Corona Virus: Question What You Read

Strictly speaking, this is post is not necessarily related to the Corona virus outbreak. But articles about the latter certainly increase its relevance a great deal. What I want to write about today is how we should deal with everything we read. Most things will also apply to TV, YouTube and other media, but the narrative will stick to articles for readability.

If you read something it is important to be aware about its nature (e.g. report vs. opinion), the author, and where it got published. These are all factors (and there are more) that have influenced the content, so you need to take them into account. At the end of the day the reason for publishing something is typically either money or politics. People that create content have a goal and they rarely disclose it openly.

For YouTube videos it is often money and in traditional newspapers we typically see an endorsement for a certain political position. And the latter can regularly be seen for TV as well. For me, when I create posts for this blog, it is the fun of writing and the surprise how articles turn direction while I work on them. Because writing is the tool to structure my thoughts and discover a topic. (For those who are more interested in this, please watch the video linked in Larry McEnerney: The Craft of Writing Effectively; it is quite long but really worth it.)

So it is your job to read between the lines, do some research, and develop an overall picture. It is this picture then, that defines the context in which the content has to be seen. And now it gets really interesting. Because you need to watch out for unfounded claims that mask themselves as objective truth. Often these will be thrown in almost casually, but then used to construct a whole chain of cause and effect-relationships. And those will, miraculously, support the author’s opinion. Surprise, surprise.

Once you have come into the habit of doing this, it will open your eyes and you will see many things in much more nuanced way. All of a sudden you identify the weak link in the line of argument. And you can then think about whether this invalidates the author’s position completely for you. Or you still agree with the verdict, but see that no proper argument has been delivered to support it.

Corona Virus: Disable Video in Calls?

With so many people working from home these days, the use of video calls has exploded. I personally think this is a good thing, because it changes the nature of calls dramatically. They move things closer to a personal interaction, which is a huge plus. The downside of this is an increase in the use of network bandwidth. Hence some people suggest to disable your video while not talking.

I would like to propose a slightly more nuanced approach. To me disabling the video while listening can be appropriate for meetings that are about content. If someone is sharing a screen so that people can discuss the current state of some work item, there is indeed little value from six small faces at the bottom of the screen.

But increasingly folks use video calls for social purposes, like the famous virtual morning coffee round. And here things are different in my view. As in the physical equivalent, there are people who dominate the discussion and those who mostly listen. The second group is just as important as the first, and not seeing their faces would be a great loss for the purpose of the call. So for this kind of meeting I recommend to leave video turned on at all times.

Corona Virus: Priorities

Pretty much everything in life is about priorities. If someone tells you “I did not have time to do XYZ” it actually means that XYZ was not high enough on their list of priorities. Setting priorities is critical whenever there are limited resources to allocate, or conflicting goals to balance. And naturally this becomes much more important under circumstances like we have them now with the fast-spreading Corona virus.

What I find irritating is how often the “comfort” of people seems to play a role in discussions these days. Because it is nothing more than loss of comfort, if people cannot leave their home whenever they like. Instead, the wording in such discussions is often along the lines of “people cannot endure such ‘isolation’ for an extended period of time”. Really?

My grandparents  fled their home at the end of World War II on foot with a small child and nothing more than they could carry. And today we have so many people living in a war zone, who experience things that I don’t even want to think about. That is endurance!

So where is the problem if someone needs to stay at home in order to help save lifes? Are we so selfish a society that my pleasure is worth someone else’s health or even life? Because that is what the decision to stay at home or not is about at the end of the day.

Corona Virus: Holding the Team Together

While the number of people who work remotely (usually from home) has been growing significantly for a number of years, it is still far away from mainstream. So when people are now forced to work from home entirely due to the Corona virus, it is a new experience for many. Do not underestimate the difference between doing this two days a week vs. full-blown.

Apart from individual challenges, this also means a big change for the team, we are usually  a part of. People have shown quite some creativity to overcome this situation and find ways to keep bonds strong. Some folks I know have introduced a virtual morning coffee round. Others started to use video for their conference calls for the first time, although they had so far rejected it.

Below you will find a video from the team of Simon Sinek. These people have been working remotely for years and share their approach to be a team, even if they almost never meet in reality. I can truly recommend watching this video.

Corona Virus: Careless People

I had not planned to write something on the Corona virus. What meaningful content could I produce that was not out there yet? But the point has come where I need to reflect on a few things for myself. So why not share this …

My overall take is that there is a remarkable number of people out there who combine ignorance (I only believe what I see and/or understand) and lack of compassion (it’s ok as long as I don’t die). Or is it simply selfishness? I mean, how can anyone in their right mind accept the fact that there is a risk of someone else dying, just because he or she “needs” to  party?

When I grew up, my parents (born in the early 1940s) would occasionally talk about things they remembered from their early childhood. E.g. the extreme winter of 1946/47 where it was so cold in the house that water froze in the jar over night. Or how it was common to walk to school for at least 30 minutes one way regardless of the weather. It never frightened me, but in hindsight I guess that it instilled a feeling of being thankful for what my sister and I did not have to endure.

Both my parents had had a happy childhood. Very modest by today’s standards, but with loving parents that were understanding and forgiving. But there had also been rules and all this was passed on to us children (born in the mid-1970s). So my sister and I learned a decent amount of discipline, but there was also a lot of freedom and fun.

In addition we experienced a few setbacks that our parents had carefully selected for learning. During those “exercises” it was always clear to us that nothing catastrophic would come our way. But we learned that life is not always fair, that we do not always get what we want (may we deserve it or not), and that we are not “special”. (We knew that we were special for our parents, though.) All in all this made us somewhat modest, resilient, and compassionate.

What I have often seen in education over the last 15 to 20 years is that parents long to make their children happy all the time. To keep any hardship away from them. This is done with the best of intentions, but it is not the parents’ job. What they need to do is prepare the children for an independent life. Yes, that includes fun, freedom, a safe harbor, etc. But it also requires learning how to deal with rules, frustration, setbacks, and all sorts of challenges.

Most importantly children need to learn that it is not always about them. That they are part of a community (in fact of many communities with a different role in each of them) where it is often necessary to compromise. Personal freedom has its limits where it affects others in a negative way. But how can children develop a sense for this, if they get what they want all the time?

The teenagers that go out and party, risking to infect others who might die as a consequence, are not the ones to blame. Responsible are those who failed to instill the right values and behaviors into them. Yes, that may include the parents. But society as  a whole is to blame as well. And this is where I have hope that at least one positive thing may come out of the Corona crisis (although the price is terrible). That we will start to reflect on what is critical for society as a whole and how to make it part of our lives.

Good luck to all of us!

Don’t Promote for Performance

Quite recently I heard a fascinating statement (Simon Sinek, again 🙂 ) about how the US Navy SEALs select people for promotion. It boils down to “trust over performance”. Allegedly, if they need to decide between someone who is a high performer that people do not really trust, and someone who is a mid to low performer that people trust, the latter wins.

The reason is the effect that someone not trusted will have on the organization. That person (and/or the promotion choice) will instill distrust with all its consequences into people. From my own experience I can only support that argument. Haven’t we all had that boss who made it clear from day one that only their own success mattered to them?

If we look at most commercial organizations, however, what is the reality there? Yes, performance is the only(!) thing that counts – and mostly it is short-term performance, which makes things even worse. It is really sad, and I have a hard time getting my head around it. Yes, in a way I am an idealist. But I think that I have been having a good-enough career to not be seen as out of touch with reality altogether. It is more that I increasingly think that corporate success happens not because of its management, but despite it.

I guess my thinking is also influenced by having had my own company while studying at university. The only thing that counted for me at the time was customer satisfaction. So, as I still like to say, after the deal is before the deal. The hit-and-run mentality sometimes seen in larger organizations is something I always thought to be, quite frankly, galactically stupid.

The good thing, though, is that things seem to starting changing gradually. Let’s support this and all have a better live. Oh, and one last thought: Why is it that senior managers, soon after having joined a new employer, bring on board people they know from before? Because they trust them.

Understanding the Problem

In recent weeks I have come across a number of readings and videos, which brought forward something that, in hindsight, had been nagging me for a very long time. Unfortunately I cannot provide a list of said material, because it has all happened subconsciously and only just “erupted” a few minutes before I started writing this.

The subject in question is the relevance of understanding a given problem for determining a solution. This sounds totally obvious if not even a bit silly, I admit. How would anyone be able to work on a problem that is not understood? But it becomes less silly if we re-phrase things a little bit.

So far the wording implied a somewhat binary view: Either the problem is understood or not. But in reality very little is truly binary. So instead we could say that the level of understanding of a problem is the primary driver for the outcome of the attempt to solve it. Admittedly, this still sounds pretty obvious.

The next stage in dissecting would be to say that a problem needs to be understood well enough to find a sufficient solution. And here it starts getting interesting, since we basically have an equation with two variables.

The first is about being “sufficient”. Because of resource constraints most problems will be approached with the aim to apply only a “just good enough” solution. In my profession (software engineering) this usually means a quick fix rather than a clean approach with refactoring and all the other good stuff.

What I personally consider more impactful, though, is the “well enough”. Most people I have met so far, do happily go for the first explanation of a problem and consider it a sufficient basis for determining how it should be approached. But in many cases this means only that the symptom has been identified correctly. Neither has the direct cause for the symptom been found, nor the root cause. I see several reasons why people jump onto the “obvious” reason so eagerly rather than to dig in.

  • Different layers: Like in medicine the symptom, the direct cause, the indirect cause(s), and the root cause can be in different “hemispheres”. In business this could be customer churn, caused by bad customer support, caused by a missing link in a process, caused by misalignment of two separate organizational units, caused by personal animosity between their bosses.
  • Motivation and personal objectives: Unless people have a mind that genuinely strives for perfectionism, they will factor in their personal objectives to determine how much energy to put into something. And in most cases this simply means to invest as little effort as possible.
  • Importance not considered high enough: While the personal objectives point above is, at its core, about a selfish decision to optimize personal gain, this is about a perceived objective lack of importance. If I genuinely believe that something is more or less irrelevant, why would I bother (irrespective of personal gain)?
  • Happiness to have found anything: This is basically about impulse control. Rather than exert self-control and think about whether or not there might be other and/or additional aspects, people simply jump onto the first thing that comes their way.
  • Lack of knowledge: The difference to the happiness point is purely the motivation. While the result is the same, the reason here is sheer necessity, since people do not know enough on the subject. So they are just glad to have come up with something at all.

When you follow the line of argument, you will have the fundamental reason why larger organizations so often struggle to even solve the simplest challenges in a proper way. Instead you will mostly see a myriad of changes that are applied, at best, with local optimization in mind. The latter, unfortunately, means that you are almost always moving further away from a global optimum. What good is it for a company if one department improves the financial bottom line of the current quarter at the expense of disgruntled customers that spread the word?