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Engaged Detachment

“You perceived it [the wall], so it was there. But now you have accepted the unacceptable, and the wall no longer blocks your path.”

— the Ancient One, in “Doctor Strange” (2007)

Workplace Enlightenment

A few years ago, I had a bad boss, a boss so bad that people with decades of experience said that this was the worst boss they ever had, someone who consistently and continuously drove the best talent out of the organization. My point in bringing this up is not to complain but rather to explain how I achieved a certain type of workplace enlightenment that I call “Engaged Detachment”.

When you go into work, you want to do a good job. If you are an individual contributor, then doing a good job is in your best interests. If you are a manager, then sometimes doing a good job means doing things that are not in your best interests, or even your manager’s, but is in the best interests of the organization as an enterprise. I touched upon this in an earlier post. This is a tough spot to be in. It’s tough because most managers (and people) do things for selfish reasons (I suppose that’s what “rational behavior” is, after all). Such managers will never do anything that doesn’t benefit themselves. If you suggest that a typical manager do anything that limits their power or influence, even if it benefits the organization as a whole, odds are that you will be shot down. It’s a shame because in the long run, doing things in the interests of the enterprise will ultimately benefit everyone.

In such a situation, you have two main strategies:

  1. Salute your boss, request direction, and carry out your instructions.
  2. Fight with your boss, reject direction, and ignore your instructions.

While it may be fun to pick the second strategy, this is the surest way to burn through all of your political capital and then be fired. Even if you do things for the benefit of the organization and others see that, a bad boss can subtly ruin your reputation and take you down. There is no way to make the second strategy work. An organization cannot function if everyone (or even a few people) worked this way. The fundamental problem is that an organization with bad managers and bad leaders will be a bad organization. There isn’t anything you can do about this — unless you’re a stellar leader coming in as the next CEO (or if you start your own company 🙂 ).

The first strategy is hard to swallow because it can destroy your soul. It can lead to frustration, unhappiness, and stress. It can spill over into the rest of your life and impact your family, your friends, and your children. It can ruin your life. It can tempt you to complain to your co-workers, or talk behind your manager’s back, or complain to your staff. This is not productive. This creates a vicious cycle of negativity. At some point this will probably lead to the second strategy. So what should you do?

Engaged Detachment

Being stuck in this predicament, and being, I think, a thoughtful person :-), I spent a lot of time reflecting on what I should do. After a few weeks, the phrase “engaged detachment” popped into my mind. At first, I dismissed this as a nonsense phrase like “dry water” or “popular engineer”, but the more I thought about it, the more it began to make sense. In order to properly function in an organization that doesn’t make sense, you have to be engaged in your work, but you must also be detached from it; if you get too wrapped up in your work, you’ll go nuts. You have to somehow detach yourself from your job in order maintain your self. I touched upon this briefly in “You aren’t what you do (for a paycheck)“. If you can do this, you will have reached some kind of workplace enlightenment.

The first rule of Fight Club is…

I recently watched “Fight Club” for the first time. Not sure how I missed it in ’99, but I watched it now because Chris Brogan posted that it was his favorite movie — and because he had a picture of his DVD shelf that included “Iron Man”, “Gotham Knight” (I’m sure “Doctor Strange” was somewhere to the left). Anyways, in the middle of “Fight Club”, Brad Pitt’s character proclaims “You are not your job!”. That’s a good mantra.

Moment of Enlightenment

For me, realizing “engaged detachment” was really just a moment in time. I could see how I could do my job without destroying my self, and I began to practice this but it wasn’t something that I wanted to do forever. This momentary enlightenment — a flash of insight into the world — offers you something of enormous value. It lets you make sense of where you are so you can take another step on your life’s road. For me, that step was engineering an exit plan so I could start a company that would fix a big, deep problem that every organization faces but which no one knew how to fix, the problem that led me to “engaged detachment” in the first place.

My company has a solution to this problem that I’m getting ready to take out to the world. I’ll keep you posted.


If anyone has any thoughts on any of this, please share!


5 Principles for Project Success

Last week, I gave a 2-day workshop on project management. I focused on what I call the Five Principles for Project Success. It’s been my experience that when any of these principles are violated, a project is headed for trouble. Conversely, if a project is in trouble, reviewing these principles is critical for recovery.

1. Purpose

Everyone involved in a project at every level should always know the project purpose: who cares about a project and why is it important. People should know the project drivers (e.g., cost, quality, target date, feature set, stability, usability, performance, flexibility, accessibility, …) and how the drivers are ranked. This is the only way to rationally make tradeoffs within and across projects.

The project purpose is frequently overlooked because we tend to focus on the work that needs to be done and often get started on it without asking why. When this happens, we tend to work on tasks we want to work on, not necessarily what’s most important for the client/customer and stakeholders. We don’t move the project in the right direction, if in any direction at all. There’ll be plenty of motion, but not much progress. At some point (when the budget or schedule gets tight), we’ll have an emergency meeting to figure out what should be done and finally the project purpose will be recollected or even spelled out for the first time. Great, but too late. There won’t be room to recover.

The project purpose should be defined up front, and, again, everyone should know it. The purpose should be captured in something like a “Project Charter”. Johanna Rothman describes these charters in her book Manage It!.

2. Planning

The most famous quote on planning is probably from Eisenhower: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything”. Ike said it in the midst of the Cold War, but it’s a timeless observation. When engaged in planning, we’re considering options. We think through risks and how we might address them. We lay things out, we make assumptions, we make choices. At the end of this we have a plan. However, no matter how thorough our plan or how much thought we’ve put into it, the plan can only reflect what we know at a given point in time. Things change. We may run into a set of unanticipated problems or perhaps the risks we did consider didn’t really have the impact we feared. When this happens, we should adjust the plan. We should re-plan.

Without planning, projects will be left to chance. Risks will come as a surprise and quickly derail a project. People will be constantly shooting from the hip, making decisions based on urgency instead of value, reacting to events instead of anticipating them.

Planning is something we should do throughout a project. When a plan is no longer useful, we should draft a new one. The plan itself is only a snapshot of what we knew at a point in time.

3. Tracking

To make rational decisions about projects, you need to track project data. Period. This isn’t something you get from chatting with someone. When you ask “How are things going?”, you’ll get a response like “Pretty good. I think we’re going to be done with this next phase soon”. What does that mean? What does that tell you? When someone says something like that, I hear “We’re not done yet”. You need a finer level of status than that. You should be able to answer questions like this at any point during a project:

  • Is the project running late? By how much?
  • Is the project over budget? By how much?
  • Which tasks can be started now? Are any of them late off the bat?
  • Is the project resource-bound? Where are the bottlenecks
  • What are people working on?

If you don’t have tracking, you won’t know if your projects are in trouble until the end. Key decisions will be delayed. Teams will miss important dates. The sense of urgency that should have come earlier in the project will come too late.

Tracking project data can be straightforward and easy if you have the right tools. If you set up your projects efficiently, tracking them basically boils down to logging effort left and effort spent. It can be that simple (with the right tools :-)).

4. Demos

Demos are the real measure of progress. If you can show something working, then you’ve actually done something. If you can’t demo anything, then you really don’t have anything of value. Demos are great because they expose assumptions. They ensure that details are looked after. They get everyone on the same page, something especially important when there are several teams involved.

If you don’t do demos, teams that can work separately will — and they’ll work in isolation. Work won’t be integrated until the very end of the project. Everyone will feel their part is on track when, in reality, much of the work is yet to come. When integration finally does arrive, it will take much longer than everyone expects. There will be unanticipated rework, cost, and stress.

Demos are something we should always plan for in our projects. They can be fun. They give people a sneak peek at something that no one else has ever seen. It’s a time for teams to get together and show off, when executives get to drop by and see progress, a time to re-sync before moving forward again.

5. Consistency

Consistency is about predictable execution. It’s about dispatching work efficiently and having clean handoffs across teams. When you have consistency, your organization runs like a well-oiled machine. This can only happen when roles and responsibilities are clear, when processes are well-defined, and when people have the skillsets to play their roles.

If you don’t have consistency, you’ll waste a lot of time reinventing process on the fly. Tasks will be dropped, especially across team boundaries. There will be gaps in process, gaps in task assignments, and gaps in skillsets. Execution will stall and be unpredictable.

To become consistent you need to think through your processes and capture them in some form. Swimlane charts are a good tool to use here because they force you to think not only about what needs to be done, but also who should be responsible for it and what sequence the work should follow. It can be an interesting exercise to get people together to sketch out a process because it will quickly become obvious that everyone had a slightly different view of the roles and responsibilities. Getting clarity around this early-on improves consistency of execution.


These are the principles that I’ve found to be crucial for project success. Time and time again, these are what I point to when projects go wrong. Of course, there are other principles “embedded” in these five (e.g., communication runs through everything above). If you can think of a principle not covered above, please feel free to comment!

Forever will it dominate your destiny…

Once you start down the dark path…

Becoming a manager for the first time is exciting — probably one of the most exciting moments of your career. For me, this happened 7 years ago (I remember because it coincided with my first son being born). I was happy, nervous, and scared. The sun seemed brighter. My shoes seemed to have springs. It was thrilling because now I could…um…now I could…uh…

Why do you want to be a manager?

Every few months, there’s an article on Slashdot about an engineer who’s just been promoted to manager and is asking advice on how to play this new role. People usually say things like “learn how to manage projects” or “stay out of the developers’ way” or “make sure your hair doesn’t get too pointy” (i.e., don’t confuse what you do with who you are). I think this advice is fine, but the best thing to do is to reflect on why you want this. Why do people want to be managers? Sometimes it is for the power. You have the power to affect people. You can tell your staff what to do, when it should be done, how it should be done. You can judge people, in fact, you are expected to judge people. Sometimes it is about the money (though if money is what you want, you should really go into Sales). Sometimes it is just about the next step in your career. I’m not sure I had a clear reason — I suppose it was a little of all of these things. Mostly I just wanted to try something new.

Why should you want to be a manager?

You’ll have some selfish reasons for wanting to manage and that’s fine, but you should have some more altruistic ones too. Early on, my “non-selfish” goal was to make my team the best in the company. I feel I achieved this and people across the company told me so. However, I eventually came to realize this was really just another selfish goal. I was essentially viewing my team as an extension of myself and was trying to outperform everyone else. While we had great internal cohesion and high morale, we were viewed as arrogant and unapproachable — and people across the company told me so 🙂


The degree to which my approach had not been the right one crystallized for me when I read Peter Drucker’s article on being an effective executive. Your primary goal as a manager, he argues, shouldn’t be about yourself or your team or your boss or the board or even the shareholders; it should always be about “What is right for the enterprise“. To me this means promoting the long-term health and success of the organization. It means doing your part to ensure that the organization stays true to its purpose and its greater goal. Ultimately the success of the enterprise should, in some way, large or small, improve the world.

What’s right for the enterprise. You should want to be a manager because you think you have the skills and the vision to contribute to this long-term process. And this phrase should be your management mantra.

And, hey, it even feels better. After all, there’s no dark side in Star Trek 🙂