Category Archives: Decision making

How fast you can change?

In my talks, I often ask a trick question – what is the most important part in a bicycle and a formula one racing car?

I get all kinds of answers – wheels, engine, chasis, tyres, steering, even the driver…. No doubt, they are all right answers.

However, my favorite right answer is the brakes! Why? Because they make us go faster! 

Let me explain.

Imagine you are riding a bicycle without brakes. You won’t be able to go faster because you have an in-built fear in your mind that if you pick up pace beyond some ‘reasonable limit’, you won’t be able to control it lest it becomes important for some reason. Now imagine riding the same bicycle with the best brakes that your money can buy (or, even better, that you can build!). You not only can ride the same bicycle with much more confidence, you can actually imagine going much faster than before. Of course, you can take the analogy much further and argue that you could go even faster if there was a better helmet, a better kneecap, jacket, leather gloves, even the insurance to make the rider free themselves up from the worries of a possible accident…then you might zoom even faster and potentially reach closer to the Peltzman Effect, but we will stop at just having the right brakes in this blog post.

Now the mental model about brakes is that they keep a stationary object at rest (at least on a downslope), or slow down or stop an object in motion, but never make anything go faster. And yet, that’s what they do – they give the courage and confidence to the rider to go faster than without those brakes. In that sense, the brakes are the feedback and the control mechanism rolled into one. Without a brake, you still have access to the same power (or the engine power in case of a formula one car) as before, but your decision to use it judiciously as opposed to using it as unbridled raw power is based on your ability to get that feedback and adapt to it. In general, the sharper the ability to get the feedback, make a decision and execute it, the faster one could go.

Of course, one can (rightly) extend the argument that it eventually depends on the rider/driver of the vehicle – for the real ability to handle a machine lies not in the machine but in the mind (and the hands) that operates it. We will get to that in a moment.

A lot of people think agile is all about faster deliveries, and then they set unreal expectations which often sound something like this – let’s do agile so we can ship the product in 3 months which today takes 9 months. Like they say, you can’t put ten pounds in a five pounds sack, I have a bit of a bad news for them – the quantum of work that takes 9 months to ship can’t be shipped in 3 months without seriously undercutting either the breadth (i.e., the scope or quantity of work) or the depth (i.e. the quality, performance, usability, reliability, etc.) of the deliverables. Agile isn’t quackery (even though it has been oversold as one by some overenthusiastic souls!). 

Speed is not fast you can go, but how fast you can change!

Speed is not fast you can go, but how fast you can change!

For me, brakes are the metaphor of agile. They provide the feedback and enhance the ability to manoeuvre, even more so at high speeds. The more real-time and actionable (i.e., more “byte-sized” than “brick-sized” to clearly understand and identify the cause-and-effect relationships that allow the feedback to be “meaningfully actionable”) a feedback is, coupled with the internal ability of the machine to rapidly absorb and assimilate it, the sooner it can respond and adapt to a potential event. Remember – making a third-stage spacecraft change its position even by a few micro-degrees is much more difficult and perhaps valuable than a car changing its lane on a highway. Just like any serious competitor who will adapt the brakes based on weather and other operating conditions, there is no one-size-fit-all brake here. The term “agile process” is a fairly useless one, for it creates a mental model of a laminated process that will enable people to operate with (guaranteed?) agility out-of-the-box, and yet, it is hardly ever going to be that! If you have already nailed down every single nook and cranny so that the resultant process is a certified “agile” one, than one must only be smoking pot. Neither the creator of that uber-agile process could have anticipated every possible future condition (the last time I checked, I was told that job description was reserved for God!) nor anyone knows enough to prescribe a single templated solution to all kinds of problems. Net-net, everyone must create their own “agile process”. Of course, they can start with what we know today, but remember – what is know today can only be a (better) starting point and not the limiting rate factor for what you must eventually accomplish. In that sense, an “agile process” is like “best practices” – you can’t simply copy someone else’s best practices and expect them to 10x your results. Rather, you must painstakingly solve the hard problems, and evolve your own best practices – to that end, best practices are things that are created as an outcome of a problem-solving activity by smart people, and not really something that others can use as a shortcut. Sure, some of these might be very universal, but I guess most all have been already discovered long back, and we are mostly rebottling and recycling them these days.

So, there you have it. There is no such thing as a universal agile process that will solve all maladies. Like Edison said we are able to see further by standing on the shoulder of giants, we simply take what exists today as a starting point and create our own agile process. Nothing more, nothing less.

And just like the picture in this blog, agility is not something that takes you faster, but it enables taking you to new, unknown and exciting places when you think there might be something interesting there. If you don’t find the cheese interesting, you can always come back to the last stable state, and start another journey, till you find something better!

Speed is not how fast you can drive and deliver. It is how fast you can change and adapt. And life and product development have more hairpin bends than you think… 

Are you thinking about solving the problem, or simply fixing it?

What is the first thing that comes to mind when we see the problem? Most of us immediately jump in to start solving it. While this might appear to be a natural instinct and a logical choice for some simple problems, reality could often be otherwise, especially for complex problems. If we don’t know enough about genesis of that problem, we might spend countless hours ‘fixing’ it, and yet hardly make any meaningful headway. Or, we might fix it in the short-term, but might not solve it in the long-run, i.e. address the root-cause behind it. For all we know, the first thing we do might actually be the worst!

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solutions” – Einstein

There is an interesting story about the famous Jefferson Memorial. A few years back, for no apparent reason, the monument was found decaying significantly more than other monuments. At the initial inspection, it seemed like it was acid rain or some such thing, but on detailed inspection, and after asking a series of ‘why’ questions, the root-cause was found to be completely unrelated to the original problem. Here’s roughly how the chain of thoughts proceeded:

Problem: Jefferson Memorial was found crumbling more rapidly then other similar monuments.

Question:Why was Jefferson Memorial crumbling faster than other monuments? Was it due to acid rain?

Answer: It was not acid rain. The monument was being cleaned both inside and outside twice a week with strong cleaning soaps. Upon further investigation, it was revealed that erosion was being caused by soap solution reacting with exhaust from jet fuel from the airport across the river.

Question: Why was the monument being cleaned twice with such strong cleaning agents?

Answer: Because there were lots of bird droppings, which were spoiling the monument, and to keep the monument clean, they had to wash it frequently.

Question: Why there were such high numbers of birds at this memorial compared to other memorials?

Answer: Because there were very high numbers of spiders at the memorial which birds like to eat!

Question: Why there were such high numbers of spiders at this monument?

Answer: Because there were a large number of midges (tiny aquatic inspects) that these spiders love to feast on.

Question: Why were there so many midges at this memorial?

Answer: Because midges were coming out for sex (yes, literally!) at dusk and were being attracted by light which was caused by the floodlights that were being put on just before the dusk – to make the memorial beautiful for the tourists! They would promptly die thus triggering the whole food chain.

So, that was the key. This was a long-lead food chain that had eventually turned into a problem. While the initial possible solutions included building a huge glass cover around the memorial, or even moving the airport far away (both of which seemed like very costly and complex solutions), eventually National Park Service delayed putting on the floodlights by one hour which led to midges population going down by 90% and the food chain was broken, and the problem was solved.

You can watch a nice short video on this from Juran Institute here: 

 

 

This is of course a great application of the Five Whys that was originally developed as a problem-solving tool by Sakichi Toyoda, the father of Japanese industrial revolution, at Toyota and became part of the Toyota Product System. Over the last several decades, several of the principles, tools and practices of TPS have found its way beyond automobile manufacturing, and are now generally considered as a vital problem-solving process for pretty much anything.

So, why this blog post?

Because the subsequent process of initiating required change is not as easy or straight-line as it appears to be.

Surprisingly, we still continue to see knee-jerk response to ill-understood problems that end up paying just a lip service to the real issues. Invariably, the 4th or the 5th why lands us into an unfamiliar territory – another function in an organization that we don’t have control over. In case of Jefferson Memorial problem, the solution involved getting in pigeon expert and then spider expert, and so on. Solving the problem effectively requires people to muster up all their courage and go over the fence and work with stakeholders to change something in their way of working – something easier said than done! There is a nice story of how a mousetrap, meant to be problem just for the mouse ends up being being a problem for everyone else but the mouse himself! It is a nice and simple illustration of how smaller causes cascade into bigger effects, and how trivializing them in the initial stages only ends up growing them into a monster problem that one is simply not able to handle. However, hindsight is always 20/20, and if only we could rewind the problem and get another chance to start it all over.

In my experience, apart from the ignorance about the power of a simple problem-solving tool such as five whys, when it still fails to find an effective solution, it is generally because it requires two different set of skills –

  1. the first is about doing a series of deductive reasoning steps to keep double-clicking on what is being presented as a cause till everyone agrees on the root-cause behind the problem. This needs smart thinking, ability to go beyond the obvious and build and test hypothesis that uncover more deeper issues.
  2. the second part is all about actually influencing people in another part of the organization to go and fix it. Invariably, the reaction is – “that’s not my problem”. In a way, this is like the Butterfly Effect – the flap of a butterfly wing sets off changes in a system causing a chain of events that eventually manifest in something very big in a completely different time and place. Solving this problem, then, is significantly difficult because it requires establishing the entire chain of events that led to the current problem. Given that these events are likely to be spread out in time (e.g., decisions made over time) and space (e.g., different functions in a organization), no one is likely to own them individually.

So, how do you go across organizational silos and ask people to take some preventive action that really solves the problem they have probably not even heard of! In general, making someone agree that they need to change something is hard enough.

I have found the following approach that works in many situations –

  1. First, get all the data. In the absence of data, we are all only conjecturing, and as creative that might be, we need to back it up with objective data to eventually make meaningful and better decisions.
  2. Whenever possible, involve other affected groups or individuals in the process at the earliest. No point second-guessing on their behalf.
  3. If they haven’t been part of the original root-cause analysis, instead of shooting off an email to them asking them ‘what’ is to be done, walk them through the entire process and ask them for validation. At this point, get an agreement on the problem without telling them your view of the solution.
  4. Once there is an agreement on the problem, half the battle is already won. Now start asking them how would they solve it.
  5. An ideal situation is when their solution is same as yours. But that might not always happen. If their solution is different than yours, first understand what is it that they are telling you, and why do they think that will solve the problem.
  6. At this stage, if you are not convinced of their approach, let them know so, and share what your original root-cause analysis exercise has come up with. The idea is not to confront them, but rather present another perspective and to compare and contrast what is better way to address the issue.
  7. If there is a toss-up between these two approaches, it might make sense to go with their solution rather than yours for two primary reasons – they are the primary function owners and hence expected to have better subject-matter expertise and professional judgment than you, and secondly if you go with their perspective, you are likely to get a better buy-in in the long run.
  8. However, if there is a deadlock, and quite often that is the case, one has to be accommodating. A very natural response is to go up the reporting chain and push for our solution, but I haven’t seen that is very productive in the long run. I would give benefit of doubt to the concerned group or the function and ask them to try for a reasonable and mutually agreed upon period of time till we see if the problem is resolved effectively. If it is not getting resolved, it’s time to once again get back to the drawing board.
  9. Hopefully you have an agreement by now on a solution that actually addresses the core issue and solves it. God bless you.
  10. Always remember – today’s solutions are tomorrow’s problems. While you might have solved the problem, in the bargain you might have inadvertently triggered-off another problem that is waiting to be manifest somewhere else in the organization in due course of time. So, keep your eyes and ears open if any new issues are reported – it is quite likely that they are regression effect of the current solution!

In today’s world, solving a problem effectively is as much a hard process as it is an individual and sociological change – affected people need to understand not only the required changes, but also the reasons behind it and adapt accordingly, which is more often than not, very discomforting. In a way, one can even argue that this is not even ‘change management’ – it is ‘change initiation’ which requires chartering unknown waters. Initiating the change requires even higher level of individual courage, leadership and persuasion skills to bring all affected parties on the same page. In a large and complex organization, it means hopping over silos and other political boundaries and tribal cultures and getting them agree to something else. Apart from a very strong understanding of systems thinking, it also needs very high amount of political capital and people suaveness to get it done. It also takes a lot of time to get this done, and most of us are simply not prepared to initiate such transformational change for a variety of additional reasons (e.g., if my performance system rewards result-orientation at the cost of long-haul systemic improvement, how can I demonstrate results by the time next review is due, and so on). So, we settle down for what appears to be second-best – just fix it. In reality, that is just postponing what eventually needs to be done anyhow – and perhaps at an even greater cost!

So, think again – are you thinking about solving the problem, or simply fixing it?

A checklist is more powerful than an org chart?

Most of us so-called ‘knowledge workers’ don’t particularly fancy the term ‘checklist’. It smacks of an antiquated top-down command-and-control Dilbert-style bureaucracy where someone sitting on 42nd floor of corporate headquarters hands down a piece of paper for you to blindly follow and to make you feel dumb and outright humble – for it dilutes your role and underplays your intelligence as if anyone else in your position could have done it! In short, it seems to trivialize the knowledge, skills and expertize required for the job into a mechanical routine requiring no human intelligence, and places the decision-making into hands of people irrespective of their competence levels. And we hate it!

Wikipedia defines a checklist as:

“A checklist is a type of informational job aid used to reduce failure by compensating for potential limits of human memory and attention. It helps to ensure consistency and completeness in carrying out a task. A basic example is the “to do list.” A more advanced checklist would be a schedule, which lays out tasks to be done according to time of day or other factors.”

From the definition above, it seems like an innocuous tool that just helps you keep focus on the most critical things – things that you might skip rather unintentionally or lose track of during one of the numerous hand-offs, or mix-up their sequence when there is time pressure. Obviously, there is no way a checklist could enlighten a dummy into being an expert overnight!

Atul Gawande has done a wonderful job of elevating the good old checklist in his pathbreaking “The Checklist Manifesto” to a modern management tool that can be used to prevent unintentional human mistakes and improve collaboration and decision-making in emergency situations – even in the areas that require utmost brainpower. He cites real-life examples from some of the most complex endeavors – complex human surgeries, constructing tall building and flying jet planes, among others, that no doubt require very high

A short pencil is better than a long memory…

amount of individual cognitive skill in respective functional areas, but also require a high precision in the steps to be followed – both during meticulous planning and preparation, and in making split-second decisions during an emergency, be it flying at ten miles above ground or a complex brain surgery on operation table. One after other, he repeatedly presents compelling data from such hi-intelligence professions that reinforce his assertion that something as rudimentary as a checklist could have such dramatic impact in complex human endeavors.

In this article, I have taken some teasers from this book that I liked and made a lot of sense to me. I have also included my own commentary and perspective for each of these.

Knowledge continues to grow at an astounding pace. No one person can hope to ever keep pace with all latest advances in any one single field, let alone build a body of knowledge around core specialization area and adjacent knowledge areas. And yet, in many cases, we have no option but to rely on the individual judgment by a supposed ‘expert’. What if that ‘expert’ was not good enough, or as good as we make out of them? What if that one single source of true knowledge, the true ‘Master Builder’ was more like someone who was a mediocre talent as best, and could not live up to the high expectations of infallibility, and yet we place almost entire decision-making into their independent charge? That would be a true disaster. Gawande calls out such challenge:

“…in the absence of a true Master Builder – a supreme, all-knowing expert with command of all existing knowledge – autonomy is a disaster. It produced only a cacophony of incompatible decisions and overlooked errors.”

So, while autonomy is the desired end-state, we need to be cognizant that perhaps there is no such single person in real life who deserves to be the undisputed knight of all things worldly! At best it is an urban myth and at worst, it is a nightmare played out multiple times in each field! A cacophony of incompatible decisions and overlooked errors! Sounds outrageous, but apparently not so rare.

Let’s walk a bit with the fact (?) that there is no one single person supremely capable of mastering all the knowledge so as to be the single source of truth. What would then be the second-best way to manage complex human endeavors? Perhaps assign it to teams who are then chartered to figure out the solution? A group of perhaps regular people who individually posses a bit of knowledge each, and collectively represent whatever it takes to address the problem at hand? That does seem like a logical way, because we believe more heads are better than one. However, it is difficult enough to get a collocated team perform in top gear, imagine distributed teams in multiple time zones, contractors from different companies with different and often incompatible cultures and processes working together, employees coming from various departments for whom local departmental gains are more important than the global organizational goals. Can checklists provide some guidance?

Here again, Gawande has some interesting viewpoint:

“in the face of the unknown – the always nagging uncertainty about whether, under complex circumstances, thing will really be okay – the builders trusted in the power of communication. They didn’t believe in the wisdom of the single individual, of even an experienced engineer. They believed in the wisdom of the group, the wisdom of making sure that multiple pairs of eyes were on a problem and then letting the watchers decide what to do.

Man is fallible, but maybe men are less so.”

However, we often believe that by simply crowdsourcing, we can fix the problem. We expect a reasonably sized group to eventually gravitate towards one common solution. While this might be true for simple party games like ‘guess the weight of the cake’, how do we extend and apply this to more real-life problems that entail tangible risks, such as do we need an additional overhead beam to distribute the load on the 37th floor of a highrise building, or whether we need to give more anesthesia to a 63-year old patient of severe diabetes and hypertension on the table for his bypass? In traditional management, a manager would be supremely empowered to make such decisions – his knowledge and experience was ‘supposed’ to mitigate any risks associated with such centralized decision-making, because, well, the ‘workers’ in that quintessential industrial age were after all dumb. In such one-sided match, the worker participation was almost always zero, and the decision-making was the elite preserve of the management class. We can’t say if that was effective or not (though we do know that was not the most motivational way), but apparently that’s the only thing that was! However, the advent of knowledge-economy brought with it three important changes : rapid pace of creation of new knowledge, new means and mechanisms to rapidly mass proliferate the newfound knowledge and a faster obsolescence rate of old knowledge have all collectively led to a more balanced play at work. No longer is ‘manager’ the Mr. Know-all, but is increasingly dependent on the critical inputs from her team member – most of whom have much more current knowledge and also hate a centralized hoarding of decision-making.

In such workplaces, it’s time the decision-making was made more democratic. What would be the risk of democratizing decision-making? Would it be akin to the inmates running the asylum? How can we ensure that best decisions will be made, and who will be accountable for those decisions? Can checklists help in this regard?

“In response to risk, most authorities tend to centralize power and decision making. That’s usually what checklists are about – dictating instructions to the workers below to ensure they do things the way we want. ….it spelled out to the tiniest details every critical step the tradesmen were expected to follow and when – which is logical if you’re confronted with simple and routine problems; you want the forcing function.”

So, apparently, the checklists ‘decentralized’ the decision-making but more as a forcing function. In a way, we can say that since Managers couldn’t be everywhere, Management created Checklists! Clearly, that’s not the best reason to justify or support checklists, even though we might have succeeded in our nefarious designs.

However, history has repeated shown us that every new invention has two sides – the good and the bad. While a checklist might have succeeded in its ‘forcing function’, it also has a positive side. This is the aspect that helps pilots and brain surgeons achieve better planning and performance. This allows for teams to create better bonding as much as making life-or-death calls in a split second. You have the read Gawande’s book to believe that.

So, why is that people hate checklist? Do they fear loss of individuality, respect, authority? Gawande offers some perspective and the counterintuitive wisdom:

“The fear people have about the idea of adherence to protocol is rigidity. They imagine automatons, leads down in a checklist, incapable of looking out their windshield and coping with the real world in front of them. But what you find, when a checklist is well made, is exactly the opposite. The checklist gets the dumb stuff out of the way, the routines your brain shouldn’t have to occupy itself with.”

As an example, he cites an interesting anecdote about what makes a team high performing by a simple act of just making sure that people follow the simple checklist of introducing themselves to the team by just telling their names:

“People who don’t know one another’s names don’t work together nearly as well as those who do.

The investigators at John Hopkins and elsewhere had also observed that when nurses were given a chance to say their names and mention concerns at the beginning of a case, they were more likely to note problems and offer solutions. The researchers called it an “activation phenomenon”. Giving people a chance to say something at the start seemed to activate their sense of participation and responsibility and their willingness to speak up.”

Imagine if the simple act of sharing names could accomplish so much, what else lies unexplored? However, in the absence of a checklist that ‘mandated’ such ‘routine’ we were potentially wasting this opportunity. Surely we could do away (and perhaps should do away) with checklists if only we could do such ‘common sensical’ stuff without them!

So, if checklists are an important management tool, how best to operationalize them? Should the manager ‘own’ the checklisting process? Here is an interesting take from the field of aviation, where, as we all know, once you take-off, you are literally hanging in the mid-air, and hence must do everything right to land safely:

“In aviation, there is a reason the “pilot not flying” starts the checklist. The “pilot flying” can be distracted by flight tasks and liable to skip a checklist. Moreover, dispersing the responsibility send the message that everyone – not just the captain – is responsible for the overall well-being of the flight and should have the power to question the process.”

So, there we are. It seems that there is a significant body of work to support the conjecture that checklists can be beneficial in more ways than one. They are not simply a forcing function, nor do they impede empowerment not stifle creativity. On the contrary, they help facilitate conversations during unexpected non-trivial situations. They also make the decision-making more decentralized and often democratic. To that end, a checklist is more powerful than an org chart. Too bad if that scares you!

Use checklist for all reasons and all seasons. As they say, a short pencil is better than a long memory…

How does manager’s proximity to team affects team dynamics and decision-making?

Congratulations! You’ve got the long-cherished promotion that will make you manager – of your own buddies! You don’t quite know what it means for your relations with the team – are you better-off as their manager or as their buddy?

One key challenge with first-line managers, especially those fairly new in their roles, is how to strike right balance between formal reporting relationship and informal personal relations with the team. Considering that most people “leave managers and not companies”, this seems to be a critical issue, but seldom discussed. In my career, I have also seen similar issues when people became a second-line manager or a group manager for the first-time – so, this is not a one-time issue.

I have often seen managers who have been promoted from within going all too out to please the team that “nothing has really changed” and they are still the good old buddy that they have known him all along. In their earnest to earn brownie points from their once-colleagues-but-now-team, they behave and act like one of the guys. Nothing could be wrong with it, except when personal proximity limits or blurs their professional judgment, especially when pulling up low performers. At times, I have seen this was the ‘bribe’ such managers were willing to pay to buy their team’s ‘respect’. The team definitely loves such managers (“I drank till 3am last weekend with my manager”, or “We plan to watch movie with our manager this evening”), and the manager also has surely found a way to make peace with his team, some of whom might be secretly jealous of his growth. Sometimes, they also overdelegate, or recommend promotions too-soon for their teams – which could be an indication of the secret guilt or discomfort they carry inside them. Surely, this is not an easy seat to occupy, and with little preparation or onboarding support given to rookie managers, it is not surprising that people find what appeals to them best. Surely, these managers are extremely popular with their teams! I call them Santa Claus – they come to office with a goodie bag, and fulfill their team member’s wishes every day.

On the other extreme end are managers who think it will dilute their no-nonsense macho image to deliver results if they start mingling with the team. They maintain a two-mile distance from the team, and as a result, are not generally very popular, sometimes feared and often ignored from the social circuit of the team. They start moving with the ‘upper crust’. Even if such behavior might help those managers in maintaining a healthy professional-personal balance, sometimes they might lose their ability to influence their teams and motivate them to do that extra bit just to make sure the job is not just done, but is done well. At times, they might not even understand the team’s motivation levels, or their collective decision-making process, or their unappointed power centres, etc. I once had an expat manager who had never written code in his life and was clearly unfit to be a software manager. He regularly ‘bought’ respect and support by ‘delegating’ most of his work to the team. Actually, abdicating his responsibilities was more like it. While he sat in (literally) a corner cabin, the team toiled in a meeting room next door, which was ok – the team members got a lot of additional responsibilities in the bargain. What became a problem was when we ran into some some design bugs during system testing – he came and started getting angry at the team. What he clearly didn’t realize that by ‘delegating’ his responsibilities, he didn’t stop owning the consequences of the decisions the team was making without him! Within next few months, most of us left him and that company. Then I had another boss who was promoted from within as a group manager. While he was some sort of a poster-boy success as a first-line manager, he was all too-new as a second-line manager and without much mentoring on how to effectively lead first-line managers, he started behaving in an autocratic manner. When he wanted us for a quick conversation, he would simply shout names of us lesser mortals from inside his cabin! Goes without saying that none of those managers exist in my LinkedIn network :).

What’s a better approach – sitting with the troops in the trenches and drinking beer till neighbors call the cops, or working from that corner office (or whatever that is called nowadays) and keep a safe distance from the ‘guys’? I guess there is no single universal answer – they come in all hues. Excess on either sides seems like something to be avoided. Also, this doesn’t seem to be a unique behavior associated with someone promoted internally or someone brought-in from outside the company. Newcomers also tend to be equally tentative in their first few weeks – they are not sure of their property rights, the holy cows in the organization, the informal power centrers, and so on. So, while they test new waters, there might be tendency to soft-pedal issues in the beginning. If they act too swiftly and aggressively, they might already make ‘enemies’. If they start weeding out the garden too early, they might not have enough ‘context’ and hence might lack the finesse to do the job well. On the other hand, if they start befriending people and build the right network, they need to invest time – something that they might not have. 

Striking the right balance

What are some of the best practices and strategies you have seen around? Are there some ideas with timeless appeal and culture-agnostic applicability? I am sure we can sensitize new managers on the nature of the beast, but one must read the terrain and decide what is the right approach at a given point in time.

Top 3 reasons why you should encourage social networking at workplace

Yesterday, I had the wonderful opportunity to be invited to a CEO Roundtable breakfast meeting organized by EMC at IIM Bangalore. The topic of discussion was how relevant is social networking for organizations, and what are some of the organizations doing about it. The session was led by Jack Mollen, EMC’s EVP for Human Resources. It was nice to learn how large organizations like EMC were leveraging the power of social networking. He informed that EMC with some 45,000 employees has some 20,000 virtual communities ! Wow, that must be a cool way to get all people connected from any place within the company to any other place. Partha from Mindtree highly recommended reading about EMC’s social networking platform, and also informed that they have been experimenting with social networks for the last seven years now.

I shared some of my personal views on how social networking could be useful in the context of organizations, and here are My Top 3 reasons:

1. Dismantle hierarchy and improve employee participation

Since the times of Frederick Winslow Taylor‘s Scientific Management, each (well, most) successive generation has tried to bring ‘workers’ closer to ‘management’ and improved the worker participation in management and decision-making. Today’s workers are definitely smarter, a lot smarter, than yesterday’s management, and hence there should be no good reason to limit their contributions. An increased worker involvement brings fresh ideas, that might be often overlooked by a group of people where there is assymetric participation from the organization. It also brings openness and transparency into the discussion prior to a decision being made – something that is more important, IMHO, than the very decision itself. Finally, there is always an element of better buy-in with key opinion leaders being part of such employee participation done in open.

Now imagine, there was a company-wide Twitter or Facebook where anyone could send ideas or thoughts to just about anyone, including the CEO directly. Most companies claim that they promote such open communication (and probably do that as well), but try doing that in a non-trivial-sized company setup in multiple locations on a sustainable basis (not for a one-off case), and you can quickly appreciate the challenges, both technological and organizational. A modern social networking tool can really help dismantle such invisible yet firm boundaries and pulverize the hierarchies into a really flat world! This is a real mesh network where the very ability to reach out to anyone is far more important and liberating than the actual need or motivation to do so, and notwithstanding the occasional noise that will inevitably be part of such open channels of communications, the advantages far outweigh the distractions.

2. Multiple Trust Networks lead to higher employee engagement

Most of us tend to overlook the fact that people come to organizations not just to work but to also be part of a social network. This is a fundamental human need – to be part of the group, to be liked, to be treated respectfully – that attracts people to a given workplace or a network and stay loyal to it. We have always had such social networks at workplace – well, at least at good workplaces (and I would argue that such social networks have also existed at bad workplaces but for a different but perhaps right reasons :)) and with or without technology, they served the teams and individuals well. They were like the secret sauce to getting people from different walks of life to come together, sink their individual diffrences or preferences, and work for a common purpose. Today’s social networks are not a far cry from the earlier ones, just the medium has shifted to tech-savvy and allows a real-time, 24/7 medium that can be used for even better results. The fact that still hasn’t changed is that organizations that promote social networking at workplace are creating multiple touchpoints for their employees to stay connected at workplace.

I have long believed that if there is only one single reason for some to join a company (be it salary, or role, or company name, or location, or anything else), there is a very high risk in losing that employee because invariably that single source of motivation will become single point of failure. A far better approach would be to create multiple reasons for someone to join (and stay connected to) a company so that even if one of those factors goes down, as it invariably will, other factors will hold the employee from slipping down the abyss of disillusionment and eventual disengagement. So, things like Chess Club (what is there are just 3 members in it), or Nature Club (so what if the only thing they do is watch Discovery Channel together), Daredevils (the bikers gang !), etc. are there for a purpose – don’t frown on them as unproductive distractions that lower people’s productivity. On the contrary, they serve purposes that existing mechanism simply can’t, and make your job easier 🙂

3. Open discussions about company leads to clarification of values and stronger ethics

The strength of an organizational culture can be quite accurately known by how much public scrutiny and open debate it can survive, and what tolerance does the ‘management’ have for how much dirty linen can be washed in public. To begin with, if an important company issue is treated as a non-event by the employees, that could tell a lot about the workplace culture. On the other hand, if there are passionate groups lobbying hard or raising some fundamental questions, that could also mean a lot about the workplace. Normally, a company might not want to open up its discussion forum to a larger audience fearing either the situation might go out of control, or they might never reach a consensus. I think these are well-founded fears that will go away, slowly I must add, once you start and stay focused on your goals. If you trust that your employees are adult humans who are they to work for the company and the society, and you believe that as a company, you stand by your people, then I think there is nothing to worry about. Just dismantle all prejudices, and open up the public debate to large employee forum. Whatever the reaction of people, it will only indicate the culture of the organization – isn’t that a great reason to start it now ?

These would be my Top 3 reasons why you should actively promote social networking within your organization. I realize it is easier said than done, but hey, that could be said for anything worthwhile in life or business.

What are your Top 3 reasons ?

Would you make a popular decision over a right decision ?

This is another one of those doing rounds on the net. Source unknown, but good learning value.

A group of children were playing near two railway tracks, one still in use while the other disused. Only one child played on the disused track, the rest on the operational track.

The train is coming, and you are just beside the track interchange. You can make the train change its course to the disused track and save most of the kids. However, that would also mean the lone child playing by the disused track would be sacrificed. Or would you rather let the train go its way?    

tracks

 

Let’s take a pause to think what kind of decision we could make……………. 
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Most people might choose to divert the course of the train, and sacrifice only one child. You might think the same way, I guess. Exactly, I thought the same way initially because to save most of the children at the expense of only one child was rational decision most people would make, morally and emotionally. But, have you ever thought that the child choosing to play on the disused track had in fact made the right decision to play at a safe place?

Nevertheless, he had to be sacrificed because of his ignorant friends who chose to play where the danger was. This kind of dilemma happens around us everyday. In the office, community, in politics and especially in a democratic society, the minority is often sacrificed for the interest of the majority, no matter how foolish or ignorant the majority are, and how farsighted and knowledgeable the minority are. The child who chose not to play with the rest on the operational track was sidelined. And in the case he was sacrificed, no one would shed a tear for him.

The great critic Leo Velski Julian who told the story said he would not try to change the course of the train because he believed that the kids playing on the operational track should have known very well that track was still in use, and that they should have run away if they heard the train’s sirens. If the train was diverted, that lone child would definitely die because he never thought the train could come over to that track! Moreover, that track was not in use probably because it was not safe. If the train was diverted to the track, we could put the lives of all passengers on board at stake! And in your attempt to save a few kids by sacrificing one child, you might end up sacrificing hundreds of people to save these few kids.

While we are all aware that life is full of tough decisions that need to be made, we may not realize that hasty decisions may not always be the right one.

“Remember that what’s right isn’t always popular… and what’s popular isn’t always right.”  

Everybody makes mistakes; that’s why they put erasers on pencils.

I don’t know enough to comment if Leo Velski Julian’s approach is right or wrong, but it surely resembles the reality: we often disregard the ‘right’ and protect the ‘wrong’ because of relative costs of choosing between the two of them. I guess ‘popularity’ is more important than being ‘right’ for most of us in most of the situations.

Decision-making is not as straight forward as choosing between right and wrong anymore, if it ever was! Most often, there are two or more choices, none absolutely right or absolutely wrong, and the right choice being made depending on the relative cost/benefit of one over other, with not all factors known upfront with enough clarity or certainty! While sometimes flipping the coin might be the best way to make decisions when both options look equally good (or equally bad, depending on how you look at life) and you want that extra bit from the heavens to help you make the right choice, we might not always have the luxury to flip a coin to take the decision and being able to justify, especially when things go wrong, as they eventually will. The system expects us to use an explainable rational thought process to arrive at a decision even if that goes wrong as opposed to a plain intuition-backed decision that might go right.

I believe the single-most important function of a manager is the decision-making ability. When things are clear and certain, it is often a no-brainer – and it might not be an exaggeration that the manager is not even required! What is interesting is how a manager, or just about anyone will digest raw, incomplete, uncertain and highly dynamic information and produce a decision that will stand the test of time. As someone said, hindsight is always 20/20, and so, it is always extremely easy to trash a decision after the event has happened and all details are available. The thing is, do you have what is takes to make a decision knowing very well that future possibly won’t be kind to it?

In software development and most other knowledge-based disciplines, we are increasingly seeing a firm, irreversible and healthy trend towards teams taking and owning decisions that impact them. This surely eliminates, or at least mitigates, the risk associated with a sole decision-maker, and allows decisions to be made with two distinct advantaes: everyone’s involvement is akin to ‘wisdom of crowds’ and hopefully will bring team to a better decision, and there are higher chances of a team buying-in the decisions made.

How do you take decisions? Do you take decisions for your team, or does your team take decisions for themselves, with your participation, as required? How does your team deal with the issue of a majority taking a popular opinion that might be like diverting the train to the unused track to protect people even if they are clearly wrong? Would you or your team make a popular decision over a right one?