This article came from a question asked by a young software developer. Recently out of university he was challenging a decision that I had made for how his time was to be spent and the methodology used to allocate that time.
The thing is, that everything he challenged and everything he said was utterly, utterly true. But also not practical. So I faced up and instead of giving him the normal platitude answer or just ordering him as his boss, I gave him the complete and utter truth.
Being a smart human he accepted it. He didn’t like it, but he did understand and accept it. and it came to me that we really should lay this kind of truth out more. It’s probably already been laid out in thousands of books already, but I want to lay it out in a way that makes sense to me, so here we go.
In any large organisation there are 3 basic zones of decision and information.
Zone one, the operational zone, or as we will call it “The Coalface”. This is the zone where the truth lays, where actual work is done. This is where you sell to customers. This is where you deal with real data. This is where you deal with the minutiae of small problems,
If you live in this zone your main issue is that you are so close to the immediate needs of your problems and their delivery that large scale threats are tricky to see.
The Fantasy Zone:
Zone three, the upper zone, which I’m going to call the Fantasy Zone, This is where dreams come from. Goals are designed, The big thinking, the blue sky decisions, all that kind of stuff, where the directors live.
Its main issue is that the people who live here often have no idea of the impact their wishes have elsewhere and in the worst cases they don’t care, also its residents are so used to people telling them they are right, they start to think that any decision they make will by definition ALWAYS be right.
( The Audio clip is from the arcade game Space Harrier, which I always think of when I hear the words “Fantasy Zone” )
And the middle zone, which we will call the DMZ. This is where management skulk.
Their true job is to convert real life issues into the simple statements that the senior people can understand, and by response turn the blue-sky thinking that directors come up with into actions that make logical sense to people at the Coalface
Its main issue is that people in this zone, spend so much of their time trying to smooth out and simplify the real work hump/bumps and delays that happen in the coal face that they end up believing that a happy fantasy zone resident IS the actual deliverable, rather than a genuine quality product or result.
So now the question is, how do we solve this problem of different people with different perspectives working together?
And I think the answer is, you can’t!.
Humans are humans. Humans are weird. You will not get people to prioritise other peoples problems over their own. All we can do is to give them better communication and the opportunity to work in a less self centred way and show them the advantages of doing such.
From one side we can explain the issues to the people in the Coalface, that the Fantasy zone are facing.
Let us take our young software developer as an example. He wanted to know why we were breaking with the most efficient way to solve a long term problem, And the reason we were breaking it, was that we had a short term delivery that we had to meet. The short term delivery was purely a Fantasy zone delivery, it made no difference to the coalface but as the money that needed to be allocated to the coalface came from the Fantasy zone and this short term deliverable was a threat to that money. Then the Fantasy zone’s short term delivery overrode the most efficient long term solution in the coalface, a point of view that people in different zones can work with.
And understanding going the other way is just as important. One of the core parts of understanding that the fantasy zone needs to grasp is that all the members of the coal face are not interchangeable cogs. They’re all humans with foibles. The fantasy zone members may not like that. But there are holiday time periods for people that are at the coalface that force things to go on slowdown. There are difficulties in yanking people up and moving everybody wholesale to a different problem that will damage long agreed delivery times, etc etc, they might not need to get into the nitty grtty, but they should understand real world problems in broad brush strokes,
People in the DMZ have to take on this responsibility. and rather than just going for a meeting and hoping to escape with only kind words from the fantasy zone, you will occasionally have to bite the bullet and provide detailed information on Coalface issues to help one zone understand another.
As a final fun note, I was so pleased with the neatness of “Welcome to the Fantasy Zone, Get ready!” that I wanted a t-shirt of it, thankfully there is a great redbubble one
Disclaimer: As always these posts are not aimed at anyone client or employer and are just my personal observations over a lifetime of dealing with both management and frontline associates.