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Seizing the enemy without fighting is the most skillful

December 18th, 2009 · 4 Comments

"Therefore one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the most skillful. Seizing the enemy without fighting is the most skillful." — The Art of War, Sun Tzu.

Jack is a hard working software developer. Like many of us, he works for a highly dysfunctional organization. He is part of a major software project that could make or break his start-up employer. The project has no functional specification, no technical design document, and no single owner who is driving the project at the detail level.

The business side of the company is nervous. They desperately need this new product to grow their business. They’re putting a lot of pressure to the manager of software development, who is Jack’s boss. The software development manager puts a lot of pressure onto his team members. He told the software developers that they must stop playing Ping Pong and foosball in the break room during working hours. They must get to work by 9AM in the morning. They must deliver, or they’ll be gone.

The problem is that the software developer manager is very inexperienced. He had never run any software project before. He had never managed a software development team before. But, he is golfing buddy with the Vice President of Engineering. He knows how to navigate the political landscape of the organization. He cares very little about his team members. He just wants to look good in front of the senior management team.

Jack is frustrated. In project review meetings, he openly challenged his manager. During his one-on-one, he criticized his manager.  When his manager emailed the software development team about certain decision he had made, Jack replied to the entire development team that he opposed his manager decision because it was wrong.

His manager started to ignore him. When Jack emailed his manager, he never heard back from him. When Jack took initiative to write a spec, his manager told him not to worry about it. When Jack set up a meeting with his boss, he never accepted the meeting invite.

Jack is worried. He starts to feel that his job is on the line. He wants to contribute to the project. He wants to do good work. But, he is extremely frustrated with his boss.  He feels that his boss doesn’t like him, and will find a way to get rid of him.

Jack has every reason to feel frustrated. Many of his team members are equally frustrated. But, Jack is the one who had the gut to challenge his boss. Jack is right in many ways. But, he has to face the reality — he has a family to support. He has a mortgage to pay. He needs a stable job.

Out of frustration, Jack had lunch with me.

My advice to him:

"Your manager is not very good, but he is very politically savvy. You’ll not make any meaningful changes by confronting him and criticizing him in the public. You’re only hurting  yourself. It’s like you keep hitting a wall, but only you get hurt in the end.

If I’m you, I’ll do whatever your boss tells you to do. Lay low for a while, and  look for another job. I think it’s time for you to move on given how dysfunctional your company is."

Finally, I mentioned my favorite line from the Art of War to Jack: "Seizing the enemy without fighting is the most skillful." — This is very applicable in the corporate environment. Good, ethical employees who want to make positive changes in corporate environment should act strategically and skillfully. The optimal outcome is to achieve your objectives without a fight. Don’t hurt yourself.

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Tags: Frustration@Work

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 BW // Dec 25, 2009 at 3:21 am

    This case describes my current predicament perfectly!

    I am working for a local startup. The dysfunctional-ness didn't come as a result of office politics as much as from personality incompatibility. Our founder is a marketing guy who has a great idea of how to improve direct marketing. However, he doesn't know much of the complexity of software development, nor does he care.

    He says all the right things, e.g. revenue is an entrepreneur's friend, don't let the perfect kill you, etc. Yet when it comes to execution, he has a fairy tale kind of expectation of product development — if he comes up with a feature, it should be delivered in a week.

    We just can't get our message to him. In the end, he doesn't know what he doesn't know. That is really a bad sign for a startup.

  • 2 GeekMBA360 // Dec 25, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    Is the business growing? Is the CEO able to sell his vision in the market and gaining traction? I think if the company is growing, it might worth a fight for you to continue to figure out a way to get your message to the CEO.

    Larry Ellison was notorious for being a hard CEO to work for. But, he had a history of capable right-hand men who were willing to go the extra miles to bail him out because they because he got the big idea right (i.e. Larry recognized the importance of database and SQL.)
    Do you believe in the CEO vision and the market potential of your business? If yes, keep trying to make this work! 🙂

  • 3 GeekMBA360 // Dec 25, 2009 at 9:55 pm

    Is the business growing? Is the CEO able to sell his vision in the market and gaining traction? I think if the company is growing, it might worth a fight for you to continue to figure out a way to get your message to the CEO.

    Larry Ellison was notorious for being a hard CEO to work for. But, he had a history of capable right-hand men who were willing to go the extra miles to bail him out because they because he got the big idea right (i.e. Larry recognized the importance of database and SQL.)
    Do you believe in the CEO vision and the market potential of your business? If yes, keep trying to make this work! 🙂

  • 4 The Art Of War // Dec 2, 2010 at 9:10 am

    Very good article. I really like how you tied Sun Tzu into HR issues!

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