On working with people who aren't "A" Players (or don't care)

Let me start by saying that I don’t know if I’m an “A” Player. In part, that definition depends (a) on what work I’m doing, and (b) who you compare me to. For instance, if you compare me to Linus Tourvalds as a Linux C programmer, I’m very clearly not an A Player. Shoot, I’m not even a player.

But if you were to judge me on other skills, I’d like to say that I’m at least a B Player in the things I care about. As I wrote in my book, Zen & the Art of Consulting, my superpower as a programmer/analyst is empathy; I care about my work, and about my success and my client’s success. If you pay me $100,000 to do some work, I want you to make 2X or 10X or more from my work. I want my clients and sponsors to succeed.

Beyond that care, since I began paying attention to Apple and Jonathan Ive starting back around 2005, I’ve become more interested than ever in quality. When I work on something, I imagine that I’m either working with Mr. Ive, or that I’m going to have him review my work, and I want it to be impeccable.

Wrong priorities

As I’ve worked with a few organizations since then, I’ve found that some people really appreciate this approach, while others don’t. Some companies just seem to want or expect an average job. For instance, while working with a company on a recent job, I have come to learn the following about this organization:

  • There is nothing more important to them than the schedule and their TPS reports.
  • If the schedule slips because of them, it’s okay.
  • If the schedule slips because of me, it’s a huge problem.

I have further learned the following things:

  • Although they have been doing substantially the same thing for many years, their tools and processes suck.
  • When I politely suggest that their tools and processes could be better, they react almost violently.
  • Their poop doesn’t stink. When it looks like something is wrong, they blame me. When I point out that (a) the thing is the way it is because that’s the only way to do it with their tools, and (b) I told my immediate supervisor about this problem long ago, they become silent. They don’t say that they’ll look into it or correct the problem, they just say nothing. (Lesson Learned: Pride in good work is good. False pride is bad.)

In my opinion, these attitudes, and their lack of “care” make them anything but A Players.

One example

As just one recent example of working with this organization, without consulting me, they made ~275 changes to my work. The changes were all very similar in nature, and more importantly, they were all wrong. It took me ten hours to correct them, by reverting to what I had created initially.

There are a few important points here. First, let’s assume it took me 50 hours to create the work in the first place. Had they left the work alone, the cost would have been 50 hours. However, because it probably took them 20 hours to make the changes, and it took me an additional 10 hours to fix their work, the resulting cost of working with people who aren’t A Players is an additional 30 hours. That 30 hours on top of my initial 50 hours is a 60% overhead for working with people who don’t give a crap about their work.

Second, had they just bothered to take five minutes to ask me about the changes before they made them, we would have lost only 5-10 minutes, rather than the additional 30 hours. Communication is important, and because they chose to attempt to make the changes on their own rather than ask me first, a 60% overhead was incurred.

In the end, working with this organization on just this one issue looks like this:

I added the “frustration” part to that graph, because the mental effect of working with people who mess up your work takes a toll on your attitude.

Another example

While that story sounds ridiculous, it’s actually very common when you work with less than A Players (or people who just don’t give a crap).

For instance, as a consultant I once submitted a bid to get a certain amount of work done in 500 hours. The client said okay. After the contract was signed, they also said, “Oh by the way, we also want you to work with Fred, who has never worked with Java before, but we think he’ll be very helpful to you.”

Sadly, I agreed to this. Not only did Fred not know Java, he also liked to talk about personal matters for more than one hour per day. After my first 40 hours of work, I had made less than 25-30 hours of progress on the project. I went to my sponsor and told him this could not continue. He said I shouldn’t worry about it, it would get better and pay off in the end.

After three more weeks of this, I had to go back to the client and tell them to tear up the contract. There was no way I could get my 500 hours of work done while mentoring this other person, correcting his work, and listening to personal stories. If they wanted me to continue like this, I told them I needed a no-cap contract.

While we did this, I hated it. I didn’t sign on to be Fred’s mentor or listen to his personal stories, I signed on to write software. Don’t get me wrong, when I sign on to mentor people, I’m more than happy to do so, but this wasn’t what I signed up for.

The short story is that this situation only got worse, and the 500-hour project I signed up for took more than 1,000 hours. A lot of that was because of his personal stories, but the larger part was that this person couldn’t learn Java, and I had to spend a great deal of time rewriting his work. In the end I learned to just delete whatever he had written and start from scratch; it was easier that way. He was fired, the project was late, and the company paid me twice as much as the project should have cost.

On top of this, my attitude and worked suffered as a result of having to work with this person. My quality suffered because of the additional stress of having to work with this person. I had to care less just to get my work done, and that sucked.

Summary

I could go on for a while, but here are a few things I’ve learned about working with people who don’t give a crap about their work:

  • It takes longer to get things done.
  • It costs more to get things done.
  • The attitudes of good workers suffer.
  • Because attitudes suffer, the quality of the work suffers.
  • You spend a lot of time wishing you were somewhere else.

There’s one other lesson I just thought about based on this experience:

  • If you find that you have to give yourself a pep talk to work with certain people on a daily basis, you’re probably in this situation.

There are other ramifications to working with people like this, but those are some of the major issues I’ve been reminded of recently.

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