2024i24, Wednesday: Umbrellas and funnels.

2024i24, Wednesday: Umbrellas and funnels.
Photo by Simon Z on Unsplash

I haven’t done a huge amount of managing people in my life. But I’ve been managed by a few stars, and a few more stinkers. And as a barrister I’m often working with, and expected to act as de facto leader of, a legal team.

So the lessons learned - both from doing it and having it done to me - have stuck. Hard.

Leading people is both hard and complex. It’s objectively difficult, and complicated: there are always a lot of moving parts and unknowns. But more than that, it’s complex: because you’re dealing with human beings, most of whose motivations are wholly opaque to you however well you know them.

In situations like that, rules of thumb are critical, because you need watchwords to live by, and nightmarish, because they can blind you to the challenges. Like all heuristics, they’re great servants and appalling masters.

That said, there are a few guideposts which have worked for me. They may work for you too.

A no-blame culture is an illusion. But a blame culture is far, far worse.

I’ll never forget a quiz night put on by one organisation I worked for. As is customary, if not obligatory (“giri” for the Japanese speakers among us), people came up with supposedly amusing team names. Some were funny. Some were cringe-worthy. Some were ra-ra, “go team”, some were cynical.

And then there was this: “It’s a no-blame culture and it’s all your fault.

Ouch. Not only did it encapsulate a very real sense of how some parts of the organisation functioned. (In another employer of mine, the assumption when something went publicly wrong was that “deputy heads must roll”. They always did. While the person who should’ve been in the frame got promoted to somewhere safely inconspicuous.) But it summed up a cardinal management mistake: forgetting that it’s not about responsibility, but accountability.

What do I mean by this? Simple: professions which have truly mastered the critical job of learning from mistakes don’t have no-blame cultures. They have accountability cultures. Think of aviation. The avoidance of finger-pointing in any healthy modern aviation environment (crew resource management is the term of art) is an outcome of a culture which looks for root causes and prioritises the resolution of problems and the removal of what makes them happen. What matters, therefore, is not responsibility (“whose fault is this?”) but accountability (“who’s going to make it better?”). Fixating on human error and finding someone to blame (usually someone who can’t make internal political waves - thus the “deputy heads” bit) is the former. Expecting people to fix things that go wrong, learn from them and make them better - and rewarding them for doing so - is the latter.

Of course, sometimes the mistakes people make are the result of negligence, or gross carelessness. Or even, sometimes, malice. These are things they should be accountable for. And for which there must be consequences.

And the last thing anyone needs is sententious garbage from management when things go wrong. (As always, there’s a YPM quote to fit the occasion: when, in the face of a problem, Hacker pompously reminds a Cabinet member that every problem is really an opportunity, to which the careful response from Sir Humphrey is that these could be “insoluble opportunities”.)

But most of the time, when something goes wrong, it’s a cross between something systemic and the fact that people are people, and stuff happens. And if you encourage your people to learn first and finger-point later, the results will almost always shine.

Applicability to litigation? Well, it’s obvious, I think. Sometimes the other side is going to blindside you. They’ll do something no-one on your side saw coming. Don’t waste time on working out who screwed up the pleading, or missed the piece of evidence. Focus on how that changes your strategy or tactics. Throw the floor open. The curve-ball might, if you keep an open mind, help you see an angle in your own case that wasn’t clear before. Can’t hurt to look.

Be an umbrella, not a funnel.

I’m bowdlerising here. More than a little. The full quote is: “Be a shit umbrella, not a shit funnel.” You may recall I mentioned it in passing a few days ago - but I think it's worth building out a bit.

The idea came from a friend who - in the organisation we both worked for at the time - tended to be a troubleshooter. She was dropped into teams which were dysfunctional and was expected to “fix” them.

Almost always, she said, what she found on arrival was a shit funnel. And her job was to be a shit umbrella.

In other words: her view was that in many organisations, especially large ones, shit comes cascading down the pyramid. Unworkable expectations. Impossible goals. Idiotic timelines. Blame. Finger pointing. And so on.

A manager’s job was to keep all that away from their team. Let the team focus on what they needed to do, and make sure the shit didn’t hit them. (If it hit anyone, it should be the manager.) Internal accountability within the team: of course. But for external consumption: that accountability was for the manager. Any brickbats were for them and them alone.

As soon as I heard this from her, I loved it. It made perfect, self-evident sense, and encapsulated how things had felt in both good teams and bad.

(Needless to say, she tended to get moved on to the next dumpster-fire once she'd got things working. And more often than not some bloke would then swan in and take the credit for the improvements. Surprise, surprise. And another sign of terrible management.)

What about the shit funnel? Well, that’s the other side of the coin. Situations where managers are keen to keep themselves squeaky-clean, and ensure any downsides are always someone else’s fault. Another team, if possible. If not, then throw one of your own to the wolves. Make sure the shit is funnelled onto the people who can’t hit back.

I suspect that this sounds woefully familiar to many. And again, it has a direct application to litigation. A leader - whether ad hoc or de jure - takes the weight. Tells the client bad news. Makes sure everyone knows they’re safe to contribute, to do their best work. Because that way - and this is where this ties together with the previous point about no-blame cultures - everyone, even the lowliest paralegal, feels comfortable enough to say what’s on their mind. And since they’re the one who’s almost certainly genuinely read every page, they may see connections no-one else has. With the amount of information any half-way significant civil matter will generate, you can’t afford to lose any pair of eyes you have available.

As I just indicated: on reflection, perhaps these two points overlap a fair amount. Someone who likes a blame culture is probably going to be a shit funnel. Someone who prefers leaving space to learn is likely to be an umbrella instead.

But even if they’re two perspectives on the same thing, they’re still valuable.

Because if you’ve ever worked for someone who’s a funnel you’ll never want to work for them again.

You’ll never trust them again.

And you’ll probably, if you’ve got any sense, find it pretty hard to trust the people who thought handing them power was a good idea in the first place.

An organisation which is OK with a funnel in a leadership position - someone who thinks their staff’s job is to take the hits for them, that nothing’s really their fault, that they’re not accountable for the culture around them, that dodging and weaving and distracting with sleight of hand and “red meat” is the right way to go - isn’t an organisation that anyone should trust. Not unless it recognises the problem and does something concrete about it.

Although, of course, an organisation like that usually can't. Not without major surgery. Starting with a head transplant, so to speak. But not stopping there...