When you enter my office, one of the first things that you’ll see are each of “Donaldson’s Laws” hanging on the wall. The laws are three simple edicts that I share often with my workmates and that I repeat regularly. So, why three laws? Honestly, the laws developed over time, and I’ve found that I do not need any more than these. Three is an easy number to remember, and people that work with me know exactly what I’m saying when I reply, “You know that you’re breaking law number two”.
When I started my first job as an engineer, my boss provided me with a list of requirements that was no less than 25 guidelines, many of which (to me) were simple common sense. Even at that point in my career, I remember wondering how many of the items on the list I could remember. Ultimately, a few of the items on the long list resonated with me, and those became the handful that were committed to memory.
So, what’s the impact of the three laws? I believe in each law, and they are at the core of how I’ve functioned as a professional. They transcend professions and have been applicable at every stage of my career. I’ve found that if I am obedient to the laws, and really embrace their intent, then the majority of the everyday problems that I encounter are mitigated.
Law 1: Expectation Drives Behavior – How often have you been disappointed by a deliverable or the behavior of one of your team members? Time and time again, my experiences have driven home the point that people mis-understood or mis-interpreted what was expected. “Oh, I didn’t know that’s what you meant”, or “I thought that I understood the deliverables” was a common response that I’ve heard more than once. Whether it applies to annual goals or regular assignments, the answer is to over-communicate what your expectations are and be clear and deliberate in ensuring that your team or organization understands. Quantify your expectations, put them in writing, and make them measurable. You’re not going to hurt anybody’s feelings; quite the opposite… your team will respect you more for providing necessary vision and direction from the start. Communicate your expectations and check for confirmation.
Law 2: Don’t feed the Stray Cat – When I was a child, a random cat showed up on our family’s doorstep one afternoon. The thing was friendly and a bit mis-kept as should be expected. My brothers and I gave the cat a name, played with it for a short while, and then (as kids have been known to do) brought it food and drink. When the summer sun dipped below the horizon, we picked up our baseball gear and headed inside. And the next day when we came out to play baseball in the yard, who would you imagine was there to greet us? A week later, the cat moved into the garage.
In the workplace, that same stray shows up every day. That situation where you take on a task when the responsible party has not done it?… Hello, you’ve just fed the stray cat. The meeting where you accept the customer’s excuses for not providing necessary requirements?… Yup, you’ve done it again. When you reluctantly follow the out-dated company process and do nothing to make it better?… You guessed it. The problem is that when you’re feeding the stray cat, it feels like the right thing to do, or should I say that it feels like what is required. If Joe doesn’t get this done, then the whole team will look bad, so I better do it for him. It isn’t until that cat moves into the garage, that you realize the implications. What happens the next time that Joe gets a critical assignment? Joe has no ownership of the task at hand because he knows that you’ll feed the cat.
The solution is to deal with the stray cat when it first shows up by taking the heel of your boot and bringing it down on the creature’s head with bone crushing force… repeatedly if necessary, until you are certain that it is dead.
Law 3: Alert the Tower at 10,000 Feet – Let’s think of our program or company as a commercial air liner and the leadership as the pilots. Healthy organizations empower competent professionals (insert engineer, sales, manager) that display a healthy confidence in themselves and their teams. This is exactly what you want in your company, but how do we deal with overconfidence?
So here we are in our jet traveling to our destination. Lights begin to flash in the cockpit at 20,000 feet and the team calmly goes into action to fix the problem. The problem persists and the pilot and flight crew continue their efforts to identify the root cause while the plane. Unable to maintain altitude, the plane descends to 10,000 feet. At this point, the situation may get some additional visibility within the organization (The Flight Tower), but the pilot reassures the tower that the flight crew has things under control, and they will right the situation.
As the plane falls below 1,000 feet, the pilot realizes that the ground is approaching quickly and contacts the tower to communicate the seriousness of the problem. The flight crew needs help. By the time the tower gathers the appropriate resources, the plane reaches the 100 foot mark, and the pilot is doing everything possible to avoid impact. I think that you know what happens next.
Our story highlights the importance of communicating to the tower. This comes in steps that escalate the issue, first on the plane and then to the tower.
- Issue Identificaiton: All hands on deck within the project team – identify the root cause, action plan and expected completion
- 20,000 feet: “Houston, we have a problem”… Management visibility: here’s what the issue is, what we are doing, and when it will be resolved.
- 10,000 feet: There are hurdles preventing the team from resolving the issue. Immediate management involvement is required to address the problem. (with adequate time to affect a proper solution)
Escalation is viewed as a weakness or failure by many organizations which is disappointing. The challenge is to encourage the team to share the information amongst themselves, and then with each successive level of management. Unfortunately, the confident leader is thinking that they will be able to fix the problem as the plane gets ever closer to the ground, and in many cases, asks for help when very little can be done to avoid the collision. Escalating from visibility to support and then holding management accountable for delivering on their commitment of support will in time change the culture of the organization.
These are my three laws… I’d encourage you to identify yours and be intentional in how you apply them.