Kind of Blue

It is unlikely that a book on choice will offer an insight on organization. Sheena Iyengar, in her ‘The Art of Choosing‘, talks about her conversation with the jazz player Wynton Marsalis.
Wynton Marsalis : You need to have some restrictions in jazz. Anyone can improvise with no restrictions, but that’s no jazz. Jazz always has some restrictions. Otherwise it might sound like noise. The ability to improvise comes from fundamental knowledge, and this knowledge limits the choice you can make and will make. Knowledge is always important where there’s a choice. 
The resulting action is based on informed intuition, or as he calls it, superthought. In jazz, superthought goes beyond determining the “right” answer: It allows one to see new possibilities where others see only more of the same, and to construct the rare useful combination. …. Insisting on more when one already has a great deal is usually considered a sign of greed. In the case of choice, it is also a sign of the failure if the imagination, which we must avoid or overcome if we wish to solve our multiple choice problem.
It is not uncommon to find agile being misconstrued as ‘we can do whatever’; or worse, ‘follow it by the book’. A framework such as Scrum offers you the guidelines within which to play. You have all the freedom to unleash your creativity. And anyone who talks about either-or (between restrictions and creativity) is bringing in false dichotomy. It’s not about limits of freedom, it’s about rules of the game. The rules don’t take away freedom from you, or restrict your creativity. Rather, it gives us a semantics to work together; a common language of expectations and behavior.
Frank Barrett, jazz pianist, and author of ‘Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz’, talks about Miles Davis during his recording of ‘Kind of Blue’.
“… I love Miles Davis’s quote. He says, if you’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake. And what’s behind that is, he’s saying you need to be experimenting and exploring and trying new things all the time. So if everything you play is clean and fresh and slick, that means you’ve given up experimentation. And so, for jazz improvisation to work, there’s going to be mistakes and wrong notes. You just treat those as more material to be explored and gleaned and to see where they can lead.”

Frank Barrett called it elegantly as ‘an aesthetic of forgiveness’, where wrong notes are encouraged to be forgiven if the musician’s sincere efforts are behind it. 

Later then “…one of the principles that jazz musicians live by is what I call mastering the art of unlearning because the enemy to jazz improvisation is your own routines and habits and success traps. There’s a temptation to play what you’ve done well in the past because you’re on the spot having to make something up in front of an audience. 

So jazz musicians have to sort of trick themselves into unlearning their own routines and habits so they don’t automatically fall back into cliches.

Processes, in a way, are route maps of practices. Practices follow from principles. And never should it be the other way around. Jim Highsmith says it best :

“..what happens in too many organizations is that practices become static and then quietly elevated to the level of principle—something that can’t be violated…What happens is that slowly and surely, good practices become bad principles, or pseudo-principles”. So, for heaven’s sake, don’t get into this process trap.


Cliches and nuggets

On a journey, sooner or later, wisdom creeps in. Or the lack thereof. Some cliches/nuggets collected on the way:

Working harder the same way to solve a recurrent problem is, well, stupidity, at best.

Make do with less, unless it starts breaking down. Less data, less processes, less code…

We make things complex because making it simple is far more difficult.

Culture, by far, is the most important thing leaders can build for an organization.

Culture building starts from hiring.

Don’t create another document, or another process, or another hierarchal level, when a problem presents itself.

Documents, plans, suits, meetings, more often than not, creates an illusion of work. This illusion gives an illusion of safety.

Social skills are great but they hardly replace the skills needed to do the job. More so, if you are hands on.

Good by accident is different from good by design. Don’t confuse between the two. Good by accident is short lived.

Technology per se don’t live long, unless they solve a human problem.

Data outlasts applications.

Ideas are dime a dozen, it’s implementation that matters.

P.S: This is a lazy post to break the hiatus, as you might have guessed. Tomorrow will be a better day.

Write well

For a book so littered with wisdom, one particularly stood out. The book is Rework, and the nugget here is ‘Hire the better writer’.

They say:

“If you are trying to decide among a few people to fill a position, hire the best writer. It doesn’t matter if that person is a marketer, salesperson, designer, programmer, or whatever; their writing skills will pay off.

That’s because being a good writer is about more than writing. Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking. Great writers know how to communicate. They make things easy to understand. They can put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They know what to omit. And those are qualities you want in any candidate.”

We value face to face communications and colocated teams a lot, particularly in software development. But still writing skill is important. Because, as said, it reflects the ability to empathize, to be clear, and to be effective. I do not know of any effort that measured the hidden cost of bad writing. It can be enormous.

Tom Peter says here on his Brand You message on Writing:

“But I do guarantee you—at least I suppose if you’re over age 26 or 27—that the quality of written communication is still incredibly important. And most of our executives, or many of our executives, are in their 40s or their 50s, so it’s particularly important if one is communicating with people like that”.

And then:

“…Work on your writing. I believe—and you’ll never convince me otherwise—it is a timeless and powerful skill.

And where to look for good writing? There’s many. Style guides like ‘Elements of Style”, Chicago Manual of Style, or Economist’s. I find valuable William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, and Stephen King’s On Writing.  Eat, Shoot & Leaves will make you laugh and learn about punctuations.

V.S.Naipaul, in Economist’s Intelligent Life (Autumn issue, 2010), lays down seven rules of writing for beginners. (1) write sentences no more than 10 to 12 words; (2) make each sentence a clear statement (a series of clear linked statements makes a paragraph); (3) use short words – average no more than five letters; (4) never use a word you don’t know the meaning of; (5) avoid adjectives except for ones of colour, size and number; (6) use concrete words, avoid abstract ones; (7) practice these rules everyday for six months.

And, of course, this post is for me. As much as for anyone else.

Measure for measure

Can’t get it right? Start measuring. Maybe.

For a variety of reasons, measuring doctor skill is a tricky affair” so argues Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner about rating doctors, in their “Superfreakonomics“. That’s because – first there is selection bias, sicker patients seek out better doctors and no matter how good the doctor is, their high risk makes them more vulnerable. Then, the doctor, knowing that he is measured against patient outcomes, is more likely to “cream-skim” the patients and turning down high-risk patients. That’s not what was intended.

Levitt and Dubner say “…the law of unintended consequences is among the most potent laws in existence“. Disabilities Act, meant to prevent discrimination of disabled, in fact results in fewer people with disabilities getting hired as employers worry they cannot discipline or fire them. Endangered Species Act, supposed to protect endangered species and their habitats, actually makes landowners cut down trees to make their land less attractive to endangered species, lest their land is claimed by the government.

Public policies, economics, law abound with such examples. Organizations too.

It’s stale but still worth repeating the Dilbert strip with Wally’s “I gonna write me a new minivan this afternoon” in response to PHB’s decision that engineers will be paid on how many bugs they fix. People behave the way they are going to get measured by.

Someone, the other day, was trying to measure agility of teams practising Scrum within an organization. I cannot blame if that makes teams trying to game the system. Then there was that ‘programmers productivity’. A muddy subject, if not useless. In any case, why bother? And don’t get me started on Lines of Code. I have seen managers trying to rewards developers with pens for writing unit tests for their own code. I have seen people shying away from mentoring others if individual performance is all they are measured against. And it gets worse if it’s all a zero-sum game.

Do we really need to measure everything? Robert Glass, in Facts and Fallacies of Software Engineering, cites their Fallacy 1 as: You can’t manage what you can’t measure. However, he argues, we do manage things we cannot measure – think of software design, think of cancer research. Edward Deming includes in his 14 points: “Eliminate management by objective. Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership“.

This is not to undermine the value of data and its analysis. It’s to recognize that there will be nooks and corners where data, at least the obvious ones, will mislead more than show. Then how do we get around managing those dark corners? Gut factor. Or Gladwellian blink factor. Or flip a coin.

Birds, bees, ants and us

“Just what valuable insights do ants, bees and other social insects hold?” Dr. Eric Bonabeau and Christopher Meyer argue about it in their HBR paper on ‘Swarm Intelligence‘ way back in May 2001. Ants helped Southwest Airlines gain annually something like $ 10 million (none of which, I am sure, went back to ants). Southwest used ants foraging methods to solve their routing problems and thus saved on freight transfer, workload, and overnight transfer. And termites? They engineer, collectively, mounds which maintain ambient temperature and have right levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Dr. Eric Bonabeau and Christopher Meyer say “Social insects work without supervision. In fact, their teamwork is largely self-organized, and coordination arises from the different interactions among individuals in the colony. ..The collective behavior that emerges from a group of social insects has been dubbed “swarm intelligence”.

And then they add: ” In essence, we believe social insects have been so successful..because of three characteristics: flexibility, robustness and self-organization…In fact, the major recurring theme in swarm intelligence is that even if individuals follow simple rules, the resulting group behavior can be surprisingly complex and remarkably effective. And, to a large extent, flexibility and robustness result from self-organization”. The authors write how Jim Donehey, the CIO of Capital One, consulted the authors when he wanted the growing IT department to break free from command-and-control model (which, among other questionable things, don’t scale) and assimilate new employees in the organization. Donehey became intrigued with the way social insects can perform tasks efficiently using just a few fundamental rules. Donehey crafted four rules, put them in practice and got it ingrained. A year later Capital One’s IT department had an attrition rate of 4% when IT industry’s average was 20%.

Dr. Thomas.D.Seeley, professor at Cornell University, makes the case with honeybees in his acclaimed book ‘The Honeybee Democracy‘. Dr. Seeley dispels the common misunderstanding right at the outset that the colony is governed by a benevolent dictator – the queen mother. The work of the hive is indeed governed by the workers themselves who share a common goal. Through a network of shared information and cues, they achieve what Dr. Seeley calls an ‘enviable harmony of labor without supervision’. When it comes to hunting a house in spring or early summer, a group of about ten thousand bees make a collective and democratic decision using a repertoire of waggle dances, and invariably lands up in the best site for house. He writes: “…inside each teeming beehive is an exemplar of a community whose members succeed in working together to achieve shared goals… these little six-legged beauties have something to teach us about building smoothly functioning groups, especially ones capable of exploiting fully the power of democratic decision making.”

Dr. Seeley compares a honeybee swarm to neurons in human brain (1.5 kilos of honeybee to 1.5 kilos of neurons) and shows how both achieve their collective wisdom by organizing themselves in such a way that even though each individual has limited information and limited intelligence, the group as a whole makes first-rate collective decisions. It seems that decision-making process is essentially a competition between alternatives to accumulate support (e.g., neuron firings and bee visits), and the alternative that is chosen is the one whose accumulation of support first surpasses a critical threshold. And consistencies like these suggest that there are general principles of organization for building groups far smarter than the smartest individuals in them, and collectively picking the best decision towards the common goal.

Dr. Seeley posits: My analyses of collective decision-making by honey bee colonies indicate that a group will possess a high level of SI (swarm intelligence) if among the group’s members there is:

  • diversity of knowledge about the available options,
  • open and honest sharing of information about the options,
  • independence in the members’ evaluations of the options,
  • unbiased aggregation of the members’ opinions on the options, and
  • leadership that fosters but does not dominate the discussion.

Such findings can go a long way in helping organizations accomplish one of the most challenging and critical thing – building self-organized teams.

Peter Miller begins his The Smart Swarm with (again!) Southwest Airlines wrestling with a question if they need to abandon its long-standing policy of open seating in planes. Eventually Southwest found the answer by using virtual ants to find the best way to board a plane. When talking about the coordinated behavior of a flock of starlings, Peter Miller explains the key that adaptive mimicking along with self-organization, diversity of knowledge, and indirect collaboration, is the fourth principle of a smart swarm. The Smart Swarm covers ants, bees, termites, birds, locusts and wonders what can our organizations learn from their way of collaboration.

Getting teams self-organized might be a utopian concept for organizations trying to be agile, or implementing agile/Scrum way of software development. This is particularly challenging to hierarchical organizations with long history of command and control. And talking about self organized teams, it’s a thin line separating harmony and chaos. So better, as some say, to be self-directed. In any case, it will go a long way for human organizations to understand what the insects and birds know about self-organization that we don’t.


You may have a brilliant new business strategy, but unless employees are stoked about the idea, it won’t succeed, says leadership guru John P. Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor and author of several books on organizational change.” So begins an interview with Professor John Kotter, widely regarded as an authority on change. Kotter goes on to promote a counterintuitive way to drive adoption of an idea: by encouraging employees to criticize it.

Change in an organization can be categorized, in one of the ways, from its breadth of impact. A change of software development from traditional (waterfall) to agile (say, Scrum) is a radical change. For a software organization, it touches not only engineering or development, but also sales, marketing, finance, even HR. The same is for Lean transformation from batch mode. A crucial element change leaders often ignore or underestimate is psychology.

Studies after studies in heath care tell us that 90% percent of the people who belong in high risk group like who have undergone coronary-artery bypass surgery do not change their lifestyle. In the words of Dr. Edward Miller, the dean of the medical school and CEO of the hospital at Johns Hopkins University..”…Even though they know they have a very bad disease and they know they should change their lifestyle, for whatever reason, they can’t…“.

The same article goes onto reflect the view of John Kotter: “Changing the behavior of people isn’t just the biggest challenge in health care. It’s the most important challenge for businesses trying to compete in a turbulent world, says John Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied dozens of organizations in the midst of upheaval: “The central issue is never strategy, structure, culture, or systems…. And as individuals, we may want to change our own styles of work — how we mentor subordinates, for example, or how we react to criticism. Yet more often than not, we can’t.

Having seen through a fair share of lean and agile transitions, I can relate. The predominant emotions to be dealt with are fear, confusion, ego, greed (of power). In many organizations, years of traditional/waterfall with phase gate approach, command-and-control has defined a whole different culture, even provided a platform of survival to many. For them, it is now too important to let go.

I recall of an IT organization, global and big in all respects, for which the biggest chunks of revenue lay in client accounts using traditional way of running projects. Agile for it was more of a sales gimmick. They go agile only when clients insist on it. More than agile it’s a facade of agile: a series of short waterfalls. Obviously, people working in such projects suffered conflicts wondering what really the beast called agile is.

The same Fast Company article goes on: Unfortunately, that kind of emotional persuasion isn’t taught in business schools, and it doesn’t come naturally to the technocrats who run things — … who pride themselves on disciplined, analytical thinking. There’s compelling science behind the psychology of change — it draws on discoveries from emerging fields such as cognitive science, linguistics, and neuroscience — but its insights and techniques often seem paradoxical or irrational.

Dr. Dean Ornish, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco and founder of the Preventative Medicine Research Institute, in Sausalito, California, could bring the change where John Hopkins and Global Medical Forum couldn’t. Ornish helped 333 seemingly incorrigible patients quit smoking, follow diet, exercise; 77% of whom stuck with the lifestyle changes after 3 years.

Why does the Ornish program succeed while the conventional approach has failed? For starters, Ornish recasts the reasons for change. Doctors had been trying to motivate patients mainly with the fear of death, he says, and that simply wasn’t working. For a few weeks after a heart attack, patients were scared enough to do whatever their doctors said. But death was just too frightening to think about, so their denial would return, and they’d go back to their old ways.

So instead of trying to motivate them with the “fear of dying,” Ornish reframes the issue. He inspires a new vision of the “joy of living” — convincing them they can feel better, not just live longer….

“Joy is a more powerful motivator than fear ” he says.

A McKinsey articleThe Psychology of Change Management” prescribes four conditions for changing mindsets: a purpose to believe in, reinforcement systems, skills required, and consistent roles models. And this S&B article tells us “Change is, at its core, a people process, and people are creatures of habit, hardwired to resist adopting new mind-sets, practices, and behaviors” and suggests “Build an emotional and rational case for change” as one of the key success factors.

Chip Heath, who along with his brother Dan Heath authored Switch, shows how managers can catalyze change more effectively by drawing on an enormous body of research from psychologists on how the brain works .In this interview with McKinsey Quaterly, Chip Heath posits : Pay attention to creating an emotional case for change, not just an analytical one.

Linda Rising and Mary Lynn Manns, in their excellent “Fearless Change: Patterns for Introducing New Ideassays:  “I think the most important message behind the patterns is that we are not logical decision-makers. We act based on emotion, primarily fear. Most of us are afraid of change, even if it seems exciting. As a result, you need to appeal to emotion and relieve the fear.”

I have seen, unfortunately, a few organizations that couldn’t overcome the fear and couldn’t sustain the change; and then fell back upon old traditional way of building software. For high risk heart patients who are given the option to change or die, the odds are nine to one that people really changed themselves.

Like a Russian prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, once saidWhatever organisation we try to create, it always ends up looking like the Communist Party.

Control- the military way

When my learning from military was restricted to a measly General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything” or Field Marshal Helmuth Graf von Moltke’s “No plan survives contact with the enemy”, a recent post at infoq went a good way in enriching me.

The infoq posit on “Command and control military gets Agile” talks about how “The military is suddenly taking Agility (big “A”) very seriously”.  It points to a fine resource of Department of Defense Command and Control research program DoD C2 (C2 stands for Command and Control) and a precis on Agility Imperative.

That seemed, at least to me, contradictory. I understood ‘command and control’ very much the same way as Joel Spolsky once wrote – “Primarily, the idea is that people do what you tell them to do, and if they don’t, you yell at them until they do…. No room for questions, opinions, thoughts, big picture, context. Just blind subservience. Agree though that my learning of military comes from rented DVDs of war movies.

That led me to question : ‘What exactly is this ‘command and control’?

I was in luck as this very site has a 255 page paper – ‘Understanding command and control‘.

And sure it seems to have a different meaning of command and control. (The paper even uses a special font for the word ‘command and control’ to stress the difference). Few extracts are like this:

– Command and Control determines the bounds within which behavior(s) are to take place, not the specific behaviors themselves. The degrees of freedom associated with these bounds can vary greatly.
– It is important to always keep in mind that there are many different approaches to accomplishing these functions. No specific approach or set of approaches defines what Command and Control means.

And then:
Successfully accomplishing the functions of Command and Control does not necessarily require: • Hierarchical organizations • Explicit control

It goes on to say:
While the determination of intent and its communication to mission participants are traditionally thought of as responsibilities of the one who is in charge or in command, this does not have to be the case…There are numerous instances where there is no supreme or higher authority that can, in practice, determine intent. What is important is that the behaviors of the entities involved (individuals, organizations, and systems) act as if they are working toward some common purpose. Thus, intent may or may not be (1) explicitly communicated, (2) consciously or formally accepted, or (3) widely shared.

I understand that in this command and control – you don’t bark orders (I need to return those DVDs) but draw boundaries within which you are free to choose your behavior towards the best interest of the group or organization. The boundaries can come from framework (think Scrum), roadmap, goals , vision and/or culture.

Another paper “Agility, Focus, and Convergence: The Future of Command and Control” focuses on the need to change the term command and control as it is liable to convey a wrong message. The authors say : Focus & Convergence is the term that I have chosen to replace Command and Control.

In old view, it’s the control part usually being held for the stigma.

There are enough evidences in behavioral science on how control affects behavior and is linked to, say, performance or even life span. A group with a control button to reduce ambient noise performs much better without the control button; it doesn’t matter if the first group never used the button (I can’t remember the source. Dan Ariely?). It is the sense of control rather than usage of control that makes them perform better.

Leonard Mlodinow writes in his ‘The Drunkard’s Walk’ about control:
“Our desire to control events is not without purpose, for a sense of personal control is integral to our self-concept and sense of self-esteem.”

Further down the pages, Mlodinow tells how psychologist Ellen Langer, one of pioneers of psychology of control, studied the effect of the feeling of control on elderly nursing home patients. One group was given control on their room arrangement and which plants to care. Other was not. Eighteen months later a follow-up study shocked researchers: the group that was not given control experienced a death rate of 30 percent, whereas the group that was given control experienced a death rate of only 15 percent.

Still many business houses and management functions considers Control, even to the lowest level, as an essential form of management.

War/Team spirit

War, in its many hues, is hardly understood ever. Sebastian Junger, war correspondent, goes deep in the trenches with American platoon in Afghanistan, and gives us ‘War’, an outstanding war report. But what caught my attention in this Economist review is the question the author asks – what is the reason of soldier’s “good-tempered acceptance of, indeed sometimes relish for, appalling danger”?

Mr Junger is more interested in the war as it is experienced by the American soldiers, mostly white 20-somethings, with whom he eats, sleeps and very often nearly gets killed… He is in awe of his fellows’ fighting skills and mostly good-tempered acceptance of, indeed sometimes relish for, appalling danger. This leads him to a broader inquiry into why this is generally true of modern soldiers.

The main reason, Mr Junger observes and numerous studies have confirmed, is love. The Americans in the Korengal, heroes by the standards of any warrior culture, are not especially religious or patriotic. They show little interest in the war overall or allegiance to the army at large; indeed, they cheer other units’ misfortunes. Rather, with passionate intensity, they fight for each other. “What the Army sociologists, with their clipboards and their questions and their endless meta-analyses slowly came to understand was that courage was love,” Mr Junger writes. “In war, neither could exist without the other.”

Tom Peters too have a word on this ” It’s all about the relationships, duh“?

It will be interesting to know how team of soldiers arrive at this point. Do such a team also goes through stages of, say, Tuckman’s model?

Jerry Garcia school of management

Fourty odd years after the summer of love, hippiedom is in for a different trip. Management science, of all, now looks to Grateful Dead for inspiration.

That’s what Joshua Green talks about in his article in The Atlantic. It seems Grateful Dead’s strategies and practices are influencing, of all people, managers and business students. He writes, “Without intending to-while intending, in fact, to do just the opposite-the band pioneered ideas and practices that were subsequently embraced by corporate America.”

Deadheads, the famous peripatetic (no, not pathetic) fans, followed, literally, the touring band. Though loose in the sense that they came from different parts of the country, there was a deep bond among them. Tribes , in fact.  Grateful Dead knew what it meant to care and connect with their vital fans. “The Dead were masters of creating and delivering superior customer value,” Barry Barnes, a business professor from Florida posits. And that was before American companies had to learn that from Japanese.

Grateful Dead also let Deadheads record songs freely in concerts. Band’s lyricist, John Perry Barlow explains to the author “..if I give my song away to 20 people, and they give it to 20 people, pretty soon everybody knows me, and my value as a creator is dramatically enhanced...”. None can argue with that now. “Strategic improvisation” is the word coined by Prof. Barry Barnes. May not be the pioneer, but sure an harbinger of open source philosophy.

Prof. Barnes then theorizes, “Giving something away and earning money on the periphery is the same idea proffered by Wired editor Chris Anderson in his recent best-selling book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price.”

Chris Anderson, in his Wired article on Free (there’s a book too), starts with Gillette as revolutionizing business models with offering throwaway models. It’s possible since it comes at throwaway price. However ‘throwaway’ disposable razors are, they are not free. And the difference between “free” and “not-free”, however little it might be, is a major difference.

Giving it all away might not always be that altruistic. Joel Spolsky, in his blog once wrote, “I noticed something interesting about open source software, which is this: most of the companies spending big money to develop open source software are doing it because it’s a good business strategy for them, not because they suddenly stopped believing in capitalism and fell in love with freedom-as-in-speech.” (There, I believe, are open source softwares with its origins in idealism which later got monetized by bigger companies. Then again, do ‘money’ and ‘altruism’ need to conflict?)

Coming to innovative pricing, perhaps Rainbows takes the cake. Todd Sattersten, in his “A Pricing Utopia” says “..You can’t please all of the people all of the time, when it comes to price, no matter what you charge, you are going to leave money on the table. Some customers will pass because the cost is too high, while others would have paid more…..”.

In October 1, 2007, Radiohead released their album on their own website as both digital download and $80 premium discbox that included two CDs, two vinyl records, photos and lyric book. In Rainbows has become more well-known for the sales method than the music itself. So Radiohead vaporized their middleman (recording company) who were eating into the profits and watering down art. Thom Yorke told TIME , “...but the time is at hand when you have to ask why anyone needs one...”. (Where is the manager of the self-managed team?)

Towards the end of the article, Joshua Green writes “That was the value proposition with the Dead.” The Dead thrived for decades, in good times and bad. In a recession, Barnes says, strategic improvisation is more important than ever. “If you’re going to survive this economic downturn, you better be able to turn on a dime,” he says. “The Dead were exemplars.” It can be only a matter of time until Management Secrets of the Grateful Dead or some similar title is flying off the shelves of airport bookstores everywhere.

Now, at least, there is a blog.

Simple things

As the story goes, Russian cosmonauts chose a humble wooden pencil to use in spacecrafts when the American peers were spending millions in designing a pen which can withstand the zero-gravity of spacecraft. (The story is a myth). Whatever, the punchline is in the simplicity.

When ALM solutions try to oversell, a simple good whiteboard can do the job. And better. Even if you ignore the team jellyness it brings as well as all the benefits of visual boards. (Not to say ALM or project management solutions don’t have a place, but yes, they don’t always have a place).

Kevin Mayer, on his excellent post, points out how a run to staples (to get sticky notes) can do a better job than any expensive software solution. The obvious message is to restrain yourself.

Agile manifesto principles says “Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential”. Rings with Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s thought on perfection – “… but when there is nothing left to take away”.

Atul Gawande’s ‘The Checklist‘ starts with the byline – “If something so simple can transform intensive care, what else can it do?”.

It tells a story on Boeing bombers:

On October 30, 1935, at Wright Air Field in Dayton, Ohio, the U.S. Army Air Corps held a flight competition for airplane manufacturers vying to build its next-generation long-range bomber….Boeing’s plane could carry five times as many bombs as the Army had requested; it could fly faster than previous bombers, and almost twice as far. A Seattle newspaperman who had glimpsed the plane called it the “flying fortress,” and the name stuck.

But the plane crashed on its first attempt to take off.

An investigation revealed that nothing mechanical had gone wrong. The crash had been due to “pilot error,” the report said. The complexity overwhelmed the pilot.

The Boeing model was deemed, as a newspaper put it, “too much airplane for one man to fly.

Why do we keep the monster machines running?

Sometimes plain lack of intelligence (Howard Gardner’s selective/multiple intelligence) or empathy or aesthetics. Or sometimes to justify our needs. Or fear. Lizard brain. Sometime believing in what we are taught to believe. How can there be simple solution to complex problem?.

(This is not to say all problems can be solved simply. Most problems, I guess, in development economics fall in this category. Einstein’s  “…no simpler...” can be complex enough)