Management Wisdom

The recent issue (2.08) of the German magazine “Business Technology” has an interview with management consulting luminary Reinhard K. Sprenger (quite famous for his book “Mythos Motivation”).

I am not sure if I buy all his theories about management mentioned in the interview (though it would be interesting to see some evidence for them, I should look in his books for this I guess), however a couple of his statements actually made me think and quite intuitively they make sense (again, some evidence would be good to support this).

Teamwork and cooperation need a problem

The first refreshing thing I read was that he actually said problem instead of challenge. The point here is that teamwork and cooperation these days is often pushed per se without having a common problem to work on. This often fails when there is no clearly defined problem to work on or to state it otherwise a common goal to work towards.

So as a prerequisite to initiate teamwork we would need a common understanding of the problem as well as the goal for the combined effort. This should be explicitly defined by and for all participants or (to stress another buzzword) stakeholders.

In addition to that I see the need to clearly understanding the interests of all people involved. I see it actually quite often that objectives (including and in particular those that are bound to a bonus or commission (say money)) are quite contradictory to effective teamwork. Many times these drivers (or agendas) needs to be adjusted by management to facilitate (or enable) team work.

Decisions are only interesting if the situation is undecidable

Decisions are only needed if there is a situation at hand where there is no obvious answer – meaning there are as many good reasons to turn left as there are good reasons to turn right (otherwise if there would be a bias for either one, no decision would be needed).

This actually happens quite often and managers need to decide based on improper or insufficient information.

Sprenger says that a good manager should feel at home within this situation and should be able to come to a good decision due to his ability of creating a good contextual model to support the decision – particularly without all the details. Sprenger says that ability stems from a good (humanistic) education – I often call it “common sense” (“gesunder Menschenverstand” in German).

I – by the way – think that this ability does not only make a good manager but also a good employee, a good consultant etc.

Risk averseness kills innovation

If an organisation gets risk averse, if nobody is willing (or able) to make mistakes and take risks, innovation is dead. And so in creativity and speed. If people just start to do something if they are 100% sure they will not make a mistake, barely anybody is moving at all or just doing the true and tried standard work.

It is up to the management to create an infrastructure and environment were mistakes and failures are accepted (as long as we learn from them).

Good Risk and Bad Risk

Bruce Tate writes about this in his book “From Java to Ruby“. But what does this mean?

If you are running projects or are managing a team/company (for that matter), you have been told to manage risk(s). Chances are good that you also have been told that risks should be avoided or at least mitigated. Therefore risks are bad, aren’t they?

Well, there is an economic saying: “stagnation mean regression”. This means you need to progress and you need to do new things to do so.  So you go for chances. This in turn implies that you take some risks in order to gain (economic advantage). In general you take the more risk(s) the higher your gain may be (unless you run into a rare lucky case).

So taking risk(s) is good and important after all?

It sure is. However you need to know what you do, you should take those risks intentionally (instead of accidentally).

That is what risk management is all about.

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.

Effectiveness of Communication

Why thinking about this? Thing is that work tends to be more and more distributed and the temptation to use the modern communication methods like email (in one form or another) and instant messaging is bigger than ever.

Before going any deeper into this, let me first admit that I do not have an scientific data/evidence or other sound foundations for my theories. All of this comes from my own observations and the writings of others (namely Alistair Cockburn).

So, what is the most effective way to communicate? IMHO the best way to communicate (two persons up to small teams (about seven people)) is a vis a vis scenario with flip chart or white board. This way you can talk, listen, sketch, see, feel, smell. You see the reactions (say emotions) of people, you can even stop in the middle of a sentence if people do not react as expected.

The more I do in terms of (project) management the more I value this form of communication. My feeling is that the effectiveness (and risk) of communication is dropping quite significantly if you go from live to video conference to telephone conference to instant messaging to email.

Why is this? In the end of the day, communication is the interaction between human beings. We have a long history of implicit knowledge in communicating to each other vis a vis. This is what we are conditioned to since a couple of 1000 years…. We use a lot of our senses.

With video conferencing you loose smell (let alone that most people are feeling uncomfortable in front of a camera and “act” unnaturally).

With telephone you loose seeing emotions and reactions.

With instant messaging you loose hearing emotions.

With email you loose interactivity.

So, what’s left? A lot of room for misunderstandings?!

Please do not get me wrong here. I do like the modern means of communication. Sometimes it is so much easier to write something in a brief email instead of having to talk to someone extensively, it is even very essential if you want to document things. But I do think that you should choose the best possible (say effective) way of communication if the topic at hand really matters to you.