Category Archives: Career

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?

What Kind of Job is Right for You?

I recently came by an interesting article that examined a certain personality aspect and what it means for choice of job. That aspect was the desire to make your own rules in the workplace vs. enjoying to optimize something given. Obviously someone who does not like to work under imposed rules will be better off by starting their own business rather than joining a large organization. So far, so good.

There is, in my view, an additional “angle” to this. Looking deeper into the optimization of existing rules, processes, policies, etc. there are two conceptually different levels to do it. The first is gradual improvement, and I suspect this is what most people think of. It basically means that you do your job and once you have enough experience and the appropriate mindset, you start seeing opportunities where things can be done better.

But where it really starts to get interesting is when we talk about radical changes. A current example is the switch of large parts of the software industry to a subscription-based licensing model. This has implications for an enormous variety of aspects (and their KPIs for that matter). A few examples would be

  • Sales: Strategy, staff training
  • Finance: Treasury, reporting, investor relations
  • R&D: Release planning, product quality
  • Legal: Contracts (number, variance, …)

The problem with the examples above, is that it is a purely functional view. The latter, by definition, creates challenges for processes that cross functional boundaries. And I daresay that most core processes are not confined to a single department these days.

So, coming back to job types, what do I do if I have a really fundamental understanding of the situation and its challenges as well as great ideas how to handle things, but do not like corporate politics? I am certain that those three factors (truly understand the problem, have a sound solution, no politics) are a fairly typical combination.

The reason lies in what kind of jobs people with a certain personality typically choose. The people who are interested in deeply understanding things are usually more on the reserved, and often introverted, side of the spectrum. Also, they typically hate office politics and just want to do a great job on the “content level”.

Coming to a (preliminary?) conclusion this means that in most organizations people have three options and they come down to the old “love it, change it, or leave it”. I can accept office politics as a by-product of a really interesting job and learn to live with them. Most people, I guess, will stay silent and just do their job but more or less quit internally. And a few brave souls will look out for something new.

My Problem with Conventional Wisdom

More and more I have realized over the last few years that I have a really big problem with many positions that are considered “conventional wisdom” or best-practice. And this goes for a wide variety of topics: software development (which I consider my main competency), technology as a whole, management, career planning, strategy, etc.

In the areas where I have developed a high level of expertise it has been clear for the longest time, because there I could easily see what conventional wisdom usually is: An oversimplified version of the true matter, that anybody can talk about assertively after having spent one or two hours with it. It is a bit like at university when after a 90 minute lecture some people really think they now understand what normalization in the context of the relational data model means.

But in reality the conventional wisdom is usually the lowest common denominator, and that only for a specific context. If you understand this and take it as a starting point for a real discussion, that is fine. But never fool yourself and think you have understood the topic. Unfortunately, this is a somewhat unpopular position and many people are offended by the mere suggestion that something is more complex than they thought so far.

What makes this a problem is when you combine it with another conventional wisdom: “Any decision is better than no decision.” Really? I think it is downright stupid. Of course, one should avoid what is called analysis paralysis and define a threshold for when a decision needs to be made. But all too often it is just an excuse to make a decision without having the slightest clue what its consequences are. Or to quote Herodotus (484-452 BC): “Quidquid agis prudenter agas et respice finem” – whatever you do, do it wisely and consider the end.

Back to the actual topic: Assuming that conventional wisdom comes into being roughly the same way for all subjects, this also means that you should stop accepting it for things you don’t know much about. Think of it as a news clip-version of something really complex. It is probably not completely wrong, but certainly an extremely limited version of the true matter. If you want to understand things, you need to dig deeper.

When looking at this from a strategic point of view, conventional wisdom in many cases means the same as commodity. If you are a product company (and that includes software) going for what everybody else does, will not help. Rather, you should spend some time thinking what you want to do really well. Believe me, it is not convincing when you interview four vendors and they all tell you more or less the same. All you know after such talks is that none of them really has a grasp of the business they are in.

Conventional wisdom will allow you to play it safe in terms of office politics, but not in terms of market success. Is that what you want?