Work narration and wanker management

Dorothea Salo, commenting on a recent item of mine entitled What if being non-communicative weren't an option? , raises important points about work vs non-work identity, control of expression, and "wanker management":

Sure people want to talk. They want to know what’s going on, and they’re willing to share what they’re doing and what they know about doing it. The problem is not people. The problem is the wankers who manage those people.

Really, it’s bloody simple. If you want people to talk, giving them the technology to do so is necessary but not sufficient. You also have to ensure that talking is a safe activity for them. That means controlling it as little as possible. That means tolerating -- dare I say, heeding and understanding? -- well-expressed dissent. That means accepting that sometimes we all say the wrong thing to the wrong people at the wrong time. That means a firm injunction against messenger-slaughter. The identical instant some wanker makes talking unsafe, workers will retreat back into mute Worker personae. [ Caveat Lector ]

Maybe I'm an exception to the rule, but when I was a manager what I aimed to control was that open communication would occur, not what its content would be. I believe fear of messenger-slaughter wasn't a factor, though only those who worked with me can say for sure. I know for sure, though, that fear of consequences resulting from failure to communicate openly and transparently was a factor.

In an article on instant outlining I wrote about something that both Dave Winer and I believe deeply: the value of narrating work as it proceeds. Dave tells me that UserLand simply cannot employ people who are unwilling, or unable, to communicate in this way. To me this looks like clueful management, not wanker management -- provided, as Dorothea says, that there is "a firm injunction against messenger-slaughter."

In my report on Alan Cooper's talk the other day, I left out an interesting anecdote. It seems that not once but twice, US military personnel and Afghan allies were killed and maimed because they called down 2000-pound bombs on their own heads. The reason was a design flaw in the Precision Lightweight GPS Receiver (PLGR, pronounced "plugger"). Evidently if you transmit the coordinates of a strike, then replace the battery, the device boots up and transmits not those same coordinates but rather your present position.

There were clearly team discussions at some point about the rationale for this behavior. But was this aspect of the work narrated in a way that made it visible? The open source mantra, "many eyeballs make all bugs shallow," cannot apply when there is nothing to see. Narration of work will increasingly become an imperative. Management can and should try to make sure that this happens. The most clueful knowledge workers will simply choose to narrate their work, because it makes the work more interesting and rewarding. The most clueful management will encourage and reward this behavior.

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