Showing posts with label leadership & management. Show all posts
Showing posts with label leadership & management. Show all posts

Monday, May 1, 2023

Coworking spaces: the challenge for company loyalty

Coworking spaces are something new

Over the last year, I've spent a couple of weeks working in coworking spaces in London and New York. After spending the last week at a coworking space, I've come away thinking that these spaces represent a profound change for workers and a challenge to how companies relate to their remote staff.  

Of course, the rental office space market isn't new; it goes back decades in different countries around the world. What is new is the price, flexibility, and type of workspace. The lowest price tier offers you space in an open-plan office with good wifi, coffee, and maybe other facilities thrown in. The low price, high density, and open-plan nature of the office are what's driving the change.

(A coworking space.)

My experiences

Three things stood out for me in my coworking experience: diversity, energy, and business focus.

I was surprised at the diversity of people I met, they were a much more diverse crowd than any company I've been a part of. By diversity, I mean many things. Obviously, racial and national origin diversity; the people I met were from many different countries with a range of racial backgrounds. But also job roles, I met artists, digital marketers, sales reps, planners, and more. The stereotype is that coworking spaces are full of coders, but that hasn't been my experience. The types of business were wildly different too, everything from infrastructure to car leasing, to contract marketing, to diversity hiring. I heard some really engaging stories that have caused me to think, more so than happens from day-to-day outside of coworking spaces.

The energy was high at all times. Everyone seemed to have a sense of purpose and focus on what they were doing plus the drive to work at it. That's probably a selection bias as these spaces tend to be full of young companies and people working for themselves, but even so, it was good to experience.

Despite the wide range of businesses, everyone was focused on their customers and what they need to do to sell to them. Everyone was keenly aware of the need to make money and the mantra "everyone is in sales" seemed very true for them.

Notably, not all career stages and ages were equally represented. I saw very few people at the start of their careers, the youngest tended to be a few years out of college and on their second or third job. At the other end, I saw very few people who looked to be in their 50s and no one who looked close to retirement. On the whole, people tended to be late 20s or early 30s.

Where things get interesting are the events and services these coworking spaces provide. Many spaces offer a barista and some serve beer and wine after 5pm. I've seen wine tastings and other social events. Some places have one-off business services like professional headshots and so on. These are exactly the types of services and events companies offer to their on-site staff, and this is where the challenge comes.

The coworking challenge

All companies try to promote loyalty, which requires staff proximity and communication. Loyalty helps with productivity, goal alignment, and stability; a loyal workforce will stay with a company during tough times. Social programs, 1:1 meetings, and group meetings all help with proximity, and newsletters and Slack, etc. help with communications, but these things are much harder with a remote workforce. 

Look at what happens in a coworking space. You get proximity because others share the space with you and the coworking space runs social events to encourage mixing (and loyalty). You get communications too, many coworking spaces send out email newsletters, and so on.

Now imagine you're a remote employee working out of a coworking space. Imagine it's 3pm on a Thursday and your company is running a social event over Zoom. At the same time, your coworking space is offering an in-person social event with all the people you meet every day in the office with beer and wine. Which event would you go to?

What about lunches? Some companies offer to pay for remote employees' lunches on special occasions, but the employee has to order their lunch and submit an expense claim (effort). By contrast, if a coworking space offers a free lunch, all the employee has to do is turn up and eat. Which would you prefer?

As a remote employee, would you be more loyal to your coworking space or your employer?

What this means

There is a form of loyalty competition between the company a worker works for and the coworking space the worker uses. The coworking space has the upper hand in the way the loyalty game is mostly played today. But there are other ways to generate loyalty, for example, promotions and pay rises, training and staff development, conferences, and so on; things which add lasting value to an employee.

Companies need to realize that the remote experience is different, especially if someone is in a coworking space. If companies want loyal staff, they have to offer something meaningful because coworking spaces are using loyalty levers too and they have the decisive physical advantage.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

What brown M&Ms can tell you about a company

Small things reveal deeper truths

I was reading an old story on the internet and it struck me that there's something I could learn from it about diagnosing company culture. I'll tell you the story and show you how small things can be very revealing.

The Van Halen story

Here's a quote from David Lee Roth’s autobiography, Crazy from the Heat, that tells the story. 

"Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets. We’d pull up with nine eighteen-wheeler trucks, full of gear, where the standard was three trucks, max. And there were many, many technical errors — whether it was the girders couldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren’t big enough to move the gear through. The contract rider read like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function. So just as a little test, in the technical aspect of the rider, it would say “Article 148: There will be fifteen amperage voltage sockets at twenty-foot spaces, evenly, providing nineteen amperes . . .” This kind of thing. And article number 126, in the middle of nowhere, was: “There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.”

So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl . . . well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening."

In other words, the no brown M&Ms clause was a simple compliance check that the venue had read the contract and taken it seriously. It was an easy test of much deeper problems.

(This would fail the test - there are brown M&Ms! Evan-Amos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


The brown M&Ms story shows that something simple can be used to uncover a fundamental and harder-to-check problem. The same idea appears in Poker too - it's the ideas that players have "tells" that reveal something about their hands. It occurred to me that over the years, I'd seen something similar in business. I've seen cases where companies have made sweeping statements about culture but small actions have given the game away. Unlike the Van Halen story, the tells are usually unintentional, but nonetheless, they're there. Here are some examples.

Our onboarding is the best, but we won't pay you

Years ago, I worked for a company that made a big deal of how great its onboarding was; the CEO and other executives claimed it was "industry-leading" and praised the process. 

When I was onboarded, the company messed up its payroll and didn't pay me for a while; way past the legal deadline. I asked when it was going to be resolved and I was told I should "manage my finances better". I later learned this was a common experience and many new employees weren't paid on time, the "manage your finances better" was the stock response. In one extreme case, I know someone who wasn't paid for over two months.

As it turned out, this was a brown M&Ms case. It indicated profound issues at the company and in particular with the executive team; they were too remote from what was going on and they really weren't interested in hearing anything except praise. It took me and others a long time to discover these issues. The brown M&Ms should have warned us very early that something was quite broken. 

I'm too important to talk to you

At another company, a new C-level executive joined the organization and there was a long announcement about how great they were and how they exhibited the company values, one of which was being people-centric. I reported to the new person's organization. 

One day, early on in their tenure, the new C-level person visited the office I was working at. They walked straight by me and my team without stopping to say hello. During the week they were with us, they didn't meet or talk with any of us. They even managed to avoid being in the break room at the same time as the little people (and people tried very hard to meet the new executive). On that visit, the new C-level person didn't meet or say hello to anyone below vice-president level. Later on, they gave a talk to their organization that included a discussion of the necessity of connecting with people and how it was important to them.

I didn't see many of their other actions, but this was very definitely a brown M&M moment for me. I saw trouble ahead and left the company not long after, and I wasn't the only one.

Candies: going, going, gone

My last example is actually about candy. 

I worked for a company that provided candy and snacks. It was very proud that what it provided was top quality, and I agreed; it really did provide great treats. The company presented top-quality candy and snacks as a way of showing how much it valued its employees; we were told that we got the best because we were valued. 

You can probably guess what happened next. The snack and candy brands went from well-known brands to own-label brands, while the company insisted that nothing had changed. After a few months of own-label brands, the candy and snacks stopped altogether, and the company never said a word. A number of other things happened too, including worse terms and conditions for new employees (less leave etc.), more restrictions on travel, and fewer corporate lunches, but these were harder to see. The company started valuing employees less and the treats and candies were only the most visible of several actions that took place at the same time; they were the canary in the coal mine.

What can you do?

Small issues can give you a clue that things are deeply broken in hard-to-detect ways. You should be on the lookout for brown M&M moments that give you advance warning of problems.

As an employee, these moments provide insight into what the company really is. If the M&M moment is serious enough, it's time to think about employment elsewhere, even if you've just started.

As an executive, you need to be aware that you're treated differently from other people. You might not experience the brown M&M moment yourself, but people in your organization might. Listen to people carefully and hear these moments; use them to diagnose deeper issues in your organization and fix the root cause. Be aware that this is one of the few moments in your life you might get to be like David Lee Roth.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Cultural add or fit?

What does cultural fit mean?

At a superficial level, company culture can be presented as free food and drink, table tennis and foosball, and of course company parties. More realistically, it means how people interact with each other, what behavior is encouraged, and crucially what behavior isn't tolerated.  At the most fundamental level, it means who gets hired, fired, or promoted. 

Cultural fit means how well someone can function within a company or team. At best, it means their personality and the company's way of operating are aligned so the person thrives within the company, performs well, and stays a long time. In this case, everyone's a winner.

For a long time, managers have hired for cultural fit because of the benefits of getting it right.

The unintended consequences

Although cultural fit seems like a good thing to hire for, it has several downsides. 

Hiring for cultural fit over the long term means that you can get groupthink. In some situations that's fine, for example, mature or slowly moving industries benefit from a consistent approach over time. But during periods of rapid change, it can be bad because the team doesn't have the diversity of thought to effectively respond to threats; the old ways don't work anymore but the team still fights yesterday's battles.

For poorly performing teams, hiring for cultural fit can mean more of the same, which can be disastrous on two levels: it cements the existing problems and blocks new ways of working.

(Monks in a monastery are a great example of cultural fit. But not everyone wants to join a monastery. Abraham Sobkowski OFM, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Cultural add

In contrast to cultural fit that focuses on conformity, cultural add focuses on what new and different things an employee can bring to the team. 

Cultural add is not (entirely) about racial diversity; in fact, I would argue it's a serious error to view cultural add solely in racial terms. I've worked with teams composed of individuals from different races, but they all went to the same universities and all had the same middle-class backgrounds. The team looked and sounded diverse but their thinking was strikingly uniform.

Here are some areas of cultural add you might think about:

  • Someone who followed a non-traditional path to get to where they got. This can mean:
    • Military experience
    • Non-university education
    • They transitioned from one discipline to another (e.g. someone who initially majored in law now working in machine learning).
  • Single parents. Many young tech teams are full of young single people. A single parent has a radically different set of experiences. They may well bring a much-needed focus on work-life balance.
  • Older candidates. Their experience in different markets and different companies may be just what you need.
  • Working-class backgrounds. Most people in tech come from middle-class backgrounds (regardless of country of origin). Someone whose parents were very blue-collar may well offer quite a different perspective.

I'm not saying anything new when I say a good hiring process considers the strengths and weaknesses of a team before the hiring process starts. For example, if a team is weak on communication with others, a desirable feature of a new hire is good communications skills. Cultural add takes this one stage further and actively looks for candidates who bring something new to the table, even when that new thing isn't well-defined.

Square pegs in round holes

The cultural add risk is the same as any hiring risk: you get someone who can't work with the team or who can't perform. Even with cultural add, you still need to recruit someone the team can work with. Cultural add can't be the number one hiring criteria, but it should be a key one. 

What all this means in practice

We can boil this down to some don'ts and dos.


  • Hire people who went to the same small group of universities.
  • Assume racial diversity = cultural add.
  • Add people who are exactly the same as the current team.
  • Rely on employee referrals (people tend to know people who are like them).
  • Look for people with non-traditional backgrounds.
  • Be aware of the hiring channels you use and try and reach out beyond the usual channels. 
  • Look for what new thing or characteristic the candidate brings. This means thinking about the interview questions you ask to find the new thing.
  • Think about your hiring process and how the process itself filters candidates. If you have a ten-stage process, or a long take-home test, or you do multiple group interviews, this can cause candidates to drop out - maybe even the candidates you most want to attract.

Cultural add goes beyond the hiring process, you have to think about how a person is welcomed. I've seen teams unintentionally (and intentionally) freeze people out because they were a bit different. If you really want to make cultural add work, management has to commit to making it work post-hire. 

An old joke

Two men become monks and join a monastery. One of the men is admitted because he's a cultural fit, the other because he's a cultural add. 

After dinner one evening, the monks are silent for a while, then one monk says "23" and the other monks smile. After a few minutes, another monk very loudly says "82", and the monks laugh. This goes on for a while to the confusion of the two newcomers. The abbot whispers to them: "We've been together so long, we know each other's jokes, so we've numbered them to save time". The new monks decide to join in.

The cultural fit monk says "82" and there's polite laughter - they've just heard the same joke. The cultural add monk thinks for a second and says "189". There's a pause for a second as the monks look at one another in wonder, then they burst out in side-splitting laughing. Some of the monks are crying with laughter and one looks like he might need oxygen. The laughter goes on for a good ten minutes. The abbot turns to the cultural add monk and says: "they've never heard that one before!".

If you want more of the same, go for cultural fit, if you want something new, go for cultural add.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Mouse jiggling: the good, the bad, and the ugly

What's a mouse jiggler?

Recently, I was reading Hacker News and one of the contributors mentioned a mouse jiggler. I'd never heard of one before, so I searched around. I was both horrified and fascinated by what I discovered.

A mouse jiggler is a device that randomly 'jiggles' your mouse so it appears that you're at your computer. It prevents the screen saver from kicking in and it keeps your status as active in Slack and Zoom. Here's a picture of one type of mouse jiggler.

(Jamsim1975, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The good

As it turns out, mouse jigglers are used by law enforcement during raids. One of the agents is tasked with getting to the suspect's computer quickly and setting up the mouse jiggler. The goal is to stop the computer from locking up; if that happens the suspect has to provide their password or a court has to order them to do so. Far better to stop the computer from locking up in the first place.

In the old days, the FBI and other agencies used software mouse jigglers; the mouse motion was set by software installed on a USB stick. Mechanical mouse jigglers are better because they don't rely on the availability of USB ports and they don't rely on security settings on the suspect's computer (not all systems will allow software to be installed via USB).

This blog post has some interesting things to say about mouse jigglers and other software/hardware used during raids.

The bad

There's a reason why security teams have computers lock themselves after a few minutes of user inactivity and the reason is security. Leaving a computer unattended and unlocked is bad, leaving a computer unattended and unlocked with a mouse jiggler over extended periods is even worse. If I were a CISO, I would ban mouse jigglers - or better still, make sure that no one feels the need to use one.

The ugly

For everyone who's not law enforcement, why would you want a jiggler? The sad answer seems to be fooling employee surveillance software. Instead of trusting their employees or measuring by results, some companies have installed surveillance software that tracks mouse usage (mouse use = work). Jigglers are an attempt to circumvent these kinds of trackers.

Jigglers have been around for a while and now there's software to detect them; you too can detect if your employees are jiggling. In response, some of the newer jigglers offer random and subtle jiggles that are harder to detect. I can see a jiggling arms race coming.

The reviews for this jiggler on Amazon are enlightening; there are 2,612 of them, an astonishing number, and the product has a 5-star rating overall. Many of the reviews mention fooling IT surveillance software. If you don't like this one, there are plenty of other models to choose from, many with over 1,000 reviews. 

Think about what this says. There are enough people who're concerned about surveillance to spawn a mini-industry for $30 devices. These devices add no value - it's not like a mouse or a keyboard or a camera. As one of the reviewers said, the jiggler lets them go to the bathroom without feeling like it's being noted. It's all about trust, or the lack of it.

If people are using mouse jigglers at your company, it's an indication that something has gone quite wrong.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Battle leadership: some lessons for managers from World War I

Battle leadership

Books on military leadership and management have been popular in the business world for a long time. "The art of war" is a best-seller 2,500 or so years after it was written and books authored by US military leaders have consistently sold well. To state the obvious, business is not war and companies are not armies, but given this, there are still lessons military leaders have to offer; the art is picking out what applies and what doesn't.

I recently stumbled across an old military leadership book dating back to World War I. Although the world has changed greatly since then, I found some of the ideas and discussions still relevant to today's business environments. Read on to find out more.

(The book and a German soldier in World War I. Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons.)

The book and its history

The book is "Battlefield Leadership" and was first published in 1933 in the US. The author was Adolph von Schell (1893-1967), an officer in the German army in the First World War. He led troops in the European theater during the war, winning a number of medals and commendations [,_1893)]. After the war, he trained at the US Army's Fort Benning where he was asked to speak about his experiences leading men in combat. His talks became the book, "Battlefield Leadership" which was published in English (strangely, the German translation was published much later).

The book is an odd mix of psychology, management, and battlefield stories, not all of which are relevant to the world of business. Plainly, warfare has moved on a lot since the First World War; tactics and strategy have changed greatly, but what hasn't changed are some of the core ideas of people management, as we shall see.

Core ideas

Battlefield psychology

Schell states that in "modern" warfare, people fight in small groups, often as individuals, against an enemy they can't see. Therefore, commanders need to know how individuals are likely to react and how they can be influenced. A unit may well have soldiers from diverse backgrounds, so the commander has to have an appreciation of their culture. Similar lessons apply further up the command hierarchy; a general must know his subordinates and how to motivate them: "Furthermore, each one reacts differently at different times, and must be handled each time according to his particular reaction", Schell gives a crude example in the book, but despite the crudity, the underlying lesson is clear.

He has some valid points to make about the need for individuals to exert some measure of control over their situation. Soldiers that wait under hostile fire have time to think and become stressed because they can't change their situation; they lie waiting for bullets to hit them. Soldiers on patrol are more at risk, but their destiny is in their hands so they're willing to go out and take control of their situation. He talks about soldiers under fire moving their position to be more secure: "it makes no difference whether or not the security is real; it is simply a question of feeling that it is".

Men under fire need some measure of security. Schell gives examples of a commander who ordered his men to have haircuts while their position was being shelled. The point isn't the haircuts, the point is the sense of normality the haircutting process gave. Even though men died during the shelling, morale stayed high because the team had a sense of security.

Experience matters in many ways

In several places throughout the book, Schell gives examples of how experienced troops behave compared to troops that had not seen combat. He gives an example from the early days of the war when his company of inexperienced troops first crossed into Belgium; despite meeting no resistance, they shot at shadows in the forest and spent a restless first night afraid of an attack that never came. By contrast, later in the war, he led battle-hardened troops in Russia. Despite similar circumstances, they didn't shoot at shadows in the forest, instead, they posted two sentries and the rest of the company slept soundly, even though they were in enemy territory.

As a practical matter, he recommends mixing inexperienced and battle-hardened troops. He comments that even on a day-to-day basis, and away from battle, seasoned troops coach the inexperienced troops on what to do and how to behave. He similarly cautions against changing commanders, a commander has to get to know his troops, and wartime is not an ideal time to do it:
"If we give these inexperienced troops a backbone of experienced soldiers and experienced commanders their efficiency will be tremendously increased and they will be spared heavy losses."

False data and preparation

I'm going to quote two of his lessons verbatim:
"(1) At the commencement of war, soldiers of all grades are subject to a terrific nervous strain. Dangers are seen on every hand. Imagination runs riot. Therefore, teach your soldiers in peace what they may expect in war, for an event foreseen and prepared for will have little if any harmful effect.
(2) As leaders be careful both in sending and in receiving reports. At the commencement of a war, ninety percent of all reports are false or exaggerated."

Change the word "war" for "competitive situation" and you get something obviously relevant for business.

Orders based on incomplete information

Quite correctly, Schell points out that leaders have to make decisions based on partial information, and on information which is doubtful at best: 
"In open warfare a leader will have to give his orders without having complete information. At times only his own will is clear. If he waits for complete information before acting he will never make a decision."

Orders, improvisation, and maps

This is my favorite part of the book. It recalls an action where the Germans and Russians faced off against one another in Russian territory. The German commander received continual updates on the Russians' position and he changed his tactics in response to the new information. His commands to his men were clear, simple, and to the point. Here's his summary:
"This example shows clearly that difficult situations can be solved only by simple decisions and simple orders. The more difficult the situation the less time there will be to issue a long order, and the less time your men will have to understand it. Moreover, the men will be high-strung and tense. Only the simplest order can be executed under such conditions."

In the same action, the Germans were facing a larger Russian opponent. They needed to watch a Russian position but didn't have the troops to. A corporal solved the problem. There was a large herd of cows in a nearby village, so the Germans moved the cows to a field between them and the Russians. Whenever the Russians tried to advance across the field, they disturbed the cows, so alerting the Germans.

(Cows are free watchdogs. Jonas Eppler, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Eventually, of course, superior numbers prevailed and the Germans had to retreat. The commander knew where to retreat to, but didn't have a map. Waiting for a map would have meant defeat, so based only on a rough knowledge of geography, they retreated, eventually joining up with other companies. The commander had to take a risk by retreating into unknown territory, but not retreating would have been more dangerous.

Mission orders

Notably, Schell discusses 'mission tactics' which are better known as 'mission orders' today. The idea is simple, commanders will achieve more if they can exert some control, so orders should focus on the mission and not on how it's to be executed. There's a sound operational reason too: "This is done because the commander on the ground is the only one who can correctly judge existing conditions and take the proper action if a change occurs in the situation". The relations to modern business are obvious: give senior people goals to achieve and give them the freedom to do it in whatever way they can. 

Some miscellaneous quotes

I found little nuggets of wisdom throughout the book, here are some I want to share:

  • "To leave the bulk of the artillery behind may strike the reader as dangerous but I believe the decision to do so was correct. The Germans were pursuing and almost anything can be dared where opposed to a beaten opponent. Everything had to be sacrificed to speed if the Russians were to be overtaken. In this situation legs were the important thing, not cannon."
  • "The importance of surprise in war cannot be overestimated. As it becomes increasingly difficult to obtain so does it become increasingly effective when it is obtained. No effort should be spared to make the decisive element of surprise work for us in war."
  • "There is only one opportunity to issue detailed orders and that is before battle. When the action has actually begun, orders must be short and simple."
  • "Every fight develops differently than is expected. Officers and troops must realize this in peace, in order that they will not lose courage when the unexpected occurs in war."

There's very little new in management

This book was first published in 1933 based on Schell's experience in war over the period 1915-1918.  There's more in this short book than I've seen in some much longer and more recent management books, and frankly, there's more of substance in this book than some highly-paid consultants I've worked with. Is this the only management book you should read? Absolutely not. Does it contain some interesting insights? Yes it does. 

The book was published in 1933 and the author died in 1967. It's not clear to me what the copyright situation is. You can buy a copy cheaply on Amazon, but you can also find free PDFs available online from legitimate sources.

Monday, August 16, 2021

The seven dysfunctionalities of management books

The problems with popular management books

Over the years, I've read many management books ranging from the excellent to the terrible. I've noticed several dysfunctionalities that creep into even some of the best books. I'm going to list them out in what I think is their order of importance. See what you think.

The seven dysfunctionalities

My idea is worth 30 pages, I'll write 300

With few exceptions, most books fall into this trap. The author could express their ideas in a few pages and provide supporting evidence that would fill a few pages more. Of course, the economics of books means they can't. There's no market and no money in a 30-page pamphlet (when was the last time you paid $20 for 30 pages?) but there's a huge market for books. The logic is clear: spin out your idea to book-length and make some money.

This is a little odd for two reasons:

  • Business writing emphasizes brevity and getting to the point quickly - neither of which management books usually do.
  • No one has disrupted the market. Maybe our business culture and market economics mean disruption is impossible?

What I say is important, I worked with important people at important companies

This is a relatively new dysfunction. The author claims their work is important, not because of its widespread adoption, or because many people had success with it, but because they held senior positions at well-known companies in Silicon Valley. Usually, these books have lots of stories of famous people, some of which offer insight and some of which don't. In a few cases, the storytelling degenerates into name-dropping.

My evidence will be stories or bad data

The plural of anecdote is not data. Why should I believe your experience generalizes to me? Storytelling is important, but it doesn't amount to a coherent management framework. According to the esteemed Karl Popper, science is about making falsifiable statements - what falsifiable statements do stories make?

The other form of dysfunctional evidence is bad data. The problems here are usually regression to the mean, small sample sizes, or a misunderstanding of statistics. There are examples of management gurus developing theories of winning companies but whose theories were proved wrong almost as soon as the ink was dry on their books. This might be why newer books focus on storytelling instead.

I'll write a worse sequel and then an even worse sequel to that

Even the best authors fall prey to this trap. They publish a best-selling book and the temptation is there to write a sequel. The second book is usually so-so, but might sell well. So they write a third book which is even worse, and so on.

I'll create new words for old ideas

Here the author rediscovers psychology or sociology that's been known for decades. Sometimes, they'll admit it and provide a new twist on old ideas; but sometimes it's just known ideas repackaged. In any case, the author usually creates a trendy buzzy phrase for their idea, preferably one they can trademark for their consultancy practice.

I'll talk about my time in the military

The military does have some very interesting things to teach managers. Unfortunately, most of the military books for business management focus on events without providing much in the way of context for what happened and why. When they explain how it can be used in a civilian setting, it feels clunky and unconvincing. These military books also tend to focus on successes and brush over failures (if they mention any at all). This is sad because I've read some really great older military management books that have something to offer today's managers.

I'll push my consulting company

This is the original sin and the cause of many of the other sins. After the success of their book, the author forms a consultancy company. They create a 2nd edition that includes cherry-picked success stories from their consulting company, or maybe they write a second book with anecdotes from their consulting work. The book then becomes a 'subtle' promo for their consulting work.

Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater

I'm not saying that popular business management books have no value, I'm saying very few of them will have value in ten years' time when the hype has passed. Think back to the business books published ten or twenty years ago. How many stand up now? 

Despite the faddish nature of the genre, most business management books have the core of some good ideas, you just have to wade through the nonsense to get there.

What should you do?

Every manager needs a framework for decision-making. My suggestion is to get that framework from training and courses and not popular business books. Use quotes to get some extra insight. Management business books are useful for a refresher of core ideas, even if you have to wade through 300 pages instead of 30. If nothing else, the popular books are a handy guide to what your peers are reading now.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

How to be creative like David Bowie, R.E.M. and Coldplay

Technical people are creative too

It's obvious that songwriters are creative, but technologists have to be creative problem solvers too. Many business technical problems are poorly defined at best and require a great deal of imagination just to get started.

(It's not just artists who have to be creative. Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.)

One of the big stumbling blocks for truly solving technology problems is local optimization. Imagine you're trying to reduce the processing time for a machine learning algorithm. You can focus on optimizing calculations, but would you be better off using a different algorithm altogether? Graphically, it looks something like this.

(Local and global optimization. Adapted from Wikimedia Commons. Author: Martynas Patasius. License: Creative Commons)

You end up focusing a great deal of effort for little gain when a more original approach might yield dividends.

This begs the question, how can you be more creative, how can you find more original approaches? How do songwriters and other creatives jump-start the creative process?

There's a technique I've found very useful: Oblique Strategies, but you have to be creative about how you use it.

Oblique Strategies

The painter Peter Schmidt and the musician Brian Eno first met in the late 1960s. They had a lot in common, including an interest in the creative process. Schmidt created a list of 55 quotes to overcome artistic blocks and Eno had been working on something similar, so in 1974 they combined their efforts to produce "Oblique Strategies".

Oblique Strategies was originally a set of phrases printed on cards. The idea was simple. If you're stuck in the creative process, view one of the random cards. Try to relate what's on the card to the problem at hand. Obviously, you'll have to jump through some creative hoops to do so, which is the whole point of the exercise.

Here are some example phrases from the cards:

  • Lowest common denominator
  • Turn it upside down
  • Always give yourself credit for having more than personality
(A card from the Oblique Strategies deck. Author: Bastiaan Terhorst, Source: Flickr, License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic)

Who used it and what were the results?

In the 1970s, David Bowie moved to Berlin and, working with Brian Eno, recorded three albums, Low, “Heroes” and Lodger. You might be more familiar with some of the songs: Sound and Vision, Heroes, and Boys Keep Swinging. To keep the songwriting process going, the team used the Oblique Strategies deck to find new ways of thinking about music and lyrics.

(David Bowie, CBS Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

R.E.M. even went so far as quoting some of the phrases on the cards in their music, in their song "What's the frequency, Kenneth?" they quote the card "withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy".

Moving to more recent times, Coldplay used the cards when recording their album Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends, but that may be because Brian Eno was their producer. 

The best descriptions I've found for how musicians use the cards are blog bosts by Rosie Cass and Dave Dyment.

My use of oblique strategies

Oblique Strategies are not a daily tool for me. I only use the cards when I'm stuck and brainstorming with colleagues doesn't work. Because of commercial confidentiality, I'm not going to give you a detailed work problem example, instead, I'm going to give you a similar problem and how I might use the cards.

Imagine I'm trying to find missing data in a data set. I've used a statistical approach to detect missing data, but I'm stuck finding more, I know 30% of the data is missing, and I can characterize 45% of that 30%, but I don't know how to find the remaining 65%. What can I do? This is where I would turn to Oblique Strategies. The art is to use the words on the card as a starting point for your thinking.

My starting point is one of the online card generators, let's start with this one. I pull a card online:

  • It is quite possible (after all)

This makes me think about what the desired end state might be. Can I identify 100% of the missing data? What 70% be enough? Maybe 45% is the best I can hope for? Do the success criteria change over time? Are there different categories of missing data? Maybe I can only get a few categories?

You can see how the train of thought continues. Let's pull another card.  

  • In total darkness, or in a very large room, very quietly

This is harder. Darkness makes me think of the lack of data here. Maybe there are hints about the missing data in the data I have? The large room makes me think of the data collection process. How efficient is it and how does it work?

This card probably isn't as helpful, so let's pull in another card.

  • State the problem in words as clearly as possible

Hmmm. This is more direct, but it's probably good advice to write down the problem clearly. So clearly that someone else could work on the problem. Maybe by clarifying the problem I could see a solution.

I could go on, but I think you can see the point. The cards don't provide a solution, but they're a kind of shock to the mind to think about the problem in different ways. It breaks me out of the rut of thinking-as-usual. 

I've used the cards to solve several business-technical problems over the last few years. They've enabled me to tame some very difficult problems. Once you get the idea of how to use them, the process is straightforward - it can even turn a frustrating problem into an enjoyable thinking session.

Where to get the cards

There are several online card generators, chose the one you like best:

If you prefer the tactile feel of real cards, you can buy cards from these vendors, but the prices are high:

Creativity is a must

If you're quite early in your career, then turning to your manager and saying "I'm stuck" is acceptable and even expected behavior. But as the senior person, there might be no one else to turn to, and even worse, you have to solve the "I'm stuck, help me" requests from others. Obviously, experience is a great tutor, but even experience lets us down from time to time. We all need an occasional creativity boost and Oblique Strategies is one of the methods I use.

Monday, December 28, 2020

I won an award! How to lose by winning

Company work anniversary awards

Sometimes, companies try and do a good thing but go about it so poorly, they end up doing something bad. 

A few years ago, I worked for a large company. I got to a work anniversary which triggered an award; a plastic slab I was supposed to display on my desk. How it was delivered was eye-opening.

(Winning a trophy like this would be meaningful. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. License: Public Domain.)

I was working at a different office from my manager, so the award was sent directly to me, including the written instructions to my manager on how to give me the award

How to do it wrong

The award was a tombstone-shaped piece of transparent plastic with some vaguely encouraging words embossed on it. Other than the company logo, there was no customization of any kind (not even the employee's name), it was completely generic. The instructions gave a formal pattern for how the plastic was to be awarded. They went something like this:

  • Allocate about 20 minutes for the award ceremony.
  • Gather the employee's colleagues together.
  • Thank the employee by name for their service to the company. Mention any noticeable successes. Be warm and encouraging. Use their name. Look them in the eye.
  • Hand over the award, being sure to note that it's a recognition of their service. Use their name.
  • State that you're looking forward to working with them in the future.
  • Start a round of applause.

I told my manager that this had happened and we both laughed. I told him I was going to have an award ceremony for myself and hand myself the award using the instructions in the box. He chuckled and told me to go for it. In other words, the whole thing meant nothing to either of us.

Obviously, the company's intention was to thank employees for not leaving. They'd thought it through sufficiently well enough to have a trophy that would be displayed on desks and that wouldn't cost very much. Of course, the goal of the ceremony was to celebrate the individual and make them feel special.

Unfortunately, the trophy wasn't meaningful to anyone - it didn't even look good. The instructions left a bad taste in my mouth. My guess is, the leadership was trying to reach managers who wouldn't normally celebrate individuals' contributions. By mandating the form of the ceremony, they were trying to introduce consistency and enforce meaning, but by describing the ceremony in detail, they undermined managers - this was a form of micro-managing and hinted at bigger issues with managers' people skills.

How to do it right

By contrast, I worked for another large organization that made a very big deal of work anniversaries. People who reached a significant anniversary were called into a big meeting and personally thanked by the CEO. There were meaningful gifts for reaching multiples of 5 years. Looking back on that experience, I believe the company, and the CEO were sincere - they put a lot of effort into thanking and recognizing people. The fact that the recognition was led by the CEO made a huge difference.

Don't fake it

Employee recognition is a fraught topic and work anniversaries can be tricky. Do you celebrate or not and why? If you do celebrate, then it needs to be meaningful and focused on the person; you can't fake or mandate sincerity. If you're going to do it, do it well.

Monday, December 21, 2020

The $10 screwdriver: a cautionary management tale

Managers gone mild

I've told this story to friends several times. It's a simple story, but the lessons are complex and it touches on many different areas. See what you think.

I was a software developer for a large organization working on network-related software. For various reasons I won't go into, we had to frequently change network cards in our test computers and re-install drivers. My bosses' boss put a rule in place that we had to use IT Support to change cards and re-install drivers - we weren't to change the cards ourselves. No other team had a similar rule and there had been no incidents or injuries. Despite asking many times, he wouldn't explain why he put the rule in place.

At first, IT Support was OK with it. But as time wore on, we wanted to change cards twice a day or more. IT Support had a lot of demands on their time and got irritated with the constant requests. They wanted to know why we couldn't do it ourselves. One of the IT guys burned us a CD with the drivers on it and told us to get our own screwdrivers and change the cards ourselves. They started to de-prioritize our help requests because, quite rightly, they had other things to do and we could swap the cards ourselves. It got to the stage where we had to wait over two hours for someone to come, unscrew two screws, swap the card, and screw the two screws back in.

We were very sympathetic to IT Support, but the situation was becoming intolerable. My software development team complained to our management about the whole thing. My bosses' boss still wouldn't budge and insisted we call IT Support to change cards, he wouldn't explain why and he wouldn't escalate the de-prioritization of tickets. 

Excalibur the screwdriver

I got so fed up with the whole thing, I went out one lunchtime and bought a £7 ($10) screwdriver. It was a very nice screwdriver, it had multiple interchangeable heads, a ratchet action, and it was red. I gave it to the team. We used the screwdriver and stopped calling IT Support - much to their relief.

The blessed screwdriver

(This isn't the actual screwdriver I bought, but it looks a lot like it. Image source: Wikimedia Commons, Author: Klara Krieg, License: Creative Commons.)

The consequences

I then made a big mistake. I put in an expense claim for the screwdriver.

It went to my boss, who didn't have the authority to sign it off. It then went to his boss, who wasn't sure if he could sign it off. It then went to his boss, who did have the authority but wanted to know more. He called a meeting (my boss, my bosses' boss, my bosses' bosses' boss) to discuss my expenses claim. I heard they talked about whether it was necessary or not and whether I had bought a screwdriver that was too expensive when a cheaper one would have done. They decided to allow my expenses claim this one time.

I was called into a meeting with my bosses' bosses' boss and told not to put in a claim like that again. I was called into a meeting with my bosses' boss who told me not to put in an expense claim like that again and that I should have used IT Support every single time and if I were to do it again to buy a cheaper screwdriver. I was then called into a meeting with my boss who told me it was all ridiculous but next time I should just eat the cost. Despite asking, no one ever explained why there had been a 'rule'. Once the screwdriver existed, we were expected to use it and not call IT Support.

Of course, the team all knew what was going on and there was incredulity about the company's behavior. The team lost a lot of respect for our leadership. The screwdriver was considered a holy relic to be treasured and kept safe.

What happened next

Subsequent to these events, I left and got another job. In my new job, I ended up buying thousands of pounds worth of equipment with no one blinking an eye (my new boss told me not to bother him with pre-approval for anything under £1,000). 

All the other technical people in my old group left not long after me. 

A competitor had been making headway in the market while I was there and really started to break through by the time I left. To respond to the competitive challenge, new leadership came in to make the company more dynamic and they replaced my entire management chain.

What I learned

Here's what I learned from all this. I should have eaten the cost of the screwdriver and avoided a conflict with my management chain, at the same time, I should have been looking for another job. The issue was a mismatch of goals: I wanted to build good things quickly but my management team didn't want to rock the boat. Ultimately, you can't bridge a gap this big. Buying the screwdriver was a subversion of the system and not a good thing to do unless there was a payoff, which there wasn't. 

I promised myself I would never behave like the management I experienced, and I never have. With my teams now, I'm careful to explain the why behind rules; it feels more respectful and brings people on side more. I listen to people and I've reversed course if they can make a good case. I've told people to be wise about expenses, to minimize what they spend, but when something needs to be bought, they need to buy it.

What do you think?

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Monday, August 31, 2020

Speaking in voices: pitch, volume, and speed

How you say it is important

As a speaker, you have two instruments to influence an audience: your voice and your body. In this blog post, I'm going to talk about how you can use your voice to become a more engaging and compelling speaker. 

To be successful on stage, you need to be more you, which means exaggerating who you are through your voice. It doesn't mean being manic, but it does mean being more expressive than you usually are. 

Everyone knows that speaking in a monotone can put audiences to sleep, which means it's important to have meaningful variation in your voice. You can use the need for variation to your advantage: you can use your voice to grab attention (in at least two different ways), to soothe an audience, or to rile them up.  

Let's look at three techniques you have at your disposal: volume, pitch, and speed.

(Margaret Thatcher was an expert in her use of voice pitch. Image source: Wikimedia Commons, Photographer: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo, License: Public domain)


This is the most obvious method; you can vary how loudly you speak. You should do it mindfully and be aware that you can use softness and loudness for the same goal.

Obviously, speaking loudly, or very loudly, grabs an audience's attention, but it quickly becomes tiring for both the audience and the speaker and the effect rapidly wears off. You should use louder speech as you might use bold text in a document - to draw attention to a point. For example, a CEO might say something like:

"...our results for 2020 were at the lower end of expectations, in 2021, we changed our approach and saw a 10% improvement, in 2022, we must continue to focus on our core business."

The CEO would say the words in bold louder than the other words, and the underlined word louder still.

I was at a comedy club when the compere had to revive an audience after the previous comic had died on stage. He used various techniques to do it, but the most obvious one was loudness; he spoke closer to the microphone which had the effect of amplifying his voice. At times, it was so loud it was almost painful. However, it worked, he got the audience's attention and he continued with his set at a more reasonable volume. If you're the first speaker on stage after lunch, you can do the same to get your audience's attention, but don't do it for too long.

You can also use a softer voice to get attention. One power move I've seen is for executives to speak softly to force people to listen more closely. Of course, this only works if the room is right and there are no background noises, but when it works, it works really well.

The ultimate in speaking softly is silence. I've used silence in my talks to powerful effect and I've seen others use it too. Mostly, it takes the form of a longer-than-usual pause in the lead-up to some crucial part of the talk. The silence works to build audience tension to a reveal and it serves to amplify the message. I've seen comedians use it to add power to a punchline - some comedians can get a huge laugh from weak material by the effective use of silences to build anticipation. Of course, you have to use silences judiciously and not drag them out too long; extended silences can become excruciating for audiences. My suggestion is to use silences that last no longer than a count of 3 or 4.

Let's imagine you're VP of Engineering and you wanted to grab your audiences' attention during a talk on 2021 objectives. Here's how you might emphasize a point using silence:

"In 2020, we had a problem that plagued several teams. It caused us to miss deadlines. It caused us additional expenses. It caused us all greater personal time and effort. The problem was..." <SILENCE FOR A COUPLE OF BEATS>"... staff retention."

Silence draws attention to your point.

Volume control is also partly dependent on your microphone technique. Very, very few speakers practice using a microphone and working with the sound team, and that's a shame. Although lapel mics are easy and very popular, a handheld mic enables you to play sound games, for example, to increase volume by moving the microphone closer to your mouth. This has the advantage of increasing volume and not distorting your voice in the way that shouting does. If you intend to use the microphone like this, for heaven's sake, practice and speak to the sound person if there is one. A sound person will immediately drop your volume if you use the microphone like this - you have to tell them what you're going to do so they don't work against you.

Pitch (frequency)

In normal speech, you vary the pitch of your speech for different reasons:

  • high pitch represents energy and excitement and high emotion
  • low pitch represents calm seriousness

You also vary pitch within sentences; you use increasing pitch to indicate a question at the end of sentences.

Even business speeches have emotional content if you play them right. One company I worked for had a meaningful commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility and people spoke about their experiences in disadvantaged communities around the world. The best speakers used high pitch to give a forceful power when talking about their experiences and coupled it with lower pitch to talk about the effect it had on them. More generally, executives can use a higher pitch for energetic parts of a speech, for example, talking about beating the competition or exceeding quota, and then use a lower pitch for serious parts, like discussing training and staff development.

Like all abilities, your vocal range is limited, which is why certain types of speech may suit your voice better than others, but there are things you can do to extend or even change your vocal range.

There's a famous story about Margaret Thatcher and her voice training. Before she became Prime Minister, one of the criticisms she faced was that she sounded like a shrill housewife. Obviously, this was a long time ago and it's a deeply sexist comment, but even today, it's a criticism of female politicians. Margaret Thatcher dealt with it by lowering the pitch of her voice. She had voice training and performed voice exercises to speak more deeply. It worked for her; if you get time, listen to some of her speeches, they're masterclasses in the use of voice for oratory. 

If you do have a higher-pitched voice, you need to be careful about your vocal range in speeches. Yes, it is deeply unfair that women are labeled shrill, but the labeling occurs. At the very least, you should be aware it will happen.


Speed is similar to pitch:

  • High speed represents energy, excitement, high emotion
  • Low speed represents seriousness

in fact, speed and pitch often work together to emphasize a point. 

If you need to represent urgency or energy, speak more quickly. The risk is that some of your audience might not catch every word, especially non-native speakers, but there is a way around this that can work to your advantage. Many rhetorical devices use repetition in some form or other (e.g. anaphora, epimone, epistrophe etc.) - using one of these devices plus speed means some members of your audience can miss words but still take away the meaning. Very few audiences and speakers can maintain a high level of energy for extended periods, as a consequence, you need to use higher speed with consideration.

If you need to convey seriousness, speak more slowly. The classic case is a national leader speaking during a time of crisis; they all tend to speak more slowly and deliberately to convey gravity.

Of course, you can overdo speaking slowly. The risk is, you put your audience to sleep, so use it sparingly.

Putting it all together

You should use these techniques like spices in cooking; use them to bring out the features of your talk but not as the main element. You want people to remember your message, not your technique. Some techniques, like silence, are very powerful and should only be used sparingly. Others, like speed, you can use to add variety and interest and to emphasize your point. To keep your audience engaged, you need variety.

To see masters of voice control at work, I suggest you listen to the speeches of Martin Luther King or Margaret Thatcher, two people with very different styles and very different politics, but both very, very effective.

There are other voice techniques that I haven't gone into here. I haven't talked about communicating emotion or using rhythm in speeches. These are more advanced topics I might write about in the future. 

Like any physical skill, you need to practice to get good at using these techniques. The next time you're giving a talk, try to add volume, pitch, and speed to add variety and emphasize the important points.

Other blog posts in the series

Monday, August 24, 2020

Everything stops for tea

I was told this story years ago by those who were supposedly involved. I worked for the company concerned, but I'm not sure if it makes the story truer or not. In any case, it's a fun story with a subtle moral.

There was an IT department in a big company who were installing servers in an older building that didn't have dedicated server rooms or closets. Because there was nowhere else to put it, they installed a server in an office. The server was a typical innocuous beige box.

After a few weeks, there were reports of trouble in the building. Fairly regularly, e-mail and other services would go down for five minutes at about the same time of day. The IT department investigated. They checked the server configurations, but the configurations weren't to blame. They checked the cabling, but that was just fine. They checked network cards and routers, but everything seemed to be working as expected. During the whole investigation, the network kept on going down at around 10:30am for about 5 minutes, but there seemed to be no hardware or software cause.

In desperation, the IT department posted someone to sit by the server all day to watch what happened.

At about 10:30am, a secretary filled an electric kettle with water. She walked into the office, unplugged the server, and plugged in her kettle. She made herself and her boss a nice pot of tea. When the tea was brewing, she unplugged the kettle and plugged the server back in. She then went to enjoy her break and have her cup of tea.

(Image source: Wikimedia Commons Artist: Ian Smith License: Creative Commons)

So the mystery was solved. The IT department put a notice on the server plug not to unplug it and identified the server as a server. The secretary found another, less convenient place to plug in her kettle, and the world moved on.

I was told this story by the IT department. In their telling, the villain of the piece was the secretary, who they thought should have known better. At the time, I accepted this and laughed with them. Now, I disagree. In my view, the villain was the IT department and the innocent party was the secretary.

No one told the secretary that the server was important; it wasn't marked in any way. She wasn't a technical person and she had no way of knowing what the box was or what it did. Because of the age of the building, the server was in an office instead of in a server closet, so there were lots of non-technical people in the area near the server. The IT department did know what the server was, and they knew that there were non-technical people around, but they chose not to mark the server or communicate to anyone what it was or how important it was to keep it plugged in.

Bottom line: don't blame people for not being psychic - it's your responsibility to communicate.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Sad! How not to create a career structure: good intentions gone wrong


I worked for a company that tried to do a good thing for people's careers and promotion prospects, but it back-fired horribly and ended up hurting more than it helped. I'm going to tell you the story and draw some lessons from it. Of course, I've changed and obscured some details to protect the guilty.

Placid developers turning into a mob
(Sometimes doing the right thing badly can turn even placid software developers into a mob. Image source: Wikimedia Commons, License: Public Domain.)

The company

The company was a large corporation with several hundred software developers working in different divisions on different projects. There was a formal grade level for developers: a developer fresh out of college might be level 20 and an experienced and senior developer might be level 30. Each level had a pay band with a rigid cap; once you reached the cap, you could only get more money by promotion. The pay bands overlapped and people knew them. Everyone was keenly aware of their level and there was open discussion of who was on what level. 

The problem was, the standards and levels were inconsistent across and within departments. Some departments and managers were known to be 'generous' and others were known to be 'mean'. Some developers moved departments as the only way to get promoted, but there were problems with this approach too. Some departments had one set of rules for pay and levels, while others had different rules. In some cases, developers tried to move to other groups to get a promotion, but they were offered jobs at the bottom of the pay band at that level, which unfortunately was less money than they were currently on. Managerial inconsistencies had bad consequences for individuals too. In one case, a person got a big promotion and their manager left not long after. Their new manager felt they were underperforming and that they had been over-promoted. Some managers promoted based on performance alone, but others insisted on time served on a level.

The bottom line was, there were substantial inconsistencies and inequities and the software engineers were unhappy.

The learned organization

Fortunately, there was an active learned organization that helped software companies. One of the things this very learned organization did was produce career guidance, specifically, it produced a career hierarchy showing what software developers would be expected to do at different levels of seniority. As with all management solutions, it was a matrix. There were different skills in different areas and some areas were only applicable to more senior positions. To put it simply, they'd mapped out a grading structure and the skills and responsibilities of each grade.

On the face of it, this sounded like a perfect solution for my employer: why not roll out this grading structure and use it to decide people's levels?

The roll-out

My employer took the skills/grades matrix from the learned society and mapped it to the internal levels 20-30. The idea was, you could see what was expected of you at your level and what skills you needed to develop and the responsibilities you needed to take on to get a promotion. Sounds great!

They published this guidance to all developers.

Light the blue touch paper...

The fall-out

Here's what happened.

The people on high grades (around 30) knew they weren't going to be demoted and their salary wasn't going to go down. Most of them noticed that they weren't doing many of the things the skills/grades matrix said they should be doing. They found the whole thing hilarious. They openly joked about the grade/skills matrix and freely talked about all the things they weren't doing that the matrix said they should be.

The majority of people were on middling grades (23-27) and this was incendiary to them. Many of the people were doing more than what was expected of them at their grade level. In many cases, they were meeting the requirements two levels above their current level. The net results were urgent discussions with their managers about immediate promotions.

The middling grades people were furious, while the high-grade people were laughing about it. It wasn't a happy mix and management had to step in to stifle debate to calm people down.

Senior management soon realized this was explosive, so they backpedaled quickly. The roll-out program was canceled due to unexplained 'deficiencies in the process' and it 'not meeting business needs'. A review was promised, which as you might expect, never happened. The subject became taboo and senior management didn't attempt any further reform. 

Of course, this had its impact. The middling grades realized they had to leave to get career advancement and the senior people realized further advancement was unlikely. The people with get up and go got up and left.

What about the people on the lower grades? When the roll-out happened, they were very happy. For the first time, they had clear goals for promotion, and consistency meant they wouldn't have to leave their group to get promoted. They were upset when it was canceled because it was back to the old opaque system. When the review never happened, it dawned on many of them that the company wasn't serious about their futures.

Instead of being a positive change for the future, it set the company back several years.

Why did it go so badly wrong?

Solving the wrong problem

What problem was senior management trying to solve? There were two broad problems we faced as a company:

  • Current inequities and inconsistencies
  • Future inequities and inconsistencies

The skill/grade matrix was a solution to the second problem, but not the first. The first problem was the most serious and the skills/grade matrix just made it more visible. The senior management team had no plan to address the first problem.

The leadership applied the right solution to the wrong problem.

Overnight fix to a long-standing problem

Inconsistencies had built up over the course of about a decade, and there were reasons why things developed the way they did. Partly, it was company culture. 

As a general rule of thumb, entrenched problems take time to solve. Senior leadership plainly expected a magic wand, but that was never going to happen. They didn't put in enough effort post-launch to make the project successful.

Didn't listen/lack of inclusion

This was the main problem. Senior leadership should have talked to software developers to understand what their concerns really were. In short order, listening would have brought to the surface the issues with current inequities and it would have shown senior leadership that the plan wasn't going to work. The fact that developers weren't involved in discussions about their own future was telling.

Pretend it never happened

You can't put the genie back in the lamp. Senior management tried to brush the whole thing under the rug very quickly when it was apparent it was going wrong, which was the worst response they could have made. 

How should they have dealt with it?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but knowing what I know now, here's how I would have dealt with this situation differently.

  • Understand what the problem really is by talking to people. By people, I mean the people directly affected. I've learned never to rely on intermediaries who may be incentivized to mislead or tell you what you want to hear.
  • Deal with the worst cases up-front and as one-offs. A one-size fits all process can flounder when dealing with outliers, so it's better to deal with the most extreme cases individually. In this case, people who should be on much higher levels.
  • Trial the solution with a small group. Trying it on a group of about 20-30 software developers would have flushed out most of the problems.
  • Stick with it. Put the effort in to make it work, but have clear criteria for exiting if it doesn't work.

More specifically, I might have followed these policies.

  • Assuming no or very little money for promotions, I would have extended the pay bands at the bottom end. This would allow me to promote people without incurring extra costs. In the ideal world, you promote everyone who deserves it and give them the appropriate pay rise, but the ideal world doesn't exist.
  • I might reform the whole 20-30 levels, for example, I might call the levels something else, and then I would map people to new levels, including mapping some people to higher levels. An exercise like this allows you to correct all kinds of oddities, but of course, some people will be upset.
  • For people who were on higher levels than they should be, I would leave them there for a while. It's too damaging for an organization to make corrections on this scale - there were just too many people who were over-promoted. But I wouldn't promote these people further until their performance warranted it.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

The art of persuasion: pathos, logos, and ethos

The art of persuasion is ancient

In this blog post, I'm going to talk about three high-level approaches to persuasion that people have used for thousands of years: pathos, logos, and ethos. Aristotle codified them, hence their Greek names, but despite their ancient origins, they pop up in modern sales methods, in the speeches given by politicians, and in preachers' sermons. Understanding these basics will let you craft more effective speeches and emails.

(Martin Luther King was one of the best rhetoricians of the 20th century. King used pathos enormously effectively in his 'I have a dream speech'. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Photographer: Rowland Scherman.)


Sadly, this is the weakest of the three, it's the appeal to logic; the use of facts and figures, and inference and deduction to make an argument. For example, if I were trying to make the case that the economy was great under my leadership, I might talk about high employment numbers, pay rises, and business growth. My chain of reasoning would be: the numbers are great due to my leadership, so you should vote for me. Let's look at a couple of real examples.

My first example is Winston Churchill's "Their finest hour speech" (you can read more analysis of this speech here):

"‘Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.’"

Note there are no numbers here, it's a chain of logic linking one idea to another, in this case, an if-then piece of logic.

John F. Kennedy also used logos. Here's an excerpt from his famous "We choose to go to the moon..." speech:

"Within these last 19 months at least 45 satellites have circled the earth. Some 40 of them were made in the United States of America and they were far more sophisticated and supplied far more knowledge to the people of the world than those of the Soviet Union."

Note the use of numbers to make the point that the United States was ahead of, and more advanced than the Soviet Union. Logos isn't just about making cold scientific claims, it can be about bashing your opponents with logic. 

Margaret Thatcher was a master speaker, and she used logos to batter her opponents:

"If the Labour Government is no longer able to act in the national interest, is there no alternative to the ruin of Britain? Yes, indeed there is - and that alternative is here at Brighton today."

(Leader's Speech, Brighton, 1976)

The point is, logos isn't about a mathematical deduction, it's about creating a chain of arguments to lead the audience to the conclusion that your point is true. 

In sales situations, logos is used in several ways, for example, a salesperson might say something like: "Our solution costs less on a yearly basis than competitor Y but has features A, B, and C that Y does not."


This is an appeal from authority, the idea is that the speaker has some kind of position that gives them special knowledge. The most obvious example is the old quote: "Trust me, I'm a doctor". Speakers use this device a lot to establish credibility, for example, you might hear people talk about years of government service, or their qualifications, or their awards. 

One of the best examples of ethos I've come across is Steve Jobs Stanford Commencement address of 2005. Pretty much, the whole speech is ethos, establishing his credibility with the audience. Here's a small extract:

"I was lucky — I found what I loved to do early in life. Woz and I started Apple in my parents’ garage when I was 20. We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4,000 employees. We had just released our finest creation — the Macintosh — a year earlier, and I had just turned 30."

There are several ways speakers establish ethos. Sometimes, they talk about their education, or they talk about their experiences, or they talk about their awards. But how do you establish ethos if you have none of those things? The answer is, you can co-opt it from other people and organizations.

A salesperson might co-opt ethos by talking about the awards and success of their company or product, for example, "Product X was the biggest selling product in category Y, it's the industry standard." They also use external references from trusted sources. Gartner's magic quadrant analysis is widely used for a reason, it lends external credibility and is a great source of ethos. Success stories serve similar purposes too; you can use a quote from an industry figure to boost your credibility.


This is an emotional appeal to do something. It's is one of the most effective persuasive techniques, but it has to be used carefully; it's a blunt instrument that can undermine your argument. One of the clearest examples of pathos also illustrates the problem: "do as I ask or I kill this kitten".

I'm going to return to Winston Churchill and another of his famous speeches for my first example, here's a famous extract:

"I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”"

(Blood, toil, tears, and sweat)

Churchill's goal was to get the politicians and the people to join him in an existential struggle against fascism. He used vivid imagery to illustrate the struggle ahead. If logos is the use of facts and figures, pathos is the use of adjectives and adverbs.

One of my other favorite speakers is Martin Luther King, here's an extract from his most famous speech:

"I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice."

King is using evocative language to appeal to his audience, to motivate them to appeal for change.

I've seen salespeople use pathos in a clever way when they ask a prospect what the success of product would mean for them. The crude example here is telling someone they would look good in a sports car. Less crudely, the success of a product could lead to promotions. This has to be artfully done, but I've seen it used very effectively.

Using them in a speech

Not every speech uses all the elements of persuasion, but many of them do. Let's imagine you're promoting your company's product at a convention and had a short slot to do it. Here's how you might use pathos, logos, and ethos.

Speech Commentary 
In 2020, Gartner placed us in the leader quadrant of their X magic quadrant for the fifth year running.
Ms A, Vice-President for Important Things at Big Company B said that Product Y was a game-changer for them.
She said it reduced design costs by 20% and reduced time-to-market by 15%. Her experience is common, which is why we have the largest market share and we're growing more rapidly than any other company in the sector. We're becoming the industry standard. Logos.
But it's not just about money. Because we reduce design flow issues, we reduce low-level re-work and rote work, so we free up engineers' time to be more creative and use their skills in more engaging and interesting ways. Our software enabled Dr S to design H, which won the industry design award and got him on the cover of Trade Publication. Pathos

This is a little crude, but you get the general idea.

Churchill, Kennedy, and King did not just make up their speeches. They knew very well what they were doing. Churchill and King in particular were master rhetoricians, adept at using words to change the world. Knowing a little of rhetoric can pay dividends if you're trying to be more persuasive.

Reading more

A lot of books on rhetoric are unreadable, which is odd given that rhetoric is about communication. Here are some of the ones I like:

  • Thank You for Arguing, Fourth Edition: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion - Jay Heinrichs
  • Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama - Sam Leith

Rhetoric for managers series

This post is part of a series of posts on rhetoric for managers. Here are the other posts in the series: