18 May 2015

Diversity Matters - Attack of the Clones

Here’s looking at you, Kid
Performance management. You simply have to have performance management if you want high performance teams… don’t you?

Formal performance management is a fundamental part of the culture that pervades most large and medium sized organisations. It involves “regular” one-to-ones where we discuss successes and then focus on weaknesses, and if you are one of the lucky few you get a hearty pat on the back and a top rating. For an unfortunate few, there is of course the bottom rating and the dreaded “performance improvement plan”, a wonderful piece of 1984 new-speak if ever there was one. For the rest (the vast majority) there is simply the mediocrity of a “you weren’t great but you weren’t awful either”.

Now, let’s consider what effect that has had on the motivation of your employees? Has the top elusive rating spurred the shunned majority into greater things, and has that highly supportive “get better or you’re out” given the under-performers the help and support they need to become the best that they can? In my opinion, the answers to those questions are “no”, and “hell, no”.

Instead, the middle majority (many of whom may have performed well in all areas apart from self-publicity) have been demotivated by the lack of recognition for the things they achieved during the year. They may have had some great moments backed up by a solid performance, but at the end of it all they get nothing but a “what you could have done better”.

And as for the under-performers, they are now working under the looming threat of dismissal and although a rare few might scrape back into a middle rating the majority, who are already struggling, will simply buckle under the stress of continuous scrutiny. Don’t think so? Try standing over someone who is typing and see how well they do.

There can be Only One
There is of course another issue here; what exactly are you measuring these people against? For the system to be “fair” there has to be a benchmark; a standard to which all should aspire and against which all can be measured. If not, how can I justify the rating I give to people? I can’t just say “you did really well this year” without a definition of “really well”.

So what’s wrong with that? Surely it’s good to have a standard to aspire to? I disagree, and I disagree strongly. The implication of a standard is that there is one version of good. That would also imply that you need everyone in your organisation to do the same thing.

We all accept that artists are different to accountants are different to athletes. We would laugh at the idea of measuring these people against the same standard, and yet, when we place a group of people in an office and dress them in work attire, we suddenly forget about the differences and assume because they look alike they should all perform alike.

But they look alike because we make them look alike.

In reality, different jobs require different skills and different skills come in very different packages. What is more, the idea that you should look at a person’s weaknesses and strengthen them ignores one very important point. Weaknesses are simply the flip side of strengths. It is all just a matter of perspective.

This becomes all too clear when you consider athletes. We all understand immediately that the strengths that make a weightlifter great might be terrible weaknesses for a long distance runner, and expecting an archer to measure up to the same performance standards as an equestrian would be ridiculous. An Olympic team is strong, not because of uniformity but instead because of diversity. It needs a wide variety of athletes if it is to come home with a large haul of medals. Turning up with a team consisting only of great 100m sprinters would result in two medals (don’t forget the relay).

Life is Like a Box of Chocolates
In athletics, physical diversity is the key to creating a successful team. In the office where the work is cerebral in nature, the most important thing is cognitive diversity and this is far harder to select for. Why? The reason is simple. You are looking for people who think differently; who don’t think like you. You are looking for people who disagree with you, and we are not very good at getting along with people who disagree with us. In fact, we positively reject those who disagree.

How many times have you sat in an interview waiting for the right answer only to be frustrated by the candidate’s insistence on the opposite? How many times have you sat in a performance review only to be told that your approach to work is not the right one? That despite delivering results, the way you delivered those results did not match the required “behaviours” or “competencies”. Creative people are told they are not organised enough and should brush up on their planning skills while structured project managers are chastised for not demonstrating enough “innovative thinking”.

Performance management regimes and competency based interviews, the mainstays of professional life, stifle diversity. But diversity is the key, and whenever you come across a new interview candidate or team member, remember what Mrs Gump said:

"Life is a box of chocolates, Forrest. You never know what you're gonna get."

And that is exactly the point. You never know what value you will get from a person, but the best way of maximising the value you get from a team is by ensuring that the members of that team are diverse; that their skills are varied and their strengths complementary rather than duplicated.

Take the Red Pill
When you are interviewing, or when you are assessing a person’s performance, remember that he or she may have something to offer that you don’t even recognise yet. I often think that the best answer to an interview question is the one I disagree with. This person might have something to teach me. They definitely have something to bring to the team that I do not; a different perspective. As Morpheus said to Neo:

“You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I'm offering is the truth. Nothing more.”

If you take the red pill and embrace diversity you may find that the world of possibilities expands enormously. You may find that the team you build is stronger and more capable than the one consisting only of those that match the “standard”. You may even learn something yourself and benefit from your very own performance improvement plan.


What the hell… stick to the script. Take the blue pill and help to build the clone army.

The Enterprising Architect

14 May 2015

Chained to the Desk - The Paradigm Shift

Question Everything
Second only to “diversity matters” one of my favourite personal mantras is “question everything” and anyone who works with me will find out just how fundamentally I live this in my daily life. It is not that I am cynical (although perhaps I am); it is more that I have learnt over the years that if you take the facts you are given at face value then you are doomed to make the same mistakes and deliver the same failures as those presenting the “facts” to you. I have also found, through the process of questioning everything that very little stands up to scrutiny.

So why then do so many people take these facts at face value and live by them regardless of how badly things then go as a result? The answer lies in a phenomena I like to call “Paradigm Paralysis”. Paradigm Paralysis can probably be best explained by recounting an experiment involving a cage full of monkeys, a ladder, and a bunch of bananas…

…And a hose.

Hungry Monkeys
In this experiment (please don’t try this at home) five hungry monkeys were placed in a cage. At the centre of the cage was a ladder and at the top of the ladder was a bunch of bananas. Naturally, being hungry, one of the monkeys climbed the ladder to get the bananas but before reaching them he (or she) was hosed down with cold water. This is unpleasant enough, but to make matters worse, the other four monkeys were also given a soaking.

At first the monkeys persevered, but eventually the majority decided to give up, and any monkey attempting to get the bananas was strongly discouraged by the others.

It was at this point that the experimenters switched one of the monkeys for a new one. One that had never been hosed down. As would be expected, this monkey tried to climb the ladder, but this time no hose was used. It wasn’t needed as the other monkeys quickly and forcibly stopped the new monkey from making the terrible mistake.

You can probably guess where this is going now. Each original monkey was replaced with a new one, and each time the result was the same, until all the monkeys in the cage were new. Now let’s be clear here. None of these monkeys has ever been hosed down, nor have they ever witnessed the hose in action, but when a new monkey was then introduced into this “vanilla” situation the response to an attempt to grab the bananas was prevented by the incumbents.

Banana eating was strictly forbidden.

A Can of Worms
So what does this experiment teach us about our own lives? Well, have a look at the rules around you and the constraints under which you work. When you really examine the truth behind them, how many stand up to scrutiny? How many of the “ways of working” that you take for granted are actually just one way of doing things that might have made sense at the time they were created but no longer make sense in the world of today. How many of them are simply things you were told by someone who was also told by someone….and so on.

Still not sure?

Let’s look at another example. Can openers have been around for a long time, but cans have been around for a whole lot longer. The first “modern” can was invented in 1810 by Peter Durand for the British Navy and it was opened using a hammer and chisel. (The first can of any time was used by the Dutch navy back in 1772 but being British, I’m ignoring that fact). The first can opener was invented in 1858 and even by the British example that’s 48 years later! This can opener was too dangerous for home use and you had to go to the grocery store to get your can opened. We have William Lyman to thank for the first domestically available can opener (the one with the cutting wheel) which wasn’t invented until 1870.

What this demonstrates is that paradigms are addictive, and what is more, they stop us from doing things in a better way (sometimes for whole generations). We blindly accept what we are told by those who came before us and carry on making the same mistakes and enforcing the same inefficiencies. Simply put, paradigms are dangerous. The problem with questioning what you hear and challenging how things are done, is that you open a whole new can of worms. It won’t make you popular.

The Elephant on the Desktop
Now let’s look at something closer to home; something that might be staring you in the face right now. Are you using a tablet or smartphone to view this blog, or are you reading it on a laptop or desktop machine? If it is the latter then you a living within a long running paradigm. For almost as long as I have been using personal computers, I have been using a windowing environment. From the very beginning it has had menus, buttons to minimise, maximise and close windows, icons to launch things, and applications that can be tiled or stacked on the desktop. We all know what a desktop looks like and very little has changed for over 30 years.

Have a look at this picture of the graphical user interface on the Xerox Star released in 1981. This is the first commercially available GUI and it was based on the previous non-commercial development, the Xerox Alto, which dates to 1973. Look familiar? There is, of course a situation where this paradigm has been broken at least to some extent, and this is in the tablet market. The ground broken by apple in introducing the iPad and iOS has been trodden by Google with Android and we now have a whole new user experience.

More and more, I am finding myself questioning the desktop experience and posted a comment on LinkedIn about this very matter which read “Come on Apple, Google, Microsoft et al. I don't need a desktop experience on a tablet; what I need is a tablet experience on a desktop”. I immediately received responses questioning how you could live without the features of the desktop world. The features that were designed in 1973. Now, I’m not saying that the people who said this are wrong, but I am questioning the paradigm, and I am certainly not convinced that they got it right back then. I fear when it comes to the desktop that we are, to paraphrase Henry Ford “customers asking for faster horses”.

Faster Horses
Every day we accept the paradigms that surround us. Not only to we just live with the way things are, and have been for some time; we actively demand it. The desktop is just one example of that and it is one that needs to change if we are to invent the next “can opener” of computing. We aim for the “x” because that is how you close a window. We point with a mouse because it is the only thing accurate enough to hit those tiny buttons and pull down menus with any accuracy. We demand a start menu because that is where everything we need lives. That is what our predecessors taught us to do, and that is the way we’ve always done it.

And yet when we pick up our smartphones and tablets we happily tap, swipe, pinch and tilt without a care in the world on devices that are instantly on, and we love it. Surely there is a lesson there for the desktop designers?

We live in an ever changing world, and as the world around us shifts we need to make sure we break the moulds into which we have been forced. We need to make the paradigm shift. But what should you do with this information? What should you do next? Maybe what you should do next is search the internet for that original monkey experiment, and ask yourself “what exactly is a fact?”

Remember the mantra – “question everything”.

Oh, yes…and don’t eat the bananas.

The Enterprising Architect

13 May 2015

The Art of Communication – Joining the Dots

The Communication Age
In one of my previous roles, the CEO made the following comment on a company-wide web conference. He said:
“I knew something transformational had happened when I realised I spent most of my time talking to people on my laptop whilst checking my email on my phone”
It raised a laugh, and also led nicely into a conversation about the transformational journey that the organisation was on, but it also planted a nagging thought in my mind that has festered into a deep frustration with the world of electronic communication.

My concern is that while we live in an era where much of our involvement with technology is now taking place on what was once a pure communication device (the phone), our methods of communicating seem to be getting more and more fragmented.

This is something that had clearly captured the imagination of the IT community. It is easy to tell when this happens because as soon as IT becomes interested in something it gets a product name, and in this case the product name is “unified communications”.

In Simpler Times
A long time ago, if we wanted to communicate we talked either face to face or by phone. If we wanted to convey information, and time was not of the essence we sent memos or letters. For the younger generation, memos are a bit like emails… in fact they are exactly like emails only slower (but not much). For the very much younger generation, letters are like memos which are like emails, only slower (but not much).

Essentially, there were two ways of communicating and they served very different purposes. There was no need to unify them.

Now we’re in a bit of a mess. We have text, voice and video. We have interactive and broadcast. We have peer-to-peer, group and community. I know it’s a mess because you can’t draw a catchy Powerpoint slide for it and in architecture that is the very worst type of problem!

There are so many channels of communication now that keeping up with them all is becoming a full time job. Glance away from your email for a moment to follow your twitter feed, check facebook, or text a friend and you lose control of your inbox. Heaven forbid if you actually call someone or listen to your voicemail (yes – some of us older types still do that).

Not Another Silver Bullet
And this is where Unified Communications comes in. This is the silver bullet designed to kill this particular werewolf, and what it promises to do is bring all of your communication together into one place. (I mentioned IT silver bullets and werewolves in a previous post entitled “Skin in the Game – The Human Factor”)

Wikipedia introduces Unified Communications as:

“a marketing buzzword describing the integration of real-time, enterprise, communication services such as instant messaging (chat), presence information, voice (including IP telephony), mobility features (including extension mobility and single number reach), audio, web & video conferencing, fixed-mobile convergence (FMC), desktop sharing, data sharing (including web connected electronic interactive whiteboards), call control and speech recognition with non-real-time communication services such as unified messaging (integrated voicemail, e-mail, SMS and fax)”

Unfortunately, unified communications as a product does not solve the real problem and the problem is demonstrated by the very description above. Communication is coming at us from so many disparate sources now that there is simply no way we can absorb it all, nor can we engage with all the channels available.

People are filtering and they are filtering brutally. For some, voicemail and phone conversations are dead; for them it is IM or SMS whilst for others the opposite is true. For some, their world revolves around email and even conversations with colleagues in the same room take place via email whilst for others, email is something they rarely look at and seldom respond to.

We are like teenagers and parents at home; occupying the same space, sharing the same experiences, but exchanging no communication bar a few dismissive grunts.

It’s Talk Jim, but Not As We Know It
Each channel of communication attracts a different demographic and even within those channels we tune down to only those people who think and act like we do. We talk about the value of diversity, the importance of community and the productivity of collaboration, but what we are really doing is communicating with a much smaller group of people than ever before. There are just more people in that group. Essentially we are in real danger of talking to ourselves (or other clones of ourselves) and reinforcing our prejudices and ill informed beliefs.

These are not communities to which we belong – they are cliques. Communities are positive; they introduce us to others with opinions and perspectives different to ours. Cliques by their very nature contain no diversity and encourage intolerance. Communities force us to learn to coexist whilst cliques fulfill our need to interact without teaching us to accept differing views.

The communication channels to which we subscribe fail to consolidate information from varied sources. There is no filtering to remove duplicates and so those who shout loudest win whilst the minorities go unheard. There is no gathering of differing views from outside our immediate circle. We hear the same thing again and again every day and we get no perspective or balance, and there is simply no time left for real two-way conversations.

Burst the Bubble
True unified communications does not yet exist, but if it did it would do several things for me.

It would allow me to absorb communication in the way I want rather than having communication foisted upon me via the channel chosen by the sender. If I want to receive messages via email why shouldn’t I, and if a friend wants everything via text good on them. Listening is a rare enough skill as it is without having to become a technology juggler to do it.

It would bring balanced opinion to me on a subject in which I am interested. This is not the same thing a majority opinion; I don’t want proportional representation in my incoming communication. In the wonderful world of online media it is very hard to hear the one detracting voice when all around are shouting “burn the witch!”

It would allow me to send information to individuals, groups, communities and the world simply by sending it. I shouldn’t have to find out which channels they are listening on and join those channels to participate. If I want to distinguish how I communicate surely it would be better for me to create “avatars” for myself in cyberspace. Avatars that present one part of who I am (such as my working persona separate from my home persona) with which people can interact by choice.

But most importantly, it would enable real two-way communication that helped me to grow as a person.

Instead of letting technology turn us into tribal factions, let’s try to use it to bring back the global village. It’s good to talk.

The Enterprising Architect