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

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Managers must actively listen: foundational skills

Managers need to actively listen

Almost every MBA or business school degree has units on communications, including spoken communication. A great deal of attention is lavished on learning how to give speeches and how to communicate ideas, but no time is given to a more important management skill: how to actively listen. 

(If a dog can listen attentively, why can't you? Image credit: Wikimedia Commons. License: Public Domain.) 

If you're thinking of listening as a passive skill, you've got it wrong. If you think of it just as letting someone speak, you're mistaken. If you think of it as something you can just do, you've totally misunderstood it.

By actively listening, I mean understanding the true meaning of what someone says and not just the superficial content. I mean actively probing for the key underlying messages and feelings. I mean communicating back to the speaker that you've heard and understand what they have to say by your choice of gestures, noises, and responses.

By actively listening, you can understand what's really going on and earn trust as a manager. You can demonstrate empathy, respect, and the value you place on people. 

In the last few years, the 'fake it until you make it' business meme has done the rounds, meaning pretending to be something you're not so you can get promoted to be what you were pretending to be. Active listening is the antithesis of this approach; it's all about communicating genuine human warmth. You can't fake caring.

Listen without distraction

Our first listening lesson is the simplest: listen with undivided attention and communicate that your attention is undivided. This means no ringing phones and no beeping devices. Turn off or silence your phone or watch. Turn off or silence notifications on your computer - better still, close up your laptop or turn your screen away. 

If at all possible, you should sit close to someone without distractions or obstructions. If you have an office, get up from behind your desk so you can sit with the person without diversion. Sitting behind your desk communicates power, and it's even worse if your monitor even partially obscures your view. If you don't have an office, go to a meeting room where you won't be distracted. On Zoom or video conferencing, close down any distracting windows and look at the person only (not other computer windows or something else in your home office).

These things sound simple, but it's surprising how many people don't understand the basics of turning off distractions. If you want people to talk, you need to give them the right environment - and that means you have to take action.

Let's imagine you wanted to talk to your manager about a difficult situation at work. Perhaps you suspect you're the victim of sexual or racial harassment, or you've seen something in another department you think you should report, or you're unhappy with a colleague. Each of these situations is difficult for you to talk about and requires you to trust your manager. Now imagine when you finally screw up the courage to see them, they sit behind their desk fiddling with their phone, their computer pings every minute, and they keep on turning away to check their monitor. Do you think you would tell a manager who behaves like this something that's risky and that requires trust? Do you want to be the kind of manager your team trusts, or do you just want to just fake it? Being authentic requires effort on your part.

Just making time for people isn't enough. You have to understand what's expected of you and what you mustn't do.

Listening isn't problem-solving

One of the big mistakes managers make is slipping into problem-solving mode as soon as someone starts discussing a problem or issue. For people from a technical background, this is a comforting response to a difficult situation, after all, solving problems is what technical people are trained to do. But this might be the exact opposite of what the person wants. They might just want to talk through a difficult or disturbing situation and be heard. The other risk is, by offering solutions too soon, you might block more serious content. Sometimes, someone might come to see you with a 'presenting problem' that's relatively innocuous; they're seeing if they can trust you before disclosing the bigger issue. Before suggesting any solution, you should make sure you've heard the totality of what someone has to say. Your first goal should be making sure the person feels heard.

The biggest risk of active listening for managers

I do have to address one of the big risks of listening: role confusion. You are a manager, not a counselor. The art of listening as a manager is to know your limits and not try to be a cheap therapist. Remember, as a manager, you may have to use the performance management process on someone which may be next to impossible if the person is relying on you as a counselor. If you've allowed an unhealthy pseudo-counseling relationship to develop, you've put yourself in a career-limiting situation. At all times, you must remember you are a manager.

Listening leads to acting - sometimes

There's another key difference between a therapist and a manager. As a manager, you need to act on what people tell you. You don't need to act all the time, sometimes people need to vent and your role is solely to listen and communicate you've heard what they have to say. But on other occasions, you have to act - in fact, acting is the ultimate in active listening: 'I've heard what you have to say and I'm going to do something about it'. If you do nothing in response to what you hear, ultimately people will do something themselves: they'll leave and go somewhere else.

What's next?

I'm going to blog a bit more about listening. I'm going to focus on some micro-skills you can use to communicate you're listening, and provide examples and exercises you can follow. These blog posts are not about faking listening, they're about being human and about your role for your team - demonstrating why you're a manager.


The best single-volume book I've come across that covers the skills of active listening is "Swift to hear" by Michael Jacobs (ISBN: 978-0281052608). The book is aimed at people involved in pastoral care, but it focuses on technical skills, making it a great resource for anyone who needs to listen attentively.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Drunk and disorderly: not funny at company events

Loutishness isn't funny

Maybe I'm getting more puritanical as I get older, but I'm finding myself less and less tolerant of drunken loutishness at corporate events. I've seen too many instances where people have got away with poor behavior to the detriment of others and to the detriment of the organization as a whole. Let me tell you my stories; I've disguised some of the details to protect the guilty.

(Great when enjoyed responsibly, not so great when it leads to bad behavior on company time. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons (klimkin). License: Creative Commons Zero)

Ruining the lawn

One fine summer evening, the company I worked for held a large-scale open-air event. The aim was to play summer outdoor games and enjoy a drink or two in the company of our colleagues. The venue was extremely proud of its grounds and had obviously spent a lot of money creating and maintaining immaculate grass playing surfaces. Some of my colleagues realized there was no limit at the bar and set out to get drunk on company money; a task they succeeded at admirably. One of them decided it would be really funny to plant his glass in the middle of the grass. He turned his glass upside down and stomped it into the lawn. His friends thought this was funny, so they did it too. The next day, the groundskeepers discovered the stomped glasses and had to fix the damage, which meant the venue was unavailable for others. Net result? The company paid a penalty to repair the lawn and was banned from the venue (the only venue like it for miles). Everyone knew who the stompers were, but they got away with it.

The Christmas party

Christmas time seems to bring out the worst in some people at corporate events. I was at a large-scale company Christmas lunch where a lot of alcohol had been consumed. One of the employees decided it would be fun to start throwing food at other tables. The food fight escalated until someone soaked a small tablecloth in water, screw it up into a ball, and threw it at another table. It hit the other table like a bomb, exploding a carafe of red wine, splattering everyone in red wine and glass fragments. This was plainly very upsetting for the people on the table and brought the event to an end. Obviously, the company was banned from the venue, but this time I believe someone did have a word with one of the perpetrators and there was managerial discussion of curtailing bad behavior.

The overseas trip

Corporate events held away from home can be a lot of fun, but there can be problems too. I was at a corporate event held in a resort venue and I witnessed some unfortunate things. There was a mix of company people, who were getting everything for free, and vacationers, who had paid to stay at the resort. It was not a happy combination. The company people were away from family, off the leash, and with unlimited free alcohol. On the whole, their behavior towards paying guests was disrespectful at best. At one of the resort bars, I got chatting to a vacationing couple who complained to me about poor treatment from my work colleagues. The vacationers were very unimpressed by the rude and drunken behavior they saw. This was not a good company image to project.

Company culture and drunkenness

I'm happy to say, I haven't seen drunken behavior at my current employer and I think I know why. The company has taken great pains with recruitment and boorish behavior just isn't part of company culture. As a manager, I would be on top of drunken misbehavior immediately, and I believe my fellow managers would do the same too.

Advice to managers: stop it dead

Along with most managers, I've read my fair share of legal documents, case studies, and guidance. Pulling all this together, here are my thoughts:

  • You are never off-the-clock if you're at a company event or with company people. Even if a few work colleagues go out for a drink, it's still a company event.
  • Loutish behavior is not tolerable and there have to be consequences. Just as the workplace must be safe, it must be safe to be with work colleagues. It must be safe for non-employees to be around employees too. Managers need to jump on instances of bad behavior immediately.
  • Everyone must know what the rules are and there must be reminders. Managers must make it clear to new employees what's acceptable and what isn't. It's only fair that everyone knows what's expected of them.

I'm not against people having a drink at company events, I'm not even against people getting drunk at events, but I am against harmful behavior toward others. I want everyone to feel safe and to be safe.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

(De)motivational speakers

I’ve heard motivational speakers give messages completely contrary to company values and I’ve heard a motivational speaker encourage people to resign. I’ve heard speakers that made me feel good to be a part of the company and I’ve heard speakers that made me think. 

It might seem like a good thing for a company to bring in a motivational speaker, but it needs thought as we’ll see. Let’s start with the bad because that’s always more fun.

(Motivational speaking, old school. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

At one company I worked at, we had a talk given by a mountaineer who had climbed Mount Everest. They vividly described the struggle of the team to get to the top; the cold, the physical demands, the oxygen deprivation. The expedition got close to the summit, but some of the team were struggling and it was difficult to move forward together. The leadership made the decision to leave some of the team behind and make for the summit with just a handful. The small group made it to the summit and took their pictures at the top of the world. They celebrated their glorious achievement and the speaker spoke movingly of the elation they felt. Then they started to make their way down, meeting up with their colleagues they’d left behind. The speaker told us how bitterly disappointed the people who were left behind were. The leadership had to carefully manage relationships with those they’d left behind to get everyone off the mountain and safely back to base camp. Once they were back at base camp, it didn’t matter anymore because everyone dispersed.

It was a great talk delivered well, but…

The company I worked for at the time had a big thing about teamwork and carrying everyone with you. It was all about the collective way forward. But the talk seemed to have a couple of underlying themes; you need a big team to get to the top and if people are holding you back, you cut them loose so the high performers can achieve their goals. It seemed to me that the talk was completely at odds with the company’s values. Was the company now advocating that we leave people behind? As I heard this story, I wondered about the people in the audience, did they all identify with the group that made it to the summit, or did they think they might be in the group left behind? What does it mean to work in a company where you might be left behind so others can get to the summit?

A different company I worked for was having some trouble retaining staff but wanted to grow. At a company meeting, we had a speaker who had sailed in a major race. The speaker was great, he spoke about his impoverished background, how he stumbled across sailing but loved it. He told us how he sacrificed a great deal to afford to sail and how after years of struggle, he qualified for a major sailing event. He told us how hard the race was and the deprivations he suffered during it. But he also told us how elated he was when he finished and achieved his life’s ambition. His closing message was, you should never be content with where you are and that you should stretch yourself to achieve new goals, do new things, and go to new places. But...

One of my colleagues turned to me and said “did he just tell us to leave the company and go somewhere else?” I said that he’d just told us we could do better elsewhere. Both of us left the company within six months to get better jobs.

Let’s turn to more positive speakers.

I had the great fortune to hear Mark Cuban and Adam Savage (from Mythbusters) speak at a company event for customers. They didn’t say anything that supported the company’s values but they didn’t say anything to contradict them either - they talked about their own subjects, Mark Cuban spoke about innovation and management and Adam Savage spoke about Mythbusters and what happened on set. It was great to hear them speak and great to get some insight into who they are. I left the event with a good feeling about the company - I was happy I’d had this experience and felt gratitude to my employer for providing it for me.

Recently, I heard a speaker talk about how their family had built a clothing company chain of stores around exemplary customer service. Their stores are extremely high-end, serving CEOs and others at the top of their professions. He told stories of associates driving to customer’s houses to deliver items, of clothing shipped out overnight across America so a CEO could give a TV interview looking his best, of tailoring services provided free to high-end customers to win their business. It was an awe-inspiring talk and fascinating to see how the family had consistently built their business. As you can tell, I loved the talk. I was fascinated by how well they’d aligned their tactical activities towards their strategic business goals; for me, it wasn’t about customer service, it was about aligning incentives and actions towards a clear end goal.

I’ve had the opportunity to think about the motivational speakers I’ve heard and the effect they’ve had on people. On the face of it, it seems like a great idea to bring in a compelling speaker, but as we’ve seen, it can go wrong. I recommend motivational speakers, but with qualifications.

  • Listen to them speak and hear the entirety of their talk. Does it support your company values? Is there anything in the talk that might encourage behavior you don’t want (leaving people behind, encouraging people to quit)?
  • Brief your speaker on your company values and ask them to avoid undermining them. Speakers can choose to focus on parts of their story, and they could choose the parts that support your values.
  • Understand why you’re bringing in a speaker and the effect you want to have on your audience. Bringing in celebrities is fun and makes people feel good. Bringing in business people can make people think. Bringing in people who have a powerful story to tell can be moving. But what’s your goal?
  • Reinforce the message by having an executive point out the pieces they want the audience to take away. Never leave it to the audience or the speaker to decide the takeaways.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Inventory: your job may depend on how it's managed

Why should you care about inventory?

For your own job security, you need to understand the financial position of your employer; their true financial position will govern your pay and promotion prospects. Long before they affect your job, you can spot looming signs of trouble in company financial statements. Learning a little of accounting will also help you understand news stories as we'll see. In this blog post, I'm going to talk about one of the easiest signs of trouble to spot, inventory problems. Because it's always fun, I'm going to include some cases of fraud. Bear in mind, innocent people lose their jobs because of inventory issues; I hope you won't be one of them. 

(Is inventory good or bad? It depends. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons. License: public domain.)

Inventory concepts

Inventories are items held for sale or items that will be used to manufacture products. Good examples are the items retailers hold for sale (e.g. clothes, food, books) and the parts manufacturers hold (e.g. parts for use on a car assembly line). On a balance sheet, inventory is listed as a current asset, which means it's something that can be turned into cash 'quickly'. There are different types of accounting inventory, but I won't go into what they are.

Inventory changes can be benign but can be a sign of trouble. Let's imagine a bookseller whose inventory is increasing. Is this good or bad?

  • If the bookseller is expanding (more sales, more shops), then increasing inventory is a sign of success.
  • If the bookseller is not expanding, then increasing inventory is deeply concerning. The bookseller is buying books it can't sell.

There are two ways of valuing inventory, which opens the door to shenanigans. Let's imagine you're a coal-burning power station and you have a stockpile of coal. The price of coal fluctuates. Do you value your stockpile of coal at current market prices or the price that you paid for it? There are two ways of evaluating inventory: FIFO and LIFO.

  • FIFO is first-in, first-out - the first items purchased are the first items sold. Inventory is valued at current market prices.
  • LIFO is last-in, first-out - the last items purchased are the first items sold. Inventory is valued at historic market prices.

If prices are going up, then LIFO increases the cost of goods sold and reduces profitability, conversely, FIFO reduces the cost of goods sold and increases profitability. There are also tax implications for the different inventory evaluation methods. 

Obviously, things are more complex than I've described here but we have enough of the basic ideas, so let's get to the fraud stories.

Inventory shenanigans

OM Group produced specialty chemicals from raw materials, including cobalt. In the early 2000s, cobalt was mostly sourced as a by-product from mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a very unstable part of the world. The price of cobalt was going down and OM Group saw a way of making that work to their advantage. Their first step was to use the LIFO method of valuing their cobalt inventory. The next step was to buy up cheap cobalt and keep buying as the price dropped. Here's what that meant; because they used LIFO, for accounting purposes, the cobalt they used in production was valued at the new (low) market price, so the cost of goods sold went down, so profitability went up! The older (and more expensive) cobalt was kept in inventory. To keep the business profits increasing, they needed the price of cobalt to go down and they needed to buy more of it, regardless of their manufacturing needs. The minute prices went up, or they started eating into inventory, or they stopped buying more cobalt, profitability would fall. To put it simply, the boost to profits was an accounting shell game.

OM Group logo at the time. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons. License: Public Domain.)

As you might expect, the music eventually stopped. The SEC charged some of the executives with fraud and reached a settlement with the company, and there was a class-action lawsuit from some company investors. Unsurprisingly, the company later changed its name when the dust settled. If you want to understand how you could spot something like this, there's a very readable description of the accounting fraud by Gary Mishuris, an analyst who spotted it.  

Manufacturing plants run best when producing at a constant rate, but market demands fluctuate. If demand reduces, then inventory will increase, something that will be obvious in a company's financial statements. How can a company disguise a drop in demand? One illegal way is through something called 'channel stuffing', which is forcing your distributors and resellers to take your unsold inventory so you can record it as sales. 

Semiconductor companies are manufacturers and typically have large distribution networks through resellers covering different geographies or markets. For example, a semiconductor company may sell directly to large electronics companies but may serve smaller electronics companies through resellers, who may, in turn, resell to other distributors and so on.

Between 1995 and 2006, Vitesse Semiconductor used channel stuffing extensively to manage its earnings. It had an arrangement with its distributors that they could unconditionally sell back any chips they had bought and not sold. Here's how channel stuffing worked; if Vitesse needed to increase profits in a quarter, they would require their distributors to buy Vitesse' inventory. This would show up as an increase in Vitesse's sales for that quarter. At some point in the future, the resellers could sell the chips back to Vitesse. The chips themselves might never leave the warehouse, but might have been 'owned' by several different companies. In other words, short-term increases in profitability were driven by an accounting scam.

(Vitesse Semiconductor chip. Image credit: Raimond Spekking via Wikimedia Commons. License: Creative Commons)

Of course, this is all illegal and the SEC took action against the company; the executives were indicted for fraud. Vitesse had to restate their earnings substantially downwards, which in turn triggered a class action lawsuit. This fraud has even made it into fraud textbooks.

I want to stop for a minute and ask you to think. These are entertaining stories, but what if you were an (innocent) employee of OM Group or Vitesse Semiconductor? When the SEC arrests the leadership, what are the implications for employees? When the accounts are restated and profitability takes a nose dive, what do you think the pay and job prospects are like for the rank-and-file workers?

Inventory and politics - Brexit

A while back, I was chatting to a Brexit supporter, when a news report came on the TV; UK economic output had increased, but the increase had gone into inventory, not sales. Manufacturers and others were assuming Brexit would disrupt their supply chain, so they'd increased output to give them a buffer. I was horrified, but the Brexit supporter thought this was great news. After chatting some more, I realized they had no understanding of how inventory worked. Let's talk through some scenarios to understand why the news was bad.

  • Scenario 1: no Brexit supply chain disruption.  UK firms have an excess of inventory. They can either keep the inventory indefinitely (and pay higher costs than their overseas competitors) or they can run down inventory which means fewer hours for their workers.
  • Scenario 2: Brexit supply chain disruption.  UK firms can't get parts, so they run down inventory until supply chain issues are fixed. Selling inventory means fewer hours worked by the workers.

In both scenarios, UK firms have incurred production costs earlier than their overseas competitors, which reduces their cash flow.

(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons - Tim Reckmann. License: Creative Commons.)

This is obviously highly simplified, but you get the point. None of these scenarios are good for firms or for workers.

If increasing inventory without sales is so good, why don't firms do it all the time? In fact, why bother with the pesky business of selling at all when you can just produce for inventory? The question seems silly, but answering it leads you to consider what an optimum level of inventory is. The logic pushes you towards just in time, which leads to an understanding of why supply chain interruptions are bad.

Closing thoughts

Your job security depends on the financial stability of your employer. If you work for a company that produces public accounts, you have an opportunity to make your own risk assessment. Inventory is one factor among many you should watch. Here are some things you should look out for:

  • Changes to inventory evaluation methods (LIFO, FIFO).
  • Increases in inventory not matched to growth.
  • Increasing sales to distributors not matched to underlying market demand (especially when the inventory never leaves the company).

Yes, some companies do produce fraudulent accounts, and yes, some do hide poor performance, but you can still take steps to protect your career based on the cold hard reality of financial statements, not on hype.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

The Emperor's new objects: a two-year failed project

It’s a sad thing when people you admire turn out not to be what you thought they were andwhen you find out your heroes have feet of clay. I had an experience like that a few years ago and it taught me a lot.

(Image credit: Old Book Illustrations)

I worked for a company that decided to go for object-oriented technology in a big way. They hired a team of people to design and build components that the lesser people (e.g. me and my colleagues) would snap together to build systems more quickly. Let’s call this team Team X and the team leader Mr. Y. Team X was to be a team of superstars leading the company forward.

I admired Team X and Mr. Y greatly. They had all the skills I wanted and every time I walked past them, they were diligently designing systems; I was impressed by their energy. I used to chat to them once a week and they used to like it because I was so clearly in awe of what they were doing. Mr. Y was at great pains to show me their work, though it was plain I didn’t understand it.

Some time passed and I had the opportunity to learn object-oriented programming. I did a design course on UML, and I learned C++ and became familiar with all the key tools. I put a huge amount of effort in and went from knowing nothing to knowing a lot in a short space of time.

It had been a while since I dropped in on Team X and Mr. Y, so I said hello. As before, Mr. Y showed me their designs and work. This time, I knew about object-oriented design. Unfortunately, I immediately spotted several mistakes in their design and several places where their approach would have been very inefficient. I was foolish enough to point them out. At first, Mr. Y conceded I was right, but as I pointed out more problems, he got irritated. Eventually, I realized I wasn’t welcome anymore and left. I didn’t stop by and chat again.

After this, Team X locked down their designs and prevented anyone from viewing them, they even angled their screens away from people passing by so no-one could see their work. They stopped communicating. In the meantime, after chatting with my boss, I realized Team X didn’t know what they were doing. My boss counseled me to keep quiet and say nothing, which I did after some moaning. He told me my chances of getting real change were zero and that I would just damage my reputation by speaking out.

About six months later, Team X was all laid off. The company gossip was, they’d been employed for two years and produced absolutely nothing of value, not a single piece of executable code. The company got nothing for several people’s efforts over the entire time.

Ironically, the only group that actually produced an object-oriented system was the group I was in. We used C++ to create useful systems that actually did something, and we produced the systems in a few months with just a handful of people, none of whom claimed to be a superstar. We didn't do the huge analysis Team X did, we just built systems to meet our customers' needs.

What were my takeaways from all of this?

  • Results are what counts.
  • If you have a team working for you using a technology, make sure you understand it well enough to measure their progress.
  • Deliverables are important and you should manage projects to have some results at checkpoints throughout the project. This is the soundest way of measuring progress. Never, ever leave long gaps between deliverables.
  • A team that hides its work is a major red flag.
  • Choose your battles and only choose ones you can win or that are important. Companies do silly things all the time, but eventually, they get corrected, whether you intervene or not.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

It's a mugs' game: corporate failures, ceramics, and t-shirts

Mike's law of business

One day, I'm going to write some laws of business. One of them's going to be: "any corporate initiative where mugs or other swag is given to employees is doomed to failure." Let me tell you some sorry tales that led me to my law.

A failed campaign

I worked for a company where employee engagement was becoming an issue. At the time, the management fad was harnessing employee ideas to move companies forward. The company held an all-hands meeting where we were told about a new corporate initiative; we (the staff) were all going to have ideas about how the company could make more money. To show how serious the executive team was, they gave us all mugs. The mugs said "I'm Making A Difference" (MAD), had a pterodactyl on them, and the company name at the bottom; though what the MAD logo and the pterodactyl had to do with anything was never explained.  In the few sessions we ever had to discuss ideas, the staff focused on better management, which the executive team didn't like very much.  The mugs were the only part of the scheme that lasted.

(Enron mug available from Amazon. I never worked for Enron!)

Let's kill the competition!

At another company, there was severe competitive pressure, so the company created a development team whose mission was to create a competition killer. Close to the killer's release date, the people on the team were given mugs (which were actually really cool) and posters. Unfortunately, the killer failed miserably in the market. Much later, I found out that there were serious problems with the killer project prior to release, which led to poor team morale. The mugs and posters were a failed attempt to turn things around.

(Topologically speaking, mugs are the same as donuts. Image credit: Lucas Vieira License:Public Domain. Image source.)

Let's boost morale

As I've written elsewhere, I was at a company where a quality project imploded massively. When it became obvious the initiative was failing, the leadership floated ideas to revive the project, which, as you might have guessed, included giving staff mugs with the quality standard's name on them.

By this stage in my career, I was starting to see the link; only failed projects and initiatives hand out mugs.

(A mug from 3,700 years ago - maybe the ancient Greeks had failed projects too. Image Credit: British Museum. License: Creative Commons.)

Fleeces are the new mugs

But, as it turned out, mugs=failure wasn't entirely true. I've seen an exciting trend over the last few years. Instead of giving out mugs, companies have started to give out t-shirts or occasionally, fleeces or backpacks. In some cases, I've seen t-shirts with project logos, but more often than not, they're just corporate t-shirts. When it comes time for a quick morale boost, nowadays it's generic corporate swag all the way.  Maybe I should change my law to "giving out corporate swag might indicate impending failure".

(Not a corporate fleece. Photographer: Mike Nass License: Creative Commons Source: Wikimedia)

I'm guessing that when the COVID-19 pandemic abates, there will be a large increase in companies giving their staff mugs, or t-shirts, or fleeces, or backpacks. This is swag as heroin for morale.

The wrong cure

I know I'm being unfair to mugs and swag in general here, they're a symptom of diseases, but not the cause. The diseases are mismanagement, poor communication, and failed projects. Mugs and corporate swag are often an attempt at boosting morale when things are going too badly wrong to ignore. Unfortunately, swag isn't enough, and sometimes, it's the wrong thing to do - which is why I've come to associate mugs with failure.

Instead of marking a new beginning, mugs often mark the end; they become tombstones, not birthstones.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

The worst technical debt ever

Over the last few years, I've heard engineering teams rightly talk about technical debt and its consequences. Even non-technical executives are starting to understand its importance and the need to invest to avoid it. The other day as I was setting up a computer, I was reminded of the worst case I've ever seen of technical debt. I thought the story was worth telling here, but with a few details obscured to protect the guilty.

A few years ago, I visited one of company X's data centers. The data center was located in an older building in a slightly run-down part of town. The data center was a little hard to find because it wasn't marked in any way - there was nothing at all that made the building stand out. Outside the building, there was some trash on the sidewalk, including remnants of last night's take-outs that people had dropped on the street as they partied.

Once inside, things were different. Security at the entrance was shabby, but efficient and effective and we got through quickly. The interior was clean, but it was obvious the building hadn't been decorated in several years. Even the coffee machines had seen better days, but they worked.

We were given a detailed tour of the data center and built a good relationship with our guide. The data center had been one of the company's first and had been on the same site for several years. As you might expect, there were racks and racks of computers with technicians walking around fixing things and installing cables to connect new computers to the network. The air conditioning was loud and strong, which meant you had to be close to one another to talk - which also meant it was impossible to overhear conversations.

Late in the tour, I tripped on a loose floor tile that was a centimeter or two raised above the floor. Our guide apologized and told us we needed to be careful as we walked along. We asked why. This is where we discovered the technical debt.

Connecting computers in a data center means installing a physical cable from one computer (or router etc.) to another. You can either route the cable under the floor or on overhead trackways. Most data centers use some form of color-coded cables so you have some indication of what kind of data a cable's carrying (red cables mean one sort of data, blue another, yellow another, and so on). Some even go further and give unique labels or identifiers to cables, so you can identify a cable's pathway from end to end. Routing cables is something of an art form, and in fact, there's a sub-Reddit devoted to it: - from time to time I look at the pictures when I need an ordered view of the world. As you might expect, there's a sub-Reddit that focuses on the reverse:

Our guide told us that right from the start, the management at the data center wanted to save money and do things quickly. From time to time, routers and servers were moved or removed. Instead of removing the old cable, they just left it under the false floor and added the new cable on top of it. New cable was laid on top of old cable in any order or in any fashion, so long as the job was done cheaply and quickly, it was fine. Over time, the layers of cabling built up and up, like the strata in the rock you see at the Grand Canyon. You could even see when the company changed its cable supplier because the cable shade changed a little. Unfortunately, they always chose the same color cable (which happened to be the cheapest).

After a few years, management realized that leaving the old cable in place was a bad idea, so they instructed staff to try and remove the old cables. Unfortunately, there was so much cabling present, and it had been laid so haphazardly, it was physically impossible because the cables were so intertwined. In a few cases, they'd tried to pull up old cables by physical force, but this caused the insulation to be stripped off cables and connections failed. Obviously, leaving old cable connections just hanging around is a bad idea, so the management team told the technicians to cut off the ends of old cables as far along as they could. This meant that the old dead cable was left in place under the floor, but it all looked fine on the surface. Because the cabling ran under the floor, a superficial inspection would show that everything was working fine, especially because they'd cut the old cables as far back as they could.

Sweeping things under the rug went on for a while longer, but there was only so much false floor. By the time of my tour, there was no more space, in fact, the situation was so bad, the floor tiles wouldn't sit properly in their supports anymore. That's why we were tripping over tiles. When no one was looking, our tour guide removed one of the floor tiles to show us the cabling underneath. I was horrified by what I saw.

(Not the actual cables - but gives you a flavor of what I saw. Image source:,_electric_cables_(4).jpg. License: Creative Commons. Photographer: Jean-Pierre)

Cables were packed together with no room at all between them. They had obviously been laid across each other with no organization. It was as if a demented person had been knitting with cables leaving no gaps. There was no give in the cables and it was plain it was more or less a solid mass down to the real floor.  By my estimate, the cabling went to a depth of 30cm or more. I could clearly see why it was impossible to pull out old cables: cables had no markings, so you couldn't tell them apart; they were so intertwined you couldn't unpick them, and there were so many cables, they were too heavy to lift. In fact, there was no room under the floor to do any kind of maintenance.

There were some gaps in the cables though. Our guide told us that the data center was starting to have a vermin problem. Of course, there was a ready supply of food outside, and rats and mice had found sufficiently large gaps in the cabling to set up home.

I asked what happened when they needed to connect up computers now there wasn't any room under the floor to lay anything. Our guide showed us some men working round the corner. They had stepladders and were installing overhead cable ducting. This time, the cables were properly color-coded and properly installed. It was a thing of beauty to see the ordered way they were working and how they'd laid out the cables. The cables were also individually labeled, making the removal of old cables much easier.

The next obvious question was, what about the old cable under the floor? The plan seemed to be to sweep everything under the rug. Create new overhead connections until all of the old connections were unnecessary and then leave the old cables and forget about it.

To his credit, our guide seemed ashamed of the whole thing. He seemed like a decent man who had been forced into doing bad things by poor management decisions. Notably, we never saw senior management on our tour.

A while later, I heard the data center was temporarily closed for improvements. These improvements went on for many months and I never heard exactly what they were. I suspect the executive team was embarrassed by the whole thing once they found out the extent of the problem and ordered a proper cleanup. At the time of my tour, I wondered about the fire risk, and obviously having a vermin problem is never a good thing for any business, so maybe something bad happened that made the problem impossible to ignore.

I heard a rumor sometime later that the data center had passed an external quality inspection and received some form of quality certification. I can see how this might have happened; their new processes actually seemed decent, and if they could make the floor tiles sit flat, they could hide the horror under the floor. Most quality inspections focus on paperwork trails and the inspectors I've met didn't seem like the kind of people who would want to get their hands dirty by lifting floor tiles.

So what did I learn from all of this?

  • Technical debt is real. You eventually have to pay for short-term time and money-saving decisions. There's never a good time to pay and the longer you leave it, the bigger and more expensive the fix becomes.
  • Just because something's been done a certain way for a long time, doesn't mean it's good. It might just mean the problems haven't surfaced yet.
  • If you're inspecting something, always get your hands dirty and always talk to the people doing the work. Things may look good on the outside, but might be rotten underneath. If we hadn't established a good rapport with our guide and I hadn't tripped on the floor tile, we would never have discovered the cable issue.
  • If something looks bad, look carefully for the cause. It would have been easy to blame the technicians for the cable nightmare, but it wasn't their fault. They were responding to the demands placed on them by their management. Ultimately, management is the cause of most failures.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

How to be more persuasive when you speak: using ‘catchphrases’

One of the most famous speeches in history used ‘catchphrases’ for incredibly powerful effect; you’ll know the speech by its catchphrase alone. I’ve seen modern American politicians use the same rhetorical technique to heighten energy and to unify and drive home their message. You can use it in your speeches too; I’m going to show you how and why.

Like many rhetorical techniques, this one relies on the considered use of repetition. Specifically, it’s the repetition of a phrase or sentence throughout a speech as a kind of catchphrase.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say you’re an engineering leader and you’re trying to convince your team to take data security seriously. Using this technique, your speech might look something like this (catchphrase in bold).

If we lapse in securing our data, our company can be fined large amounts of money, putting our livelihoods at risk. By being secure, we prevent this from happening.

Security is our security.

If we have a data breach, our reputation will be sullied and it’ll be harder for us to win new business, with all that entails.

Security is our security,

Companies have suffered data breaches of employee data too, putting social security numbers and other personal information out on the web for the highest bidder.

Security is our security,

Speakers use this approach to draw the audience’s attention to a key theme again and again and again, they use it to unify and focus a speech. It drives the point home in a forceful, but elegant way.

My real example is by an influential African-American Christian preacher. He repeats one of the most famous lines in rhetoric as a catchphrase again and again. You’ll know it as soon as you hear it – in fact, you already know the words. Here's the YouTube link to the appropriate section.

(Image credit: WikiMedia Commons, open-source)

Here’s part of his speech, the catchphrase is in bold.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

Martin Luther King repeats ‘I have a dream’ to bring the listener back to his point and to reinforce his message. ‘I have a dream – paragraph – ‘I have a dream’ – paragraph – ‘I have a dream’ - paragraph. He unifies his speech and drives home his point. (King’s speech is rhetorically interesting in other ways too; he uses a wide variety of techniques to make his points.)

I’ve done my homework on rhetoric and searched for this method in the books on techniques from antiquity. As far as I can tell, this technique is known as epimone. It's not one of the famous techniques and I think it's very underrated.

It seems to be used a lot in African-American Christian preaching and has spread to American politics from there. (As an aside, I've looked for resources on the analysis of rhetorical techniques used in African-American churches, but I've not been able to find any good ones. If anyone knows of some good analysis, please let me know.) I've heard a well-known American politician use it and I suspect we'll be hearing it more as we head into election season. Bear in mind that politicians use techniques like this deliberately because they know they work.

Here’s my recommendation for using this technique; if you’re trying to persuade or emotionally influence an audience, use it to hammer home your message and provide a simple unifying concept for people to take to heart.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

A sorry tale of software quality: what went wrong and some lessons

I’m going to tell you a story about a software quality drive that went horribly wrong and what we can learn from it. To protect the guilty, I’ve disguised some details, but the main points are all true.

(The Antares launch failure. Image credit: Nasa. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain image.)

I worked for an organization that got the quality bug. They decided that the cause of the software failures the company had experienced was poor quality processes, so in response, we were going to become a world leader in software quality. To do this, we (the development team) were all going to be certified to software quality standard ABC (not the standard’s name). The project was going to be completed in a year and we were going to see astounding benefits.

The company hired a number of highly paid contractors to advise us, most of whom were well-qualified. Unfortunately, many of the contractors showed two major personality traits: arrogance and condescension. Instead of creating a cooperative approach, they went for a command and control style that was disastrous. I heard there were multiple complaints about how they treated my colleagues.

Not all the contractors were well qualified. In one case, the person hired to create and manage software processes had never worked in software before and had never written any software. As you might expect, they ended up proposing weird metrics to measure quality, for example, counting the number of version control updates as a metric of quality (presumably, more updates meaning better software? It was never defined).

Everyone was trained multiple times, no expense was spared on training, and the sky was the limit for spending time on processes. We went to very, very long training sessions about once a month. These often included long descriptions of the benefits of the process and the fantastic results we might see at the end of it. In one notable case, the presenter (an external contractor) was caught out showing 'expected' results as real results - but our management team was true believers so the presenter got away with it.

As we started to put together processes, we were encouraged to meet once a week to discuss quality, which everyone did. We faithfully started to implement the processes proposed by the consultants and as customized by our teams. Most of these processes were a bit silly, didn’t really add any quality, and took time, but we implemented them anyway because that's what the leadership team wanted. The weekly meetings started to get longer and ended up taking a whole morning.

A few brave people suggested that we should have metrics that measured project deliverables, deadlines, and outages, but the ABC quality standard people wanted us all to focus on measuring the process, not the outcome, so that’s what we did.

Despite all these efforts, the failures kept on coming. The one thing that did change noticeably was that deliverables were now taking twice as long. Executive leadership was unhappy.

As the quality project started to lose support and fail, the leadership tried to change their approach from stick to carrot. One of the things they did was hold a contest for people to suggest 'fun' alternative words for the project acronym, if the project was ABC, an alternative meaning might be 'A Big Cheese'. Unfortunately, a lot of the entries were obscene or negative about the project.

Eventually, the inevitable happened. Executive leadership saw the project was going nowhere, they did a management reshuffle and effectively killed the quality drive. The contractors were shown the door. Everything went back to normal, except the promoters of ABC were no longer in senior positions. The standard ABC became a dirty word and people stopped talking about quality improvements; sadly, the whole ABC debacle meant that discussions of more sensible process improvements were taboo.

The core problem was, the process became about getting certified in ABC and not about reducing defects. We had the wrong goal.

I’ve had some time to think about how this all played out and what I would have done to make it a success.

  • Start small-scale and learn. I would have started with one team and measured the results very carefully. People talk to each other, so success with one team would have been communicated virally. To oversimplify: If it can’t work with one team, it can’t work with many.
  • Scale-up slowly.
  • Bring in contractors, but on a one-off basis and clearly as advisors. Any sign of arrogance and they would be removed. Contractors should be available on a regular basis to ensure change is permanent.
  • Focus on end results metrics, not processes. If the goal was to reduce defects, then that’s the metric that should have been measured and made public. 
  • Flexibility to change processes in response to increased knowledge.
  • No certification until the target is achieved - if certification is an option, then inevitably certification becomes the goal. Certification is a reasonable goal, but only once the targets have been reached.

I’m not against quality standards, I think they have an important role. But I do think they need to be implemented with great care and a focus on people. If you don’t do it right, you’ll get what you asked for, but not what you need.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Niche knowledge and power - knowledge hoarding

A couple of times in my career, I’ve come across people using a strategy to gain short-term power: keeping knowledge and skills to themselves, otherwise known as knowledge hoarding. Unfortunately for them, it doesn’t work in the long term anymore. I'm going to start with some examples, then suggest how you might differentiate between an area that's genuinely hard and when someone's knowledge hoarding, before finally giving you some suggestions on what to do if you find it on your team.

(Keeping knowledge to yourself is like caging kittens. Image credit: Chameleon,  source: Wikimedia Commons, License: GNU Free Documentation)

I worked with someone who had developed some in-depth knowledge of a particular technology. I needed his help with a project and I needed his in-depth knowledge. He wouldn’t share what he knew, claiming that the technology was highly complex and difficult to understand. He insisted that he had to do the work if it was done at all, and that I needed to tell his manager how valuable he was. I later heard from others in the organization that he’d taken the same approach and that they’d caved in to him. Some managers started to believe that the technology really was as complex as he said. Fortunately, I knew enough to get started without him. After some diligent Internet searching, I found what I needed and completed my project without assistance. Unfortunately for my colleague, not too long after this, there were a couple of books published on the technology, which turned out to be much more straightforward than he claimed. His unique knowledge disappeared and his boast of enhanced value to the company evaporated within a few months. His career subsequently stalled; he was relying on his ring-fenced knowledge to give him an advantage and his prior behavior came back to haunt him.

Much later in my career, when I was older and wiser, I came across something similar. Someone two years out of college was working on a commercial tool we’ll call X. X had a sort-of programming language that enabled customization. The recent graduate claimed that only he could understand the language and only he could make the changes the company needed. This time, I didn’t even bother pursuing it. I had my team completely bypass him using a different technology. Had the recent graduate been more open, I would have gladly included them on my project and they would have been cross-trained in other technologies, instead, they ended up leaving to go to a company that used X. Problem is, X has a very small market share (< 5%) and it’s shrinking.

Over the years, I’ve seen the same story play out a number of times. Someone has knowledge of a system (e.g. Salesforce, CRMs, cloud systems, BI, sales analytics, network cards) and claims the area is too complex or difficult for others to understand and that they need to be the point person. But it always turns out not to be true. The situation resolves itself by the person leaving, or a reorganization, or a technology change or something else - it always turns out that the person was never as vital as they claimed. Ring-fencing knowledge to protect your position seems to work in the short term, but it fails spectacularly in the long run.

Of course, there are skills that are difficult to acquire and do provide a barrier to entry into an area. Good examples are statistical analysis, machine learning, and real-time system design. What’s noticeable about all of these areas is the large amount of training content freely and easily available. If you want to learn statistics, there are hundreds of online courses and books you can use. The only impediment is your ability to understand and apply theory and practice.

As a manager, how do you know if someone is ring-fencing knowledge to protect their position versus the area actually being hard? Here are the signs they might be ring-fencing:

  • Claims that only they can understand the technology.
  • Knowledge hoarding and refusal/reluctance to share. 
  • Refusing/reluctance to brief or train others - or doing it very badly.
  • No formal qualification in the area (not all areas have formal qualifications though) and no formal background (e.g. degree in software engineering). 
  • Other groups in the company or outside the company not reporting the area is hard.

Here are signs the area is actually hard:

  • Other, similar groups in the company or elsewhere reporting the area is hard.
  • Online commentary that the technology is hard.
  • Lots of online content to help people learn.
  • Definite technical requirements, like the ability to understand number theory.
  • Obvious qualifications, e.g. network engineering certification.

From a management perspective, the best thing to do is stop knowledge-hoarding behavior before it starts. Ideally, there shouldn’t be a single point of failure on your team (a bus factor of more than 1). This means consciously focusing on cross-training (something the military does very well).  If you inherit someone showing this behavior, you need to make cross-training a priority and personally intervene to make sure it’s done properly. Cross-training will involve some loss of status for the person which you need to be sensitive to and manage well.

For some people, keeping skills and knowledge to themselves makes perfect sense, it’s a great way to enhance their value to their employer. For their colleagues, it’s not good behavior, and for their manager, it can be disastrous. For (almost) everyone’s sake, you should deal with it if it’s happening in your organization.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

What I learned from a day in the woods

Leadership in the woods

A few years ago, I went on a one-day leadership course outdoors. We did various team-building and leadership activities, all based on outdoor exercises. I gained something from the experience, but there were positives and negatives. I would send people on a similar course, but with reservations. Here’s what happened, what I got out of it, and what I would do differently.

The woods
(Image credit: Mike Woodward, copyright Mike Woodward)

What happened

The group of us that did this course were all employees of the same company, company X, but from different departments. Some of us worked together occasionally, others did not. We knew one another, just not very well. The goal of the course was to prepare us for leadership positions.

The course took place at a facility in the countryside, not too far from civilization. This definitely wasn't an extreme survival course; the worst survival hardship was getting the wrong sandwich at lunchtime.

Once we'd all arrived, we were briefed on the day, split into groups, and given exercises to do on outdoor equipment. Before each exercise, we were informed of its purpose, and instructors helped us through it. 

One exercise was walking across a log suspended about 5m in the air; all perfectly safe because we wore harnesses and helmets etc. The instructor said the point of the exercise was to face fear and uncertainty and move forward with the support of the team. The team was encouraged to shout positive things to the person walking across; but nothing that might cause them to fall! However, the main instructor left halfway through, leaving us with more junior staff who focused on safety and didn’t reinforce the message about teamwork and support. 

In another exercise, we were led around blindfolded to build trust. 

The rest of the day went on in a similar vein, with similar exercises, and we had a debriefing session at the end of it.

What happened afterwards

I liked the program a lot and I took the message to heart about teamwork and support. Some months later, I faced a business decision that made me very nervous. I thought about my experience walking the log 5m in the air, and I went forward with my decision with more confidence (if I can do that, I can do this). However, my log walking boost wore off after about a year. Overall, the gains I made from the course only lasted for about twelve months.

Smaller, but not insignificant benefits of the whole thing for me were a day out of the office and the sense that my employer was investing in me.

There was a major problem with the day though; some people absolutely hated it. They hated the exercises, they hated having people watch them fail, and they hated the whole idea of running around in the woods; they got nothing out of the day. Bear in mind, this kind of group physical activity may bring back painful school memories for some people, and this is what happened when I was there. There was just too much baggage to learn. Although I felt good about the course, some people felt worse about the company for making them go and I'm sympathetic to their position. Did this make them less suitable as managers? I don’t think so.

Lessons learned

Would I spend corporate money to run an event like this again? Yes, but with reservations.
  • I would consider very carefully people’s objections to these kinds of events. I would not coerce anyone to go. If there were a number of people firmly opposed, I would try and find something else. 
  • I would consider disabled access very carefully. If someone on the team was a wheelchair user, for example, I would execute the program in an inclusive way, if at all.
  • I would make sure the teamwork and leadership message was reinforced all the time. There would be a briefing before the day, and afterward. 
  • I would schedule something like this once every year or two to reinforce the learning.

There are things to learn from a day in the woods, but maybe not everyone learns the same things.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Urban myths are poor motivators

Getting people to work harder by lying to them

I like motivational stories. Hearing about how people overcame adversity and achieved success or redemption can be inspiring. But there can be a problem with using stories as motivators; some of them aren't true. I'm going to look at one such motivational story that's common on the internet, describe its old and modern forms, and take it to pieces. Let's start with the original version of the story.

The original fake story - Christopher Wren and the bricklayers

(Sir Christopher Wren. Image credit: Wellcome Images Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons License)

Sir Christopher Wren was one of the greatest English architects. He was commissioned to design a replacement for St Paul's Cathedral which was burned to the ground in the devastating 1666 Great Fire of London. So far, all of this is well-established history.

The story goes that Sir Christopher was inspecting the construction work one day when he met three bricklayers. He asked them what they were doing.

The first bricklayer said, "I'm laying bricks. I'm doing it to feed my family."

The second bricklayer said, "I'm a builder. I'm doing it because I'm proud of my work."

The third bricklayer said, with a gleam in his eye, "I'm building a cathedral that will last a thousand years and be a wonder for the ages".

Some versions of the story stop here, other versions make the third bricklayer a future manager, or the most productive, or give him some other desirable property.

The story is meant to inspire people to see the bigger picture and feel motivated about being something larger than themselves. Plainly, the listener is expected to identify with the third bricklayer. But there are two problems with the story: internal and external.

Children's stories are for children

In many versions of the story, it doesn't say who was the better bricklayer. Even if the third bricklayer was the best, or a future manager, or some other good thing, was this because of his vision, or was it a coincidence? Was the third bricklayer being inspirational or was he trying to curry favor with Sir Christopher?

It seems astonishingly unlikely that in 1671, on the basis of a single conversation, anyone would record bricklayer productivity or future career trajectory. Maybe Sir Christopher was so motivated by the third bricklayer that he did both.

The most important problem with this story is the veracity. I couldn't find this story in any biography of Sir Christopher Wren or any academic writing about his life. With some internet sleuthing, I found what appears to be the first occurrence of this story in a 1927 religious inspirational book (''What can a man believe?" [Barton]). The book gives no reference for the story's provenance.

To put it bluntly: this story was probably made up and doesn't stand up to any scrutiny.

A made-up story about a janitor

There's a more modern version of this story, this time set in the 1960s. President Kennedy was visiting a NASA establishment where he saw a janitor sweeping the floor. The President asked the janitor what he was doing and the janitor said "I'm helping put a man on the moon". Once again, there's no evidence that this ever happened.

The odd thing about the moon landing story is there are very well-documented examples of NASA staff commenting on how motivated they felt [Wiseman]. The flip side is, there's the well-known fact that many were so motivated to work long hours to achieve the moon landing that their marriages ended or they turned to alcohol [Rose]. Leaving aside the negative effects, it's easy to find verifiable quotes that tell the same story as the fake janitor story, so why use something untrue when the truth doesn't take much more effort?

'I can motivate people by telling them fairy stories'

Most of the power of motivational stories relies on their basis in truth. If I told you stories to motivate you and then admitted that they probably weren't true, do you think my coaching would be successful? What if I told you a motivational story that I told you was true, but you later found out was made up, would it undermine my credibility?

There are great and true stories of success, redemption, leadership, and sacrifice that you can use to inspire yourself and others. I'm in favor of using true stories, but I'm against using made-up stories because it undermines my leadership, and frankly, it's an insult to the intelligence of my team.


[Barton] "What can a man believe?", Bruce Barton, 1927
[Wiseman] "Moonshot: What Landing a Man on the Moon Teaches Us About Collaboration, Creativity, and the Mind-set for Success", Richard Wiseman

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Presentation advice from a professional comedian

In 2019, I heard a piece of presentation advice I'd never heard before. It shook me out of my complacency and made me rethink some key and overlooked aspects of giving a talk. Here's the advice:

"You should have established your persona before you get to the microphone."

There's a lot in this one line. I'm going to explore what it means and its consequences for anyone giving a talk.

(Me, not a professional comedian, speaking at an event in London. Image credit: staff photographer at Drapers.)

Your stage persona is who you are to the audience. People have expectations for how a CEO will behave on stage, how a comedian will behave, and how a developer will behave, etc. For example, let's say you're giving a talk on a serious business issue (e.g. bankruptcy and fraud) to a serious group (lawyers and CEOs), then you should also be serious. You can undermine your message and credibility by straying too far from what people expect.

One of the big mistakes I've seen people make is forgetting the audience doesn't know them. You might be the funniest person in your company, or considered as the most insightful, or the best analyst, but your stage audience doesn't know that; all they know about you is what you tell them. You have to communicate who you are to your audience quickly and consistently; you have to bend to their expectations. This is a lesson performers have learned very well, and comedians are particularly skilled at it.

If they think about their stage persona at all, most speakers think about what they say and how they say it. For example, someone giving a serious talk might dial back the jokes, a CEO rallying the troops might use rhetorical techniques to trigger applause, and a sales manager giving end-of-year awards might use jokes and funny anecdotes. But there are other aspects to your stage persona.
Let's go back to the advice: "you should have established your persona before you get to the microphone". In the short walk to the microphone, how might you establish who you are to the audience? As I see it, there are three areas: how you look, how you move, and how you interact with the audience.

How you look includes your shoes and clothing and your general appearance (including your haircut). Audiences make an immediate judgment of you based on what you're wearing. If I'm speaking to a business audience, I'll wear a suit. If I'm talking to developers, I'll wear chinos and a shirt (never a t-shirt). Shoes are often overlooked, but they're important; you can undermine an otherwise good choice of outfit by a poor choice of shoes (usually, wearing cheap shoes). Unless you're going for comic effect, your clothes should fit you well. Whatever your outfit and appearance, you need to be comfortable with it. I've seen men in suits give talks where they're clearly uncomfortable with a suit and tie. Being obviously uncomfortable undermines the point of dressing up - to be blunt, you look like a boy in a man's clothes.

How you move is a more advanced topic. You can stride confidently to the microphone, or walk normally, or walk timidly with your head down. If you're stressed and tensed, an audience will see it in how you move. By contrast, more fluid movements indicate that you're relaxed and in control. What you do with your hands also conveys a message. Audiences can see if you have a death grip on your notes or if you're using your hands to acknowledge applause. Think about the stage persona you want to create and think about how that person moves to the microphone. For example, if you're a newly appointed CEO, you might want to establish comfortable authority, which you might try and do by the way you walk, what you do with your hands and how you face the audience.

The moment the audience first sees you is where communication between you and the audience begins. How and when you look at an audience sends a message to them. For example, your gaze acknowledges you've seen your audience and that you're with them. Your facial expression tells the audience how you're feeling inside - a comfortable smile communicates one message, a blank expression communicates something else, and a scowl warns the audience the talk might be uncomfortable. You can also use your body to acknowledge applause, telling them that you hear them, which is an obvious piece of non-verbal communication between you and your audience.

In short: think about the seconds before you begin talking. How might you communicate who and what you are without saying a single word?

Where did I hear this advice? I've been listening to a great podcast, 'The Comedian's Comedian' by Stuart Goldsmith, a UK comic. Stuart interviews comics about the art and business of comedy. In one podcast, a comedian told the story of advice he'd received early in his career. The comedian was saying that after five years of performing, he'd managed to establish his stage persona within a minute or so of speaking. The advice he got was: "You should have established your persona before you get to the microphone."

A good presentation is a subtle dialog between the presenter and the audience. The speaker does or says something and the audience responds (or doesn't). Comedians are the purest example of this, they respond in the moment to the audience and they live or die by the interaction. If communicating your message to your audience is important to you, you have to interact with them - including the moments before you begin speaking. Ultimately, all presentations are performance art.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Company culture and the hall of mirrors

Company culture: real and distorted

When I was a child, my parents took me to a funfair and we walked through the hall of mirrors. The mirrors distorted reality, making us look taller or smaller, fatter or thinner than we really were. I've read a number of popular business books that extoll the virtues of company culture, but I couldn't help feeling they were a hall of mirrors; distorting what's really there to achieve higher book sales. 

(Reading about company culture in popular business books is like entering the house of mirrors. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, License: Creative Commons, Author: SJu)

I was fortunate enough to spend time researching the academic literature on company culture to understand what's really there, and the results surprised me. I took a course at the Harvard Extension School on Organizational Behavior which was taught by the excellent Carmine Gibaldi. Part of this course was a research project and I chose to look at the relationship between company culture and financial performance.

What books claim vs. evidence

Given the long list of popular business books making very definitive claims about company culture, you might expect the research literature to show some clear results. The reality is, the literature doesn't. In fact, when I investigated the support for claims made in books, I couldn't find much in the way of corroborating evidence. Going back to the popular books, I found no references in many cases, in other cases I found evidence based on the author's work alone, and in other cases, the evidence was just unverified anecdotes. What I did find in the research literature was a more complex story than I expected.

Company culture and financial performance

Despite what the popular business books said, it wasn't true that a strong company culture of itself led to financial success, in fact, many companies with strong cultures went bankrupt. It wasn't true that there were a magic set of values that led to company success either, different successful companies had different values and different cultures. It wasn't true that company values are immutable, even a large company like IBM could and did change its values to survive.

What I found is that there are mechanisms by which a strong and unified company culture can lead to better performance; coordination and control, goal alignment, and enhanced employee effort. For these reasons, under stable market conditions, a strong culture does appear to offer competitive advantages. However, under changing market conditions, a strong culture may be a disadvantage because strong cultures don't have the variability necessary to adapt to change. There also seemed to be a link between culture and industry, with some cultures better suited to some industries.

I read about DEC, Arthur Anderson, and Enron. All companies with strong cultures and all companies that had been held up at the time as examples of the benefits of a strong culture. DEC's culture had been studied, extensively written about, and emulated by others. Enron had several glowing case studies written about them by adoring business schools. In all these cases, company culture may well have been a factor in their demise. Would you take DEC or Enron as your role model now? Are the companies you're viewing as your role models now going to be around in five or ten years?

Where's the beef?

Am I falling into the trap of not providing you with references for my assertions? No, because I'm going to go one stage further. I'm going to give you a link to what I wrote that includes all my references and all my arguments in more detail. Here's the report I wrote which lays out my findings - you can judge for yourself.

Popular books are mostly wrong

During my research, I read some detailed critiques of popular business books. I must admit, I was shocked at the extent to which the Emperor really has no clothes and the extent of the post hoc fallacy and survivor bias in the popular books. Many of the great companies touted in these books have fallen from grace, disproving many of the assertions the books made. If you make statements that company culture leads to long-lasting success, and your champions fail while maintaining their values, it kind of looks like your arguments aren't great. Given the lack of research support for many business books' claims, this should come as no surprise.

What to do?

Here's my advice: any popular business book that purports to reveal a new underlying truth about business success is probably wrong. Before you start believing the claims, or extolling the book's virtues, or implementing policy changes based on what you've read, check that the book stands up to scrutiny and ideally, that there's independent corroboration.