On Driving and Management

Against my best instincts, I recently began using Facebook. While on the site, I managed to stumble into a message board where there was some discussion of where the best hamburger in Kansas City could be obtained. My interest was piqued immediately since I do love a tasty burger. I prepared my saliva ducts and began reading the comments, foolishly expecting that the discussion would center on the finer attributes of culinary delight that can be received when the Chef du jour is an acne-ridden 16 year old.

However, within 5 comments, the thread had completely devolved into a discussion of the cultural heritage of the commenter. When reading this, it became clear that there was a major rift between the people who live in Kansas City, Kansas versus those who live in Kansas City, Missouri. By the time the thread reached about 20 comments, the discussion had completely devolved into a discussion of who is the worst driver.

Apparently, all Kansas drivers believed that Missouri drivers were the worst and all Missouri drivers believed Kansas drivers were the worth. Now, we all know that Oklahoma drivers are the worst drivers in the known universe, but they were ignoring this simple fact and critiquing each other's driving habits ad nauseam. So, here' my question...

Why does someone's driving acumen have anything to do with their taste in hamburgers? Even more importantly, why is it that everyone believes that their neighbors are the worst drivers in the world?

Here's my answer, and it's an important answer to understand. Everyone drives terribly when they are lost! When Kansas drivers are in Missouri, they aren't driving terribly on purpose, they are completely lost. The same goes for Missouri drivers in Kansas. This also explains why all drivers in larger cities drive terribly. They are all completely and irreparably lost. They're just driving fast, hoping no one notices that they've been driving in circles for the past 8 hours.

Now, normally I wouldn't comment on this revelation on this blog, I would save it for a party or some other time where it might result in my getting invited to better parties. However, it is incredibly relevant when we start assessing team dynamics.

Here is a common scenario I see in many offices:

There is a new project that requires expertise from people who don't normally work together. Some well-meaning manager decides to form a team, hoping to have something to put on his resume, so he can go work for a company that is less likely to fail. So, the team is composed of people who all work for the same company, but don't ever talk to one another and really have no idea what the others in the group do for a living.

In a typical group that I have seen in the past, there might be a representative from Information Technology, Accounting, and Customer Service. The Accountants are still mad because IT wouldn't let them put the social security numbers of the staff on the website, so they could do away with their passwords. The IT representative things the Customer Service people are ID10Ts, because they can't remember a password for more than a few weeks at a time. The Customer Service reps are just happy to be talking to anyone who isn't yelling at them.

This team is completely effective as long as they are making decisions for units in the company who are not represented on this team. However, the instant that a project is undertaken that involves one or more of the units represented by the team, trouble ensues.

Since each member of the team is lost in the other's territories, they are incapable of making informed decisions about how the project should be completed within the confines of that department. They are effectively driving around lost in each other's departments. As with our drivers, they drive really fast and hope no one notices.

It starts innocently enough. The Customer Service rep might say something like, "Well, can we just add this to the accounting system?" Both the IT rep and the Accounting rep roll their eyes at one another and make a dismissive comment. The bright-eyed, once hopeful Customer Service rep never brings up another idea ever again and probably quits showing up to the meetings. Now with the optimism driven out of the group, the IT and Accounting reps can get down to some serious misunderstanding.

The Accounting person remembers the last botched upgrade to their system that resulted in almost a week of lost work (2 days). The IT guy remembers the same upgrade, but he remembers that the upgrade took longer than expected becuase the accountants were using date fields to store social security numbers (which, of course doesn't upgrade well).

Now, at this point, most management blogs would point out that the manager should perform an icebreaker or some other sort of activity to help the team better understand each other's perspectives, but I'm not going to do that. Instead, I'm going to recommend getting a hamburger and sitting back to watch the fun! At this point the group is already tainted. It will be faster to to form a new group than to fix this one.

So, now a team has been formed that no only does not appreciate the work of the others, but they actively have a level a animosity that will help insure that understanding does not occur. Much like our drivers, the two parties are lost while working in each other's territory, so any suggestions made by the parties who are out of their natural element will seem simplistic or ridiculous to the party who better understands the territory.

So, how do we fix it? The real answer is that we probably cannot fix it. Missouri drivers will always hate Kansas drivers, Kansas drivers will always hate Missouri drivers, and everyone will always find themselves lost when they are out of there element. However, there is hope. By understanding that everyone around you is lost, you can begin to offer directions to those you find in your path. Some will heed and understand your directions, some won't. Those that do, will be better able to navigate and will have a more enjoyable time when working with others in the company ad who knows, they might even lend a hand when you find yourself lost.