Yes, I said Seth was wrong…here’s why…

February 7, 2010 § 3 Comments

Seth Godin is one of my favorite bloggers, and his latest book “Linchpin” is on my list of books to read.  I almost always agree with what he writes and walk away inspired.  Yesterday he posted this on his blog:

The relentless search for “tell me what to do”

If you’ve ever hired or managed or taught, you know the feeling.

People are just begging to be told what to do. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I think the biggest one is: “If you tell me what to do, the responsibility for the outcome is yours, not mine. I’m safe.”

When asked, resist.

The following morning (today), it had been retweeted 440 times and my Google reader tells me that 60 people actually liked it.

There are many people who actually need to be told what to do and not because they are trying to shift responsibility.   Thankfully, Seth acknowledges that there are other reasons why people need to be told what to do, and I will not go into those here (ok, maybe one reason).  I disagree with Seth in that I don’t think this is the biggest reason.

I’m not a manager, and I haven’t hired anyone.  I have done some mentoring and have been a lead developer on a couple of projects.  Drawing on that experience, people programmers need to be told what to do for a few different reasons:

  • They lack experience.
  • There are so many choices in terms of tools in what to use in developing a solution.  “Telling a programmer what to do” helps create consistency in a project making it more maintainable.
  • Programmers often get overly excited about learning new technologies that they will use the new technology even when it isn’t appropriate to the solution.
  • Development efforts,  especially in large organizations, need to adhere to an architectural vision and a set of tools and frameworks.  Without this “telling what to do” you have skills, software, and programmers running amok creating technical chaos that results in a hemorrhaging of cash with little of quality to show for it.

Knowledgeable technical leadership is invaluable.  Self-motivated people like me crave it because it better enables me to create quality software that matters, that won’t be scrapped in six months.  Organizations benefit because it saves money, minimizes frustration, reduces time spent on throw-away code, and technically enables the marrying of multiple systems to be done more easily and efficiently.

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§ 3 Responses to Yes, I said Seth was wrong…here’s why…

  • Jason Cohen says:

    So true. Also it implies everyone needs to be an entrepreneur, everyone needs to have 10k Twitter followers (or some kind of social media following), etc etc.

    Guess what — some people want to do a job well but still work just 9 to 5, 5 days a week. Some people value family over status, reputation, and money.

    And that’s to be respected just as much as the opposite. Seth never makes that distinction. That’s OK — he’s making a strong point briefly so there’s no time to hedge, but it’s good that you’re calling him out on it.

    It reminds me of the “debate” about whether women should return to work after kids or stay home. The only way the argue is “won” is when women truely have the choice, otherwise it’s just a new set of rules trying to tell women what to do.

  • John Clark says:

    Jason’s pretty much summed up some of what I was going to write, but the gist of it was that it’s always a bad idea to assume that everyone responds to, or is motivated by, the same things.

    And that means challenge, responsibility, initiative, personal drive. Each of us puts different weights on the importance of each of these, and so many people really won’t want to be given a free remit to do. Some people work best when directed.

    The obvious example would be a traditional hierarchical organisation where the successful functioning of the organisation depends upon decisions being made and acted upon with efficiency. Such as in the armed forces. Without people who will follow instructions without question, without those whose personal ego/motivation/desires can play second fiddle to those instructions, such an organisation will be at best weak, and at worst entirely chaotic.

    In Entrepreneurship, by definition, one needs to wear many hats and part of the requirements of many-hat-wearing is to be able to make decisions, work things out for oneself. However, not everyone has/needs/wants to operate in this way, and Seth implies that anyone who doesn’t is in some way weaker or less effective. Not so.

    In the programmer example, a clear design leadership is very important, and having developers able and willing to simply work to a task list or schedule, without flying off on their own personal whims, is vital for the successful delivery of the project.

    • JenRBoyd says:

      Exactly. I had a discussion with a manager this week where he used the analogy of a thoroughbred horse vs a clydesdale horse (work horse) to communicate the differences in what motivates others and how both are necessary and valuable. It’s important to take the time to know the people working for you and what drives / motivates them.

      Equally important are clearly communicated goals. For those self-motivated types who may “fly off on their own personal whims”, this is the “tell me what to do” that a company or development group needs to get the most out of these people. These people may not tell you this is what they need, but to truly add value to an organization and be as efficient as possibly, they do. I bet if you ask one of these people, aka thoroughbreds, if this is of value and if they would like to be “told what to do” in this regard, the answer 99% of the time will be “yes”.

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