On management and magical thinking

By | February 12, 2015

I have worked for many tech start-ups. The best and worst of them have one thing in common: asking their employees to do the impossible.

That tiny phrase, “do the impossible,” can actually mean two very different things, one wonderful and one awful, depending on whether management is grounded in reality or fantasy.

For management grounded in reality, doing the impossible means dreaming big and setting ambitious goals, knowing that you don’t win big by thinking small, and that you can “miss” every single goal you set and still be wildly successful. A good goal is something that inspires people, not a gimme.

For management grounded in fantasy, however, doing the impossible means setting goals your team can’t possibly meet and demanding that they do more than they possibly can, in too little time, with too few people. Then, when your team fails to achieve the impossible, you bemoan the failure, blame the team, and increase the frequency of “motivational” speeches at all-hands meetings.

Many years ago, I worked at a start-up whose V.P. of Engineering was an adherent to the cult of fantasy management. As schedules slipped and scope shrank, he would stand up in meetings and repeat his mantra, “Just get it done.” Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore. “I suppose you mean to motivate us by saying that,” I blurted out at a meeting, “but every time you say it, I become less confident that we can meet our goals.”

I was young and naïve and recently graduated from M.I.T., where people speak their minds and listeners insert the appropriate amount of tact. Loudly drawing attention to the emperor’s lack of raiment was bad enough, but what made it worse was that the C.E.O. was there. Mr. V.P. was not about to forgive and forget someone calling him out in front of his boss, so my outburst was the beginning of the end of my career at that company.

If there’s one thing we can learn about Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker from his conduct following our recent snowstorms and public transit woes, it’s that he believes in fantasy management. The MBTA’s performance was “simply not acceptable,” he said. “They need a new operating plan,” he said. And oh, by the way, he’s going to balance the state’s budget by cutting $14 million from the T’s budget. Any reality-based thinker who looks at the current state of the MBTA knows that its recent performance has nothing to do with its “operating plan” and everything to do with decades of gross under-investment. Everyone with a clue saw this coming from miles away. And yet Baker’s response is, Just get it done.

Alas, the governor is not alone in his delusions. Under both Democratic and Republican governors, the Massachusetts legislature has, throughout decades of cowardly denial, failed to adequately fund not just the MBTA, but a whole raft of critical state functions (crumbling bridges, anyone?). And the voters have engaged in fantasy management of their own, repeatedly referendizing lower taxes, depriving the state of the revenue it needs to provide the services that the voters actually want.

It would be nice to think the governor will wise up and advocate the dramatic funding increases the MBTA needs. It would be nice to think our legislators will place the needs of the commonwealth ahead of their desire to be re-elected. It would be nice to think the voters will support giving the state the revenue it needs to deliver the services they want.

Hey, sometimes fantasies come true.

P.S. Unlike me, Dr. Beverly Scott was not young and naïve when she spoke truth to power at her recent kick-ass press conference. Obviously, she felt free to speak up because she was already planning on resigning before she walked into the room. And just as obviously, she felt that speaking up would make her more likely to find a new job working for someone who practices reality-based management. I thank Dr. Scott for her service to Massachusetts and wish her good luck finding a new gig.
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2 thoughts on “On management and magical thinking

  1. Stan Zanarotti

    The $40 million cut is from the transportation budget. The T budget will be cut $14 million.


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