Chord’ial management

You might be quick to conclude from an image of orchestra conductor waving his baton as one who is in absolute control of his musicians. But it’s not so.

Henry Mintzberg, respected writer on management, decided to spend time with Bramwell Tovey, artistic director and conductor of Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, in order to explore how orchestra conductors came to be a popular metaphor for managers today. Instead of finding in action the words common to management books like ‘control’ or ‘directing’, he found a glimpse of what he called ‘covert leadership’ which, in fact, means:

” managing with a sense of nuances, constraints, and limitations….This is the role of the covert leader: to act quietly and unobtrusively in order to exact not obedience but inspired performance…”

(Covert Leadership: Notes on Managing Professionals by Henry Mintzberg, Harvard Business Review, Nov/Dec 98)

Whatever the media image of an orchestra conductor might be, hardly does this conductor really control. Though there might be control evident in the system or structure but all the structure and system comes from the profession itself, not from the manager. This kind of inbuilt structure makes certain rituals (like stomping their foot after a good solo rehearsal) a unconcious event for the musicians. Drawing a parallel to management of software development, that kind of tacit understanding which makes ritual (say, testing) happen is markedly absent. In music, when it comes to directing (another overused word for managers) – the experience was far from giving orders, even comments made during rehearsals have to be aimed at sections rather than at individuals.”

Lest one wrongly assumes it to be powerlessness, Mintzberg adds: Taken together, the various constraints within which the orchestra conductor works describe a very common condition among managers-not being in absolute control of others nor being completely powerless, but functioning somewhere in between.

Again before one hastens to point to ’empowerment’, he says:

Empowerment is a silly notion here. Musicians hardly need to be empowered by conductors. Inspired maybe-infused with feeling and energy-but not empowered. Leaders energize people by treating them not as detachable “human resources” (probably the most offensive term ever coined in management) but as respected members of a cohesive social system. When people are trusted, they do not have to be empowered.

He ends up with the note:

“…you may learn from this example what a good deal of today’s managing is all about. Not obedience and harmony, but nuances and constraints. So maybe it is time for conventional managers to step down from their podiums, get rid of their budgeting batons, and see the conductor for who he or she really is. Only then can anyone appreciate the myth of the manager up there as well as the reality of the conductor down here. Perhaps that is how the manager and the organization can make beautiful music together.”

Though the parallel between music and management is oft repeated, this particular paper bears to stand out from being a cliche. Still, some opines that even classical music is not a suitable metaphor for agile management which thrives on improvisation. Jazz, here, suits better.

Itay Talgam, in his brilliant TED talk, shows with video snippets the effect of ‘doing without doing’ and how

‘..suddenly out of the chaos, order. Noise becomes music’.

In this talk Talgam explains that when Karajan was asked about his mode of conducting he said “… the worst damage I can do to my orchestra is to give them a clear instruction. Because that will prevent the ensemble, the listening to each other that is needed for an orchestra”. Conductor Klieber not only creates a process, but also the conditions in the world in which this process takes place.

Benjamin Zander, leading conductor for Boston, London and Israel philharmonic orchestras; talks in his book the ‘The Art of Possibility‘ about exploring the facets of hidden possibilities. Coming back of software development, isn’t this exactly what agile methodology trying to do – to rein in inherent uncertainties with the ‘art of possibility’?

Though most of us gotta serve somebody, we can always try to take a sad song and make it better.

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Shine on you crazy windows

“What do you want?” Goetz asked.
“Give me five dollars,” Canty replied.
Goetz looked up and, as he would say later, saw that Canty’s “eyes were shiny, and he was enjoying himself……Goetz reached into his pocket and pulled out a chrome-plated five-shot Smith and Wesson .38, firing at each of the four youths in turn.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his fine book ‘The Tipping Point‘ explains the Power of Context’  “is that we are more than just sensitive to changes in context. We’re exquisitely sensitive to them.” Human behavior owes a lot to the context or situation, rather than, say, personality or genetic makeup. And that explains a lot in provoking Goetz, a decent New Yorker, shoot four youths in a graffiti ridden, littered subway train in one cold december day in New York.

Power of context is best summed up by the Broken Windows theory. Gladwell writes 

“Broken Windows theory and the Power of Context are one and the same. …The Power of Context is an environmental argument. It says that behavior is a function of social context….The Power of Context says that you don’t have to solve big problems to solve crime. You can prevent crimes just by scrubbing off graffiti and arresting fare beaters…Once you understand that context matters, however, that specific and relatively small elements in the environment can serve as Tipping points …..”

Broken Windows theory is the brainchild of criminologist James Q.Wilson and George L.Kelling, and in their own words:

“Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in run-down ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. (It has always been fun.)”

Kelling was later hired by New York Transit Authority, who together with subway director David Gunn cleaned up the graffiti. Later William Bratton, hired as transit police head, another disciple of Broken Windows, cracked down upon farebeating. All these attributed in bringing down New York crime radically during the mid-80s.

In order to discover if signs of vandalism, litter and low-level lawbreaking could change people’s behavior, Kees Keizer and his colleagues at the University of Groningen conducted experiments to, say, validate Broken Windows theory.

His group’s first study was conducted in an alley that is frequently used to park bicycles. ..the researchers created two conditions: one of order and the other of disorder. In the former, the walls of the alley were freshly painted; in the latter, they were tagged with graffiti ….In both states a large sign prohibiting graffiti was put up, so that it would not be missed by anyone who came to collect a bicycle. All the bikes then had a flyer promoting a non-existent sports shop attached to their handlebars. This needed to be removed before a bicycle could be ridden. When owners returned, their behaviour was secretly observed. There were no rubbish bins in the alley, so a cyclist had three choices. He could take the flyer with him, hang it on another bicycle (which the researchers counted as littering) or throw it to the floor. When the alley contained graffiti, 69% of the riders littered compared with 33% when the walls were clean.

Do the Broken Windows theory and Power of Context apply to an organization? Can we radically improve the organizational environment to foster professional behavior? Hoarding information, dirty office politics, taking undeserving credit, favouritism, all can be broken windows. Bringing right culture is a lot of fixing broken windows.

Software development is notoriously known for falling quickly into tar pit.

In the book The Pragmatic Programmer, Andrew Hunt and David Thomas look into Broken Windows in software developments:

“There are many factors that can contribute to software rot. The most important one seems to be the psychology, or culture, at work on a project. Even if you are a team of one, your project’s psychology can be a very delicate thing. Despite the best laid plans and the best people, a project can still experience ruin and decay during its lifetime. Yet there are other projects that, despite enormous difficulties and constant setbacks, successfully fight nature’s tendency toward disorder and manage to come out pretty well.”

Bad design, wrong decisions or poor code can be broken windows, which warrants fixing as soon as they are discovered. Agile development framework like Scrum is good in the way that the underlying framework makes fixing broken windows highly desirable. High order of transparency and rapid feedback mechanism with continuous integration, pair programming, daily scrums all encourage fixing broken windows.

Let the windows shine.

In defence of time

Longitudinal study is a research study in which a narrow sample segment, of humans mostly, is measured and analyzed over a long period of time. For example, a group of alpha males is observed over decades; their physical and mental attributes meticulously gathered for years, to see how they fared over time. One of the earlier account of longitudinal study is perhaps the Grant study carried out by Dr.George Valliant trying to “attempt to analyze the forces that have produced normal young men“. Journalist Joshua Wolf Shenk got an access to the archive recently and wrote about it in his brilliant essay as

The project is one of the longest-running-and probably the most exhaustive-longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history. Begun in 1937 as a study of healthy, well-adjusted Harvard sophomores (all male), it has followed its subjects for more than 70 years.

So here it goes – 70 years. My idea here is to stress on the concept of time.

Marcus Buckingham wrote about Warren Buffet in his “Now, Discover Your Strengths

he turned his natural patience into his now-famous “twenty-year perspective” that leads him to invest only in those companies whose trajectory he can forecast with some level of confidence for the next twenty years.

Here – twenty years.

Jim Collins in his Good to Great talks to Level 5 leaders where it took them 20 years or so to build the strength of organization from good to great. Joel Spolsky’s Fog Creek took 9 to understand what they stand for.

Peter Norvig put the figure as 10 years when it comes to learning programming, or for that matter a wide variety of expertise.

Malcolm Gladwell had it as 10,000 hours. It applies to Bill Gates and Beatles, among others.

Classical musicians are known to train for years.

This is not to conflict with being agile or fleet-footed. Nor against bias for action. Contrary to that, it aligns. Mastery takes time. An organization culture too. It is the core which gets build brick by brick. And that core helps being fleet-footed or agile, without collecting debt.