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No Surprises!

Years ago, I took over managing a good sized engineering group.  All my direct reports were senior managers - seasoned folks who had been around the block a time or two.  At my first staff meeting, one of the managers asked me about my expectations for the group.  I told them that this was a great question and rather than give them an off-the-cuff answer, I'd write up my expectations and discuss it with them.

I went back to my office after the meeting and thought about the group, the challenges it faced and how best to leverage the talent they had.  After pondering this for quite some time, I drafted my thoughts in hand written form on a piece of paper, intending to sit on them for a couple of days and then edit what I'd written before sitting down with the group.  I was still thinking about this when the same manager who'd asked the question came by for his one-on-one meeting with me.  He saw the hand written draft and asked what I had been working on.  I told him I'd been working on my thoughts and expectations and he asked if he could read what I'd written.  I told him it was still a draft and thought that getting some feedback was a good idea and passed it over.  He read it, said "This is great, I'll go copy it for the others!" and walked out with my draft in his hand - the cat was out of the bag!

Some 17 years later, I still have that same piece of paper; it came from the heart and proved to be a great way of getting everyone on the same page of how we ran the group as a team.  The one item that sparked the most discussion was:

             "I don't like surprises!"

Of course, there was an expansion of what I meant below;  I actually like good surprises but as a manager I believed that it was our job to plan out what needed to be done and communicate those actions well in advance of the surprise.  One of the dictionary definitions of a manager is "One who handles, controls, or directs" and the same dictionary has as part of the definition of surprise, " To encounter suddenly or unexpectedly; take or catch unawares."  The key is the word "unaware".  As managers, we're tasked with figuring out how to accomplish goals and considering what can go awry to develop contingency plans.

Inevitably, not-so-good surprises do happen; a project slips because its harder than anticipated, a supplier doesn't deliver, or someone quits.  It's not so much the surprise that's the issue as how much time you have to develop a mitigation plan and reduce the impact of the surprise.  That's part of being a good manager, CEO, board member or investor.

You can take "No surprises" and think about its implications across the life of a company.  Some examples;

  • Don't let issues become surprises.  Surface them early before they become large and deal with them.
  • Terminating someone should never be a surprise unless you've found a criminal act.  Communicate the issues and discuss how to resolve them.  Termination is the last resort, not the first.
  • Board members shouldn't drop surprises on the company, CEO or management team.  Issues or actions should be raised, discussed and put into action
  • Don't slip a delivery schedule the day before the delivery is due!  It leads to much unhappiness and negative karma!

This isn't a complete list and I'm sure you can add a few (many!) of your own.

Things run a lot smoother with less stress and acrimony when we challenge one another to keep to "No Surprises!" - give it an earnest try and you'll find what a difference this simple phrase can make.

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STU PHILLIPS
MENLO PARK, CALIFORNIA

Intense Brit, lived in Silicon Valley since 1984. Avid pilot, like digital photography, ham radio and a bunch of other stuff. Official Geek.

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