Category Archives: Career

Deciding Where to Lay Off People

I just read a message in the news that a company which, among other things, runs an online job portal for software developers, plans to lay off staff for that portal. The argument made in the news interview, was that this line of business was particularly affected by COVID-19 and to save costs 30 people would be fired. The organization in question, and that is a critical point for this post, has several business lines, and some of the less affected are operating in markets with far less growth potential. Or in other words: they are the core business.

This is a classic example of sacrificing a company’s future and long-term success for some quarterly or yearly goals. Of course there can be situations, which are so extreme that this is the only option. But, frankly, this usually also means that not one but ten things have gone wrong and that also over a longer period of time. So in the majority of cases such an approach is simply an example of what I consider incompetent management.

Let me come back to the reasoning (as per the aforementioned interview) for this job cut. Since when is it a good idea, unless the company is at the brink of bankruptcy, to look primarily (or even only) at the contribution to the financial bottom link for making such decisions. It is in my view at the core of good management to balance the present and future of the organization. And the job market for software developers is certainly something I consider to grow substantially.

I also want to come back shortly to the idea of “core business” and what its properties are. The most important one is certainly financial contribution. But this is more a consequence of a number of underlying properties (think balanced scorecard). In this context the most relevant one is that it is an established business. Or in other words: living off the past. Of course there are exceptions, but for non-startup organizations core business usually means a mature market, investments that are largely written off, well established processes and procedures, etc. Also innovation is hardly found in such an environment.

For a well-run company the approach is always that the current revenues fund the investments for the next big thing. Cutting back on emerging business either means that people have meanwhile realized that it is not such a great idea as initially thought, or that the situation is really bad. But I think it is mostly about personal bonuses of managers and nothing else. Yes, that sounds cynical. But if you have looked the history of businesses in the last couple of decades, it is the most probable cause.

 

Winning at All Costs

This is a bit of a follow-up to my recent post Don’t Promote for Performance .

After decades with an ever increasing focus on success, not only in commercial environments, we have all become so accustomed to it, that it feels strange to even take a step back and reconsider the approach. To be clear: I am not advocating a model where competition in and of itself is considered bad. Having seen what socialism had done to Eastern Germany, I am certainly not endorsing this or any similar model.

You may have heard the expression Pyrrhic Victory, which stems from an ancient battle (279 BC) where the winner suffered extreme losses that affected their military capabilities for years. Today it basically means that there had been too high a price for achieving a certain goal. And we see this all the time in today’s world.

Inside organizations it usually manifests as so-called “politics”, whereas I think that back-stabbing is a more suitable term in many cases. Someone tries to get something done at all costs, burning bridges along the way. This happens pretty much on all levels, and all too often people don’t even realize what they are doing. They are so focused on their target (usually because there is money for them in the game) that all “manners” are lost.

You probably had that experience, too, where someone treated you really badly, although they actually needed you in the process. This either means they are not aware of their behavior, i.e. there is total ignorance or simply a lack of self-reflection. Or they believe that by virtue of hierarchy you will have to do as they want now and also in the future.

Overall I think that such actions show unprofessional behavior. Firstly, these folks are basically advertising themselves as ruthless egomaniacs, which is becoming less and less acceptable. Secondly, as the saying goes, you always meet twice in live.

This is not to be mixed up with making an honest mistake that upsets people. Everybody does that sooner or later and I am no exception. If it happens to us, we are angry for a while and then move on. Also, in those cases people will mostly apologize once they realize what happened. For me this is simply civility and it is a vital component for an efficient (and probably also effective) way to interact socially.

The bottom line is that people who don’t treat their coworkers in a decent manner, inflict a lot of damage to the organization. If superiors then look the other way because “the numbers are ok”, they send a clear message that such behavior is actually desired. The outcome is what is called a toxic organization. Would you like to work at such a place?

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?