Posted on March 4th, 2009 No comments
At the start of every year I find myself involved in making plans for the next 12 months and every time I wonder about the relationship between plans and reality. Or more specifically: the fact that plans never work out and that no one ever gets anything right first time.
I was initially going to write this up as a corporate bullshit thing where leaders assumed that, since they were not doing any actual work, their staff we going to get it exactly right but this is not fair because everyone does it. Everyone makes plans with the expectation that chaos will suddenly be tamed.
Why is this?
My past experience tells me that the real world involves a whole lot of compromise, imperfect information and human error that immediately invalidates any plans no matter how well thought out. But each time I start a new project I tend to assume that everything is going happen perfectly and commit to time lines that have no room to absorb problems and unforeseen issues. Even though varying degree of failure would appear to be certain and unavoidable.
I have a semi-serious explanation for this…Hollywood.
We have all watched a lot of movies (and TV programs for that matter), which are designed to be entertaining and therefore avoid a lot of the tedious bits of life that are not going to keep an audience happy. The hero always knows what to do next, the villian has no redeeming features, the plot is usually uncomplicated and everything comes to a neat, feel good conclusion in around 90mins.
Obviously, I am not talking about every movie here, just the mainstream popular stuff.
Even though it is entertainment, I think people still aspire to live like the characters they see in movies and TV. Consciously or not, I think we absorb what we see and expect that this is how things should be if we are living our lives well. Movies mostly make us feel good and we want to feel good about ourselves so why shouldn’t our lives be like a movie?
Of course this is completely impossible. There is a massive amount of tedious and non-entertaining effort required to make movies ‘work’ effortlessly. Most of this effort is making sure “reality” is removed while still maintaining believability and thereby selling us this vision.
So what is this whole “reality” thing that Hollywood avoids but we need to deal with?
Uncertainty and doubt
The heroes of action movies always act with total conviction that they are doing the right thing and that the outcome of their actions is assured. Think about Indiana Jones, James Bond and John McClane, they never have a moment of doubt about what they have to do or why.
I can think of quite a few things I have done with where there was enormous amount of doubt and uncertainty all the way through. i.e. Was this really the best solution to my problem? Are we sure it will do everything we want?
In the movies, the characters always know what to say and are always completely aware of their feelings and emotions. whereas I usually don’t really comprehend a situation or what I feel about it until well after the event and much to late to deliver a good monologue.
Goodies and Baddies
Clear definition of right and wrong is a key part of fiction. In order for us to really like the heroes and really hate the villains it needs to be very polarised.
My real life heroes and villains tend to exchange roles quite often meaning that everyone is..well, they are just everyone really. All are capable of great things and all are capable of making your life a misery. Quite often a whole group of people are considered to be evil but individually they are not that bad. This makes it a victory over an enemy quite unrewarding.
Real life problems have complexity. They are rarely about one dimensional situations like a bus that will explode if it goes under a certain speed or rescuing someone who has been kidnapped. Usually you have to work out what the problem is before you can even start solving it.
Problems often have no ideal solution anyway and to resolve them you have to make a hard decision to live with a lesser evil. Rarely will you get a good unambiguous victory that has no downside. Its grey all the way and maybe they never really get solved and you live with them from the rest of your life. This would be a whole lot less depressing if we didn’t dream of the move star lifestyle with no concerns or worries.
Also one thing you never really see in the movie is the aftermath. The people whose cars where wrecked in the car chase, mothers of the henchmen standing beside their sons graves or the sadness of the guy the leading lady left behind. That is really something that Hollywood is good at preventing you from seeing or sympathising with
Speed of Resolution
The last thing is that most movies are an hour and a half in duration. A long lunch break for you and I. They are broken into three acts. The set up, the middle and the conclusion. There is a story arc that the hero follows that is neatly resolved well before any toilet breaks are required. What most people don’t realise is that these movies take years to make. It takes this long because the movie makers need to deal with reality like you or I.
I will finish on a related but slightly tangential note. Sport has goodies and baddies, it has clean problems, clear success, typically no consequences and is over quickly. I wonder if the appeal of sport and movies are more closely related that we think.
Posted on April 13th, 2008 No comments
I am an internaliser.
This means that I have a strong sense that I am in control of my life and that I consider myself responsible for what ever happens to me.
I have always been quite proud of this because I don’t really want to be an externaliser. An exteranliser is someone who strongly believes that their fate is governed by chance and other outside factors in their lives. I have always equated this with having a victim mentality. But as it turns out I have been setting myself up to be a victim by being an internaliser.
Since I fundamentally believe that everything that goes wrong for me is somehow due to my own actions, I am good at finding fault in myself. For example I have a big collection of cringe moments stored away in my head like a video archive that I sometimes find myself playing and still reacting to emotionally and physically.
Another thing I do is, if something goes wrong I immediately start looking for the thing that I have done to create the situation and worst of all, I quite often talk about it. I will offer reasons as to why something that went wrong was my fault.
This is a bad habit and I wasn’t really aware of how often I was doing it until recently.
What has brought it to my attention is a person at work who is very good at picking up on my confessions and immediately jumping on it whole heartedly and agreeing with what I say.
I can’t tell you how annoying this is.
Here is an example:
Messenger: The sales department is complaining that they did not know that the change was coming. They are saying that we didn’t include them in the briefings.
Me: That is strange, I did email them to let them know that the meeting was on but they didn’t reply. Maybe I should have rung up to confirm with them verbally.
Annoying person: Absolutely you should have. It was an important meeting and you should have talked to them to make sure they were aware the meeting was on.
Now, if I was a bit less self-accusatory I would have said:
Me: They only have themselves to blame. I let them know that the meeting was on and if they choose to ignore it, that is their problem.
The problem is that this is never the first thing that comes into my head. My natural behavior is to take on the responsibility myself. I don’t consider myself to be a good corporate ‘player’ because of this and I am now thinking that I may not be a good manager for the same reason.
If my staff make mistakes my first reaction is to look for where I went wrong not them. The first thing I do is let them off the hook. I don’t think I ever want to be a good corporate player almost as much as I don’t want to be an externaliser but I do want to be a good manager and that means realising that often it is not my fault. At least, it should not be my first option.
So that person is still annoying and I avoid them whenever I can but I have learnt something from them and I should be more grateful than what I am.
Mind you, I wouldn’t have to be so grateful if I had picked up on it earlier!
Posted on April 13th, 2008 No comments
We have started building a new website and an issue has come up around the prioritisation of the work to include in our first showcase.
Do we focus on developing the site functionality first or do we make sure we make it looks good by implementing the graphic design?
I will ask to make you own call soon but let me fill you in on a little of the detail first.
A showcase is part of our agile project methodology where the business stakeholders get a demonstration of what the team have been working on in the previous fortnight and are given an opportunity to give feedback on the results so far.
This is a new site we are building so there is nothing much to show at the moment but it is going to have quite innovative functionality and some people are quite keen to start making some early progress on this. We also have an awesome visual design worked out that looks very impressive on paper.
The other thing is that the business stakeholders are not 100% behind the project and are not really convinced that we can do this sort of thing. There is the distinct possibility that they might shut the project down if they are not happy.
Timelines, as always, are very tight and we can’t do both things.
So…what do you do ? Make some early progress on the functionality in order to prove that you have the chops or put your efforts into building the flashy interface that is all smoke and mirrors because there is nothing really behind it.
Right…made your choice?
I believe that when people look at a website, (or anything really), they make a split second judgment about whether they like it or not then go about collecting evidence justifying their initial impression. If the first impression is good they will start picking out things they like about it. Conversely, if that first experience is poor they will start finding things they don’t.
That split second judgment is so fast it can only be based on visual aesthetics. There is not enough time for anything else.
So you can have the most amazing functionality of all time but if it looks like arse, then most people will say that they don’t like the font and have to be convinced it is worth using.
The reverse situation is where you have a snazzy interface over broken or useless features and you will find that many people will persevere with it way beyond what is reasonable because it promised so much!
It is far easier to roll people downhill that it is to push them uphill. So we made our decision and went with building the interface first and just had images for most of the features. Hopefully our business stakeholders will see the façade of a great website site get inspired, fund the rest of the project and not notice that all the smoke floating around.