Killing Your Darlings

And why having to is probably down to you

American Writer and Nobel Prize laureate William Falkner originally proposed that ‘in writing you must kill all your darlings’. A simple enough line that has been subjected to much analysis. Falkner’s line is taken to mean that a writer must let go of the elements of their work that they love, but are clinging to due to emotional attachment and not because they are progressing the narrative in any way. Those ‘darlings’ may have suited at their conception but as the story progressed it is plain that they no longer fit.

This same concept has morphed into many leadership articles as you can see here, here, here and most recently trending here.

The rationale is sound, and in many cases these articles emphasise the need for a strong or courageous manager to fire their ‘best’ people, but they often fail to mention where that same manager may be complicit in bringing about the conditions where such radical action is required.

Sowing The Seeds

Technical organisations progress through many cycles and, much like authors starting a new book, each of those cycles presents an opportunity to get on the right track or sow the seeds for later problems.

Be it start-up or starting up a new project, the pattern is similar. There’s excitement, a sense of fresh mission and purpose, the thrill of innovation and of course the attendant ambiguity that is inherent in any new undertaking. There also exist the challenges: resources, money and a need to show early progress either for ourselves or for other stakeholders.

And there it is

We drop our guard just a little; we bring in the people, either internal or as external hires, who can most influence our primary goal and our primary goal is now progress. It might be an engineer, a strong sales person or a strong marketing talent but somewhere along the way we focus on the positives and fade on the negatives. It’s the pressure to make progress, the need to prove we’re on the right track. So we scrutinise less; we drop our standards to get people on board more quickly.

It’s not that we deliberately make bad choices at this stage, and it’s not that those decisions always prove to be bad, but the stress of the situation, or the excitement, puts us on a path where we’re compromising, and compromise is hard to reset once it’s taken root.

In the honeymoon period, it all looks good, those hires are doing what they should do: performing – ‘everything’s going so well’ as the saying goes. Sure there may be some prickly moments, those one or two behavioural issues that aren’t quite as we would have liked or maybe they’ve alienated one or two of their team mates, but surely the end result is worth it. Besides, this is our superstar – our ‘darling’.

The 10x

An overlapping abut equally hot topic right now is that of the 10x engineer. A mythical creature whose productivity is ten times that of a regular human being. Start-ups are being encouraged to find a 10x and with more and more attention being paid to establishing start-up cultures and mentalities within large organisations the hunt is intensifying. You’re competing to find darlings.

It should come as no surprise that the notion of a 10x engineer came from, well, engineers. But the idea of an individual who is superior to their peers is not new – actually we’re surrounded by it particularly in sports and academia. Malcom Gladwell in his book ‘Outliers‘ provides excellent insight into where and how we can find these curiosities.

Dramatically simplifying his underlying thesis, Gladwell argues that a magical 10,000 hours is required for expertise is achieved more quickly by outliers. Others can get there, but the momentum behind those lucky few who get there early becomes self-perpetuating throughout their careers.

But it should also offer a cautionary tale. When we look at our people in engineering disciplines, this intense focus on getting to the 10,000 hour mark leaves little time for other pursuits, social pursuits for example where perhaps some of the softer interpersonal skills are developed.

There’s a reason that the prototypical highly productive software engineer is represented by an overweight, or on the other extreme emaciated, unhealthy looking, headphone wearing guy sitting in a darkened corner hacking away at his keyboard. Apologies to all of the other genders out there, but this is the stereotype and not reflected here to offend.

Reality Checks

This 10x phenomenon is not limited to engineers; the behaviours tend to be common irrespective of discipline. Narcissism, often toxic, is common with all of its incumbent traits. Exaggerated sense of self-worth, distorted view of capabilities, disrespect and rudeness to peers, particularly if seen as a threat or challenge – so think of the worst team player you can imagine. Again not a universal truth, but common enough for us all to recognise the trope.

But this is actually a magnification of basic human traits. Here’s an interesting number for you to ponder:

1 in 8 or 12.5%

The number of men who believe they could win a point off Serena Williams

Yougov Poll 2019

Think about that for a minute. Based on consistency of performance, Serena Williams is acknowledged as the greatest tennis player of all time, and many have argued that she is the greatest athlete of all time, irrespective of gender. If that made her one in a million, then there’s 6000 people on the planet who could reasonably take her on. She’s more likely one in ten million, leaving just 600 people who could challenge her, and we don’t really even see those numbers. And yet, if the above statistic is representative there are 750 million men who believe they could score a point on her in a match. For me that’s a disturbing overestimation of ability.

Men eh?

3%

The number of women who believe they could win a point off Serena Williams

Yougov Poll 2019

Same poll, 180 million women believe they could get a point. Whilst I suspect we’re seeing the influence of chauvinism in the male results, unfortunately the baseline overestimation is gender neutral.

This is the next note of caution: most people out there overestimate their capabilities. I believe that there are vast numbers of very talented engineers out there, but high degrees of caution are required not to sacrifice a holistic view of a team in favour of hiring one supposed 10x. Extending this, there are far more individuals using the 10x motif to justify their bad behaviour; it is a veil that is masking skills gaps and incompetencies in more people than I care to consider.

Superhumans

I’ve been lucky enough over the course of my career to work with a few genuinely exceptional people. 10x? Maybe, or maybe not, but they were the most inspiring people I ever had the pleasure of working with and I learned more from being with them than anywhere else.

There were a couple of very distinct traits that these individuals all shared.

First they were always attentive to why something was happening. Why are we building the thing we’re building, why are we doing it at this velocity, why are we making these compromises and not other. Most importantly why we’re doing it as a team and not as a solo run.

They were completely transparent. They hid nothing, and were more than happy to discuss their approaches to problems, alternative strategies, blue sky thinking that informed their long term strategies and most importantly the shortcuts they had taken and what the impact of those short cuts may be now and in the future.

Mentoring and sharing was a natural behaviour. From a quick coffee to a long white board session all of these people revelled in discussing the problem, educating their team mates more. They were also open to feedback and engagement, coaching where necessary, and most interestingly humble enough to recognise a better approach regardless of the source and unconscious to how it might reflect on them.

They favoured simplicity, but embraced complexity where it was most appropriate. They universally walked that line with the skill of a mountain goat. This type of person is not anchored by a single approach or technology, but has a repertoire of skills that they bring to bear on a problem and flow from one to the other with breathtaking deftness.

They are confident visionaries, but not arrogant. Extraordinary given that of all people they could easily justify the behaviour.

Finally, while they were cognisant of organisational structures, they garnered such respect from everyone they worked with, that most people lucky enough to manage these individuals, myself included, would describe their relationship as ‘working with’ rather than managing. You never try to manage these people, you set a direction, stand back, keep in touch and watch on with awe.

You Reap What You Sow

I’ll try to bring all of this together somewhat coherently.

There is the pressure to produce quick results. The first thing that gets rushed is in the assembling of the team, so the interview standards drop. We buy into the individual who is able to sell themselves as a 10x or some multiplier above others.

Then there is the pressure to demonstrate that we’ve made the right choice, so we compound our challenges by driving for quick results, little by little letting the warning signs slide. Quality, teamwork and long term vision are compromised and eroded.

Then, if and when you start to actually make progress, there’s the feedback. It’s positive, and there’s plaudits and accolades where the new approach is dynamic, agile, a roaring success. This positive reinforcement further helps us ignore the problems – how can it be going so well from our stakeholders perspective if there is something wrong?

Not deliberately, and not in one fell swoop, but very gradually the rot sets in until you hit the point where the chickens come home to roost so to speak.

The Solution? Lead

Whether you’re identifying the problem in an existing team or attempting to pre-empt a scenario while you build a team the root of the problem and the path to a solution are with you.

There are a couple of perspectives to consider:

What You Are Seeing May Not Be Real

There was an adage that my father used when he was a restaurant inspector, particularly when he was reviewing Steak Houses.

Never mind the quality, feel the width

My Dad*

* It later emerged that he picked up this turn of phrase from a British Sitcom from the 1960s

The point is this, when you’re looking at an individual who you think is producing at ten times the level of everybody else, you need to go the next layer deep and see what is being compromised to meet that level of productivity. ‘Ya canna change the laws of physics’ as the prima engineer, Mr. Scott, would say. Your ‘darling’ is cutting corners, it may be the necessary corners but before you get too excited, make sure you have a deep understanding of what they are.

Respect Trumps All

If you are seeing the negative traits that typify the poorer aspects of your ‘darlings’ you need to deal with it. This is respecting your organisation, your goals, your team, but also the individual exhibiting the behaviour. Ultimately the negative behaviour is not acceptable and at some point it will need to be dealt with. The severity required in the future is a function of what you do now.

I find people’s perspective on respect to be curious. It’s easy when things are on the up and up and everything is fine. Real respect requires honesty when circumstances become challenging. If you’re not going to be honest enough to provide direct and timely feedback at the tough moments, then you are the problem; your team will see it and you will lose all semblance of integrity.

Loyalty Is Laudable, But You Paid At The Door

This is a huge point, and very often forgotten. We must always acknowledge the contribution that everyone has made to the current success, but remember everyone has been rewarded along the way. Past performance is not a free ticket to poor behaviour today.

This is particularly true in start-ups in my experience. Early staff are regularly rewarded with stock or options in the company. Thus they are compensated for taking the early risk. This can cause misunderstanding of the authority afforded to these individuals, particularly in the growth phase of the organisation.

If you’re hiring in someone to manage early staff, you must clarify both for the staff and for the new manager the expectations and accountabilities as they now operate in the new structure. Do it publicly and ideally in a single meeting where you can be sure everyone gets the same message. Then support that message.

What You Tolerate Now, You Live With Later

Many of the challenges that are described above are manifestations of weak management. I’m constantly amazed at how often managers think the lack of a decision or lack of action somehow absolves them of responsibility for what follows.

You Are Accountable

There is a direct line from the behaviour demonstrated by those that you are managing or leading and you. What you allow to happen, you are advocating and supporting. The consequences, positive or negative, are ultimately yours to carry.

It’s A Team Game

It’s unlikely you are being asked to lead or manage an individual. You’re leading a team so there’s more than one person involved. You need to see this, and then allow that guide your actions in relation to all of the members of your team. Your first responsibility is to your organisation and either you or your superiors decided on this organisational structure. Logically, you are measured by the results delivered by the team as a whole, not just one person.

Your first job is to support your team and deal with all challenges to their overall success, whether those challenges are internal or external.

In Conclusion

So sometimes you will need to ‘kill your darlings’ but if you are in any form of leadership position, the need for that is often precipitated by your actions.

Be the leader your team needs, deal with issues as they arise and respect every individual in all the appropriate ways to build a healthy and productive team culture. In this way, you may get to keep your darlings and the rest of the team.

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