Subtitles

One of the challenges with being a business practitioner and a philosopher is that your imagination sometimes takes over during meetings. The other day I was in a meeting with executives who were discussing a very complex problem. I started to notice a disparity between what everyone was saying and what they were communicating.

Because one can only listen to so much corporate-speak, I started imagining subtitles to match the meaning underneath the words. Here’s a couple of the gems I found:

“I think it’s really important and we should be thinking about this.” (I’m not going to put my reputation out there)

“That’s above my pay grade” (I recuse myself from decision-making responsibility. Let’s have our bosses fight it out?)

“What do you think?” (our CEO agrees, do you disagree?)

“A lot of other people have thought about this.” (I needed to tell you that you aren’t that special. Also, I didn’t really listen to what you just said and I’d rather not discuss it.)

“That’s the right direction.” (When you figure it out I’d love to participate)

“This other team might be the right team to help you” (I’m not going to help)

“But what is our MVP?” (I don’t think we should build that)

“This piece is separate from that piece” (I don’t care if this is interdependent, I don’t want to do that work) 

“How will we balance the near and long term?” (Can you find me an easy answer?)

“I hear you, and we don’t have an answer” (That question needs to be answered soon)

“What about lawsuits?” (I’m not sure I understand the discussion, I’d rather talk about something really tangible or nothing at all)

“I hear you, and we don’t have an answer” (That’s a really tactical question, and it isn’t important.)

 

Hidden Disagreements

Hidden Disagreements

Language in all it’s abundant complexity offers multitudinous opportunities for misunderstanding. We’ve all been in meetings or conversations where it suddenly becomes apparent that people’s understanding and use of a phrase dramatically differs from our own in a meaningful way.

“How are the new engines for these bicycles?”
“Great!”
“When can we stick them to the frame? The glue is ready.”
“Wait, you mean engine stickers? I was designing a motorcycle”

Where there was the perception of understanding, a hidden disagreement has been discovered.

It isn’t always ignorance, sometimes it’s just a complex idea combined with complex perspectives and many possible interpretations. They usually show up if we discuss enough.

 

 

Don’t worry about it. Here are the best ways to act when you identify hidden disagreements:

 

Tell Someone Else- Decide the other person’s understanding isn’t important right now and the underlying disagreement isn’t as important to you. This usually requires a pretty bold statement after the meeting like: “I just knew they weren’t going to get past that misunderstanding.”

Force Clarity in the Moment- Get the same definition and perspective. Lock the door and bar the windows. If the other party is unwilling to come to agreement, they’ve disqualified themselves from having a voice. “Let’s hash this out at a time that’s really inconvenient for you”

Cut Others Out- They just didn’t get it. Remember it isn’t worth it if you might have to compromise on your position. “No, why would you think Greg would stick with us after the first week?”

Claim ‘Fault’ to Your Credit- Tell them this was on you, because you didn’t explain things well enough. People especially like to hear that it may have been their lesser intellect that caused the misunderstanding. Be sure to humbly suggest that you listen to them the next time around, because that way you’ll be able to think for the both of you. “My bad Susan, I should have thought for both of us.”

Swap It Like a Pro- Decide you liked their interpretation better. Now be the loudest advocate for that version. Don’t announce or acknowledge the change or trouble yourself with an explanation for the shift. This goes really well with a few others in the room so that you can explain to them how you didn’t change your opinion at all. “That’s what I’ve been saying about less revenue. We need LESS less revenue.”

Piledrive Them- Bury them in explanations. This is a pretty good move when you’re in a tight spot especially when you’ve realized your perspective isn’t a really solid position. Pile driving tends to stun the listener as they try to keep up with the syllable barrage you’ve salvoed. Be careful, crafty people will Swap It after a solid piledriver.

 

 

Your Help is a Hindrance

Have you ever been on a project where it feels as though someone is unwittingly playing defense against a successful outcome.  Either they are doing things that actively run counter to the group or are doing things poorly that require others to pick up their slack.  I do not mean those who are trying to tank a project, I mean those whose incompetence on the project produces a result indistinguishable from sabotage.  What do you do with this member if you are not responsible for assembling the team?

Generally in this situation there are a few basic options:

  1. Advocate for that person to be removed from the team.
    Now there there are different ways to go about this.  I don’t recommend advocating to the whole group in the middle of a meeting in the presence of this individual.  This may produce results, but it also produces the undeniable perception that you are a total douche.  Instead I recommend speaking with whoever was responsible for staffing the project.  Approach them one on one and be fair but straight forward in your words.  Above all make sure it does not come off like you simply don’t like the incompetent individual, even if that happens to be true.
  2. Assign them work of the lowest importance.
    If the above option is unavailable for whatever reason, or if you would rather not pursue it, you can always change the kind of work assigned.  Perhaps this person can schedule and build agendas for meetings.  They can take notes and follow up with people.  Perhaps there are work streams that are “nice to haves” rather than “must haves”.  This requires a bit of the benign deception and people skills that make many managers great, the ability to decrease someone’s importance to a project without them feeling slighted enough to blow up.
  3. Mentor them to bring up their performance.
    I personally feel this is the ideal state, but because of that it of course is the most difficult to bring to fruition.  It would be excellent if you could bring someone from dead weight to contributor while they are on your project.  In order for that to happen three things must be true: the participant must be willing, the mentor must have at least a little skill in teaching others, and there must be enough time.  This is the calculus that you must perform if you want to pursue this option. Is this person willing and do we have anyone able to bring them along in time for the value to be recognized in this project?  That is a tricky and situational decision, but the rewards offered if successful should make this a consideration each time.
  4. Stop assigning them work.
    I personally find this to be a bit passive aggressive, but some may see it as the only possibility in their circumstance.  This is pretty self explanatory, you simply stop assigning work to them, or have someone always paired with them who is actually responsible for the work.  This has a high risk of turning the incompetent member of your team into a disgruntled member of your team.  That can cause friction in the working environment that may spill over, so caution is required if you decide to go with this approach.

Obviously this is not some panacea, but by weighing out the options available you can drive the result that provides the best outcome for a given situation.  Always consider the risks that accompany each solution and take mitigating action at the same time you start to implement your solution.

 

The Demand of the Norm

The Demand of the Norm

In business there is an effect similar to gravity. A business’s history and culture acquires a mass of its own over time. That mass perpetuates the values and norms of the business. In large organizations the mass of its history becomes a monolith by many names “what we’ve always done,” “the right thing,” “what we learned last time,””we decided,” etc.,. Here we call it the Norm. The Norm defends compliance, it draws us in, comforts us, and offers us safety from personal responsibility.

Here are 3 styles of leading within an organization with a powerful Norm, I recommend using all three at different times:

Assimilate- Comply, acknowledge the good and live with the bad. The power of such an organization is in its consistency. The system is far less punishing for compliant members than objecting ones. Absurd duties may need to be accepted and a great deal of mental effort will be expended to avoid offending the Norm. This approach takes advantage of the strength of ongoing currents within the monolith.

Subvert- Live within the system, but do not accept the values it has established. Regularly take the time to challenge the beliefs of the organization in closed-door meetings and side conversations. Be careful, this approach more often ends up being an exercise in gossip and bitter complaints than being an effective program for change.

Break- Invest energy to sustain conscious denial of certain values and take steps to remove yourself from the inner workings of the organization. This move not only requires significant effort, it also paradoxically needs the most acceptance from the organization. The subversive and the assimilated have the luxury of not being seen, but those who break with the Norm must live in view of its judgement.

 

Clap for Me

Mandatory corporate cheerleading tires me. Especially when that experience is an awkward mandatory clap for Drake’s (truly the great everyman of our time) latest powerpoint presentation about our falling revenues.

I can only think of a few explanations for why leaders mandate cheerleading and use it profusely:

  1.  You think your team is gullible and you want to pay them with pats on the back and mandatory applause from their peers.
  2. You think your team is emotionally needy.

For 1: You need to get real. An encouraging atmosphere is great, but performances like group applause and putting your name on a cake don’t last. What’s worse, employees usually know what you are doing and act to that effect. You run the risk of reinforcing externality and fame-seeking. A team focused on externality tries to predict and satisfy leader whims, not goals.

For 2: Even if your team is needy, their desire for cheerleading doesn’t make it any less demeaning when you comply. I’d wager they are a lot more capable of maturing than you are giving them credit. While you can’t take personal responsibility for their maturity, you can craft a culture that reinforces or challenges their dependence on cheering. 

At it’s heart, corporate cheerleading arrives from a belief in the inferiority of the masses. Belief in superiority is a  consequence of the ego that subtly develops with many leaders’ careers. It can manifest itself cynically (see 1.), pseudo-empathetically (see 2.), or finally in complicit ignorance where one carries on the traditions of the past.

The Octopus and the Man-0f-War

Looking for a solid decision-making analogy for a team embarking on highly complex work in a fluid, evolving environment?

Why not try an octopus?

Here’s what that might look like

Octopuses have significant amounts of neurons positioned within their limbs. Each leg can process complicated sensory input and begin to interpret external stimuli. With these capabilities an octopus can begin to react a few milliseconds before sensory inputs have reached the central processing center of the brain. While the limbs exhibit the ability to react to momentary changes in the environment, octopuses also have eyes to perceive more distant threats and can migrate to react to shifts in the environment.

It is best not to lean too much on biology for the analogy and suffice it to say: the Octopus model strikes a balance by splitting response to the environment between independent functional groups and a central strategic perspective.

The Man-of-War

Like all good analogies, the Octopus needs a foil to prove that it is the right choice. In this case, let us consider the Portuguese Man-of-War (interestingly, not a jellyfish). A Man-of-War  is a colony of specialized organisms working together to survive. In a world where distributed intelligence and decision-making is seen as the epitome of human evolution (DAOs, crowdsourcing, etc.,) it can be tempting to think of the Man-of-War as the paragon of a collaborative workforce. Each piece does its part in a perfect system without a power dynamic to pollute their interactions.

However, such an arrangement is only amenable in certain conditions. The Man-of-War lacks a function to perceive and respond to broader environmental changes. Without a central perspective the Man-of-War depends on the environment’s good favor to survive.

Here’s the thing, the octopus model isn’t strict in it’s hierarchy because it relies on the limbs for relative autonomy and interaction with the environment. The limb and head functions differ in relation to the perspective they afford. For example, in some cases a limb might need to be sacrificed to save the octopus. What limb could have the perspective to respond in such a way?

In business, a product line may need to be severed when larger threats are imposed on the enterprise. Product lines may not have the perspective to perceive the larger threats or respond in a sufficient capacity. Those product lines need relative autonomy like the Octopus limbs to respond and react, because a central strategic perspective will not have the timely contextual insights that a 1024px-octopus2 may have.

 

Minimum Viable Part 1

Minimum Viable Part 1

A few weeks ago I overheard a common complaint while in a meeting with technology experts.

“They don’t know what an MVP is.  Our business partners just aren’t thinking as well as we are about these things.”  The promulgator of this complaint was looking around the room ready to soak in the approval of their peers, who certainly would agree that “those other people” did not understand.  Indeed most of those centered around this table nodded and smiled knowingly.  While this situation of “us vs them” is common, the issue that arose in my mind from this comment was actually their use of MVP.

An MVP, for those who have more exciting lives than mine, is a Minimum Viable Product.  It is a phrase that became popular in the software sector around 7 years ago.  A basic definition would be “a product with just enough features to gather validated learning about the product and its continued development.”  This definition is vague for a reason.  While I am not going to get into too deep of a discussion about what qualifies as an MVP, it is important to know that there is no formula for an MVP.  The MVP in any situation will change based on what is attempting to be delivered.

Going back to the comment I heard, I felt a disconnect around what was being defined as an MVP.  The picture above, taken from here, is a general metaphor for what the goal of an MVP is.  The technology being delivered worked, but did not provide what the business needed to give to the customer.  In the diagram you can see that the MVP asked for was a skateboard.  This is because what the business needed was something that moved the customer.  In this situation, the individual was complaining about the business partner who was asking for software.  What they were getting from the technology partner was an excellent wheel, whose code ran smoothly and would be a critical component of the car to come.  But you cannot give your customer a wheel and ask them how well it moves them.  My complaining colleague was assigning blame, but not accepting that it was the technology group that had misunderstood the meaning of an MVP.

Thus far we have noticed that there is a disconnect between to business partners and the technology group.  Next we will look at what may cause this disconnect, and finally we will look at ways to overcome this disconnect.