The Dark Side of Decision Making

While watching a cricket match over the weekend, the commentators were lamenting why a particular player was not selected for the encounter. They argued that he had been performing well, is an important member of the team and had no injuries. They conjectured and speculated. There did not seem to be any apparent reason not to pick him for the match. Suddenly, the captain and coach looked dumb.

Every day, we come across decisions around us that apparently do not make sense. A logical analysis of the known facts and visible indicators reveal them as imprudent and silly. There is a giant corporate’s surprise decision to acquire a startup; another is firing an apparently well-performing CEO; another decides to ban work from home; there is a surprise decision to bypass someone for a promotion (he had already planned the party); a product is retired that seemed to just start making money; or a player not picked up to play when that was all that made sense.

These executives making all these big decisions – they are all morons! Who put them in there in the first place?

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Stockholm Syndrome for Managers

On August 23rd, 1973 two machine-gun carrying criminals entered a bank in Stockholm, Sweden. Blasting their guns, one prison escapee named Jan-Erik Olsson announced to the terrified bank employees “The party has just begun!” The two bank robbers held four hostages, three women and one man, for the next 131 hours. The hostages were strapped with dynamite and held in a bank vault until finally rescued on August 28th.

After their rescue, the hostages exhibited a shocking attitude considering they were threatened, abused, and feared for their lives for over five days. In their media interviews, it was clear that they supported their captors and actually feared law enforcement personnel who came to their rescue. The hostages had begun to feel the captors were actually protecting them from the police. One woman later became engaged to one of the criminals and another developed a legal defense fund to aid in their criminal defense fees. Clearly, the hostages had “bonded” emotionally with their captors.

      — Dr Joseph Carver, “Love and Stockholm Syndrome: The Mystery of Loving an Abuser” 

ImageThis emotional attachment and protective behavior of an abused or captive person towards his captor, abuser or tormentor is known as “Stockholm Syndrome” and is coined after the 1973 Stockholm robbery incident. Though seemingly illogical and unnatural, this syndrome is common among hostages and those who are victims of abuse in a relationship. They exhibit behaviors that are protective and empathetic to those causing harm to them and ensuring to maintain the situation where they keep getting abused.

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The Power of the Power Law

If you have been following me even casually, you would know of my obsession with understanding and applying models. Accurate modeling helps in efficient understanding of the situation, stops us from reinventing the wheel, reuse solutions that have worked before and ensures that we do not leave out anything in our analysis.

Mathematics has not been my forte but that will not prevent me from foraying into it.

ImageLet’s start with a Normal (Bell) distribution – a model that explains many common phenomenon. For example, distribution of marks in a typical university course and distribution of heights, weights or IQs of people in a community. It helps in finding the mean (most commonly occurring value), variance and standard deviation of other data around it. We can extract useful results and make accurate predictions.

The normal distribution focuses on the average – and how everything relates to the average or the most common. You can identify common clusters and predominant patterns. You can see the outliers at the fringes of the bell, but they are really just at the peripheries. They are not the focus of the model. There is a reason why it is called a ‘normal’ distribution.

A more interesting model is the Power Law. It is typically used to model a relationship where the frequency of occurrence of a quantity varies as a power of some attribute of that quantity. It’s a skewed relationship where for a small set of values, the frequency of occurrence of the quantity is disproportionately different from that of others. A good example is the distribution of wealth in a society. There is a certain number of people – probably less than 2% of the population – who are disproportionately wealthier than the rest. The rest are relatively of similar wealth relative to that elite set. The distribution looks like this:

Image

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Compilers are easy, People are difficult

I try not to get very techie in my posts, keeping my Computer Science background in the hood. The intent is to talk about management issues that transcend a specific domain.

But sometimes the temptation to get out of the hood gets … well – too tempting. Specially, when you can use a good analogy to explain something important. For example, how can the compiler tool help us model where we go wrong in managing people.

A compiler is a key ingredient of the life of a software developer. It translates the code that software programmers write into a language that the computer understands. When you see a programmer furiously typing away on his screen telling you he is writing code (to make the world a better place), in reality what he is writing is really for himself, his team and manager only. He is writing down what he thinks the software should do in a prescribed format and structure – it’s just standard English with a very strict grammar. However, the computer that needs to make that software available to the world, lives in its own complex world with its own language and rules. There is a need to translate what the programmer writes into a language that the computer understands. That is what a compiler does. When asked by the programmer, it takes all the fancy writings by the programmer and creates the instructions that the computer can work with. It’s like hiring a language interpreter when you visit the Amazon tribes. The fancy English you speak is unfathomable to the half-clad and crocodile hunting tribesman. The language interpreter acts like a compiler, taking what you say and other data like your facial expressions and body language, and translates into what the tribesman can understand. Hopefully, you and the tribesman can eat the crocodile together rather than they together having you for dinner.

Well, the idea is not to teach you about compilers but why it is relevant to our topic – why smart people fail miserably when they move from a technical role to one involving dealing with people.

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Do More vs Do Less

Remember the good old college days when doing more was the norm. I am not talking about just more work – I am talking about doing more number of things. Half a dozen courses in a semester, multiple projects, assignments, sororities, fraternities, science club, that extra research work, volunteering for the local school – all this in addition to working part-time jobs to make ends meet. At any point of time, there were a dozen things that you had on your mind.

And it made sense. There was so much to learn and do. The only possible way was to do more. Some of it was mandated for you (by the college rules), the other a result of your passion and eagerness to learn. You wanted to get your hands in many pies. You liked to brag about all the stuff that you were juggling and doing well.

The same continued as you started your first job (even worse if you started up your own shop). Although work was more streamlined, specially if you joined a larger organization, but still as a newbie you wanted to do tidbits of everything from doing your work to helping others to volunteering to peeking to see how others do their jobs. Doing so much – and so diverse of it – made you feel cool. Your learning was on fast track.

And still it all made sense. After all, life still has a heap to offer and you just did not know enough. The only way to fill that gap was to do lots of things.

This do more approach worked well – until it stopped working anymore!

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Process or Situation?

It’s late Friday afternoon. You are sitting in your office, exhausted and frustrated. The week could not have been worse. The project is a mess, the team is in disarray and the VP is breathing down your neck. You have fought off about a dozen fires since morning. You almost had a fist-fight with that marketing ‘dude’. You are not even thinking about the upcoming conversation with the VP. The weekend is ruined. The best you can do to soothe yourself is by believing that its just one of those days (though you think there have been too many of them lately).

There was a knock at the door.

It’s Neville (hint: inspiration from Harry Potter series).

Gosh, no. With Neville, you know its trouble. The expressions on his face do not suggest otherwise.

“Boss, we have a problem”.

Sigh.

“I am listening”.

Image“I have been trying to get this fixed by myself for past 3 days, hoping it will go away. I fear that we have hit a hard rock. Our credit card processing system for the upcoming launch is completely broken. We do not have a solution.”

Ouch.

So only when you thought your day could not get worse, Neville proved you wrong.

What would you do?

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Communicating in Chaos – The Gongs and Banners Model

On the field of battle, the spoken word does not carry far enough: hence the institution of gongs and drums. Nor can ordinary objects be seen clearly enough: hence the institution of banners and flags.

Gongs and drums, banners and flags, are means whereby the ears and eyes of the host may be focused on one particular point.

In night-fighting, then, make much use of signal-fires and drums, and in fighting by day, of flags and banners, as a means of influencing the ears and eyes of your army.
      — Sun Tzu (The Art of War)

ImageThis has to be one of the most profound lessons from the great book – not only militarily but also for managers in knowledge organizations. Simply put: you cannot communicate by ordinary means in extra-ordinary circumstances. You have to use stronger and more forceful tools to get your message across the battle chaos. 

In theatre in front of live audience, the gestures and motions of the actors on stage are louder and exaggerated – for example, they will move their hands in a wider area around their body. They will speak louder too. Even their facial makeups are more pronounced. This is to ensure that their emotions, gestures and words communicate effectively to the audience in a setting which is more challenging and demanding. 

Remember, Communication is what the listener does

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Is process a bad thing?

The world seems to be divided into two groups. One which loves process and the other which detests it.

ImageA process streamlines, automates and standardizes a task such that doing it does not take more thinking than required nor leaves room for deviation. We create a process to automate and simplify the repetitive and make it efficient. We tend to avoid reinventing the wheel every time. We follow a process to file our taxes, claim our expenses, apply for a vacation, register our new car and communicate with our customers. A process is created to help simplify our lives and save us time. It is intended to bring order and control to our lives. 

So what is the problem? Why does the second group exist at all? What is their argument? 

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A Joke is a very serious thing …

Sometimes in life you have to confess what you have been doing in the past. I have been guilty of being a “Quotes Collector over the years. (My best defense: So is David Allen of GTD fame!)

Also at a certain time in your life, you start mapping everything you see and experience into your own world. So I went through my collection, shortlisted 40 humorous quotes and mapped into the world of Knowledge Workers and their managers!

Don’t laugh at me. As Charles Churchill said in his writings “A joke’s a very serious thing”.

Here you go ….

1 – The severity of the itch is inversely proportional to our ability to reach it.
             — Jill Shalvis
There will be things you will not have control over in the organization. They’ll itch. Accept it!

2 – You may never learn to swear until you learn to drive.
            — Steven Wright
You never grow up as a professional unless you have lived through a bad project or a bad boss. 

3 – He is one of those people who would be enormously improved by death.
            — Saki
If you have “one of those”, get rid of them

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Lessons from “The Avengers”

A form of mental torture not appreciated enough is kids forcing moms and dads to watch their favorite shows over and over again. Barbie, Dora, Diego, Tom & Jerry, Ben 10, Cinderella, Superman, Spiderman – you name it. In my case, its my 6 year old and The Avengers. I have even lost the view count. And I don’t even really like it.

But repetition is effective. Redundancy works. Forced slavery leaves its marks. It lets you view things differently and abstractly. Once I resigned myself to my misery, I tried to eek something out of it.

ImageAvengers is a team of superheros brought together to save the world from evil and annihilation. Each had some extraordinary skill – good enough to have a brand of their own. Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Thor, Black Widow. Avengers, name of their team, battle against the evil of Thor’s brother Loki to save the world. Here are my three lessons from my incarceration:

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