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?

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.