Have you ever noticed that the answer is “no” more often then it is yes?
This can be extremely frustrating. In some cases the company just spent several thousand dollars to send you to a course or conference. If nothing changes, the conference was a waste, right?
And yet the answer is no.
You can be careful — picking a topic that requires no training, no consulting, no new software. You can find free and open-source tools to use, or even offer to come up to speed at night, on your own time.
And yet the answer is still no.
How is that possible?
Let’s look at it from the Boss’s perspective.
What Does the Boss Get?
Assume your new pet project fails – who will take the blame? The boss will. After all, he approved it. Assuming the project succeeds – who gets the credit? You do, after all, it was your idea. Looking at this, there is no upside for the boss. It is a classic heads-I-win, tails-you-lose scenario. Only someone who owes you a favor, or someone you have some power over, would go along with something like this, and, sadly, the type of person willing to try is unlikely to have a long career in management.
Here’s the alternative to getting permission: Do it yourself anyway. Say, for example, you want to add a batch command that takes in userId’s from a file and deletes them, instead of hand keying the deletes one at a time. Or pair programming. Or adding unit coverage to a particular module, or some other small changes to the codebase. Who’s to stop you from doing this?
Mostly outmoded ideas about how we spend our time.
Most knowledge workers have some amount of time assigned to a task such as a story that really needs to get done. We also have a second set of time – discretionary time – that is really up to us. If you take an extra five minutes in the restroom, or have another cup of coffee, or decided to sit in on another team’s standup meeting, or just spend an extra twenty minutes on email (or reading this blog post), you won’t get fired. In fact, no one will notice. The assumption is that use of time will make you more productive (as opposed to skipping the bathroom all day), so it is fine to just do it.
Add up that time and it could add up to hours per day.
So just do it.
The Time Argument
An XKCD comic shows the payback to automating a particular manual chore over a 3-year time horizon.
This allows you to think of the payoff of an experiment — If you have to do it every day, and it saves you five minutes, that’s a lot of time saved over three years. Another, more fanciful XKCD shows the danger of guessing wrong, so be wary, as automation needs to be maintained.
Still, it it’s worth doing, and you can do it it in discretionary time, or, perhaps, a little sweat time at night, consider just doing it. Don’t ask for permission.
In fact, if you need to get permission, go the other way: Don’t pitch the boss, pitch the team – with the project as your idea if it fails and that you will share the success if it succeeds. Timebox it, limiting it to a two or three week experiment with a dozen hours invested per week.
Have a few successes, and you’ve changed the pattern for “innovation”, from top-down to by anyone. You’ve hacked the culture, created a more fun place to work, and maybe, started a ripple that can turn into a way.
Let me go a step further: Most major productivity and technical innovations in large companies are created by lone wolves, doing things in their spare and discretionary time, that are later recognized by the establishment. I call this the Charles effect, and I’ll talk about it next time.
This past weekend during our most recent Weekend Testing session, we focused on some exercises centered around Accessibility. The experience was both interesting and enlightening. Interesting in the fact that there is always a greater appreciation when confronted with challenges outside of our own, but enlightening in the sense that it can be very difficult to make the mental switch to “think differently” about our experiences.
If I had a dollar for every time I heard “we’d like to do unit tests”, or “test-driven development”, or “make design patterns a discipline”, “limit work in progress”, or “get serious about improving testing”, I could certainly take today off.
These express a desire to try something new and that’s great. If you have an idea and get serious about that idea idea you might find yourself becoming the internal coach, champion, cheerleader or sales leader of the new idea.
If that makes things feel a bit awkward, well, I hope today’s blog post will help. Continued »
In March, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh sent a company wide memo announcing a change to a flatter organizational structure called Holacracy. Tony also offered a severance package for those that were not interested in The New Way. 210 Zappos employees took the package and will be leaving.
Zappos began making changes to have a flatter organizational structure over a year ago. It looks like they are getting serious now.
Gender and diversity issues in tech is a difficult thing to talk about. People are understandably sensitive. As a white male, I’ve never dealt with any kind of disadvantage related to diversity. Me giving an opinion on the topic, is skewed at best.
When we look in most tech companies there is a clear majority of white males between the ages of 25 to 35. Especially when we look in the programming departments. Some people look around and see the work getting done by (mostly) skilled people and say “what’s the problem?”.
Others look around and note that there are many under represented groups — people of color, and women for example.
It might be easy to say that because you don’t participate or haven’t observed people being mistreated, that it doesn’t happen. That would be completely untrue though.
I would like to talk about the issue a little bit.
In a recent episode of Silicon Valley, the team hires a young programmer to write their Cloud Implementation. And I do mean young; much closer to ten than twenty. When “The Carver” asks the age of the CEO of Pied Piper, and is told “twenty-seven”, he winces, sucks in his breath, and says “yikes.”
While the ages are exaggerated (the show is a comedy) these sorts of problems really do happen; we’ve covered it here in the past. Members of the technical staff who are over forty seem like rare birds. Complaints that old programmers won’t learn new tricks seems legitimate, and too many of my older technical friends are more interested in escape and survival than in reinventing themselves.
I don’t think the problem is entirely them – it is not a freewill issue. Nor is it ageism (though that does happen) — it might be more accurate to say that there is a system force that makes it hard for older technical staff to adapt to changes in the way work is done. Today I’ll explore that, along with what you can do about it if you want to stay in the game.
It’s been with me now for about three years. It was a gift from my friend Elisabeth Hendrickson when I participated in an Agile event she was hosting. Since then, it’s been a talisman of sorts, and today, it goes with me everywhere I can take it.
I’m not referring to the NERF gun ;).
One argument for choosing a full time day job over independent work or running your own business is stability. Having a full time job means you aren’t in the wilderness hunting new clients every few months, and you will get a paycheck every couple of weeks even when work slows down a little bit. There is also psychological comfort in having someone help you with the tax burden, contributing to health insurance costs, and maybe even retirement plan contributions.
My decade of experience tells me that every bit of that is an illusion.
I’m talking too dumb to believe. Professionally dumb.
There was, for example, the time I became a project manager, promoted from pay grade 220 to 240, and my supervisor wasn’t sure it was actually a promotion. (It was, I looked it up.) Or the time we bid to take over from another company, and the hiring manager didn’t know how much he was paying the other company. (“It’s on retainer, it’s complicated, I don’t know.”) Or the time we bid to subcontract, and the vendor in the middle forgot every single detail, from rate to who-is-the-end-client.
Perhaps, in some of these cases, they really did forget; they really did not know. It seems an interesting coincidence, though, that every time the information might be to my advantage, the other person did not know. If it was to their advantage, if our rate was too high, they would suddenly remember.
Discussing this with my wife, she was not surprised at all. “Look, Matt”, she said “You get power by giving information away. That’s fine. You have to remember that some people gain it by controlling the flow of information.”
Information Control At Work
Some things do require discretion. Reorganizations, layoffs, promotions, these things need to be planned by a small group and contained.
The issue is not keeping things to yourself. It is instead trying to gain advantage through the control of information. Bring a few people into your inner circle, and not only will they appreciate it, but they will fight to stay in the circle. Gather your army of political players, and use your gossip to gain advantage over the other side. In The Gervais Principle, Venkat Rao calls this “powertalk”, and it consists of trading information.
Now think of two managers, peers at the same company. One knows every project coming down the pike, who the key players are, who their enemies are, what their goals are to reach their bonus, and what the personnel moves will be over the next six months or so. The other is busy trying to build software. Which of the two will be more effective in getting themselves promoted?
The main reason people control the flow of information is probably because it works.
In his book To Sell Is Human, author Dan Pink compares two car dealerships, one that control access to information and use aggressive negotiation techniques with another that provides one single price, printouts of the Kelly Blue Book suggested prices, as well as computers with internet access for customers do do their own research. Even today, Secret Societies operate with special, hidden knowledge, while some charities, religions, and even movements push for power through transparency. I couldn’t help but notice in the 2004 presidential election, both the democratic and the republican candidates were members of Skull and Bones – a secret fraternity at Yale University that admits only fifteen new members per year.
If you’ve read much Uncharted Waters, or met me, you probably see my strategy – to give away as much value as I possibly can. On the web I explore good work and how to pursue it, but it can never speak to your exact situation. That’s where phone calls and conferences come in where, again, I try to provide so much value that people say “gee, if we got that out of a lunch, imagine what we would get out of bringing him on-site!”
In the life of an organization, there is the inevitable changes; people come and go, products get updated and old products get phased out. It’s a common occurrence, and one that usually can be dealt with in a reasonable manner. Often, we have someone in a position, typically because they have done it for a long time, that we feel it just makes sense to let them do their thing. They are effective, they are productive, and really, we can get what we need when we need it. Days go by and we let those people do whatever it is they do.
The problem with this is that there are situations where someone who is key to a role may be here today, gone tomorrow, and no one can do anything about it. It’s one thing when that person leaves to find a new job, but they are able to be reached for troubleshooting or as a resource to figure something out. There’s also the possibility that someone who has to leave suddenly will not be available to speak (think medical emergencies and situations where communication is not possible any longer). What do we do then?