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Have you ever been driven up the wall by a mainliner? “What’s a mainliner?” you ask. Read on. You likely are already familiar with the type and how they can cause havoc in your company.


Mainliners cannot be bothered with elementary groundwork.


These players will plunge into any project without so much as a pretense of preparation or planning. They rely on their instincts and agility. They are usually from the group who never bothered to do their homework in high school. Later, they wrote their college papers the night before they were due, without inhibiting themselves with trivia such as a trip to the library. In a pinch, they used someone else’s notes. The solution is always at hand if the player is observant enough and clever enough to recognize it.


Mainliners assume that actually knowing how to do a job is irrelevant.


The essence of this technique is seeing that “knowing how” only limits and inhibits the range and flexibility of expert players.


The blind spot here for non-Players is in understanding what “knowing how” refers to. The uninitiated think that “knowing how” means you have specific knowledge and skills related to the task or problem. They also think that related experience is useful.


Dyed-in-the-wool mainliners understand that, for them, these kinds of things are not important. The only skill they need is an ability and willingness to dive in and to keep poking. Usually, things have a way of working out. If not, truly creative mainliners either abandon the task or call in a specialist, taking full credit for saving the day. — Read and learn.


Liz is an engineer assigned to troubleshoot a lockup problem with a computer installation at a small retail business. For some reason, the main application and the operating system are not interfacing correctly. The result is that the system is lockingup and the business is having trouble staying open.


Liz’s first approach is to say that the people operating the system are causing the problem. When this does not hold up, she next attributes the difficulties to a hardware problem or bug in the operating system. Again, the explanation does not stick. Finally, she reverts to type as an experienced mainliner.


There are a few minor deviations from specifications in the way the business uses the system. One part of the application is one no other customers use.


“You are the only user who has tried to use this function. It’s only an add-on to the main application. We did not expect it to be used on a daily basis. That is what your problem is.”


“Well, it’s important for us to use this function. How soon are you going to fix it so it doesn’t keep locking up?”


Sure, Liz knows just what to say. “This problem is unique to your system. You will need to exercise your support agreements with the hardware and operating system vendors. They will need to straighten out your problems with their installations before we can help.”


“We bought the system from your company. Aren’t you going to stand behind your sales?”


Liz is again ready. “We will support you 100 percent. Just as soon as you get the other problems worked out, I will see you have a specialist assigned to the problem.” A specialist? Yes indeed. That is someone, anyone other than Liz. That’s the way to pass the old buck!


Mainliners start before understanding what you expect.


This technique is axiomatic for mainliners. To find out what you expect is a waste of their time. Adroit players have no intention of doing anything other than what comes to hand. This is called “winging it.”


Someone once said that if you do not know where you are going, you probably will not get there. Mainliners figure that if they do not know where they are going, wherever they end up is where they were headed. If played right, the people who count define it as the only place to be. Ultimately, no one likes admitting getting taken for a ride, especially to somewhere you did not want to go.


Managing Mainliners:


Understanding mainliners’ motivations is easy. They do not want to be found out. They do not know how to do the job you need done and would rather foul everything up than admit the truth. Their goal is to bluff their way through, no matter what the cost to you and your company.


With this in mind, counter play proceeds like this. Do not accept excuses and explanations that are not factual or do not have a ring of truth. If things are getting worse, if problems are getting out of hand, if business is going down the tube, the likelihood is that you have a mainliner at work.


The best counter play starts with a clear notion of what your goal is. It then extends to defining what progress is. Finally, counter play sets specific criteria for deciding if things are moving toward or away from your goal.


If there is no movement toward your goal or especially if there is movement away from it, it is time for individual accountability. Listen to the excuses and explanations and then hold the responsible person accountable.


Much of the time and especially in technical jobs or in complex situations, knowing whether the problems are the work of a mainliner or are unavoidable is difficult. Frequently and especially in smaller businesses, individuals get into positions where only they are qualified to judge their work. The result is that they have no accountability to anyone who can knowledgeably and objectively evaluate their performance. They have, for all intents and purposes, a free rein.


The issue with mainliners is that no one knows how to separate problems caused by the mainliner’s behavior from situations that are going sour despite reasonable and skilled action. If you have an active situation, the best counter play for you is to develop a strategy to evaluate the project and the people objectively. The key here is to be sure that your strategy includes outside people who are experts in the problem area.


For you, the best counter play is to know that mainliners can and will do in your company while they drive you up the wall, given the opportunity. Since you may not detect them until it is too late, any important project should be mainliner-proofed in advance. Build into every critical function in the project an evaluation or monitoring process separate from and not integral to the project itself. This process needs to include people who are qualified to judge every aspect of the project. They also must have the proven ability to tell when circumstances are the problem and when the people in the project do not know what they are doing. Just be sure that the monitoring activity is not itself a haven for a mainliner of its own.


Now you know and there you go.