A Crippling Comment

Dwayne Phillips

Revision History
Revision 1.0June 2008

"Dwayne, you're good at taking an existing project and executing it. Jim is good at creating projects. I feel it is the best thing to team the two of you."

This is what a senior-level manager named Patrick told late one afternoon several years ago. I am sure he meant this as a complement - something to inspire me on a new job. I felt crippled and left the job within a month.

Where did we disconnect? What happened? What can we learn from this?

First, where did we disconnect?

Patrick had seen me execute several existing troubled projects. I dug into each project, learned its history, met the people, and worked hard. Months of diligent effort changed the direction of each of these projects. I felt good about what I had done, and our customer was satisfied with the result.

Our first disconnect was that Patrick felt that executing projects was what I was good at and loved. I was pretty good at that task and I enjoyed succeeding at it, but I wanted to do something else. I wanted to start a few projects and experience the challenges and opportunities that would afford. Patrick never asked me what I wanted to do. He assumed that my past was what I wanted for the future.

Our second disconnect was that Patrick assumed I would like working with Jim. I didn't feel that way. Jim had seen started several projects that I observed from a distance. Other people had to work slavishly to rescue those projects. I didn't want to clean up another mess.

Second, what happened?

Jim wasn't a planner. He could grasp concepts and sell them to upper managers. Concepts, however, don't bring people, technology, and process together. Someone has to think through the implications of a concept and work the details. Jim didn't do that. Senior managers assigned one person after another to support Jim.

I heard the senior managers tell these support people, "You record all the action items that Jim creates in meetings and see that they are done. You create a plan to build what Jim sees as products. You fix the documents that Jim drafts. You, you, you...carry out Jim's concept."

A major problem was that Jim changed his concept weekly. He created action items only to delete them three days later. The products changed weekly, so the project was planned over again every week. People couldn't understand Jim's document drafts well enough to fix them, and when the documents were fixed they were made irrelevant by a new concept.

As I mentioned earlier, I gave up after a month. I moved to another job. A few months later, Patrick replaced Jim with someone who modified one of Jim's concepts and managed an 18-month project that delivered a product people used.

Finally, what can we learn from this?

One thing is to try to understand how a person hears a compliment. Patrick's  "executing projects" was my "cleaning up a mess." Patrick's "I'm teaming you with Jim" was my "I want you to clean up after Jim."

Another thing is to ask people what they want to do on their next assignment. Patrick was acting in my best interest. He, however, assumed he knew what I wanted. Simply ask.

Further, try not to limit a person with a compliment. Instead of "Dwayne, you're good at taking an existing project and executing it." Try, "Dwayne, one thing you're good at is taking an existing project and executing it."

The "one thing" phrase leaves room for the person to be good at others things as well. It doesn't fold the person neatly into a little box. I often hear us managers proclaim that we want people to think outside the box, yet we place people inside boxes like "project starter" and "project executor."

I believe that as managers we should compliment people who accomplish the work. Take care with compliments. They can cripple people or at least chase them away.