Max out

Often I come across questions like ‘is that what the max you can do in that situation?’. During these moments I get tempted to ask questions like ‘I saw you walking to my desk now, why did not you run?’.

I sense that people have misunderstood maximum to be optimal. Optimal is sustainable, maximum is usually followed by a recovery. A spike needs a dip because it is a zero sum game, there is nothing called sustainable peak performance; a peak has to be followed by a trough. heart-rate-1375324_1280

Managers always had a lot of coercive power and traditionally management was done by giving standard operating procedures and instructions. People needed to follow the instructions by the dot and put in the required number of hours without questioning as the supervisor had defined the tasks such a way that not much skill is required to produce a good output. As the output was directly proportional to the number of hours worked with strict supervision, people were made to work as long as possible with scheduled small breaks in between.

This works well as long as the output of a person’s work is directly proportional to the number of hours worked. Does it apply in software development? Nope, it is tough to correlate productivity with the number of hours worked on the task. Not just software, any knowledge work requires people to feel bored once in a while to get to a more innovative state of mind. Knowledge work also requires a healthy state of mind and body.  The proverb ‘An idle person’s mind is a devil’s workshop’ was coined when work meant only physical. There is no way to measure productivity just like no one can ever master a language 100%.

What stayed was the coercive power of the managers and the impression of long working hours & weekend work as productivity indicators. Some managers have gone to the extent of installing software that detects and logs activities which rewards pointless usage of computers while a lot has to be done with discussions, thinking, writing/drawing on paper & sometimes the answer flashes when there was nothing to do after an intensive bout of concentration at the problem in hand.

Maxing out is an option while we are playing sports like athletics where there is a disproportionately long recovery period that makes someone to push themselves so much so that they injure themselves to achieve peak performance. There is another place where maxing out is required, when people are fighting against each other, maxing out is never a peace time activity.

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Horizontal gene transfer

Inheritance has played a big role in how kingdoms evolved and civilisations sustained. People passed on their wisdom to their future generations and created a sustained momentum of progress. The progress was largely confined within the family, a great medical practitioner will pass on the knowledge to the kids and make sure they memorise a lot of things and do not pass on the trade secrets to others. Slowly greed took over and instead of greater good, personal wealth and wellness took top priority. This is when territorial population got slowly disrupted by invaders who learnt to break the fragile unity and encouraged personal growth by turning people against their allies and eventually they also fell prey to invasion.

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We think the world belongs to humans, it does not. It belongs to microbes. They are everywhere, in huge numbers and very very resilient. They are inside us, outside and have even learnt to live in hostile conditions. I also read in the newspapers about bacteria developing antibiotic resistance and quite difficult to treat if people get these resistant strains. I was curious on how bacteria develop resistance and stumbled on an article which explained about ‘Horizontal gene transfer‘. Bacteria do not just inherit the resistant genes vertically from their parents but also from other types of bacteria, virus, fungi (the list goes on) which may not even be virulent.

Learning and co-operating with others is what makes someone resilient along with their peers, this is what I inferred from my readings about horizontal gene transfer. If we concentrate only on personal growth and well being then it is just a short amount time before we lose out to groups which learn together. Personal growth is useful only when others around us also grow and sustain that momentum. There is a nice story about growing good corn, a farmer shares the quality seeds with neighbours to make sure cross pollination happens with healthy corn.

Winning alone and winner takes it all is a greedy task, it pushes people into damage control mode and work in transactions. People won’t remember us for our transactions, there is nothing to reciprocate in a transaction. It looks like we will not have a resilience building horizontal gene transfer equivalent for humans. We may eventually fizzle out of existence trying to outsmart each other.

You can only run, you cannot hide

Recently I read an article about NSA’s efforts in identifying Satoshi Nakamoto, who created bitcoin and remained elusive. NSA had spent a lot of resources at its disposal to create a writeprint to for billions of texts around the world and zero in on Satoshi.

Fingerprint plays a huge role in investigations as they provide a reliable identity which is difficult to change, before that identity was based on photographs, height, mole marks etc. So the quest for fingerprinting grew and now it is possible to get voiceprint, writeprint and can work on anything to create a unique signature about a person.

privacy-policy-2499720_640I read about this first in Simon Singh’s Code book, the book talks a lot about how cryptographers had to constantly be on the run to come up with new techniques just to be broken by cryptanalysts who find chinks in the armour, it is a never ending game. One of the interesting reads was about a fingerprinting technique called fist, which is a style arising due to the telegraph operator’s way using the telegraph key. While the messages were encrypted, the operator’s fist gave away the identity of the german troops and by radio frequency analysis the location was also identified. The messages which were encrypted was of no use to the British, but the location and identity proved to be vital  which was invaluable when there were no satellites.

I never took privacy and security seriously, but the more I read about and hear from friends the more insecure I feel. If someone is determined enough and have resources at hand, it is going to be an easy task to violate someone else’s security and privacy. More and more tools to break will be freely available and new technology is going to make current military grade encryptions cakewalk to break. If we need privacy we need to keep running, there is no place to hide.

p.s. Also read about ‘Dolphin attack‘ which takes vulnerabilities to new levels.

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