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Unicorns shmunicorns

I’m studying for mid-terms, getting ready for eight days of vacation, working with a designer on a new book cover, and feeling a bit stretched.

When I searched for a book cover designer, I thought: “All I need to do is hire the right book designer and then book sales will take off.”

Even as I write this, I now realize that I was looking for a unicorn book cover designer.

In my mind, this person would…
1. Have a portfolio which proved they were great at designing books.
2. Have worked on books I’d heard of, or at least books that sold well.
3. Have a “great design sense” that matched the style I was imagining.
4. Take my project and run with it (with minimal input), allowing me to focus on other things.
5. Know everything that’s needed to 10x my sales.  After all, that’s what a cover is for!

Of course, we both know that unicorns don’t exist.

But good book cover designers do, just like front-end developers, API developers, DevOps engineers, and all the other specialties you’re looking for.

Which problems can you spot in my approach?
[   ] Marcus has unrealistic expectations for the impact a book cover has on sales.
[   ] Marcus thought it wouldn’t take any of his time, allowing him to focus on other things.
[   ] Marcus thought the designer would read his mind, and “run with the project.”
[   ] Marcus thought the designer would magically use the style he wanted (but hadn’t explained).
[   ] Marcus’ expectations for this person were impossibly high, resulting in disappointment with any designer he chose.
[   ] Marcus believes that there is “a right designer” out there, and he just needs to find them.


So many mistakes flow from a simple thing like having the wrong mindset about hiring someone.  And woe to the designer who I choose, because there’s no way anyone can live up to my expectations.  In fact, I see in myself (and other managers) a pattern that looks like the Gartner Technology Hype Cycle.

The pattern I’ve seen is:
1. After you hire someone, especially someone you think is a unicorn, you quickly rise to the Peak of Inflated Expectations.
2. But all too quickly, things aren’t working quite like you hoped.  Suddenly you’re sliding down the Tough of Disillusionment.  At the lowest point, you may feel you made a mistake hiring them.
3. Over time, trust and rapport build and you see the good and bad.  Hopefully, you realize that coaching and feedback are necessary (even with a unicorn developer!) and you move up the Slope of Enlightenment.
4. With time you build trust, set realistic expectations, and end up at a Plateau of Productivity.

(Taken from the Wikipedia article.)

As Jane told me, “When I hire someone they seem brilliant, but two months later they have transformed into an idiot. Weird.”
Apparently, the problem lies with Jane.  And me.  And who knows, maybe you too.

Does this resonate with you?  Have you experienced this “hype cycle” in your hiring?
Are you making the mistake of thinking a unicorn will solve all your problems?

If so, stay tuned.  We’ll talk about this more next week, and what you can do about it.

About Marcus Blankenship

Where other technical coaches focus on process or tools, I focus on the human aspects of your Programmer to Manager transition. I help you hire the right people, create the right culture, and setup the right process which achieves your goals. Managing your team isn't something you learned in college. In fact, my clients often tell me "I never prepared for this role, I always focused on doing the work". If you're ready to improve your leadership, process and team, find out how I can help you.

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