The Screwpole Emails: Fytte the 5th

Mugwort gets into training.

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After being disgraced by his failure to finally destroy the career of his project manager victim, Screwpole’s nephew Mugwort attempted to redeem himself by undermining the project manager’s recruitment process and leave him with a team of inept slackers and sociopaths.

Typically for Mugwort, things did not go totally to plan and his victim somehow managed to recruit a handful of competent experts, along with the desired buffoons and work-dodgers. Now Mugwort has to find ways to undermine the development of this mixed team…

To: Mugwort
From: Uncle Screwpole
Subject: “The only real training for leadership is leadership.”

Dear nephew,

I never truly expected you to atone completely for the extraordinary mess you made of the last project, so I will not chastise you too harshly. In fact, things may not be as bad for you as they first seem. You say your project manager ‘somehow’ [I think we both know how, don’t we my sweet Mugwort?] recruited several experts on to his team, along with the layabouts we desired. He has ended up with a ‘mixed bag’, if you will.

Devil in training.

What this means for us is that your manager’s team has a dangerous concentration of expert knowledge – should one of his experts be hit by a bus [reminder: speak with Durgefug about our new public transport initiative] he will have no one on the team to replace them.

I suppose the most obvious approach to take would be to get your project manager to prevent his experts from sharing their knowledge, and stifle the progress of the rest of his team. You could point out to your victim that, besides all the costs it would add to his project funds, if he implements knowledge-sharing or training initiatives his eventually better-trained staff will only ask for improved wages, promotions or will simply leave for higher-paid jobs elsewhere.

But that should be rather beneath us, don’t you agree Mugwort? We have been presented with an opportunity to undermine the stability of the project, perhaps even destroy it completely. Seizing such opportunities is the path to true wickedness, my dear Mugwort.

First, then, some brief revision on human training and learning processes. Effective training keeps staff motivated, empowers them to better themselves, teaches marketable skills, keeps employees stimulated, and spreads knowledge throughout a team or company [Ugh - there is bile in my throat as I write this]. However, the naïve or overzealous manager so easily perverts training [with your help, of course].

Humans mainly learn through one or two different methods, although each human has their preferred medium (see the diagram below). Suppressing one or all of them makes it much more difficult, or even impossible, for them to understand new concepts [I often wonder how they even manage to learn to potty train, let alone build computers]. For example, an apprentice pianist who desires to play but is forced to learn by observing a virtuoso in action.

The different types of learning.

Your project manager seems like the romantic type. Even though he is not a line manager, he probably feels it is his responsibility to progress the careers of his employees and nurture their learning, and so will inevitably desire to train his team.

Knowledge Transfer

There was a young demon, much before your time Mugwort, who found himself in a similar position to you. His project manager discovered that many of his staff would meet informally in the kitchen, twice a day for half an hour each time. Naturally, the demon thought this a superb waste of time and did nothing. The manager, on the other hand, cut these ‘chats’ to 15 minutes each, believing more work would get done. To the demon’s pleasant surprise, however, productivity dropped! It turned out staff would spend 15 minutes engaged in generalities, and then another 15 discussing work and sharing knowledge. Cutting the time meant no work was discussed.

Knowledge Transfer is less of a method and more of an ethic. Your victim, deluded into believing that he is a modern man-of-the-people, will undoubtedly adopt this ideology for himself. He will attempt to introduce a supportive and caring ‘Knowledge Community’, where everyone is keen to share their experiences and employees are free to learn.

The key to disrupting Knowledge Transfer, Mugwort, is to suppress all forms of communication and interaction. Instant messaging software? Gone. Freedom of movement around the office? Ban it. Liberal use of the internet for research purposes? Restrict it to a single page on the company intranet.

Your manager must be convinced that productivity will slip if he allows his staff to mingle and communicate with impunity, pair-up on tasks, or have informative chats beside the kettle. These types of activity are essential for Knowledge Transfer, as less experienced employees can learn from experts and find solutions to tasks they might never have found on their own

Pretend that you have conducted some research and found there is far too much noise and movement, it is distracting staff and lowering productivity. Tell your victim that work cubicles are the answer, as well as a general crackdown on distractions [one ‘officious man with clipboard’ for every 10 developers should about do it].

Continuing Professional Development

Your victim, ever the selfless fool, will likely see the importance of constantly improving the quality of his staff. Continually developing skills and knowledge keeps staff motivated, constantly improves their quality, and allows team members to explore topics that will affect them in the future.

In order to prevent this ghastly situation, you must understand that humans tend to learn in a basic cycle (shown below) [amusing creatures, always going round in circles]. Break the cycle, by stopping them using what they have learnt for instance, and training becomes far less effective.

The cycle of learning.

You may allow your manager to send his staff on useful training courses but this will only help disguise our true intentions. You will break the learning cycle by preventing staff from applying the knowledge they have gained, ensuring that it is gradually forgotten.

On the other hand, employees could be forced to attend courses that are of no real use to them. Inform your manager of a new ‘cross training’ trend you have heard about; his desire for all things innovative will likely see him agree to send his office manager on a database administration course, and ensure his senior developers become proficient in interpretive dance.

Throughout this task, your most useful tool will be your victim’s ‘good intentions’. We have a rather nice decorative road paved with these, and it leads directly to the great CEO’s fiery office itself. Lead your manager there.

Success here is vital for your next task, where you will corrupt your team’s working environment.

Yours in malice, Uncle Screwpole.Phil Rice.

Phil Rice is CTO of software vendor Erudine, the creator of the Erudine Behaviour Engine

With acknowledgement to CS Lewis' "Screwtape Letters".

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