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Magnitude and Precision September 14, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
Tags: , ,

A quick math test:

Paula Programmer has been assigned to write a new interface for a web-based application.  She estimates that the task will take seven days.  After one day of hard work, how much of the task has Paula completed?

  1. About one-seventh
  2. 14%
  3. 14.28571%
  4. Not enough information to answer.

Optimists might answer A, on the assumption that Paula estimates well and works consistently.  Pessimists will always answer D, believing that until Paula delivers some code that works, she’s done nothing but shop on eBay all day. An optimist that can do math in their head might come up with B.  Finally, a compulsive optimist with a calculator will answer C.

Why?  Why are people instinctively drawn to numbers with more digits?

I’ll tell you why: more digits imply more precision.  Many years ago, right around the time that schools stopped teaching kids how to use slide rules, they stopped teaching kids the difference between magnitude and precision.  Instead, armed with calculators, kids can rattle off an answer to 8 digits, blissfully unaware that digits 2 through 7 are meaningless.

To review: the result of any computation is only as accurate as the least accurate of all the values used in the computation.  If you divide a one-digit number by another one-digit number, your answer is accurate to a single digit.  In Paula’s case, when you divide “about a day” by “about seven days,” you get A, “about one-seventh,” her inline shopping habits notwithstanding.

Why does this matter?  We deal with numbers all the time in our jobs.  As leaders, we constantly request estimates from our people, and ask them to compute cost ratios, return on investment, completion percentages, and the like.  The resulting numbers are often used to justify projects, allocate resources, and make important business decisions.  Often, the false precision in these numbers gives them a credibility they do not deserve, and our decisions suffer as a result.

Just as distressingly, people often do a lot of extra work to create precision where it isn’t needed.  That extra precision doesn’t help, and the time wasted making the number that accurate can’t be recovered.  I sometimes ask for numbers “to the nearest x zeroes” so that my people know not to waste their time creating useless precision.  Thus, a request “to the nearest four zeroes” should be rounded to the nearest $10,000, and so forth.  They save time, I get the answer I need, and we all move forward.

Given that the public school system long ago ceded their responsibility for effective mathematics education, we must take on that task.  Effective delegation includes expectation management, and that includes defining the precision of any numerical results we request.  Make sure your people know what you want and how precise you want it.  You will get better answers and they’ll save time.  My estimate? At least 4.32675%.  Maybe more!

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Here Or There? July 27, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
Tags: , , , , ,

I believe that a leader is responsible for the success of his or her people.  There are two simple rules to make sure that happens:

  1. Help everyone succeed.
  2. Hopefully, here.

Our job is to follow rule 1.  Through a combination of coaching, mentoring, challenging, prodding, wheedling, and cajoling, we want to make our people successful.

Ideally, we also want to achieve rule 2. We want our people to be successful while they are on our team.  Their individual success contributes to the team’s success, and that’s good for everyone. But the unfortunate reality is that most people will achieve rule 1 but break rule 2.  Why?

Sometimes, a member of your team is growing and succeeding faster than you can support them within your organization.  Particularly in these constrained times, there are few opportunities to create new positions to reward and challenge these high achievers.  In these cases, people may leave your organization to become even more successful somewhere else.  Ideally, you’ll help them find that new place, even if it means that you’ll lose a good person.

That’s a challenge to your leadership skills.  “A” leaders will help a high-flier move on, sad to lose a great person but happy to see them go on to bigger and better things.  “B” leaders hoard their best people, denying them the chance to excel by trapping them in their existing positions.  That’s a selfish way to run a business, and those good people will someday just quit anyway.

People need not leave your company to become successful.  They may need to leave your organization to grow and thrive in a different part of the company.  That’s a wonderful scenario for all concerned: the individual gets to succeed, the company retains a great employee, and you gain an ambassador for IT in a different part of the company.

This last benefit can be a huge one.  Very few people outside of IT understand how we really function.  This lack of understanding can lead to confusion, disappointment, and conflict.  By placing experienced IT people into other groups, you create an opportunity for others to learn more about IT, defusing those confrontations and gaining the trust of the business.

Even when good people must leave the company to move on, you should be happy to help them find success elsewhere.  While the future daily interaction with them will be far smaller, having good relationships with other companies always helps.  You never know when you might have to call on that person to assist with a problem, smooth a negotiation, or reach out to someone else.

I’ve had the privilege of being part of both of these scenarios.  It is rewarding to see IT people move on to successful roles elsewhere in the company, and to see how they bring positive benefits back to IT in their new position.  I’ve also mentored people who were struggling with a new opportunity, advising them to take it even when it meant they were leaving my company.  When I see them succeed in their new company, how could I have advised them any other way?  When they provided a beneficial connection to someone in their company, that’s just icing on the cake.

When all is said and done, all that matters is rule 1.  You must achieve rule 1, even at the expense of rule 2.  As a leader, are you ready to let your best people go to succeed somewhere else?

Shaking The Mouse July 13, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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Back in the mid-80s, optical mice made their first appearance.  Unlike their roller-ball brethren, optical mice used light reflected off a special mouse pad to detect mouse movement.  They were cutting-edge and fun to play with.

In my research group, our Sun workstations used these optical mice.  One day, a sales rep was in our lab demonstrating some software package, when the mouse stopped responding.  Nonplussed, she held the mouse upside down, shook it, and resumed the demo.  Our slack-jawed stares caught her attention, and she explained how the mouse “got clogged” every now and then, and shaking it “cleared the mouse” and helped it work again.

Now, it was true that the Sun optical mouse driver did hang every so often, but it was due to a small input buffer being overrun with too many mouse events.  If you waited a few seconds, the buffer would drain and the mouse would recover, no shaking necessary.  This woman, however, believed that mouse was clogged and that shaking was required to fix it.  It clearly worked: every time she shook the mouse, it started working again.

Determining the root cause of a problem and applying the right solution is a crucial skill, whether you are debugging hardware or solving personnel issues.  Our brains are so desperate to correlate cause and effect that we are easily convinced that some action, no matter how odd, really can solve a problem.  Even worse, as soon as we find what seems to be the solution, we stop looking for the real problem.

In the case of the mouse, some simple analysis of what could actually clog a device with no moving parts might lead you to conclude that something other than shaking was at the heart of the solution.  For larger problems in more complicated systems, it can take weeks and months of digging to find the true root cause.  But if we do not find the real problem, we are doomed to experience it again, compounded with the frustration that our “solution” is somehow not working.  A technical problem is not fully solved until you can connect the dots from the very first event in the failure to the very last element of the repair.

People problems are far harder to debug.  Unlike computers, people are non-deterministic and prone to sudden erratic behavior.  For many issues, we may never know why someone really made a particular mistake or acted in a certain way.  In many cases, the behavior is not repeatable, so our solution cannot be fully tested.  Nonetheless, we are duty-bound to explore as many avenues as possible to make sure we understand why people act in certain ways and how our own behavior can affect others.

Technical or personal, it can be tempting to grab onto the first potential solution and stick with it.  It’s certainly easier than digging and digging to prove that you solved the problem.  But how many times are we left implementing bad ideas or half-baked systems because we didn’t dig as hard as we should have?  Are you really getting to the heart of every issue in your world, or are you just shaking the mouse?

Why Are You Here? February 27, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
Tags: , ,

One of favorite quotes is from Ashleigh Brilliant:

It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.

This quote has been immortalized in one of the delightful Demotivator posters, many of which I find endlessly amusing.  Amusing or not, these posters provide many good lessons in leadership in a very backhanded way.

In a recent email exchange, I was reminded that although I have learned a lot from several good leaders for whom I worked, I usually learned the most from the very bad leaders under whom I suffered.  Some people can share heartwarming stories of good leaders whose words and actions served to inspire them.  Everyone can recount endless stories of incredible abuse from thoughtless fools who were somehow given a leadership role in spite of their clear sociopathic tendencies.

I worked for one person who honestly epitomized every bad leadership quality you could imagine.  He punished in public and praised in private.  He never communicated.  His ego knew no bounds.  He sold out his people for his own gain.  He took credit when things went well and threw us under the bus when they went badly.  He would change projects, schedules, plans, and goals at the drop of a hat.  Even when confronted with direct feedback in a group review, he simply ignored it and thanked everyone for their honesty.  He was, in short, an idiot of spectacular dimension.

With each error, each annoyance, each dig and snub, I added to my mental list of “things I will never do when I am in charge.”  I came away with more ideas on how to be a good leader than I ever thought possible.

It’s a sad fact of human nature that we often remember punishment more than praise.  Eat bad food once and you’ll never touch it again, but the memories of a good meal do fade with time.

Don’t misunderstand: I am not suggesting that you “speed mentor” your team with a bout of bad leadership.  Continue to be a good leader, but with the knowledge that those lessons will take a longer time to sink in.  Most importantly, avoid even a single example of bad leadership, because that negative experience will never be forgotten.

To open up the conversation a bit, what good bit of leadership do you remember?  More interestingly, what’s the worst leadership example you retain on your list of “things you’ll never do as  a leader?”