Becoming a Technical Leader

Becoming a Technical Leader

An Organic Problem-solving Approach

Gerald M. Weinberg

THE MOI MODEL OF LEADERSHIP In order for change to occur, the environment must contain three ingredients: • M: motivation–the trophies or trouble, the push or pull that moves the people involved • O: organization–the existing structure that enables the ideas to be worked through into practice • I: ideas or innovation–the seeds, the image of what will become

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A person whose actions are almost totally motivational might be a sales superstar or a charismatic politician who could sell any idea—if only she had one to sell. Someone whose actions are almost entirely organizational might be an incredibly efficient office manager who keeps things super-organized—for last year’s staff and last year’s problems. A person whose actions are all directed toward innovation would be a genius—full of ideas but unable to work with other people, or to organize work for others. In order for a leadership style to be effective, there has to be some balance among motivation, organization, and innovation.

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All of the most consistently successful technical leaders empower people by the value they place on innovation, on doing things in a better way. If we look more closely at how technical leaders emphasize innovation, we find that they concentrate on three major areas: • understanding the problem • managing the flow of ideas • maintaining quality These functions are the ingredients that characterize what we call the problem-solving leadership style. This is the style that characterizes the best technical leaders.

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Encourage copying of useful ideas. Problem-solving leaders are inveterate copiers, though some do not like to admit it. The best ones not only admit it, they cultivate it as a fine art. As Aristotle understood, most “new” ideas are actually copies of ideas from other contexts, and problem-solving leaders are constantly searching other contexts for ideas they can use. The best teachers never cease to study the texts, lectures, and exercises of their colleagues. The best computer programmers never write a new program when they can use an old one for a new job. The best circuit designers know what designs already exist, and whether they can be used in different situations. Problem-solving leaders are not interested in doing again what has already been done well, by themselves or someone else.

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Practice makes perfect, but when you begin to feel you’re really getting good, start looking for some conceptual breakthrough. In other words, spend some time mastering tactics, but don’t forget to look for a better strategy.

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Although I was master of the IBM 650, there was a bigger, more powerful machine on the horizon: the IBM 704. I moved to Los Angeles to work with 704 programmers who couldn’t care less about my skill at placing instructions in optimal locations on the 650’ s main memory drum. That’s how the plateau stage begins to crumble—with the introduction of some foreign element. My first reaction was typical: I tried to reject the foreign element. I argued that drum memory was superior to core memory, that decimal coding was intrinsically superior to binary. I still remember how I felt when they laughed.

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Each time I mastered another ravine, I not only jumped to a new plateau, but I ascended another few steps along a metaplateau, mastering the growth process itself. I was learning new computer languages, but even more, I was learning how to learn new computer languages. My metalearning showed most clearly in my emotional reaction to new languages. Instead of feeling anxious, defensive, and worthless, I felt excited, creative, and capable of coping with almost anything.

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By “stealing,” I include both taking ideas from one person (which is called “plagiarizing”) or from many (which is called “research”).

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By this time, you may have noticed the relationship between the three great idea generators and the three great obstacles to innovation. Lack of self-awareness means that we never notice our errors, so we cannot capture them and convert them to something wonderful. Belief in our own master intelligence means that we would never think of copying the work of someone else, so we cannot benefit from creative theft. And knowing that there is one and only one right solution to every problem makes combining ideas seem foolish, so copulation is ruled out.

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