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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Bad Example Is Good Example


It all started with the Rheea’s tweet.

No, wait. It started with Piotr’s post about delivering feedback.

No! It started a few months ago on one of coaching sessions when I was trying to point how much we can learn about leading teams while observing pretty bad manager.

Actually it started even earlier. Quite a few years ago I realized how much I learned from a manager I had worked with. The guy was a perfect example of everything I didn’t want to become as manager. If you asked me which of his traits I wanted to copy the answer would be nil. Ideally bad example.

And yet I learned hell lot from him.

When we think about learning we usually imagine someone who shows us how things should be done. Then we try to copy the approach and finally we gain a new skill. And now that you asked, I am well aware this is one huge oversimplification. Anyway we tend to look for role-models, mentors, gurus and thought leaders. This is how we subconsciously choose to learn.

However bad examples are as good as um… good ones. Typically we follow the pattern: observe, figure out the mechanism, try to copy, verify results, get proficient if it works. Now if you have a bad example instead of a good one there’s only a slight change: observe, figure out the mechanism, find the opposite, try to copy it, verify result, get proficient if it works.

A simple example. I’m a child. I see how my older brother gets a pat in the back for running some errands for my mum. I figure out the connection: pat in the back (good thing) for running errands (work to do). I copy it offering my help on next occasion. I get my pat in the back. System works. My mum has one more boy to give him small tedious tasks to do and I’m a new hero.

But as children we learn from negative examples as well. I see how my brother plays with a cooker which ends up with a couple of bad burns. I figure out that for children playing with cooker ends painfully. The opposite seems to be not playing with cooker to avoid pain, which I try to do. Seems to work. I get a new superhero skill: avoiding burns. Actually my superhero skill is learning on bad examples.

But then, when we grow, we lose this magic skill. We keep saying “he’s a crappy manager – I can’t learn a thing from him.” The truth is you can, you just don’t want. There’s only one additional step in the learning process which makes a bad example valuable in terms of learning effort.

Also, knowing what to avoid is as important as knowing what to do. Unless you have a bad example at hand learning don’ts isn’t that easy.

Bad example is good example. Especially when you have no good examples around.

in: personal development

4 comments… add one

  • coldfusion November 26, 2010, 12:50 am

    I’d say that sometimes it’s extremely rare to have a role-model or just a decent manager. In those situation it’s really important to ‘take advantage’ from bad ones. It helps a lot and … is easier to do. We tend to find bad behaviors more quickly than good. We can as well learn from them, so that it’s not just picking on people.

  • Pawel Brodzinski November 26, 2010, 1:28 am

    Every time I hear things like that I realize how lucky I was – in my first job I had great role-models who I was learning from like crazy.

    Anyway, you’re right – we spot wrong behaviors way faster than good ones. The only trick is we rarely learn on bad examples. Somehow we lose this ability we had when we were children.

  • Lech Ambrzykowski November 28, 2010, 9:33 am

    I think about role models often recently. First, in a general organizational context — leaders we would like to follow, those who’d teach and inspire. Second — from a PM’s perspective, as a PMO function, where an aspiring employee has the chance to get down to the nitty-gritty of project management, in practice — observe and do things, but with someone to watch over him / her.

    While I understand that a “negative model” must do, if one hasn’t got anyone else to benchmark against, I’m afraid this kind of learning is more time-consuming and could lead astray (e.g. we can’t be sure the opposite is right).

    Thanks for sharing, Paweł!

  • Pawel Brodzinski November 28, 2010, 1:22 pm


    Opposite to bad behavior doesn’t automatically mean good behavior, so yes, you’re right. Still it’s better than nothing. Much better actually.

    First, you don’t start in void but you have a starting point – something you want to avoid – so you probably want to be on the other end of scale (even it the other end of scale isn’t the best choice). Second, you start noticing patterns – if I do this people react that way. You learn that people react for stimulus and the way they react.

    Anyway, I didn’t try to convince people to forget about good role models at all – they still work better than bad examples – but to point how much value we lose when we don’t learn also from people who act differently than we’d like to.

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