Posted on March 29th, 2010 No comments
Last year there was an article in Wired Magazine and NPR news talking about how drug companies are really struggling to get new products released because the drugs cannot be shown to be any more effective than sugar pills in clinical trials. The noteworthy thing here is the new drugs are not necessarily ineffective, its just that sugar pills seem to be working just as well.
If a patient believes or has an reasonable expectation that they are getting treatment, then in a lot of cases they do get better even though there is no medication involved. This is so common it has a name “the placebo effect”. However the scale on which it is occurring now seems to be at a historical high. You could infer then that the more convinced people are about the power of modern medicine the higher the incidence of the effect.
The whole situation indicates that medicine is not really as advanced as we think and there is some psycho-biological effects that still need to be understood. It also may explain why alternative medicine is still very popular despite the lack of recognised science behind it. You can probably get positive results as long as the patient buys into the whole thing.
Of course your are wondering why I am mentioning all this here and what relevance it has to with getting things done in large organisations? Well I know a work place version of the placebo effect and they are called “consultants”.
I believe that consultants trade to a large degree on the clients belief that an external group can come in and make things better because the have some sort of special abilities that the client does not have. Even if they don’t have special abilities, as long as the client believes it then positive change can happen. Its very much like alternative medicine in that regard I guess.
Here is a more interesting connection: Lenore Jacobson was a school principal who partnered with a psychologist called Robert Rosenthal to study the the effect of teachers’ expectations on students in the 60s. They found that if teachers were told that certain children were more advanced than the rest of the class then these kids tended to perform better regardless if this was true or not. ie. If you treat people as high performers then they behave as high performers. Strictly speaking this is known as the Pygmalion effect not the Placebo effect but they are very similar.
In the work place it would be like a manager extracting great performance out of a team purely on the basis that she/he treats them like high performers. I can totally see how this would work. If someone had the genuine expectation of being a star it frees them up from having to prove it and allows them to focus completely on doing great work.
Unfortunately, this strategy seems to most often take the form of a leaders setting unrealistic goals for their teams not in the sense that “you are a great team you can achieve this” but more as “a great team could achieve this, show me what kind of team you are” of course this doesn’t work.
Just like a patient getting better on the strength of belief and expectation, knowledge workers can work better based on the same ingredients.
Posted on February 26th, 2010 No comments
I was link hopping my way around Wikipedia.org recently when I came across the article for “Anti-Pattern“.
I was familiar with the idea of design patterns in the context of software development and I knew them to be reusable approaches to solve common problems. They are not necessarily the exact answer to your problem, it’s just a template that you start with and adapt to suit. So rather than starting from scratch, you get a head start by using a proven approach that has worked well in the past.
If you are not a developer don’t bother looking these up because they are quite boring and have names like “the adaptor” or” the bridge”. The problems they are solving are common programming issues not day to day human problems.
So it follows that an anti-pattern is the opposite of a pattern or as wikipedia says “Some repeated pattern of action, process or structure that initially appears to be beneficial, but ultimately produces more bad consequences than beneficial results”. The key thing here is that anti-patterns are not obviously “bad” at the start. They seem just as good as anything else but they have been shown to end up doing more harm than good despite seeming like workable solutions to begin with.
Now I am fine with this definition but here is the thing about the wikipedia article for anti-pattern: While the examples given for patterns are rather abstract, the examples given for anti-patterns are of a very human scale that is easy to relate to. The list of recognised anti-patterns kicked off with examples around organisational behaviours including
- Analysis paralysis: Devoting disproportionate effort to the analysis phase of a project
- Cash cow: A profitable legacy product that often leads to complacency about new products
- Design by committee: The result of having many contributors to a design, but no unifying vision
- Escalation of commitment: Failing to revoke a decision when it proves wrong
- Management by perkele: Authoritarian style of management with no tolerance for dissent
- Moral hazard: Insulating a decision-maker from the consequences of his or her decision.
- Mushroom management: Keeping employees uninformed and misinformed (kept in the dark and fed manure)
- Stovepipe: A structure that supports mostly up-down flow of data but inhibits cross organisational communication
- Vendor lock-in: Making a system excessively dependent on an externally supplied component
Now, being wikipedia you need to take this with a grain of salt and I am not sure these are true anti-patterns. Even so these examples had a huge impact on me, not because I can cite recent personal experience of most these but because of the idea that these can be grouped together to form a kind of organisational playbook. God I would love one of those. I wonder what the good organisational patterns would look like?
There is only one good organisational pattern that I can think of right now and that is the 3 horizon model suggested in The Alchemy of Growth. I would buy a book that sets out these ideas in the same way as software pattens are used in software engineering.
Posted on January 30th, 2010 No comments
One of my favourite work related books is “Exploring Requirements: Quality Before Design by Donald Gause & Gerald Weinberg”.
Their basic premise is that you tend to get what you ask for and if you don’t explain (or understand) your needs very clearly, then you run a high risk of not getting what you want. The book goes through a number of methods and tools to remove ambiguity and clarify what you want before you start writing requirements and designing solutions. This is what they mean by quality before design.
This idea really resonated with me because I firmly believe that you can track most failed projects back to a lack of clarity or lack of understanding about what a project is trying to achieve in the first place. If you take the time to really be clear on your problem before getting into solution mode, then your chances of being successful are vastly increased. But that is really hard when everyone in the project just wants to “get started” and begin to build something.
While the book is mostly aimed at IT and Engineering disciplines, the authors say it applies equally to just about any activity where you need to define requirements and it is one of those brilliant books whose content seems transcend its subject to say something wider and more universally true. Although the book was written in 1989, I feel it is still as instructive and useful today in 2010. There is one particular aspect of the book that I have found incredibly useful and that is the concept of “context free questions”.
Context free questions are high level and general questions which can be asked at the beginning of a requirements process to establish the boundaries and the basic shape of the the design problem. They are independent of the subject so you can develop a standard list to use repeatedly.
Here is a copy of the sample list of context free questions provided by Gause & Weinberg.
- Who is the client?
- What is a highly successful solution really worth to this client?
- What is the real reason for wanting to solve this problem?
- Should we use a single design team, or more than one?
- Who should be on the team(s)?
- How much time do we have for this project?
- What is your trade-off between time and value?
- Where else can the solution to this problem be obtained?
- Can we copy something that already exists?
- What problems does this product solve?
- What problems could this product create?
- What environment is this product likely to encounter?
- What kind of precision is required or desired in the product?
Here are some that I have added myself:
- What metrics will be used to measure success?
- Is there one problem or multiple problems that we need to solve?
- What can’t change as a result of what we are going to do?
- Have we tried to solve this problem before?
- Are we going to solve all of this problem or only part of it?
I find that the trick is not to ask these questions one after the other but instead use one and chase down any ideas coming out of it with further questions. It’s only when you run out of steam do you pick another one.
Mary: “What metrics will be used to measure success?”
John: “It will be visits to the web page.”
Mary: “OK, so as long as we get visits to the page we will be successful?”
John: “Well, yes but the customers need to fill out the forms as well.”
Mary: “OK, so maybe form submissions could be a better metric?”
John: “Hmm…partly. The bottom line is that we need to migrate calls away from the call centre and get our customers using the online resources more.”
Mary: “Ah OK. So who will be the client for this work?”
John: “Well its a marketing initiative but the call centre will need to realise the benefits.”
…and so on. You get the picture!
Gause & Weinberg also suggest you ask “meta-questions” too which means asking questions about the questions. For example “Am I asking to many questions?” or “Is there a question I should have asked?” Personally, I have never really got anything useful from these because the answers tend to be “yes” or “no” which doesn’t give you a lot to work with.
Anyway, context free questions are a great tool to use at that scary, uncertain initial phase of a project to help establish clarity and remove ambiguity. They have made a difference for me and I would love to hear about your experiences with them.
Posted on April 1st, 2009 No comments
Imagine a football team that chooses its players by having a huge fight before the games. Obviously, this is not the best way of picking a team because: a) you are likely to get the best fighters not the best players, b) the team will probably not work together effectively and c) they will be exhausted before they start.
Now this sounds ridiculous but it is exactly the process I see happening when large organisations try to do anything new. In a corporate environment there are many people with overlapping roles and responsibilities which creates an atmosphere of intense competition around whose ideas see the light of day. The internal politics and manoeuvring that goes on soaks up the energy of those involved and tends to favour those adept at political warfare and debate rather than any inherent practical capability to do things. To me, this seems to explain why large organisations take so long to create new things and why the result are often so poor.
What we are seeing is the work of exhausted fighters.
Smaller organisations don’t have this problem because they are lucky if they have enough people for a team in the first place. You are much more likely to find someone covering two roles rather that competing for one which means that they can focus all their energy on the work itself. They don’t need to establish a mandate to do something new or convince anyone else that they are competent. Creating PowerPoint presentations with 50 slides are a distraction that they just don’t spend time on. Instead they are judged on real world results.
Small companies usually have the advantage of a leader who is close to the work and knows what roles need to be done and is able to spot duplication and inefficiency. I am sure most CEOs of big companies don’t really understand how their companies work and have to rely on what they hear which is usually managers big noting themselves or cutting others down. They spend most of their time dealing with the politics.
I need to be careful here and say that most of my comments relate to doing new things. There are large parts of organisations which don’t experience this and that’s because they do something that no one else wants to do. There is no competition for who is going to talk to customers on the phone.
Of course you are probably thinking that big corporates make big decisions about big things. Their actions affect large numbers of people and involve millions of dollars. They need to have all these check and balances. To which I reply “yes, thats true” but I am not seeing checks and balances, I am seeing chaotic in-fighting with little in the way of actual results.
So, here is the thing: Successful companies grow bigger and eventually get to a size where internal conflict arises about who is actually responsible for doing the interesting work. At this point a political environment is created where some people thrive and other people get pushed into corners. I am saying that the people adept creating and delivering good ideas are rarely the ones who are good at the politics. So what you end up with is a situation where everyone seems to be extremely busy but externally nothing appears to be happening.
For large organisations to succeed, every effort needs to be made to minimise the politics and make sure the best person for the job is actually doing “the job”.
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 May 7th, 2008 No comments
I am completely taken with the TV series ‘Top Gear”.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, ‘Top Gear’ is a BBC car show presented by three blokes driving a lot of expensive super cars or competing in motoring challenges and I can’t get enough of it.
Until recently, I liked it because of the three presenters who are motoring journalists that speak their minds but they also have a engaging quality when they are out driving together which makes the show very appealing. They also have quite distinct personalties and seem to be teasing each other most of the time which is somehow refreshing compared to usual sugar coated TV shows we see..
The thing is…. they are into Series 10 now and are starting to repeat themselves quite a bit but I keep on watching and I now realise that it is not about the presenters anymore.
The defining thing for me now is production values displayed on this show. They are outstanding. Everything is high quality, every shot looks beautiful, every segment is interesting and every adventure makes you feel like a kid again. Every single episode is memorable for some reason.
Sure Jeremy, Richard and James are fun to watch but they are really only representing the average viewer in all of this. They actually spend very little time being journalists and are mostly just providing a way for us to vicariously live experience they are having. Who can afford a Bugatti Veyron anyway?
So while the presenters are a little like comfortable old friends now and I now know all their funny lines, the producer(s) are really the ones keeping me watching.
Since my current role includes the word ‘producer’ in the title here are some things I have learnt from the production of Top Gear regarding producing success.
1. It is rare to get it right first time so persevere.
Top Gear started in 1977 and has gone through many changes before finding the current combination. The format that they launched with was very different to today but they tried different things until they got it right.
2. Everything starts with good content.
The ideas that the Top Gear producers come up with each series are simply awesome. e.g. Taking the worlds fastest car to its top speed, driving to the north pole, driving across Africa, competing in real 24hr endurance race.
3. Know your audience.
Jeremy Clarkson is wholly or partly offensive most of the time but you still want to watch him. I am sure some people watch just to get really offended. (He makes this so easy to do). Personally, I watch him because he is so refreshingly politically incorrect it makes me really think if I agree with him or not. In any case the producers know their audience and know that Clarkson is pushing the right buttons for the audience segments they target.
Posted on April 16th, 2008 No comments
Here is something that has always annoyed me about large organisations.: The only goals they ever seem to set are expressed in dollars or percentages.
I am not talking about mission statements here or a company vision or any of the noble ambitions that get set and ignored day to day. I am talking about the many times in my career when I have been told that our new inspirational objective is something like “grow by 23% the next financial year” or “to reach $1.3 million dollars in recognised revenue”.
Yes. That is a goal I can really get behind. I am so motivated now.”
(NB. Read that line aloud in a monotone voice to get the full effect of the sarcasm.)
Seriously, who really does get off on these sorts of things?
I will tell you who…… It’s people who are so far removed from the actual business that they view it as just a money making machine where the inner workings and detail are invisible and irrelevant.
I guess it’s little like planning a holiday based on how many kilometres you travel.
A- How was your holiday?
B- Great, we did 2435kms as planned.
A – Really, where did you go?
B – I’m not sure but we really covered some ground!
A- Did the family have a good time?
B – Probably. You will have to ask them.
A – Right. So What are you planning to do next holiday?
B – Well….if we can squeeze another 5% out I will be happy.
I think the dollars and percentages should not be treated as goals in themselves.
If you want to lose weight. You are far better off setting a goal to go out for a walk every day rather than saying you are going to aim to lose 1.13kgs a week with no real understanding of how you are going to get there.
So in a business context we should be setting goals to do real, tangible things that people can relate to. Like making products better or improving service standards and communicate this to the staff rather that insipid financial porn.
You can still have the dollar and the percentage measures in the background if you want. I am sure they are important to the suits but realise that they are secondary measures and not the core of the matter.
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.