I recently got into minor war of words with a co-worker regarding the proper solution to a problem with one of my products. As an aside, let me say that email is never ever ever never ever the right way to resolve controversy. Too much subtly is lost when you’re YELLING IN ALL CAPS. Don’t waste your time solving problems in email… stand up… walk down the hall… and look the person in the eye. You’ll live longer.
What was intriguing about my email repartee with the co-worker was that we weren’t disagreeing about whether or not we should do something about the problem. We’re arguing about how much we should do. The disagreement reminded me there are two distinct personalities when it comes to devising solutions to problems: Incrementalists and Completionists.
Incrementalists are realists. They have a pretty good idea of what is achievable given a problem to solve, a product to ship. They’re intimately aware of how many resources are available, where the political landscape is at any given moment, and they know who knows what. They tend to know all the secrets and they like to be recognized for that fact.
Completionists are dreamers. They have a very good idea of how to solve a given problem and that answer is SOLVE IT RIGHT. Their mantra is, “If you’re going to spend the time to solve a problem, solve it in a manner that you aren’t going to be solving it AGAIN in three months.” I used to think that architects were the only real Completionists in an organization, but I was wrong. Architects are the only RECOGNIZED Completionists in the company, but the personality is hiding all over the place.
Rewind to my email situation. The actual problem is irrelevant, but here’s the background. The co-worker discovered a problem in our product and reported it. I responded and suggested an minor improvement which didn’t solve the core problem, but was achievable given our schedule. The co-worker responded with “Why do this if we don’t solve the problem”. I responded, “We don’t have time to solve it and something is better than nothing.” Co-worker, “This is less than nothing!” Insert stunned silence.
Remember, the co-worker identified (correctly) the original problem. Why in the world don’t they see the value of my solution? The reason is, this is a Incrementalist doing battle with a Completionist. This isn’t the battle of wrong versus right, it’s the battle of right versus right. Bizarre.
How does anything get done with Incrementalists and Completionists arguing about degrees of rightness? Well, first, limber Incrementalists can switch teams. They’re opportunists and when they see that acting like a Completionist is a good move and, more importantly, it’s an achievable move, they’ll step up to the Completionist plate. Once they’re there, it’s likely they’ll engage a Completionist to do the heavy lifting, but the Incrementalist will drive because THEY CAN SEE THE PLAN FROM SOUP TO NUTS. This is a big deal for Incrementalists because they normally can’t see past their next meeting… getting them on-board with the “big picture” gives them a sense of foundation they don’t usually have.
Conversely, effective Completionists know when to let the Incrementalists poke around and do their thing. Completionists recognize where this Incrementalists with their rapid-fire buzz-speak fit into the corporate culture and they embrace their mania because they know it’ll help with their Completionist agenda. This, too, is a big deal because Completionists spend much of their lives shaking their heads, staring at the floor, muttering, “Boy, could they fuck this up more?”
A healthy population of both Incrementalists and Completionists is essential to a corporate agenda. It’s not only because they both represent groups that “get stuff done”, it’s also because they are going to argue, but it’s the argument you want your teams to have. It’s not “Should We or Shouldn’t We”, it’s “Let’s do this thing, let’s make sure it gets done, and let’s make sure it get’s done right.”