Is one of your stakeholders blocking your progress?

Let’s say you’re the CTO of your organization. You are tasked to build a cool new product and everybody on your team is excited and can’t wait to get started. You organize a quick meeting to make sure everybody is on board with the technology architecture. The meeting is going great with lots of positive energy. Everybody loves the architecture which is based around cloud-hosted .NET microservices.

You notice a single stakeholder who is a bit quiet and doesn’t join the discussion. When you try to move on to the next topic on the agenda, the stakeholder finally speaks up. “I think it’s a mistake to use this architecture,” he says. “It won’t scale, our customers will never accept this level of performance. We need to completely rethink the design”

Everybody else disagrees, but the more they push, the more the stakeholder digs his heels into the sand. The meeting spirals out of control and ends with shouting and half the team storming out of the room.

If you’re blinking and wondering what the hell just happened, well, you just met a Corncob.

The definition of a corncob is:

A difficult person who causes problems through destructive behaviors for a software development team or an enterprise.

The behavior of a corncob might seem baffling. They hold opposing viewpoints, nothing wrong with that, but when you try to reason with them, they just get more and more stubborn and refuse to budge. They block progress, sow discord within the team, and show no desire to resolve conflicts or compromise.

Why would anyone behave this way?

The cunning manipulator

There are two types of corncobs. The first one we’ll cover is the cunning manipulator. This person is actually not interested in the project at all and simply blocking it for political reasons.

In my example the CTO might be a threat to the corncob. If the CTO is a rising star within the company, he or she might threaten the power the corncob wields in the organization. By spreading FUD about the architecture, the corncob is cutting down a potential competitor. The project is simply collateral damage in a political game.

I have encountered this type of corncob myself. Years ago I worked for a customer that needed a data-entry application. The end users had some very specific requests, so we created a custom application in C# and designed it to the exact specs of the users. We delivered an early prototype and everybody seemed happy.

That is, everybody except a single manager who never stopped complaining about our technology stack. He complained about the high maintenance cost of custom-built software, the security risks, the fact that C# was inferior to C++, and so on. I was able to deflect every attack, but it was something new every week.

We delivered our 1.0 release version and parted ways. Months later we heard that our corncob had scrapped our application and replaced it with a CASE tool. A C++ based CASE tool provided by a personal friend.

It was never about our technology. The corncob simply wanted to get his friend into the company and had to get rid of us first, because we were in the way.

The passionate believer

The second type of corncob is the passionate believer. This person fiercely believes that they are right and that you and your team are dangerously obtuse and sleepwalking into a disaster. They see it as their personal mission to save the project and the company.

A passionate believer cares a lot about the project, unlike the cunning manipulator. They care so much that they are willing to block progress until everybody sees the same threats as they do. They view any disagreement as a sign that the team doesn’t understand the magnitude of the threat. The more you argue with them, the more they push back.

Passionate believers also have a very narrow comfort zone. They believe that everything outside of their sphere of knowledge will invariably lead to disaster. They don’t trust other people or technologies, and believe they must have control over technology decisions to guarantee the success of the project.

How to fix the anti-pattern

To fix the anti-pattern, the first thing you need to do is find out what type of corncob you’re dealing with. This is actually quite easy to do.

Passionate believers will dig their heels in over a very specific technology or architecture. They prefer to work with what they’re comfortable with and distrust any competing technology. You can expect discussions with them to be about very specific technology topics.

But is your corncob instead referring to somewhat vague and difficult-to-measure qualitative aspects like performance, manageability, and scalability? Aspects that are hard to prove or disprove? Then you’re probably dealing with a cunning manipulator.

If your boss is a cunning manipulator, then there’s not much you can do. Your boss is playing a complex political game for personal gain, and you won’t be able to change his or her mind. You may want to consider switching teams or leaving the organization.

Many companies actually reward manipulative behavior and end up with all the cunning manipulators in the C-section, forever scheming against each other in an ongoing power game. I worked at Getronics in 1999, and upper management was very much like this. The company was very dysfunctional.

If you’re a tech leader and you have a cunning manipulator in your team, your best course of action is to confront that person and try to channel their raw ambition into a more productive direction, by giving them some kind of challenge. If that doesn’t work, you’ll have to let them go.

The passionate believer is much easier to deal with, primarily because this person actually cares about the project. What you need to do here is something called alignment work.

Alignment work is based on the premise that you don’t need consensus to move forward. Your team only needs to agree on a set of goals they want to achieve, and can, in fact, disagree on how to implement them.

A typical alignment session would start by finding common ground, a shared goal to strive for. Then everybody gets an opportunity to voice their opinions and fears. You would act as facilitator and try to stimulate empathy by asking questions like “Bob, how does it make you feel to hear Alice say that?”

Alignment allows everybody to be heard, and this removes a lot of friction from the discussion and allows the team to move forward. Not everybody will agree with what gets decided, and that’s okay. What matters is that the entire team shares a common goal, and everyone realizes that their colleagues are all committed to that same goal.

Have you encountered corncobs in your organization? How did you deal with them?

Are you interested in Leadership anti-patterns? I have recently produced an online course that will teach you some essential tools to master healthy leadership and communication in your organization. Read more…