Book Review: First, Break All the Rules

How can I get the best out of everyone working on my team? This is surely a question that managers at all levels, from team leaders to chief executives, must regularly ask themselves. In First, Break All the Rules Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman attempt to answer this question. The book is based on research that involved surveys of over a million employees and interviews with over eighty thousand managers. Surprisingly the conclusion from this extensive study was that most conventionally held wisdom about how to manage people effectively is wrong: from encouraging people to work on their weaknesses to the idea that you should reward the best performance with promotion.

One of the most valuable things this book provides is a simple tool for measuring how well members of a team are being managed. It consists of a list of 12 questions which include things like “Do I know what is expected of me at work?” and “In the last seven days, have I received recognition and praise for good work?”. Using these questions you can build up an accurate picture of the quality of leadership that your team is experiencing. I am a community governor for a local infant’s school and we are already using these questions to assess how well we are managing all the staff at the school.

After introducing and explaining the power of these 12 questions the book goes on to cover four distinct areas:

Selecting for Talent

This book has a very careful definition of talent:

“A recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behaviour that can be productively applied”

Once you understand this properly it offers a very important insight into how you select people to work on specific tasks. Traditionally, to take an example from software development, if you wanted someone to develop a prototype with a customer in C#.NET then you would look for a developer with C#.NET skills. Similarly if you are developing a risky new web application in PHP you might look for a PHP expert.

However in both cases you would be missing the point in terms of talent. In the first example you need someone who has some C#.NET knowledge (or who could pick it up in a day or so) but, far more importantly, you would need someone with an investigative mindset. Someone creative. Someone with empathy.

And with a risky web development project you need a developer who is comfortable with unknowns. Someone who is willing to try out new techniques and approaches. Ideally they will know some (or even a lot) about coding PHP. But an expert in PHP who is risk averse and only wants to work in areas he or she already understands will add little value to the development effort.

Defining the Right Outcomes

In order to get the best out of people you have to make it very clear what your expectations are in terms of definable outcomes. This book makes the point that you should spend very little time telling people what to do (i.e. use the standard requirements gathering template, follow this coding standard, write a test plan) but instead focus on the outcomes you are looking for (i.e. requirements from which we can create a high quality specification, code that is readable, code that works).

Focussing on Strengths

I have seen plenty of performance reviews which concentrate on someone’s strengths and weaknesses. Usually the next step is then to come up with some kind of plan for addressing the weaknesses. This book challenges this directly and argues that it is a waste of time. Instead you should “Let them become more of who they already are”. Don’t ask someone who is brilliantly creative but highly disorganised to become more organised. Instead develop their creativity even further! Don’t ask someone who loves detail but struggles with “big picture thinking” to change: work out how they can deliver even more value by working at a low level of detail.

This section of the book includes two other counterintuitive ideas. One is that you shouldn’t treat people how you would like to be treated but rather how they would like to be treated. You might love to be presented with an award in front of all of your colleagues but for others that might actually be their idea of hell. The other idea is that you should spend most of your time with your best people. It is very easy to fall into the trap of only spending time with people who are underperforming or struggling. In practice this time is often poorly spent and it can end up making little real difference to concrete results. Far better to invest your time in getting even more value out of your best.

Finding the Right Fit

This section of the book focuses on how you reward success and, specifically, the dangers of promoting people to their level of incompetence (as first described by Laurence Peter in The Peter Principle). This book describes the problem well:

“We still think that the most creative way to reward excellence in a role is to promote the person out of it.”

Fortunately the book provides some practical solutions in this area that can be applied by anyone, regardless of their position within an organisation.

So, what did I think?

As you have probably gathered by now I think this is an excellent book. Nearly all of it provided practical insights that have changed the way I work with members of my team. The only part I struggled with were the appendices that explained the statistical detail of the research that this book is based on. Overall I would say that, if you work with people (and who doesn’t?), then this book will make for useful and interesting reading.

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