Guiding Quote

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” Einstein

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Amazon: Rank and Yank and how to destroy a team

This week we have seen a lot of discussion arising from a New York Times article about the work practices at Amazon's corporate headquarters. I, like you, have no information about the truth or otherwise of the statements made in the article. Allegations that have been rebuffed by the CEO saying it didn't reflect the company he knew, or words to that effect. But he would say that wouldn't he, if only because the company and its policies do look different when you're the CEO rather than one of the worker bees. After all if you have a net worth of $49B then you have a totally different perspective than the rest of us on a whole range of things.

One of practices at Amazon that does not appear to be in dispute is their policy of forcing managers to annually rank their workers and to fire the lowest rated ones. The is called Rank them and then Yank them out of the company, shortened to Rank and Yank. They are not the only company that uses this approach to managing their "talent". Most consultancies have similar systems, always striving to have only "A team" workers in their companies, they call it Promote up or Manage out. They refuse to recognize that type 'A' personalities are frequently not good team players. In fact quite a few of them have wrecked more teams than improved them. Plus type 'A's' do not play well with each other. Too many ego's in a room is a recipe for poor cooperation and performance.

Rank and Yank most certainly doesn't work that well in multidisciplinary teams. If you have team of ten and each has an individual skill set then ranking their performance is highly subjective and firing your only UI developer will not help performance in the short run, given the time needed to recruit and train a replacement.

Team morale, which is a key factor in high performing groups, will also diminish, well respected workers getting fired does not encourage the others, instead it makes them anxious and less inclined to share key information. Where knowledge is not just power, but the key to survival, why would you share knowledge with someone that might result in them being ranked higher than you and thereby getting you sacked? If you're smart you don't.

Rank and Yank is just another glossy facade placed on the ugly reality of Social Darwinism, or survival of the fittest and the devil take the hindmost. There's a reason why only 63% of employees would recommend working there to a friend!

For a PM this sort of work environment is very challenging. You need to be leading a well motivated team to be successful and when that ideal is undermined by the company culture then you have an almost impossible task. You are bound to fail eventually and you will be fired! So either cut your losses or, better still, don't work for a Rank and Yank firm in the first place.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Discretion is the better part of a prosecution: Ask the Bankers

Those pesky little rascals, aka Bankers, have been at it again. In London a group of them are on trial for allegedly rigging the LIBOR interest rate market, that’s the interest rate upon which a large part of the finance industry uses to set their rates for credit card and car loans and the like. Also an elite group of international banks have been fined a total of $6B by various national regulators for rigging the foreign exchange market, this is not allegedly since they have admitted the crime, that’s a first. 
The level of malpractice is so widespread that these million and billion dollar fines are now common place. One bank, JP Morgan Chase, has agreed to pay around $27B in fines etc over the past two years. This is serious money, money taken directly from their shareholders, so much for increasing shareholder value!
One of the recurring themes in all of the investigations is the number of times these sharp practices are uncovered through emails that detail not only the actions but the mind set of the conspirators; “Lets put some lipstick on this pig!” being one of the more memorable phrases. The arrogance of these correspondents is so large that they don’t appear to even consider that these messages will be seen by anyone outside of their close circle. That someday these inelegant phrases will see the light of day and that they will be asked to justify them. 
There is a saying, attributed to an old time Boston Politician, “Never write if you can speak, never speak if you can nod, never nod if you can wink”. To this has been added, by a NY State Prosecutor, the modern day admonition, “Never email”. 
This guidance should be used by all project managers in their correspondence. Not that I expect you’ll be involved in criminal activities. But we do discuss work and our work colleagues in emails. So we should NEVER write anything that we would be ashamed to defend to a person’s face. If you wouldn’t say it to a man’s face or in a public meeting then don’t put in a note. Also avoid adjectives, subjective judgements, and hyperbolic statements. An earthquake in Nepal is a disaster, a failed QA test is not. Let the facts speak for themselves and let the reader make her own judgement. Your emails may be more boring but you will be able  defend everyone of them. 
Remember words are like bullets, once they are launched they can’t be recalled and you don’t always know where they will end up: Make discretion your watchword. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

Election Results and Polls: You ‘herd’ it here

The British General Election has just finished and one of the principal losers was the opinion polling industry. Yes, those people whose projections politicians invest such faith in screwed up again. The polls had been showing that the two main parties, Conservative and Labour, where basically tied, From these poll figures the pundits, really the classic example of fools with tools, estimated that no party would have an overall majority and that some form of cooperation with other parties would be required in order to form a government. With both parties having a credible chance of actually leading the next government. With Labour having a better chance, as they would be leading the supposed anti-austerity majority.

Well the pollsters got it wrong. The Conservatives won a slim majority and the Labour party had a horrible night, not least in their previous Scottish strongholds. Scotland on election night resembled a pretty gory episode of Game of Thrones, with long time favourites and strongmen dispatched with brutal suddenness.

But not all of the pollsters got it wrong one of them did have a poll that reflected the actual result.  And their case gives us an object lesson about filters and biases. The pollsters, Survation, conducted a poll the day before the election and their results were very close to the actual vote count for each party. However they did not publish the results. Why?

Well here are the actual words of their CEO:
The results seemed so “out of line” with all the polling conducted by ourselves and our peers – what poll commentators would term an “outlier” – that I “chickened out” of publishing the figures – something I’m sure I’ll always regret.
Survation fell foul of the bias that is “herd” mentality; that behavior were by members of a group feel safer going along with the thoughts and actions of their peers , the“ herd”, rather using their own analysis. They would rather be wrong together than take the risk of being wrong individually no matter what their evidence reveals. Like lemmings they’d rather jump off the cliff rather than be in the minority safe above ground. They don’t want to be the child that exclaims that the Emperor has no clothes.
The lesson here for PM’s is that when we are in the Orient stage of the OODA Loop we have to be careful of the biases that can impinge on our analysis. And also we have to trust our methodology and have the courage to call it as we see it. If the results appear to be an outlier then by all means check and double check but eventually you have to release them. Playing it safe by following the herd often isn’t right, just ask the lemmings.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Managers: love them or hate them, the key is to survive them!

Our bosses can be the bane of our lives, always judging, demanding, worrying, and complaining. (Is there a class in management school that covers worrying?) They are not genetic traits as there incidence crosses all races, geographies, and genders, rather it's something they are burdened with when they enter the hallowed halls of management.

Project managers with impeccable records become, almost over night people who can believe three stupid things before breakfast and repeat them to their skeptical subordinates with a straight face. And that is just the good promotions. It is not only cream that rises to the top. There is plenty of crap that floats to the top and gets promoted. We all know of too many examples to believe the bromide about living in a meritocracy. Too many Whiskey Tango Foxtrot appointments with sides of "can you believe" and "what were they thinking".

Kings of old were anointed with holy oil, and given a crown, an orb, and a scepter as a sign of their God given right to rule. The three wise men brought with them Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. Maybe when as managers they get their first briefcase, or their promotion letter, it's impregnated with oils of paranoia, and they receive the gifts of gullibility, fear, and stupidity. Whatever happens it is very potent. Snake venom is like herbal tea in comparison.

Or maybe they are given rings and unbeknown to them those rings are, in Lord of the Rings style, subservient to a master ring; a ring that rules them all from the executive equivalent of Mordor!

Whether we know what happened or how it was done we have to deal with the jellyfish they have become. We have to make it work, or at least give the impression that we are. Bosses need to be supported, but from a safe distance. We don't want to go down with his ship when he fails.

Always be cultivating networks within and without of your department or company. If you work remotely this takes more work than if you are in a traditional office. For once the dreaded matrix management can help since it requires you to report to a wider range of people, thereby forcing you to network. Always have your manager as an element in the Observe and Orientate sectors of the OODA loop until it is time to Decide and Act. Just make sure that you dont swap a jellyfish for the incredible boneless wonder. You don't want to move from the frying pan to the fire!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Models and Biases

One of the abiding myths in economics is that there is such a being as homo economicus, or a perfectly rational person when it comes to making decisions. Now that myth has been undermined by the work of behavioral economists, who have described a whole series of biases and proclivities that control how we think and make decisions.

Their work has been used by the "big number" crunchers to justify a process called business analytics; they claim that by using their models we can avoid these biases and thereby reach a rational decision. Models don't have emotions and they dont have biases, they're inorganic so they can't be swayed away from the facts. Sounds logical, right.  However, who creates the models? 

We fallible Homo sapiens create the models. us with all our pesky biases and non-rational behaviors.  People who build models do so with an end in mind. The model is built to reproduce a process. It is created from a set of requirements. It is formed from someone's belief in how a process works. That belief requires the creation of assumptions that underlie the models design. We know that assumptions are very susceptible to bias.

For example the financial models that were used in the mortgage industry pre 2008 did not allow for a decrease in property values, the widely held assumption was that property values always increase. Also the efficient market theory, much touted by economists, and its models assumed, no, asserted that the price of houses and shares was always right because the market "knew" all the facts about an asset and would price it correctly. The models did not, and still do not, allow for a price bubble. Cant happen, so in theory the worldwide real estate crash and the resultant financial crisis shouldnt have occurred, but it did. Oops. Guess the models are as flawed as the people who build them!

We project managers should always be careful when we are told that the model or the tool gives us a perfect answer. Unless we know the assumptions that went into building the application we should never take that statement on its face value. Do your own quick analysis to see if the answer is realistic, trust but verify. All PMs should construct a mental bullshit detector. Theres never a shortage of BS, or people to spread it around!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Maps: The Big Picture and PM’s

I have been on vacation in the UK, a big deal for someone who has had a triple bypass, since it involved a nine hour trans Atlantic flight. Being the recipient of a CABG has a way of moving your bucket list from the status of Ill get around to it to better get started, pronto.

Most of the week in London was spent "getting culture", as I trailed my wife around the National Gallery, the V&A. Museum, the Courtauld Gallery, both Tate museums- British and Modern -, and the Wallace Collection: Lots of Gainsboroughs, Turners, Monets, Manets, plenty of impressionists, classicists, modernists, with a smidgen of cartoonist. By the end of the week I was in dire need of another  ist, a chiropodist!

However I did manage to visit Prime Minister Winston Churchill's war rooms under the UK treasury building: the place where he directed the British war effort from 1940 until 1945.

One of the key exhibits is a collection of map rooms that Churchill ordered to be created showing the current worldwide deployment of British forces. These maps were kept up to date, 24/7,throughout the war. Only ceasing when the conflict finished in August 1945.

At a glance the PM, other members of the war cabinet, and the Chiefs of the Imperial General Staff, could see the current position of the war in any theatre: Europe, Middle East, Far East, etc, For the British, along with the Americans later on, were fighting a global war; the other participants were not! So it was important that the leaders could see, and be reminded of, the whole picture and not get sucked into concentrating upon one area, to the detriment of the wider conflict.

The lesson I drew from this museum is that every project manager needs her map room, virtual or otherwise, where she regularly, daily or weekly, looks at her project in total and resists the temptation to focus narrowly on the crisis of the day. So that the important is not crowded out by the merely urgent.

The technique I use is to mind map ( my project or projects and to review and update the diagrams at least every week. At the end of the review I prepare an action list of project tasks that need to be done in the next week. That way I minimize the chances of important actions being overlooked. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Captain Picard and Blunders.

In one of the Star Trek TV series the main protagonist is Captain Picard and he has a phrase that he uses to indicate that he has made a decision, the phrase is, make it so Commander Riker. So in episode after episode he listens to his subordinates as they come up with highly complex solutions to the apparently intractable current dilemma. Solutions involving tachyon beams, time shift distortions, black holes, phase modulation, the face angle on a sand wedge (I made that up) are put forward and in an instant Picard says, make it so Commander Riker.  And low and behold in a short amount of time its done, it works and we are on to the next episode.

Now this is all great entertainment, unfortunately we have a generation of decision makers who have a similar make it so approach to policy making. They dream up policy solutions to problems and then give them to someone else to implement or not, as is usually the case.

Evidence to support my hypothesis can be found in an excellent book - The Blunders of our Governments, by Anthony King & Ivor Crewe - on project failures in the political realm. Failures that cost the British taxpayer billions of pounds over a 30 year period. A period that covers governments of all parties so political bias is not present; incompetence, as most project managers know only too well, is not ideological. Ideology may blinker people's thinking, but even if the policy is correct the application may still yet be a disaster.

Nor is incompetence technologically based, many of the examples where poorly conceived from the beginning, the technology just added to the confusion, or in some cases the lack of practical knowledge of the technology augmented the poor decision making. Nothing is so dangerous as a politician or executive who is convinced that there is a "silver bullet" solution to a complex problem.

One of the key points of the book is the apparent dividing line separating the policy makers from those who have to implement the policy; between the thinkers and the doers. In many cases the policy makers failed, in some cases deliberately, to consult the people with practical experience of the processes to be changed or "improved". This failure to consult resulted in the setting of arbitrary deadlines, which often had more to do with meeting political timescales or personal agendas than with how long the work would take. This of course is not limited to the public sector the private sector follows the same pathology. The problem is with the policy maker mind set and the divide with operations rather than with public or private sector. As the book illustrates the private sector companies and consultants called in to work on these solutions failed to meet the level of basic competency. And we are taking about household names in the consultancy field. No names, no lawsuits, just read the book!

So how does a project manager address this divide? How do we try to make the policy makers aware of the problems? Notice I use the word try, for try is all we can do. In reality there is nothing so blind as a policy maker with a dream. They can be zealots, who can see no other way than their way. No other solution. No other timescale.

The answer is through risk analysis. Use your knowledge and the experience of subject matter experts to detail the implications of various decisions. Make sure the findings of the risk analysis are circulated widely. Not just to the immediate stakeholders but all parties with an interest in the policy. In some of the cases quoted in the book key politicians were not aware of the implications of the changes and had they been aware they may have prevented the fiascos. The concept of unintended consequences is very relevant in all major organizations. Decisions have knock on effects that adversely impact other parts of the system, so the wider the consultation the better the chances of minimizing them. In real life make so rarely makes anything other than a mess.