Management There is no magic

The Guard

The Old Guard is a set of humans who inhabit the early days of a start-up. As I’ve written about before, they define the culture in both obvious and non-obvious ways. Simply: the way they act and how they treat each other disproportionately affects the values of the company.

The Old Guard gets to be the Old Guard because they are successful and the team grows large enough to allow for the existence of the New Guard. The New Guard is not initially defined by their ability, age, or experience; they are defined by when they are hired. They are a population who was not there in the formative early days of the company, and they start their jobs at a distinct cultural disadvantage.

I’ve arrived at my last three jobs at roughly the same growth inflection point: the arrival, education, and integration of the New Guard. My job places me directly and strategically between these two populations and is the reason that much of my writing for the past decade debugs and documents how each group works, what they value, and how they interact (or fail to).

And in each company, the following seminal meeting has occurred…

The Disaster Meeting

A disaster has occurred. The specifics aren’t important. What is important is that neither the Old Guard nor the New Guard predicted the disaster, everyone was surprised, so someone called a meeting. I can tell the magnitude of the disaster because everyone is invited: Old Guard and New.

The meeting begins. The Old Guard as they always do starts talking confidently about disaster remediation steps. Other Old Guard chime in with helpful suggestions, someone steps up to be White Board Operator. We are getting shit done people.

After 10 minutes, a New Guard engineer, Jordan raises her hand and asks, “Can we go around the table and introduce ourselves?” It is this moment that makes this meeting memorable.

The silence is deafening. It’s the Old Guard realizing there are strangers in the room. That’s never happened before. It’s the New Guard breathing a mental sigh of relief, “Finally, I am going to figure out who these people are and what they do.”

And, finally, it’s me realizing, “Oh, these people don’t know each other. They’re not a team, yet.”

The Productive Team Rules

The core attributes of a productive team are so simple and obvious that we forget them. It’s like breathing, an act so essential that we forget we do it, but it remains essential to our existence.

A productive team knows itself. They know each other’s names, and they understand and appreciate each other’s respective strengths, weaknesses, and motivations.

With this essential understanding in place and with practice, a healthy team effortlessly and without ego call on each other when they need help. Then they do not care who gets the credit for the work they want to get the work done well by the most qualified humans with the best judgment.

This is a team that trusts itself and it is likely that you’ve spent most of your career not on this type of team. I’m sorry. Let’s talk about some of the reasons this hasn’t happened, yet.

Learned Helplessness

The acquired mindset of the New Guard is one of disappointment. They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t believe in the dream that was built by the Old Guard. Now that they’ve been here a bit, they don’t feel a part of the solution. They are distant observers. They watch the Old Guard’s borderline magical ability get things done (There is no magic). Each time they attempt to bring a new thing to the table, the Old Guard quickly points out “We already solved for that three months ago” (They haven’t. They solved for one case… not all cases.) The New Guard do know people’s name, but they don’t know who they are.

When you combine the New Guard’s basic lack of familiarity with the people and the product along with the Old Guard’s incessant repetition of some version of the mantra “Sink or Swim!”, the entire team enters a phase of learned helplessness where their respective rallying cries are:

• The Old Guard: “I feel empowered to fix everything.”
• The New Guard: “I don’t know how to fix anything.”

And things need fixing. Things are breaking in increasingly unfamiliar ways… faster. The Old Guard’s facade of calmly informed control weakens as they realize their ability to fix the things is limited by their number and they don’t ask for help from the New Guard because, as the New Guard, they don’t know who these people are.

The myriad ways a group of well-intentioned humans prevents themselves from trusting each other is just… mind-boggling.

Trust Falls for Everyone!

You know what the most ridiculed idea is for an offsite? Trust falls. The idea is that the team pairs up and each group performs an exercise where one person faces away from the other person, they fold their arms, and they fall back, where, hopefully, the other person catches them.

Trust falls are the rallying cry for the awkward offsite, but what makes them awkward? Why are they ridiculed? What is it about this exercise that makes them funny? Trust? What’s funny about that? Nothing. We giggle about trust falls because we don’t really know the complex mechanics of building trust in a work setting.

The Old Guard trust each other because through a combination of luck, smarts, blood, sweat, and tears they managed to bring a new thing into the world. Most teams fail at this effort, but this team did not. They think and talk fondly of those years now. The tales they tell of those formative times are becoming the myth. We were drunk at a bar, and Samuel threw out this throwaway feature idea. That is where this multi-billion dollar business came from… Sam’s drunk thought.

The Old Guard does not tell the story of when no one talked to each other for a week because of a disagreement over architecture. They don’t talk about those long 72 hours where if funding didn’t show up, they were done. They don’t tell these stories because they hurt to tell, they are shitty awful stories, but they are as important as the myths because they resulted in the construction of trust within the team. If we can get through that; we can get through anything.

Our fundamental discomfort with relying on another human being – NO QUESTIONS ASKED – is one reason the Old Guard and the New Guard exist. These two populations exist because they have not yet gone through the critical and often painful process of building trust.

But then Jordan raised her hand…

Never Waste a Disaster

“Can we go around the table and introduce ourselves?”

I jump in quickly because I’ve been in this meeting before and added, “Thanks, Jordan. Can we get your name, what you do here, and why you’re in this meeting?”

The disaster that forced this meeting is the beginning of a story about trust. The reasons this disaster occurred and the work we’ll do preventing future disasters from occurring is less important than the fact that we are doing the work together.

There is no Old Guard or New Guard. There is just The Guard. What are we guarding? Why are we here? We’re building approachable tools for humans to ask hard questions of their data. We’re building an infinite catalog of beautiful ideas. We’re building a new way of working together as a team. Yeah, we’re guarding those dreams, but we’re also going to learn about guarding and protecting each other because that is what teams do when they trust each other.

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6 Responses

  1. A very insightful read. This pretty much sums up what I’d imagine a start up to be.

  2. Armin 1 week ago

    The quandary that I faced in one startup: the “old guard” don’t know the product. Alternatively put the product they have been mind is not the one that exists nor is it the one that customers want. The “new guard” give the “old guard” the benefit of the doubt for a long time and become disillusioned/demotivated. The old guard doesn’t like the new hires implications and …

    Of course it doesn’t always pan out in this way but one or two anecdotes suggests it is not altogether uncommon.

  3. Leigh 7 days ago

    Great piece. This hit the mark in many more ways than one. The team I am currently in has absolutely zero trust in each other, and a magnitude of ego against one another.

  4. The armed forces have strategies for integrating old/new guards. Tends to involve what they call ‘training’ and ‘exercises’. Not sure how you would provide similar experiences in commercial concerns.

  5. Michael, Thank you again for your words of wisdom. Never stop!

    P.S. On this page the padding for the Name, Email and website fields in FF is too much. style.css – change padding: 15px 9px; -to- padding: 5px 9px; -full code below-

    .comment-form input, .comment-form textarea {
    width: 100%;
    display: block;
    margin-bottom: 13px;
    font-family: “Sentinel SSm A”, “Sentinel SSm B”, Georgia, “Times New Roman”, Times, serif;
    background: none;
    display: block;
    border-radius: 0;
    box-shadow: none;
    color: #474747;
    outline: none;
    box-sizing: border-box;
    padding: 5px 9px;
    border: 1px solid #dddfdf;
    font-size: 14px;
    box-sizing: border-box;
    height: 32px;
    line-height: 19px;
    }

    -Cheers Josh

  6. cmdrlinux 5 days ago

    We make fun of trust falls because there is no trust required. There’s never any doubt whether or not they’ll catch you. It’s meaningless.