Wheels that need to squeak

I’m sure you have heard the phrase “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. Basically, if you need something done and it is not just getting itself done, you should speak-up and complain, maybe even make a bit of a ruckus, and be persistent.  If you become enough of an annoyance, someone will put in the effort to satisfy you, just so everyone can get some peace.

In fact, this can be a pretty good indicator of how some places are functioning (or not).

I think back to a place where I was hired to “fix everything, because everything was broken”. During the interview, the HR folks seemed unusually honest about their dire situation.  It was a bit unnerving, but I appreciated the honesty, and I took the job.  Honestly, I love challenges, and this just seemed like too much fun to pass-up.

It took a few days for me to plug-in and start fixing things. As I did, I also surveyed the landscape and determined how vast and pervasive, was the “brokenness”.  I started putting numbers on things and assembled a priority list and a timeline.  When I passed this recommendation up to my boss, I became aware of a barrier which was a nice contributing factor in the current situation.

Each day, I was visited by several people, and received several phone calls. Each of these people would talk about an IT problem that they were dealing-with and then they campaigned for me to fix these problems.  It was probably the only place where I have seen such a consistent and organized process where each person had to be the PM for his/her fix.  As soon as I started working on each problem, another person would interrupt me and try to persuade me to work on his/her problem instead.  Needless to say, it was hard to make any progress on any of the issues, with the constant interruptions.  However, each day, it was the same thing.

Somehow, the system at this place was set up to reward the “squeaky wheels”. If you didn’t squeak often enough, you didn’t get any grease.  So, the whole building was a disorganized orchestra of squeaking.  It desperately needed to change.

My boss had taken-over the department a few months before I arrived. She already seemed to have a feeling about how normal/healthy the current process was.  When I went to her office to discuss it, I didn’t even have to finish my sentence.  She was waiting for this conversation.  It was time to enact some changes.

Making a Change

The new process went like this:

  1. If someone came to me, I sent them to my boss
  2. My boss put the work/request into a work queue (initially, a SharePoint “to do” list).
  3. Once it was on the list, I determined a duration of each task
  4. Once I set a duration, my boss would set the priority
  5. Each day, I would work on the highest priority items
  6. At the end of the day, I would review and score any new items
  7. Once per week, my boss would evaluate and re-shuffle the list

Short-term Results

I’d like to tell you that everyone thought “the new process” was the right answer, but ehem, that is not even close.

The old process had rewarded people who were squeaky wheels, and who were resourceful and persuasive. Everyone at that company had been conditioned to follow the old process. Nearly everyone had developed their persuasion skills very well and applied those skills with diligence.   The natural response to our new process, was to squeak louder, and use more persuasion.  Repeat, until you got some grease.

To make our changes stick, we had to stand our ground. We would listen to reason, but any campaigning would be dismissed, because it was only a tactic and not business-driven.  No amount of song-and-dance would sway us.  Pretty quickly we were labeled as heartless monsters. Clearly, it had to be because we hated nice people.  Every ounce of it obviously was personal.  The terrorists have won, etc.

Weathering The Storm

As we focused on the most pervasive and widespread problems, the problems seemed to get resolved at an increasingly rapid rate. Fewer interruptions meant more time focusing on fixes, rather than negotiating and tap-dancing.  Pretty soon, we had cut the list in half, and then half again.  Unfortunately, some of the bugs did not rate high enough to get serviced.  In fact, some of the apps were cancelled, removed or shut-down.  You can imagine the waves of emotion that roared when we did this.

In the end, we built a better IT department with systems based-on business-need rather than emotion. There were still a few people who tested the waters occasionally and tried being squeaky wheels.  My boss and I actually turned that into a metric.  We expected a specific level of squeakiness within the organization.  It needed to be “not too low and not too high”.  When it was “just right”, we knew we were operating at a high level of efficiency and professionalism.

The net take-away from the experience is that there should be some wheels squeaking, occasionally.  You cannot please everyone.  Therefore, if there is no squeaking, you might not be making all of the right decisions and moving your timelines and projects with enough aggression.  Move closer to the edge. Squeeze some of your timelines a little.  Push a feature or two, out-of-scope.  This is how you tune your team for higher efficiency and better ROI.  Of course, “less-is-more”, but likewise, “none” is too little.

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About Tim Golisch

I'm a geek. I do geeky things.
This entry was posted in IT Horror Stories, IT Psychology, Lessons Learned, Methodology, Professionalism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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