Staying Sane: Kill Some Puppies

by abclarke

(5d of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

Trying to stay sane as a manager? This is the third step in doing that.

Back on the Farm

I grew up on a farm in Ireland where at one time or another we raised cows, chickens, rabbits, turkeys, peacocks, goats and pigs. Every one of those was a cash crop, and while it cost us money to feed them, my father knew that ultimately we’d sell them at market for a profit so it was worth the short term cost.

But we also had dogs, and while arguably the dogs could assist in hunting, the truth is we kept them purely for companionship.

When I was about 8 my father got a puppy(1) for each of his four children. But no one in our backwoods part of Ireland could afford to pay a vet to neuter dogs. As a result, by the time I was eleven, we had 22 dogs on the farm(2). You couldn’t move in the farmyard without stepping on one of them.

To someone not familiar with living on a farm, this might even seem cute. But on a farm that every year struggled to make a profit (and therefore feed our family), these dogs presented a real problem: every day they drank an entire barrel of milk, and given our farm only produced 30 barrels a day, they were consuming over 3% of our dairy output. In good years, my father would only eke a small profit from his farm, so literally these dogs were threatening to eat us out of house and home.

Something had to be done. The question was what? We couldn’t give away the dogs; there were already too many dogs on farms in Ireland. In reality there were only three options:

Feed all the puppies

Certainly the best short term option for the dogs, but bad in the long term for them. If the farm went out of business, then all the dogs would starve and die. Not good.

Starve all the puppies

This would potentially keep the farm profitable and therefore in a position to starve the dogs for a long time, but would ultimately lead to sickly dogs spreading disease everywhere. Not good.

Kill some puppies

A horrible thought, but for the surviving dogs, it meant sufficient food, and for the farm it meant survival as well.

Ultimately there was no choice, and so my father, against the cries of all his sons, made the only rational choice.

He killed some puppies(3).

Managing a Puppy Farm

So, what does this have to do with staying sane as a manager? Last week I talked about how to do less more, but pointed out it would require you to not do some things that are on your list of responsibilities.

But in a management context, it’s hard to say no.

A former VP at Tellme explained it like this to me: every day you come to work and you have 10 different things you have to do but can only get 8 done. It’s like you have 10 puppies, all looking up at you with their big eyes, and begging to be fed. And the reality is you only have enough food for 8. What do you do?

In order to stay sane you need to do the same responsible thing my father did; you need to kill some puppies. Why is that?

Well, let’s look at the same three options again:

Feed all the puppies

You could increase the amount of time you work so that you can spend time with all your tasks. This will work in the short term, but you’ll exhaust yourself very quickly and this can lead to burnout, which ends up hurting all the things you work on. Not a good option.

Starve all the puppies

You could spend a little time on each task, but not as much as necessary to do a good job. But, you’ll find pretty quickly that that will results in things getting half done or worse, and you’ll feel pressured to spend more time fixing problems that came about because you didn’t do it right the first time. Not a good option.

Kill some puppies

This means you decide not to do some things, and you tell people in advance. In the short term they are disappointed, but they adapt quickly, and soon you find you can spend more time on the things that matter. In other words, short-term pain but long-term effectiveness.

The only rational choice is to either feed a puppy, or kill the puppy, but never starve the puppy. In other words, either fully work on a task or problem, or don’t work on it. But don’t ever try to half-do it. Again, this idea isn’t unique to me (IBM’s management team used the expression “feed a monkey or shoot a monkey, but never starve a monkey”).

Assuming I’ve convinced you that you need to NOT DO some tasks, then the question becomes how do you not do something when you have lots of puppy owners yelling at you to feed their puppies. Here’s the ways that have worked for me.

Know Your Puppy Owners

The first trick here is to know your puppy owners. Make sure you’ve build strong relationships with any decision makers who are going to depend on you, outside the context of just your job responsibilities. If you’re given a big project that they depend on, take them to lunch first and get to know them as individuals before you have to tell them no. Find out about their families, and their lives. Share information about yourself. Get to know them as a person, and help them understand that you are a human being too – not just a resource in another team.

You can’t always tell when you get a project that you’ll need to reprioritize it later, so always invest in getting to know the people upfront. Ultimately if you need to reschedule or renegotiate a deliverable, it’s much easier if you actually like your counterpart and he or she likes you.

As a side note, don’t try to build a relationship in anticipation of saying no. In other words, if you already know you’re going to tell that person no, but don’t have a relationship yet, it’s too late to try building one. Instead, you need to recruit other supporters who have relationships with that decision-maker, and you have to fall back on the other options here.

Find Three Ways to Kill a Puppy

Sometimes you can tell people no directly, but in business that’s often not an option. So instead, fall back on this rule. Never say “no” directly; instead present your decision maker with at least three solutions they can choose from to move forward. This rule was explained to me as follows:

One is an ultimatum; two is a dilemma; three are options!

When you have to renege on a commitment, don’t just tell the person who you have to disappoint “no”. That raises their defenses and gets into a pissing match. Instead before you say no, think from their perspective (which is why you should know your puppy owner first) and try to figure out at least three different options you could offer them. Sure, they won’t be as good as had you gotten what they wanted done, but if you’re disappointing a higher-up decision maker, but you present them with three options to move forward, your discussion will center around your options (so you’re controlling the fall out) and the higher-up will usually appreciate the effort you made to think of solutions(5).

Good executives know that the unexpected happens and that some things don’t get done the way they were planned, but reward their managers to think through solutions to get around the unexpected.

Never Kill a Puppy by Surprise

Peter Drucker said:

Never give your manager a bad surprise. And there is no such thing as a good surprise.

This dictum is a great thing to remember when dealing with your own manager, but it especially applies to saying no. Never inform someone that a deliverable or project was missed after the fact. If you do, you will lose their trust very quickly (you didn’t even give them an ultimatum). This means keep good track of who you owe what to (I use the task list I talked about last week) and every day, figure out who you’re going to disappoint.

People don’t like to get bad news, but they really appreciate it when given the news with enough time that they can react to it.

Kill Puppies in Public

This last rule is extremely important. Assuming you’ve informed all affected decision makers, given them their options, and guided them to agree to a solution, you must make sure to publically let folks know the puppy is dead.

Why is this? During renegotiations to “kill a puppy” your stakeholders will usually agree to an option; that’s because they are in crisis mode. Hard decisions get made when folks are in crisis mode.

But once they feel the crisis has passed, there is a very human tendency to fall back on the way things were. That might include their assuming “oh, Art couldn’t do it this one time, but he’ll get it done the next time.” As a result you may find your puppy coming back to life over and over again.

To minimize the chance of this happening, document the decision and communicate widely that the puppy is dead. If a project just got killed, e-mail out the decision in a short e-mail to all the project teams and stakeholders. If you’ve just agreed to divest some responsibilities and some other team agreed to take them, announce it at the largest meeting you can find, and take questions with your other stakeholders there. Once you’ve publically declared something dead, and your stakeholders have not objected in public (and how can they since they just agreed to the same thing in private) it becomes much more difficult for them to back out of their agreement.

Of all the rules for killing puppies, this one is most often ignored, and yet it’s probably most important. Like the rest of the principles of transparency that apply to Naked Management, transparency in killing puppies makes you even more effective.

Finally

But here’s the truth. If you do the things I suggest to stay sane – love thyself; do less more; and kill some puppies – your life will become more livable and you will become a better manager. But you won’t become a great manager. That’s because there is one last thing you need to do, and that’s “lead, don’t manage.” Which is the last (finally) rant in this series of rants, and I’ll talk about it next week.

– Art

(1) This story is actually mostly true, with one slight detail switch. In reality, we had 22 cats, not dogs. But I’m changed the story to puppies, because when I learned this analogy for the management principle from a former VP at Tellme (now working here) her expression was “killing puppies.” By the way, I’m confident she didn’t mean this definition of “killing puppies.”

(2) It appears that Irish dogs (well, cats) are Catholic.

(3) As I mentioned above, the actual events happened with cats, not dogs. And technically my dad didn’t kill them; instead he gave them all away to a factory that produced pig food. Now, before you get too appalled let me explain. He thought he’d have to kill a couple of them because no one usually would adopt 18+ cats, but when discussing it over beers with a friend who owned the pig factory his friend suggested a solution: The pig farm had a big problem with rats eating all their pig food and my dad’s friend realized that feeding the cats milk, if they took care of the rats, would cost him less than the lost food. In this case, a good solution was found at the last moment, but the fact is my dad had to get rid of the cats. As a manager, you also need to get rid of the puppies or kittens you can’t feed. (4)

(4) OK, funny (and still true) story here. Two years later the pig factory owner convinced another farmer to give him about 5 extra dogs he had. Why? Well, it turns out our cats had figured out that there was an easier way to get fed than catch rats all day; the cats just started eating the pig food. Instead of killing the cats, the farmer decided to get dogs to chase them away. I don’t know what happened after that, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the dogs started eating the food and the factory-owner got a horse to chase the dogs away. In a way, the pig farmer was just like the old lady who swallowed a fly.

(5) By the way, be open to fourth and fifth options that become apparent as you discuss things with the decision maker. By already bringing 3 to the table, the decision maker will often use their powers to come up with options that are even better for both of you.