Back in the day, when I was working in the video game industry, I worked with a designer named Fred. Fred was passionate. He cared deeply about the quality of the product, and wanted desperately to ship a great game. But more than anything, he wanted to get through the next milestone without the game getting cancelled (and possibly the team getting sacked). This was a real danger – video game publishers are a notoriously fickle lot, and can cancel a game or withhold a milestone payment for pretty much any (or no) reason. Fred was trying his best to stave off disaster.
And so he would tell the team that they needed to do X by date Y. And the team would move heaven and earth, work weekends, pull allnighters, do whatever it took to get the milestone done on time.
And they’d do it! Somehow, they’d get everything in, just in the nick of time, 9 am Monday morning. At which point Fred would gather them all together and announce that in fact the real deadline was a week later, which meant that they had a whole week to polish.
Imagine for a moment that you’re on this team. Imagine that you’ve given up nights and weekends, neglected your family, health, sleep, non-work-related passions, only to discover that it was for a lie. You aren’t stupid – you know that the deliverable needs to be strong, that the project is in danger, that you could be fired if the publisher doesn’t like what it sees (or is just having a bad day). You also know that you’ve been manipulated, betrayed, treated like a child that needs to be forced (by an adult who knows better) to eat her broccoli. Imagine that you’ve lived this hell for months, the manager using increasingly inventive ways to deceive the team. What would you do?
In the end, the team revolted and voted him off the island. He wasn’t fired, but he went from directing a product team to being a regular designer, and was never entrusted with management authority again. The team named the fake deadlines “fredlines” in his honor, and they served as a warning to those who came after.
Fredlines are one of the most common mistakes new managers make, and one of the deadliest to morale, trust, and respect. It’s an explicit reminder of a manager’s power (which most managers try to hide), and of a lack of trust and respect for one’s team. DeMarco and Lister discuss it in the classic Teamicide chapter in Peopleware. It’s the tool of a desperate manager who’s afraid of failing, and whose instinctive reaction is to try to increase control through manipulation and information hiding.
The sad thing is that it’s so easy to escape the trap. If your team believes in the mission, you can have the conversation with them.* We’ve promised X by date Y. X is totally doable, X isn’t risky, but it’s also the bare minimum – if X is all we deliver, it’s going to be disappointing. We have an opportunity to something really great, and surprise everyone with what we can do – we should be shooting for that, not just X.
It sounds so trite, so commonsensical, that it’s unsurprising just how rare it is. Treat your team like intelligent, rational, responsible human beings, give them full access to information about schedule and requirements, empower them with a full picture or the situation, and set them loose.
* If your team doesn’t believe in the mission, you have bigger problems.