In a world where the answer is ‘it depends’

‘Surely your are joking My Feynman’ is a biography of Richard Feynman, one of the Nobel prize winning scientists, this book was put together from taped conversations he had with his friend. The book paints a picture that though Feynman is a scientist; he had interests in arts, music, safe cracking and even playing pranks.

He shares his observations about how his art teacher changed the way he thought about teaching. Feynman had always seen the idea of the teacher – giving you the right way to approach a problem, introduce you to standards and tried & tested methods. You will be forced by the teacher to follow a way of doing things until you get it right. Art teachers on the other hand never criticised.

The art teachers always gave feedback like ‘if you use dark lines here, I feel that you want to convey darkness’, ‘if you draw the neck long and the head short, it gives me a feeling that you wanted to show that you are looking through a lens or it is a caricature’. They never prescribed this is how you do, because in art it is possible to use any method to convey what you mean. The teacher was only able to teach through osmosis, there were no instructions or prescriptions. Feynman says that the spirit of how to go about solving problems are taught than the techniques used to solve the problem which is very important.

Recently I got involved with Agile India conference as a volunteer. They have a great guideline of giving feedback to submissions such a way that it is constructive, never in a negative tone and never ever prescriptive. One of the items in the guideline is to see if we can play the perfection game. In this way you are actually trying to improve even when staying away from the implementation itself. There are so many ways to get the same desired result, the solution approach depends on what the individual or team knew at the time of task at hand, the tools at their disposal, their environment and also the mindset .

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ It depends

Nurture your body to nurture your mind and then life

I started writing this when I saw a meme floating around saying ‘I am neither a night owl nor a morning lark, I am a permanently exhausted pigeon’. I see a few people this way anytime I meet them.

More and more work has become brain based and less muscle based, brain based work also keeps increasing in complexity. Not alone that, even the entertainment and pastimes seems to cater only to the brain.We have not been built this way, we were built over 1000’s of years to rely on muscle strength and only recently it has shifted to mind. Numerous studies show the link between exercises and brain function. If we want a sound mind, it is better we have a sound body to support it. There is also a theory that brain evolved to be complex  as humans took more and more complex muscle tasks. Brain is a physical entity, mind is just the arrangement of molecules in a certain way. Without the fitness of the physical ones, the volatile mind has no option than to mirror the physical state.

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Monica Seles was the best player in professional tennis until someone stabbed her, from there on she never went to recover her form. Nobody relaxed the rules because she was stabbed, fitness is never an optional item in professional sports even when things happen that are not in our control, it adversely affects. Desk jobs may not require athletic fitness but everyone should take care to avoid preventable diseases or over exertions.

Eating right, maintaining fitness, not over exerting unnecessarily is all a matter of self discipline and desire to pace one’s life well. The saying ‘Health is wealth’ is still applicable, the progress made in career and life is directly related to how fit someone is. The 20s and 30s are supposed to be a human’s peak health and if people are exhausted most of the time at this age, then should be prepared to lose out and settle for less.

A nice life is result of a healthy mind, healthy mind is possible only if we can manage to have a good career and to have a rewarding career health is very much necessary.

Though there are exceptions to this, if you ignore good health then be prepared to ignore a nice life.

Gestalt

We will always try to make meaningful perceptions in a seemingly random setting. This is one thing that is right now a major differentiator between humans and bots, so that captchas rely on how well we can perceive something in an image. Gestalt in German language means shape or form and a branch of psychology that deals with perceiving things is called Gestalt psychology. Due to this ability, we have grouped random set of stars in different places as constellations; we perceive a human smile when we use a colon and a bracket.

When we take an eye test, the optometrist writes down the values for how well we can see. It is technically called visual acuity test. Visual acuity values determines what glasses you need to wear to have a normal vision. Similar to visual acuity, our ability to perceive things from seemingly random settings is called perceptual acuity. Sadly there is no way to measure one’s perceptual acuity but increase in that is directly related to business success.

3945354161_16d1884f84On our day to day life our ability to form hypotheses based on our perceptions, testing it out and holding on strongly to validated hypotheses contributes to our growth. Our ability to come up with hypotheses is directly proportional to the way we perceive our world. Our perceptions become better only when we expand our interests to a wide variety, not just the in the field of work we are involved.

All the time we spend time on sports, current affairs, politics, technology, music and many more will collectively help improve the way we perceive our world. Of course spending dedicated deliberate effort on a field makes one an expert in that field, but that makes someone a doer not a creator; we need to be an expert in a field as well as be able to create something. Our world is a perpetual puzzle, those who solve larger pieces gets the better reward.

Image courtesy: https://www.flickr.com/photos/double-m2/

I am also saying the same thing, why don’t you believe me?

Too often I come across in discussions where the listener does not accept a view point from a person but accepts the same point when someone else says it.

Example: Targument-1299108_640.pnghere is a conversation in the team about ‘Is September a good time to travel to coorg’? Novi  says strongly that it is generally misty and rains a bit but not to the extent to spoil a good vacation. The others in the team quickly look up weather patterns in the internet and conclude what Novi said is not right, it is not easy to travel in rains to hill stations. Novi tries hard to convince about the previous visits but no one is in the mood to listen. At this point Ivon an avid traveller enters, looks at the argument and says Novi is right, it is a good time to travel. No one refutes, they agree to Ivon.

Why did they agree to Ivon but not Novi when both of them are saying the same thing?

Dave Gray explains in his work ‘Liminal Thinking‘ that we carry a lot of beliefs from what we observe from our experiences; we then keep validating that our beliefs are right by choosing only the relevant data from experiences that will validate our beliefs again and again in a vicious cycle. This vicious cycle creates a shortcut in our brains so that we directly map the experiences without a conscious thought to conclusions. The example I had given about Ivon and Novi are very small in impact compared to what we encounter every day.

What we perceive as ‘I am saying that the same thing as the other person, but they trust the other person’ is nothing but people’s mental model about us is different as they do not know what our experience has been. This is the reason that more the people in a group are willing to understand each other’s experiences and talk out loud about their beliefs and assumptions, the better they communicate.

The video below is a nice explanation on why our experiences shape our beliefs. The narrower our experiences are, the narrower our beliefs will be. If we are not able to communicate right, first we should expose our experience; no one will buy our beliefs. If we need to understand someone better, we should have had similar experiences that have created their beliefs or we should be exposed to their experiences by suspending our judgements.

Making everyone participate

In group discussions or design meetings it is tough to get everyone’s participation. The people in the group will have different experience levels, context & expertise which  puts shy people on the back-foot, as people always assume that someone will know better than them. Bystander effect also kicks in as soon as the number of people in the meeting increases beyond three and the ambiguity of the problem discussed increases.

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We can address participation issues by considering these

Make the environment safe

Many people are shy and they fear judgement, if the environment encourages participation with commonly agreed rules like ‘no question is a bad question’ or ‘every input is valuable’ and people see it actively getting practiced will ease the burden on shy people. This works for small groups of 3-4 people, thinking aloud also begins to happen

Pass talking token around round-robin and time box talking time per person

There are people who love to talk and there is no starting trouble for them to talk, they will easily mask the hesitant ones in every discussion. An easy way to break this unfair advantage is to have a facilitator and a talking token passed round-robin for participation.

Make everyone write their ideas and opinions down 

Some people may easily get biased when they hear other’s opinion. It is due to the need to belong to a group and not sound different. If in a brainstorming session participants are given a quiet time and write down their thoughts, chances are high that people may put down what they think without rephrasing or rewording.

We can prevent bystander effect or people zoning out when we have someone playing the moderator role watching for signs and also time box discussions, thereby making meetings very productive and outcome based.

Stone soup

I read the story of stone soup when I was in primary school, I did not understand how someone made soup with a stone. It was too deep a concept to understand as a kid. It is about moving something from 0 to 1,  from then on there are plenty of ways and people to take care to take it forward.

running-498257_640Why is it hard to move something from 0 to 1? Our brains are hardwired to be anxiety neutral. It hates ambiguities and new things to do, that is why things like driving becomes a sub conscious activity by becoming motor memory, once we start driving often. On a day to day basis you can observe your tendency to be anxiety neutral, it may take up only 15 minutes a week to clean a table but it is too difficult to get started with it. When that thought is going on your mind, if someone starts cleaning it up, then you are more likely to join the task and get it done.

My last post was about getting started with something and getting people to join. The first person who does something new is perceived to be the lone nut, there is a fear of judgement that prevents people to start something. This was very evident in a aum meditation session where there were only few of us and we need to chant aum but every person was waiting for the other to start, I took the lead after the first two half hearted attempts by being the first person to start the chant and the rest followed.

There are two things needed for people to start doing new things,

  • Provide an environment which helps them to shed their fear of judgement
  • Be the lone nut and start something which someone else has in mind, it is for sure that someone will follow.

The first point is not easy to address but it is too easy to be someone who starts doing things to facilitate change. We should shed our fear of judgement and be okay to do something that will be criticised. The results are surprising, what might take days to nudge someone to do something from scratch is way too easy to make them pick up a rough draft and take it to completion. Making stone soup is not deception, it is a tool to help people come out of their anxiety neutrality.

 

Doing something as a group

Getting anything started in a group does not work easily. It often tests the patience of someone trying to introduce a change for good. Getting someone out of status quo is a tough one, then there is also a group mindset that someone will change first so wait until it happens. What really works is the one who wants to introduce the change, changes and finds some followers. If there is a big bang approach of getting everyone on board at once, it will be a big disappointment. Peter Senge talks about in his book ‘The fifth discipline’ as one of the laws – ‘The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back

We used to screen learning videos in our cafeteria every Friday lunch time at ThoughtWorks, one of those days I happened to watch this video below which reinforced the fact that success of an initiative depends on your followers. Getting the first few followers matters and takes time; the rest will fall in place. Watch this video to find out how one guy leads an entire group to dance but not until he gets two courageous followers. Till the time he got a follower, he was a lone nut dancing.

 

Speed

I was cruising down the highway around 110~120 kmph, though the car was capable of running at 150+ kmph I chose to keep it below 120 as the thought at the back of my mind always says it is not going to stop quickly or control the direction well in case I need to. When I am very sure that I have an open & straight road, I test the limits of the car, but will quickly pull back to manageable speeds when a turning comes in sight. During one of those high speed bursts of 160 kmph, a sports car overtook me. It did not just overtake, instead it zoomed past and disappeared out of sight. Enjoying speed was not much about the road, it was the control available in a vehicle for a driver. Sports cars don’t just go fast, they turn well, stop quickly and have lots of safety bits to protect occupants from a crash. You could ram a sports car at a high speed into a wall and walk away from the crash. If I use my passenger car downhill at 200 kmph (which I still can), that is insanity; it is not going fast.

It was when I had these thoughts that I stumbled on an article pointing out that developers who are eying for speed often compromise the safety aspects. In software development there are plenty of aspects to take care. In simple terms it is taking a problem and solving it using computers by people with various skill sets. You have analysts, developers, designers, operations etc. The very nature of different people getting involved means there is lots of communication, if there is lots of communication between people of different skill sets then there is translation loss. If there is translation loss then there will be misunderstanding and rework. If you need to rework often, then the speed at which you can code matters. If speed matters, then better be safe.

Test harness consisting of unit, integration and functional tests, static analysis, performance checks, automated deployments, coding practices all together form the safety package for software development. As the code base grows and the number of people increase the more important the safety checks become. It will always be tempting to avoid the process and get something out quickly but the price to pay will be bad. There is nothing prudent in crash landing.

Another aspect of speed that is also often compromised is sustainability. The common example given to agility and speed is Cheetah, Cheetahs can maintain its top speed only for about 90~120 seconds followed by a long dip in physical activities. Any activity that requires a spike in the output is followed by a dip. There is nothing called sustainable peak performance.

Violating safety or sustainability of speed removes control out of the equation, it makes sense only if we are crash worthy and have the energy and resources to get back to normal. Speed for the sake of speed will thrill and eventually kill.

 

 

Want the fruit, but don’t want to climb the tree

I observe a lot of things which seems analogous to – ‘feel entitled to pick the low hanging fruits but get frustrated a lot when there is hard work involved in picking the remaining fruits’. Growing distractions & instant gratifications have begun to tune us into thinking that if we are destined to land far and high and need to just get the right thing happening. Social media is also only a window of the highlights, nobody puts their tough paths to success thus creating frustration and envy.

Our best successes often come after our greatest disappointments.

If we look at some of the ads in the newspaper and tv, especially the weight loss related ones; they play according to the weakness of the people who want to get fit and look great but don’t want to eat right, exercise right and sleep well. A lot of people fall for it, for the promise of getting a lot for doing nothing.

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Of course there are few entitled individuals who have a lot due to inheritance, but that is a small number. For a majority of us who have a success story to tell, the path would have always been tough. There is no overnight success, it takes time; we should put in our due efforts.