Ben McCormick

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Herding Lions

I used to find myself using the term “herding cats” a lot when confronting inertia, disorganization or ambiguity in work situations. Urban Dictionary actually endorses this:

The phrase herding cats comes from the common saying that something involving coordination of many different groups or people is as difficult as herding cats. One of the commonly encountered uses of the term in technical fields is the phrase “Managing programmers is like herding cats” or “Managing engineers is like herding cats”. In education it would be “Managing students is like herding cats”.

The phrase correctly captures the difficulty of getting a group of programmers (or even worse teams of programmers) on the same page. But there’s an inherent arrogance to it. The implication is that the herder is the adult in the room and everyone else’s pointless individualism is getting in the way.

There are days that I think I could fix everything if I could just get the *&$% cats to move in the right direction. In those situations I’ve started telling myself that what I’m actually doing is herding lions. How do you herd a group of lions? I have no idea. But I know that if you don’t start with a healthy respect for the lion’s capabilities and agenda, it won’t end well for you.

When you treat people like lions, it’s an opportunity to stop and figure out why they’re not just getting on board with your obvious plan. It’s an opportunity to learn, to find new ways to motivate people, and maybe even to empower somebody who had been viewing themselves as more of a kitten. Ultimately the best teams flourish where people can be strong contributors, take risks and do work they find meaningful. They’re teams of lions.

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