Friday, November 29, 2013

Why analytical people sometimes fail to get emotions right

The other day I was talking project management with a development manager, and I was not careful to wear my "member of the project manager club" social persona. Instead, I did what I usually do which is to focus more on competence and collaborations, and less on  titles. I little too late, I realized that I had just offended this person. The truth is, many of us include our job title in our social identity. Therefore when I did not show respect for the "social stance of project leaders",  this person felt personally aggressed, and to protect himself, needed to think that I was not being coherent.

My daughter wanted to write a story recently. I gave here the following advice:
You always have two choices:
You can start with events and then describe the resulting emotions,
or start with emotions and then describe the resulting events.

Just apply this rule over and over.
 An example:  "The man hit the dog, and everyone was sad" versus  "It was a sad day: the man hit the dog, (and possibly follow with more sad events)".

Emotions tend to be the weak spot of analytical people. Not because they do not feel emotions, but because their analytical system does not pay enough attention to the fact that simple statements can generate emotions that will change the rational perceptions of others.

All original content copyright James Litsios, 2013.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Are good movies for nerds still possible?

This weekend I watched Computer Chess and The Internship on Apple TV.
Sadly, I feel that both film fail my test for being great.

Computer chess is really pretty fun. It is not "funny" but brings enough retro geeky elements into the script to touch a lot of "├╝ber nerd" soft spots. If you are like me and have lived the late seventies and early eighties micro-computer revolution, then you definitely get value of the first three quarters of the film. The let down is the last quarter. I will not spoil your fun by giving you the plot, but I can say that the film tries to meet up with a broader audience by bringing in deep issues of faith within a "fantastic" settings. I just didn't feel this worked.

The internship suffers a similar "try to broaden appeal" problem. The issue here is sex. Maybe it is the reediting for the Apple TV version, or I am just old fashion, but this film had way to much "open" sexual dialog (and scenes), and not enough inhibited behavior to be a "true" geeky movie.

Hopefully there is a business model out there that allows movies to be true to their spirit, without being a flop. These two movies show that these producers do not know of it.

You may ask what is my definition of a movie for nerds?
Here are a few of my favorites: Electric Dreams, Colossus - The Forbin Project, The Brain, Pi, Tron.

What is interesting in this list is the common theme: The separation of mind from body within a rational framework.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Managing talented people

Misfits of science

Talented people are outstanding at what they do best... and often dysfunctional in one way or another. This post is about how to manage talented people. And especially about managing them within organizations that need a lot of collaboration (e.g. software development).

I'll start with a quote from a TV show from the eighties:
"Everybody that is worth the trouble is a little weird"
(This is out of the truly silly episode three of the Misfits of Science)
I have worked with many talented people that were "pretty normal", yet I would need to argue that the majority of the "good people", those that are worth the trouble to "keep", from a management perspective, are also "quirky people". For example, I have worked with someone who would request forks at McDonald's, another that rarely washed, another that always took credit for other people's ideas, one that never could join a meeting on time, yet another that physically broke down in certain situations (and then needed real assistance), one that spent every weekend doing the same thing, one that complained and bickered forever, etc. Not all of these behaviors became a management issue, but some did; And by my experience, even those talented people that did not show such "outward" signs of "weirdness", had their special side, which within work organization often showed up as social issues in abrupt or surprising manners, like when they decide to quit (see Bob Knowlton at Simmons Laboratories for a great example of interesting material collected on the subject in the fifties).

I will admit that as a manager I have wasted a lot of time trying to help some of these people, trying to improve their dysfunctional side. My reasoning was: I am talented, and a bit dysfunctional, yet I have learned to function within the social and work rules, so why cannot some of my colleagues be able to learn to function better with others and with themselves?

Yet changing oneself takes an incredible amount of time and focus, and is simply something that cannot be "managed at work". This brings us to rule one and two in managing talent:
Focus on your organization's culture and work process.
Ignore the dysfunctional side of talented individuals.
As a manager your first priority is to make sure that the "group thing" works, because it will cost you a fortune if it does not. A culture of healthy proactivity is worth gold, and so is a culture of efficient quality (e.g. test driven with automation). So your job as a manager, before all, is to bring in that productivity without worrying about dealing with the dysfunctional side of your talented people.

Note that I did not say that you should ignore your talented people, just their dysfunctional side. Which brings us to rule three:
Never ignore your talented people.
Here is the theory: Talented people are "special people" (see my blog entry on the subject). Which means that part of what "makes them tick" is independent from the social and group "thing". Talented people can build "a lot" on top of this independent "part of themselves", that is what gives them their speed and creativity. And they do it for different reasons: they may be driven by the purity of the building process, a form of aestheticism; they may be driven by their social imbalance, forever trying to compensate for it. But most importantly, this drive is almost always there! It does not matter if the person is doing good or bad. Therefore, if care is not taken, talented people may build "bad stuff" in this independent part of themselves, effectively growing their dysfunctionalities. This happens subconsciously or not.

Breaking bad

Talented people may build "bad stuff" and this can lead to bad behavior. Top on the list bad behavior with talented people is "the control thing". People with this problem may invest a lot of effort to control their surrounding with the only goal of preserving or protecting their "inner independence". This can happen in many levels of "badness": I have worked with people that lied to me and to others, a very bad behavior; I have worked with people that needed to "own" all or part of the solution, a sometimes bad behavior.  This ambiguity of what is a bad behavior is part of the trickiness of managing talented people. But it also leads back to rule one: first make sure your overall process is working. Do that for the productivity reasons I mentioned above but also to set limits for your talented people. The thing is, they are experts, they know more than you in specific domains, yet their effort to "stay in control" may well be leading you elsewhere than you want to go, and they may even not be aware of this. Therefore, as a manager you need to set (and help set) standards and make sure you have a very active monitoring process to enforce these standards. In fact you not only want that monitoring of "good organization process and culture" to be active, you want it to be visible to all. That will help remind your talents what the good rules are, and that is our rule number four:
Actively and publicly monitor "good" work process
You can be the traditional director, or project manager, that "walks the floor" and that tell their workers what they see and what they like. Or this can be an agile process where the monitoring is done as part of everyone's job,  for example, in the Scrum's daily standup meetings. What is important is that the effort is steady, repeated and maintains expectations of simple work behaviors.

Now having said all this, you might say I am providing little help, and I am not saying how rule three should be implemented. The one about not ignoring your talented people. I will come to that, but I really wanted to reenforce rule one, two, and four. And just to really, really, reenforce this notion of "make sure the environment is right", I need to add that just like with computers, there is a bit of a "garbage in, garbage out" aspect with people: if you do not give them good input, they will mostly not produce good output. With talented people, this effect is compounded, because they "soak in" more and faster, but also because they typically are more sensitive to connections between things.

This brings us to rule five:
 Maintain clear business goals, actively evangelize your teams towards them.
Having a company vision and a good product management that works hand in hand with your development resources goes a long way to keep your talented people aligned and feeling that someone cares about them. But that is not enough. There is an alpha person like hierarchy in talent. Therefore not only do your product owners or managers need to be good, they must also be talented. Otherwise the attention they bring to your talents will not be considered as relevant.

This last rule is little tough, I am saying you need a balance of talent in product management and development, yet if you know how hard it is to hire talent, this is not always an easy balance to achieve. Yet I am asking you for more, rule six is:
Have a head of HR, or CEO for smaller organization, that understands talent.
Now you might be thinking: talented development, talented product management, therefore talented head of HR or CEO; a form of "alpha person" hierarchy. That is not what I am saying -- although it is an option to shape your organization as an "alpha hierarchy" -- I am not saying that because if you build your company just by "stacking" talent, you end up with strong silo structures and a very political culture where people will put themselves before their organization. Such an approach is fine for specific business models, for example, to support a "pyramidal" sales organization. Yet it leads to organizations with limited sharing and team culture. In my business (software development) you want collaboration, therefore you want your head of HR or CEO to understand the subtle rules of managing talents. And therefore rule six says that your head of HR or CEO is experienced enough that he/she knows how to manage talent.

Just say no

Even with a "talent friendly" organization framework, we do need to accept that sometimes people just go too far, and there are situations were bad behavior needs to be stopped. Therefore, rule seven is:
Stop bad behavior that goes against your organization's culture and work process.
(This rule is really just a repeat of part of rule one. Yet it is so critically important that I give it its own rule.)

Talented people need a work culture as much as everybody else, but the more talented the person, the less their culture tends to be fed by "standard" social rules. Nerds or geeks are an example, almost a caricature, of such a different cultural standard. Other examples of "special cultures" exist, and each individual has their own "special" personal culture, built upon good and bad behaviors (and remember that dysfunctionality goes with talent). Although it is nice to be fully integrated in a culture, it is also nice to be just "in" a culture, especially if there are other ways to grow. Many talented people are satisfied to work within "simple" work process, even if this ends up being a pretty static activity, as long as they can pursue their personal growth in their talent domain. In fact, people that are "rationally" talented tend to do better with a simple and somewhat unemotional work culture. Yet even with a simple process and work culture, some people refuse to, or simply cannot, "play by the rules". Talented or not, that is not acceptable, and rule seven is there to reenforce this. In fact often this is the most critical activity of management, you need to stop people that are bringing others down when it happens, waiting is not an option.

Now having said all that, we can address rule three: "Never ignore your talented people".

In an ideal work world, we are all equally positively collaboratively driven, analytical, social and mature people. Yet the reality is different, and the more talented the person, the more issues he or she may have. One character pattern I have seen many times is the complementarity of analytical and social skills. Not only does talent in one of these stunt the other, but worse: talent often feeds a complementary negative character. Said simply, talented rational people tend to be emotionally immature, talented emotional people tend to be "rationally immature". The best way to deal with this is to have a healthy work process and culture. That is why all those previous rules are so important: they make good process and culture happen. Yet the question is still: given that not everyone has similar talents, what more should be done? What specific "talent oriented" action should you take as a manager?

One option is to do nothing. Or more specifically, run your normal process, and if your talents are not happy, well... tough luck for them! 
This option of "do nothing special about your talented people" is a real option. You may be within a domain and business where you are getting enough talent that you do not want do anything more than just to run your company efficiently. Still, you do need to be extra careful that your bring in the right talent for each specific job. That brings us to rule eight:
On hiring, make sure the talent matches the job;
Later, make sure the job matches the talent.
You might be thinking I am saying: "make sure that the skill set matches up with the job. Yet that is not the case! In fact that brings us to a major trickiness: Talent and skill set is not the same thing!

Making sense of quirkiness

In order to stay on safe grounds, I make use of the the dictionary, which states that the definition of talent is "natural aptitude or skill". The dictionary is saying that talent is "natural" while by default "skill" is learned. What the dictionary is trying to express is the "special" property, which I have already talked about, and which is the fact that the talented person is developing on his/her own inner construction, independently of others. But more importantly, the difference is between learning "on one's own", and being talented at it, versus learning from others. It is the key understanding that you want to pick up here.  It support everything I said above about normal management rules, it provides a "simple" explanation for the "quirky talent" syndrome, and finally it gives us a lead into how best to use talent.

The idea is that a talented person can build new skills "on their own", while the "less talented" person will need someone else from which to learn the new skills. (Obviously, this is somewhat of a reduces view of the world, but in my experience it is very useful view of how growth happens). We have eight possible scenarios:

Talented Less talented
Learns good things on their own More likely Less likely
Learns bad things on their own More likely Less likely
Learns good things from others Possible Likely
Learns bad things from others Possible Likely

To explain:
  • Talented people are more likely to learn on their own (good or bad).
  • Less talented people are less likely to learn on their own (good or bad).
  • Talented people have an inner independence that may block them from learning from others. Therefore it is possible that they learn less from others.
  • Less talented people have less inner independence and therefore are more likely to learn from others.
This help support the statements from above:
  • Normal management  is needed to help talented people learn from others and detect situations when they are blocking this process.
  • "Quirky talent" syndrome happens because talented people are likely to have learned differently on their own. This variation from the "common social standard" feels "quirky".
It also gives us another insight: talent has some similarity with volatility in finance.
And therefore managing talent has some similarities in with managing portfolios: there is really a notion of risk versus return, and a notion of steady return of value versus volatility in this return.

The science of working talent

The idea is that work is a form of investment, people get payed, and return value on this investment. (You can skip this paragraph and the next two if you do not want my "pseudoscience"). This rate of return depends on their skills, the compatibility of the skills with the needs of the project, but also varies widely, in a volatile manner, with the complexity of each project, but also also with the nature of each person. This is not pure science, but more of a qualitative effort of understanding what dependencies a manager needs to work with. The talent return and volatility model works like this:
  • Skills are like a rate of return: As more skills bring back more value on investment. This is independent of talent.
  • Rate of returns (skills) grow with time: Because people learn new skills and to be more productive, but usually peeks at a limit.
  • Volatility on return grows with talent:  Because talented people accumulate both good and bad learning on their own.
  • Less talent often means less volatile: Because less talented people learn from others and this is a filtering process that reduces uncertainty.
  • Asymmetry in volatility grows with time: People that acquire good behaviors tend to grow them and same for bad behaviors. On the long term there is a trend.
  • Skills are multidimensional:  Skills depend on their usage context and on the desired goal. Some skills can be composed, or used together, others not. So even though skills are similar to the rate of return of investment into a person, this rate of return is very context dependent.
  • Talented people often find it easier to mix different skills together: Because their skills are often learned "on there own", and therefore have a "more compatible common base".
  • The volatility of talented people may explode when meeting their limits: The reasoning is, their independent part may become unstable when no longer supported by their surrounding (social or domain specific). When talented people get lost, their independent part will frantically work alone until either it finds a "new balance" that still addresses the desired "work goals", or in the less desired equilibrium that is incompatible with work goals.
Now that we have laid out the major dependencies in talent management, we can can talk about strategy. We cannot be too complicated. For example, it would be tempting to take the above results and try to create something similar to modern portfolio optimization applied to the management of people. But that would be forgetting that we would need precise parameters of each individual, and also a precise understanding how each individual collaborates with others. That is something that we do not have. So while hedge funds exist based on many different strategies, there are usually much less different ways to manage talent. Still, the above results are telling us a few major elements of strategy that can be applied generally without the knowledge if someone is talented or not:
  • When hiring worry about talent:
    • Favor skills: The minimal risk approach. Ignore talent, just favors the skills you need.
    • Favor precise skills: Similar to favoring skills, you favor the skills you need, but as you keep the skill set very limited you are "repelling" many talented people because they would feel "boxed in". With less talent, you reduce your risk to acquire "bad talent".
    • Favor broad skills: You focus on the skills you need, but you ask for a wide enough variety of them to make the right talented person feel comfortable.
    • Favor good work culture:  Good work culture is good for everyone, but here we are interested in work culture that "filters" and "aligns" your talented people. People that do not "feel right" to your culture are not hired (and often do not want to be hired).
    • Favor engaged work culture: Talented people need to feed their inner independence. The easy option is for them to invest their talent elsewhere than work. The better option, is that the talent is invested into their work or into areas that are supporting their work. In academia, publications (and other forms of collaboration) are used for this purpose. In the "normal work world", blogs and open source/collaborative projects may be a way to judge someone else's "talent alignment". Yet many people do not have such public activities.  Unfortunately, it is not easy to judge where people invest their effort when no public material is available.
    • Favor past success: One success may be luck, but a lot of success is a sign of skills, and most likely talent. Yet past success does not indicate that the current skills are still usable, nor that bad learning has not tainted the person, so care must be taken.
    • Favor recent past success: As above but lowers the chance that the person has not acquired bad learning that would block his/her skill set and possible talent. 
    • Share your long term vision: As described below, your company will need to provide a reason for the person you are considering to hire to stay. Better present enough of your vision up front to make sure the candidate is buying in to it.
    • Have some social diversity (e.g. gender, age, ...): Who is going to tell your quirky talented staff that they smell bad, make annoying funny sounds, or nasty remarks? Ideally their co-workers! But for this to happen there needs to be enough social diversity, and this only happens if you hire some diversity in. The thing is, the more we are alike, the harder it is for us to chastise others. Social difference, for example man versus woman, are great enablers that help teams address social issues.
  • Monitor velocity: Faithfully sizing and estimating future work and measuring progress  (velocity in Scrum), is very important, talent management or not. Yet for talents it is a way to give them a hold when they fail to succeed. On the longer term this is important as unmanaged failures may result in more "explosive" reactions in talented people, such as burnout, breakdowns, and resignations.
  • Evangelize your staff with long term visions: There is often a latent insecurity in talented people. It is their independence that sometimes worries them. Best is that your company vision provides long term reassurance. In the tech industry, option plans were one way to do this. Now,  social visibility is way to "provide more" to someone. Yet both of these methods have  disadvantages, therefore ideally you want to get you talented people to "buy in" to your long term business strategy. This is one reason I recommend to have good product owners and product managers that evangelize your teams.
Example of strategies that do not work within a collaborative environment:
  • Focus only on good talent: If you are a gallery owner, or a consultancy firm, your business model may work by considering talent before all else in your selection process. Yet this strategy has a high risk of bringing in lots of bad behavior, and skill mismatches, something you definitely do not want in a collaborative environment.
  • Mushroom Management or "Keeping your developers in the dark and feed them fertilizer": Such an approach does not take a active approach to product management, communicating business vision, nor development culture. In effect, it does not provide the teams nor your talents with enough "elasticity" to make the right decisions. This results in bad alignment, issues "rotting", and ultimately your talents "exploding".
Some of you may feel that I have again avoided to address how to directly manage talented people, and again have focused on to "general" management process rules. That is true! In fact, it is a key observation: I am not going to tell you how to micromanage people on a people by people basis. First because so much value can be brought by ignoring micromanagement , and second because I cannot teach you to micromanage well in a single blog posting.

Hiring comes first

Now to cruise us to the end of this blog, we need to bring the elements of strategy introduced above into at least one rule. The most important element of strategy is in the hiring process. The interview process needs to bring productive people and filter out "bad talent", therefore you must first focus on skill, on culture, and filtering out bad talent, and then only in second priority on good talent. Note that when I mean culture, I mean "work culture": Someone who is "just nice", is not necessarily productive. Therefore rule nine in managing talent is:
Hire for skills, for work culture, for past success,  for some amount of social diversity, and for compatibility of vision; Filter out bad talent.
You need all these focuses to make a good hire. What is important is that you communicate well in your hiring process, you want to attract good talent, and repel bad talent, therefore do talk about your culture and your vision too.

You will note that I have already covered the other elements of strategy as part of the "normal" process above. Therefore we are almost ready to wrap up this "strategy section". I just want to bring one more rule, which is about levels of maturity. In a typical organization, you need different personal characteristics. You may need specific areas of professional skills, as you may need more generic attributes such as analytical and emotional skills, and also management and work culture skills. The thing is, the productivity of collaboration is directly related to the compatibility of the maturity level of the different people. Part of what I am saying is that we need to share the same work culture to work well together, yet work culture cannot "do away" with the difficulties that two "very different" people have in communicating. When your organization is confronted with the difficulty of communication between different types of people, you might be tempted in using your talented people fill in the gaps and make communication happen. Although this might be perceived as good use of resources, it is only a local good use, better would be to use those talented people somewhere that would be delivering new "value", not supporting the delivery of "current" value.

You may have noted that organizations tend to be split internally into groups and hierarchies by specific skill sets and maturity levels, and that these different groups and hierarchies work together with the help of cross organizational processes. This is because it is more efficient to use an "inhomogeneous" way of working, than a flat system were too many different skills and maturities are mixed within same groups. (Note that even agile processes have their separation of roles and hierarchical dependencies). Yet as organizations evolve, their structure and processes do not always follow, and one pattern I have noted is that overall company "weaknesses" due to inadequate structure and processes are resolved locally by bringing talented people in to fix "communication issues", when in fact the real issue to address is is a bigger non-local one. Therefore my final rule ten is about about trying to do without talent when the more scalable and sustainable solution exist to fix your organization:
Do not use talent when good organization structure and processes can do the job.

Managing talent, a summary

Talented people may bring both value with them as well as problems. To have good talented people in your organization, you want to hire them, and you want to keep them. To make that work, your biggest priority is to organize your company well, run good processes, encourage good culture, and stop bad behavior as soon as possible. Ideally, you want enough social diversity so that bad social behavior is quietly resolved "locally" with no need for interaction by management. Also, you have to be careful of supporting talent with talent, and you want at least one person high up in your organization that understands how talented people perceive each other. This is the concept of that a "alpha-person of talent" relations exists in your organization, but also that some form of "hierarchy of maturity" also should exist.  Finally, although you may be relying on talented people for key positions in your organization, you need to ask yourself if that is necessary, and if you would not be better off with an improved structure of organization or with better processes.

Here are the ten rules again.
  1. Focus on your organization's culture and work process.
  2. Ignore the dysfunctional side of talented individuals.
  3. Never ignore your talented people.
  4. Actively and publicly monitor "good" work process
  5. Maintain clear business goals, actively evangelize your teams towards them.
  6. Have a head of HR, or CEO for smaller organization, that understands talent.
  7. Stop bad behavior that goes against your organization's culture and work process.
  8. On hiring, make sure the talent matches the job; Later, make sure the job matches the talent.
  9. Hire for skills, for work culture, for past success,  for some amount of social diversity, and for compatibility of vision; Filter out bad talent.
  10. Do not use talent when good organization structure and processes can do the job.
All original content copyright James Litsios, 2013.