Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Value of Letting People Do What They are Good At

This blog could also be entitled, "Why people still have to do things they hate/suck at, but won't care as much" or "Yes, people can still grow technically and in their careers doing things they are already good at. Seriously."

Ever worked with someone (or had them work for you) that was kind of a terror-on-wheels? Maybe they gossiped too much, didn't code with detail in mind, or plain failed to produce things at required times.

You know what? Those people did have things they were good at. It just wasn't whatever they were sucking the life out of your team with they were doing at the time.

This is not to say that every screw-up has a silver lining, nor am I saying that bad performance should be explained away by "they're not doing what they're good at." What I am saying, though, is sometimes life gives you lemons and not a lot of options. The best way in those situations to make lemonaid is to use what you've got in the best way possible.

I had a beautiful lady on my team who was a decent coder, quick on her feet, very personable, and could keep up with anyone in a conversation. She also had Attention Deficit Hyper Activity Disorder. There were days you could feel the air vibrate around her. We did pair programming--where two developers sit together, one codes, and the other reviews and discusses the code as needed--and she would make them crazy sometimes; her attention was just not right there.

So I put her on bug fixes (no pair programming required on our team for those) and people management; she could entertain our client like nobody's business. Fast on her mental feet (as well as her physical ones), these were activities she could grasp and transition between repeatedly and easily, and we could get the best possible work out of her. On days when she'd hyperfocus--another issue that happens with ADHD and ADD--we'd give her new features to investigate, because I knew she wouldn't miss a damn thing.

Most people who have issues in a group, or who have not been very team oriented, are well aware of the problem. When given the choice, most people do not want to suck at anything. So, the theory in this blog post is, you can't control the things they suck at, but you can give them opportunities to do the things they don't suck at.

Where before that lovely lady had had problems on other teams, she flourished on mine. I adore her to this day.

I had another guy, in the same group, who came across as tyrannical, set-in-his-ways and a lecturer. There was not a fight he couldn't pick. So I turned that to my advantage: having had some problems with the team working parallel to ours not always being helpful, I put him in charge of team relations (they were already bad, what worse could happen?). Turns out his tenaciousness and stubbornness paid off...when aimed at someone else. The initial successes brought some actual admiration from the team that was previously planning terrible things involving boards with nails in them and the back parking lot. He thrived under the positive attention, and was able to start--gasp--not arguing with the team. When we talked to him about how much he knew (which was substantial) and that he could teach it, rather than lecture it, he fell in love. And the team benefited.

Not all stories of putting people in positions to do what they're good at end quite as "after school special" as these did, but they always improve the situation with potentially problematic people. Always.

When I was in high school, the one and only retail job I ever got was in a toy store. I have, shall we say, utterly crappy spacial analysis skills. The assistant manager assigned me to the "games" row, considered the hardest to organize (rows upon rows of boxes seemingly randomly shoved into the shelf as many as could go) and required a ton of my spacial abilities (which I had, really none). Night after night he'd keep me there working that same row, and keep all the other employees, assuming that repetition and peer pressure punishment of making me do what I wasn't good at would somehow magically make me better. I'm sure for some people that worked. It didn't work for me. My father got tired of waiting in the car until well after midnight for me to come home and told me I had to quit. I have never been happier. The next job I got was data entry...people, I can type. I was also not afraid of computers. The difference was night and day; my whole demeanor changed. Where my old teammates hated me (I was the reason they were all staying an extra hour and not getting paid for it), my new ones loved me. Who knew typing 70 words per minute could make you feel like a rock star?

Reassigning that individual to a task that he/she is better equipped to succeed at also helps your entire team. If they are no longer suffering the pain of that person suffering through what they suck at (ie: my poor teammates at the toy store watching with mute horror as I tried and failed to put back board games), their attitude and productivity also increases.

The gist is, people having a hard time are not really enjoying it anymore than you are. If you can talk to them and observe them, and find something (even just one thing) that they are good at, you can start the process of changing them from a drain on resources in your team, to a contributing member. Some get the opportunity for success, and fail. Then you know they truly don't belong. For most, however, they get the taste of success and never want to go back.

1 comment:

  1. A someone with ADD who has to choose what work she'll do today based on how her brain is functioning, it is nice to read of a manager who takes this sort of thing into account.