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.

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.

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.

In sight, in mind

A.G.Lafley, CEO of Proctor & Gamble, in his HBR article ‘What Only the CEO Can Do‘ mentions “At our global headquarters we replaced dozens of paintings by local artists with photographs of everyday consumers around the world buying and using P&G brands. All these efforts keep the two moments of truth foremost in the minds of P&Gers as they work.” An effective way to nudge the customer centricity in the people, which he refers to as “hammering home the simple message that the consumer is boss”.

Seth Godin mentions on post on dashboardsOne company put pinwheels on a VPs desk. When sales went up, the pinwheels spun faster…” (Wonder who moved whom).

Ambient makes devices which displays relevant information without being intrusive. They state “some information requires constant awareness” And then explaining the science behind it “Our brains have evolved to monitor several streams of background information without any foreground cognitive loading. Furthermore, our brains bring this information to our foreground consciousness when we discern it to be relevant within a given context.”

Taking about professions, could we have saved the recession if we had giant displays of values and ethics on banker’s offices? That  might be a stretch of fantasy. Or for instance, in software development, known for its uncanny need to herd cats, could we manage to push through the business messages better when we have writings on the wall? Or quality consciousness?

Influence of Organizational Stucture on Software Quality

Messrs Nagappan, Murphy and Basilis’ paper on influence of organization structure on code quality caught my attention when was recently mentioned in (Though the paper is not recent, it is published in Jan 2008.)

The paper describes how organization structure affects software quality. Organization structure attributes can be used to build a prediction model for assessing software quality, or to be specific – failure proneness. In authors’ words “In this paper we present a metric scheme to quantify organizational complexity, in relation to the product development process to identify if the metrics impact failure-proneness.” Eight metrics were derived for organization structure. (Though it was difficult to understand how ‘edit frequency’ can always mean instability or low quality code. Think, a developer with healthy habit of continuous refactoring can skew the data.) The guinea pig was Windows Vista with 3404 binaries and 50 MLOC, seemingly the largest such study in commercial software. All data goes through a menacing logistic regression equation to spit out failure-proneness of binaries. This in turn is used to calculate Precision and Recall for pre-defined random split. And out came the numbers. The average precision value was 87% and average recall value was 84%.

Which means 87% of all binaries that were predicted to fail actually did fail. And 84% of the all binaries which failed were predicted beforehand. (It took me some time to understand the difference). Compared to other prediction models like Code Churn, Code complexity (they cited 5 more), the results are shown to be more predictive.

The authors, quite humbly, didn’t rush to propose any prescribed crystal ball model. But one cannot help wonder how this fits together with other factors which are already known to influence code quality, like quality of developers. That means if we keep the org structure same (say a control group) and change the quality of developers, by this model the failure-proneness stays the same, but we know that’s not the case.

The findings were quite interesting, perhaps important too, though this paper, even for a technical one, wasn’t a good read. Sometimes the sentence construction jarred and seemed prone to be misinterpreted or chuckled. (“NOE is the absolute number of unique engineers who have touched a binary and are still employed by the company” or “OOW is the ratio of percentage of people…”. But that’s my nitpicking, apologies). The paper mentions generously other papers which have carried work in similar vein. The references run 37 papers.

It is indeed promising to see that the authors plan to conduct this line of research for open source models where the organization structure is very different in being distributed and non-hierarchical. Similar research on open source might reveal a lot which can be used by other organizations (Open source itself is not likely to benefit from the results, though).

Outsourcing companies specializing is building software/solutions using delivery centers in low cost geographies will benefit the most from such studies. The findings will help clients realize the cost associated with or risk entailed on software quality with distributed development. It will also make sense for agile teams, which once fancied collocated teams, and now getting more distributed.

It might be possible, with enough studies, to suggest an organization structure for minimum failure proneness. But it seems to be a tall order.

[This paper is also being written about here and here.]

Outsourcing in the new normal

McKinsey & Company brought out an article – ‘How Innovators will change IT offshoring‘ (McKinsey Quarterly – October (premium access needed)), with tag line “A new managed-services business model helps both the customers and the employees of offshore-service providers“.

Though much of what McKinsey says is nothing new (I was doing managed services 10 years back, though the now ubiquitous term Managed Services was not coined then), still it’s important to acknowledge that innovation will be a definite game player in the post-recession new normal outsourcing. Organizations like GE, though, has long matured in this concept of outsourcing.

It would have been good to see McKinsey present any data on how clients perceive managed services – as a threat or as an opportunity to focus on core business. There are buyers who do see this as a risk and not comfortable to let go areas which they have controlled for ages. The outsourcers need to fill this gap by making education of clients as part of their sales call. And providing utmost transparency. Transparency, thankfully, got a mention in this article. But transparency is a tricky practice, sometimes, for outsourcers who are trying out everything to respond to cost pressures. It is not uncommon to see clients projects being used as under the hood basic training grounds for novices, something which a buyer will not like to see and expect the seller to bear the cost. That brings another important dimension – trust. Generally speaking, hunger for transparency is more of a symptom. The root cause might be in credibility, or trust. R&D spending of outsourcer might be one important parameter to judge capability which in turn can make it credible.

The article deftly points out how attrition can be better managed with managed services, with an argument that “The key to minimizing attrition is for clients to give suppliers wide-ranging authority to manage their teams locally.”  Fine but that’s just one dimension. The type of work (among many many other factors) also do contribute to retention. And plain-jane help desk and support, even with all management controls, might not be that motivating. (The article do however says that mixing more challenging work might offer solution).

I would have liked to see thoughts on evolution of client-outsourcer relationship. (Referring them as buyer and seller itself seems defeating). Clients and outsourcers need to build long term partnerships which means mutual investment; merging on part or full of R&D to build assets together; flexibility in forming cross teams; so on. Together they need to build a platform of collaboration among different players, even if they happen to be competitors (like multiple outsourcers for same client, or other players in same business as client). Outsourcers might like to have some rights in using some models or assets in other domains or for other clients, again, even if they happen to be competitors. Same goes with clients also.

Then on Metrics :
“…..the highest levels of satisfaction and performance were reported by client companies that focus their offshoring performance metrics on a limited number of goals relevant at the CIO level. That’s not the traditional approach; clients have relied on an assortment of detailed, mostly cost-focused metrics that failed to frame their strategic objectives and achieve sustained performance improvement. Successful client-supplier partnerships are moving away from such legacy reporting systems, which reinforce the micromanagement aspects of the staff augmentation model…..More modern measurements focus on three to five goals.……”
That’s very important – to keep a few good metrics that focusses on business factors. It is not uncommon to see outsourcers trying to impress clients with lots of metrics, few of which being useful.

Business analytics and statistics might be areas outsources need to build capability in. Together with the client. There are huge amount of data, which on analysis, will show directions to improve services. And out will come a few good metrics.

All in all, the game will definitely change.

Conducive culture

“Before the boys’ team won the first-ever state cross-country championship in the school’s history, she didn’t explicitly set the goal or try to “motivate” the kids towards it. Instead, she let the kids gain momentum, seeing for themselves -race-by-race, week-by-week – that they could beat anyone in the state. Then, one day out on a training run, one boy said to his teammates, “Hey, I think we could win state.” “Yeah, I think so too.” said another. Everyone kept running, the goal quietly understood. The coaching staff never once mentioned the state championship idea until the kids saw for themselves that they could do it.
This created the strongest culture of discipline possible, as the seven varsity runners felt personally responsible, for winning state – a commitment made not to the coaches, but to each other.”
(bold mine)

The above is from Jim Collin’s ‘Good to Great’.

I quoted it verbatim to illustrate how powerful can self organization be. Corollary to that, how fake can the absence of it be.

For an initiave like agile or innovation to be successful, the underlying structure need to be conducive. Support structure comes from right culture, values and principles, not policies or power games. Sometime, we fail to take a holistic view of the organization and its culture and principles. So a typical organization with decades of top-down, command-and-control way of life suddenly wants to flip a switch and be successful with agile.

But there’s no such switch.

Organization and humans

Most of the principles which hold good for an organization will also hold good for a human.

As a human, you can take a leap from Good to Great the same way an organization can. You can embrace Stockdale paradox, or find your Hedgehog concept . You can go for a quest In Search of Excellence.

Man’s search for meaning can easily be organization’s. 7 highly effective habits will do as well for organization as it does for people.

No brainer, but why one hardly sees any evidence ( at organization level) of it?