One of the best pieces of management advice I ever picked up came from a really awful book I read when I was 12 years old. Worse, it was stolen from a slightly less awful book and given the authors in question, probably came from a third source. First the quote, then why it matters.
“Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.”
I first came across it in a series of books by Don Pendleton called, “The Executioner”. Pendleton, it seems, borrowed it without attribution from Ian Fleming’s “Goldfinger”. But given Fleming’s lack of introspection and deep thought in general, my guess is it is probably even older than that.
But regardless of the source, it seems like an odd idea on which to base humane, thoughtful leadership. Actually, it’s quite brilliant, particularly if you run a remote team.
Essentially, the message here is: don’t overreact to something the first time it happens, but don’t ignore it either. Before taking action, there are a number of questions you should ask yourself:
- Is this the first time this particular behavior or problem has arisen? Why now?
- Do you really know the root cause or source of the problem? Are you sure? Really sure?
- Might it be a simple mistake, a misunderstanding, or is something really nefarious at work?
- Is it a person problem, a process problem, or a resource problem?
- How do you know the answers to any of those questions?
Truth is, it’s great advice no matter if your team is co-located or scattered. What makes working remotely so difficult is that we tend to base our actions and decisions on a very small sample size. Because we lack every day, mundane, organic, interaction we often over-react or wait until it’s too late to act. Both are equally problematic.
Did that team member miss the deadline because they didn’t have the necessary resources or are they simply incompetent and determined to ruin your life? Assumptions can be destructive. Are you assuming that a one-time problem is the end of the world? Conversely, are you letting poor results slip, while making excuses when they should be addressed?
Without taking the time to reflect and assess the answers, you’re working solely on your gut. Whether you are mowing down Mafiosi, foiling a gold theft, or trying to get the code tested before launch it’s important to pause and confirm you’re solving the right problem and responding in a positive way.