In a previous post we briefly introduced the phenomenon of seagull management.  Now, here is an story that tells of an occasion I fell victim to a seagull manager.

I was a very young employee, just a few months into my professional career.  I worked in a hardware design lab and one day a fellow intern and I came up with a new idea (probably the first independently generated professional idea I had ever had) for a test tool that would reduce the time and cost of testing conceptual designs generated in the lab.  We shared the idea with my boss. He seemed mildly interested, but, it also seemed as if the idea was barely on his radar because he was juggling much bigger issues.  But we were pretty excited, and we worked a little overtime (for free) to get the project moving, and within a couple of weeks had developed a simple prototype test tool.

We starting using it and were thrilled that the tool immediately delivered the planned benefits.  We used it for a few weeks, and one day we showed it to a friend we played flag football with after work.  He happened to work in the test department, and the next day he innocently mentioned it to his supervisor.  The reaction of the test supervisor was somewhere between annoyance and irritation. He did not have a positive view of design departments designing their own test instruments when it was clearly in his mission area.

Long story short, the test manager spoke to our product manager and the next conversation we had with the boss was a little rocky.  I would describe it as a stern talk, with a focus on the idea that what we viewed as an enterprising initiative was better characterized as an ill-advised attempt to push ‘outside our lane’.

I did not really question the manager’s conclusion at the time. Once I perceived the big picture, I understood and agreed that the proper course would have been to deliver requirements for a test tool rather than generating one ourselves. But, in hindsight, I would recommend a different route to handling the case. Ideally the manager would co-own some of the problem as opposed to passing the buck. We had initially informed him our plans to build the tool and also had not been previously informed of how the organizational structure should work.  Further, while some education was required to correct the procedural missteps, there were other aspects of the case an organization would do well to preserve – positive motivation, self-starting proactive innovation, team commitment, work ethic, professional zeal or enthusiasm. The precedent that his managerial interest was only raised at the point where an issue had become a political concern or personal annoyance to the manager disincentivizes those positive qualities.

In my personal case, following this interaction I never had a poor relationship with that manager but never had an especially healthy one either.  I would characterize my approach to the relationship from there on as professional, formal, and very careful. I was rather like a dog that had been kicked by an owner – still dependent and in many aspects dedicated and loyal, but never quite as naively trusting as before. Also, it was several years before I took on a new project of my own initiative again.  This change was not spiteful or cynical (and in fact was essentially subconscious) but in the short term I was significantly more gun shy than before.  Over the course of time, I was particularly lucky to work for several excellent managers over the next few years that did an outstanding job fostering continuous learning and innovation. Eventually, any reservations I had fell away.

I would love to tell you that, having experienced the discomfort of seagull management myself, I would learn from those who came before and avoid repeating the same mistakes. Sadly, I cannot make that claim. The opposite, in fact. What inspired this post is self-reflection born of a recent experience where I fell into much the same trap as the original manager, in much the same way. I will share that story and what I learned from it in my next post. – Eric