Donald J. Patti

Archive for the ‘Ethics and ideology’ Category

Dead Babies, Dead-tired Staffers and “Leaving the Zone”: Exceeding the Envelope in Software Development

In E-Business, Ethics and ideology, management, Quality, Software Development, Technology on 12 October 2009 at 10:38 am

I know, I know.  “What do dead babies have to do with software development?” you say.  “Are you playing my heart-strings?”

Sensationalism being what it is, I have to admit that I couldn’t avoid leading with nearly everyone’s horror – dead babies.  Yet, there is a critical tie between today’s three attention-grabbing subjects and software development that makes this entry worth reading.  And, it has implications for how you manage your staff, software developers or otherwise, in the days to come.  Read on.

Leaving the Zone

It’s been more time than I care to admit, but during my senior year of college I learned what it means to be “in the zone” as well as what it’s like to leave it – painfully.  A track and cross country athlete at the NCAA Division 1 level, I was the first finisher on my team for my first four races, finishing in the top five for every race and posting two victories.

Old glories aside, it’s far more notable what happened next – my body crashed.  Though I’d trained hard with the rest of my team by posting a full Summer 80+ mile weeks and even two at 100+, I then took on the World when classes started, signing up for a full slate of five courses and tacking on a full time job managing a political campaign in Montecito, California, fifteen minutes south of Santa Barbara.  I slept less than five hours a night and spent nearly all my time racing from one place to another, which is a sure recipe for a wrecked body.

Back then, I had no idea there were limits to the punishment my body could take, but I found out quickly.  After consistent finishes with the lead pack among hundreds of runners, I finished no better than the middle of the pack in my remaining four races.  Even worse, my team went from three victories in four races to middle-of-the-pack as well, in part because I was no longer pacing them to victory.  At the end of the season, the affects of over-work were readily apparent – an MRI showed three stress fractures, one of the femur, our body’s largest and most durable bone.  Clearly, I didn’t recognize when I was “Leaving the Zone” by over-working myself, but had only just come to realize this.

Dead-Tired Staffers

Amazingly, it took an enormous amount of self-abuse for me to finally start listening to the messages my body was sending me about being tired or over-worked, but the lesson has stayed with me since.  As I’ve spent more time at work leading people, I’ve noticed that lesson also to the work world, where tight deadlines and high-pressure work can lead us as leaders to push for overtime again and again.

Consider your last marathon project with brutal deadlines and lots of overtime: Can you remember seeing these signs of over-work in your team members as they pushed themselves beyond their limits:  Irritability; an inability to concentrate; lower productivity; poor quality; at the extreme, negative productivity, when more work was thrown out than is gained?  Looking back, you’ve probably seen at least a few of these, and if you check out your defect logs from the work produced during these times, you’ll notice a spike in the number of defects resulting from your “more overtime” decision.  But, maybe you’re still denying that over-work will threaten the success of your projects, not to mention the long term well-being of your team members, as you run a dedicated team of dead-tired staffers over the edge.

Dead Babies

If this is the case, you wouldn’t be the first manager I’ve met who doesn’t understand how over-work can actually slow your project down rather than speed it up.  Software developers, analysts, engineers and QA team members, these managers argue, are hardly putting in a hundred miles of physical exertion each and every week, though they may be putting in 60 or 70 hours of work.  These managers counter that mental exertion and sleep depravation are not the same as physical exertion on the level of a college athlete. Or, they accept it in theory, until a project falls behind or a key deadline looms.

Though I found a number of excellent articles and blogs on the subject of software development and over-work and I’ve posted at the bottom of this article, the best evidence of the adverse affects of sleeplessness, stress and over-work on our ability to use our minds productively actually comes from the world of parenting.  In the Washington Post article, “Fatal Distraction: Leaving a child in the back seat of a hot car…”, report Gene Weingarten moves beyond the emotion of a very sensitive subject and asks the telling question of what was going on in the lives of parents who leave their children in cars on hot, sweltering days.  The answer?  Stress, sleeplessness, over-work and half-functioning brains – in many cases brought on by us, as managers.

“The human brain is a magnificent but jury-rigged device,” cites Weingarten of David Diamond, a Professor of Molecular Physiology who studies the brain.  (Weingarten and Diamond deserve all of the credit for this research, but I’ll paraphrase).  A sophisticated layer – the one that enables us to work creatively and think critically – functions on top of a “junk heap” of basal ganglia we inherited from lower species as we evolved.  When we over-work our bodies, the sophisticated layer shuts down and the basal ganglia take over, leaving us as stupid as an average lizard.  Routine tasks are possible, like eating or driving to work, but changes in routine or critical-thinking tasks are extremely difficult.  Even the most important people in our lives are forgotten when fatigue and stress are applied, as Weingarten’s article shows.

If an otherwise dutiful, caring parent can’t remember their own child when sufficiently fatigued, what is the likelihood we’ll get something better than a dumb lizard from our software development team when we push them above sixty hours per week again and again?  And when they’re finished, how high will their quality of work actually be?

So, when considering another week of over-time, think twice.  Sometimes, it’s better to just send the team home.

—–

Gene Weingarten’s Washington Post article can be found here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/27/AR2009022701549.html?wpisrc=newsletter&sid=ST2009030602446

Other good articles on overtime and software development can be found here:

http://xprogramming.com/xpmag/jatsustainablepace/

http://www.uncommonsenseforsoftware.com/2006/06/planned_overtim.html

http://www.systems-thinking.org/prjsys/prjsys.htm

http://www.caffeinatedcoder.com/the-case-against-overtime/

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“But They Said They Understood…”: A Common Mistake with Indian Off-shore Teams

In Business, Culture, E-Business, Ethics and ideology, management, off-shore, Technology on 6 February 2009 at 1:23 pm

If you’re a long-time U.S. IT Manager, you’ve probably already led international teams composed of individuals from all over the globe.  I was fortunate, for example, to have one project with team members from England, Germany, Australia, Singapore, India and all four continental U.S. time zones.  While the mix of cultures and talents can cause conflicts, once the team gels, the results can be overwhelmingly positive.  It’s amazing to see what a team working nearly 24X7 can do when you lead it properly.

One mistake I’ve seen made by U.S. IT managers involves managing Indian off-shore teams, in particular, and has been repeated at three different client sites in the last five years, so it’s worth a good blog entry.  First I’ll explain the scenario and then I’ll explain why it is legitimate – NOT bigoted – to point out this common mistake so it can be avoided.

The Mistake

To explain the situation, you’re running a newly formed off-shore team and you’ve just assigned them a particular set of tasks that make up a deliverable. You ask, in front of the group or over a conference call, “Do you have any questions?”  When no questions are heard, you move merrily on and end the meeting, continuing on with your week’s work until you have your next meeting with your team.

“Is the work done?” you ask.  No.

“How much progress did you make?” None.

“Is it not explained clearly?” Yes, comes a response. Then, silence.

It’s at this point that we leaders usually begin our rant that it is not acceptable to complete nothing during a given week.  We consider terminating people, canceling our contract with the entire team, or trying to recoup costs now that the team is one week late.  As much as all of these actions would be acceptable in our culture given the outcome, this neither the way to deal with the problem, nor is it in the long-term best interest of your company.

The Cause

If you thought the problem was with literal understanding of your words, it’s possible, but unlikely.  Most Indians receive a healthy dose of English throughout their education and can understand it even if their pronunciation doesn’t sound like a Hollywood movie. But if you’ve figured out that the situation above occurred because of cultural differences, you’ve come to a more likely conclusion, though it will help to understand it in more detail than to merely say, “it’s cultural”.   Enter Geert Hofstede, a Dutch researcher and author of “Culture’s Consequences and Cultures and Organizations, Software of the Mind”, which can be found by googling the ISBN 9780071439596 or visiting this page on Amazon.com.  

Mr. Hofstede and his son Gert studied different cultures throughout the World but within the same company, IBM, and determined that there are five key differences in World cultures that can be scored across a continuum.

Individualism v. Collectivism: The extent to which a culture emphasizes speaking up for oneself and taking a unique path in life versus belonging to a group and benefiting from group affiliation.

Masculinity v. Femininity: The degree of emphasis on traditional Western male or female roles, such as assertiveness in males and subservience in females.  (If you don’t like the way I’ve phrased this ladies, I’m sorry. I’ve done my best to make it accurate and fair without losing the message. Alternate ideas on how to phrase this are appreciated).

Power Distance: Power distance refers to the social distance placed between people in authority compared to those who are not.  Because authority is relative (I have a supervisor, but I also supervise others), you can expect a middle-manager to behave just as their subordinates to them, but with their own manager.  As one would assume, the greater the power distance in a culture, the more deference and subservience subordinates display to their superiors; the lesser the power distance, the less deference displayed.

Uncertainty Avoidance: The desire or need to avoid uncertainty in relationships or dealings with others.  Cultures that try to avoid uncertainty have lots of rules.

Time Horizon: Some cultures have a short-term time orientation, while others have a long-term time horizon.  As an example, business leaders in the U.S. tend to manage to maximize short term, quarterly profits, while those in Japan and China manage across lifetimes and generations.

If we compare scores between the U.S. and India, we can better understand (or at least speculate) about why our mistake occurred.  While there are similarities in masculinity and uncertainty avoidance scores between the U.S. and Indian cultures, there are dramatic differences in power distance, individualism and time horizon between us.  The specific scores are here, but it’s important in our situation to note that Indian subordinates are far less likely to speak up when talking to a person with more authority and are far less likely to contradict or challenge someone in front of a group.   So, when you asked, “Are there any questions?” it was pretty unlikely you’d hear any from your team – even if they had them.

It’s probably good for me to note, as well, that these are generalizations. Just as all Americans are different, this is equally true with Indians, so you may well see different behavior from your team members.  The Hofstede’s describe the norm within a culture, not the exception.

A Better Response

Having managed over a dozen projects composed of Indian development and quality assurance teams, I have found that there are better ways to avoid the “Understanding Gap” and prevent it from occurring.

  1. The confirmation question. In our situation, we asked, “Does any one have any questions?” to the group as a whole.  Instead, ask each individual slightly different questions, phrased in a way that confirms they understand specific elements of the task.  As an example, one might ask, “<Name here>, I’m a little uncertain how I’d complete your portion of the work, so maybe you can help me understand. How were you thinking you’d test the <insert name> functionality?”  Or, “You’re most likely to find building the <insert name> component challenging.  Have you thought about the steps involved?”  This approach not only confirms the person’s understanding, it results in better design because the person asked may have a better approach than you do (unless you have a monopoly on brilliance?).
  2. The one-on-one. After asking confirmation questions, if you find one or two individuals struggling, schedule a one-on-one to go through their work and answer their questions.  In a one-on-one, they are more likely to feel comfortable asking pointed questions, and may even propose a better way to complete the work.
  3. The follow-up call. This one is simple.  If you’ve assigned a task, don’t wait one week to check on progress.  Check back with the team at least every other day to make sure they’re making progress and understand what you’ve asked.  Over time, this will be needed less and less, but initially, the follow-up call is a true time-saved
  4. The “you’re among family” reminder. Regardless, of culture, everyone has the fear that a “stupid” question or a mistake will threaten their jobs.  In some cases, the fear is warranted.  Particularly with teams that have just formed, remind the team members that “they are among family” when speaking to team members and that team members are here to help each other.  Even more important than saying, “you’re among family” is to live up to that statement. Do not brow-beat subordinates for small mistakes and do not cavalierly fire people because of a single error.  If you do, you’ll find the two-way channel you need to effectively lead a team is suddenly closed.

Possibly, you’re reading this article before you’ve managed your first global, off-shore or Indian team, so it’s been a good primer.  But there’s far more to know about the subject than can be posted in a single blog entry.  Though it’s very academic in the way it’s written, I encourage you to buy and read Hofstede’s book, referring back to the cultural dimensions the book provides on graphs so that you better understand each team member’s cultural before you try to relate to them using a purely American mindset.  I’d also use the following links for quick reference once you’ve read the book through:

http://www.geert-hofstede.com/

http://www.geert-hofstede.com/hofstede_dimensions.php

Doing so could save your company thousands, if not millions of dollars, keep your projects running smoothly and – most importantly – help you to build a harmonious work environment where people look forward to each and every day.  After all, isn’t that what keeps us from burying our heads in the pillow and hitting the snooze button twelve times?

Does “Process Improvement” Kill Creativity?

In Auto Industry, Business, Ethics and ideology, Manufacturing, Quality, Technology on 23 January 2009 at 1:58 pm

Early in my career, ISO-9000 was just coming into vogue and my employer, Manpower had earned the honor of being called ISO-9000 certified.  To say the least, the ISO-9000 concept was a little irritating to a young, creative-type:  Processes are documented, standardized, and followed without deviation because deviation yields an inconsistent outcome and inconsistent quality.  Even worse, ISO-9000 principles were being applied by Manpower not to manufacturing but to services, where the human factor was so important.  While people certainly admire the fact that a Hershey bar has the same consistently delicious taste, would the feel the same if the Service Rep at a Manpower office answered the phone in an identical manner every time, smiled at visitors in the identical manner and greeting them with the same Mr. or Ms. in the same robotic way?  Somehow, ISO-9000 seemed to be forcing the soul out of services and driving creativity out of the American worker.  This would not stand.

Fast forward nearly twenty years and I am now the devil I once cursed.  A leader of IT endeavors of all kinds, I regularly propose improvements to and then standardize processes for the company and clients I serve. To-be diagrams evolve into Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), guidelines or end-user documentation. Similarly, systems are built with virtual guard rails that keep users from driving off the side of a digital cliff, enforcing the business rules and guidelines that are at times irritating and often restrictive, forcing workers to not only perform the same task repeatedly, but forcing them to do it in exactly the same way for sake of consistency.

Staring the enemy in the eye every time I pass a mirror, I think about what I’ve done. With such limits and constraints, how can creativity establish a foothold, much less flourish?  Have I not killed the entrepreneurial spirit of co-workers and end-users, alike?  With all these constraints, how many good ideas have been stifled, delayed or killed? Has the work I’ve done under the banner “Process Improvement” standardized our work to the point that we’re all nothing more than automatons?

A big believer in creativity and diverse thinking, I know that the World’s greatest innovations come from ignoring conventional wisdom and trying something a different way, so these questions are not trivial.  I think my answer, however, comes from two disparate figures:  Geoffrey A. Moore and Kiichiro Toyoda.

For those of you who don’t know Moore, he’s a business geek’s ultimate hero — the man behind the technology adoption lifecycle, Crossing the Chasm, and Dealing with Darwin.  It is in Dealing with Darwin that Moore introduces the concept of reallocating business resources from context to core.  Context is all that work done by employees that does NOT separate your business from its competitors.  Cores represents all work that is critical to delivering your products or services uniquely; core helps to separate you from your competitors and is the leading driver of innovation.  According to Moore, businesses spend far too much of their time (80%) in context activities and far too little in core (20%) involved in the core.

Let’s apply this to process improvement and process standardization.  These exercises provide a window for innovation, then they lock down a process so that it yields consistent results.  They also reduce a business’ emphasis on context activities by removing unnecessary steps and automating once-manual processes.  So, more time can be spent on the core, where a business can differentiate itself, developing new products or services with the creative mind.

Kiichiro Toyoda had a similar mindset nearly fifty years earlier when he developed the Kaizen philosophy of continuous improvement and the lean manufacturing concept targeting the elimination of waste.   Founder of Toyota Motor Corp, Toyoda had a keen eye that focused human efforts on eliminating waste and improving processes rather than perpetually repeating them without question.  Combined, Kaizen and lean are key reasons why Toyota leads in sales and product quality and why Toyota employees are among the happiest in the industry.

So, considering Toyoda and Moore when reflecting upon my past sins in the areas of process improvement and standardization, I’ve developed a few principles to keep in mind as we standardize:

(1) Wherever possible and cost-effective, automate.  There’s no sense in having people do work that a machine or computer can do faster and more consistently, especially when this is sure to dull the human capacity for innovation.  Instead, people should monitor repetitive processes, not do them.

(2) Involve workers and end-users in innovation.  Your best ideas often come from the line-worker, the front desk staff or a computer system’s end-users.  This also gives them an opportunity to flex their mental muscles.

(3) Focus your employees on creative efforts inside the core.  If you have people who are spending their time trying to marginally improve legacy products or services, redirect them to activities that create new products or radically transform current ones — efforts that will benefit most from the human capacity toward innovation.

(4) Leave room for creativity and individuality.  Where product quality won’t suffer and humans are involved in production, leave room for creativity and individuality.   This one is the hardest to follow, because we know that a consistent product is best created by a consistent process.  But, avoiding excessive detail in a process leaves room for grass-roots innovation and keeps the human mind engaged.

(5) Build a World that is Human-Centric.  Human beings are inherently creative and intuitive:  We move beyond patterns to think of completely different ways to solve a problem, create art or experience life.  All of the products, services and processes that we create need to remain human-centric, recognizing that they exist for the benefit of humans and to add value to the human experience.

Looking back at my list, I’m not fully satisfied that I’ve slayed the demon who kills creativity in the name of process and quality. Nor am I certain that there’s an easy way to balance the need for high quality with the need for innovation and human creativity.  But, at least I have a set of principles to follow to measure my progress.

U.S. Divided? A Shred of Truth in Igor’s Words

In Ethics and ideology, Igor Panarin, Politics, United States on 11 January 2009 at 9:01 pm

According to Washington Post staff writer Joel Garreau, Russian Professor and former KGB analyst Igor Panarin has been predicting the balkanization of the United States for over a decade, claiming most recently that the current economic crisis and associated debt will drive us separate ways, region by region, until there are six separate countries in North America.  Both Garreau and other members of the journalistic community have covered this subject thoroughly, so I encourage you to read these articles to see if you don’t come to the conclusion that Igor’s predictions are largely nonsense.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/02/AR2009010202401.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/11/25/igor-panarin-us-will-brea_n_146427.html

To paraphrase Garreau, Panarin is off base mainly because he has cleaved the country in odd places, forming unions with other countries that make little sense. Portland, Oregon and Utah in the hands of China; Tennessee in the European Union; Ohio to Canada (“A Disintegrating U.S.? Critics come Unglued”, Joel Garreau, Washington Post, 3 January 2009).  After reading the article, many long-time American citizens will also doubt Panarin and likely agree with his critics.

But there is a shred of truth in Igor’s words that Americans will find difficult to deny.  While the U.S. is obviously not dividing along the lines proposed by Panarin, an ideological divide is clearly forming in the U.S. — the “Red State/Blue State” phenomena.  Like Panarin argues, this divide is bad for America and even threatens to break the country apart – functionally, though not physically.

For starters, it’s hard to deny that “red” states and “blue” states now exist, as one only need look at recent elections to see that many states consistently vote for Republican or Democrats.  Sure, occasionally a state switches colors and there are definitely battleground states that are “in play” every election.  But forty of fifty states now consistently vote either blue or red.

But, consider how this is bad for America.  In those forty of fifty states,

(1) citizens rarely (if ever) hear an opposing view point from news outlets, who prefer to mirror the viewpoints of their viewers, readers and listeners instead of challenging them. People don’t pay to be told they might be wrong, nor do they watch programs that contradict their views.

(2) rarely hear an opposing opinion from their neighbors.  Instead, neighbors with dissenting options stay silent to avoid alienation, or they move to a state that more closely matches their own.

(3) No longer hear opposing ideas from political campaigns, which spend their advertising dollars in places where they have a potential to sway the results, not where one side or another is firmly entrenched.

Many of you, I’m sure, are happily “red” or “blue” and prefer living in a state with like minds.  But your red or blue bliss implies that one side has a monopoly on the best ideas; that these ideas are not improved by the crucible of criticism; and, that it’s not important to understand the opposing viewpoint, regardless of whether you agree.

As a country, we’ve succeeded for over two centuries because the debate over ideas has been vigorous and the competition of ideas in the political marketplace has equaled the competition in industry.  In just two decades, we’re eliminating that debate and instead promoting a “divide and conquer” strategy for the political landscape – one that will make it harder for us to work together in the future.  While it’s unlikely that this will result in secession or disintegration a la Igor Panarin, it is likely to result in more gridlock at the national level.  And, unless it’s addressed, it will eventually bring political and economic irrelevance.

What do you think?  Am I off base?  Is the problem as bad as I say it is, or is it my imagination? If so, what’s the solution?