Tech Life Paranoia is a lot of work

The Screw-Me Scenario

It had all the signs of a good meeting. And I hate meetings. We were:

  • Talking about a product we loved
  • In great shape from a feature, quality, and schedule standpoint
  • A group that historically did not kick ass
  • A group that was kicking ass.

The slides looked great and the dry-run was flawless, so why hadn’t I slept in two nights?

I couldn’t sleep because I couldn’t see the Screw-Me.

You Might Be Lying

There’s an article to be written about the different kinds of meetings you’re going to be exposed to, but for now I want to talk about the executive cross-pollination communication clusterfuck. The point of this meeting is alignment. Big alignment. You’ve likely got several different groups who don’t normally spend a lot of time together being forced to sit in the same room so the execs can compare stories, measure reality, and figure out who is lying.

Before I explain how to get your head around this meeting, I want to talk about intent. Intent starts with a question: “Why does this meeting exist?” If you’re responsible for the presentation in this meeting, it exists because someone hates you.

It’s not personal hate. It’s professional hate and it’s exacerbated by a simple fact of organization: different groups speak different languages. Marketing speaks marketing, Legal speaks legal, and Engineering speaks engineering. There’s a fundamental communication breakdown somewhere in the building and someone is feeling wronged. They’re feeling bullied and since they don’t speak your dialect, they’re complaining up rather than across.

Normally, we deal with these Tower of Babel situations with the direct application of middle management, program managers, and other folks we pay big bucks to sit in meetings and translate between organizations. However, translation has not worked in this case. Someone high up on the org chart is hearing two very different stories and wondering which is true. Story reconciliation is certainly on the top of your list of items to resolve in this meeting, but job #1 is to figure out who hates you.

A Rubber Stamp Affair

For these critical meetings, your goal is to make them a rubber stamp affair. In the week before the meeting, you will have personally vetted your slides with each of the meeting invitees. You will have heard their concerns and made the appropriate adjustments to your deck. When the cross-pollination meeting arrives, your goal is an utter lack of drama and the finishing pronouncement of, “Yeah, we should do that and you know how.”

It never happens like this.

We’re “busy” and we have “things to do”, but mostly we’re “looking forward to blindsiding you with a Screw-Me at the least convenient moment in front of your executive team.”

It’s a disappointing trait of human nature that folks who feel wronged like to exact their revenge by flaunting their knowledge and dishing out the Screw-Me at the worst possible time, but, roll with it, you’re already a step ahead just expecting to be screwed. Besides, your enemy is working more with emotion than content and that will turn into their own personal Screw-Me Scenario at a later date.

Right now, your job is data.

No Guilt, No Doubts, No Fear

Ideas get better with eyeballs and before this meeting goes down, your job is to get as many eyeballs on your presentation as possible. You’re not going to get everyone in the meeting, but that’s not the point. The task is cross-pollination. Casting the information net as wide as possible and incessantly asking:

  • Does this make sense?
  • What is missing?
  • How am I going to get screwed?

I’ve got the Russian Lit Major for vetting my strategy; who do you have? I’m not talking about your boss or your co-worker; I’m talking about the person who can objectively look at your presentation and start poking holes. These people are rare because it’s another disappointing trait of human nature that we often think we’re doing each other a favor by listening well but then tell each other what we want to hear.

You lose yourself in any significant project. You’ve long forgotten your strategic initial assumptions, but, more importantly, you’ve forgotten what other people need because you’re furiously worrying about the daily tactical fire drills. A fresh perspective is a chance to test your entire idea and find the Screw-Me. You need someone to poke holes. You need to find and fill the gaps, and as each gap is filled, you’re going to build confidence around your pitch because, well, that’s one less potential Screw-Me entry point.

You’re not going to find them all. That’s ok, because in the process of constantly refining your pitch, you’re mentally refining yourself. You’re preparing yourself by seeing each of the different perspectives in your deck,. That improves the chances that you’ll know what to do when someone starts dishing out the hate.

Game On

The meeting’s on. You’re walking in with a head full of data and my hope is that through your constant cross-pollination you are legitimately the most informed person on this particular topic in the room. There’s still work to do.

Size the room. Who is here? What groups do they represent? What do they want? Any unexpected visitors? Really? Why would they randomly show up? Who brought them? What possible Screw-Mes could they represent? Ok, let’s get started.

Carry the room. Start your deck. You’ve got it memorized, right? They can tell this is the 32nd time you’ve done it, right? Good. It’s smooth. You’ve already diffused two Screw-Mes by slide 12. Really well done there. Amanda, you have a question?

Manage the room. Questions aren’t Screw-mes. You can clarify and stay on track. You know that Amanda is going to ask about hard data, right? Don’t let her take over the conversation. Say, “I’ve got your data in the appendix, but let me get through this first, ok?” Yeah, you just shut down a Senior VP. Nicely done. No way you can do that without serious confidence in your preparation. Yes, Tim?

Tim’s got the Screw-Me and you didn’t see it coming. Total left field. Completely valid strategic observation and you don’t have a clue how to answer. Shit.

You will recognize the Screw-Me by the complete silence that fills both the room and your head. That’s the realization everyone is having that you’re Screwed. First, let’s not make it worse…

The Unforgivable Spin

Tim: “Rands, what about THIS?”

I’m a poker player and an experienced meeting surfer, so the room will not immediately know from the look on my face that This has Screwed me, but what I choose to do next will define my ongoing relationship with the room.

There are two options when you are cornered by This. Your animal brain, when cornered, will try to find a way out. You can taste this approach even before you begin. I am going to spin. I am going to talk quickly and confidently about This and I am going to hope that in my furious verbal scurrying they are going to believe I’ve got This handled.

That’s not what they’re seeing or hearing.

This is not your staff meeting where a little verbal soft shoe is going to entertain and delight. These are the execs and no matter how many meetings you’ve surfed, they see straight through spin, they know this dance, and the longer you sit there spinning, the longer you give your boss an opportunity to step in, try to make the diving save, and make you look like a blithering fool.

It takes a little practice to make the correct move when you feel the spin coming. You are going to do three things:

  1. Acknowledge the Screw-Me.
  2. Admit “I don’t know.”
  3. Concretely explain the steps you’re going to take to find out and give yourself a deadline.

You have completely defused Tim. See, Tim was pissed which is why he waited until precisely the wrong moment to throw down the Screw-Me. He wanted to see you spin and make a fool of yourself in front of your management team and what you did with the instant acknowledgement was crush emotion with structured sanity.

You can get lucky with spin sometimes. There are times when you spin so hard that you actually talk yourself into a Screw-Me solution that actually makes sense. But this is rare and unreliable and in my experience this frenetic verbal journey erodes confidence and wastes time.

The only question on everyone’s mind during the cross-pollination clusterfuck is, “Do you know what you’re talking about?” It’s lame that Tim doesn’t speak engineer and waited until precisely the wrong moment to Screw you, but my hope is that through your incessant vetting of your slides that you can deliver the “I don’t know” with confidence. Tim just knows what he’s pissed about and you, through your preparation, can see the entire picture.

A Screw-Me Detection Policy

An aggressive Screw-Me detection policy is, I believe, essential to navigating groups of people. It’s not just constantly knowing the potential worst case scenario in any situation, it’s that you are instinctively always looking for it. When I am looking at any situation, I’m always trying to figure out what sequence of events could occur that will screw me.

This strategy sounds a lot like paranoia and yes, an unchecked Screw-Me detection policy can result in a conspiracy theory lifestyle where THEY are out to GET YOU.

Yes, only the paranoid survive, but paranoia is a lot of work. You can burn a lot of calories worrying about all possibilities, but this is not an approach I recommend. What I’m asking is that you look at specific key events strategically. Step back and look at the whole board. Ask “What sequence of moves is going to benefit me? Can I see what is coming? And how could I get screwed?” because teams which kick ass aren’t just ones that deliver, it’s that they deliver when they’re screwed.

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9 Responses

  1. Interesting post.

    I hate to be the nitpicky guy — but you’ve stumbled onto a real pet peeve of mine.

    When you remove the fuse from an explosive, you have defused it.

    To diffuse something is to spread it around.

    Thanks …

  2. cowardly 15 years ago

    You should always have a knowledgeable lieutenant that can think through things and act as a soundboard for the Screw-Me handling process. You’re concentrating on the presentation.

    When the Screw-Me comes up, you do a bit of detail dive to try to deconstruct the problem with an ally, not an adversary.

  3. Good advice – I’m sure we’ve all been in at least one situation like this!

    Problem is, you’ve dodged one bullet in the meeting … great … but there is still going to be at least one very unhappy stakeholder connected with the project who is going to continue throwing monkey wrenches all the way through until the root cause is addressed?

    In my experience, 99% of the time, situations like this arise because communication was handled poorly upfront, or affected stakeholders didn’t feel properly engaged or consulted. 1% of the time, people are just jerks … and handling these people are partly what executive sponsors are for.

  4. marvinpandroid 15 years ago

    I’ve never been on the receiving of a Screw-Me, but I think I’ve delivered a few, and yes, it was because I was brought in as an afterthought of the project, not when I could have been a partner. I’m very happy to see you write something that I believe with all of my heart: It never hurts to say “I don’t know” as long as you are clear about how you’re going to resolve that.

  5. I learned this lesson many years ago, from of all people, a politician. He said there is only one way to get yourself out of a hole. Admit you don’t know, say you’ll go and find out, and commit to when you’ll get back to them. Following that advice has stood me in good stead for years, and is one of the three key pieces of advice I give to junior staff as ‘words to live by’ (not just work by). The other two are ‘never work longer than 105% of the hours you’re paid for’ and ‘you can learn something from everyone, even if it’s how not to do things’.

    The best bit about graciously handling these situations is that it builds trust. Not every is actually out to screw you. Yeah they are pissed cos they saw an issue and they felt they weren’t being consulted, but that can be turned around into a big win. Candidly saying, ‘Tim, you have a great point, and we absolutely need to look into that’ will pay off big time, especially the next time you deal with Tim (he now knows you take him seriously).

    Being able to admit you are not omniscient, or have even made an out and out mistake is an incredibly powerful thing. Just so long as it doesn’t happen too often!

  6. Damon Oehlman 15 years ago

    Mate – absolutely brilliant read. Some great insights in there that will benefit all who read it. As a technical person who has moved into a middle management layer, I’ve managed to develop a reasonable ability to deal with these kind of situations but they are hairy.

    Explaining to someone else how to deal with those situations, that’s another thing and something I believe is beyond my ability.

    As usual though, Rands you have done it fantastically. Sending the link to your blog post to members of my development team now…



  7. I think “I don’t know” works well because at the core you’re refusing to play the game. Politics can’t hurt you if you don’t let it.

    Mostly, I’ve found that if you stick to the facts, clean and simple, and avoid the games, those intent on playing get disarmed quickly. If they can’t get to you, they can’t force you into a corner and so, often they can’t win. Sure, on rare occasions it may cost you a job or two, but only in organizations that are political anyways. If you don’t like being paranoid, then a nicer environment is actually a good thing.

    In the end, I always try to do the Right Thing regardless of the consequences, and then let the chips fall where they may. Staying out of the game is the only way to consistently win the game.

  8. Ellen 15 years ago

    Not sure how I found you, but this piece is full of truth. I am the hole-poker for my husband, and even though he knows it is a valuable thing, it still hurts his feelings sometimes. Truth is truth; the sooner you face it, the sooner you can start figuring out how to get things done (and minimize getting screwed).

  9. game hanh dong 13 years ago

    Yesterday, while I was at work, my sister stole my iphone and tested to see if it can survive a thirty foot drop, just so she can be a youtube sensation. My iPad is now destroyed and she has 83 views. I know this is completely off topic but I had to share it with someone!