Venga venga venga!! (Management and the Tour de France) [repost from 2005]

An amusing sidelight of the Tour de France is the one coach who seems to spend the entire race in a car right next to his prize rider, with the window open, yelling this over and over again: “Venga venga venga!!! Venga venga venga venga!!!” I think it’s a coach of one of the Basque teams, and the words are my transliteration, but I remember one of the commentators saying that this meant something like “Go go go go!! Faster faster faster!!”

In reality this coach is probably really competent, and no doubt he does all kinds of complicated work around strategy and training during the rest of the year. But it’s more amusing to think of this as being _all_ he does. And if so, what kind of value does he believe he adds? As he comes home weary and hoarse at the end of a long day, is he secretly congratulating himself for the very fact that his rider crossed the finish line? Well, if the rider in question is in fact very lazy, and would pull off the road and go doze in a field given half a chance, then maybe the coach is helping. But this is a world-class athlete we’re talking about here — it seems kind of unlikely that someone has to be shouting at him every moment for him to want to ride fast.

You see where I’m going with this I’m sure — but I do actually think that if there’s one way that managers (including both eng managers (like me) and product managers) can persuade themselves that they’re adding value when they’re not, it’s by spending their day shouting “Venga!” Because if the people they talking to are already motivated and working hard, then they may be accomplishing exactly nothing.Now, of course, I do think that most of us do add value — but it’s usually through other things like letting people know about things they didn’t already know, and making priority decisions, and whatnot. But a surprising number of utterances can be usefully translated into venga-speak. For instance, try these:

“Remember, we have to get that X thing done by Monday, so that Y thing can start”
Translation: “Venga, venga venga venga venga venga, venga venga venga!!” (unless there’s a chance that the hearer didn’t know that Monday was the day, or that Y depended on X).

On the other hand, saying something like:
“Remember, we have to get X done by Monday, so Y can start. That’s more important than Z.”
cannot be translated into pure venga-language, even with an arbitrary number of vengas, because it conveys some non-venga information.

In fact, _any_ statement that’s purely about stressing that some things are important, without giving any clue about what might not be important, is, um, monotonically vengizable (that’s a technical term). Even something like this:

“People are complaining a lot about X. We’ve got to get that taken care of. And Y, Y too. Y is a big problem”.
Translation: “Venga venga venga venga venga!!” (unless the hearer can reasonably be expected to realize that this means that A, B, C , and Z can wait by comparison, and in fact that they have been authorized to wait).

The problem here is not just lack of information conveyed — it’s the damage to the speaker’s own notions of causality. People have a deep-seated need to feel that they are affecting the world, and also like to feel like they can affect the world with their words. You say “C must happen!”, and some number of days later, C happens. Most people, even those with a scientific bent, will react to this pure correlation with a little bit of self-satisfaction (and an increased feeling of efficacy), without thinking hard about the possibility that C might have happened on exactly the same day even if they had never been born.

This superstitious feeling of contribution can be a problem even when you _are_ getting some things to happen faster. If you press for the things you want, then the fact that pressure probably pushed some other things out of the way fades from view. I think that this is particularly a problem for “evangelists”, who for one thing have been trained to think that they are by definition on the side of the angels, and who have also been encouraged to think that opposition is oppositional because it’s hidebound or stupid. “Nothing was happening over there until I lit a fire, etc.” is a typical thing for an evangelist with this disease to say. (I’ll translate that sentence just as soon as someone tells me what the past-tense form of “venga!” is).

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