Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Absolute responsibility, the unforgiving nature of excellence

Twelve years ago, on December 17th of 1995, Santos and Botafogo met in a historic final match to decide the Brazilian Soccer Cup.

To put the subject of this entry in perspective, these teams had not won a title of that significance for many decades.
They were not only playing for the title, but also for the reinstatement of their former glory, when their teams were often used as the basis for a national team that won three world titles.

For those who are not soccer fans, Santos used to be the team for the most famous soccer player of all times: Pelé,

Santos needed to win the final match in its home stadium. A 1-goal tie persisted almost to the end when Santos scored the winning goal. Relief lasted a few moments, shattered by the referee's inexplicable decision to invalidate the goal.

Later that day, Santos' coach, Emerson Leão, was invited to several talk-shows.

Known simply as "Leão" (lion in Brazilian Portuguese,) he had had a very successful career as a goalkeeper and was considered by many as one of the best in the sport. As a coach, he was notorious for his excessive, almost unforgiving, discipline with the players; demanding a level of professionalism that was unusual amongst Brazilian coaches.

Asked about how he felt about being 'robbed' of his victory and whether he blamed the referee for the loss of the title, his response came in a calm and composed tone:
Victory and success are in the details. It is in the day when we missed those 10 extra minutes of practice, it is in the moment we missed the chance to score another goal, or in that moment we did not pay attention and let them score theirs... In order to be successful, one cannot make excuses. I blame ourselves, I blame myself.

After passages as the coach for several other teams, including the national team, Leão would return to Santos once again, ahead of the winning campaign for the 2002 national title.

No excuses needed.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Coaching meets sensitivity and being politically correct

In a not-so-distant future:

Manager: Your code module has released a plague of locusts that will engulf us all for the next thirty years. You need to be more careful.

Employee: Isn't that too harsh?

Manager: I am sorry, you are right. The code this organization has written has released the plague of locusts. Is there anything you think we should have done differently?

Employee: Not really, gotta go, the crew is gathering for lunch.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Reluctant heroes and unconventional wisdom

"Loyalty a factor in heroism" is the title of an article that blipped on the news last Sunday. Interesting excerpt:
...researchers divided medal earners into two groups: those who enlisted ("eager heroes") and those who were drafted ("reluctant heroes"). The reluctant heroes scored higher than any other group in selflessness and working well with others.

Many possibilities preclude the conclusion that reluctant soldiers are more prone to heroic action, such as a smaller share of eager volunteers to begin with. Statistics aside, there may be a bit of unconventional wisdom to be observed in the corporate environment.

Given a challenging and critical assignment, should a manager give it to a team member that is less skilled but eager to assume the lead or to a more seasoned employee who initially does not want to take on the task?

I confess to be divided, but would tend to go with the later. I believe the reluctance from a skilled employee to be a sign of deep awareness of the difficulties ahead and their inevitable impact on his work-life balance.

I interpret that reaction in two positive ways: (1) the person understands what it takes to complete the task and (2) that the person knows he would give its best. Whenever someone takes on a challenging task with his eyes wide-open and at his own peril, whether he chose to do it or not, a hero is likely to be born.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

On Leadership, Art, and Design

HDNet is airing a documentary called "Sleek Dreams", about the creative process behind a show car built for the 2005 Geneva Auto Show.

The result is the beautiful Maserati Birdcage 75th, a masterpiece from the renowned Pininfarina studio.



For aspiring designers out there, the interesting part of the documentary is really the influence of Ken Okuyama in the final result.

Lesson #1, the grasp of art and design transcends the medium.

Ken Okuyama was no stranger to automotive success, but it was interesting to learn that he got the job over 500 candidates from all over the world by submitting sketches of...animes; not a single drawing of a car.

He is not a good car designer, he is a good designer.

Lesson #2, good design can be taught...or imposed

In the creative process, Ken chose 4 prominent designers and laid out the tenets for the project: Massive wheels (24" minimum,) and a height under 3 feet. These were not garden variety artists, but designers with ideas of their own. The unusual proportions sparked incredulous looks and even a deriding comment about the wheel sizes being fit for a truck instead of a car.

Moreover, the direction was to establish the design for the car of the future, unconstrained by limitations found in the existing manufacturing techniques. "Think 20 years from now," he said.

In three weeks, each designer should present their final sketches, from which management and Ken would choose just one.

Lesson #3, unusual solutions for unusual stakes

The strategy seemed odd, after all, if he had such vision and talent to decide which design was better, why not design it himself? Moreover, the competition did not seem conducive to team spirit.

The wisdom manifested itself soon. It was not about having a happy team of designers; it was about giving the effort its best chance. Pininfarina wanted to cause a lasting impression during the upcoming Geneva Auto Show - the symbolic 100th of its existence - and assert its image as the leading design studio for the auto industry. The event also coincided with Pininfarina 75th anniversary. Wounds, if any, could be healed later.

Moreover, Ken placed himself at the center of the storm. He called the angst upon him, not letting it fester amongst the designers. During an interim review, Ken criticized each proposal in a very technical and impersonal manner.

A mixed expression of vexation and frustration was clear on everyone's face. The reluctant designer behind the "truck" comment ostensibly questioned the assessment, resulting in a post-meeting session where Ken *drew over* his sketch (the utter humiliation for a designer, according to the documentary,) in a conversation punctuated by comments such as "the nose is all wrong". His tone was not testy, actually rather technical, he seemed focused on the results rather than on his or anyone's feelings.

Lesson #4, sticking up for your vision

At the end of the 3rd week, the reluctant designer followed Ken's suggestion and eventually won the bid, penning a historic moment in automotive history. The triumph was not until Ken fought over management's first choice, which was not in line with his original vision.

A few weeks later, during the construction phase, the designer felt like going back to his original design, asking the artisans to make a key modification to the car lines. The mutiny did not last long, with Ken lassoing back the change during one of his periodic visits to the shop. The designer was allowed leeway as long as the original vision was preserved.

The final lesson, art...trough others

A great designer can transpose his Technique, Art and Quality to the final medium through the work of others. His inspiration must be (far?) superior than the inspiration experienced by the hired artisans, to the point where the designer understands it well enough to abstract it as a vision and to teach it as if the vision was already real.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Choose your next assignment

Fantastic series of articles, titled "Top Companies for Leaders 2007" in the latest edition of the Fortune Magazine.

There is an interesting quiz, titled "Are you a good leader?", which is worth taking whether you are on your way to become the next CEO or just curious about what the "right" answers should be.

----

Now for the best part, the article about Google and Whole Foods, from which I quote the intriguing
"At Whole Foods Market ... the basic organizational unit is not the store but the team. ... Every new associate is provisionally assigned to a team. After a four-week work trial, teammates vote on the applicant's fate; a newbie needs a two-thirds majority vote to win a full-time spot on the team."
and the great

'"If at all possible, we want people to commit to things rather than be assigned to things," says Shona Brown, Google's VP for operations. "If you see an opportunity, go for it."'

My first thought was that only executives got to choose their assignments, but a few moments later, revisiting various moments in my career, it was clear that the leadership chain not always knew exactly what I should be doing down to every year-round assignment.

Truth is, not everybody can choose their assignments, but then again, not everybody is a leader.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Corporations, Technique, and Quality

This is the final article in the three-part series started with "On Quality and Art" and "Technique, Art, and Quality". Understanding this part requires you to accept the differentiation between quality and Quality, with a capital "Q", explained in the first article.

Companies are capable of building a product with quality, the kind of reassuring knowledge that a product is free of problems and does not fall apart when it is picked from a shelf or driven from a showroom. However, managing product quality is different than an individual's ability to marshal the primordial Quality into products, which brings me to the first question:

"Are corporations capable of preserving that Quality?"

Preserving Quality means keeping as much of it in the final product, from the moment the initial product design, or Art, is conceptualized by an individual until the moment it hits the stores. The word "individual" is used intentionally here1.

The creation of a product involves several people over a large span of time. As explored in the previous articles, that imperfect process is bound to take away some of the original design Quality. In that sense, the mastering of techniques required to manufacture something is fundamental to preserve Quality in the finished product.

Another limiting factor is the degree of individual awareness about the original design premise, lest a combination of masterful execution for different production steps could yield a product that does not correspond to the designer's vision.

Quality control as a technique

Quality control is the process used to ensure that product or process attributes are kept within established quality parameters. This dull definition cannot make justice to the dullness of the activity in itself, but quality control is a "Technique" after all, and as such, should be mastered to the point where it can be executed without conscious thought.

A perfect way of making quality control a hindrance is...to make it visible. When a project contributor is requested to see quality control as a separate activity, maybe by entering additional data into a separate system, his attention is diverted from his primordial purpose of building the finished product, which brings me to another assertion.

Project contributors should only be made aware of quality control when their work does not meet the quality criteria, not before.

A different kind of Quality Control

What about managing the Quality, with a capital "Q"? Even with my attempts to define Quality - which pale in comparison to those by Robert Pirsig - its parameters are still highly subjective to be measurable and verifiable. A quality control team would be mystified while trying to determine how much of the original designer's view still exist at each stage of the production process.

As you are guessing, here comes another assertion:

Quality Control is the responsibility of the original designer, who must ensure that his original vision is preserved through the development process and in the finished product.

Only the designer himself has enough, if limited, rational view of the original Quality built into the design, which leads to the next assertion:

Companies, as a matter of technique, must have processes that support the verification of the original "Quality" in the product, even at the risk of granting unlimited power to the product designer.

A different production model


These philosophical thoughts are impractical within the context of hierarchical structure. Granting unlimited powers to an individual over the result of dozens of interconnected tasks performed by dozens of different people requires a rare combination of skills.

Such an individual would have to be able to channel inspiration from the primordial Quality and, at the same time, work under the governance of a quality control process; he would also have to be able to objectify his inspiration before he could verify its presence during the production process; and finally, he should have a fair mind to withstand the corrupting force of unlimited power.

And for the ultimate question...

Are corporations capable of Quality?
Only to the extent that those rare individuals discussed in the previous section can exist. On the bright side, most corporations are still capable of creating good quality products, threading a difficult path of compromises when it comes to Quality.

As a matter of quality, the degree of Quality preserved during a production process is subjective, but somewhat quantifiable by the original designer. To conclude this series, a parting thought:

Quality, with a capital "Q", can be managed within a complex product creation process.


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1 Even when multiple people collaborate in the design of a product, the organization is such as that individuals work under the supervision of a chief designer to elaborate on design aspects in their field of expertise. As examples, the acclaimed designs for the Apple iPod and the Motorola Razor are reportedly associated with the vision of individuals (Steve Jobs and Roger Jellicoe, respectively.)

Friday, August 24, 2007

Technique, Art, and Quality

Having just written about quality and art, I wanted to expand the thoughts to the importance of good form in the creation of good art, eventually closing the arc in my next posting.

I start with an analogy of an important concept found in the work of Jean Piaget, who believed that knowledge was built on top of mental structures and that mental structures were built on top of knowledge, thus supporting a continuous cycle of learning. For the purposes of this entry, I offer this parallel thought:

Art builds on top of technique and technique builds on top of Art

Whereas the inspiration for great art is drawn from Quality, the amount of inspiration reaching the target medium is limited by the artist's technique. Whether the artist is a graphical designer penning the next logo for FedEx or Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, pure thought must be channeled through hands and tools.

The process of channeling inspiration into craft requires concentration and fluidity of action, with conscious thought being too structured and slow to allow the free flow of Quality into reality. Forced to think through his actions, an artist will continuously interrupt that free flow at every twist of a pencil or keystroke.

...a thorough understanding of its craft allows an artist to recognize additional facets of its primordial inspiration.
I have heard many times about the importance of practice in achieving greatness, but somehow selected this Fortune Magazine article, titled "Secrets of Greatness - What it takes to be great" as an index to that school of thought. The article highlights the importance of practice and hard work in achieving greatness of execution, but deprived from the freedom to dive into the philosophical pit by the pragmatic nature of his audience, the excellent Geoffrey Colvin did not introduce the subject of Quality as the differentiator between high-performers.

A great Artist relies on intense practice of his technique and dedicates time to observe its effect on others. That intense practice exposes the limitations of an artist's technique, a critical aspect to eliminate imperfections in the resulting work.

A thorough understanding of its craft allows an artist to recognize additional facets of its primordial inspiration. When the wood splinters at a too narrow cut or the metal cracks at a sharper bend, the medium can teach the artist indirectly through its reactions. In his next creation, the artist will know to avoid those shapes or, more commonly, research and attempt new materials.

Over time, the repeated iterations of discovering new techniques and materials create repeated iterations of more unusual results that closely resemble the artists intent. Absent their knowledge of the artists toil and the time it took him to arrive at combinations of materials that are far from the obvious first choice, the onlookers will not only observe genius in form, but also genius in technique.

It is that oneness between the artist and his craft that makes it possible for his work to transfer the combined force of his original inspiration and of his continuous practice through time and distance.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

On Quality and Art

A while ago, a good friend let me borrow his copy of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance".

Through steady reasoning, weaving philosophical references from all corners of the globe with simple lessons about motorcycle maintenance, Robert Pirsig creates a masterpiece around the topic of quality. Page after page, he redefines Quality - with a capital "Q" - as the absolute source of our knowledge; a connecting bridge between the unending potential of our future and the realization of that potential in the present. This is the kind of definition that cannot be found in a dictionary.

Now, onto art, starting with...a dictionary definition:
the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.

These dull words make me wish that Mr. Pirsig had also written about art, but maybe he already has.

...a sufficiently inspiring work of art is indistinguishable from absolute Quality.
Good art challenges the observer to interact with it. A good artist is able to create a finite piece of work that causes unexpected feelings on observers. As the observers become aware of those feelings, surprise takes root to support a wave of new feelings, causing a chain reaction of conscious thought and ultimately a final stage of wonder.

How do they do it? Without a blueprint or recipe, out of the thin air of their imagination, they impart their intelligence and inspiration onto ordinary materials. Hours, days, centuries later, without exception, that intelligence and inspiration remain alive, ready to amaze anyone who gazes or listens to them.

Whenever a work of art touches someone, it needs characteristics that are lost in the observers; otherwise it will fail to cause new sensations and emotions. However, human beings are so complex that finding something amiss amongst millions would be virtually impossible to men. In many cultures, those who hover above men are known as Gods.

So, are great artists Gods? Certainly not, but at some point in time, they established a transcendental connection with a greater source of inspiration not available to average men. They were able to convey that fleeting moment into hand craft using rudimentary tools and their earthbound skill and senses.

That source of greater inspiration is Mr. Pirsig's Quality: the source of our knowledge. A true artist is able to channel that undiluted knowledge and transform it into art. Even as some impurity makes it into the final work in the form of imperfect craft and imperfect materials, the quality in the final work is still indistinguishable from its primordial source.

To paraphrase Arthur Clarke's 3rd law: a sufficiently inspiring work of art is indistinguishable from absolute Quality.

Maybe most of us cannot touch millions with our work or create timeless sculpture, but that is only one way of expressing art.

Art - now with a capital A - is the representation of Quality, and is available to all of us. All that it takes is that we sit quietly now and then, letting our imperfect thoughts to fade away while Quality asserts itself. If you capture as much of that moment in craft, words, or actions, and the result manages to inspire as much as one person around you, you will have become an artist.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Narrow bodies and narrow relationships

This morning I read the news of increasing canceled flights for Northwest Airlines. The CNN article impartially listed the arguments from the airline and from the pilots union, which each blaming the other side for the ongoing problems.

Amidst the crossfire, an amusing pearl from a Northwest spokesperson:
"Beginning Friday morning, we noticed a spike in certain narrow body absenteeism"

"Narrow body", in this context, is Northwest speak for pilots.

Not to pick on Northwest in particular, but using such impersonal terms to address otherwise real people seems a sign of of modern times. Maybe technical definitions eliminate ambiguity, or maybe they preclude pain-inducing human bonds during times of economical duress for the company.

No matter the explanation, there is something terribly wrong with the distance, for I am a strong believer that there should be mutual loyalty between employees and employers. Treating each other as a collection of parts is never a good start.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A prescription for creating great products

Have you ever thought about what causes a company to create a bad product?

I could quote from dozens of sources that have extensively analyzed the work environment; ranging from immature technologies, lack of executive focus, passing through the rising cost of supporting pension plans, incompetent vendors, unmotivated work force, and on and on.

Instead, I offer one thought that summarizes them all:
"People do not create bad products because they are incompetent;
they create bad products because they cannot tell the difference."



The quality transfusion

My best advice to any business trying to end a losing streak on the market is to expose each employee to a product recognized as the best in its segment. It should not be a competing product; while you are trying to copy their product, they will be busy building something better - not to mention the potential of copyright lawsuits.

During the next department meeting, place an iPod on the table and talk about it. If you are feeling venturous, skip the meeting, and take the people to a BMW dealership to inspect a 3 Series.

Tell them to take their time, turn the knobs, touch the material, operate it. Hint: Do not take your entire department to the BMW dealership if you really want a shot at a test-drive.

Letting them see and touch a product recognized for its excellence will infuse their senses with something new: the feeling experienced by a customer purchasing a great product.

Knowing the difference

The next time your team designs something that does not live up to that experience, they will know. And by knowing the difference, they will go back to the drawing board and will ask what is missing until they get it right.

It may take several trips between prototypes and sketches, but fear not, the losing streak will be over on the first one.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Bureaucracy vs. personal responsibility

Bureaucracy thrives on the intersection of limited resources with resourceful people.
After reading a blog entry by a colleague on the topic of reducing bureaucracy in business processes, I found myself thinking about the roots of bureaucracy.

Processes are made to guide the execution of action, and invariably include approval checkpoints to ensure those actions were executed. While processes must be simplified and eventually automated, checkpoints are the real productivity killers.

On lack of trust and inefficiencies

Some are offended by what they consider a lack of trust, others are distressed by foiled acquisition of equipment that could make their work more efficient. I have been on both camps, but I eventually got over both feelings. The reason? Show me a person with some common sense and I will show you four other people who cannot tell what they need from what they want.

At the root of bureaucracy one will often find the need to control the usage of common resources, whether it is the approval for the construction of a wall or for the acquisition of a new network router. In a never ending loop, people in the "I need the resource to do my job" camp find ways around the processes and the bureaucracy responds with more control points. Bureaucracy thrives on the intersection of limited resources with resourceful people.

Executives and keyboard purchases

Remove all the control points, and you soon my have a tragedy of the commons on your hands.

Of course, the extreme case of a senior executive approving a US$200 purchase should be avoided. On the other hand, US$200 may be the cost of that matching set of keyboard, mouse, and speakers that look great with the replacement workstation you received last week.



Personal responsibility to the rescue

Dilbert's principle book coverIn the tragedy of the commons, the only known solution is to eliminate or reduce the "commons" in favor of personal ownership, whatever that resource may be. Karl Marx would not be proud.

Scott Adams once suggested, in the serious portion of his excellent "The Dilbert Principle", that companies actually gave money to employees for the purchase of office items instead of the traditional supply bins spread through the building. It would be up to employees to individually purchase the supplies they needed or keep the money. The actual amount is unimportant - the bean counters have all the numbers they need to calculate that amount - but the company would no longer need to burden administrative staff with those tasks.

The real question is, could one try and stretch that approach to personal laptops or desktop computers? In many geographies, the cost of these machines can rival the monthly salary of their users. What happens when you hand out the money for equipment that should last 3 years and the person leaves the company before that period is over? Impound whatever they bought or demand a refund?

Solve that riddle and the end of bureaucracy may be at hand.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Who do you work for?

A couple of years ago, I had a long discussion with a colleague on the somewhat philosophical question: "Who do you work for?"

The discussion could have been shortened by the trivial "for whoever pays your salary", but that answer seemed inadequate and unnecessarily cynical. In the corporate world of public-owned companies, that is a "what", not a "who". The CEO does not pay your salary, nor does your immediate supervisor; an almost invisible army of HR specialists and automated payroll systems have taken over that duty long ago.

The real question was "Is there someone who has earned your loyalty above and beyond anyone else in the company?" Literature on the topic is extensive, inspiring leadership trumps most other job conditions, a healthy captain-crew bond can motivate employees to go beyond their job contracts (I said "healthy", cut it out on the jokes here :-).

Over the years, I have asked those questions to people in different walks of life, finding some obvious, and sometimes curious, answers. I compiled a list with some of the answers; providing my opinion about the way people relate to their work. Note that there is no reflection of people's commitment to their work, which is a different topic altogether:

"For the company"

No, I did not ask Asok, the abused intern from Dilbert's comic strip, but I did hear this answer a couple of times. For safety, whenever I heard it in a solemn "For the Fatherland" kind of tone, I just stepped back quietly and speed-dialed security after managing to leave the room.

Seriously, some people are just professional beyond individual loyalties. That trait made me separate this from the less-informed "For whoever pays my salary" category. People in this category bring critical stability to the work environment, lest you have a factional pool of opinionated employees in your hands.

"For myself, I don't trust anyone"

This is a common answer, often coming from people who have been in their careers for too long and burned by difficult bosses in the past. There is a strong inertia in getting people in this camp to be enthusiastic about any new project. The steel-hardened variety of abused employees are usually reticent to new endeavors, but the majority will quickly become extremely loyal towards a good boss if they can ever allow some light to shine in.

I also noticed a tendency in this population towards strong bonds with their team-mates, although those bonds tend to double as carriers of dissenting messages toward the establishment. Did I say negative?

"For whoever pays my salary"

The apparently mercenary nature of this answer actually hides the lack of direct good or bad experiences with the leadership chain. When followed by a scoff, I categorized this answer in the same bucket as the "For myself", but a shrug of the shoulders was the more prevalent body language accompanying this answer.

"For my boss, this guy rocks"

As noted by many authors, the influence of an excellent manager on employee morale cannot be overstated. Most of the respondents in this category displayed a sort of reverence while describing the moral attributes of their bosses.

There were two examples that showed up more than most: (1) situations where the boss undertook the employee cause at his own peril, and (2) situations where the boss managed to keep order under extreme external pressure.

Whereas the later is a sign of training and all-around competence, the first tends to form a lifetime bond.

Boss screaming at employees ear"For my boss, this guy throws rocks"

To parallel the introductory paragraph for the above category: the influence of an abusive manager on employee motivation cannot be overstated :-) I have been fortunate in my career to not have worked directly under a rock-throwing manager, but there is plenty of fodder in Stanley Bing's excellent "Crazy Bosses" series.

"For the customers"

This is a great answer, the ultimate answer, an uninspiring answer. Note that I am not downgrading the importance of customers for a company, but this was a quest for inspiration beyond financial compensation.

Unless the person worked directly with customers, I filed it under the "For whoever pays my salary" category.

For respondents who did work with customers, it was refreshing to witness such pervasive loyalties, with the respondent carrying the customer flag higher than his own company's.

There was also a direct tie to overall product quality. The better the product, the healthier the 3-way relationship between employee, employer, and customer. The worse the product, the more customer-biased the relationship, with the goodwill clearly tilted towards the customer.

Team huddle
"For my peers"

This is, by far, my favorite. An evolutionary step from the "For myself" answer; this is the brothers-in-arms crowd. They seemed as enthusiastic as the "For my boss, this guy rocks" crowd, but with the good-will spread towards the team rather than focused solely on the boss. The "boss" was often counted in the "peers" group.

These were folks that had been through a lot together and often had well-established bonds outside the work environment, sometimes including spouses and other common friends.

The positive effects on the work results are noticeable, with natural collaboration being the most visible of them. On the downside, newcomers may have an initial bad reaction to the perceived closed circle of people, but the environment tends to make them feel at home sooner than in other settings.

"For humanity"

I only heard it once, but it was worth mentioning. There was no imminent threat on the eyes of the respondent, so I didn't have to call for security. Maybe it was a Buddhist Kwan, but the effect was lost on me.

It takes an enlightened stance towards life to see humanity as the key benefactor to one's work unless you are a missionary in a disaster area. I am curious as to what it might feel like to see work in that light, which is what made me add it to the list.

"For Ayur"

These people are blindly dedicated to their stellar craft, work together like no other and for free. They are not necessarily real, at least until 2008 :-)

Their influence on the work environment is limited though. Their preference for telepathic communication and the necessity to slice open other creatures during their normal day job doesn't make for good water-cooler conversation.

In conclusion, these are the main categories. I am sure there are many other variations and interpretations out there, making up for a guaranteed sequel to this posting in the future.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Cultural barriers, hot spots, and being a good host

I got somewhat interested on the topic of meeting metrics and dug up an academic paper with some very interesting conclusions. The paper is titled "Spotting 'Hot Spots' in Meetings: Human Judgments and Prosodic Cues".

If you muscle your way past the word "Prosodic" in the subtitle, you will read about an experiment where listeners were asked to rate the "involvement" of meeting participants along the lines of amusement or disagreement. The ratings were fairly consistent amongst listeners, with one exception, described in this excerpt:
However, differences in performance between native and nonnative raters indicate that judgments on involvement are also influenced by the native language of the listener.
The authors found evidence that there was less consistency in the perception of meeting "hot spots" by people who were non-native speakers. In other words, the non-native speakers didn't perceive the meeting dynamics in the same way the native speakers did. They made a point of not ascribing the observation to cultural or language aspects, because they were not after that particular aspect during the experiment and also due to the small population size.

Having attended a fair share of meetings where I was the sole cultural minority, I have certainly experienced first-hand the difficulty in understanding contextual jokes, such as a remark about a TV show I have never watched. Conversely, I have hosted many meetings where I am part of the cultural majority, witnessing embarrassed guests completely lost amidst laughter or tension during the meeting.

Some lessons learned:

The least-common denominator language wins: Mastering a foreign language takes years of practice. Speaking someone else's native language is a sign of individual achievement, not of cultural inferiority. If that least-common denominator language happens to be English, you will have to learn it. Get over it, but put it in perspective: In terms of human history, English is fairly new as a universal language, and not for long if this trend continues. And this leads to the next lesson learned:

Avoid side-conversations in your own language if it is not shared by all participants: Unless someone specifically asked to hear an exotic sample of your own language, just don't. If someone simply does not speak the language, announce the need to translate the conversations to other participants. Cumbersome beats being rude.

Share context before telling a story: Sharing stories with the team is a great way of establishing healthy bonds, but many good stories need some background to be fully understood. The ability to share stories more quickly by building upon other stories is powerful, so that this is not only about cultural and language minorities. If you are about to tell a funny story involving that former old boss, take a couple of moments to share the context with people who didn't know him at the time.

Share context before a meeting: The lesson above also goes for introducing a contentious technical subject. For instance, educating a new colleague on which faction favors one aspect of a solution versus another may spare the rookie from being too forceful or too subtle during the meeting. It is just embarrassing to see a colleague dispensing a 5-minute speech on a person who is already known (by everybody else) to share that point of view. You may want to share the context in private and certainly without labeling either side, even if you disagree with one of them.

Accommodate the contextual majority: This comes from someone who has grown up watching Formula 1 and now lives in NASCAR country. NASCAR fans are a "contextual" majority, not a "cultural" majority. If your new team likes to talk about it, it is not your minority right to ask for a change of subject. You can choose to absorb the context and join in on the conversation. It takes time until you are accepted as a knowledgeable source on the subject and can start poking fun at it. In accommodating the contextual majority, it is also important to set limits to preserve your own integrity, such as steering clear from "American Idol" or "Lost" (as context for people who don't live in the USA, these are very popular TV shows for reasons that are completely lost on me.)

Learn about the other culture: Just the other day I was on an 11PM call with a team in Japan when a (Western nationality omitted here to protect the offender) participant asked the sunny side of the call: "Why did you use this component instead of the approved ones?" That comment would have rolled over the back of anyone here in RTP, but for those familiar with the Japanese culture, it was worse than watching someone slamming the lid of their laptops on their fingers. I cringed in anticipation and, as expected, our Japanese counterparts were considerably quieter until the meeting was over, restricting themselves to answering direct questions.

I have recently developed a sense of dignity in avoiding asking "what do you think?" questions at the end of any given posting; the lack of comments was too painful. But please feel free to share your own lessons here.

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Smartest/Nuttiest Futurist on Earth

Fortune Magazine brings an interview with Ray Kurzweil, titled "The Smartest/Nuttiest Futurist on Earth". He asserts that the exponential development of computing power can be extended to other fields, such as medicine and climate forecasting, as long as their most fundamental aspects can be mapped into bits and bytes.

An interesting quote, paralleling a previous posting titled "DNA Hardware and the Final Frontier":
By 2027, he predicts, computers will surpass humans in intelligence; by 2045 or so, we will reach the Singularity, a moment when technology is advancing so rapidly that "strictly biological" humans will be unable to comprehend it.
Kurzweil may be right about his theories of exponential technological development in some areas; he has been right about other forecasts. Human sciences don't evolve exponentially though.

Along the same theme, this edited version of the "Shift happens" slide-show, by Karl Fisch, shares similar predictions about technology against a backdrop of startling world-wide changes in the areas of education, labor, and economy.

I trust the judgment of our future scientists, but scientists are not a fixture in the circles of politics. Whether we will live in a time of liberating enlightenment or unprecedented exclusion remains to be seen.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Directions from the past and e-mails to the future

I was listening to an interview with Sarah Susanka on NPR the other day. Sarah is the author of the best-selling series "The Not So Big House" and was promoting her newest book: "The Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really Matters".

In the interview, she mentioned a ritual repeated every year between the weeks of Christmas and New Year's Eve: writing down the things she expected to accomplish in life. She continued on to describe how after a few months a large part of those goals were met without her conscious action.

Years ago, Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, shared a similar experience in "The Dilbert Principle" - a book more serious than one would assume. His approach followed the same principle, but was far more intense, consisting of writing down his goals on little cards everyday. According to Scott, he used that technique to realize his most notable achievement: becoming the world's most famous cartoonist.

Scott went further, cautioning the reader about setting goals that depended on individual effort, rather than wishing for divine providence on something like winning the lottery.

Written goals

Granted, both Sarah Susanka and Scott Adams were already renowned authors when they shared their recipes for success; one could argue that these are focused individuals that would have reached their goals whether they put their thoughts on paper or not. However, there are several merits to their advice.

A vision: Firstly, writing down your goals implies that you know what they are, which is obviously very important if you want to achieve them.

A clear vision: Secondly, anyone who has ever sat in front of blank page, pen or keyboard in hands, knows the pressure of organizing thought in a form that can be understood in a clear manner. It follows that written goals tend to be clearer than unstated ones.

Even for people with an innate sense of purpose, there is always a point in life where that general sense of purpose is fulfilled and clearer direction is required to sustain progress. Just imagine the stories of children who always wanted to be doctors. It is unusual to hear stories about children who wanted to be the best doctor in the world.

A vision reminder: A third positive aspect of written goals is that they become constant reminders of the decisions to be made in the future. It is like having your past self constantly looking over your shoulder and advising you to make decisions consistent with those goals on each crossroad. That past self of yours lack your new experiences, but he has clearer view of what is important in your life.

Written...where?

The sense of purpose built while writing goals will weaken after awhile. Your past self needs you to keep those goals close at hand to guide your decisions and actions. Scott Adams' method of writing down your major goal in life everyday is certainly labor intensive; as a computer geek, I like using a desktop background and the default page on the web browser.

The other day I came across a web site called FutureMe.org, which allows one to send an e-mail to the future. If their infrastructure doesn't disappear in the meantime, my future self will be receiving some reminder notes.

Collective goals

In a large company, writing down organizational goals seems equally necessary, but not so much of a common practice. Of course, you don't want them to look like something coming out of Dilbert's Mission Statement Generator; goals should be a clear target against a metric.

For the leaders ultimately responsible for the attainment of collective goals...

...be active... Once you get those goals written down, there is the question of how to make them present on people's routines. Forcing people to write them down everyday is a reminiscent from classrooms best left in the past. Slapping them to screens on a system or to walls on facilities that people use everyday is a sure way of suppressing people's awareness and involvement.

...but be subtle... a more subtle way of bringing it up now and then seems in order. Some examples would be the addition of goals to e-mail signatures or periodically adding them to a slide or two during presentations. Subtlety being the operative word, as the Baby-Boomers and GenX'ers comprising the bulk of the workforce today do not react well to any kind of intensive pestering.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Red cars, greener grass

Frong peeking from behind a green leafWhile reading the news of Ferrari being nominated Europe's best place to work, I couldn't resist but pay a visit to the "Great Place to Work Institute web site. They are the ones behind the lists of "100 Best Companies To Work Fort" you see every year on Fortune Magazine.

There is an interesting correlation between the market performance of companies in the "100 Best..." list versus the industry average.

I know what you are itching to do, so here is the link to the search page from where you can query the performance of your favorite company.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Marxist Corporations (2/2) : Being Thankful and the Reputation Capital

Man thanking another manHaving read one too many stories about office dwellers robbed of their credit or about the rapid ascension of seemingly incompetent colleagues, I now realize that most of the self-anointed victims somehow failed to understand the notion of reputation as capital.

This is a long post so you may want to skip to the list of tips at the end. If you stick around, let us start with the classic notion of capitalism capitalism and apply it to the reputation built during our daily routine in a large corporation. From Wikipedia:
“…the means of production are mostly privately owned and operated for profit, and in which investments, distribution, income, production and pricing of goods and services are determined through the operation of a market where all decisions regarding transfer of money, goods (including capital goods), and services are voluntary rather than by government…”
What makes reputation a capital? Complex products. The modern worker may still toil in dark engine rooms, but the production cycles have certainly become longer. A typical car may take 3 years to leave the drawing board and reach the assembly line, software development cycles take anywhere between 1 and 2 years, vaporware takes even longer.

Labor output cannot be measured precisely in an environment where hundreds, or even thousands, of people contribute to the final result. Often people move to different assignments long before their contribution can be assessed. Ever more often, several layers of management insulate the reputation creditors from the people earning the reputation. It is in that lack of precision that reputation ceases to be an individual attribute to become a capital that can be traded in a market.

As you already learned through the years; goods in the reputation market can be traded for promotions, bonuses, or just permanence in the job during trying periods of organizational shuffling. This entry is not about how to raise that kind of capital; too many people write about it everyday, it is about the mechanics of that market.

...the reputation capital is somewhat different from hard-cash in that sharing credit with someone in your team actually increases your overall reputation.
When you join any organization, you immediately have two bosses: the ethereal entity embodied by the management chain and your flesh-and-bone supervisor. Anyone who lands tasks on your desk and helps your boss assess your performance is your supervisor. Before you finish the snide rhetorical question about CEO’s, I’ll quip that CEOs have nor bosses or the time to read blogs.

The supervisory chain is an alternative market where reputation is the currency. Complete an assignment on time and you earn some reputation; miss a deadline and you give back some of that reputation.

Senior employees responsible for the junior employees executing work under their supervision, have the opportunity to capitalize on that credit, holding some of it for them. No mischief, it just comes their way because, ultimately, they are responsible for the outcome of that work. So does reputation debit, a poor euphemism for blame.

Just like in a regular capital-based market, one can earn capital faster than others, by exploiting the labor of those who are willing to trade it for compensation below the actual value of their work. It should follow that a smart employee can accumulate reputation capital faster than his peers by taking credit for someone else’s work or capitalizing on a share of the reputation from individuals in the team. However unethical and questionable, these are means to the end of building up reputation.

To the untrained eye, the above logic is a parking-lot-broken-antenna-badly-keyed-paint-job short of irrefutable, but the reputation capital is somewhat different from hard-cash in that sharing credit with someone in your team actually increases your overall reputation.

It will make you feel better too.

I once received advice on leading a happier life: be thankful for something, however irrelevant, at end of the day. Whether your toddler ate his meals without a fuss or your favorite music played on the radio on your way to work, close your eyes before you go to bed and be thankful for it.

Should such profound advice also be valid in our professional lives? Virtually nothing can be accomplished individually nowadays. The difficulties in our work should not be so overwhelming as to numb our senses to the contributions from those around us. However simple those contributions may seem, the coworker who lent you an ear after an elusive problem swallowed your whole morning, and shared your enthusiasm after you found the solution, these are contributions.

When people feel pressured to take individual credit for their work, they become a breathing example of a dysfunctional organization.
Marx anticipated communism as a natural evolution of mature capitalism. Unhindered by our karmic attachment to capital, universal sharing of the reputation capital is the natural evolution of the mature work environment.

Granted, human nature influences the way we share our credit with others. People fulfill their needs at different stages in life and it is not until they achieve the stage of growth needs that altruistic behavior takes root. At least not naturally, and that is why this entry should interest you as a leader: these values can be fostered. Share all of your credit in front of your superiors and team. Praise those who do the same. When someone completes a nice piece of work, ask them who they would thank the most for it.

When people feel pressured to take individual credit for their work, they become a breathing example of a dysfunctional organization. Whether the motivation is an ill-conceived attempt to improve ones standing or a self-defense move against an oblivious management chain, the team spirit suffers.

None of the above means that you should selflessly forgo whatever credit you may receive, the point is acknowledging contributions.

Maximizing your reputation capital

Some lessons learned across the years:
  • Be regular. Make a point of praising at least one person in your team to your supervisor or manager every day. If possible, have the person present.

  • Be specific. Highlight how the contribution helped you complete your work.

  • Be fair. Even someone in your bad list may eventually contribute something. Acknowledging a contribution from someone doesn't make you wrong on whatever other grievances you may have with the contributor.

  • Spread a thankful culture: Always ask the presenter of an interesting piece of work about the contributors. A true team-player will not skip a beat before answering.

  • Beware of the heroes: No matter how indispensable someone might seem, they received help to get there. A hero is only worth praise when carried on the shoulders of his coworkers and not dragging a chain of unappreciated people on their wake. Refer back to "spread a thankful culture".

  • Acknowledge the intangible: Thank or compliment people for small improvements, like a well-written meeting agenda. You may want to be casual about it too.

  • Now this is important, be sincere. If you are sharing credit or paying compliments just to look good in front of others, you are doing it wrong. And it shows.

  • If you are accepting an award or a promotion, make a list of individual acknowledgments tailored to the time you will have to accept it. Save a time slice for general acknowledgments. If you are not ready to be sincere, thank people anyway; you are not awarded or promoted everyday and there is no point in looking like a jerk until the next opportunity comes.

Barring the above advice, I can suggest staring at this wall poster every other day. If the poster does not work either, you can only hope life to be kind and land you for six months on a pathologically dysfunctional team.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Automatic shushing, loud sirens, and meeting metrics

Drawing of meeting going awryI was in a discussion about information that would be useful for the participants of a meeting, when I thought of some unconventional ways of improving the quality of meetings in general.

A combination of collaboration tools and VoIP conferencing systems could be used to collect statistics about the people doing the talk during meetings. Why not unleash their power to change the way we participate on meetings at a cultural level?

Just imagine if this readily available or easily collectable information was made public:

Chairing quality

What if you had access to some metrics about a meeting chair before accepting an invitation?

Imagine if these metrics were collected in a confidential manner and disclosed to the entire company.
  • Effectiveness: Ratio of agenda-per-meeting and minutes-per-meeting issued by the chair.
  • Credibility: Grade from 0 to 10 (10 being the highest) given by participants to the meetings called by this chair, based on objective criteria such as "adherence to the agenda", "time management", "minutes accuracy", "minutes timeliness", and others.
People are certainly going to be worried about misuse of the information, but I am more worried about abuses that cause the tragedy of the calendars.

If the chair and participants are working closely and holding ad-hoc conversations, they should have access to some "not applicable" check buttons when scheduling and evaluation meetings.

Speaker being pulled out of classroomParticipation quality

Wouldn't it be fantastic to have access to the following information about meeting participants?
  • Talk-O-Meter: Amount of talk-time for each participant in recent meetings.
  • Bad-Manners-O-Meter: Number of times a participant spoke over for more than 5 seconds while another participant was still talking.
The last two metrics could be used by meeting chairs while deciding who should be called for a meeting. A good collaboration tool could even popup an "Argument-O-Meter" warning about too many people with high "Talk-O-Meter" and "Bad-Manners-O-Meter" indexes invited for the same meeting.

The rise of the machines

As with any monitoring activity, the next logical step is automation :-) One could create a "Meeting Quality Monitor" application and plug it into mainstream VoIP conferencing systems. This monitor would take automatic action based on the metrics above.

Some basic actions would be to mute the phone of the speaker if his "Talk-O-Meter" index exceeded a certain limit. If the meeting was being held in person, a loud siren or shushing sound would do the trick.

The "Bad-Manners-O-Meter" index could be used in a more proactive manner. In a phone conference, the system could be put in "strict" or "educational" mode. In "strict" mode, the same muting or shushing actions would be employed; whereas in "educational" mode, the system would just interrupt the meeting altogether and admonish the offender. It is much more convenient for a chair to let a machine reprimand a demonstrably argumentative person than try and do it himself.

Anyway, the possibilities would be endless, and fun!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"The Best and Worst Corporate Practices"

From BusinessWeek.com, this article written by Liz Ryan contains a summary of the best and worst corporate practices she has come across during her long executive career.

Don't miss the slide shows for the top 10 best and worst practices.

My favorite best practice: Employee-Driven Transfer Policies.

My "favorite" worst practice: Forced Ranking Systems.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Marxist corporations (1/2) : Labor Alienation

Karl Marx's pictureMarx's "Capital" is a fantastic reading by those who want to understand the work relations in any industry. Once you blow past his more activist views and adjust his theories with 160 years of technological evolution, you will have developed a newfound respect for the unwritten laws governing the workplace. Before getting to the point of this entry, it is necessary to clear the field for the discussion.

A vilified philosopher

One of Karl Marx's (1818-1883) central ideas was that communism was a natural evolution of mature capitalism; "natural" being the subtle distinction missed by those who used his work as the springboard for the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the violent suppression of its enemies.

Three decades later, with the world's very existence being wired to red buttons in command centers and suitcases, demonization and fear mongering were the words of order; Marx's theories were irreparably damaged in the eyes of entire generations; bystander victims of the McCarthyist movement and its decade-long assault on civil liberties.

Labor alienation

Labor alienation is a central aspect of Marxist theory, a natural response from human beings to the sale of their work in exchange for capital. Marx analysis is certainly more suitable to lower-skilled activities involving mass-production of goods, but even the workers of high-skilled industries are subject to the effects of Marxist labor alienation. These effects are described in the following entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (the bold markups are mine):
Marx famously depicts the worker under capitalism as suffering from four types of alienated labour. First, from the product, which as soon as it is created is taken away from its producer. Second, in productive activity (work) which is experienced as a torment. Third, from species-being, for humans produce blindly and not in accordance with their truly human powers. Finally from other human beings, where the relation of exchange replaces mutual need.
Any of these symptoms can keep an executive or team lead awaken in the middle of the night; after all no one wants to be around (1) a colleague emotionally detached from the results of his/her work, (2) an abusive colleague or boss that makes the work environment a living hell, (3) employees disgruntled for not using their best talents in their current job, and (4) employees that work in isolation from the rest of team.

The educated work force of the 21st century is more prone to muffled contempt that open revolt, but either reaction is damaging to productivity and contrary to the ultimate goal of capital accumulation. Some of the solutions underway are a tacit acknowledgment of Marx's thinking as they aim squarely at the effects of labor alienation.

Managing the symptoms

There is an increasingly stronger focus on committing employees to the results of their work, making the best of their talents and emphasizing work relationships as the foundation of success. IBM, Microsoft and HP value statements are a clear reflection of those tendencies. Barring the natural inertia in the realization of any change in a large business, these are the directives being landed on the desks of the people managing the work force.

Organization structure for a Marxist-Capitalist enterpriseInterestingly enough, companies do not need to share more of their capital with employees to counter the effects of labor alienation. Factors #2 (work environment) and #3 (proper use of skills) are not even related to compensation. Factors #1 (attachment to work product) and #4 (individualism) can be effectively targeted through changes in compensation policies rather than increases in the payroll.

There is value in a hybrid communal system where the compensation policies promote performance-based compensation but also collaboration and collective results. The idea is to avoid completely individual evaluations on one extreme and a company-wide pool of comparison on the other extreme.

There will always be room for above and below average contributions, but there should be less opportunity for individual above-average performance within a team that does not achieve its goals. Contrary to popular belief, unequal performance is also part of Marxian thought.

Challenges

Relations between evaluation processes, scope of goals, and team dynamicsA significant challenge in implementing the hybrid system will be the association between end-results and the individual contribution to those results. An employee may leave a department or product area long before the first customer-satisfaction survey is turned in. Devising a workable model seems a good theme for a PhD thesis or a best-selling book. Drawing a parallel to Marx's predictions about communism as a natural evolution of mature capitalism, this new hybrid model will be a natural evolution of mature work environments.

The current yearly assessment model is more manageable because performance is measured on a comparative basis with other employees in the company and in the industry. On the other hand, this model is somewhat detrimental to the companies when the product release cycle exceeds the yearly checkpoint. It is detrimental because it precludes the customer satisfaction from being factored into the compensation policy. The lack of immediate association between compensation and work results is a catalyst to labor alienation.

Conclusion

Embracing Marx's views is not about violent overthrow of governments and arbitrary confiscation of property.

For practical purposes, Utopian communism is a distant reality better treated as a virtual impossibility, but the tensions between labor and capital explained by Marx are inevitable and real.

A better work environment awaits those who are willing to learn the mechanics behind those tensions, either preempting the causes or managing the symptoms.

Friday, April 13, 2007

F1 racing and extreme competition

Nigel Mansell driving Willians F1 86It is difficult to try and add anything to the excellent series of articles titled "Secret of Great Teams" featured on Fortune magazine last year, but here are some F1-based thoughts on competitiveness in the work environment:

I still remember the famous 1986 season where the Williams team built what was considered the best car of all times. They also had two stars at the helm of its two technological marvels: Nelson Piquet (BRA) and Nigel Mansell (GBR) .

Both led the entire season head-to-head in bar-brawl mode with some hints of sabotage between the two. The infighting reached its apogee at the very last race when Alain Prost snatched the title with a slim margin of 2 points over Mansell and 3 points over Piquet. Mansell and Piquet could have easily helped each other win the race by holding Prost for the other to win.

Neither did even try.

Friday, March 30, 2007

"No Jerks Allowed"

Businessman yelling at coworker with megaphoneThe most recent issue of Time Magazine brings an article titled "No Jerks Allowed". It is an interesting perspective on a trend of the same name in the workplace.

The author hit a misguided note while putting brilliant, albeit abrasive, bosses in the same bag as the office variety bully; but I quote a passage that made me laugh out loud:
An IT company he mentions went so far as to calculate a star salesman's TCA--total cost of a**hole--by totting up expenses attributed to his behavior. Turnover, legal bills and anger-management courses rang up a TCA of $160,000. So the company jerked some of the jerk's bonus.
The online version of the article also has a link to a priceless "self-test" quiz.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Web 2.0 Revolution, Email Privacy, Tequila and Handguns

"Computers have enabled people to make more mistakes faster than
almost any invention in history, with the possible exceptions of
tequila and handguns."

Mitch Radcliffe

In these days of twittering, messaging, e-mailing and blogging, collaboration technology is driving a revolution in the workplace. Unconstrained information flowing instantaneously across geographies at the touch of a button, duplicated and replicated effortlessly.

And yet, not of all us are ready for it. In the shadows of our hurried schedules, every day a muffled voice is dragged into the back alleys of our virtual world and strangled without mercy: privacy. In modern days of immediate satisfaction at the click of a button, privacy is treated like a nuisance, a lengthy bureaucracy standing in the way of immediate communication.

Years ago, governments felt compelled to regulate the privacy agreements between companies and the general public. However, within corporations, communication through e-mail or messaging is still far from the protection of a client-attorney privilege or patient-doctor confidentiality. There seems to be enough reason to introduce some of those principles into the exchanges that occur inside the workplace.

Finger pressing e-mail button Whether it is the oblivious colleague who tears the work environment apart by exposing the content of a would-be private messaging session or an aggravated peer forwarding a note to someone who will not take it well without the proper context, collaboration technology is the perfect partner in crime for virtual trespassing.

When an employee shares information with another employee, the company owns that information, no one else. There is no doubt that in most cases the source of information would gleefully allow the information to be freely shared, but not in all cases. On the one hand there is the innocent note with links to project resources, on the other hand there is the controversial note containing opinions or the unfinished design document containing transient information that will be misinterpreted outside the design team.

Because common sense isn't, it seems imperative that collaboration tools somehow incorporate privacy respect into their workflows. The more obvious requirements, in order of importance, would be:
  1. Allow the source of information to approve the sharing of that information
  2. Support generalized pre-approval for less sensitive content, such as presentations or public contact lists
  3. Support the notion of authorization expiration
  4. Allow the source of information to be notified about the sharing of its information
I do recognize that some of these suggestions may seem counter-productive at first, but I am also familiar with the horror stories that could have been preempted by simple check boxes. On the long run, the averted productivity losses caused by privacy breaches would far outweigh the cost of a couple of clicks. These simple measures would also help rebuild the endangered trust so much needed on any collaborative task, virtual or not.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Friends, enemies, processes, and the law

A long time ago I read a disturbing quote in a news article. It stuck with me for its arrogant candor and the way it describes a cyclic loop between cause and effect:

For my friends, anything; for my enemies, the law.
-- Oscar R. Benavides, President of Peru, 1933-1940

Two military coups adorn Oscar's otherwise unremarkable biography, but this entry is not about presidents, it is about processes.

Throughout our careers we are often entrusted with the responsibility over services, solutions and products, which also include the task of owning their requirements management processes. Not being a military president, it is usually in good taste to avoid hanging a frame with that quote on your wall or adding it to the home page of your project web site. Fun, but not in good taste.

Despite one's best efforts to maintain an impartial stance towards the process, the source of a requirement is an overwhelming factor when assigning priorities. It does not take long before a divisive line forms between those who get more of their requirements answered and those who get stranded in the "futures" bucket. Once the separation line forms, it is also not long before you have the equivalent of friends and enemies in your hands.


In fact, attempting to equally include the requirements from all sources is not a sound practice, but a guaranteed way of creating an offering that will not please anyone. There is a lot to be said about the open-source model and its way of allowing the people neglected in the prioritization process to contribute their requirements, but there is always a limit on how open a project can really be.

Barring infinite resources to implement all requests, it seems to be a good idea to rotate the owners of an offering every couple of years; even more so when resources are scarce and the populace of the discontent stops distinguishing the process from its owner.

The process may be even more grueling while developing shared components in a large organization, where the somewhat direct access between the lines of management allows people to manifest their discontent through escalations. When resources are really scarce, the project owner soon finds his time consumed in justifying his choices or creating elaborate reports on why certain requirements cannot be implemented.


Once management chains are involved, the technical evaluation process starts to suffer from a quota-based approach where there are no longer friends and enemies. The entire user-base becomes an amalgam of former-friends and truced enemies; the first displeased by the politically-induced loss of status and the latter by a handful of requirements forced into the product at gun point.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Failures, reasoning and rationalization

As I prepare to write this entry, I have my mind immersed in darkened thoughts about what we bring upon ourselves whenever we fail at something.

It is not failure itself that worries me; it is how we choose to deal with it.

Rationalization is at the same time the easiest and the worst way to respond. Good natured rationalization is either self-inflicted by our need to quickly get through a momentary loss or directly offered by a colleague who does not want to see us demotivated.


My suggestion is: ignore your instincts and peers and **feel** the pain. That may sound incredibly naive but you have to feel it in the right way. Feeling pain is not about going to a corner and sulking for an hour, it is about accepting that things went wrong and studying what went wrong to be prepared for another day.

What is devilish about rationalizing failure is hidden in the Latin root of the word itself: "ratio". When we rationalize, we create a relationship between two or more things. When we rationalize failure, we invariably create a relationship between the failure and something good. Given time, a good rationalizer can bring himself to believe there was no failure at all, after all "look at how much we have learned", "how much worse it could have been", or "how it was a better attempt than the previous one".

Given time and enough people, rationalization becomes a culture, and a bad one at that. For socially acceptable reasons and just good behavior within a functional team, no one is supposed to declare a failure other than the owner of the task at hand. It is upon the owner of the failed task to declare it a failure and look up to his peers to help him reason as to what went wrong and how those same mistakes can be prevented in the future.

Failing that act of self-immolation, we are left with the worse alternative: When the owner of a failed task does not declare it a failure, **the team still knows it**. Trust is broken. Managerial evaluations compound to the problem in that no one wants a failure in their record when they know that their peers will not be as forthcoming about their failures.

When nothing is admitted as failure, there is only one outcome: success. If people do not feel like they can admit their mistakes, they have only two choices: succeed at everything or declare everything a success. Of course loose objectives are a great aid to successful people in that there is always wiggle room to define success. The dooming mechanics unfold quickly after that point, with declared success being easier to achieve than real success.

Whether one ever reaches a degree of career stability or maturity in life where they can admit their mistakes, it is a very personal question. Very few people can answer that question one way or another.

This posting is not a eulogy to failure; there is no organization that can indefinitely sustain repeated failures. However, it is my belief that the only way to preempt a string of failures is to admit the first one.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Secret of Greatness: Motivations

Maslow's hierarchy of needsI wanted to explore an unanswered question left behind in the article "The Secret of Greatness" featured a while ago on Fortune Magazine:
...as University of Michigan business school professor Noel Tichy puts it after 30 years of working with managers, "Some people are much more motivated than others, and that's the existential question I cannot answer - why..."
I linked the picture on the right from a Wikipedia entry on the Maslow's hierarchy of needs. In very short terms, Abraham Maslow's theory is that the needs at the bottom of the pyramid are "deficiency" needs that must be met before one can conquer the growth needs at the top.

There are some counter positions to his theory in the Wikipedia entry but I could still relate to its implications to the corporate world:

Physiological needs are a mixed bag. On the positive side, companies will try their best to provide the infrastructure required to meet those needs while you are within the company premises; on the negative side, excessive workloads may get in the way of (healthy) food and sleep.

Safety needs are another mixed bag. Companies worry about your safety for obvious reasons such as liabilities in case of accidents and loss of productivity due to lost days of work. They will also partner with other companies to provide many forms of insurance, most notably health insurance. On the other side, and here is the first red flag, employment safety is long gone.

Love/belonging: Your employer is definitely not responsible for the "love" part :-) even if your life partner works for the company. However, there is a level of friendship and camaraderie associated with non-romantic office relationships that are sometimes nurtured by the corporate big brother, such as department outings, team events and commemorations.

Esteem: Here things get dicey as the company must turn to mid and long term action. Unlike the previous three categories, this one needs active participation from the employees and a continuous effort to sustain it. More interestingly, the company has a larger influence on this aspect because work represents the largest share of an employee's conscious time.

Maslow divides this category between lower and higher-level needs. The lower-level esteem needs pointed in Maslow's theory are fame, respect and glory; whereas the higher-level esteem needs are competence, confidence, and achievement. In that sense, a good manager should balance out the delivery of an award in front of the entire organization with the delivery of constant feedback on one's performance. If an award has not stirred you as much as before, it may not be depression settling in, but a sign that you have made a healthy move to higher-level esteem needs or even to the more interesting self-actualization needs.

Self-actualization. Here is what Maslow writes about self-actualizing people:
  • They embrace the facts and realities of the world (including themselves) rather than denying or avoiding them.
  • They are spontaneous in their ideas and actions.
  • They are creative.
  • They are interested in solving problems; this often includes the problems of others. Solving these problems is often a key focus in their lives.
  • They feel a closeness to other people, and generally appreciate life.
  • They have a system of morality that is fully internalized and independent of external authority.
  • They judge others without prejudice, in a way that can be termed objective.
If a company paid attention to the previous categories, it needs to be really prepared at this point. This is a risky zone where a dynamic employee tends to outgrow the employer's higher inertia. In my observation, there is a sweet spot of 2-3 years where the employer reaps the most benefits from self-actualizing employees, after which they must let the employee go. Yes, "let him go". The preferred choice is always to promote him to an area where he has expressed interest. The second choice is to encourage a transfer to an organization where those skills can be put to good use. Failing the first two choices, it usually does not get to the less desirable dismissal as this kind of people are in high-demand and will find a better position long before the employer even thinks about it.

Why 2-3 years? This is the point where all that spontaneity, creativity, and problem solving instincts will have outgrown the local processes and practices of the rest of the organization. At this point, that internalized system of morality and objectivity is starting to crystallize into dissatisfaction with the rest of organization, which will have entered a full-blown rationalization spree as to why improvements can only happen so fast.

Maslow's theory is a blueprint that can eventually offer an answer to Noel Tichy's straggling question, the "why". It also does a fantastic job of deconstructing self-inflicted illusions on what really motivates us.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Gut feel stress

Stressed business person staring at computerJust after finishing writing "More Fog of War, brains, and guts", I had the chance to read through an article titled "6 Lessons for Handling Stress" in the last issue of Time Magazine. Confirmation bias notwithstanding, I liked this excerpt in the first lesson:

More recent studies, says Christina Maslach, a pioneer in burnout research at the University of California, Berkeley, show that unfairness and a mismatch in values between employees and their companies play an increasing role in triggering stress. "Probably one of the strongest predictors is when there's a vacuum of information--silence about why decisions were made the way they were,"...

In that sense, it seems important that the reasons behind a decision be explained to the affected audience. It also follows that the explanation should be made in terms that people can relate to. As an example, "we needed to cut expenses by 10% or we would have to cut 2% of the work force" vs. "we are operating in a difficult environment".

That kind of finding leaves the subordinates of "gut feelers" in a difficult situation. Unless the "gut feeler" possesses a super-natural ability to explain the reasoning made by his intestines, one can only hope the decision to match the collective intuition of the entire team.

I am reaching the conclusion that even for the creative types, when a decision is based on intuition, there is still value in putting together data that supports the decision. If anything, late gathering of the data allows an unconstrained flow of intuition without placing an undue uncertainty burden on colleagues and subordinates. And as the research shows, the less uncertainty in the work environment, the less stress.

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