Metrics, Lies, and Other Crazy Statistics (feeling the Rapture?)

OK. After now having spent some more time thinking about statistics, I’ve seen the light. Really. The light.

This proves that, with enough energy, you can prove darned near anything, including the end of the world as we know it. I just saw this news report this morning, and am now convinced that if you can get people to believe this pile of silliness, pretty much anything can be sold. And, heck, if I’m wrong, I won’t have to wait very long to find out!

So beware of simply counting things. It can lead you down some really unfortunate alleyways. I’ve often pushed my teams to measure critical things that are material measures of progress. Absent those sorts of measures, it can be difficult to know where you stand. But….. with the wrong kinds of measures, you can find yourself standing in a pretty unfortunate position. In these people’s case, you can very easily find yourself twisting metrics into some self-fulfilling prophecy.

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People as Pack Animals

Here I go again. Thanks to my dad, I’ve now found even more of the abundant material supporting the premise that people are emotional beings who require social context for their behavior. In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, called “The New Humanism,”  David Brooks postulates the following:

“This body of research suggests the French enlightenment view of human nature, which emphasized individualism and reason, was wrong. The British enlightenment, which emphasized social sentiments, was more accurate about who we are. It suggests we are not divided creatures. We don’t only progress as reason dominates the passions. We also thrive as we educate our emotions.”

Further evidence (at least to me) that, while there’s tremendous value in cultivating expertise, skills, and the like, those things do not exist in isolation. People need an emotional context in which to work.

From the classics (remember Apollo and Dionysus) to the arts, this is a classic dilemma. Absent consideration of both the emotional and rational context, teams results can be hollow or fall short. Great teams form lasting bonds based on a broad range of values. Some tied to rational thought, for example expertise, skill, intellectual dialogue are important components, but so are things like trust, transparency, candor, and the intangible adrenaline rush that can come from working with people who you like, respect, and hopefully enjoy spending time with.

Examples of this are abundant. In the arts, have you ever listened to a technically impressive musician who doesn’t quite get the dynamics or expression required to hone their craft (regardless of the genre, its pretty boring just listening to someone show-off technical skills absent conveying emotion). In team sports, merely piling together a bunch of superathletes doesn’t necessarily guarantee success (take a look at this year’s Miami Heat, based on talent alone, you’d think they’d be able to walk off the court after the third quarter in most games, that’s not happening). Teams need to gel. Gotta have the skills, but those alone don’t always create success. There’s a part of teamwork that I’m firmly convinced transcends skill alone.

So, if you’re leading a team. Don’t forget that they need to work together. Schisms or disconnects are going to leave you with multiple, smaller teams, which may not be quite what you’re looking for. You’ll get a lot more by building a healthy pack.

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Swarm Intelligence — any parallels to team dynamics?

Ran across some interesting stuff on something called “swarm intelligence” This caused me to wonder if the concepts that they’ve identified might also apply to things that hit closer to home (at least for me). Some of the theory behind why agile methodologies, most notably SCRUM, is based on the power of self forming/self-directed teams.

This got me to thinking, some of it runs counter to a lot of what I’ve come to observe/believe. The premise of much of the swarm intelligence is that power can be obtained primarily in numbers, and not necessarily in the expertise of the individuals on the team. Perhaps this can happen in areas of work that aren’t specifically “knowledge-work”, but perhaps some of the underlying premise of the swarm, and overall social intelligence can be realized through well healed and aligned teams.

Seems like some of the basics of effective team or group behavior ought to apply to sprint teams that have developed a strong rapport and have healthy intra-team dynamics. Folks on these teams ought to be reasonably comfortable with one another, have a healthy trust, and be able to candidly agree and disagree as appropriate. Those discussions and interactions could theoretically be the guiding principles that keep the group heading in the best direction. Positive outcomes are amplified and negative movements discouraged. The resulting direction and movement of the group should theoretically move in a positive way. I’m confident that I’ve observed this, but contrary to the swarm model, these factors seem to work the best when the teams are composed of folks with the qualities of the best and the brightest.

Emotional behavior is another determinant. When group members respond with signficant emotional content, there’s a transference throughout the team. This can be tricky though. Resonant transference of emotions would occur when there’s empathy (e.g., negative feelings transfer from one member to another, or positive do the same) or to the opposite, when there’s a lack of empathy (emotions can be met with cynicism and be received in a manner contrary to the originator’s sentiments).

What do you think? Seems like there’s something there….

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Emotions Rule — Regardless of Facts

Ran into an interesting post by Seth Godin that got me thinking (yeah, that can be dangerous). Regardless of the amount of data, many, if not most decisions people make have more to do with how they feel about things than actual data.

Ever try to convince a teenager that it’s in their best interest to do their homework? Plenty of evidence that an easier time in life can be correlated to academic success, which in most cases, is tied to actually doing the work. Until that teenager believes this to be true and is confident that their time is going to be well spent, well, just fuggedaboutit.

Ever try to work with a customer who doesn’t trust you (or does trust you)? You could pile tons of material, testimonials, data, what have you, in front of them. If their mind is already made up, you’re stuck. If it’s not, you need to reach them with something that connects on an emotional level.

Ever try to convince a team working for you that the light they think they’re seeing isn’t a lightbulb of guidance, it’s the train getting ready to plow them over?

Have you paid much attention to the raging debates going on amongst our (I’m in the US) leaders? Many are convinced that we’re going to be bankrupt in a short period of time. Others believe that those people are wing-nuts. I’d bet that, in isolation, all of the interested parties have some pretty reasonable ideas, but faced with the need to win (defining winning as beating members of the opposite party).

From the perspective of managing a team, this means one thing to me. Get things right in the first place. Once your team or your customers form the wrong attitudes or opinions, your job just doubled. You not only have to do the right things (which could be a change), but you also have to find a way to convince your audience that you are indeed doing the right thing. Its much easier to work from a position of support than having to engender support.

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Innovation — Mad Science or Revolution (or just plain old hard work?)

Where do the greatest inventions come from?

  • Out of the blue?
  • As a means to the end?
  • Borrowing from other related (and sometimes unrelated) technologies
  • Creative genius making the mundane seem innovative (lipstick on a pig?)

Absent innovations, much of the industry (or industries) that I work in would falter. New products need to come out to add value, as, in time, the old ceases to be terribly interesting, and eventually brings things to a “new normal.”

These things come from all angles. Someone (at some point) gets a bright idea that you can add significant value to customer’s livelihoods by offering an approach, a piece of software, or new equipment that allows them to either look at the world differently, or perhaps get an edge on their competition. The idea alone, while great, is never enough. (unless you’re one of those people who think its enough to file a patent & then troll around waiting for someone to do something that looks like your idea and then sues them, but I digress).

Real innovation, valuable innovation, is a combination of good ideas and a lot of hard work. Edison was right. Way back in 1903, he said “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” That is as true today as its ever been. I’m sure that, in many cases, the people with the ideas may not even benefit from them. It’s the folks who are crafty and hard-working enough to turn those ideas into something that reaches the audience in a meaningful way.

But, there should also be a word of caution here. More often than not, technology organizations are faced with an onslaught of work, and a finite ability to do that work. When presented with that scenario, it’s incredibly easy to fall into a pattern of doing only those things that are clearly prescribed. In many cases, that can be the right thing to do, as it helps ensure that the work at hand gets done on time, and done well.

Given those pressures, I think that the best approach is to not let your team get tangled into pretending that they can do both jobs at the same time. Somehow, there needs to be some separation. This can be accomplished in a few different ways, including:

  • Setup separate teams to explore new ideas and encourage them to try things out that are creative, aren’t necessarily directly coupled with specific product commitments, and stand a pretty good chance of being completely worthless. Have a good idea intake process.
  • Make sure that people are having fun doing their jobs, even if under stress. Encourage people to have a sense of humor, welcome imaginative thinking, It’s not a bad idea to allow for a certain amount of silliness.
  • Always be aware of what your customers are dealing with. Be free to think about things that might make their lives more productive and/or rewarding.
  • When facing new requirements or opportunities, take a few moments to step back & wonder if there might be new and different ways to provide a solution. Are there different technologies that could provide synergy? Are there related problems that could be solved in tandem

Once you have the idea, the approach, and strategy, the real trick is finding a way to get it to market, and capture mind share. Ideally, that is something that you can do in a way that you can uniquely provide, and maintain that unique advantage for long enough to make a difference in the marketplace.

Getting back to my original question, I’d have to conclude that true innovation is a combination of all kinds of ingredients. The ideas absent the hard work are a bit like a falling tree in a forest….

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Somewhere over the rainbow — distributed teams

If you’re working in this century, and managing people, odds are pretty good that they’re not sitting in the same building as you. The odds are even better that many of them are not even on the same continent, with many working enough time zones apart that even having a conversation takes planning. Welcome to the working world.

The following post makes a compelling argument for working with distributed teams: http://toni.org/2010/03/08/5-reasons-why-your-company-should-be-distributed/ In general, I’m in full agreement, however believe that its important to understand what you’re getting into and be prepared to do things that reinforce good behaviors and strongly discourage the things you’d like to avoid.

Here’s some stuff to consider:

  • Make sure that you have the right people
  • Make sure that you have the right people
  • Make sure that you have the right people, and when you’re done with that:
  • Make sure that you have the right people,

When people are remote, it can be much more difficult to identify and mitigate performance problems. With the right people for the job, you can get a ton accomplished. In some cases, even more so than if people were sitting with one another, as the number of interruptions tends to be down.

When you’re hiring people who are going to work remotely, make sure that they have the right technical skills, communicate well (both in writing as well as verbally), and are comfortable delivering news, whether it may good or bad. Candor is particularly important, as it can take much longer to figure out if something is going sideways.

There’s also the side effect that days can get stretched & more hours can be worked (particularly for telecommuters, who no longer need to spend hours sitting in traffic). After you’ve taken care of that basic step, do the things that you’d expect to do even if everyone were sitting in the same room:

  • Be clear about roles and responsibilities
  • Agree on a well understood development process and methodology
  • Make sure everyone understands what it means to follow the selected process/methodology
  • Provide a good set of collaboration and communication tools. Services like Skype, webex, voice conferencing, live meeting, and others are invaluable.
  • Ensure that your IT infrastructure is up to the task
  • If you can, use video conferencing
  • Set aside some budget for occasional travel. Something as simple as having a beer with one another can make a significant difference in people working well with one another.

There’s quite a bit to think about when managing these sorts of teams. It can definitely be done and can be done very well. Just recognize that you may need to think about some things differently.

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Tribal Knowledge – People as Pack Animals

People do what people do. Mostly, with those around them.

I recall once getting coerced into running in a charity 5k race (being a good dad, I thought that was the thing to do with my then 14-year-old son). I trained for quite a while, and was in OK shape, at least good enough to finish the moderately hilly race. Not with any particular speed, but finish regardless. So, there are around three or four hundred folks, ranging anywhere in age from 12 to 80 (there was a walking component), and the starters’ gun went off. What did I (then around 40 years old and not the most fit person) do? I got caught up in the pack at the head of the group. For about a half mile, I kept pace. This was with high school cross-country runners going at what seemed at like a sub-5 minute mile pace. Had I been running alone, there is no way I would have even considered blasting out at that pace, but with all of those other people around me, off I went. Physics eventually won out & I finished the rest of the run at my normal turtle’s pace. Regardless, the effects of that moment left quite an impression.

I think that the workplace is very similar. Put someone in a productive, supportive, energetic environment, and odds are that they will adjust their behavior to the rest of their pack. Stick them in a defeated, risk-averse (check out my post on risk: https://michaelrodbell.wordpress.com/2011/03/01/risky-business/), and more than likely, they’ll behave an awful lot like the rest of their team. I’ll bet you’ve seen similar things. Emotions and behaviors are contagious.

There are also those rare individuals who take on leadership roles. Could be the group’s manager, but not always. Sometimes its a team member whose interactions with the rest of the team are the most profound. I’ve always been happiest when that individual is impassioned, talented, and has significant skin in the game. Could also be the most vocal, depressed, unhappy person in the room. Guess which one’s better to have around!

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as a manager is to find a way to implement positive, sustaining, change. A key aspect of that change is getting momentum (or energizing the elephant in the words of the Heath brothers in switch:  http://heathbrothers.com/). People like being a part of something positive. Assuming that you can paint a picture that helps them see a path from their current state to a new (presumably happier one), those positive sentiments and behaviors can create a contagion.



So, what’s the takeaway here? I think that its important to recognize that a big part of your role as a leader is to find a way to ignite people’s passion both as individuals, reinforce those messages by engaging the team, helping them understand their impact, and above all being able to look around them (which gets really interesting when the team isn’t colocated, a topic for later), and feed off of one another’s energy. When things play out in this way, great things usually happen.

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Do Measurements Matter? (does a watched pot boil?)

There’s long been a debate about the role of metrics in software development organizations. There was the old adage that went “If its important, then its important enough to measure.” More recently, one of the proponents of that mantra, Tom DeMarco has questioned his line of thinking, observing that “The book for me is a curious combination of generally true things written on every page but combined into an overall message that’s wrong” This can be found in its full glory at http://www2.computer.org/cms/Computer.org/ComputingNow/homepage/2009/0709/rW_SO_Viewpoints.pdf. It presents some interesting and very thoughtful perspectives.

I recently ran into another interesting article, referenced from the freakonomics blog, pointing to a (very loosely) related study of measurement and accountability in schools in England. In this article “A natural experiment in school accountability: the impact of school performance information on pupil progress and sorting”, (http://www.bristol.ac.uk/cmpo/publications/papers/2010/wp246.pdf) the authors observed that the ceasing of measurements and rankings of schools in Wales had a profound effect on the school systems’ effectiveness.

So, like many things in life, there are multiple sides to a story. In this case, I suspect that the right answer (at least as pertains to software organizations) is measure what’s important, and on a macro scale, as a sort of score card as a means to set goals. But maybe don’t get so carried away measuring the details that one completely redirects behaviors towards miniscule observations and end up with a badly unintended corollary to  Heisenberg (that measuring some things has unintended consequences rendering related measurements useless).

Perhaps the takeaway is that its best to hold groups accountable, but only to those things that truly matter.

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Risky Business

Be warned…. More ramblings to follow. I’m finding this is a good outlet for thinking. If you find it interesting, or have some good thoughts to add of your own, please feel free to comment!

Sometimes I wonder…. one of the key components in a successful business endeavor is the way in which people embrace risk. Embrace it like a crazy person: the chances of something bad happen can be unacceptably high. Avoid risk like a timid person: the chances of something really good happen are correspondingly low. Life goes on, both extremes lead to an illusion of predetermination. Neither seems to be such a great way to go about doing one’s business.

When leading people, there are similar challenges. I once told a team that I’d be dissapointed if we met all of our goals, delivering every project on time. There were some very funny looks in the room that day. After being yelled at for years about not delivering predictably and on time (not by me, mind you), here was some nut job telling them that goals, all met probably meant that they hadn’t taken enough risks and challenged themselves and their teams.

So, (at least to me), the ideal environment is one in which people are sufficiently comfortable to take reasonable levels of risk. But how to define reasonable?  I’d think it falls somewhere along a parallel to the hypocratic oath “do no harm,” or perhaps passing some measure of “the worst that can happen” being not terribly bad, and managable. Also, I’d think that “the best that can happen” should reasonably trump its nemesis (“the worst thing that can happen”).

For me, one of the worst things that can happen in a group is dead silence. I’d rather have people be comfortable proposing wacky thoughts, provided that they’re in the right setting. People need to be comfortable with one another, share ideas with an expectation that some might not be all that clever. As a leader, I (and my team) need to encourage people to operate with great candor (some of which is telling their peers that they are not making any sense).

A good dose of humor, and an adrenaline/caffienated work environment can be tremendously rewarding, to not only the individuals taking a part in the conversations or endeavors, but also to the parent organization. With a reasonable, and not excessive set of checks and balances, some really neat and valuable things can happen. You just have to believe with the right sense of balance!

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Change, and not the stuff in your pocket….

I’ve been doing a good bit of reading (and thinking) about change. Recently musing include a review of the Heath Brother’s “Switch” and John Kotter’s “The heart of change.” The latter is where the now CEO of Nokia so graciously borrowed the term “burning platform”

So, what gets me thinking about these sorts of things? Well, I have found my self in a position of leading decent sized (100+) engineering organizations, and almost all of these groups have exhibited notable ranges of employee interest and commitment. Thankfully, in all cases, I could always find the folks who brought everything with them to work, every single day. What a blessing! Its great to have such committed folks. But there are also the other souls in the team, who seem to have fallen into some most unpleasant rut of going about their business and not propelling the Business’ (with a big B) interests. Thus, those wonderful characteristics like lethargy, and status quo prevail. That drives me absolutely crazy! if surrounded by competition and customers demanding more, anything less than a constant search for excellence is doomed to failure.

So, the thing to figure out is how to reach Malcolm Gladwell’s tipping point. I’ve found a mix of ingredients, frequently starting with those impassioned team mates goes a world of distance. Positive enthusiasm is contagious (as can negative be), and an essential ingredient in the overall recipe. I’ve also become a huge fan of agile methodologies, more specifically SCRUM, which places tremendous emphasis on self-directed teams. In this case, those wonderful crazies who’ve become the untamed leaders get small groups riled up, and, VOILA!, there you have it, momentum!

I’ve seen this happen time and time again. I’ve become ever more convinved that the trick is to find these key folks, engage them in the overall conversation, and let them loose, never forgetting to talk to them, letting them know what they are doing is invaluable, and listening to them. These are your pied pipers…..

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