Software Engineers are often put in situations that pull them in different directions. Situations where too many priorities vie for top spot, and attempts to reconcile the chaotic situation are not met with constructive results. And old song I was taught called ‘My Name is Joe’ is tragically applicable.
In the lyrics to the song, Joe is repeatedly asked by his boss to manipulate a growing number of buttons. Before each addition, Joe's boss asks Joe if he is busy. Each time, Joe says “no”. In order to keep up, he’s using his right hand, his left hand, feet, nose, etc... After six or seven concurrent tasks, Joe has hit his limit. He explodes at his boss and says “Yes!” He also halts any useful productivity, including the song. Great story tellers will use progressively manic facial expressions and reactions to communicate Joe’s growing unhappiness over the course of events.
Joe's boss, let's call him Hank. Hank sounds like a good button-factory-boss name. Hank asks Joe if he's busy, every time. He doesn't demand, and he doesn't assume, and he doesn't adjust the way he asks. Hank is consistent to a fault.
Does the absence of demand and assumption mean that Hank is a good leader? Hank could simply be a consultative manager. The morale boost implied by involving Joe in the process quickly fades when the tasks start piling up, but whose fault is that? Hank kept asking, and Joe kept accepting. Is the breakdown Joe’s fault? Should he have spoken up earlier?
Neither Hank nor Joe engage in what’s known as a double-loop: not just repeating an action, but repeatedly scrutinizing and improving upon that action. They each have the ability to examine their own behaviour and adjust it, and they together have the ability to adjust collaboratively. There are several questions, such as “Are you happy?” or “How many buttons can you push comfortably?” or “Could we hire someone else to push that flying button?", that Hank could have asked. Hank seems insensitive, and Joe seems like a pushover, but this type of thing happens quite often in the real world.
It’s up to each of us, both the manager and the managed, to examine our environment, and to push for collaborative discussion about process. I’ve found success with regular retrospections, both personal and in a group discussion during work time. That discussion may sound like waste, but it’s far more wasteful to stay ignorant and risk collapse.
Thanks for reading,