Is There a Disconnect Between Knowledge Workers and Business Leaders?

The past two weeks I’ve read a number of articles about the End of Agile and subsequent rebuttals. Yesterday I read an excellent article asking “Whatever Happened to Six Sigma?” Both of these articles are fascinating. The rebuttals to the first are incredibly enlightening. I don’t think these are the last of these sorts of articles. I expect to read “The End of Lean” down the road as well.

I think there are a few reasons, one of them is common between Six Sigma and Agile. Snake Oil Salespeople. Basically, what has happened with all methodologies (except for PMI’s Waterfall approach – which I’ll get to) there reaches a point in time where it becomes impossible to determine the quality of credentials for a given certification. At that point, the certification is valueless even if the training, like you dear reader received, was actually the top of the top. Because there’s no actual way to determine if the quality is any good or not.

I experienced this first hand while I was teaching Lean Six Sigma at AMD. I had some fantastic mentors when I was working there, that lived and breathed Six Sigma for their entire careers. They knew this stuff inside and out. Which made me gain a much deeper appreciation for the methodology. However, there was another small company in Austin that also taught Six Sigma to their employees, Dell. Whenever we hired people from Dell with a certification in Six Sigma, a Green Belt or even a Black Belt, we essentially had to retrain them. Many of them, did not truly internalize what they were taught, or the material was less rigorous. This was likely a trade off the Six Sigma training team had to make to ensure their team remained relevant to Dell.

However, whenever you cannot trust the training from an organization like Dell, it makes it a lot more difficult to trust training for any other organization. You just don’t know the standards. Agile’s currently experiencing the exact same issue. There’s been a huge influx of organizations giving certifications. Not all of them have the same level of quality.

I think as a reaction to this, the software development industry has created DevOps and DevSecOps. Which doesn’t have a certification process, but a general set of ideas, such as Trunk development, rigorous testing, continuous integration, and on the extreme continuous deployment.

I think all this goes back to a basic premise though. Knowledge workers, like engineers and software developers look at problems very differently than business leaders. I first experienced this while I was in college. I was studying Industrial Engineering (which pulls in elements from Six Sigma, Lean, Network Theory, Simulation, Human Factors, etc…) while a good friend was studying Business. We had a few conversations about how businesses should be run and it was very obvious to me, that we were talking about two completely different views of how a firm should be run.

I was arguing against (in 2003) off-shoring, because it decreased the efficiency of engineering and collaboration between manufacturing and engineering. Both Agile and Lean argue against off-shoring due to these reasons. Given the change in the approach, the salary savings, overall, didn’t make the effort worth it, because of the reasons I listed. My friend thought lowering cost was the right thing to do.

This isn’t just an anecdotal thing though. If you read books about Agile, Theory of Constraints, or Innovation, they all make the same arguments. The ideas taught in business school are causing business leaders to make bad ideas. Theory of Constraints was popularized in the book The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt and came out in 1984. The ideas he espoused in that book were considered counter intuitive. If you read the Phoenix Project by Gene Kim which came out in 2013, which is written to model The Goal, you’ll find the characters running into, literally, the exact same type of thinking by managers and other team members. To me, this means there are other cultural organizations that are pushing back against the approaches technical leaders find work best and what our business leaders find work best for their goals.

The two most obvious cases for this are Accounting (which The Goal sets up as something of an antagonist) and Executives. Accounting has the weight of Law on its side, which is problematic, because Accounting organizations has their own reason for maintaining a status quo. They have their own certification process to become a CPA. From the executives standpoint, in many cases these folks are presented as having an MBA and excellent business training.

Despite that, they are still making poor business decisions for the technical team, poor decisions about how to structure their organization, and poor decisions about how to run projects. Most projects are run using a Waterfall approach, because that is the defacto approach we’re all taught throughout school. We manage to dates and push to get things done. The Project Management Institute has managed to corner the market on this approach, because most people can “do waterfall” without needing a certification. You learn through osmosis, by doing. The certification certainly elevates some PMs in some organizations. However, I don’t really think that having a PMP matters to most hiring managers.

So, where does this leave us? It leaves us with Knowledge Workers using ideas like Six Sigma, Lean, DevOps, Agile, and more to dress up their structured problem solving approaches to add structure and credibility. They need structure to compete with the Date Managed Waterfall approach. They need credibility of a methodology to put their approach on the same level as a PMP certification. In the case of Six Sigma, I’d argue its biggest success was internalizing the cost saving analysis. This helped translated the output in terms of money, which executives understand.

Every other approach tries to create an alternative measure. Elimination of Waste or “Working Software is the Measure of Progress” are nice alternatives to reducing costs or meeting due dates.

However, most share holders don’t care about that. They only care about what’s going to make them more money. Ethics and approach be damned. Until that is resolved. We’ll continue to have more fads or business fashions, as Knowledge Workers push back against Business Leaders.

Book Review: Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

WanderersWanderers by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every day I went into the office for work or hung out with friends instead of reading this book, I was very torn. I was riveted by this book. The concept of sleepwalkers making their way across the US is a fascinating idea and I can see why Mr. Wendig decided this idea was worth fleshing out into a full book.

This book does an amazing job of combining real risks, such as pandemics and white supremacy with the fantastic, AI that can talk across time using Quantum entanglement, Nanobots that can put people into a stasis mode (while making them walk around) for almost 6 years. While telling a compelling believable story. Even the fantastical parts of the story, could very literally be fact in a number of years. We have no idea how AI might work with Quantum computing in a few years.

The truth is, Wendig pulled back the veil on how close we are as a society to a catastrophic pandemic. How easy it would be for a plague to spread if the right person was infected. He does a fantastic job of show how fragile the entire US system is, because of people like Alex Jones. Because Alex Jones doesn’t believe what he’s spewing, but there are a lot of people that do believe it. That weaponize it. Wendig is clearly taking the Trumpian politics of 2019 and imposing them on a catastrophe.

That’s just the backdrop though. The characters he writes about are living breathing people. Many of them, I feel like I grew up with or that I have known in my life. The aging RockGod feels like an authentic person. Someone that probably exists and is lost and lonely. There are people who have lived and lost and they are only teenagers, barely having started their lives and they’re already so far behind. Then they lose more because a family member becomes a sleepwalker.

The human element in this book is beautifully tragic and so very human. I loved this book.

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Book Review: Rebel Talent by Francesca Gino

Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in LifeRebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life by Francesca Gino
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was requested to review this book, because the author found my review of Creativity, Inc. After reading this book, I understood why.

The Author, Francesca Gino, provides some very actionable recommendations on how to be more authentic in the workplace and how that can positively impact your career. She calls this being a rebel, because it’s not allowing the status quo to continue when it forces people to be inauthentic and dramatically decreases the engagement of employees at companies.

This book spoke to me on a number of levels. First was, of course, the relationship with Creativity Inc. Gino interviews the team at Pixar and draws a number of lessons from the organization, which has a long history of success. Some of the best things she calls out actually come from even older organizations, like Bell Labs (long corridors to find the restroom encouraging people bumping into each other) and Xerox where Jobs learned his love of the computing. The other reason I’m a big fan of this section is that Pixar uses a number of Lean tools in their organization, which I believe are highly subversive and drives a lot of the behavior that Gino argues is Rebel talent. In this section she doesn’t specifically call out Lean as a methodology that Pixar uses, which is fine. The result and the tools that the team uses are what matters not the specific methodology.

A key skill Gino argues is the most important for a true rebel leader is connecting with other employees. In the case of hierarchical leaders, as well, like CEOs, this means going to where work is done. In Lean parlance this is Go To Gemba (go to the work). As a leader, you connect best when you are authentic, when you care about the people you are talking with and make changes based on the feedback provided.

Of course, there’s a large section on the Chef of Osteria Francescana, Massimo Bottura. This guys is pretty awesome and connects with his staff on a personal level. If you’ve seen Chef’s Table, then you’ve seen an episode about him. He’s humble, always trying new things, always learning, and always in the trenches with his staff. These make him an outstanding leader.

Gino ties all this together with two summaries, the first one is a section about how Bottura saves an industry and region by being a leader. This does a great job tying things together by showing the scale of impact a single person can have. The second summary really ties all these concepts into something you can use by providing you with a test and informs you with what type of rebel leader you are.

I think this book has a lot of powerful ideas. It is similar to The Originals where it analyzes key people for common traits. Gino pulls in a large amount of research, both her own and others, to really hammer home the idea that we can learn these skills. Which, to me, is a key difference between the two books. The first one talks about how people are raised to BE original, while Rebel Talent explains ways you can BECOME an Original.

The book well written and was a very personal story. I definitely recommend this book for anyone looking for an edge. However, I strongly recommend this book to women. In this book there’s a large section about being a woman leader in the work force and I think the ideas presented in this book will help any woman out there. I think every man should read that section as it will help men understand their biases in the work place and can help address them in a systemic way.

I am a “Climber” type leader.

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Creativity and Depression

I think that creativity and depression feed off of each other. Not in the way that you think. My opinion is that if we do not have an outlet for our creativity it increases our depression. However, in cases where that creativity is a solo act, it can feed our depression. Not because we’re doing something creative, but because we’re further cutting ourselves off from the people around us.

From my personal experience, using creative outlets like a blog or writing a short story, can be very rewarding. It allows you to work through what’s on your mind in a manner that other people can relate to or might be interested in what you’re saying. In many cases it allows you to be someone other than who you are at work. Personally, i do not talk about depression, much at all, with my work colleagues. For one, it makes them uncomfortable when I’m up front about going to therapy and couples therapy. For two, I write about topics, generally, that are completely unrelated to my work and the culture in my office does not really allow for that sort of conversation.

Creative outlets also enable you to take a step away from the constant braying of social media. For a person to be truly creative, you must focus on that task (assuming you want it to be any good), which gives you some space for breath. It gives you time to step back and process things that have been going on around you without constantly shoving more unprocessed information and emotions into your brain. We need down time. We need the ability to sit with ourselves and process who we are and who is around us. Without taking that time for ourselves, we just continue forward as if on auto-pilot. We don’t reflect on what values we have. We don’t reflect on how our actions may have run counter to the values we hold.

Creativity is scary because it forces us to confront the fact that we might produce something no one wants to look at. Something that may be judged. Something we’ll judge (and probably judge too harshly). Something that is uniquely and whole ourselves. Something that, even if imitated, is and always will be ours. On top of that, because we’re alone with ourselves, we have to be alone with ourselves. Which is terrifying.

If you are depressed, try something simple and just doodling for a few minutes. Get a notebook and write something. If you can’t think of something, go to https://old.reddit.com/r/WritingPrompts/ and grab a prompt that seems interesting. Hell if you want to, just write your idea there for other people to vote on. most of the stories I’ve read on there have positive comments on them.

Just do it for a little while. Then go and do something away from a screen for a little bit. I don’t know about you, but I sure as hell feel better when I do.

Ethics in Technology Matters, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is Right, We Instill Our Biases in Technology

Some people are unhappy about what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is saying here. People not like to imagine that software cannot have politics, intentionally or otherwise.

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Whenever I was earning my master’s degree, I took a number of courses on the ethics of technology and the history of technology in general.In one of my classes we learned that bridges, yes bridges can have politics. There was an architect, Robert Moses, that was hired by New York City to design and build bridges. Given that NYC is an island and there’s a lot of water there, building bridges is a pretty big deal. Robert Moses was a racist. He also hated poor people. So, if you’re hired to build a bridge from one part of the city to another part with beautiful parks and outdoor spaces that you wanted to have whites and rich people use but not poor people, how would you do that?

If you build a bridge that uses traditional arches underneath with no top support, any vehicle can cross. However, if you build a bridge that has a maximum height allowed, then you can limit that types of vehicles that can cross the bridge. If you built the bridge low enough, then you can prevent buses from crossing the bridge. Buses that would be carrying poor people of color.

It’s just a bridge, how can it be racist? A bridge is just a thing. Something built by people. However, those people have biases and intentions. These are built into that technology. While A bridge may not be racist, this one IS because of the racism used to build the bridge.

If a bridge can have biases intentionally built into it, there is no doubt that software will have biases built into them. We’ve seen time an again that beauty algorithms where the AI didn’t like dark skinned women. In those cases the people building the training set of images had biases. The engineers didn’t like dark skinned women and didn’t include a significant amount of them in the training set.

Soap dispensers aren’t able to detect dark skinned hands, because the engineers working on them didn’t think of test the sensor on someone with dark skin.

 

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These aren’t intentional biases. It’d be difficult to imagine a group of engineers all sitting around the room saying, “wouldn’t it be me great if we prevent dark skinned people from properly washing their hands? MWahahahahah.” No that’s not what happened. What happened is that the QA team was made of people that look more like me. The dispenser worked perfectly for them, QA passed! This isn’t an intentional bias, but it’s a bias none the less. It’s called the availability bias. If the only people that are available look a certain way, you don’t think about people that aren’t immediately available.

Everyone does it. More people are aware of the fact that there are people different from them. For white people this is critical. It’s similar to when a white person writes an article about how racism has significantly declined in a major news paper.

It is time that organization recognize this and create teams to ensure that ethics and biases are considered when developing and selling novel technologies – or in the cases of bridges old technologies repurposed for modern uses.

Start with Something

In The Subtle Art of not Giving a F*ck the author makes a compelling case for improving your life, starting with something simple. Something small. This is not easy. As the author says, “It’s simple, but not easy.” If you have depression you know this is very true. So true in fact, that starting something, where that something is getting out of bed, can be a huge challenge.

In Lost Connections the author talks about how different treatments positively impact depression. One of the scales he references, Hamilton Depression rating, notes that many patients that use anti-depressions only see a 0.25 increase in their overall mood, while a good night sleep gets you that much or more.

I’ve always had problems getting to sleep. It can take me up to an hour to fall asleep after I’ve gone to bed. This is a combination of anxiety, too much screen time – which can mess up your ability to fall asleep, and just being a super light sleeper. So, I’ve decided to start with something where I have a decent amount of control. Where it’s easy to make a change.

For Christmas my brother got me a start set of the Philips Hue lights. I didn’t know much about them, but i wanted to try using them to see how it impacted our house. So, I put a bulb in the nightstand by the bed. I found out there’s a setting that allows you to wind down the lighting before bed. So I’ve started to use that setting. It gives you about 30 minutes to wind down as the light dims. I’ve made it my routine to go to bed about 15 minutes before it starts that process. I use this time to get ready for bed and do some night time writing or reading. I’m also going to start adding in some nighttime meditation to help me unwind.

This really helps me get away from the screens. It pulls me out of the hellscape that is social media. It allows me to write creatively without typing on a screen or read an interesting story. Writing has really helped get ahead of my anxiety because, whatever I write just kind of comes out.

The meditation is also a great addition, because it’s another way to address the spinning that your mind goes through at night. You are intentional about your mind spinning. You intentionally walk through the past day. You then put that aside and tell your body that it is OK to relax. This short circuits the spinning and anxiety. You control your night.

This is something small. I’ve made sure that it’s been relatively easy to make the change. I started with the light and time away from my computer. Then I added the writing and reading. Last night I added the meditation. These changes have positively impacted my mood. I’ve gotten better sleep and that, has helped with my depression.

Start with something. Start with making it easier for you to sleep well.

Meditation and Owning Your Response to Others

In The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck the author argues that we have responsibility for everything that happens to us. He stresses, accurately, that we are not at fault for everything. Which means that bad things happen and these bad things can happen to us in a way that there was nothing we could do to prevent them from happening to us. For example, emotional abuse or physical abuse that you suffered at the hands of your parents are not your fault. The resulting trauma is not your fault. You are not responsible for what that person did to you. You are responsible for how you respond to that abuse now. this is a subtle but important distinction. You are not responsible for the actions of another nor are you not at fault, instead you are responsible for your response as an adult and how you carry that trauma into other relationships.

This is something that’s taken me a long time to understand. I knew I wasn’t responding well to situations all the time. I’d get a lot angrier than I should over something small. I didn’t understand I was responding the way I would have to my mother when I should have been looking at the situation differently as it was my wife that I was talking with. I should not have been as angry, because my wife didn’t do anything to warrant that reaction. Furthermore, I thought it was my wife’s fault and responsibility to not upset me.

I needed to own how I responded to her. I needed to take that as my responsibility to understand why I was responding the way that I was. Especially if we were having a series of blow ups, it was even more important to understand what I was feeling and why. This was not something I had the skills to handle.

Through the course of my therapy and reading, I’ve found that meditation has really helped me with my responsibilities. Whenever I’m very stressed, I’ve used a few minutes to step aside and do a breathing exercise. According to The General Theory of Love, this is a way for your body and mind to reconnect. It is a way for your rational mind to give your emotional mind a hug. This is similar giving a dog a hug during a thunderstorm. The dog doesn’t understand why there is thunder. Just that there’s loud noises and bright lights. Things that can hurt the dog. We know that we’re safe in our house. That the thunder is noise and the lightening bright, but not something that will come and get us. So we comfort the dog through hugging and petting.

We need to do the same to our own mind. The emotional part of our brain isn’t much different from a dog’s and our rational part is the same part we use to comfort the dog. Meditation and focusing on breath allow us to calm ourselves. Over time meditation is a powerful tool for beginning introspection.

I use Headspace, but there are other apps like it, such as Calm and YouTube channels, etc… There’s no one perfect tool for helping you with meditation. Each one does have guided meditations to help you understand your behavior in relationships with friends, family, and colleagues. The technique asks you to imagine yourself happy, then other people. This approach makes you think about why you get angry. Why you respond the way that you do and think about how you have hurt other people. It’s a step in understanding yourself better. It’s a way to both hug yourself and take a look at who you are and what type of person you want to be.