Category Archives: Workplace

Building Credibility in Four Easy Steps

In the old world of hierarchical organizational structures, the “seniority” of the role pretty much decided how much “power” the role-holder commanded. The notion of power was not just metaphorical, it was even literal! The power of the person often dictated how far their ideas – no matter how dumb they might be – would fly, and how much resistance would they likely attract on the way. To that end, it was like the horsepower that fueled organization decisions, or key changes – senior folks simply had more horsepower than the lesser mortals. In such a Dilbertesque world, needless to say, it didn’t matter much if the boss really knew the stuff – the fact that he was the boss was mostly enough to get things done. The power was in the role, and not necessarily in the role-holder.

However, in the new flat world, power is mostly displaced by “credibility.” It is not enough to be a senior anymore to bring about changes or make key decisions – if you don’t have the credibility, people are likely to reject your ideas. And given the nature of roles in today’s workplace, roles don’t guarantee credibility. One must work hard to build it. The challenge is – how do we establish genuine credibility when we are new to a system, or when we don’t have enough data points about our track record? Is there a roadmap that can help people evaluate what are they doing, where are they at this point and what more could they do to improve their credibility?

2015-11-17-1447720783-2432186-dabbawalas.jpg
Mumbai’s world-famous “Dabbawalas” have built a rock-solid credibility over time.

Merriam-Webster defines credibility as “the quality of being believed or accepted as true, real, or honest“, and comes from the Latin word “credo” which means “I believe.” To be truly believed is not the same as simply knowing someone, or even be colleagues at work or good friends. Indeed, it takes a lot to be believed upon by others! While someone being perceived as credible might not require one to possess a superhuman personality, earning that credibility could take years of sincere hard work. Credibility is not about being the smartest or the most knowledgeable person in the room, or someone who has the most charismatic social personality, or has the most “power” or “connections,” or is the loudest, or even having the most number of followers on their social media. If anything, credibility is all about being sincere, honest, transparent, person of integrity, objective, self-confident, knowledgeable, professional, humble, and authentic. But, how do you build credibility? As Henry Ford said, you can’t build reputation on what you plan do to. Clearly, you must deliver something of value so that people can take you seriously.

I have been experimenting and studying about building credibility for some years now, and based on my readings, anecdotal data, observations and first-hand experiences (read that as “mistakes”), I have distilled my learnings into what I call as the 4E model, which has four distinct stages. This has served me well, especially in new jobs and groups where my past credentials didn’t matter much. I had to every time start in those forums from a clean slate and find a way to build solid and genuine credibility.

Here’s how the 4E model goes:

Stage 1. Evangelize: You refer to the experts

When you start your journey, you are a rookie in the field, and have nothing much to offer. More often than not, you are more like a pilgrim in search of the truth than a source of wisdom or truth yourself! To that end, you have no real credibility to offer. Perhaps the best approach at this point is to find someone you look up to as the true north and follow them like hell. Just make sure you are not following a ‘fake north’. The idea or the individual you choose to follow could be an established thought leader in the chosen space – someone whose work influences a significant number of people in the community, and whose name inspires trust in the community.

By choosing to refer to their work and building upon it (say, apply those ideas in a given setting), you will first have to commit yourself to study their work deeply – for nothing is caught as fast as a fake, and you surely don’t want to build genuine credibility on the foundations of fake expertise! It will also be relatively easier for you to find the right audience, for the ideas that you support and evangelize are already well-known and reasonably well-accepted by the community at large, it will make easier for you find a toehold among other practitioners. Make no mistake – talking about experts won’t make you an expert yourself, but will help you find other like-minded people who will begin to accept you in their circle. Starting with enthusiasm, you will steadily graduate to a higher awareness, more knowledge and eventually to mastery of the idea.

As an Evangelist, you essentially have no credibility of your own apart from being a loyal follower and perhaps a passionate evangelist of an idea, or an individual. For example, you might be a big believer in animal rights, and might utilize every opportunity to talk about the seminal work of great giants in the field, but have no real story of your own to share. However, you could take those ideas and build upon it in your neighborhood. When you have achieved a fair amount of success in being an able follower and share your story, it will open doors for you to be accepted by other followers, and then your hard work will help you stand out in your mastery of the subject.

Stage 2. Experiment: You talk of your own work

Once you have built a rock-solid understanding of a topic, and enough people are willing to give you credit for being a subject matter ‘expert’ (though in all honesty, you are not an ‘expert’, you are simply being an ardent follower of a well-known idea or an individual), it opens the doors for you to experiment with some tweaks. Perhaps you see the opportunity to collaborate with someone else in the community, or adapt some of the peripheral ideas – without really touching the central idea. Given the already earned “credibility” by now, chances are high that people will accept your experiments without outrightly dismissing them as something too shallow without really much understanding of the core idea. The fact that you have paid your dues will help people take you more seriously, even if they don’t take your idea itself very seriously at this stage. In the first stage, you were piggybacking on someone else’s idea to build your credibility, now you are encashing a little bit of that hard-earned personal credibility to provide some tailwind to your own idea. The more credibility you have earned in Stage 1, the more it will help propel your idea further.

It is important that we don’t blow our own trumpet just yet! In fact, we should never do that. If anything, it’s the people, the community that might like your ideas, and bestow you with their faith in your work in the Stage 4. However, at this point, one must simply be very humble about one’s experiments. You aim is not to make noise by punching holes in some expert’s work, but simply to solve the problems well, and if you discover something novel, then build enough ground support so that people around you will help you launch it. At this point, you are still a learning – just that you have graduated to being an experimental learner in Stage 2, from being a evangelical learner in Stage 1. By no means, should your experiments be construed as demonstrations of expertise, especially by you!

3. Endorse: You recommend other’s work

If I go out on the street and start endorsing your work, chances are no one will notice either of us! If I don’t have enough credibility on the street, people don’t care even if I am endorsing a known and a well-proven idea or something very amateurish. However, when I have made my mark as someone with an original idea of my own, chances are high that my word will be take a bit more seriously than before. When a well-known critic reviews and praises your book, she is trading her own credibility by your ideas, and risks losing her own hard-earned credibility if your ideas turn out to be not so good. So, endorsement is not just saying good words about anything and everything, but carefully picking what to bet on!

As opposed to Stage 1, in the Endorse stage, you are endorsing not just well-known ideas but also new and emerging ideas, and the reason people will accept them at this point is because you have been through Stage 1 and Stage 2. If you directly start endorsing ideas without having first built your own personal and professional credibility, there might be no takers for your endorsements. We see this all the time on LinkedIn. In general, you can very easily spot fake recommendations not by looking at what does the citation read but by checking out the profile of the endorser.

4. Expert: Your work is referred by others

This is the pinnacle of credibility – you have done something new and innovative, and helped advance the professional body of knowledge. Your ideas have withstood the test of time, and now other practitioners are beginning to refer to it, and even extend it (just the way you were doing when you started out in Stage 1. The community at large recognizes your credibility.

Being an expert is not a matter of instant nirvana! One must go through the painful process of building one’s credibility that allows the community to understand how well your ideas help them, and how good you really are. I don’t believe one can become overnight expert without putting in solid efforts to go through these stages. Of course there are statistical outliers, but most of us have to go through the trial by fire.

Conclusions

In my experience, the most important “power” one has in a flat world is their credibility. Sometimes your credibility proceeds you, but mostly, you might find yourself in a situation when your past laurels don’t matter much to the people, and you must restart from scratch. In such situations, I found the 4E model as a good starting point, and depending on how much you are willing to commit yourself in Stage 1, you might be able to build credibility faster. However, I don’t recommend that this model is used like a project plan. It could be like an invisible roadmap in the back of your mind that guides you to stay honest to your mission rather than simply check the boxes and somehow move on to the next stage.

The 4E model doesn’t give you are timeline. It depends on how well you achieve credibility in a given stage rather than how fast you do it. Everything else equal, I would always recommend doing it well over rushing through it.

The 4E model also doesn’t really give a linear sequence. It might appear to give you a sense of progression, but you don’t stop doing things of earlier stages. Knowledge is always growing, and I don’t believe there is anyone out there who can proclaim they have nothing left to learn anymore! So, its very likely that you will find yourself in all the stages, and that’s OK.

Finally, the 4E model won’t make you an expert, ever. Your hard work will lead you to that, and the 4E model can at best be your GPS, because remember that no journey worth doing is ever a straight line.

(Originally published at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/great-work-cultures/building-credibility-in-f_b_8579094.html)

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…

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 ?

Addressing the issue of “social loafing” in large teams

 Large teams might be inevitable in certain large endeavors, but there are several benefits of small teams. A small team can build and maintain a strong culture and a character that gets better with time. Small teams quickly learn the invaluable skills in teamwork and interdependence that lead to higher efficiencies while ensuring that individual team members don’t end up competing against each other but rather collaborate on the common objectives. Small teams also mean small egos 🙂

One of the biggest motivations of making smaller teams is to provide higher levels of transparency and task accountability to individual team members. A large team tends to hide inefficiencies, both of its structure and of its people. One particular problem in a large team is the problem of “social loafing” – something that is perhaps best described in this poem by Charles Osgood:


There was a most important job that needed to be done,
And no reason not to do it, there was absolutely none.
But in vital matters such as this, the thing you have to ask
Is who exactly will it be who’ll carry out the task?

Anybody could have told you that Everybody knew
That this was something Somebody would surely have to do.
Nobody was unwilling; Anybody had the ability.
But Nobody believed that it was their responsibility.

It seemed to be a job that Anybody could have done,
If Anybody thought he was supposed to be the one.
But since Everybody recognized that Anybody could,
Everybody took for granted that Somebody would.

But Nobody told anybody that we are aware of,
That he would be in charge of seeing it was taken care of.
And Nobody took it on himself to follow through,
And do what Everybody thought that Somebody would do.

When what Everybody needed so did not get done at all,
Everybody was complaining that somebody dropped the ball.
Anybody then could see it was an awful crying shame,
And Everybody looked around for Somebody to blame.

Somebody should have done the job
And Everybody should have,
But in the end Nobody did
What Anybody could have.

This is a great description of how so many ‘obvious’ things don’t get done – either due to miscommunication, or misunderstanding, wrong assumptions, or sometimes just shirking away from the responsibility. One of my best personal examples is working for a community team as a volunteer. I believe working for a community as a volunteer is the greatest way to hone one’s teamwork – if you can get people who are not motivated by money or power or promotions to work together for a job, you can do anything! So, I was part of this team of a really nice bunch of 15-odd people who was required to serve this 400+ families. This so-called executive committee was required to plan social events for the community. What I found was that 80% of the people on this team were there just for the meaningless social prestige. Over 90% of the work was done by just one individual (and I was doing another 5% and rest of the entire team doing the remaining 5%). Those 80% of the people were otherwise regular nice people, but when part of this large team, they could not be counted upon to deliver the goods. We organized some wonderful events, but it was mostly the two or three of us who did maximum running around and the rest of the team just travelling First Class. After a few months, I was ready to quit (I eventually quit that team at the next team election. What I find is that the new executive committee team has very similar effort distribution – so it was clearly not me who was an aberration :)).

In my professional experience, I have been involved in some really large software teams, up to 190+ people on a single product. While these efforts were large and simply required those many number of people, we used small teams, not more than 7-9 people each, to divide and manage the work. Each of these programs was divided into such a number of small project teams, each a self-contained and autonomous unit that could deliver its functionality with minimum external dependency. Small teams have smaller number of communication paths, and allow fostering of meaningful teamwork rather than poisionous politics. It also is a great way to groom technical leadership and managerial expertise in the teams. A large team is no fun for people to volunteer and train for roles and tasks that require building special skills. But a small team must often replicate several skills in each team, and hence is a great way to groom future leadership apart from also acting as a derisking strategy to counter impact of attrition. Agile practices advocate small teams for achieving high team throughput, and the issue of social loafing is indirectly addressed by things like daily scrum meetings where social shame and the feeling of letting down the team ‘forces’ team members to get their act together. An excellent discussion of social loafing can be found here.

Conclusions

Social Loafing is a real team dysfunction not restricted to a given country, culture, society, industry or team size. It has been observed in all types of societies and all kinds of groups. Making the team size small is one of the ways to address social loafing. In the context of software teams, everything depends on how individuals make commitments and live up to them. And hence, it becomes extremely important for a manager to be aware of this team dysfunction and evolve strategies to deal with it. Having a small team with clear roles and responsibilities, and setting common standards for work evaluation are some of the ways that can reduce the extent of social loafing in teams and improve morale and team productivity.

Shu-Ha-Ri and Situational Leadership for Managers

In the previous blogs What is the leadership style in your software teams ? and Situational Leadership in Software teams, I explored how leadership has evolved over time, and how we could relate it to the concept of situational leadership in the context of software development teams. Those thoughts were from an essentially western perspective where the ideas such as democracy in life and at work, free thinking, equality, participatory management, individualism (followed by a re-discovery of team-oriented approach to managing work) and shared leadership have been uniformally accepted in the social values and ably institutionalized by legislation. The net result is that we are seeing a great shift in the balance of power from the so-called ‘management’ (a.k.a. the role in an organization responsible to get the job done) to the so-called ‘labor’ (a.k.a. the role in an organization responsible to do the job). The four models of leaderhip helped us understand how leadership evolved at a macro-level down the ages, and the concept of situational leadership helped us understand how a guru, or a manager, could adapt his style of leadership based on the growth of his teams.

In this context, it is interesting to see how Shu-Ha-Ri, an old Japanese concept of staged learning, guided empowerment and inner learning in martial arts supports a learner to graduate through a process of blind loyalty, learning, discovery, questioning and finally figuring out things on his own. In my view, this is complemantary to the situational leadership in the sense that while the emphasis in situational leadership is on the leader (even though his style depends on his follower’s growth), the focus is clearly on the follower in Shu-Ha-Ri model, even if his/her growth is supported by the guru himself. I think a study of this model helps us understand where and why a student’s journey must begin, and what are the stages of evolution. In my view, this model doesn’t explicitly tell how a guru must lead as the student grows in his learning, and I think therein lies an important application. But, let’s first look at the model.

Shu-ha-ri is “a term the Japanese use to describe the overall progression of martial arts training, as well as the lifelong relationship the student will enjoy with his or her instructor.

Shu can either mean “to protect” or “to obey.” The dual meaning of the term is aptly descriptive of the relationship between a martial arts student and teacher in the student’s early stages, which can be likened to the relationship of a parent and child. The student should absorb all the teacher imparts, be eager to learn and willing to accept all correction and constructive criticism. The teacher must guard the student in the sense of watching out for his or her interests and nurturing and encouraging his or her progress, much as a parent guards a child through its growing years. Shu stresses basics in an uncompromising fashion so the student has a solid foundation for future learning, and all students perform techniques in identical fashion, even though their personalities, body structure, age, and abilities all differ.

Ha
is another term with an appropriate double meaning: “to break free” or “to frustrate.” Sometime after the student reaches dan (black belt) level, he or she will begin to break free in two ways. In terms of technique, the student will break free of the fundamentals and begin to apply the principles acquired from the practice of basics in new, freer, and more imaginative ways. The student’s individuality will begin to emerge in the way he or she performs techniques. At a deeper level, he or she will also break free of the rigid instruction of the teacher and begin to question and discover more through personal experience. This can be a time of frustration for the teacher, as the student’s journey of discovery leads to countless questions beginning with “Why…” At the Ha stage, the relationship between student and teacher is similar to that of a parent and an adult child; the teacher is a master of the art. and the student may now be an instructor to the others.

Ri is the stage at which the student, now a kodansha (high ranking black belt), separates from the instructor having absorbed all that he or she can learn from them. This is not to say that the student and teacher are no longer associated. Actually, quite the opposite should be true; they should now have a stronger bond than ever before, much as a grandparent does with their son or daughter who is now also a parent. Although the student is now fully independent, he treasures the wisdom and patient counsel of the teacher and there is a richness to their relationship that comes through their shared experiences. But the student is now learning and progressing more through self-discovery than by instruction and can give outlet to his or her own creative impulses. The student’s techniques will bear the imprint of his or her own personality and character. Ri, too, has a dual meaning, the second part of which is “to set free” As much as the student now seeks independence from the teacher, the instructor likewise must set the student free.

Shu Ha Ri is not a linear progression. It is more akin to concentric circles, so that there is Shu within Ha and both Shu and Ha within Ri. Thus, the fundamentals remain constant; only the application of them and the subtleties of their execution change as the student progresses and his or her own personality begins to flavor the techniques performed. Similarly, the student and teacher are always bound together by their close relationship and the knowledge, experience, culture, and tradition shared between them. Ultimately, Shu Ha Ri should result in the student surpassing the master, both in knowledge and skill. This is the source of improvement for the art as a whole. If the student never surpasses his master, then the art will stagnate, at best. If the student never achieves the master’s ability, the art will deteriorate. But, if the student can assimilate all that the master can impart and then progress to even higher levels of advancement, the art will continually improve and flourish.

It is interesting that a Shu-Ha-Ri journey must always start with a complete blind faith in the guru’s skills. Perhaps this is more oriental concept, but in India too, we have great examples of how students excelled when they reposed complete faith in their guru’s skills and knowledge. To me this is like climbing Mt. Everest – you can’t just get airdropped close to the summit and complete the final climb – you must undertake the journey from the base camp. This is important because the skills you require for the final assualt are the ones that you need to master right from your formative years as a student of that subject.

An interesting part of this model is that the end objective. It is expected that the student shall surpass his master in knowledge and skills for the ultimate benefit of that trade. Situational leadership doesn’t talk in that many words, but Shu-Ha-Ri model probably is all about the ultimate liberation of a student’s faculties. However, in modern times of nano-careers and floating workplace relationships between a mentor and a disciple (or a manager and his team members), it is perhaps very hard to expect that there is a guru for each one of us, who is helping us improve every single day, with the eventual goal of making us better than himself. Managers are exposed to their own traumas – job unsecurity due to economic situation or other organizational chances, skills obsolesence, stagnation and so on. How do we expect those managers to actually go out of the way and help out their disciplines in their careers ? If the average tenure a manager is with a given team member is not more than a few years, is it even reasonable to expect ?

Looking at it from a disciple’s eyes, there might be yet another set of issues to confront. How to choose a guru who can selflessly teach him to fly like a carefree bird and scale heights that he can’t do by himself ? How does he know that his guru won’t sabotage his career? Assuming his guru is a good guy, does he have all the skills and knowledge to help him at every stage of his career ? In the context of an immediate manager as his guru, how many managers will be willing to help him grow and risk their own obsolescense at workplace. Do today’s job pressures even leave one with that much time for a long-haul development of one’s skills and abilities ? Is it even worth doing it given that in every 5 to 10 years, perhaps the entire subject might be re-written and replaced by a new body of knowledge?

I think these are very relevant questions, and with no easy answers. A manager must outgrow his fears and invest time and effort in developing his teams in a way that helps grow them. The process of taking a student from Shu to Ha and finally to Ri is highly rewarding and educating process, not to mention the obvious challenges. Better managers among us have mastered the art of making difference to the people who worked with them. They all faced similar challanges that I mentioned above, and that probably made the entire experience even more rewarding for them. In the process of liberating their disciples, those gurus also became little better gurus.

After all, a guru is known by the work of his disciples.

My favorites from “The HP Way”

Books continue to be my biggest source of wisdom – they are the true time machines. You can travel back in time as the author takes you on a journey to the distant past and helps you form a mental picture of the unique circumstances that led to them taking a certain decision. Unless one truly understands the context, one can’t really distill the knowledge from those stories and convert it into timeless wisdom.

I especially like reading books a couple years after their release – gives the story enough credibility (or otherwise) because there is enough experiential data to validate the thoughts and ideas proposed in the book. Sometimes, it also brings out ‘timelessness’ of ideas – and helps you understand things that continue to withstand the tests of time, while in some cases, you find why the idea that was very hot once, has now fallen out of favor. Sometimes, I re-read books after a few years just to understand ideas that have a deep foundation and have clearly provided firm guidance, especially in turbulence, while there are some that faded into oblivion.

Some of my favorite timeless ideas from The HP Way include:

  • Given equally good players and good teamwork, the team with the strongest will to win will prevail (Pg 12)
  • Personal communication was often necessary to back up written instructions. that was the genesis of what became “management by walking around” at the Hewlett-Packard Company (Pg 27)
  • I spent a full afternoon with him and I have remembered ever since some advise he gave me. He said that more businesses die from indigestion than starvation. (Pg 52)
  • I knew by then that Easthan realized we were going to be in direct competition with his company, and I anticipated that our meeting with him would be uncomfortable. He assured us, however, that compettion was a good thing and it was better to have two companies introducing a new product, especially if it incorporated new technology, because that made it all the more credible to the customer. (Pg 52)
  • Our success depends in large part on giving the responsibility to the level where it can be exercised effectively, usually on the lowest possible level of the organization, the level nearest to the customer. (Pg 72)
  • I noted that the banks simply foreclosed on firms that mortgaged their assets and these firms were left with nothing. Those firms that did not borrow money had a difficult time, but they ended up with their assets intact and survived during the depression years that followed. From this experience, I decided our company should not incur any long-term debt. For this reason Bill and I determined we should operate the company on a pay-as-you-go basis, financing our growth primarily out of earnings rather by borrowing money. (Pg 84)
  • No company has unlimited resources, so it is essential that the resources available be applied to the projects most likely to be successful. At HP we often used to select projects on the basis of a six-to-one engineering return. That is, the profit we expected to derive over the lifetime of a product should be at least six times greater than the cost of developing the product. Almost without exception, the products that beat the six-to-one ration by the widest margin were the most innovative. (Pgs 97-98)
  • Lab managers face a real challenge in dealing with the enthusiastic inventor who presents a very creative and innovative idea – and idea that after careful and objective analysis by others is turned down. How do managers provide encouragement and help the inventor retain enthusiasm in the face of such disappointment ? Many HP managers over the years have expressed admiration for the way Bill Hewlett handled these situations. One manager has called it Bill’s “hat-wearing process”. Upon first being approached by a creative inventor with unbridled enthusiasm for a new idea, Bill immediately put on a hat called “enthusiasm”. He would listen, express excitement where appropriate and appreciation in general, while asking a few rather gentle and not too pointed questions. A few days later, he would get back to the inventor wearing a hat called “inquisition”. This was the time for very pointed questions, a thorough probing of the idea, lots of give-and-take. Without  a final decision, the session was adjourned. Shortly thereafter, Bill would put on his “decision” hat and meet once again with the inventor. With appropriate logic and sensitivity, judgment was rendered and a decision made about the idea. This process provided the inventor with a sense of satisfaction, even when the decision went against the project – a vitally important outcome for engendering continued enthusiasm and creativity. (Pgs 100-101)
  • Several years later, at a gathering of HP engineers, I presented Chuck with a medal for “extraordinary contempt and defiance beyond the normal call of engineering duty”. So how does a company distinguish between insubordination and entrepreunership ? To this young engineer’s mind the difference lay in the intent. (Pg 108)
  • Every person in the organization must be continually looking for new and better ways to do his or her work. (Pg 126)
  • Another requirement is that a high degree of enthusiasm should be encouraged at all levels; in particular the people in high management positions must not only be enhuisiastic themselves, they must be able to engender enthusiasm among their associates. There can be no place for hanfhearted interest or halfhearted effort. (Pg 126)

I feel these are great lessons that apply at any workplace even today. Since I have never worked at HP, I don’t know (and don’t wish to comment either) how well they are followed at HP, or if they are effective. Just that these ideas resonate well with me 🙂

Ten Commandments for Revolutionary Change Agents

Revolutionaries are a restless lot. In a way, they are like the ‘shooting stars’ in an organization – they are seriously outnumbered by the hundreds of twinkle-twinkle little stars, they enter an organization with tails-on-fire hurry, and (try to) change everyone and everything around them within the short time span that they are there, and then they burn out (or just lose interest when the work they set out for is either accomplished, or get bored when it doesn’t get accomplished) and just move on. They don’t have a lot of time, patience or socialistic motives making small changes here and there, or to make elaborate plans and do surveys, investigations and pilots, and so on. They would rather be out there in the middle of heat, dust and all the adrenalin-pumping and chest-thumping action than be found napping in a death-by-powerpoint meeting full of naysayers who believe it is their fundamental right to protect the status quo.

While some are born revolutionaries, some people don that role for some phase of their professional life. Irrespective of whether you are one or not, chances are that you might be reporting to one, or working with one, or managing one such person sometime in your life. I would even bet that sometime in your career, you might find the need to shift gears and play that role. These ideas have helped me over the years, and I hope they help you as well:

 

  1. Don’t ever give up. Conviction of ideas and persistence of efforts are as much a key to success as the merit of proposal. The easiest thing is to give up – and perhaps everyone before you just did that (that’s why no change ever happened before there). So, you have the choice to either join the ranks of people who just couldn’t handle the heat, or stay right there and befriend the heat. 
  2. Don’t scale down what you believe is right for the organization just because some people don’t feel that way. Again, it is very easy to offer a ten-percent solution that pleases the mighty bosses but misses out on the remaining ninety-percent hard part that will either optimize the way of working, or help it self-sustain for years to come, or make the operations more efficient, etc. By scaling down and showing only the best oranges, you might gain some immediate curreny for your ideas (and it might even be a perfectly safe ploy just to get out of a deadlock) but you run the danger of setting a precedent for your ideas: low cost, high returns. Like a ponzi scheme, you might be expected to routinely dish out such ideas that offer insane amount of returns on bargain prices, and that might kill the potential of other, far better ideas that might not offer the low-hanging fruits but are required for the organization.
  3. Don’t constantly remind people whenever things fail, even when they fail due to reasons being highlighted by you and ignored by them. Many a times, people will simply ignore your ideas and opinions for various reasons and will simply go ahead with their ideas. In some such situations, their ideas could also fail. The last thing you can do to help the organization (and yourself) is to “I-told-you-so”. We human beings need to save our face. When people are down on their knees, reminding them of the obvious risks (definitely obvious to you, but perhaps not so obvious to them) will not only make your relations strained with people, it will also not help the organization. Further, you stand to lose their support, especially when some of your ideas go wrong (as they will), you can imagine being paid in same currency.
  4. Use objective, industry-respected, hard data to support your proposals, especially if people doubt the merit of proposals (as the eventually will !). Nothing works like a fully-baked data to counter opinions of people, especially when those opinions are based purely on personal whims and fancies. However, also remember – it is not your job to respond to every possible objection. Let your work do the talking, but use as much external help as will be required to give wings to your ideas. After that, they must fly by themselves.
  5. If need be, run skunkworks. After all, the programming language Java was developed as a skunkworks at Sun. Sometimes the opposition to your ideas might be so much and strong that you must backtrack. What options do you have? Try running the project secretly. Only two outcomes are possible: either your ideas will emerge stronger, or you will discover limitations of your ideas. Either way, it is your progress. However, make sure you have some allies in the organization lest your efforts be seen as another one of the hobby projects by your already unhappy boss. 
  6. Build allies by sharing success stories from other organizations, making presentations. Most managers are extremely incompetent in the fine art of building allies. We think these are some dirty tricks of an old politician to save his government. Well, guess what, it applies as much to the workplace. The old command and control structure is gone, and in today’s world, we can’t force people to follow what we like. Even the owner of a firm might not always be able to impose his opinions upon the free will of his employees. Largely, that will be resisted tooth and nail, or offered a cold shoulder. You can avoid a lot of heartburn by building allies to support your ideas. (I will write another blog on this very important topic).
  7. Build your personal and professional credibility. If there is a possibility the reason you are not being heard within the organization is because you are not considered competant in that subject, build that credibility by writing articles, presenting papers outside the organization, get involved in your technical community networks, etc. However, this is a long-term effort. In the short-term, your ideas might get you branded as anti-establishment just because you are seeking a major shake-up and that could upset a lot of people who are not only used to doing things a certain way, they have also built their careers doing things that way. By insisting on your ideas, you might only start losing everyone’s support and your own credibility. Learn to feel the pulse of people around you when that begins to happen, and use alternate means to first restore your personal and professional credibility. Be seen as the guy who knows organizational stuff, has a feel for issues facing the company, is seen being a problem-solver, etc. Once that is done, you will be once again seen as ‘one among us’ and your ideas and opinions might then be viewed little more openly then before.
  8. Solve real problems with your change proposals. That will win allies faster than any attempt to woo them by any other legal means. Let the results speak for themselves. No organization can (and needs to) solve all its problems rightaway. Some of your ideas might be little too idealistic for the organization and some might be little too futuristic. On an apple to apple comparison, you might be right in proposing to take up your ideas, but you might be missing the big picture. Instead of taking the situation holistically, you might be able to command better respect (and support) by offering solutions for today’s problems that allow the organzation to move forward. Hopefully, today’s survival will propel the organization to tomorrow where rest of your ideas will be required. If the company doesn’t survive till tomorrow, of what possible use would those holistic ideas be ?
  9. Socialize ideas with engineers in the trenches – the people who will use them. If they understand and embrace the ideas, there would be a better buy-in as compared to the senior management asking everyone to follow. Through the history, we see one consistent pattern: the lower the level at which a revolution started, the more it endured the passage of time. Military coups have not stayed that long compared to people’s marches to democracy. So, don’t ignore the people power. They might not be the decision-makers but together they constitute a huge force that can alter the future.
  10. Don’t give up on the philosophy of the proposal. Don’t take your proposal as a prestige issue. If you can get something done today without losing out on sanctity of your proposal, it might be much better than insisting on a full support that might never happen. Further, the results from what you can do today might pave the way for future proposals. There is never a single best way to anything – if there were, everyone would already be doing it. Give credit to your colleagues, for their resistance to your ideas might be there for a reason. Be open to altering your course without diluting the vision. Just like in human relations, it is not always the content of communication that destroys the relationship – it is often the way it is conveyed. Same way, your ideas might still be palatable if served in the right china.

These have helped me over years, and still continue to help. How about you ?

 

Toyota’s Wisdom for Tomorrow’s Managers…published

In one of my previous posts, I had talked about an article I wrote for business review magazine. It got published in the Dec 2008 issue. The article discusses following ten ‘wisdoms’ from Toyota for its managers:

  1. Open the Window. It’s a big world out there !
  2. Make the most sincere efforts in your assigned position
  3. Taking on challenges is the way to gain experience
  4. Be an Innovative and Creative Thinker

  5. More uncertain the future, more important to have courage

  6. If a problem is left unsolved and the superior is uninformed, neither Kaizen nor cost reduction can be applied

  7. Unless we establish a unique pattern of control and organization, no amount of financial resources will be sufficient

  8. Eliminate muda, mura, muri completely 

  9. Ask ‘Why’ five times about every matter

  10. Trust is key

You can read the article here. 

What is your cross-cultural quotient ?

This mail is doing its customary rounds on the net, and not for a wrong reason! Though there are obvious pitfalls of stereotyping people, it also serves as a handy learning guide, even a field manual, when the similarities are generic in nature, and far outweigh the minute differences that might make an individual unique and different from others, but not dramatically different from other fellow tribesmen. The fact is we are all different, and success at workplace is also impacted by our ability to recognize, appreciate, respect and work through such cross-cultural differences. In today’s increasingly globalized world, this serves as a good starting point to recognize that there are people different from us, and a team’s success is impacted by mutual understanding of such differences.

These icons were designed by Liu Young who was born in China and educated in Germany. She is an accomplished designer…check out her work at http://www.yangliudesign.com/. I found her usage of metaphors captured in nice little icons very interesting, and even if it is a gross generalization of human beings, it is a nice piece of creative work!

Legend: Blue –> Westerner, Red –> Asian

Opinion

 

 

 

 Way of Life

 

 

 

Punctuality

Contacts

 

 

 

Anger

 

 

 

Queue when Waiting

 

 

 

Me (I)

 

 

 

Sundays on the Road

 

 

 

Party

eastwest09.jpg

 

 

 

In the Restaurant

eastwest10.jpg

 

 

 

Perception of each other

 

 

 

Things that are new

 

 

 

The child

 

 

 

What is trendy

 

 

 

The Boss

 

 

 

Moods and Weather

 

 

 

Shower timing

 

 

 

Elderly in day to day life

 

 

 

Transportation

 

 

 

Three meals a day

 

 

 

Handling of Problems 

 

 

 

Travelling  

 

 

 

Stomach Ache 

How are Ethics and Excellence related ?

A friend sent a nice story:

A gentleman was once visiting a temple under construction. In the temple premises, he saw a sculptor making an idol of God. Suddenly he saw, just a few meters away, another identical idol was lying. Surprised, he asked the sculptor, “Do you need two statutes of the same idol?”. “No”, said the sculptor, “We need only one, but the first one got damaged at the last stage”.

The gentleman examined the sculpture. No apparent damage was visible. “Where is the damage?” asked the gentleman. “There is a scratch on the nose of the idol” replied the sculptor. “Where are you going to keep the idol?” asked the Gentleman. The sculptor replied that it will be installed on a pillar 20 feet high. “When the idol will be 20 feet away from the eyes of the beholder, who is going to know that there is scratch on the nose?”, the gentleman asked.

The sculptor looked at the gentleman, smiled and said “The God knows it and I know it !!! ”

The desire to excel should be exclusive of the fact whether someone appreciates it or not.

Most people would not set such high standards of self-approval when it comes to excellence, especially when it is very evident that their omissions and commissions won’t have any significant impact on the output and is unlikely to be ‘discovered’, and many will surely take the wrong route. However, there are many blessed souls among us who not only constantly strive for such excellence, but will also pursue it relentlessly, come what may – may their tribe prosper. So, excellence is not just an extremely advanced state of knowledge, skill and abilities – it is much more. It is about having the right attitude, a clear vision of what is required and, of course, a great sense of ethics. And that also reminds me of a great definition of ethics. This is not my definition, but if someone knows the source, please let me know so that I could credit the source with gratitude. It goes something like this:

Ethics is all about doing the right thing when you know that even if you were to do the wrong thing, no one would come to know.

How profound, and yet how simple. When I read the story that I mentioned earlier, I felt there was so much in common between Excellence and Ethics that they seem to be two sides of the same coin. Of course, excellence seems to have much wider meaning, and one could argue that ethics could be construed as one of the components of that. I believe someone who is truly passionate about excellence can’t be unethical, and vice versa. However, it appears to me that one can’t build a culture of excellence without having the strong and unshakable foundation of ethics. Excellence is the goal, but can’t be always guaranteed despite having best intentions and selfless efforts to achieve it. Failures do happen, and under pressure from stakeholders, there is always a temptation to cut corners. However, with a strong foundation of ethics, one can hope to build it all over again. Perhaps ethics is the self-regulator, speed-governor, the character-radar built in our conscience that doesn’t add anything to the knowledge, skills or abilities, par se, but acts as the mirror on the wall, the guardian angel, the lighthouse brightly shining its beacon in dark and choppy waters.

My interpretation is that ethics is the input that leads to excellence in output. It is the manure that leads to a healthy sapling which ultimately goes on to become a strong, tall tree. And unless you invest in this manure, how are you ever going to get such strong trees ?

Do you demand excellence at workplace without investing in building ethics first ? 

Which of the ‘real worlds’ does your software team live in ?

There was a highly charged discussion on real colocation vs. remote colocation on one of the mailing lists. I think the number of posts far exceeded 100+ and eventually there were more emotional and personal arguments than any meaningful real responses. Finally, the original poster left the group, people who were left on the group were in introspection + justification mode for a day, and life seems to be slowly returning back to normal on that list.

I think the discussion lost its fizz because of several reasons, but I feel most of us are still living in a denial mode as far as remote work is concerned. Just because we have Agile Principles that ‘favor’ colocation, there is no good reason to justify that as the means to colocate the teams, come what may. My argument is don’t suboptimize the whole in order to superoptimize the parts. So, if I were a carpenter on contract to build a house and only knew how to use a hammer, it would amount to me demanding that every door and window be made using only the hammer whether the house needs that or not, and whether that suboptimizes the house construction or not. I look at life this way: if you are lucky to have an ‘ideal real world’: small, colocated teams, than by all means, go Agile in its full spirit. However, if higher business imperatives make your business remotely located in multiple locations, then you can’t be pushing your tool just because that’s your comfort zone ! A customer doesn’t care what process we use internally as long as he get what he wants and when he wants at the right price point he has in mind. To a large extent, the same goes for your management also. They might recognize that you can improve your development productivity 2X (or whatever is the going rate) but let’s be honest. How much time and effort does the software phase consume in the overall product development ? Obviously that number varies depending on the type of system being built, but even in 100% software-only products, there is a reasonable (and quite often, significant) amount of time and effort that must be consumed by non-software teams. If we assume software teams are consuming 40% effort on a systems project, and by distributing work, the organization is getting a 2X improvement (without being judgemental about the type of ‘improvement’, let me just say this is a result of availability of talent at the right price point that is able to deliver the work within desired quality). Now, even if Agile practices are able to bring a comparable 2X improvement, that is probably only affecting that 40% of the development effort to become 20% but at the cost of colocating everyone which means the cost of overall project might double in the worst case, going up from 100% to 200% ! So, if that is the way an argument for supporting Agile adoption is made, I won’t be surprised if there are no takers. This ostrich mindset reminds me of the Swiss Army manual – if there is a discrepancy between map and terrain, trust the terrain.

A far better approach would be to first understand what is an organization’s constraints and expections in distributing the work to remote teams. What benefits are being expected, and are actually being accrued in reality by doing that. Once done, that is a great starting point to have the debate on how best we can make distributed teams more productive – so, it is nomore a question of pure faith vs. pagan. It is a question of what is the best way we could help teams in the given context. The idea is not to challenge why real world is so ugly and try to facelift it because the mirror won’t like it, but to accept the real world for its face value (surely, healthy debate on why it is so is always welcome in any organization) and find or make the mirror that will do best possible justice to the real world.

I once worked on a product in Digital Set-Top boxes that had teams in Belgium, Netherlands, India, Ireland and US and even though some might argue, thre was no way we could have done that project in a single location, and the major reason was not cost arbitrage alone. We all knew how difficult it would be to coordinate among so many locations, how difficult it would be to ensure that architectural integrity is maintained, interfaces stay consistent, and so on. Yes, that is real world. We were some 60+ engineers combined in all those locations. Could we go back to our company and tell, you know what, our software development process doesn’t support multisite work and we get cold sweat just thinking of what a nightmarish experience this would be – how about putting us all in a single location because that’s what we know ? Theoretically, one might do this, but I think the company has hired me not so that I could replay obvious excuses to them, but show my knowledge, skills and ability to manage complex problems like these. Precisely the reason I am in this job – if those real world problems were not there, would there be a justification for my role ? So, I would perhaps be better off doing as best a job as I can. The first thing that I might want to do is to acknowledge the real world.

That brings me to a very fundamental idea – what is real world ? is there a universal definition of real world, or is your real world different from mine ? is there a universal process that can heal all type of problems in the real world (whether there is only one real world, or multiple real worlds) ? why should we always think that a process must be macho enough to be able to solve all type of real world problems ? when no one man or woman can claim to know it all even in one domain, why is it that we want to project our process as Mr. Perfect Process that acts like a silver bullet for all types of targets ?

Which of the ‘real worlds’ does your software team live in – an ‘ideal real world’ or a ‘real real world’ ?

How Agile Practices address the Five Dysfunctions of a Team ?

Since times immemorial, ideas, objects and experiences of grand stature and lasting economic, social and emotional value have been created by men and women working together in teams. Granted that some extraordinary work in the fields of arts, philosophy and sciences was done by truly exceptional individuals, apparently working alone, I suspect that they too were ably supported by other selfless and unsung individuals (in the backoffice, perhaps) who all worked together as a team. Right from the great wars, social upheavals, political resistance, empire building, freedom struggles and forming of nations and protecting its borders to the creation of majestic wonders such as Pyramids, Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, Sydney Harbor Bridge or the London Eye and many more, each one of them owes its creation and existence to teamwork. Of course, the scope of teamwork doesn’t exclude simple, mundane and everyday things that are extremely important even though they never make a headline: an activity as routine as tilling the fields, or planning a picnic or even a family function, all involve a team. 

With such profound impact teamwork having on our everyday lives, it is only natural to expect that output of a team is directly impacted by the quality of its teamwork. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen by having right intentions alone, or by leaving it to chance. Quite often, it doesn’t even happen ! Quality of teamwork is impacted by various factors such as motivation levels of individual team members, levels of trust among team members, clarity of purpose, uniform understanding of the goals, lack of resources, poor communication among the team members, and so on. Thus, it comes as no surprise that appropriate investments must be made to make the team click. However, most often, team dysfunctions affect a team’s performance seriously jeopardizing its ability to perform effectively, any state of art processes or tools notwithstanding. Most software managers lack the ability to detect such deeper sociological smells, thus are unable to deal with its impact. Any superficial response to such problem only makes the task harder to deal with. 

In this article, I have analyzed the team dysfunction model proposed by Patrick Lencioni in his wonderful book, written in the form of a fable in a business setting, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team – A Leadership Fable. In his model, called The Model in the book, he has identified five dysfunctions of a team that affect team performance. These five dysfunctions are not really independent, but interrelated to each other, and build on top of one another…

Read the full article here.

Toyota’s Wisdom for Tomorrow’s Managers

 

I just completed first draft of this paper for business review magazine of a city college of business administration. If it gets selected for publication, you will get to read the full paper on this site :). Here is the abstract:

Toyota’s pioneering work in automobile production systems continues to be among the most profound and radical departure from conventional thinking since the times of Henry Ford, and has led to unprecedented cost efficiencies and quality improvements for them. For long, it was thought to be a Japanese expertise – one that could not be duplicated by non-Japanese people, or outside Japan. However, subsequent to Womack and Jones’ pioneering works, “The Machine that Changed the World” and “Lean Thinking”, it has not only been adopted outside Japan, its universal principles are also finding huge acceptance in other sectors and service industries throughout the world.

However, any process is only as good as the people involved in it and their thought process behind it. Toyota’s production system is not only about how the production flow is organized – it includes fundamental aspects of professional ethics and work culture that are deeply ingrained in their thinking. These so-called “Toyota Traditions” serve as the guiding light for managers and employees alike and continue to remain relevant as ever. They also are ubiquitously applicable in almost every stream of management.

It is this author’s firm belief that by merely adapting Toyota’s Lean Production System, one can’t transform a normal organization to a Lean Enterprise. Alongside the changes in process, one must pay adequate attention to adapting the mindset behind Lean culture as well. With that context, I have analyzed and interpreted some of the Toyota’s Traditions that are most relevant in context of tomorrow’s manager in this paper.

Stay tuned for updates on this.

This is the festival season, and kids have holidays. I am also off to a short holiday. Festival greetings, and enjoy the winter holidays. See you soon. 

What kind of “Managers stick with poor performers rather than hire new faces” ?

I am sure you have heard it in all versions, subversions and perversions, but one simple universal workplace truth seems to be don’t tolerate poor performance, and if not outrightly eliminate poor performers, do ease them out over a reasonable but fast period of time. The yawning gap between a bottom performer and the top performer is perhaps nowhere more so prominent as in a human-skill based knowledge industry like software. Over the years, various productivity studies still continue to point a gap of anywhere between 1:10 to 1:20 or even more between the top programmer and the bottom one. The exact number doesn’t really matter.

What is important is to understand that success of a software endeavor howsomuch is dependent on very smart people, it finally needs a great team to deliver goods – no task is trivial enough to be single-handled performed by the star performer on a sustainable basis, nor is anyone smart enough to effectively comprehend every bit of information created by mankind. This doesn’t trivialize individual human talent, nor is meant to belittle those huge efforts that make a star performer a star performer. It only highlights the nature of the beast – to deliver a non-trivial piece of software with reasonable complexity and business criticality, one must have a team comprising of team members that complement each other’s skills.

We all know a great team that works like Swiss clockwork doesn’t happen by accident. Throwing a bunch of people together, howsoever individually competent, in a blender doesn’t ensure that the result is sweet juices of creativity, teamwork and performance. Instead, all one might get is a bloody mix of team dysfunctions, bruised egos, competing team members constantly on the prowl to backstab others…and so on.

So, how does one go about building a great team. Having the right intent, high bar (higher than what people believe that are capable of achieving) and zero-tolerance for poor performance is a good start. Often, it is easier said then done. There are also fair arguments that when you build a team six people, you can find the smartest people, but when your team needs sixty people, try doing the same. I have managed three fairly large teams: two of them were over 110+ people and one of them had some 190+ engineers working on really complex softwares such as core routers and SoftSwitch, and I can tell you the mindset one needs to manage such large endeavors of human creativity are radically different from what I would need when working on a six-people teams. For one, there is no way you are ever going to get all smart people with top talent – it is just impossible to hire people of equally hire calibre in such numbers on any team, any place on earth. People often don’t admit it, but I am going to hold on to my arguments. There is always a performance curve (“Bell Curve”) in any random distribution. My favorite quote here is from Mali, our HR Manager at Philips, “There is a Bell Curve even at Bell Labs”. Wider the bell curve, bigger is the gap between the top and a bottom performer that I talked about earlier. In a six-people team, it is possible to cherry-pick team members that leads to a very narrow bell curve. In a larger team, the curve starts to flatten out and widen at the ends. This is not by intent, but because of a combination of various factors:

  • difficulty in finding large number of experienced people with required skills in the given domain
  • you can’t always start with a flat staffing (meaning, achieve 100% staffing in the initial stages of the project) – there is not enough work in the beginning, and during the peak, everyone is stressed out and later in the project, there is overstaffing. A Rayleigh’s curve works reasonably well
  • the bad economics of having an all-star team – even Manchester United can’t get all the best players in the world to play for it – they might go bankcrupt before the kick-off itself !
  • inevitable dilution in hiring standards over time as hiring responsibilities get delegated, often to new managers who might not have the same level of organizational understanding as the original team
  • many smart people might not want to join a large team for the fear of becoming just another face in the crowd !
  • a large project is more like a marathon than a hunderd meter dash, and is often late, forcing people to forgo weekends and vacations for a prolonged period of time. Many people, irrespective of their talent, might not want to get stuck in such situations – so this already limits the gene pool to work on and work with

There are many more reasons, and even if you don’t agree with all of these reasons, it is incredibly difficult to build a large team. Coming to smaller teams, it is similar challenge, and many of the reasons mentioned above might very well apply there. However, when it comes to absolute numbers, I look at it this way: what is easier – raising a loan of $50,000 or $3million ? The fact is, everything else equal, you can almost always go a far better job of building a smaller team than a larger team. But even that doesn’t guarantee scintillating performance by our small team. The fundamentals don’t really change. If any, the stakes are even higher for there no safety nets – the team can’t handle inefficiencies, and probably everyone in the team is a multi-skilled multitasker (as opposed to an individual in a larger team where there is a higher level of ‘vertical differentiation’ and ‘horizontal differentiation’). If one person leaves the team, the impact is far bigger than a similar percentage attrition in a larger team that no HR metric on attrition can capture. And the same goes for low performance – poor performance is far more lethal in a smaller team than a comparable percentage of poor performers in a large team. You would expect a lower tolerance for poor performers in any team, more so in a small team.

And it is for this very reason, that I was surprised to read Managers stick with poor performers rather than hire new faces. It is unbelievable and very shocking that a good 70% among us would rather put up with an existing poor performer than risk a new hire ! I think most reasons there don’t make sense, and I think ‘denial’ as a reason is probably a bigger contributor than is generally credited for. Irrespective, I hope like hell this data is an anomaly. For if it is not, I see more serious challenges ahead. By not getting rid of the poor performers even in these tough economic situations, a clear message is being sent that not just condones, even promotes, that level of performance. The teams are as it is not performing to their potential. Everyone in the team knows who those poor performers are, but the fact that a lower performance is being tolerated clearly send mixed signals and confuses people, especially the committed, hard-working performers. Some among them might feel insulted and likely to leave, thus leaving the team in an even bigger mess. I think managers of those teams are doing the biggest disservice to their organizations: one one hand they are tolerating poor performance and on the other hand, their condoning behavior could be disenchanting higher performers.

With this attitude, I think it surely is going to be one long slowdown. For those companies, surely.

If you want real change, be rigid !

 

We probably don’t need another theory on change management, but we surely need a better understanding of what we think we know. In the context of change initiatives, we often see a situation where someone wants to push change proposals, and there are ‘resistors’ to that idea. The classic duel is when the people pushing change initiatives are ‘revolutionaries’ who won’t settle for anything short of a full-fledged change to overhaul the entire system and those resisting the change proposals are ‘traditionalists’ who would be better off tinkering the system here and there in a very planned and certain manner. In my view, that is the only real-world scenario worth studying – all other combinations of change agents, allies and resistors are comparatively manageable with some common sense and a give-and-take attitude (actually, give-more-and-take-less attitude)

In such situations, the most common advise given to the change agent is to show flexibility, adapt to the situation. I agree that flexibility and adaptability are the key to a successful change initiative, irrespective whether one is in minority pushing for a change, or a majority having the backing of senior management. Holding steadfastly onto one’s viewpoints often gets people branded as rigid and unreasonable. However, this is half the story.

To show flexibility is obviously critical, but to quote George Bernand Shaw, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man”. If we look back at history, most successful changes agents were the ones who behaved more like the ‘unreasonable man’ in Shaw’s quote than the flexible man. Jack Welch felt GE was in trouble when it was the #1 company in the world. Ricardo Semlar (of ‘Maverick’ and ‘Seven Day Weekend’), Henry Ford, Toyoda and Taiichi Ohno, Steve Jobs, Google’s Brin and Page, Hotmail’s Sabeer Bhatia, Chester Carlson, Fosberry (the guy who questioned why to do high jump the way it was always done, and created the now famous ‘fosberry flip’) – the more I research, the more I find that greatest and most successful changes agents often defied conventional wisdom and embraced a highly ‘unreasonable’ path, and pursued their dream despite ambient negativity and criticism. Would we have the GE today had Jack Welch agreed to tone down his rank-and-yank, or his six sigma ? Chester Carlson’s invention of ‘xerox’ was rejected by over twenty companies, but he continued to believe in his ideas and eventually prevailed. When heartbroken and grieving parents of their only son, the young Stanford who died while studying at Harvard, decided to build a new university in his memory, the Stanford University, despite the dean of Harvard wanting it otherwise – they were all being ‘unreasonable’ in a bigger sense. There is a nice book I read, “Whatever you think, think opposite” where the author gives a great example of this: a fashion designer has to be, by definition, the most un-fashionable or non-conforming person – he/she can’t ‘fit in’ the crowd. To be accepted, a fashion designer must think of the most different ideas, most unfashionable which will be almost always in minority – only then will they be successful. Similarly, any new innovative product will bring a ‘disruptive force’, and hence an innovator’s dilemma is often full of tradition / compliance vs. innovation / breakaway thinking.

So, how is it that we bring real change in an organization ? When you are the top management, perhaps there is legitimate power that makes it easier, but how does an individual really bring about the change ? If you insist on your ideas far too long, you might fall out of favor. If you decide to be flexible, it might invariably mean toning down the scope or intensity of your change proposals, or both, which might nevertheless make sub-optimal changes happen, but is that really the change that counts ? I see merits and demerits on both sides, but find that real change only happens when you take an uncompromising position about what needs to be done.

Am I taking a very narrow definition of the word ‘change’ as in an epoch-making moment but excluding the millions of small-small ‘changes’ that might happen every now and then, and collectively they bring a big change ? Granted that lot of worthwhile work happens when people do such micro-changes, but do we ever get life-altering changes by adding such linear and incremental changes ? And if they do bring such life-altering changes, it probably takes a long time, is that the most appropriate approach ? 

So, if want change, any change, any infinitesimally small nano-change that serves no real value except to give a false sense of progress,  at any cost, be flexible. Adapt to the ambient constraints, and do that delta increment that is perhaps a non-event. Hope like hell that thousands of such micro-mini changes will one day change the world. Well, they just might, especially if one has not given up on them.

But, if you want change, a real change, at no cost, be rigid, absolutely firm in your vision and you shall face the deadliest armies of resistors, for the path of a revolutionary is like a minefield. And dance he must on this minefield. But, if you live to tell the tale, your tale will be written down in gold and count as something that happened.

When were you really obstinate the last time ?