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.



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.


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.

Regression towards the mean

I came across this sentence ‘Regression towards the mean’ in the book ‘The drunkard’s walk’. It means that if something bad, unusual or extraordinary happens then it mostly followed by an average acceptable one. It mentions that people are often fooled by this phenomenon, it gives a false sense of control over situations and outcomes. People think that rebuking someone for bad behaviour results in good behaviour, but according to statistics acceptable behaviour always follows bad behaviour irrespective of getting yelled at or not.

A flight instructor’s example is given, the flight instructor thinks that yelling at a pilot making a serious mistakes makes them fly the plane better next time and praising a pilot for a good flight results in a mediocre flight next time; so the instructors resort to only yelling and no praise, but studies show that irrespective of an instructor’s reaction the behaviour of the pilots always fluctuated, a good one was followed by an average one and a bad one was also followed by an average one.


This shows that we should learn to respond to situations than react to it, if there is something not acceptable it is better to express the impact on us and leave it, than to do something to make sure the person repents for the mistake. It is a tough habit to leave as rebuking and a good behaviour following is very much a positive reinforcement, but if achieved it creates a good atmosphere to allow natural fluctuations take its course without worrying too much about it.

Sharing Knowledge vs Learning Together

Knowledge of group learners grows multifold than lone learners. This is understood by many college students where group study is common. I as a student, part of a group, divided subjects among ourselves, study the reading materials, understand it, condense it and present it back to the group. In this way every one understood the crux of what is to be learnt in a short amount of time. Somewhere I read ‘the moment we get a job, we stop learning’. That is because, learning is a conscious activity and when we don’t learn together, it becomes too tough to continue learning and many just don’t learn anymore.


Majority of the books have some fluff, it is to comply with the publisher’s mandate for the thickness of the book to justify a price. It is difficult to sift through the pages and mine the wisdom we want from it. It takes time  and speed reading is not easy for a lot of people. In a group setting it is ideal to read a book, summarise the learnings and present it back to the group either as a summary or the application of the learnings. If it evokes enough curiosity, then people will make some time to read it in detail.

The above applies to videos, courses and any other learning form or material. What about the blogs, they are short, can we just forward the links? There are lots of ways in which we receive links; twitter, hacker news, reddit so on. If we merely forward the links that interests us to our groups, it has no bigger impact than people who have already subscribed to the feeds. What will be beneficial to people who receive our link would be, a short description of what it is, how did I apply (or can apply), why this would be beneficial, next steps if possible.

By making it easy for people to understand many topics in a condensed form, we improve the breadth of the knowledge of the whole group. If anyone is curious then they can deep dive for the depth in a particular subject. It is impossible to get out of date in a group that is continuously learning.

Birds that flock, seem to learn faster. They increase their chances to survive and evolve more quickly

Learning together requires effort, it won’t happen if we don’t do it consciously.

Micro Habits

Anyone who had taken a reliable public transport would have formed micro habits. The first time I am in a new place, taking a public transport to work is always an experiment. As few days pass, the onward connections and crowd patterns get clear and I do my optimisations. I learnt to cut down my travel time 15 minutes every day by always boarding the last coach in the train so that when I alight at my station the coach is always next to the staircase which connects me to the next platform; I quickly walk to the next platform and board the train waiting there. If I miss this train, the next connection was 15 minutes later. Even if the coach is crowded, I bear the discomfort for a while because I know I am going to catch my connection on time.

At work and home also lots of micro habits can be formed. As the name suggests, these are not big ones and often takes only a small effort to make it happen. The first requirement to form micro habits is to have a set routine. Wake up at the same time every day, leave for work at the same time every day, leave office at the same time every day. By having a set routine we tend to observe lots of things and we also reduce the variables, so the number of decisions that needs to be made on a day reduces, because the routine automates most of our decisions.

Micro habits should not be confused with micro optimisation. Micro optimisations are very small gains for a large effort. Micro habits end up in great gains in small timely efforts. All it takes is to have a discipline to follow a set routine, observe the surroundings and make those small adjustments. It may not be easy at first, but once we start practising it becomes part of our thoughts.

Small changes can produce big results…but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.

– Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline


As we grow

It is natural for every kid topeter-886132_1280 dream of growing up to a respectable status, have lots of possessions and make decisions. What I did not realise was the amount of responsibilities that came with growing up. The first big desire for any one to grow up is the desire to be independent, not be told what to do instead do what they want. It was always about the desire to be independent but oblivious to the price to pay for being independent. People will stop worrying about us less, we will be expected to stand for ourselves and care for dependent ones as grown ups. Being a grown up is a responsibility than a perk.


At work similar thing happens, we join as an intern with a big dream. As an intern we will be told what to do and there is a limited scope of influence at work but at the same time there are less decisions that needs to be taken. As we gain experience the sphere of influence of our action increases, so do the expectations from the others to become effective individual contributors.

The term ‘individual contributor’ is largely misunderstood, it does not mean ‘leave me alone to do my work at my style’, instead it is a responsibility to reach the individual goals while working along with others. If there is a need for constant nudge from the managers, co-ordinators or facilitators to be reminded about one’s work and progress then it is a telltale sign that an individual has not grown up. When gaining experience what will matter most is the ability to accept responsibility and be accountable for signed up work, the independence that comes up with that is just a side effect not a right by itself.

Learning to drive

Kent Beck gives a good introduction to adoption of XP through an analogy of learning to drive. A brief extract can be found here. The learning to drive analogy is applicable to any discipline, where the instincts have to take over conscience in other words the motor/muscle memory will play a bigger part than a conscious effort, but when demanded we need to rewire our learnings. Music is also analogous to this.

The steps in becoming a good in something.

Start immediately

Procrastination affects a lot of us and one of the key catalyst for someone to procrastinate is the idea of perfection. This is because of the fear of failure and being judged, so people end up reading and studying about something instead of learning by doing. Unless we get into something mission critical or any action that will cause any irreversible consequence then we should not hesitate to start. By starting immediately, we will be forced to learn the absolute minimum that is required to start instead of getting equipped with a world of knowledge.

Be predictably slow at first

There is a sense of satisfaction in moving up the levels, so people immediately step up their levels without getting a good understanding of what they learnt. When I was learning to drive, I was never allowed to shift to the 3rd gear until I was able to drive the vehicle without getting stalled in the lower gears. Same goes to my piano tutor who never allowed me to step up the tempo until I never missed a note. This made sure that whatever I had got it into my head is done the right way, I was very angry with my tutors as they never allowed me to step up quickly but in hindsight it makes sense; unlearning something learnt wrong takes a long time than learning it to do the right way.


When stepping up, change only one parameter at a time

We learn more and more faster and deeper when we are able to understand the effects of our actions. The more we are able to identify the cause and effects, the better is our ability to sense the patterns and apply learnings at a more abstract level. Stepping up the learning through one parameter a time allows us pinpoint the cause and effect, helping us to save energy. Someone shifting to 3rd gear and also driving in rain for the first time on a slippery road will not lead to effective learning.

Once comfortable, keep getting exposed to new conditions.

When we are comfortable in a new skill, chances are high that we get stagnant. Routinely exposing us to newer challenges helps to sharpen as well as prepare us for unknowns. The comfort zone is where the instincts take over the conscience, but when the situation demands we need to switch back to the conscience and make quick judgements from our experience. Good drivers are not usually worried about bad weather or poor visibility, instead they know when to stop driving and when to carry on.

Listen to others, over time we may pickup bad habits.

Habits change as soon as the feedback stops, I used to drive without co-passengers for an extended period of time and developed a tendency to jump over potholes and speed breakers. This annoyed my co-passengers and until I heard from them, I never realized that I had developed a bad habit. It is very difficult to sustain best practices or get a new one, getting a mentor or coach or even just plainly listening to other’s observation will help us a lot.

Never underestimate the power of a coach or a mentor

The coach in the operating room published by the New Yorker magazine tells about how an accomplished surgeon realised that even the best tennis players had coaches and decided to take a coach with him to the operating room. The doctor was doing a thyroid operation which he has done many times and the coach had never done that type of surgery so there was no expectation on useful feedback. At the end of the surgery the coach surprised with a lot of detailed observations which were overlooked and missed by the team. If we are to be professionally better at something then get coaches, does not matter who we are or how successful we are.

When learning stops, we regress