Home > Hiring, Software Engineering > How to get rid of “just enough not to get fired” culture

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

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.

  1. Sam
    January 10, 2010 at 11:52 pm

    A very good article. Too often the company’s (end stakeholder’s) interests are sacrificed for the middle wo/men interests. Sad but reality.


  2. Carlos Ewald
    January 11, 2010 at 2:33 am

    I really believe in working together. The confrontation of ideas is important to the success of a job.
    This reminds me of a technique for developing ideas called brain storm
    Excellent article.
    Best Regards

  3. Dave Schinkel
    January 11, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    When I came across your post today, I didn’t expect a post that pretty much put in words (better than I can) my own philosophy and actual experience on the job. I’ve had a boss who was exactly like what you are describing. He would act as if he was a God and go fix things that HE caused himself. The business was not technical enough to understand what he did on a daily basis behind the scenes. Therefore every business process issue OR technical issue they had with the web UI, he’d blame it on something technical or a limitation that simply did not exist and go come up with some really weird work-around rather than fixing it right or making the right decision technically or even best practice or based on proven industry trends. Rather he’d go a route that still made him God and the application and his team suffered much because of these decisions and cover-ups on a daily basis.

    Second, your part about constructive collaboration is 100% my philosophy. If a team cannot challenge an idea, then it’s not a team. It’s a dictatorship. Working as a team doesn’t mean you are to be a “good little worker bee” and follow. You should actively participate and if you feel something might be a bad process decision or approach, and you have a valid reason and can back that up with past, current experience or a best practice that has been proven in the industry or a trend that is backed up by data (Forrester, whatever it may be), and you can logically explain why the idea might harm the business now or especially in the future (maybe the idea will cause issues in Process A, B, or C later and render the app or render the process unmanageable or prevent it from being extensible), then you as a team member should certainly be expected to confront it constructively. Without this, the team is just a flock of workers possibly following a wrong path (a cliff) and we all die.

    We don’t come to work just to do as we are told. CEOs, Managers should be confiding in their worker’s intelligence, past experiences, etc. and other things that they have to bring to the table to help the team as a whole. If a debate needs to happen, as long as it’s not consuming the team, members of the team should be able to constructively talk about it without being cut off by the lead, manager, etc. It’s those managers who don’t let teams have a sense of ownership, a sense that they can debate, and a sense that they are all part of a goal and that means ability to discuss the complications of an idea, then you might as well just fail as a CEO or manager because following only your path (“my way or the highway”) will ultimately lead to destruction both on the process side but also your employee moral, your best asset will go down and you’ll end up with employees that DON’T care about the business and the GOOD employees will leave..the ones who had the passion to fight and wanted a constructive conversation about that Process A or decision B that they really felt was bad for the business and most likely probably was the case.

    I’ve seen one of the best graphic designers (fellow collegue) fired because he wanted to challenge the heir-say in our meetings. Because it was dicated by one manager. And this employee was later deemed as “stubborn” when the tone he presented was simply teamwork and he was not being overbearing. I was sitting right there in every meeting and can tell you it was 100% line of BS. He challenged direction, processes, and ideas and that’s what teams are expected to do naturally. Otherwise how can you call it a team.

    It’s these kind of environments that don’t allow a team to challenge each other than end up in chaos.

  4. January 20, 2010 at 2:25 am

    I really enjoy hearing about a situation where someone is unafraid to speak up for the betterment of the company. I believe too often that one persoANCan and will make a difference. The critical factor is that someone is willing to listen and engage.

    Ego and heirarchy should be abandoned to allow for progress. In order for this to proceed, an unafraid and valiant leader is needed.

    I do not have that type of leader and status quo is maintained. Why? Because stable is better than different. WOW. Shhh I must listen for what to do next.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: