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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The Testing Specialist

This is a guest post I wrote for Knowledge Tester blog – an excellent repository of insights into today’s knowledge tester world. The author, Majd is a close friend and ex-colleague. We both had the privilege to work together for a great group of knowledge workers. The article appeared here and I am reproducing it for Thinking Spirits audience.

In early days, life was simple. If you got sick, you would simply go to the ‘doctor’ who could treat your eyes, fix your stomach, amputate your leg and give you a diet plan. Specialization was unheard of. The patients, their diseases and expectations were simple. The medical knowledge was limited.

With time and progress, as man and his endeavors became complex, so did the medical profession. Specialists sprouted and the knowledge base expanded. The poor old doctor was replaced with hordes of specialists.

Software evolved in a similar way, albeit in a shorter span. Early software would be written by the engineer who could do everything from designing, coding, testing and deploying. There was neither need nor capacity for specialization. Time and progress, however, demanded specialization – the architect, programmer, usability designer, tester, deployment engineer and so forth. The process is recursive. In a tester’s world, automation, performance testing, penetration testing, usability testing and many others are becoming specializations of their own.

This progressive specializations has flourished – and complicated – the “Knowledge Testing” world.

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Dare you work from home!

Yahoo! recently banned work from home. The news made splashes and attracted backlash.

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To me, it looks more an effort to rectify the inefficiencies in Yahoo organization that have creeped up over the years than a productivity statement. It looks remedial and reactive. If so, the Yahoo-wide ban on working from home is an overkill. It is doctoring the symptoms rather than addressing the cause. If not, and it is actually the company’s vision of how Yahoo engineers should work, the move may backfire.

I am not a big proponent of work from home. You won’t find me canvassing for it on campaign trail. Work from home is a privilege not a right. Organizations are social structures to make people work together to achieve its goals. Getting together under one roof certainly looks the most efficient way to get people to work together. Kids go to school – they don’t “study from home”. Hospitals need patients to come over – they don’t “heal from home”. Passengers don’t “fly from home”, lawyers don’t “argue from home” and prisoners don’t “serve their term from home”.

So what’s the problem?

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Your workspace is your friend!

LinkedIn recently shared a fabulous photo series titled “Where I work” featuring workspaces and work habits of what it calls “thought leaders” – essentially all knowledge workers. Each of the 50+ places were described by their occupants. It was just awesome to see them and the amount of thought and insight that went into their design and customization.

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The LinkedIn article was a pleasant complement to my current re-reading of “Peopleware” – one of the all-time classics for management of knowledge workers. The book dedicates one of its complete sections to “The Office Environment” and how it is one of the key components of effective work (and the most abused and ignored one as well). 

Going through the picture series, I could not help extract common themes and patterns even from a widely eclectic and diverse collection of people and businesses. Not surprisingly, many resonate with the ideas in Peopleware. One cannot emphasize the importance of a personalized, open and comfortable workspace and the impact it has on one’s work. 

Here are the common themes I found (you are welcome to add to them):

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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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It Depends!

I am a hardcore Agile guy! I love Scrum. I have been a Scrum ‘evangelist’ (whatever that means) and the Scrum go-to guy for years. Agile is the way forward. It’s the best process to manage your software projects. Heck, it’s the best way to manage any project.

Hold on. Any project? All scenarios? No exceptions?

One of my professors in graduate school told us that the art of effective teaching is in stimulating students’ brains – by continuously asking questions, soliciting feedback and making them think. A question of his would bring up a perfectly reasonable answer – only to be added on by another perfectly reasonable answer. Soon, answers to most of the questions posed by the professor started with “Well, It depends”.

“It depends!” Even with all the laughter that such answer had, we started to get the game. The world started to make more sense.

There can be two – or even more – perfectly palatable answers to questions of the form “What is the best way here?“. They are pivoted differently only by the context. They differ by what they depend on. Image
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