Sunday, April 30, 2017

System Behavior Charts

This is a link to a (mostly) technical article, but with huge implications for decision making.

Measuring various metrics is the cornerstone of informed, data-driven (or at least data aware) management. However, acting upon these metrics without a proper understanding of the underlying system can only amplify erratic behaviors or lead to hard to contain side effects.

Experts recommend not doing anything as a better alternative to uninformed decision making, but not doing anything is rarely an option for a company eager to perform. Therefore, in our competitive landscape, now more than ever I believe a good understanding of how to read and interpret data is critical for sustainable continuous improvement.

Here are some guidelines:

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Notes On Management

On working with multiple managers

Sometimes it happens that you are in a matrix organization and might have two managers with (somewhat) overlapping areas of responsibility. This is not necessary a bad thing. For once, it is a great opportunity to open your eyes and learn from the situation, either as the employee with two managers or as one of the two managers of the employee. As everyone is bringing different expertise and points of view to the table, higher quality insights, learning and decisions will surface. However, it might be at times painful, especially when trust is not fully formed between the involved parties.

Here are some guidelines I found useful:
  • It is critical for the two managers to get along very well and not to try to get advantages one over the other. Think child with two parents. Even for the most well intended people, misalignment will occur and trust will be eroded if the two managers don't take special care to continuously build and cherish a trust relationship between themselves. Relationships are not to be taken for granted. Work is needed to build a maintain a relationship between two people.
  • It is highly recommended for the two managers to align between themselves on the roles and responsibilities of each other and re-discuss these from time to time. Understanding might drift as new situations and challenges arise.
  • Try to avoid the communication triangle and rather aim for the star. 

In triangle communication, each two people have a separate communication channel, meaning they have separate meetings without a common tripartite alignment process. In the star communication, all three meet regularly all together and they reconfirm their understanding. This latter setup drastically lowers the risk of misunderstanding and / or of the child with two conflicting parents situation.

On what I call the airplane model of organization design


I have a strong belief that people have a great capacity to take the right decisions provided that they have the freedom to do so and the right information easily accessible. When I am thinking about organization design I am centering it around what I call "the airplane model". The model itself is simple: the individual is in its center (the pilot). The rest of the organization is there to support him take the right decisions (the instrument panels in the cockpit, easily accessible). Beside the empowerment and motivation that comes from such a setup, of being in control of the course of your work, the model has some other less obvious advantages:
  • It scales. The pilot is everyone and everyone is flying its own plane supported by others. The programmer codes while the team-lead helps him get access to knowledge (architects, websites, classes, conferences), tools (task boards, IDEs, code metrics, continuous integration servers) and goals. The team-lead leads while his manager offers insights, perspectives, a sounding board, access to resources, confidence, the program manager access to configured Jiras, QA to product metrics and so on. 
  • It mandates collaboration and knowledge sharing because the underlying assumption is that nobody flies blind. Decisions are fully owned, but checking the instruments (discuss, check metrics) is a must.
  • It is a quest for continuous improvement: always simplify access to information, always discuss, interpret metrics or discard irrelevant ones. Bad decisions can happen and they are expected as long as we learn from them, but ignorance is not permitted. I personally am OK with any decision as long as I have the certitude that all factors have been properly weighted.

On compound interest and organization design

In any management endeavor, initial conditions matter greatly but they can be beaten given some conditions occur. However, beating the averages is a hard job. Given the fact that growth and decision making at any point in time are random variables normally distributed around the system's average, usually the system beats the individuals, thus organization design is critical for a successful growth.

A little bit about compound interest and exponential growth:

Let's consider the following two cases of growth:

First case: 

Initial condition: 1 and 4 respectively, same exponential growth of 1.7. It is obvious that the initial 1:4 factor is preserved and the difference is only amplified as time passes.

Second case:

Same initial condition 1:4, but this time exponential growth is set to 2 to 1.7. After roughly 10 periods, the initial advantage of the second series is completely lost and from here on the difference grows at an exponential rate in favor of the first. This means that it takes time to recover, but once the gap is recovered, the first series obliterates the second.

But how do we translate these results to day to day management thinking?

Obviously, the initial conditions matters. A company or a team with more funding, better trained people, more connections or that simply starts earlier has a clear advantage over a less fortunate competitor. Because the less fortunate competitor needs time to recover, he may simply run out of business before the gap is closed, even in case of perfect execution. However, once the gap is closed, better execution gives much higher yields.

So the main question is, provided that we have enough funding to survive, how do we increase the exponent? I think the exponent has three defining characteristics: ability to learn, to execute and to incorporate learning back into execution. To learn means to experiment, to play. That means a culture willing to tolerate failure and learn from it and willing to invest in people - to give them space, freedom of self expression, a "let's try attitude". It means a culture with fewer ties and dependencies, with simpler checks and balances, ones that trusts their employees that they are capable to solve problems and learn from mistakes. It means a culture that requires dialogue but abstains itself from being prescriptive. To me, these goals are well met by the airplane model described above.

Initiative is fragile. Push an employee too much to explain himself, to give too much proof that he is right or punish him (even slightly) for small mistakes and the initiative is gone. Next time he will just wait to be told what to do.

I imagine organizations and management lines as meshes of masses connected through springs. The more ties a mass has and the stronger the springs, the lower the movement ability an individual has. And with the lower movement ability, the exponent described above (a function of the ability of the individual to excel in a given context) simply converges to the comfortable average, while the whole system slows down due to lost energy to friction.

Closing thoughts:

The article describes three roughly independent management ideas centered around organization design. There is a red line though. That is systems (of humans) are not to be taken for granted. It is not enough to have the brightest in the room to get results. How you organize them, how you make them communicate (and in humans communication is extremely expensive and tricky due to the low bandwidth of conscientious thought and speak and due to the whole set of unspoken assumptions and emotions involved), how do you setup systems with enough degrees of movement to maintain individual initiative and still have some control over the direction of flow is what gives the higher returns. And all these are layered on a leadership style that must be humble, willing to listen and to point people in the right directions, not for completing tasks, but rather for gathering information and  learning, and then have them take their own decisions with confidence.

Friday, February 17, 2017

On Collaboration - Again

In an organization (or life) there are like three major categories of positioning which you can have towards reaching your objectives. They may be either enforced upon you (by the situation or organization) or they might simply be self enforced by your convictions, confidence or values. These categories broadly are:

1. Asking for permission.
2. Discussing facts, ideas and needs to reach the best possible outcome. Eye to eye.
3. Reaching your goal independently.

For the first option you need to consider three things if the organization enforces it on you. The positive one - what am I missing? Maybe there is a piece of information I don't have access to and asking for permission is a gate aimed at creating an opportunity to learn more (or risk management). This might be the case especially if you are new to the organization or to a project. The other two are not so flattering; it might be a either sign of personal weakness / lack of self confidence (you need permission from a higher moral authority to proceed the way you think it is the best) or a sign of a dysfunctional relationship / organization — political, hierarchical and dependent. Nevertheless, having to ask for permission needs an explanation and an open dialogue. There might be very good reasons behind.

The second option may add significant costs and overhead (think thread contention in software engineering) but opens the doors for better decisions (albeit slower) and, in many cases, a more rewarding job experience and better team bonding. People learn to trust each other in the process of passionate exchange of ideas. They start trusting their ability to think and find rewarding the intense mental process of constructing a better solution together with colleague.

The third is the opposite of the second more or less. Works when the effort to collaborate is higher than the gain obtained from walking the extra mile and when there is very little interdependence. Will encourage silos if practiced too often and will generally result in a degradation of knowledge sharing and communication.

This article is about independent, self confident people, that don’t need to assert their personal influence through the use of their position. This article is about reaching the best possible outcome in the context in which one might not have the full picture. This article encourages people to communicate, share and collaborate. It encourages eye-to-eye dialogue. It opposes dependencies and complexity. It encourages this:

Point no 1:

If you don't trust your employees, why hire them in the first place?

The second option is about trust above all. It implicitly asserts: I trust your ability to collaborate and I trust your capacity to think clearly and engage in a constructive conflict of ideas. I trust your capacity to support your view of the world, I trust your capacity to understand the other's view of the world and I trust your capacity to build on several different views. Preferably not a compromise, but a solution that incorporates all needs. A win-win.

Compromise is the lose-lose type; everyone loses, but just a little bit. You get part of your stuff, but pay a price.

Point no 2:

The problem space may be too vast for one person to comprehend. This is why we need teams and collaboration. And collaboration means dialogue, patience, empathy, trust and willingness to take time to reach a win-win arrangement. Again, not a compromise. But again, it is costly, so brace yourself. Sometimes a compromise might just be good enough. But not the first option and, I dare to say, not desirable, as it leaves everyone a bitter taste. Plus it weakens the culture. And I think culture should be first; thus the default solution is always to collaborate.

Point no 3:

Option 1 is not even hierarchy. It is an assertion of discretionary power.

Point no 4:

I understand and respect roles and responsibilities. It is a form of respect towards the people and the organization at large. Their role is to streamline decision making and settle expectations. They create clarity and diverge discussions from trivialities.

I don't understand discretionary power. When I say "please check with me before", I don't mean "ask for permission". I mean, "please let me know because I am interested" or "let's first discuss because I might have some perspective to bring to the solution". This is an invitation to collaboration, it is trust, it is respect. It is "I trust you to have confidence to allow me to intervene and have an eye-to-eye dialogue on this common topic of interest".

Point no 5:

I am not against hierarchy as long as it is based on a common understanding of roles and responsibilities. Sometimes you simply have to say "guys, we're doing it like this" if the discussion reaches a deadlock, the matter is trivial or time is of the essence (it matters more than the quality of the chosen path). Attention: it is addictive, dangerous and will erode culture (ownership, involvement) if not practiced with exquisite care. Better err on the dialogue side.

Point no 6:

Dialogue between people may be very difficult to initiate and will generate resistance and bruises in the beginning. Hard to start, hard for everyone, especially if the culture is not used to it. In a culture of escalations and self-protection, it will lead to a lot of conflicts, nit picking and will probably increase attrition. Treacherous path. But have faith. Time is on your side and your continuous push will change the culture in the end. There will be followers.

Point no 7:

Support the followers of the culture you want to create. Sometimes you might have to be political to be able to move on (and not completely bring the system to a dead halt), but this is time borrowed on the expense of the culture and it will create confusion on where you really stand. There is a price in everything.

Point no 8:

Sometimes collaboration is not about reaching a mutual agreement. You may simply reach out to a peer to brainstorm or seek for a different view of the situation at hand. He may not have a stake in the outcome. Same process applies. Advice is optional to follow, yet asking for advice is the responsible thing to do - the "you don't know you don't know" stuff. In this case win-win is not about winning or losing something. But rather the process of harmonizing two different view points for the sake of reaching deeper insights.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Collection of Thoughts

On elections and minority rights:

A government (or any other type of organization) cannot use polls or election results as arguments for restricting the liberties of a segment of its population. It is complete nonsense to have the majority vote for the rights of a minority. This is why it is called a minority. Because they are not enough to win an election poll through sheer numbers and they don't share the majority views / options / lifestyle.

Rights of minorities should be derived from human rights, from philosophy, from the values to which the society adheres, and then extrapolated so they become even more inclusive. To understand the other is hard; it requires empathy, ability to position in someone else's shoes, critical thinking. Something to be educated and preached, not something to be subjected to a popular vote. For such questions, asking for popular vote is irresponsible. It means hiding in the masses and delegating moral judgement to the crowd. It only helps advance a political agenda and gain popularity on the expense of the weak. Crowds vote emotionally, not rationally nor emphatically.

As life is short and it is the only one we get, who am I to pass a moral judgement on how someone else is to live? Who am I to have the right to dictate to another and thus restrict his / her access to happiness? Every second that passes is a lost second. It will never return and it cannot be claimed back. Every time we impose our views on someone else we do a little bit of murder.

But what if we have multiple lives, the religious might ask. I am not going to argue the theological point, but from a humanistic point of view, it doesn't matter. As we don't have memories from past lives, they are as if they were non-existent.

On government and leadership:

The role of government and elected leadership is to be inclusive. Winning the elections does not give leadership a carte blanche to disregard the choices and needs of the rest of the population. Divisiveness should be a mortal sin for a politician. After all, it is treason. Leaders are mandated to lead for all, not just for the part of the population that voted for them. They are the uniquely responsible for any form of social unrest that is triggered by their deeds. And they should be held accountable.

On simple ideas:

We love certainties. We don't want complex discussions. We don't like shades of gray. Simple ideas are the ones that bind us together, at least for the most of us. We can pass them along, we can exchange them with our friends. They make us feel part of something. They make us feel connected and safe. We can draw a very clear distinction on who is in and who is out, on who is a friend and who is the enemy. And we are wrong. We are tricked by millions of years of evolution and we are not yet adapted for the world we live in today. This innate desire for connection, for simple ideas, for safety in the crowd is what makes us vulnerable to propaganda, to crocked politicians.

On TV-News:

We like watching the news (or football for that matter) because we crave for something to share, something to discuss, something to connect to others with. But news in their current TV-show-breaking-news format are distorted. Their purpose (in the best case) is keeping us in front of the TV, watching advertising. They don't have neither an educative nor an informative purpose. In their naked role, TV shows are just the breaks between two ad-spots, which need to be filled with addictive content. Same for facebook*.

And yes, lack of transparent and honest regulation, together with their wide audience, transforms them in honey pots for people with agendas (and power, and money).

*I do have a different opinion on written press. There are quality newspapers.

On complex ideas:

Complex ideas are hard. Leaving aside the mental effort needed to distill your thoughts, you enter a debate and you don't know if you are going to win. So uncomfortable. So risky.

And what if you change your mind? What will happen with all the people who were sharing your ideas? Will they exclude you? Will you be criticized, mocked? Will you be alone, an outsider? These are frightening prospects for a member of a species that survived precisely due to its ability to form bonds and act in groups.

Mental effort is hard. Our brains are slow, energy consuming and we are wired by evolution to avoid unnecessary waste. Add this to the uncertainty of your discoveries, the risk of social exclusion and there's no wonder why most of us don't like to engage in conflicts of ideas, challenge the status quo, nor to think too deep. We are wired for religion. We are wired for replicating simple known absolute truths without challenging them. Challenging them makes you a non-believer. A dangerous enemy.

On inquisitive people:

We don't like people who ask questions. Or who bring alternative facts to the table. They pull us in the grey zone. We don't trust them. They are even worse than our worst enemies. We don't know where they stand. Why are they challenging the current thinking? Let it get physical and let the strongest man survive.

We fear non-believers, the non-aligned, the most. What if they are right? What if they erode our strong beliefs? What if they make us stop in our tracks? What if they make us feel and act responsibly? No crowd. Me, standing for myself. What if I find out out who I really am and realize I am not so great / entitled / victim as I thought I was. What if I was wrong? What if others find out how wrong / weak / fearful I really am? Scary, no? We are surely wired against such people.

We love the single-idea type. Believers. People that speak out in simple terms. People that don't have any doubts. They know THE truth. Our truth. Or theirs, doesn't matter that much. They make us feel safe. They allow us to hide behind them and be content with our insecurities. They speak for us. They allow us to suspend our reason and just be. They don't see shades, they don't pull us into the unknown. We are in our comfort zone. They are charming.

We don't want to hear the other side might have some points, just like we don't really want to hear our side is not perfect. That weakens our resolution. I want my black and white view of the world.

And yes, listening and asking questions is damn hard. Much harder than speaking out loud. Uncomfortable. Everyone agrees.

On a gentler philosophy of life:

But should we be ashamed of or inhibit our need for clarity and black and white? The answer is NO. We cannot blame us for being us. We cannot even blame some of us for not trying to be a better, more developed version of us. We cannot blame people for having a different version of success than we have, or for living with different standards, preferences, conditions, life choices. Sorry for you who think you have the right to impose your views on others. You are wrong.

Life happens. Dice roll. Chance drives our lives much more than the meritocratic us like to admit. We need to be gentler to ourselves, recognize our weaknesses and be at peace. I think that if we find peace with ourselves, the negative side effects of our need for stability, connection, safety, self image are vastly diminished. I am not a fatalist, but rejecting fatalism entirely is plain stupid. We simply have to admit we live in an unequal world, that not all of us have access to the same conditions. Should we try to change that? Yes, we owe it to ourselves. We have only one life, remember? And it is short. And the person standing next to you has also one life, even if he might not realize it yet. Should we feel oppressed or blame ourselves if we can't change our condition much? No. We did what we could. It is OK. It is OK not to succeed, it is OK even not to try. It is not OK to blame others or try to limit access to happiness to others just so that we can feel good with ourselves. What is the purpose of living a life of anger, guilt, frustration and unhappiness? We should accept our choices and admit that, sometimes, when we are down, it was not us, but it was only life that just happened. Dice have rolled despite our best efforts and this time they were not in our favor. Or it was really us and we failed. So what? I think being at ease with ourselves is the key to empathy, peace of mind and tolerance.

I think it would be nice if we were all a little bit better prepared for when the dice roll in our favor and if we learn a little bit more from our past mistakes. Just a little bit of critical self reflection. But that's my view of the world, I preach it, but I will not impose it on you.

On bullying your way out of the grey zone:

It is my impression that we tend to mistake bullying and verbal aggression with speaking openly and expressing one’s opinion. Speaking loud and clear is not always assertive. Many times it is distorting the truths in loud and simple terms, without any regard for someone else’s point of view, so that it is hard for anyone else to see through. Unfortunately, this is how propaganda works – repeating over and over distorted and narrow perceptions and opinions, until they become fact.

Truth is hard to grasp because it is usually complex and has many shades. Discussing is hard. But not doing it leads to a divisive form of leadership which turns people against people. It creates borders, walls, barriers, and wars. It is effective. It works. You have an enemy. You look in a single direction, which you are pointed to. You can omit and remove everything else from view. This is how magic works and it gets the leader a free ticket. Simple. Easy. Effective. Trumpesque. And then he/she needs the next ticket. Abuse has become the new norm. Now escalate. We need more. Let's make us great again.

But does the divisive leader understand his deeds? Most of the times yes. And in this case he should be jailed or fired. These are bad people.Sometimes they learn though.

And some don't. He/she might be authentic. He might honestly have no self doubt. He might be entirely sure of his truth. He might simply be ignorant of the grey. There is hope. And I think it is our duty to bring them down to earth. But first, bullying and abuse must be stopped, so that all people can freely express their opinions and be heard.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Tech Blog Launched!

Here is a new one: I have started a tech blog on GitHub: :). I will also keep updating this one, as the two blogs have two very different intents behind.

The management blog ( is mostly about interesting insights I have from time to time, mostly on topics like management and leadership. I write when I think I have something (hopefully) original to say or, as it happened before, when I stumble upon an interesting managerial challenge which drives me to analyze the situation deeper, to extract a pattern. If I find my conclusions to be interesting enough and applicable to other situations, I put it online.

The technical blog on the other hand will probably be driven by my own play with various technologies. I start it with the idea of having a log where I jot down the stuff I experiment with. I don't expect it to have a unifying theme although, as it seems right now, it might evolve somehow towards distributed systems, software architecture, coding techniques and parallel computing. But that is just because these topics are on my reading list these days.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Agile With Structure

Last year I passed the AgilePM certification (DSDM methodology). The main benefit this methodology brings is, I think, rigor and structure to the Agile world. It bridges the world of software development with the world of large enterprises, bringing in an adjustable layer of governance on top of the team-oriented practices Agile is known for (Lean, Kanban, Scrum, XP). DSDM starts from the premise that everything is adjustable, but in order for things to go smoothly a certain level of up-front planning is needed, a certain level of organization, with more traditional roles and responsibilities, is needed in order for various projects within an corporation to become predictable. It paves the way for better Portfolio Management and synchronization at the project level, not only at team level. 

Here are some slides I put together regarding the methodology. Most of the pictures come from the website, the home of the methodology. Links from the slides are put as caption under each slide.