Sunday, January 25, 2009

Mixing it up with minions

Evil minion

For a long time, my corporate nemesis was the gatekeeper and the auditor. While I recognize the need for rules and procedures, documentation and compliance, it’s never come naturally to me.  Too often, the tasks, and the people charged with ensuring my timely adherence, were simply barriers to creativity and progress.

As I’ve matured, my perspective improved because I’ve worked with some outstanding quality and regulatory people who were genuine partners in getting things done well.

But nothing can redeem the evil minion.

Once I’ve negotiated scope and resources with a project or department leader, a detail person is assigned to do the actual work.  The minion takes the assignment to acquire credit and assets, focused only on impressing their overlord.  This, in turn, is a huge frustration as the partnership turns asymmetric.

One minion asked me for detailed background on a scientific point related to our project.  I prepared the summary papers and worked with independent sources to get them reviewed. Later, I discovered that the report was passed on to their boss as their own work, without thanks or attribution.

Another asked me to prepare detailed background on a prior project that I’d been involved with, weeks of work finding and organizing archived source materials.  As it turned out, the departmental review only touched on about 10% of the work; the rest disappeared into the minion’s files in case they were asked questions.

Yet another kept my project hopelessly hung up in testing; every estimate of time to completion was missed, every week.  I discovered that the minion had recognized that his boss would hold me accountable for any failure, and so had adopted a strategy of telling his department head whatever schedule he wanted to hear.

When the game was revealed, my first thought used to be to take the minion to task, but this is both unsatisfying and counterproductive.  On special occasions, I’ve happily mentored the minion to self-destruction.  But generally I’ve found that it’s best to just write them off: politely stop feeding them and constructively replace them.

Reflecting on the experiences, I realize that most of the problems that I had with auditors and gatekeepers were likely also minion encounters; people playing their own “how high can you jump” game when their boss gave them an assignment.

And I can see where one particularly bad boss was actually a minion of a minion: the boss’s lack of confidence leading to jitters throughout their staff, stirring the entire minion anthill into frenzied subservience.

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