“At such an inauspicious moment, with management dead set against the idea, it surely would have seemed foolhardy to continue designing computer operating systems. … Now, some 40 years later, we should be thankful that these programmers ignored their bosses and continued their labor of love, which gave the world Unix, one of the greatest computer operating systems of all time.” IEEE Spectrum (NA), December 2011, page 36.
I often say that during my career half my bosses loved me and half my bosses hated me. All my bosses who hated me eventually asked me to stay on with them or come join them in other efforts. This is the challenge and risk of working hard to improve things and to make a difference. The opportunities are almost limitless if one doesn’t mind the rabid resistance one finds in some of these places. Most of the critical lessons learned that have helped me throughout my career have been in the environments where my bosses hated me. So the lesson from this is not to avoid the bad situations, but to recognize that they are in fact opportunities to learn and grow and still be successful.
I recall in college how students would pick which session of a class they took based upon the professor. I had a tendency to just pick the class with the best time for me and I didn’t care who was teaching it. In my case, I rarely attended classes (and my grades reflected that!) but would instead read the book (the parts I was interested in) and do my own projects and exploration into the subject. While this suboptimzed my grades it in fact maximized my learning and so I took it as an acceptable trade-off. It also meant I got to experience a wide range of teachers, the good and the not so good and that turned out to be valuable also. Some years after college a senior executive told me that if he were to do college over again, he would simply pick the hardest courses and do those because that is where, in college and in business, he learned the lessons that propelled him to his success.
I’ve written about a few of my experiences where to get things done we had to go against the expressed wishes of more senior management. That appears completely and utterly wrong to many people and I do agree … in principle. However, I also often tell people that for over 30 years I’ve been either blessed or cursed, depending upon one’s perspective, with having worked with organizations that were not very good at management, at least with respect to project management, but also often management in general.
Many people, discovering that they were in these kind of organizations, either jumped ship or hunkered down and just endured them, at least for as long as the organizations were in business. In my case, I just waded in and tried to improve things. Having been successful, even in the worst of organizations — with the scars to prove it — convinced me that any organization could improve and that those bosses I annoyed would eventually come around when we were successful (i.e., made them successful).
Maybe we shouldn’t ignore our boss, but there are often situations where taking an initiative that doesn’t align with our bosses becomes an optimal course of action. It is a risk we may want to consider and I’ve been surprised at bosses who while expressly unhappy with me during the execution of a project, later thanked me for showing them what was really possible. What we do may not be the next Unix but there are a lot of lesser accomplishments than Unix that can benefit our business, ourselves and our world.
Have you ever taken an initiative, that succeeded, that was initially contrary to your boss’s intent or wishes?