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.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

More Fog of War, brains, and guts

Robert McNamara in a 2003 interviewA few weeks ago I wrote an entry about the data-less mechanics of allies turning into enemies. My original intention was to focus on the importance of collecting data, but I eventually landed on the ditch of assumptions and preconceptions.

Having crawled out of the ditch, it is only fitting to revisit an episode of the 2003 Oscar-winning documentary "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara" as the center-piece of this posting. Lodged in the candid memories of the former U.S. Secretary of Defense, there is a revealing story supporting his sixth lesson: "Get the data."

In the documentary, McNamara recalls the beginnings of the USA campaign in Western Europe. A significant share of the allied sorties against the German lines was being cancelled even before take-off and hurting the mission's progress. As part of the Air Force's Office of Statistical Control, he implemented a survey requiring the air commanders to report the causes of all cancelled missions. The analysis of the data exposed an array of bogus reasons attempting to disguise the real cause for the aborted missions: the pilots feared being shot down by the unforgiving anti-aircraft defenses encroached in occupied Europe. Then Lt. Col., Curtis LeMay used the data to implement a heavy-handed solution (those were difficult times): he would lead all the missions and court-martial any crew that did not reach the target.

Businessman Guessing The gut feeling

Witnessing McNamara's recollection of his life, I was left to wonder whether "gut feelings" are just mental short-cuts to decisions based on actual data. It surely makes for better conversation, or movie scenes for that matter, to explain a farm-betting decision as the outcome of a gut feeling. Whether it is cowboy-style deciding to jump onto a horse from a moving train or Star Trek-style shouting orders non-stop under Borg attack, there is definitely an emotional appeal to our ancient roots. Maybe we have genes that keep trying to reconnect us with the times when the difference between a good meal and being the meal was a split second. Or maybe we just sub-consciously grasp for our humanity by avoiding yielding decisions to numbers on a computer screen.

So my question will betray a severed path between my brain and intestines, but I will pose it anyway: Are there people endowed with a super-natural awareness of reality, to the point where they can anticipate the truth hidden in numbers they have never seen? Or better yet, can people reach a degree of oneness with the world, where numbers on a spreadsheet (or use cases in a UML diagram :-) are just snapshots of their deep connection with the universe around them?

Monday, January 15, 2007

Tragedy of the calendars, pastures, and bunnies

The "Tragedy of the Commons" is well explained in the article of the same name, by Garret Hardin (1968). In essence, the members of a collective sharing a common resource are locked in a system where each member must attempt to grab as much of that common resource ahead of the others. Eventually, the resource is depleted and all members left in a dire situation.

Mr. Hardin resorted to a mildly interesting example of pastures and cattle; maybe because he did not have access to the multimedia resources of late to humorously explain the concept as well as the folks who created the "Tragedy of the Bunnies" website. For the real adults, I recommend the article; for the rest of us, I recommend the far more entertaining games available in the website :-)

I spent a few more minutes thinking about a scarce common resource that is afflicted by the same phenomenon: our calendars.

With so much emphasis on team work and a multitude of tasks that require collaboration across different teams, there is a risk of a "Tragedy of the Calendars". In this version of the tragedy of the commons, coworkers attempt to request as much time from other people in order to get their projects going, up to the point where no one has more time to put work into their respective projects.

As the scheduling game plays out, one can only hope that natural selection will starve the least important projects out of precious time from the other tenants of the corporate kingdom. In my experience, the natural selection actually favors the more assertive project leaders.

I am not ready to accept the theory that the more assertive people lead the most important projects, thus I have grown fond of the second version of the game with the little bunnies. In the second version, each tenant is assigned his own share of the commons, thus encouraging the participants to preserve the resources for future use.

Meeting Caps

Here is an analogous novel idea: establish a cap on the meetings that can be called for a given project. That cap could be on the number of meetings or on the number of combined man-hours involved in the meetings. Establishing the quotas may be difficult in the absence of reference numbers, but a couple of measurement pilots on two or three successful projects could verify the feasibility of the idea and eventually produce the numbers.

The natural reaction to the idea is to worry about lessened communication and collaboration across teams, but a meeting cap would make project leads think harder about how to make the most of the precious time resource. I would anticipate more detailed meeting agendas and more emphasis on the moderator role to get the best out of the participants' presence.

I have not thought through all the consequences of meeting caps, but I think the idea may actually increase productivity and reduce the stress related to chained meetings. It would also take away the fun from the quintessential "Let's Hold a Meeting" joke.


Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Upon these stones: Barricades, insurgents and processes

Scene of the barricade on the Les Miserables musical
The struggle between good and evil depicted in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables has inspired millions around the world. Jean Valjean's good deeds are the defining passages of this wonderful story but there is so much more in the detailed accounts of crucial moments of French history.

One of the most memorable passages describes the Parisian insurrection of 1832. In the narrative, students and workmen band together to barricade the streets of Paris in the hopes of holding their own against the government forces. The story is soul-clenching in that most of the people manning the barricades did not expect to survive the conflict; but only to inspire the rest of Paris, and France, to embrace their cause and muster the courage or reason to turn against the government.

Fast-forward to today and our longer life-expectancies and comfortable lifestyles have put a damper on those inspired bouts. People no longer make decisions about life and death so hastily. A longer life expectancy means more responsibilities with one's family, from children who will need continued financial support to get higher-level education over a 20-year span to a spouse who may live well into his/her 80's.

Sometimes I wonder whether office culture has evolved in the same way. Procedures and processes are the laws that govern the workplace and may eventually lock groups in antagonistic positions. With the emphasis on 'oneness' and collective goals in all corporate communications, we may forget that larger objectives may be achieved in the presence of localized conflicts. As a hypothetical example, shipping a product a month earlier may cause additional work on a support team a month later. Even though the larger objective may have been achieved, the support organization may see the development organization as privileged in detriment of their own working hours.

While negotiation and a well executed political process may reduce tensions and avoid violent conflict, history shows us that major grievances have either been solved through violent struggle or morphed into mediocre, albeit symbiotic, relationships.

Within the comfort of our modern lives, I am not sure we would ever feel predisposed to walk into a barricade with the expectation of success or death. Well, not death, maybe a career turned a downward spiral of fire.

In this convoluted posting, I wanted to make peace with the conundrum of noble principles vs. weaseled convenience. I think I found it with a lateral-thinking sponsored sidestep in that they are not opposing choices. As I mentioned early on an entry called "The Battle of Borodino, and when you don't get to pick your battles", being brave and being stupid are not the same. Just like the Parisian insurgents of 1832 have learned, should such situation arise, you may find out that a correct reading of the population's pulse is far more important than being brave.

When faced with an uncomfortable situation and dramatic change is needed, letting others take the lead is probably bad policy. You will have to climb upon the stones in the barricade, but at a time of your own choosing. The right time starts when you have educated the general population on why your cause deserves their support and after you got sufficient indication that they will fall behind you when the clashes begin. Just take a development process as an example, even though you may be absolutely certain that a new unit testing procedure would improve the overall customer satisfaction and reduce development costs, a development team may not be so keen on spending additional time adopting it. On the other hand, you may convince the verification and support teams to back the proposal ahead of time.

With any luck, you will have read their signals a bit better than the insurgents of 1832. Sorry for the let down, but in Victor Hugo's novel the bulk of the population never came to the insurgents' aid, who died to the last man (I did not consider Jean Valjean a true insurgent).

As a straggling thought, eventually the French government rebuilt the streets of Paris to be straighter and wider than before as to prevent the formation of barricades, suppressing that form of leverage of the common man against the government.