates to create the best product possible. Failing to stand one's ground at all, as well as doing so in an adversarial manner both deprive the boss of the feedback he is paying them to deliver. One can firmly and politely say, "You are wrong," if one knows how to do it in a way that focuses the other person on the value of being correct. This is what Articulate helps his readers learn to do.

-- CAV

No comments: