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The Failure of Reduction When It Comes to Working With People

By   /  May 15, 2017  /  3 Comments

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Remember the movie Better Off Dead? That movie is a family Christmas tradition for us. Lane Meyer has to ski a dangerous mountain to prove himself to Beth. He seeks advice and receives the most boiled-down help imaginable.

While entirely accurate, it is incorrect and Lane barely escapes injury.

I was talking to our children recently about the search for that special someone and I, too, fell prey to the temptation to reduce. Not wanting to embarrass my child on the internet I’ll begin this way, one of my children was found to be holding hands with someone…but they were way, way in the back of the group trying to express their affections without being “caught”.

Allow me to reduce the other mother’s response: shock.

From my perspective it’s no big deal. Immature. Silly. But no big deal. But it gave me an opportunity to boil relationships down to the minimum: Whatever else happens, don’t anger the mother. You will lose. Make her your ally…pursue real friendship with her. And if you find you don’t like the mother you will find you no longer need to pursue the child because, if things go according to plan, you will have to spend every Christmas with her for the rest of her life. And that may not be what you want.

Whatever you think of my guidance above, it is hardly adequate. But I do this with everything.

How to take a shower? Get wet all over and put specific emphasis on cleaning places where the skin folds.

How to drive a car? The pedal on the right goes, one on the left stops. The wheel keeps you from running things over. Let’s do this.

The majority of server issues boil down to capacity management or connectivity.

So I have this pattern I fall into of attempting to boil it down to the essence. What is trying to be done here?

That practice, in summary, fails when people are involved.

Let me give you another one and then I’ll give you a few more.

I tend to manage people by setting expectations and turning them loose. I don’t micro-manage. I expect my employees to learn the basics and grow from there by teaching others. Let me know if something comes up.

But that’s not enough because these are people we are dealing with!

I have successfully described the work that needs to be accomplished but nobody comes to work to do the work and get money. We come to work to be with people. People who care about us. People we enjoy being with. People we can trust.

So there’s another reduction. I would suggest my job accomplishes several things all at once. My work is meaningful, it pays the bills and allows me to enjoy interacting with others.

There is a kernel of truth there but it misses so much subtle detail.

Or maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m missing the subtle detail.

I’ll typically arrive at work in the morning after most of my team has arrived. I’ll walk in and speak some song lyrics or something like, “You know, I don’t need dolla bills to have fun tonight…as long as I can feel the beat.” Two of them will look at me like they have no earthly idea what I just said. Another will laugh because I’m such a dork…but everybody loosens up a little we greet each other and then tie into work.

But I have already reduced the workey part. Let’s pretend I have a new employee named Larry. “Larry, each of your co-workers assume primary responsibility for a platform. They have created documentation so anybody else can do the work when they are on vacation. I need you to learn A, B and C in and out. But you won’t be primary on any of those. You are going to take on a new project. You are going be primary support, create the documentation about it and teach everybody else. Let me know if you have any questions. I’ma go over here and work on the things.

“Oh, and on Wednesdays we get together as a team to update project status and do some team training. In your free time I need you to learn all about technology X and teach it to us next month. I know you don’t know anything about it at all. In fact, I’m well aware that you have never even heard of this. My goal is not to make you look stupid in front of your peers, it is to expose our team to something new and help us to find better ways of doing our jobs. I can’t sift through all of the options on my own so we learn things together and discuss. I need you to be a part of that.

“Oh, and one more thing. If I catch you working evenings we’ll have to have a serious talk.”

I REALLY like that freedom. I have had at least three managers who worked that way. They gave me a lot of room to run, expecting me to just get my stuff done because I’m a grown-up. And, for the most part, I do. But it’s not for everybody. Some people need much more structure. So I interview for that. I honestly and completely lay out the culture, the environment and the expectations in the interview. We have fun, we learn how much we don’t know, we teach each other. We own our projects. And if their eyes pop out of their head I scratch them off the list.

My style is not for everybody. Sometimes people need each day planned out. They need to be told each step along the way.

I failed to discover this when I interviewed Julie and the kids.

I tend to give vague instructions like, “Please move the cows before noon.”

What I really mean is, “How are you feeling today? Look, I have to go to St. Louis today. I know it’s a bother but I need help with the cows. They cows are by the hog building. They are watering in the creek down the hill. Please set up a new grazing strip about 20′ wide to the East beginning at the hog building and going down to the bottom. Julie should carry the reel, oldest boy should set posts. As you are walking back, shift 40′ to the West and Julie should reel up the previous day’s rear fence while the boy collects the posts. Then leave any extra posts and reels in the SE corner of the grazing area. This should take you 15 minutes but give yourself 30 just in case. I really appreciate your help in this. The cattle are important to me but you are more important. This farm is important to me but we can put it aside if needed. I hope it is important to us. Maybe I can bring dinner home to make it up to you. I love you.”

It is not safe for me to assume they understand what my expectations are. Nor that they realize the most efficient way of getting it done. Nor that they won’t need discussion time to offer feedback. I just say, “Make the magic happen” and expect it to happen.

I had a boss named Rosie. She was a great boss. She was not technical so she relied on us to know how to fulfill the vision she gave. But she gave clear vision and she encouraged feedback. She didn’t say, “Go fast and turn”. She said, “Here’s the plan. Here’s where you fit. What do you think? Let’s go.”

Ugh. If only I could be more like that.

But I don’t even make time to talk to myself about why and how.

With the events of last year we were unable to raise replacement pullets. So right now, I have 100+ birds laying as many as 6 eggs/day. I know what needs to be done. There is no discussion. Nobody cares about feelings. Those birds have to die. We are already out of the egg business. That’s a fact.

But there is more. There are no replacements. There may never be. I have shown the kids the viability of the business model…when appropriately scaled and in partnership with other enterprises on the same resource base. And if they want to do it, they can. But if I am to put my resources to their highest and best use, I have to spend my time elsewhere. I can’t stay up all night hunting a skunk that is killing my birds and still answer tech calls at 2am and still show up at my desk ready to rock at 8. I am not 25 anymore.

There are more factors involved. I can no longer reduce it to “I want chickens so I have chickens.”

Reductionism only goes so far.

So I guess I should spell out what I’m trying to say. I do a fine job of reducing tasks to their essential points. But I should not be reducing people…because people are more complex than tasks. And I need to encourage feedback rather than just act like it’s all obvious.

So…what do you think?

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About the author

Chris, his wife Julie, and his kids work together to retain and enhance a portion of the farm that has been in the family since the 1840s. They’re renovating pastures using hooves, claws, snouts, beaks, teeth and time, along with all the wildlife around them. Chris says, “It’s the coordination , planning, and unexpected nature of..erm..nature…that keep us hoping.”

Currently they sell eggs, chickens, turkeys and hogs, but those are just their tools. Their real goal is not financial, rather they want to make sure the next owners take possession of more fertile land than they bought.

3 Comments

  1. Chad Tuttle says:

    Terrific insights on my own management challenges, first in the business world and now full time on the ranch. I can see a fairly clear genetic link to my father and brother. Thanks for the great article!

  2. Bill Fosher says:

    In my experience, the best farm employers have a four-step process for getting something done with a new employee.

    1.) Explain the why of a job. “We need to move the cattle to fresh grass every day because it provides high quality feed and gives the pasture as long as possible to recover.”

    2.) Explain the how of a job. “Every day we let the cattle into the next strip, move the water, take down the back fence, and move it forward. If there are extra fenceposts, we leave them in the corner of what will become the next strip.”

    3.) Do it with them. A few times. Be ready to answer questions. Point out why you do things in a certain way. “We put the extra fenceposts here so that no matter who is moving the cattle tomorrow they know where to find the extra fence posts, and we don’t lose track of them or have to run all the way back to the barn if we need two more.” Or, “I like to walk across the field with the reels first and then go back and set up the posts once the line has been established.” Each time you do it with them, let them do more, and observe their technique. It’ll be pretty clear if they’ve got it or not.

    4.) Make sure they understand that you’re showing them a way that has worked for you, and that they are free to do it any way that’s more efficient for them as long as the key goals are met. Make sure that the key goals are clear: that the cattle are moved efficiently, on time, and with as little stress as possible; that no one has to search the whole farm to find fence posts; and that fence posts aren’t lost in the pasture; and that the fence is constructed such that cattle aren’t getting out. Also make sure they know that if they ever feel that something is unsafe, they should listen to that instinct and talk to you about it. After a few co-piloted goes, they say to the employee, “Do you want me to come with you to move the cattle today, or are you good to do it on your own?”

    Pro tip: The first time you ask them to do it on their own, do not be in St. Louis. Be reachable. And check on it later.

    The biggest area where farming is different from coding is that you can’t assume that people know *how* to do any job, step by step. You hire coders who know how to write code — they’ve learned it in school or on a previous job — so theoretically if you tell them you want an app that will take data from a remote sensor and tell you when it’s time to irrigate, they should be able to do it.

    But you’ll notice that there are lots of different ways to do physical work. Some people have big hands, some have long legs. Everybody needs to do things differently to be as efficiently as possible. That’s where you have to let them go. But unlike coding, there’s nowhere to outsource the learning of the basic skills of doing physical farm work.

  3. Oogie McGuire says:

    Thank you for that insight. It helps explain why I am baffled when someone I manage doesn’t just take the “fix this problem so that Y doesn’t happen” as a clear direction and performance standard and come up with a creative solution. I too prefer to reduce things to the standard I hold people to and the task to be done but let them figure out how to do it. You are correct in that that doesn’t always work.

    I’d love to learn more about how you are interviewing people to come up with those who will thrive in that sort of environment. That is a skill I need to develop.

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