The dog with the bad leg

When I was younger a friend of mine had a schnauzer named, Cinders. He was the salt and pepper gray with the face of a wise old man with a fluffy mustache. I wasn't able to have a dog as a kid because I was allergic so I loved any time I got to play with Cinders (stuffy nose and asthma attacks be damned!) He was an awesome and playful dog!

I remember one year, he developed an infection in his left front leg. In the months that followed, Cinders wasn't able to play with anyone. He went through two different surgeries over the year and his face took on the look of sadness within that "cone of shame." Despite best efforts, Cinder's leg never really healed after each surgery. He limped around, had trouble getting up and down stairs, and looked to be aging far beyond his years. It was tough for my friend and their family, and also tough for me to watch.

After that first year, the veterinarian convinced the family, they should amputate the leg, both to prevent the infection from spreading further and to give Cinders a chance to regain some of his quality of life and avoid more surgeries. I had never seen a three legged dog before. I was surprised how quickly Cinder's learned to hop around with his one front leg. Even while he was in the "cone of shame" he seemed to regain some of his pep. The first day I saw him without his cone I was absolutely amazed and delighted at how happy and energetic he seemed. He was damn near as agile as he was before. It seemed so counter-intuitive to think that a 3-legged dog would be happier and healthier, than a 4-legged one. But it seems carrying around an infected leg was weighing him down much more than simply removing it did. 

Teams can be like that, too. I've worked with a number of companies and teams where there was a bad leg. The prevailing logic of "we are better off keeping the weak leg" is as false there as it was with Cinders. I'm not saying amputating the leg was an easy decisions and it wasn't with out effort to save it, but ultimately, Cinders was far better off without it, than continuing to fight it. The sooner my friend and his family accepted that, the sooner they got their dog back. Again, the same is true of teams.

The sooner the group or leaders realize that someone is weighing down the others; first try to fix it; then, when you realize the infection is at risk of spreading, it's time to amputate. The group will be better off . They will adapt and improve much faster than you might imagine. I, for one, would rather take on one more task that I KNOW will get completed than rely on someone who fails to come through. Yes, it might take a little more effort, but what you save in frustration, delayed schedules, rework, and recovery, will more than make up for it. A recent study by Harvard concluded that one bad team member can drop team performance and increase overall attrition of the good people. So not only does one bad person make it hard for the team to do well, you're likely loosing good people who don't have energy for the bullshit.

Don't underestimate the ability of a small but dedicated team. Keeping some one who is underperforming because that is the group you started with might be weighing you down more than you recognize. The group will bounce back faster if they are no longer trying to fight an infection and carrying around a bad leg. 

(thank you to, Amy Giggey, for the inspiration of this post)

Dave NeedhamComment