Thursday, July 29, 2010

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Teamwork or Talent?

I recently watched a fascinating Ted Talk by Matt Ridley on how ideas can team up to create complicated systems that no one actually understands but still work.

Consider this: Although each of us can easily buy a computer mouse no one on Earth knows how to produce one. That's right - lots of people know how to produce parts of the mouse, but not one of them could actually produce one on their own. Even a mouse designer (who probably only designs parts of the mouse rather than the whole mouse) would not be able to produce his own plastic and metal bits to make a mouse if push came to shove.

The point is that combined ideas allow us to do extremely tricky things that none of us would be able to do - let alone understand - on our own.

Scott Adams said something similar years ago in his groundbreaking book 'The Dilbert Principal':

"Once we had printing presses, we were pretty much doomed. Because then, every time a new smart deviant came up with a good idea, it would get written down and shared. Every good idea could be built upon. Civilization exploded. Technology was born. The complexity of life increased geometrically. Everything got bigger and better. Except our brains."

Now consider the advantages of teamwork, which has been a pretty hot topic lately. Some have even suggested that team skills are more important than other sorts of competencies, and at first glance the following example seems to support this.

Let's say you have two guys, Adam and Oz, who make their own weapons. Oz is a top performer, while Adam's a bit of a procrastinator. Nonetheless, if they agree to specialize and work together both of them save an hour.

Wow. It really does look like teamwork is more important than talent when it comes to productivity, doesn't it? Even the top performer Oz, who is pretty self-sufficient and doesn't actually need Adam, clearly benefits from teaming up with a poor performer.

But what if both Adam and Oz are poor performers who each need two hours to make a spear or an axe? There wouldn't be much point in teaming up in that case, since no time would be saved.

Obviously as systems become more complex even Oz can't do it all and will have to rely on others unless he wants to dress in skins and live in a cave. Nonetheless, in this simple example, it is the fact that Oz is more productive than Adam that makes teaming up worthwhile for both of them.

Now, maybe Adam's a great guy and Oz is a total jerk. Fine. I'll drink a beer with Adam but Oz is the guy I want to buy spears from.

And another thing: Unless Oz is completely unbearable or in direct competition with me for a promotion or reward, if I'm on a high-profile spear making project with a big pay off I'd rather work with get-it-done Oz than friendly-but-slow Adam

I'm just saying.

So, when it comes to the current debate about whether teamwork or talent is more imporant, we may be asking the wrong question because they're both important. Without teamwork, talent is limited to the abilities of an individual, which can never match the collective abilities of a well-functioning team. Plus, unless survival's at stake, the benefits of increased productivity probably aren't worth the daily irritation of working with someone who lacks social skills.

But if you get rid of Oz because he's not a team player, that leaves you with Adam, who is less productive than Oz. Of course, you can bring in someone to replace Oz but unless they are also more productive than Adam the net result will be a drop in productivity.

In other words - as important as teamwork is - if you don't also nurture talent, teamwork and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee.

Links to this post: 7/29/10 Top Development Posts this Week at Envisia

Friday, July 23, 2010

Well, You Can Always Pull a Tinkerbell...

Last time I was in the US I bought the movie Tinkerbell on sale at Target and recently watched it with my daughters.

The basic story is that Tinkerbell is a Tinker fairy, which means she's supposed to make useful things for all the fairies in fairy land. However, she's frustrated and bored with the dull, repetitive work and decides she wants to be an elemental fairy.

An elemental fairy is a fairy that works with the elements, such as nature, wind, animals, etc.

Her elemental fairy friends, who have hippy names like Silvermist, try to help her learn to work with the elements but she has no knack for it and fails miserably. Then, when her friends try to tell her that tinkering might actually be her calling she gets mad and flies off in a sulk.

Throughout the movie she finds interesting bits of junk and assembles creative devices in the hopes of modernizing how the fairies prepare for Spring, but no one is interested in her new-fangled methods.

Sound familiar? OK, not the whole fairy thing, but the idea of someone who is eager to try out new ideas and getting frustrated because no one wants to budge from their comfort zone?

Yeah, I thought so.

So what happens? Tinkerbell, in an effort to perform a service to fairy land that will get her noticed, inadvertantly destroys all the preparations for Spring about two days before go live.


So, now her fairy colleagues have no choice but to let Tinkerbell try some of her new gadgets to try to make up for lost time.

I won't keep you in suspense: Tinkerbell's gadgets are about 50x more efficient than the old manual way of doing things and the fairies narrowly meet their deadline in time for Spring. Tinkerbell discovers she loves being a Tinker after all, as long as she can do it her way.

Which, now that she has saved fairy land, she can.

Of course, we all know she's going to ditch her job later to go running after Peter Pan, but it's still a great story of how everyone can benefit if you let people try things.

Lessons learned?

1. If you think you're in the wrong job, you might just be doing it wrong. Maybe you can find creative ways to make your job more interesting.

2. Reach out to your friends and by all means try new things, but don't get too frustrated if it doesn't come easy at first. Developing expertise takes time, particularly if you have no natural talent to give you a head start.

3. If no one will listen to your great ideas, try bringing your entire company to its knees with a crazy gesture. If they have nothing left to lose, your conservative colleagues may be more willing to try something new.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Boundary Conditions

"The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair." - Douglas Adams

Recently Deutsche Bahn had a flurry of self-inflicted misfortune as a result of a combination of cost cutting and poorly defined boundary conditions.

Boundary conditions are the constraints and assumptions that shape a design, strategy or plan.

For example, when designing software one of the questions the designer has to ask is, What could go wrong? This is a pretty crucial question because the user may not understand how to navigate a particular process, or deliberately try to get around a constraint in the system.

The software designer's job is to gently herd the user into the right direction, where 'right' is defined as 'transaction completed correctly, no risk to security, no bad data and no one throwing their computer across the room.'

Think of the answer to the question, 'What could go wrong?' as the leading question you ask in order to define your boundary conditions. Your design must reflect these because too often what could go wrong does go wrong.

Just to clarify, this does not mean you design for everything that could go wrong because that would be insane. What it means is that you design to avoid the most likely and/or critical failure scenarios and have a backup plan (such as a correction function or an undo button) for everything else.

I'm oversimplifying but it's hard to unpack years of lessons learned from software design in one sentence.

So, getting back to Deutsche Bahn, they diligently defined boundary conditions under which their air conditioning unit would function properly. Unfortunately, they designed their system for a temperature that is frequently exceeded during the summer.

There were financial reasons for doing this, of course, but the bottom line was that the air conditioning would stop working as soon as it actually got hot.

Then they skipped some maintenance checks to save costs.

Finally, they made a mistake that as a system designer makes me cringe - there was no backup plan built into the system.

Personnel weren't trained in what to do in the case of extreme heat. Windows couldn't be opened. Passengers (including infants, elderly, and all those poor people in business suites) sat trapped in moving cars at temperatures of 50 C and upwards.

I wonder what that fiasco is going to cost.

When designing software or defining business strategy, it's imortant to define appropriate boundary conditions that consider costs as part of the equation.

But don't stop there:

Try to identify what can go wrong when you cut costs. . .

and what it might cost if something does go wrong in terms of money, reputation, human life, etc. . .

and whether the cost cutting really makes good business sense when you get right down to it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

New Generation

I was troubled by a recent NYT post American Dream is Elusive for a New Generation.

Meet Scott Nicholson, a recent college graduate who lives with his parents and has spent the last five months researching and applying for jobs. In that time, he only received one offer, which he turned down because he felt it was a dead end. This decision was difficult to justify to his parents, who paid for college and are still supporting him.

I feel for Scott. It's tough out there and no one wants to get stuck in a low-paying job with no future.

On the other hand, although the overall job market seems depressingly less open than it used to be for experienced people, I find myself wondering if things are really so much worse for college graduates today than it was back when I had just received my degree.

Like Scott, I majored in political science. Unlike Scott, however, I didn't assume a political science degree would open management track doors for me. My plan was to earn some money for graduate school and combine poli sci with business, which is what I did.

I also paid my own way through college and graduate school, which I believe helped get me in the door when I applied for - and got - my first real job at Andersen Consulting (Accenture).

I also couldn't help noting that Andersen's initial offer to me was comparable in terms of salary to the offer Scott recently turned down because it was too low. OK, inflation, but still. Ballpark.

I'm going to stop here before this turns into an 'I walked to school uphill in the snow both ways' speech and cut to the chase:

While I feel for Scott's generation and hope they find their feet in today's tough economy, I also wonder who filled their heads with the idea they should be on the fast track right out of school.

Of course, the fault doesn't only lie with the twenty-somethings. While I don't think the economy owes each of them an express ticket to executive management in return for willingness to work hard and a black belt in social media, I do think companies should put more thought into developing people who are willing to start at the bottom and learn the ropes.

Let's give this generation an opportunity to prove themselves. It would be a shame to waste all that potential, either by making it too easy for them or by making it too impossible.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Got passion?

In just a few short years, social media has become embedded in everything we do and it isn’t just for personal use any more. If you have a question while working, or are looking for a new job, you probably reach out to your network. You collaborate online. Maybe you read blogs to form opinions or write them yourself. Customers may praise or criticize your products or services in a variety of forums.

Like it or not, social media is not just part of our lives but also part of our product and employer bands.

Importantly for companies, it’s not just a select few representing your strategy to the world to any more. ANYONE can blog, tweet and/or shape public opinion. This represents an opportunity and a risk for businesses. The risk is what could happen if you don't advise your employees about appropriate use of social media technology.

One careless tweet... Scary.

What about opportunity? Consider this: Imagine if you had not just a few spokespeople, but a virtual army of evangelists for your company, product or services...

What would that mean for your product or employer branding? Do you think consumers would be interested in the fact that employees genuinely love your products? Do you think talented applicants would be impressed by the fact that your employees love what they do?

Of course the downside is if customers and employees aren't in love with you, or can't spell.

Developing a social media strategy takes attention, planning and execution but it also takes passion. Do your employees believe in your company, products or services enough to put their own names behind them? Are they excited enough about your features or company culture to tell the world?

If not, your social media strategy will depend on marketing professionals who are paid to sound excited about your company.

Which is OK but will ultimately fizzle because there are a lot of voices out there competing for attention. The ones people listen to are the ones with a passion for what they are saying.

Are you developing a social media strategy at your company? You should be because social media is here to stay.

But don't stop there. Look for people with passion to give it legs. Encourage and develop that passion. Harness it by giving it an outlet.

Most importantly, recognize the people who evangelize your products for their energy, creativity and passion.

Why bother? Because evangelism without passion is just... advertising.

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