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The Zone of Expendability?


In Don Norman's words, "If someone doesn't hate your product, it's probably mediocre." If playing it safe today is considered a risk in business, what about in a job? If all managers like you, are you safer than if some think you're amazing while others think you're the poster child for Bad Hiring Decisions?

My little trip back to Sun was a perfect reminder of this... during the time I was there as an employee, one manager would give me an award while another would dig up dirt for my next performance review. Marketing gave me a bonus (for having a tech article published in a major trade magazine) while another department gave me a reprimand for not getting all the proper approvals. One boss went out of her way to use the downturn as an excuse to give me the one job she knew I hated, while another used his remaining time to give me a ridiculously large salary increase. The thing is, through all of this... I was always the same person. In a single year, I went from best thing since canned beer to best reason for having a Prompt Exit Plan (otherwise known as the, "We're almost certainly going to fire you unless you do this [insert thing they know you won't do], but we'll give you the chance to leave quietly if you go now...].

I'm rightly and frequently criticized for celebrating the trouble-maker... for making the rule-breaker into some kind of hero. But I agree that just because one challenges the status quo does NOT mean they're helping. And just because one has bold, risky ideas doesn't mean those ideas are good. Sometimes a rule-breaker, non-team-playing upstart is simply... a pain in the ass. But too many managers appear too threatened to figure out whether their trouble-maker is the one person who can really push things forward, or the one who simply thrives on being disruptive.

There are no guarantees, of course. Especially now. But while in the past the safest move was to keep your head down and stay off any radars... being a good little trooper... that's no longer any more likely to help you keep your job. If you're on nobody's radar, you've probably got nobody defending you like a tiger to their boss. In either case, the freedom to push for what you believe in, and to challenge the status quo is a lot more stimulating than deciding to just not care.

If everyone is a lot more expendable today, and we ALL are "short-timers" whether we know it or not, we might as well act like short-timers by taking the risks we were too afraid to make before. It probably won't make us any less at risk, and today... it might even make us safer.

[Footnote: this seems to be true for students as well... like mother like daughter I suppose, but Skyler's report cards always made me smile when it came to the little extra notes each teacher attached to the grade. It was amazing how a single person--Skyler--could simultaneously be "a joy to have in class!" an "inspiration" and "disrupts the class" and "disrespectful", all in a single semester. Again, this is not the strategy I'd ever recommend, especially for a child who wants into a great college, but this kid has other plans for the world, and I can't say I'm not secretly delighted. Life... is just too darn short not to speak up.]

Posted by Kathy on November 20, 2006 | Permalink


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» We are all expendable from More than a living
If I could say it better than Kathy Sierra, I would, but I cant. (If I could draw cool pictures like Kathy, I would, too.) If all managers like you, are you safer than if some think youre amazing while others think youre the poster... [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 20, 2006 3:00:51 PM

» Don't be unobtrusive from Leo Archer
There is a great post on Creating Passionate Users titled The Zone of Expendability which advocates being noticed, whether that is because you are so amazing people admire you or so disruptive that people can't stand you.  What you don't [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 21, 2006 3:52:31 AM

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I'm going to be judging the Imagine Cup this year in the Web Development arena. The job seems daunting [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 12, 2006 9:08:36 AM


Wow, this is fantastic, thanks so much for this post, it really puts my experience at the only big corporation I've worked at in perspective.

Posted by: Scott M. | Nov 20, 2006 4:50:04 PM

You described my last job in your second paragraph perfect. It seems that with "corporate america" the only way to grow is to have managers that are morons, or ones that just have no clue on what they are doing. Great post!

Posted by: Jeremy Woertink | Nov 20, 2006 4:59:31 PM

Your second to last sentence was structured quite appropriately. I simultaneously wanted to hug and reprimand you for your mind-boggling use of negatives. :)

Posted by: Adam Keys | Nov 20, 2006 5:09:56 PM

Adam: I'm not entirely unaware of how not to use negatives, but I'm also not entirely unable to continue using them. : )

Jeremy: Yes, it does seem that way sometimes... I will say that while some of the worst managers I ever had were at Sun (who shall remain nameless), it was also the place where I worked for two of the absolutely best managers I ever had (Jari Pakku and Andrea Redmond). The lack of consistency is a separate and interesting discussion...

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Nov 20, 2006 5:55:31 PM

Of course, there's also the "leave me alone don't make me change my job" kind of trouble... which doesn't seem to fit on your graph very well. :-)

Managers, learn to listen to disagreement from your employees without coming to dislike them.

Employees, learn to disagree without acting like a jerk.

Here Endeth The Lesson.

Posted by: Joe | Nov 20, 2006 7:15:48 PM

I think this ties in well with your earlier post on the 19th. Without recognition of peoples efforts, you're not going to encourage people.
My feedback at my last job was mostly tending towards the "You're awesome" end of the chart, but to be honest, I don't think I was doing enything special. All I did was see jobs through and make sure that people got the resolution they were after.
The thing was, the feedback was almost entirely from my peers and my clients. My manager at review time would go as far as a "You're doing well, everyone says good things about you", and mostly that was all the recognition I got from further up.
One day, a business analyst who I did an emergency bit of reverse engineering for, bought me a pack of M&Ms to say thanks. I still remember the warm feeling I got for that. It was nothing really, but it showed he noticed and appreciated the effort.
If you want people to display behaviour in areas of that chart above, you have to recognise it and reward it, and straight away, not at review time 6 months down the line. After 3 years, I got fed up with getting the same results and pay rises come review time as the slackers around me who did 1/3rd of the amount of work, and headed for pastures new. I'm now very happy.

Posted by: CodeMonkey | Nov 20, 2006 7:39:45 PM

I just finished a post talking about gaps in professional development that case issues. Interestingly enough, I think there's some middle ground between our two posts!



Posted by: Doug Karr | Nov 20, 2006 8:16:24 PM

Hi folks!
This post reminds me of the oft-quoted declaration "The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference". I think it appropriately highlights that an emotional response is often a positive signal, even if it starts with a negative. Of course, there are many caveats...

Posted by: Lee LeFever | Nov 21, 2006 5:23:40 AM

This all sounds very much like me... and my daughter! So, on the basis of our sample of two mother-daughter pairs: it's genetic!

Posted by: Deirdre' Straughan | Nov 21, 2006 8:21:42 AM

I'd say this is more applicable when working for Sun or IBM, and not most other software companies (Microsoft, Google, Oracle, etc.)

To be frank, Sun has endless comittees to get anything done. Nobody is empowered to make their own decisions. In such a situation, you MUST ruffle feathers to get ANYTHING done.

In companies that actually reward innovation and initiaitive, being considered 'trouble' is usually a bad thing...

Posted by: bex | Nov 21, 2006 4:48:21 PM

interesting post; in my own experience, the worse-case scenario (which is a flattering one, actually) is where under-performing executives see you as a threat.

you wouldn't believe what they'll do to conspire against you. these scared runts will begin to co-operate as pack animals with peers they see to be similarly scared - ie, the weak execs will subconsciously team-together to remove or at least damage such perceived threats.

as i recall an executive saying many years ago: "never employ someone that you think is better than you."

incredible, but rather more frequent than we'd care too imagine ...

Posted by: carl griffith | Nov 27, 2006 7:56:57 AM

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