Ninja Decision Making: A Case Study

It all started with a key team member tendering his resignation on one of two engineering teams. This was a single point of potential failure, the only person on both teams who truly understood what was at a core piece of our product. This core piece of product was dependent on custom, third party software that hadn't had a github update in over two years. The obvious solution was to take a top developer on the team I was on to dive in, do a knowledge transfer, and work jointly with this person to help get us to a safer place transitioning us off the third party software.

Our stakeholder refused to budge on losing this developer, when it seemed obvious to everyone that the risk was too great. A battle of wills ensued, creating a vortex that eventually sucked in higher levels of management.

After everyone aired their perspective, it came to a final decision by the head honcho. 

He found a compromise. 

The other team would borrow this developer temporarily to help ease the transition, and in the meantime, while we had been working in lock-step keeping up with the latest and greatest changes, our team would take a hit and break that lock-step, resulting in bifurcating the code bases temporarily until we got our developer back and had the manpower to resume that lightning fast, lock-step pace.

The head honcho addressed the two directors who had been at an impasse. He asked the first: are you happy? He got a dejected no. He asked our stakeholder: are you happy? He grumbled no.

As the head honcho was the only person on the phone and not in the room, I recall he either said good, or had a satisfied tone of voice.

When that happened, it took my breath away. He had managed to "split the baby down the middle", in such a way as to say sure, if you want to drag me into these types of turf battles, I'll help. But I'll make sure no one's happy, so don't expect to reap any benefits from doing this. 

If you think I might be reading too much into this, years later I reached out and asked the head honcho what his intent was when that happened, and he validated that that was indeed his intention. He said people should be able to sort these things out themselves without involving him as a 'parent' - they were asking him which team was more important and he refused to show favoritism. He also mentioned the adage that a good compromise is one where no one feels good about the outcome. That means both sides gave enough to make it hurt. To him that was a sign that we'd reached an equitable solution.

This whole "split the baby down the middle" idea became a meme between my boss and myself. In fact, he brought it up quite often during our one-on-one mentoring.

For me, this was a defining moment that had "ninja" stamped all over it. I haven't stopped thinking of this, years later. And I suspect my former boss hasn't either.