Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Gorilla in the Clown Suit

In my line of work, you deal with all sorts of different "leaders" and "managers". Typically, they've achieved their position through some confluence of skill, opportunity, and luck. They all have their positive and negative attributes, depending on the needs of the situation and your vantage point.

The one I find most fascinating though is the Gorilla.

The Gorilla type of leader is epitomized by being unruly and unpredictable, beating their chest when things are rough, blundering around leaving banana peels for others to trip up other people, and applying brute force to solve any problems they can't avoid by putting their hands over their eyes. Oh, they seem intelligent enough at first, but don't forget that their typical response to even minor irritations is to start flinging feces.

When trying to identify a Gorilla, watch for them to put their hands over their eyes. You will notice this by listening to how they handle ambiguous requirements. You will often hear them using phrases like "I interpret this to mean. . ." and "I think what was intended. . .". They will insist on asking everyone to estimate their completion dates, but are totally uninterested in keeping track of the actual work required to hit those dates.

Because they don't actually manage risks (or a traceable work plan) their project will inevitably have unexplained delays. They handle this through beating of the chest in more meetings about the dates and the issues. In these meetings they studiously avoid detailing the actual work involved or assigning any accountability. Unless of course, they think they can pin blame on some small monkey. At this point, they jump right on top of the unsuspecting ape and demand a full accounting.

While this chest-beating occurs, they routinely change the process and expectations. This creates wonderful opportunities for others to fail in meeting these new expectations or realigning to the new process quickly enough. These little banana peels are perfect for tripping up the unsuspecting. These little slip-and-falls usually provide them with several potential candidates for assigning future blame.

With all this mayhem occurring, the delays generally get worse, which means they now need to apply their brute gorilla strength in an effort to get things back on track. Since they haven't really been paying attention, and there are banana peels everywhere, this is harder than it sounds. So of course, now they get frustrated and voila! the feces flinging commences.

If you find yourself working with (or heaven-help you FOR) a Gorilla, keep these simple rules in mind and perhaps you'll do okay.

First, don't look them in the eye. Calling out that the endless meetings is a bad idea and unproductive is like poking the gorilla with a stick. It will only get you labeled as "uncooperative" or "not a team player". Instead bring your laptop and get your own work done if you have to be there in person. If possible, make it a conference call so you can put yourself on mute and get something done while the gorilla beats his chest.

Secondly, watch the ground for banana peels. If the rules are constantly changing, give yourself plenty of time to do lots of non-value-add work aligning and re-aligning. This means get your monkeys up in the trees away from the gorilla so they can do the real work. Keep them isolated so that if (or more likely when) you stumble into one, you're the only one that gets hurt and your team stays productive.

Lastly, find and maintain a poncho. Inevitably with a Gorilla there will be flung feces and finger-pointing. Make sure you've cataloged and highly publicized your risks and issues while maintaining transparency with your schedule, dependencies, and work plan. When things do turn nasty, keep your cool and trust in your poncho. If you've kept your poncho in good repair (being transparent and publicizing early and often) you should be prepared for the worst of it.

In closing, it's worth pointing out that Gorillas aren't all bad. They are especially useful in death marches and suicide missions. When what is being undertaken is just completely unreasonable or the situation will likely require someone's career if it is to be successful, a Gorilla is a great candidate. When the situation is already beyond repair and you are just trying to salvage something, then chest-beating and brute force are great strategies for maximum gain. As a leader of multiple teams, unleashing a Gorilla to work for you is a quick way to identify which teams have their feces together and which people on which teams are worth saving. Good resources will escalate around a gorilla, and good peers will already have their ponchos firmly in place, rendering the gorilla ineffective.

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