Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Clean Up This Joint

It's going to happen. The role will be different. The name will change. But one day, you're going to be faced with someone who was brought in to clean up this place.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet your new sheriff. This is going to be a bit of a rough period, so let's think before something too final happens.

What is this guy doing here?
Usually the sheriff comes in with a mandate from someone higher up - the CEO, the VP Engineering, sometimes even the board. This is where a lot of the really antagonistic metaphors come in. This guy is here to "kick a** and take names", or to "whip things into shape", or to "knock some heads together". 

Hidden in all the metaphors is the sheriff's purpose: this person is here because that someone higher up believes there is a problem and the current team can't or won't solve that problem.

Let's talk motivation
This is someone who's entire job is cleaning up the problem, whatever it is. His success resides in producing changed behavior, or at least the perception of changed behavior. 

The sheriff is NOT here to:
  • Learn how things are done
  • Mollycoddle (aka take note of anyone's feelings or pride)
  • "Tweak" processes or procedures
There may be a lot of talk about results, but results are a direct outcome of behavior. So the things you can expect to change are behaviors - policies, roles, processes, procedures.

What do I do now?
There are a lot of ways you can choose to react to the sheriff. Some of them are effective, others will leave you looking, well, more like this:

The choice is up to you.

The first prerequisite to any profitable reaction is to acknowledge that there is a problem. The problem may be only the perception of those higher up, but that is in itself a problem.

After that, you can:
  • choose to fight the problem and stay with your old way
  • put your head down and do what the sheriff wants
  • understand the problem and help fix it
What is your goal?
The ultimate goal is to fix the problem. The first thing you have to remember is that you and the sheriff are on the same team. The second thing you have to remember is that you can influence how this goes.

  • Attitude is paramount. Of primary importance is that you appear willing to help. Resistance will likely be crushed, so don't act offended, resistant, pouty, etc.
  • Be confident in what you know. Sure, there's a problem, but it's likely there are some good things, too. Make sure the baby doesn't get thrown out with the bath water.
  • Change is okay. Some of the changes will probably be good. Chances are, if there's a problem of this severity, it's made your life miserable in some way. A change has a chance of fixing it.
  • Don't take this personally. The work you do is separate from who you are as a person. Furthermore, you don't even know that your work is the source of a problem. At least wait until you've been criticized to react! And then remember, its your work, not you.
  • Evaluate yourself. Take this as a chance to step back and think about your work and how you can make it better. Maybe or maybe not you're part of the problem, but there's always something you can do better.
Good luck, and remember, you can choose how you handle the sheriff.

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