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How to get rid of “just enough not to get fired” culture

January 10, 2010 4 comments

I’ve known this particular client – a growing software company – for a long time. Last year, the CEO called me and shared his concerns:

– “We are clearly falling behind the competition”

– “The software engineering team is working hard but every time we launch a new release the competition is still ahead of us”

– “The sales team is also working hard; yet the win-loss ratio suggests a different story”

I agreed to help.

After working with the software engineering team for a few weeks, several observations could be made.

– The product design was collectively owned by 4 very senior software engineers who have been with the company from day one. They were very valuable and knew it. Every 2 weeks, something failed and they became instant heros – yet again. Only these 4 individuals could find and correct certain defects.

– In addition to other issues, there were two glaring, urgent problems: lack of an open channel with sales and product management teams (competitive intelligence was rarely considered in the requirements planning cycle) and lack of an open transparent design process (important design considerations were rarely discussed).

It became clear that these 4 very senior software engineers did “just enough not to get fired” while being more interested in preserving the status quo than building a more competitive product.

They were gone after receiving very generous severance packages. The team did take one step backwards but rapidly accelerated after four – terrific – software engineers joined the team.

The recruiting process had a very important objective: attract and hire new team members that understood, believed in, and practiced the art of constructive confrontation, or an ability to confront tough problems in an open and constructive manner . It’s worth noting that constructive confrontation is not a new concept. Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, was instrumental in making constructive confrontation a key part of Intel’s culture.

Why is constructive confrontation so important?

Imagine a design meeting where a critical design change is being discussed by five senior software architects. Four people believe that Design Approach A is the right answer. One person disagrees and proposes Design Approach B.

Without the culture of constructive confrontation, the voice of one person would not be heard potentially creating the risk of a poor design decision.

The culture of “just enough not to get fired” could also be noticed in the sales organization of my client’s company. The CEO decided to recruit a new Vice President of Sales and I had a chance to interview 2 final candidates.

My only question to both was:

“When did you find yourself in the position to disagree for very critical reasons? Please share the details.”

Only one candidate responded with an answer that I thought was absolutely on target.

“When I was VP of Sales at Company X, my company was growing at an annual rate of 10% while our closest competitors grew at a rate of at least 18%. To fuel growth, a number of changes were needed, particularly in product engineering and marketing strategy. I continued to propose these changes at every executive team meeting”.

This candidate was not afraid of constructive confrontation. He cared about the company’s growth, survival, and ultimately the livelihood of all employees. He got the job and turned out to be one of the best hires.