Posted On: 2021-01-25
In my previous work, one of our leaders would use the idiom that something was "like picking up a rock". Whenever it was used, it meant that something unpleasant had just been uncovered and - crucially - it had been there long before it was known. As one who often found himself picking up said "rocks", I had the good fortune to see the way many of these situations were approached. Looking back on it, I can see patterns of good management and culture that reinforced and enabled resolving such issues. In today's post, I thought I'd share some of these patterns, in the hopes that it helps others to respond better whenever they find someone is "picking up a rock."
Often, people's first reaction to bad news is to focus on finding a recent change to explain it. Making it clear when a pre-existing issue has been uncovered can help people skip over this initial response, as well as establish expectations about how it will be resolved (assuming one's approach to picked-up rocks is consistent.)
This is similar to the idea of don't shoot the messenger, but with some added complexity: in many cases, the person who picked up the rock didn't even realize what they were doing - so being punished for it would not only discourage reporting issues but may instill a fear of doing anything, lest it turn out to reveal hidden issues.
There can be an impulse to react strongly to bad news: to act with the utmost urgency, regardless of whether or not that is warranted. Keeping a cool head and focusing on what is appropriate given the nature of the issue can help keep everyone productive - whether they're tasked with resolving the issue or some other thing that's higher priority.
Humility is essential for leadership: a leader must often make decisions about matters they do not fully understand. If the workers close to a problem don't agree with the prioritization, hear them out, and make a good-faith effort to understand their perspective. Similarly, higher-up leaders may find their own projects derailed because of a rock that was picked up far below them. Bringing humility to the ensuing discussions can go a long way to support the repairs of critically flawed systems.
Not every problem can be solved, for time and effort are finite. When an overturned rock turns out to be a low-priority issue, it is very likely that there simply won't be time enough to address it. When that happens, it's important to be clear, as well as supportive for those who struggle with knowingly leaving imperfections in code.
Over the years I'd worked at my previous employment, I picked up many rocks, and felt confident and supported enough to keep reporting whenever I found a new one (and occasionally even encouraging others who found themselves holding unexpected rocks.) It's my hope that these positive patterns I've observed can help: every organization has its own rocks, and only by confronting what they find underneath can they become better.