New Toy

I just received a new toy I have ordered for our upcoming vacation: A GPS data logger to allow geo tagging of my photos.

Globalsat GPS Data Logger I basically had the choice between this one and the Sony GPS CS1KA. After reading this review of the DG-100 (with a comparison to the Sony) I opted for the Globalsat one and found an online shop in Germany.

Two days later I got that beast. First test are quite impressive (haven’t tried to geo tag photos though). Only thing I found so far is that it takes quite a long time to come online, lock the sats and start recording.

Another pay-off compared to the Sony is that no geo tagging software is included, but there is a lot of stuff on the market. I will try them later on.

I am now very curious how this will work out for the photos on our Scotland trip…

Review of "Behind Closed Doors – Secrets of Great Management"

I recently read the book “Behind Closed Doors – Secrets of Great Management” by Johanna Rothman and Ester Derby.

This book gives a good introduction into the world of management (not leadership though). You will find a good set of tools for your tool box as a manager. This it is particular useful if you have just been promoted and are in the transition from a “doing” role to a management role.

The book has two parts. First part is the story of Sam, a senior manager that has to manage the development department of a software firm. Part two gives more details on the particular tools in your manager tool box (don’t just use the hammer ;-)).

Here are some of the aspects and tools that are covered in the first part:

  1. One on ones (managing different people)
  2. Work portfolio (what not to do)
  3. Team building
  4. Management by walking around, coaching
  5. Influencing (management without authority)
  6. Delegation
  7. Managing yourself
  8. Managing your manager

For me it is quite helpful to review the tools from time to time as I tend to get sloppy on them.
Having said all this, a book in general (and this one is no exception) has certainly limits to teach you being a good manager (which is a very complex task). In practice you will face a lot of situations that can never be covered in a book. This book states (on the back cover) that it is for beginners up to intermediary. It gives you a start and hints for a lot of good tools. You have to use those that make sense to you and practice this stuff in real life. I would recommend to either discuss and practice that with your peers, find a coach in senior management or go out and attend some training with a good share of practice.

The value of Face to Face

Yesterday has been the day of promoting face to face interaction. I read two independent blog entries.

The first one by Esther Derby called Face to Face Still Matters. It compares the cost vs. the use of face to face meetings. The point here is that the use has no cash value while the cost (like travel etc.) has a clear and measurable price tag.

The second one “Face-to-Face Trumps Twitter, Blogs, Podcasts, Video…” by Kathy Sierra brings a different perspective to the topic. Kathy talks about being highly motivated by meeting people face to face as well as the magic bit that is still missing in other means of communication.

Both perspectives make a point that all our technology can not fully substitute meeting in person. I want to add one other point here: Talking to people face to face is a matter of respect (particular in one on one meetings).

(See also my post on communication effectiveness).

Can one learn Management and Leadership?

Esther Derby has a blog entry about natural born leaders and managers vs. learning the skills (she also has a link to a nice little article called “Do We Have to Choose Between Management and Leadership?“).

I agree with Esther that you can learn the skills of both management and leadership. However before learning comes awareness and openness. Some managers I came across so far haven’t had either.

If you are not aware of the lack of (at least some) of the skills, you have no chance to learn. The same holds true if your are not open to the different aspects involved in becoming a great leader and an effective manager.

A mindset of “you can always do better” definitely helps to become a better manager and leader. If that is not the case, you have to rely on your current “natural” skill set, whatever that is.

What is Common Sense after all?

So, what is Common Sense or as we Germans say “Gesunder Menschenverstand”?

According to Wikipedia Common sense is what people would agree in common.

What does that mean? I think Common Sense is what a group of people have learnt or experienced and now know implicitly. It is what they intuitively think is right.

Ken Schwaber say

Common Sense is a combination of experience, training, humility, wit and intelligence.

in his book Agile Project Management with Scrum.

If learning and experience is part of this thing, can we learn Common Sense? On one hand, Common Sense seems more than knowledge. On the other hand let’s look a bit on the phases of learning:

  • First there is unconscious incompetence: I do not know that I don’t know (e.g. kids are not aware that they can not drive a car).
  • Then comes conscious incompetence: I know that I don’t know (This feels like sitting in a car’s driver seat for the first).
  • Then comes the learning work leading to conscious competence: I know that I know (For the first couple of month driving a car, I do everything very conscious).
  • Last phase is unconscious competence: I don’t know that I know (I do not have to think when driving a car)

By the way is there a similar though slightly different concept in eastern philosophy called Shu-Ha-Ri.
The elements we have learnt and that are part of our unconscious competence (or we are in the Ri state for that matter) portfolio basically build our paradigms (another of those big words). Those paradigms in turn are part of our Common Sense.

So a part of what we see as Common Sense is actually what we’ve learnt and experienced (particular in interaction with others).

On the other hand only things that really work and are easy to comprehend will make it to our Common Sense. This would exclude complex processes or artificial prescriptive instructions.

Hey, what is this crap good for, now? First, this was not the question here…

Second, there might be another post…

Another interesting question though is: can we unlearn or “overlearn” things? Or to state it in another way: How does the (our) Common Sense change over time?

Comparing Production to Software Development

I regularly come across people comparing the (mature and structured) production of industrial goods (mostly cars) to the (immature and chaotic) discipline of software development (or actually software engineering) .

I have to admit that I am not a fan of those kind of comparisons. Particular the analogy between software development and industrial production is falling short, that is apples vs. pears. If at all the comparison should be made between the design of industrial products (say cars) and software. Like software development the process of designing a new car is not as straight forward as the later production of the thing.

I do not want to belittle the challenges and performances of designing a new car by any means. Having said that, I think that the design analogy falls short also because of the complexity involved. The requirements of physical world products is constraint by a lot of facts. A car needs to fit for a human beeing, needs to be steerable and needs to fullfil some speed and security requirements. Within those limitations the designers can build the thing around the remaining degrees of freedom.

Software on the other hand has a lot more degrees of freedom (that is what soft means) aka a higher complexity (the same holds true for other “mental” products like e.g. art and movies). In a lot of domains the truth is even worst: requirements are not clear in the beginning (which can have a couple of reasons).

So what is my point here? Well, analogies do help us to capture certain concepts and building up a paradigm. However, you should clearly define the limitations and boundaries of a analogy. Further you could try to apply aspects of one domain to another, but you should always respect the character of the domain at hand (software in my case).

There are a lot of concepts and strategies out there that allow us to handle this complexity, but seeing software development as a industrial (production) process will not work…

InfoQ Interview on Lean

The guys over at InfoQ have an interview (video) with Mary and Tom Poppendieck on Lean online.

The explain the heritage of Lean as well as the basic principals applied to software development in general and product management in particular. They explain some of the seven principles:

  1. eliminate waste
  2. amplify learning
  3. delay commitment
  4. deliver fast
  5. build integrity (in the product)
  6. engage the intelligence of the people involved
  7. optimise the whole system

They discuss some of those principles in more detail (my favourite one is the discussion on late decisions). They are positioning Lean to Scrum, RUP and CMM. They also have a open discussion on the constraints of applying Lean principles (I particularly liked the statement about the level you have to aim for and the discussion about Lean under contract).

You might also want to check out the Poppendieck’s website.

Information diversity

While commuting this morning I listened to the latest episode of TWiT. In there the guys had a discussion about news papers vs. online news (around the 1h mark). Wil Harris brought up a very interesting point: Are tailored/personalised information (feeds) harmful? One “feature” of an old fashioned paper newspaper is that you get information that you are not interested in in the first place instead of just getting your usual food.

On one hand there is more information that ever before these days, so you have to stay focused and try to get the information you are interested in without having to spend much time searching for it. Internet, customised feeds and portals are good means of delivering these kind of information needs.

On the other hand it is quite essential for us to look beyond one’s own nose from time to time. To get new perspectives, to think out of the box, to build new analogies. IMHO this is the essence to progress and develop. You can do that by browsing a new paper, reading something totally different on the internet or zapping around in television a bit. Doing this for a couple of minutes each day helps to broaden my view.

Just staying with your primary interest doesn’t bring you further…

Done or not done: that is the question

“How far are you with this task?”. This question is quickly asked and chances that you get an answer like “we are 80% done” are very high.

Does such an answer really makes sense? How do humans assess the progress of a task? According to the Pareto principle we might need 80% of the effort to fulfill the last 20% of the task, but most likely we perceive this differently (more linear). So even if we have the best intentions, the human brain is being tricked here.

So what are the options?

There are a couple of ways to report the completion of a task (see e.g. Rob Thomsett: Radical Project Management):

  • binary (0-100): Either a task is finished or considered as not yet started
  • binary (50-100): As soon as a task has been started, it is considered as 50% done
  • linear: If a task is scheduled to take 10 days and 8 have been spend on that task it is 80% done. This is the Microsoft Project way
  • subjective: Most often used in ad hoc reporting. The team is asked and tells their gut feeling (more or less)

The advantage of the binary strategies is that you are not tricked by the nonlinearity of things. There is no false security of having plenty of time.

And there is another positive effect: Designing tasks to be suitable for binary evaluation. By the team being aware that a task is either done or not, they will most likely start to design tasks that are actually suited for this approach: Not too big but still one entity. However it is very critical to resist the tendency of making tasks too small (to get them done quickly). Unfortunately there is no rule of thumb of how long a “standard” task should be (do not trust anybody who states otherwise).

There is another very important aspect to this: Defining the task in general and the criteria of completion in particular is key. As said above, a task needs to be a kind of atomic effort. You should not confuse this with an artifact or deliverable. A task can be a part of an unfinished deliverable but needs to have clear completion criteria.

Binary reporting also prevents micro management. The team will report the task done, when it is done. Asking beforehand does not make much sense as the binary answer is not done yet (either 0% or 50%). Having said this, it is the responsibility of the person or team that owns the task to escalate in time when they see a risk of not being able to complete the task in time.

Whatever you do, always remember to keep a buffer in project planning… But this might be another post.

Update 2007-03-01:  Johanna Rothman has a post on this topic: There is not such a thing as Percent complete.