The right player at the table

Late one night a few weeks ago, I played in a (relatively) high stakes poker game, and was quickly reminded of how very bad I am at it, reminded of certain inadequacies that make me particularly ill-suited for the game.

The next day, I was reviewing a roles and responsibilities matrix for a new project, trying to match up in my head who in our IT organization would be best for what role.

And then it occurred to me: in some ways, managing an IT operation can be like playing poker (with better odds, we would hope), and that the people in our shop are all, for better or worse, poker players at one time or another. The key is going to the table with the right players at the right time. And I’ve learned that going to the table with the smartest person in the shop is not necessarily the best idea.

The Smart Ones: Too Easy to Read?

Every IT organization’s got at least one: someone who is fiercely smart, knows exactly what they’re doing, has an incredible capacity for producing good work – you gotta love ‘em for all of that, and you must do whatever you can to keep them around. Since these folks are so damned good at what they do, we’re tempted to send them to the table first, to put them out front in any given situation where their intelligence/perceptiveness/ability to process information will be of value:

“John knows this system better than anybody else – when we bring those contractors in to talk about what it might take to make the changes we’ll need, we’ll make sure that he takes the lead for us – you can’t BS John on this stuff”. Or “Doreen understands strategic planning inside out, and I’m sure that the VP we’re dealing with doesn’t. We’ll send him all our good material, and then we’ll send Doreen over to help him through it – if she can’t make him understand it, no one can”.

Makes sense in both cases, no? No, not necessarily, and not necessarily because of a weakness that often appears in people who are really, really smart. I should know, ‘cause I’ve had lots of people (most people?) working for me who are much smarter than I am.

And here’s what I’ve learned – too often very smart people have an Achilles heel, one that not only holds them back from advancement (and also explains why people who are not nearly as smart as they are move up the ladder faster and higher), but also may bugger up the smooth operation of your IT shop: they don’t suffer fools gladly, and you can read that fact plainly on their faces. I had a very smart system test manager working for me once who had this problem. Sharp as a knife, quick as whip, absolutely indispensable to our operation, she could run circles around developers and their inadequate testing. And none of these developers were as smart as she was.

Problem was, you could read her face like a book. If one of the developers (or worse, someone in development management) said something stupid (read: something less smart than something she would have thought and said), the unintentional look on her face said: “You dimwit. If you understood this half as well as I do, you wouldn’t have said that”. In fact, she never did say anything that insensitive (in public), but she didn’t have to – between her smarts and her face (I should say that it was and is a nice face, regardless), she, and therefore we, ended up alienating people across the table more often than we made progress. Lesson: use the smart ones carefully, and not all the time. And not at the poker table.

The Inscrutable Ones: Don’t show all your cards at one time

Inscrutability – an admirable characteristic, and one which I lack entirely. According to the trusty Concise Oxford, inscrutable is “that which cannot be understood by investigation; that which is wholly mysterious”. And this is why I’m a lousy poker player, and why I shouldn’t be allowed to negotiate IT contracts.

I’m a project manager – I’m in a hurry to get to a solution, to get a compromise answer, as long as I get an answer. In IT negotiations as in poker, I should be looking for the negotiator who wants to take the time to put their opposite number off balance, who doesn’t need to share everything up front, who is willing to walk away from the table and ‘think about it’ for a while. First clue in knowing that you’re dealing with someone inscrutable? They’re comfortable with silences, with those pauses in a conversation that would seem awkward to many of us. If you’re like me, you’ll have a tendency to want to ‘fill in’ the silences. And what do you fill them in with? Information, even if it’s not verbal, information that maybe you shouldn’t be giving away in a negotiation.

So What Have We Learned? In IT, in climbing the corporate ladder, the spoils don’t necessarily go to the smartest, and sometimes it’s the quietest who make the best IT leaders. And the best poker players.

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