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August 25, 2009
King's Corner

Pledging Allegiances

I am a big fan of the movie, “A Few Good Men”. It’s cheesy at times, perhaps a bit over-the-top at other times. But there is a whole host of quotes that even people who haven’t seen the movie can recite. “You want answers?….I want the truth….You can’t handle the truth”. Good stuff for sure. But one of the more provoking parts of the movie is when certain members of the Marine Corps recite the order in which they prioritize their actions and pledge their allegiances. It goes in this order, “Unit, Corps, God, Country”. See what I mean? It is provocative, because you can see how certain behaviors may appear as though they work in the favor of one and against one of the others. Ideally, of course, we would want all decisions to be “right for all”. But that is not always the case, at least not on the surface.

From a business perspective, and particularly in the Information Technology/Product Management/Application Development/Application Operations arenas, you can easily see parallels to the allegiances in the Marine Corps. To avoid religious overtones, I’ll leave God out of it. But perhaps we could juxtapose Unit with Self, Corps with Team, I’ll toss in Department, and Country with Company. So, to re-state the Marine Corps allegiances in Business terms, it may read like this: “Self, Team, Department, Company”. Ideally, how should these four allegiances be prioritized? And does your perspective change as your career evolves. Does it change the higher you progress?

Since there is no “right” or “wrong” answer, let’s consider a real-life scenario.

You are a mid-level manager. You notice that the people who are getting promoted to the next level have (a) team sizes of 15 or more people and (b) worked at that level of management for at least 5 years. You will have been in that position for 5 years next month. Your team size is 16 people. With the usual ebbs and flows of demand, your team is starting to show some excess capacity. They have grown more efficient, and are able to meet the “normal demand” without overtime. At times, some team members have gone idle. Other projects have been hit hard with new work/initiatives, and are lacking the bandwidth to address their needs.

What do you do?
(A) Nothing.
(B) Keep your team occupied with additional tasks (e.g. improve/update documentation, send them to training, etc.)
(C) Suggest to team members that they take some vacation.
(D) Lend team members to the other projects who have the excess demand.

Going back to those allegiances, some might suggest that (A) (B) or (C) would be the way to go. You’d stay in position for a promotion, based on past protocol. My view? I’d go with (D). In my mind, (D) is certainly doing “right” by your company. It helps your Department offset some costs by lending the resources to another area that has funding. It also keeps your team members busy, i.e. most people hate boredom. It cross-trains them, keeps them sharp, etc. And hopefully (and this is a big “if”), if your company is run by leaders aware of the “right” decisions being made, they’ll alter the protocol for promotion to include value-add behaviors that improve the well-being of the company. Another way of thinking of the choices, do you really want to “earn” a promotion by hiding excess bandwidth?

Unfortunately, in a competitive world and business is certainly a competitive world, allegiances can be difficult to prioritize. When the questions you face include, “should I go over my manager’s head to ensure that the right thing gets done?” or “should I let HR know about that conversation I had with the person who made the sexist comment?” or “should I let my supervisor know I need to take a vacation day because I couldn’t find daycare for my children on my Work From Home day?”, the answers are not easy. But what appears to sometimes be the “right” decision for yourself, e.g. “don’t rock the boat”, “keep your thoughts to yourself”, “my boss will never know”, may actually lead to more destructive behaviors down the road. Long term results may include apathy if you don’t feel empowered to modify bad decisions, resentment if you see promotions for people who harbor sexist views, or a culture of entitlement if you start to think it’s OK to be a full-time parent on your Work From Home day.

In terms of the Consulting world, and personally, in many roles I’ve played, I’ve challenged myself to always “do what’s right for the client”. Well, who is the client? Is it the person paying the invoice? Is it the department in which they reside? Is it the company as a whole? We’ve made a conscious choice to align our allegiances with the companies first, as the true clients. That approach may not always endear us to the individuals at the client. It may not win us any new business, or sustain the business we have. It’s not always pragmatic. And it may not always be popular. But it’s where we stand.

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