Backseat driving

A young businessperson Tamizh (/ˈtæmɪl/) drives to office everyday, the commute is hard and energy draining in peak traffic, when reaching office there has to be a break to cool down and bring the mindset back to work. Tamizh wakes up early morning, checks email, talks to counterparts in other countries and gets a head start for the day even before leaving for office, even during the drive to office the mind does not switch off from work; after a few near misses in traffic due to preoccupation at work, Tamizh decides to hire a driver.

Each driver is unique in driving style, some drive very fast, some keep the occupants comfortable, some drive very economical, some of them race the car. One can only observe a part of a driver’s characteristic when the owner is around. When the owner is not around, it is not possible to understand how they drive. Tamizh is an enthusiast and a very careful & possessive car owner; it was very hard to give the keys of the dream car which was bought after years of hard work.

The attachment to the car did not end there, Tamizh ended doing back seat driving most of the times unless there was an ultra important work related call to be done. Pothole impacts and sudden manoeuvres by the driver were followed by harsh reactions from Tamizh. Eventually both Tamizh and the driver lost their cool and parted ways. The cycle continued, Tamizh was never able to hire a long time driver; there was no way to have an easy commute and save that mind-space.


Scenario 1:

The driver does not notice a speed breaker and jumps over it delivering a bone jarring thud inside the cabin. 

What should be the reaction?

A: Start noticing every speed breaker that might come up on road and warn the driver from there on.

B: Yell at the driver for being careless and complain about the expensive repairs that needs to be done if driven around like this.

C: Mostly the driver knows it is uncomfortable and damaging to vehicle to jump over a speed breaker, conversation is necessary only if it is repetitive.

Scenario 2:

You want to reach somewhere very quick, but you are also a fuel economy freak.

What will you do?

A: Let the driver know when to shift gear and what rpm they should be to achieve best possible pace and economy.

B: Keep complaining to driver that either we are going too slow or wasting a lot of fuel at every opportunity.

C: Choose what is needed, speed or cost and let the driver do the rest. It is not worth the mind-space spent on saving one of them.

Scenario 3:

The car ran out of fuel when leaving for office for an important meeting one day.

How do you react?

A: You always check with the driver that there is enough fuel before leaving for a trip. You never forget to check for fuel or tire pressure whenever you board the car.

B: You freak out and make sure the driver’s day is ruined so that they dread doing the same thing again.

C: Ask the driver to help you get a replacement transport, let the driver know this is not acceptable as it has huge impact on business in an assertive way.

Scenario 4:

You are on a weekend trip to a nice hill station, your driver on seeing a particular road tells you that is unsafe to take your sedan in that road.

What do you tell the driver?

A: You tell the driver that you will teach them on how to drive in this road, give metre by metre instructions.

B: You let the driver know it is your car and you decide what road to take.

C: You are on a leisure trip and not worth the risk, the driver is a professional who drives all the time for living; better to trust the driver and enjoy the trip to the destination.


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Managers & Leaders I have observed often fall in A, B or both A&B responses. They are big time back seat drivers. These are the people who could spend their mind-space on more abstract, complex problems instead of engaging in managing down activity. People who are handed down orders do that downwards and also pass along the stress. It is too contagious that the entire org ends up managing down which means each one either telling the others how to do or yelling at for not doing the what they are told to do.

Imagine all the brain power and productivity if these minds were focussed on managing themselves and their work, it is easily one level up. I am routinely involved in working in software projects which by nature have ambiguous requirements and a fast ever changing complex technical landscape. What worked well a few years ago is no longer valid, it is very very hard to manage down.

Yet many leaders in large organisations want their companies to be agile Agile and they adopt the manifesto but half heartedly so that none of the instruments of managing down never leave their hands. I could not resist sharing this link here, http://www.halfarsedagilemanifesto.org, the author of that page should have been hit hard by this phenomenon.

What about small organisations and startups? Barring a handful, a majority of them manage down. My way or highway and type B responses in the above scenarios are more common. It takes a great deal of maturity to let go of control and move up which pays off a lot in the longer run even if there were shortcomings in the short run. Those who understand this build empires, others continue to barely manage their territories.

Correct me if I am wrong

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Often in discussions at work especially in ambiguous situations, I hear people start with the phrase ‘Correct me if I am wrong’ or similar phrases like ‘This is just my understanding’, ‘I could be wrong here but’ etc.

People’s judgemental abilities are affected a lot by their acquired knowledge and application of their ability(there are 8 types of it), their experience in the field, depth in the language the conversation is going on. If we put 5 people with different backgrounds and experience in an ambiguous situation and feed them with a lot of data, chances are 100%  that each of them will interpret the situation and information to be different.

So there is always a chance that people will disagree with each other’s opinions and when they respond negatively it is never on a person however the tone is, but it is on the idea. Most of the people do not realise this and think this as a confrontation that they must face which is very stressful, so they express their opinions with the starting phrase ‘Correct me if I am wrong’ to be safe when there is a disagreement.

Everything we say is our opinion which is shaped by our experience, abilities and the situation we are in. It won’t be concrete and will change when presented with the facts or perspectives. Carl Sagan expresses this in his book Cosmos where he says scientific community is built of opinions and humility. That is how the community advances, by embracing new proofs and discard their pet theories.

If you are in a situation where people are often using disclaimers, what all could you do?

  • Make sure your tone of response is right and make it clear that the conversations are always about ideas not directed to the individual.
  • Express the discomfort in people using disclaimers for expressing their opinions and set a safe conversation space.
  • Stop using disclaimers in your conversations which some people may try to follow.

Help to co-ordinate the different minds to speak up and take advantage of the collective intelligence which is always better than the sharpest individual in the group.

Showing up

Steve Blank in his commencement speech at Philadelphia university mentioned that opportunities surface to people who are forever curious, show up a lot and treat failure as a learning experience. Not very long ago, it was very easy to get a bunch of people at workplace and get something done. Be it a music interest group, gaming or tech learnings; it was easy for people to look for what is going on around and show up.

Many workplace friendships were born, mentors and mentees found each other and it contributed to an overall well being of the place when people signed up and showed up for things happening around them. The increased urban congestion and the resultant commute plus ubiquitous smart phone distractions contribute to a large share for people losing interest in a lot of things. Getting people interested in something that helps growth is getting increasingly difficult.

Curiosity and showing up to do new things is a valuable trait that everyone has to retain or cultivate. This is what many people have written about getting out of the comfort zone, right now we seek comfort more often and in pockets because of the increase in the difficulty of living a day in urban areas. There is no feeling of enough comfort received that our body and mind refuses to come out of it, such that even showing up for work the next day becomes too difficult.

thumb-1013968_640We are inherently curious, watch a baby explore new surroundings, you will know how curious we were in our early years. That curiosity has transformed into something very trivial over the course of the years to find only simple entertainment which gives an illusion that life is interesting. It is not the lack of attention span which many are claiming unanimously that is on a dwindle, there are people who claim poor attention span but can binge watch ‘Game of thrones’ or play video games for hours together.

The serendipity factor is very underrated, many good things happen by accident meeting a prepared mind. Make sure to plan your urban life such that it does not drain you, don’t compromise on eating well and resting (read sleeping) well;  once that is taken care chances are low that you will feel out of energy in a day. Try showing up at places, ditch that comfort zone or fear of new; see the impact over long time.

 

Stay aware, stay relevant

If you are a salaried person, then imagine that you are a business owner who serves only one client at a time. Won’t you keep looking to improve the product/service you offer, won’t you keep looking at emerging trends and stay on top of your business domain, won’t you find out who your next prospective client is? It is not that hard to answer these questions, a business owner always has to stay aware of the market and stay relevant.

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When it makes sense as a business owner to explore the market, find the options and stay relevant; why should salaried employees not be aware of what is going on around them? Each salaried person should always stay aware of the market and keep themselves relevant. I have often come across people who scamper for opportunities or rush to update themselves when they are either disgruntled or unable to perform with their current employer. This will lead to people making bad decisions as survival instincts kick in to stay employed. Your best decisions will come to you when you are least stressed.

If we treat our employment as a business that has to be sustained, we won’t be relying on the learning & development programs of the companies. We will constantly be in touch with the industry and will continue to stay aware and stay relevant. To be aware of what is going on in the market, time to time conversations has to happen about opportunities like any other business. If we are aware of the market, then we are aware of our abilities and will shape up quickly to always be a market fit.

Why do the trips around the sun becomes boring and tiring as we go on

earth-2129001_640I have completed 35 trips around the sun last November, I remember vividly my younger pre-teen years a lot and that seemed to be much longer and eventful journey compared to my twenties and thirties which I feel just breezed past. There are several factors that contribute to this feeling of perceiving your childhood to be longer in comparison to adult years.

  • We perceive time in percentage of conscious elapsed time against our life span so for a 13 year old the next year is going to be around 10% of life time so far. One of my friends introduced me to this theory but I could not find any notes anywhere in the net, seems to be a valid argument to me.
  • The number of things that can gain the attention of the conscious brain has increased dramatically so that there is not enough leisure, me time or family/friends time for people. This will result in less things that go back to permanent memory and most of the day’s happenings are just processed and thrown away.
  • We also lack predictable milestones and increases in ability like we did in childhood. Every year in childhood is new because we became bigger, stronger, understood our world better and there was a planned path to do newer and newer things day by day. Once we start to work, the growth is limited only to our social and neural development which is not so obvious. The long holidays are also gone where there were many meaningful friendships born and many events happen at its own pace.
  • The last one I see is simply refusing to grow up, trying to relive and remember the past & losing track of all the things that is happening now and should happen now.

We can change the perception by cutting out timepass distractions as much as possible, removing the things in life that is only for others to appreciate us than provide a utility to us and blocking personal me time/family time everyday. Some simple non negotiable rules like breakfast and dinner with family together will go a long way in improving quality of life. When living becomes easy and very less distractions in place, we suddenly have a lot of time to look outside the window and enjoy the coffee than gulping it down and running to catch the next connection. We will also spend a good deal of time in personal growth and the growth of people around us.

 

 

 

Letting work happen vs making work happen

This is a follow up of my previous post Gamers, musicians & artists. The TL;DR of that post is; people tend to self organise, find what they have to do and also hold their peers accountable to an expected standard. All they need is to work in small teams, some clarity on what their objectives are and leave them to be in a state of flow where they are constantly learning & improving while going behind their objectives.

I used to go to my college by town bus service. Town bus services are mostly run by governments. There are no incentives for the government employees to run a great service; but the ones we took to our college were run by enthusiastic drivers and conductors who treated their buses as their second home. These guys kept the buses squeaky clean and in best shape though it was an old bus, they pooled in their own money and added a radio when new FM channels were introduced. They would enquire about our health if we did not turn up for a few days. They would also signal us through the horn when they approached the college gate so we could run outside the blind spot and catch it on time.

The students became fans of these services and started celebrating bus day every year. All the regular passengers got together on a day along with the staff and distributed sweets & gifts. I still feel these guys will be running their buses like how they did before even though they are nearing their retirement age.Nothing prevented them from checking in and out, run a poor service and still be paid for; but they wanted to enjoy something they do day in day out and went for an ever improving quality of service even when they were not expected. I have rarely seen these people fall sick even though the climatic conditions varied from cold to too hot within few months.

Software development teams also if left on their own, will always try to punch above their weight when they buy in to the purpose they have signed up for. The reason people will stay engaged and go for it is a light tension to constantly be challenged, learn to overcome failures and the support to bounce back stronger. People need to have business knowledge, be competent in their tech domain and also have room for failures which promotes creativity. Eric Schmidt in one of his talks mentioned that his teams always try to shoot for the stars, but many times they fail and land on the moon, but landing on the moon itself was impossible and at times it seemed to be more easy to reach what was impossible, when work was allowed to happen. He calls his people smart creatives and there are people to facilitate decision making to make them go fast.

ely-cathedral-414090_1920I always quote this from Semco’s management style. They call their managers ‘Facilitators’ who help the team to set unimaginable goals and equip them to go behind. To go behind audacious goals, we need to communicate well to the teams and make sure they are equipped both technically & people wise; which will then let work happen itself with very less intervention. By trying to make work happen through a great plan, we will be predictable and deliver as per plan week on week and quarter on quarter but it won’t be anything disruptive or far fetched. Even if we achieve a great objective tracking to a plan, in an ever changing environment plan will soon become obsolete. There is this cliched story of cathedral builder vs person laying bricks. Everyone would want a cathedral builder, but many will choose the cathedral builder to just lay bricks as told by the planner.

Let work happen and see the magic

 

Gamers, musicians and artists

When I joined ThoughtWorks, a common scene I witnessed in the evenings were playing games. Age of Empires was the most commonly played one and the gamers were very fanatical about it.  When I wanted to play, I was given a chance to take part but when the fellow gamers found out I was a rookie, no one wanted me in their teams. They forced me to be at some level so that I can play along with them and be part of their teams, I was made to train myself in the weekends and then get back to playing with them. Same for other games like Cricket. If there was some level of seriousness, then better be prepared.

There was also a music band, I had practiced playing movie songs on a computer keyboard and some software for a very long time, may be around 8-10 years. So I thought I had a hang of music when I expressed interest to join the band. I could readily see that I was moved out of singing, drumming and keyboard to merely being an MC for the event as I lacked skills that were good enough for an office band. One of the band members made me join a music school and after about two years of practice I was finally taken back into the team. I have seen this among other disciplines of art, people are not ready to take you into the team if you cannot match up to their expectations.

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Workplace is different, because it is does not have an easy way to measure productivity or understand expectations. Basic expectations of being a good team member is understood well, but when people don’t see those behaviours generally it is tolerated or seen as the job of the manager to interfere there. There could be many reasons to this one, one of them is work is seen as a job description to be fulfilled for a salary; not something that is done because you want to do and you are compensated for it. Workplaces won’t be difficult to run if people know what to expect from their team members and be very strict with the outcomes just like gamers, musicians and artists.

 

 

Life does not get easier, we just grow stronger

I was thinking life was getting easier in some areas until I stumbled on a quote that said ‘Life does not get easier, we just grow stronger’. Simple, but a deep thought. If something is getting easy for us, it means there was an external factor that made it easy for us. For example, scientists are working round the clock to find new medicines that makes it easy for us to recover from illness but building an athletic fitness and becoming physically strong requires a lot of work.

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Getting stronger always means we have to work towards it, we never get strong without exposure to something that makes us look weak or vulnerable. So when we observe things become easy to us, we just need a pat in the back to ourselves that we have gotten stronger to handle this easily. Being strong is a choice, getting easy things is a matter of someone else making it for us.

Eyeballed it

In the film ‘Sully’ when the captain is interrogated about what measurements he made that made him decide to ditch the plane in the river instead of taking it to the airport, he responds by saying ‘I eyeballed it‘. This has been written about by many authors like in ‘Hare brain and tortoise mind’, ‘Thinking fast and slow’, ‘Blink’ etc. It is hard to prove as a ton of processing happens completely subconscious.

I also happened to read about this in the book ‘Maverick’ by Ricardo Semler, who was the CEO of Semco. Semco is one of the most unique workplaces that had piloted very radical ideas in the 1980’s when management by the book was in its peak. It was very successful for the political environment that was in Brazil at that time and that company’s model has been studied by many people. Semler has an habit of throwing detailed reports in the dustbins and ask for headline summaries from his managers. He also says in another book that many of the times that his managers’ headlines seems to be right about forecast and prediction than those that were backed by solid research and numbers. He practically asks everyone to eyeball the situation.

Eyeballing is not easy, it comes with years of dedicated practice in an area. It is not possible to ask a football striker to explain how did that person know that the goal keeper is going dive to the right. They just eyeball it, that skill gets improved with tons of feedback and dedicated effort to improve.

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At desk work also many times these situations happen, people will develop muscle memory (otherwise eyeballing skills). They will know just by a glance that something is wrong, it will be hard to prove but letting them make a call based on their hunch and giving them space to learn from their action will improve the effectiveness multifold. We have been conditioned that we can be wrong as long as we are backed by reports and numbers, but I learnt that there is no substitute for experience and gut feel.

The innate laziness of our mind will make us very efficient in heading towards right decisions. We can train this by creating mental models (some examples here) deliberately that will keep improving our eyeballing ability.