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Managing the Genius

The very word "genius” has a negative connotation. The word is typically used to describe someone who has a vastly inflated sense of their intelligence and consequently believes everyone else is rather dim. This person is unpleasant to listen to and can seriously impede progress when working as part of a team, the type of person that Ronnie Hawkins used to refer to as "a legend in his own mind”. If you are too young to remember Ronnie Hawkins, try Googling his name. I don’t think this shortcoming is gender specific but everyone I’ve met who behaves this way has been male. Of course, not all geniuses fall into this category. There are legitimate geniuses among us who can present a challenge to the project manager for different reasons. This article will attempt to give you some tips and tricks on managing both types of genius successfully.

First, let’s deal with the "legend in their own mind”. These people tend to be opinionated and stubborn, truly believing that their way is not only the right way, but the only way and this is where they are going to bump up against a team functioning as a high performance unit. The high performance team thrives on teamwork with each member putting the team’s goals ahead of their own. The self-professed genius will place their own agenda ahead of the team’s and where they believe they have a solution which is better than the team’s they will doggedly adhere to that solution. You can spot the self-professed genius fairly easily by their behavior. They tend to be very rigid in their approach to their chosen profession and hold themselves to be superior in that area of expertise. They are always eager to share their opinions and don’t require an invitation to do so. Code reviews and design reviews are good places to observe these folks in action, particularly when their code or design is being reviewed. Suggestions for improvement will be met with fierce resistance; they know the best way to design or code and will not listen to someone they consider inferior (and this will include pretty much everyone on the team) who suggests a better way. Another indication is that their results never meet expectations. They talk a great game but come time to deliver, often produce only excuses.

The "genius” will eventually cause problems with the team you’ve built, especially when their work must integrate with another team member's. They are a problem which you must address before they upset the team and derail your project. Forget any attempts to change their personality, unless you are a behavioral psychologist in your spare time. The "genius” must be isolated so that your team is insulated against their disruptive behavior. One way to accomplish this is to identify work that can be done by one person and does not require integration with the rest of the system. While you can’t alter their personality, you can suppress the disruptive behavior in your weekly status reviews and any other meetings you moderate. Don’t allow them to take your meeting over or disrupt it with arguments. Cut off debate and assign their beef to the "parking lot”, if necessary. Cutting them off several times will usually be enough to dissuade them from future outbursts. Never, ever argue with these people. If you offer an opinion that this person disagrees with, let them. If you are giving them direction, be direct and concise; don’t pad your directions with reasons or offer extraneous information. Don’t engage in debates, simply say you expect this deliverable by this deadline and walk away. Try to keep them away from design and code reviews. If they have to be there, for example when their design or code is being reviewed, moderate the review yourself and apply the same gag techniques you use in your status review meetings to limit arguments.

The ultimate remedy for the "genius” is to remove them from the team. Don’t hesitate to do this if your other remedies fail and the "genius” is a contractor. Give the contractor the ultimatum: change the behavior or leave and if that fails, show them the door. This may sound harsh, but the alternative is to let them continue to disrupt the project until team morale is on the floor and the project is off the rails. Consult with your project sponsor or HR representative if the "genius” is a full time employee. The HR department may be able to prevail where you failed because of the consequences at their disposal. If HR can’t help you, get your sponsor to help out by removing the "genius” from the team and assigning them to another job which doesn’t involve working as a member of a team. Point out the consequences of their behavior if the sponsor resists this remedy. Exposing them to the behavior in your status review meetings is one way to demonstrate the impact of the behavior. The "genius” might have the good sense to hold their tongue once, but will eventually show their true colors.

The true genius will take a little more time to spot because these people seldom feel it necessary to broadcast their abilities. They require just as much care as the self-proclaimed variety but the rewards are far greater. You will usually be able to identify these people by their work. They produce top quality results, they do it without a lot of fuss, they do it quickly and efficiently, and they take great pride in their work. The down-side is they know their abilities and don’t suffer fools gladly. They especially will not mix well with the self-proclaimed genius so if you have both on your team, keep them well apart. These folks love a challenge, a problem that is difficult to solve, or a deadline that is difficult to meet. This is when they perform at their best and, given the right set of circumstances, your project can benefit from their talent. The down-side is that if these people are not challenged, they will likely want to move on to a role where they will be challenged. If you can’t offer that challenge, they will seek it elsewhere.

These people will make excellent coaches or mentors if their interests lie in that direction. Keep in mind that genuine geniuses are not always interested in teaching others, so ascertain their level of interest before putting them together with a pupil. Pair them with a mentee who is a hard worker, if they are interested in coaching/mentoring; don’t attempt to saddle them with a poor performer in the hopes they will improve performance. Coaching and mentoring is one area that may offer them challenges but there are others. Discuss their interests with them and determine where they see their next challenge. It’s possible that the brilliant programmer may want to try their hand at the Business Analysts role. It may seem counter-intuitive to take this person away from a role where they are excelling and putting them in one where they face a learning curve but it is highly unlikely that anything this person tries their hand at, providing they are interested, will fail. These people have the ability to learn a new role and make a positive impact on all but the shortest projects.

Your star performer may be performing a key role on the project and you will be tempted to keep them in that role, especially if they are working on the critical path. You don’t have to sacrifice the work they are doing in order to keep them challenged. Try making the new role contingent on successful completion of the work they are currently responsible for. You might even make the challenge undertaking the new work while retaining responsibility of the existing work, or you might make it contingent on the successful hand off of the existing work to another team member before assuming the new work. Once they have demonstrated their ability to produce superior results, expect that level of excellence in any of their undertakings. A challenge that would defeat someone else will be what keeps this person engaged and interested.

The genuine genius will want their work recognized and recognition will have to be in a tangible form. Paying this person the top rate allowable for their role is a must. The genuine genius will be aware of their market worth and expect to receive it. The rewards should extend beyond monetary; they should also be in the nature of career advancement. Don’t ignore your own ability to introduce this person to a career in project management, if they express an interest in that path. You are in a unique position to enable this move. Offer them a role on your current project in a junior capacity such as administrator or change manager. You don’t need to make the role full time; they can easily learn the basics of project management from you while still producing in their current role.