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Succeed your way to failure
Inexperienced managers tend to make a lot of the same mistakes. Poor communication, too much guidance, too little guidance, bad meeting management, lack of direction, there’s a lot of room for screwups. The good thing about these types of mistakes is that they’re usually pretty easy to identify and there’s tons of resources available to help correct these issues.
Some mistakes are harder to call out. When I first arrived at SEI, one part of my job was to help advance the application of machine learning technology (ML) within the institute. There are lots of ways to do this, and the one I chose at the time was to build a team of highly skilled researchers and practitioners who would act as internal consultants. I’d already seen that ML was being used across the organization, but in many cases it was being used incorrectly in one way or another. By bringing in ML specialists, we could make sure ML was being used correctly, and both deliver better stuff and beef up our reputation as “a place that knows their ML.”
This strategy succeeded far beyond my expectations. The team we hired was able to network across the whole company, and they did good work, really upping the ML game. The team members were individually recognized for this work, and I was personally recognized for “improving collaboration across the institute” and stuff.
The thing was, this was the wrong strategy. Sure, it was a good strategy, and we did good work. Unfortunately, looking back, this wasn’t what the SEI needed by the time I left. There are a number of other strategies that I could have pursued instead of this one. Following a strategy is largely the art of saying “no”. By choosing to focus on the quality of internal work, I left the others at the side.
And this was my mistake. I’m still somewhat convinced—less than I was at the time, to be sure—that my original strategy decisions the right one. However, at some point over the past four years, my decision became decidedly wrong. It’s not that it was a bad thing to focus on, it had simply stopped being the most important thing I could do to in my role at the SEI.
Why did I make this mistake? In retrospect, there were a few causes. Firstly, I didn’t listen to my team closely enough. My team was kind enough to give me feedback a few times that they disagreed with my strategy. I definitely should have pushed them more to disagree with me. Their criticism should have been a sign that a priority re-examination was needed. Secondly, I didn’t set aside time to do that type of check myself. Strategies are long-term things, but even long-term things change. At least once a year, if not twice, I should have taken a step back to just think and convince myself that I was still doing the right thing. More importantly, though, I didn’t because it was succeeding. Why would I stop? The team was well-respected, we were doing good work, and even when things got tough for one reason or another we had built up enough of a reputation as a valuable group that others reached out and helped us pull through. Abandoning a winning strategy definitely takes a lot of courage, but even more importantly is the ability to question it at all.
I’m somewhat lucky that I made this mistake leading a group of six people and not six hundred; this is the type of mistake that killed Kodak. I’ve even more lucky that others at the organization recognized this and worked themselves on addressing it; after all, if I was focusing on the quality stuff, they could focus elsewhere. Still, looking back and seeing a bad decision play out over two years is quite an eye-opener.
The real takeaways from this are twofold. Firstly, everything needs to be questioned sometime. For me, I needed to question my whole team’s focus at least once a year, and be willing to accept that I may have been doing it wrong. Secondly, listen when people challenge you, even if you have evidence that you’re doing it right. They may see something you don’t see. Careful listening can prevent you from finding out years down the road that, in the end, they were right.