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Posts from the ‘Management/Business/Finance’ Category

mountains are actually 100 little hills

via flickr user ItzaFineDay

There have been a lot of metaphors used to describe software project management. Waterfalls and Spirals are both pretty common metaphors. In more recent history we’ve started thinking of teams as being agile and their work as being sprints. I haven’t heard any great metaphors for the act of project planning though. I’ve come to think of it as slicing a mountain up into a million little hills.

When engineers are thinking of how to solve problems (which is most of the time) they tend to think about “everything” it will take to bring something to reality. This is a great trait, and it is present in all great software developers. They are the ones that will respond to “can we add feature X to widget Y” with 200 reasons why it won’t work, and 2 great alternatives that would work better instead.

The unfortunate side effect of this skill is that sometimes engineers will look at a big problem like “create an operating system designed to run in the palm of my hand” and their internal todo list creator will overheat. They’ll start at step 1, see something attainable, move on to step 2, 3, 4, 5, and somewhere around step 75 their brain will overload and the problem will go from something that is possible but difficult to impossible.

The key for a project leader is to take that mountain of a project and turn it into a sequence of little hills that are all individually attainable and when finished will lead to the top of the mountain.

Sometimes this takes the form of compartmentalizing. “Let’s ignore the wireless syncing feature for now, presume we have a connection, how can we synchronize the data once the connection is established”

Sometimes it means creating a path that the developers can walk down with you. “Yes eventually we’ll have to rewrite this entire module, but what if we just rewrite this small part now and wire the old one and the new one together in the meantime?”

Sometimes it’s about talking about the view from the top of the mountain. “Imagine how great it’ll be when we do finally rewrite this old Basic code in Java?”

Sometimes it’s about obscuring the mountain top. “We don’t have to rewrite everything, just these two modules for now, and then we can get this version shipped.”

The key in project management is to know the developers and know the project well enough to choose the right strategy at the right time.

Step one is always taking a good long look at the mountain…

More on leadership: From the Cliff

Mike knew he had made a mistake. You could read it in his posture. He was responsible for us. Learning that the cliff was there meant that a mistake that was likely have resulted in serious injury now would end in death. No slips allowed. No mistakes.”

Read more at Frog Blog

Leading is risky business…

The man in front is the first to get shot

The concept of “leadership” is something of a foundational principal in business circles. People within a company look to be seen as a leader in order to help advance their career. Companies look to be “leaders” of their market as a way to amass profit. Politicians seek to be leaders of movements. Military officers to be leaders of men.

Organisations talk a lot about leadership. Quite rightly, as without it organisations get submerged in the trivial many (usually encapsulated on the latest slide-deck) instead of staying super-focused on the vital few. However, leadership is not something which can be rolled out at a conference. Leadership is not a job title. Leadership is not something which dictates who pays for the lattes at Starbucks. Leadership is a mindset. It is doing what is necessary. Aged 24 or 42. Liked or disliked. It is identifying appropriate actions. It is owning the consequences of those actions. It is striding through the melodrama about the broken espresso machine. It is saying this is not a management model, guys: this is a real life business with customers and employees dependent upon us. That’s leadership.?

via Nicholas Bate

In my time following Mr. Bate’s blog, I’ve never found him to be overly verbose. But what he lacks in verbosity he makes up for in thought provocation.

What is Nicholas saying here? I believe he is reminding us that leadership requires fortitude. It requires determination. It requires looking past the details to see the goal, and once that goal is visible, pushing towards that goal without letting the details derail the vision. All projects can get sidetracked. Schedules are harder to coordinate than we thought, funding isn’t as available as we had hoped, Bill and Nancy are arguing about the right color for the brochures, if we don’t submit something by friday we’ll lose our ad space in this month’s issue…

While each of those are important pieces of the puzzle, they are the trivial details. Each must retain it’s subordinate position to the goal. If a meeting time can’t be set then we will decide over email, money will be located or we will find a cheaper way to do it, a color will be chosen even if it upsets one of the stakeholders, if the ad doesn’t look right it doesn’t go out, no matter what…

Each of those details exists only because of the vision, they have no intrinsic value of their own. If they support the vision they are valuable, if they don’t support the vision they are unnecessary. Once we have stripped out the unnecessary and all that remains is necessary, they must be solved, otherwise they put the goal at risk. In order to succeed, the larger goal cannot be held hostage by the details. They must either be worked out, or worked around.

Not only does leadership require fortitude, but also a willingness to accept risk. Doing what is “necessary” requires defining what is necessary, and defining what is necessary is intrinsically risky. It invites debate, and it invites review, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.

This process is inevitable and important. Without proper up front vetting substandard ideas could end up taking precedence over better concepts. Without a review, critical opportunities for personal and professional improvement would be missed. Throughout the entire process, the “leader” will be judged, critiqued, and criticized. Sometimes fairly, and sometimes unfairly.

Leadership is hard work.

It’s loaded, and comes pre-aimed at your foot

We are interviewing at work again. It’s nice to be adding instead of subtracting. Business indicators are starting to swing back towards the positive and folks are hiring again. Hurrah!

Unfortunately not all interviews are enjoyable. We had to reject a candidate today based on a very common interview mistake. This particular candidate complained long and hard about the various sins of her previous employer.

Any interview coach will tell you to avoid this topic. It’s a classic mistake and one that has cost many job offers. In this situation the person interviewing you is unlikely to identify with your complaints. They are going to side with your previous employers. They are asking themselves “do I want this person to work for me”. Its very easy for the interviewer to see themselves in the future, the subject of the same criticisms you are currently leveling against your previous employer.

For this particular candidate it became clear partway through the interview that she was very intelligent and capable. She had tackled difficult projects and done them in a way that set the project up for long term success. For one reason or another though, she had been forced to deal with less competent co-workers that ended up generating additional work. Through whatever combination of management techniques and social dynamics then end result was a person that harbored a deep seated resentment of many of her co-workers. My suspicion was that she had been made to feel inferior to her less capable co-workers. In an interview we don’t have nearly the time necessary to unpack that resentment and see if it’s something that can be healed and eradicated, and so our decision has to be “no-hire” which is really a shame.

This candidate would have been a good addition to our team if she wasn’t held back by a seething bitterness. She had been fighting so hard against her less capable co-workers to prove her worth, that in the end she ended up sabotaging her own abilities. The low self confidence, bitterness and resentment grew a hard shell of arrogance to protect itself from an unfair situation.

If you find yourself in a situation where you are bad-mouthing previous employers in an interview, it might be worth some reflection time to try and unpack exactly what is making you so angry. Holding on to that frustration and bitterness does nothing to harm those you are angry with, and only serves to limit your ability to grow in your own career.

I want to pay you more money

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of leverage recently.

What do I mean by leverage? Essentially applying the metaphor of the simple machine a lever, to non-physics contexts.

In physics, a lever (from Frenchlever, “to raise”, c.f. a levant) is a rigid object that is used with an appropriate fulcrum or pivot point to either multiply the mechanical force (effort) that can be applied to another object or resistance force (load), or multiply the distance and speed at which the opposite end of the rigid object travels. This leverage is also termed mechanical advantage, and is one example of the principle of moments. A lever is one of the six simple machines.

via wikipedia

I think of this metaphor frequently when asked to improve the effectiveness or profitability of a given project. Sometimes it’s a task that is too time consuming to accomplish by a deadline. Or a product offering that doesn’t provide as much value as it costs to implement. Or perhaps an employee that wants an opportunity to earn more money.

The last example is one that I think translates into the most accessible metaphor for placing the concept of a lever into a new context.

When I am working with an individual that wants to “climb” the ladder, so to speak, I often start the exploration by asking myself “what can this individual do that will allow me to better leverage their daily tasks into higher value”. There’s that word leverage. Let’s dissect it in this context a little deeper.

If an employee comes to work and cleans their office from top to bottom, they have spent many hours accomplishing a task. Before they came to work, the office was dirty, now that they’ve finished, the office is clean. It’s a simple equation. The value is direct and observable. Once there was a dirty office, now through the exchanging of money for focused motion, the office is now clean. The transaction has completed and the task is finished. The office will become dirty again over time, but that’s not pertinent at the moment. The value that has been created to me is a clean office, which exists today.

Now, on day two, instead of cleaning the office, they sit down and write an essay about how amazing I am. The essay is quite eloquent and convincing. It takes the same amount of time to write the essay as it did to clean the office. But when the work is done and the worker goes home, I am able to use the essay to convince others of my amazing awesomeness. Well, the ability to convince others of my awesomeness is actually quite valuable to me, and it’s reusable. I can read this essay or portions of this essay to many different people, convincing all of them of my advanced skills and excellent grooming habits, be they business contacts or romantic interests. Even though work was performed for the same duration of time, I am able to apply the product of the second day’s labor in more contexts. In this sense the time expended on the second day is more “valuable” to me. Only so many people can come through to see how immaculate I keep my office. I encounter many more people throughout the day that could use some education on my efficacy.

This is a contrived, but not far fetched, example. It’s entirely possible that I have, working with me today, people who are metaphorically cleaning their offices, when they could be writing novels. Possibly not even metaphorically… they might actually be custodians who are capable of great works of fiction.

The exercise that great managers should go through is to take each individual and ask, “how can I get more value from this individual”. When working with developers I would often tell them directly, “I want to figure out a way to pay you more money. I am actively trying to do this because the more I can afford to pay you the better it is for me.” Thinking of every member of the team in this manner channels energy towards projects and professional developments that are deemed the likeliest to produce value.

Leverage is a powerful concept. It is in physics and it is in life. Executing well on tasks that are easily leveraged creates opportunities to significantly expand an individuals potential for influence. I’ve used the financial incentive in this example, but the concept can be applied to other goals as well. How do we influence a large group of people? Either by applying massive amounts of energy across broad initiatives, or applying a smaller degree of energy into sources more likely to be a lever.

Find the levers, and push on them, hard.

postscript: I would hate for someone to misconstrue my example as being somehow against the value of manual labor, or janitorial work. Working on a task with a direct and observable result is amazingly rewarding and highly valuable. The craftsmanship displayed by those who excel in any of these tasks is awe inspiring. I’ve had the pleasure of observing first class cleaning services and I will be the first to say that it requires a high degree of skill, craftsmanship and hard work and shouldn’t be minimized.