“Please listen to me” – The Worker

Two truths:

1) They know their job better than you

2) They already want to change something

Arrogance leads to you coming in with solutions. Sometimes your solutions might even be right, be beneficial, be good for the people you’re solution-izing.

But it’s likely, nay certain, that they already want to fix something, want to make something smoother, want to adjust some small piece of their job. Yes, they may not have the big view, they may be trapped by the blinders of the rigors of their work, but it’s nearly guaranteed that they want something changed.

Start the conversation with “Is there something about your job that could be better?” and see where it leads. Help them fix it. Even when it isn’t directly aligned with company strategy, even when its a tweak that is only going to help for this job or for this week, do it. Your hardest challenge isn’t to change the process or modify the software or re-jigger the report, it’s changing behavior. If they wanted it before you ever came, your work is mostly done.

And you get to be their hero.

Define “Only Enough”

Don’t try to define everything. Not only is it a fruitless task that will forever remain beyond your grasp, it is counter-productive. If you wanted robots, you would have bought robots, not decided to work with living breathing socializing human beings. Robots are cheaper, frankly. No, you have humans around you that can think and decide and create and build. Some humans like things defined and concrete, and others like them abstract and loose, but nobody wants to live in a box.

One way to help those around you is do loosely define the broad roles of various people. Not “Sally staples the check stubs to the invoices once they are paid” but rather “Sally is responsible for paying vendors.” If Timmy is quite good at striking deals, don’t tell him he has a quota of 36.2 sales per month, but rather educate him on what constitutes a good sale, put “Sales Representative” on his business card, and call it good.

It’s important to give the people around you a mental model where they can place the others they’re expected to work with. But don’t attempt to make it a jigsaw, with hard boundaries that never overlap and must be fit together exactly. People will play by any rules given to them. Just make sure the rules are loose enough that the creative juices aren’t bottled up.

The Arrogance of Ignorance

Why do you pretend like not knowing is okay? If you’re trying to do good work in a position that you’re unqualified for, shouldn’t you be asking questions of everybody who comes along? Why are you pretending to be blissful, when you’ve caused harm around you? If she’s explaining something to you that you need to know, where’s the harm in listening and trying to learn?

You’re going to make better decisions if you know more about your domain. You can’t think that you arenotimportantenough/aretooimportant/aretoobusy/justdon’tcare or you’ll inevitably make a decision that negatively affects the people around you through your ignorance. Your world is learning and growing and changing. You’d better too.

(Thanks to Michael Beatty for the title)

Design for the concrete, allow for the abstract

The best designed systems are made easy for the people who think in concrete, in the here-and-now to understand. Software system? Make things happen on-screen, not behind the scenes. Management system? Show people clearly the if-this-than-that rule.  Customer facing system? Instant response, instant gratification. Vendor-facing system? Immediate pay. Government system? Show voters that it makes a difference to vote. Over 70% of people are what the Myers-Briggs and Keirsey tests call “Sensory“, the people that are grounded in reality, the here and now. These are the ones that  use the mouse for everything they do on a computer, the ones that say “Show me the money, then we can dream for the future.” These are what I call Concrete Thinkers.

Business systems are a collection of individuals working towards a common goal. Both the constraints of this system and the rutted pathways are set by the owners, the managers, and the long-term employees. And you have a choice: Set it up to exclude the those who are Concrete Thinkers, and you may get a bunch of talented, creative abstract thinkers. But they aren’t the ones who see the fine detail, or take pleasure in getting it done. That Form 941 from the IRS? That’s details. Understanding the differences between three bad health-insurance plans? Details. Some of the most proficient artists I know are Concrete Thinkers, and I’m convinced that their talent has been amplified by them seeing and understanding the fine details.

But often the system is designed by somebody who thinks abstractly. The neck-beard that like his vim keyboard shortcuts, the manager that moves on to the next Strategic Direction before the first has had a chance to turn a profit. They think in the abstract, in the big picture. But they’re often frustrated by the people around them, wishing they could move past the variance in last month’s budget and start planning for next month. They see the raw intelligence in a Concrete Thinker, but are helpless to do anything with it for lack of understanding. Similarly, the Concrete thinkers wonder how the Abstract Thinker keeps her job: she comes in late, sits in brainstorming meetings, and rarely does any real work.

Where you have the latitude to design, you must design for the Concrete Thinkers, but allow for the Abstract Thinkers. If you’re building houses, enforce the rule that jobsite materials are organized for one day’s work at a time. But when Abstract Joe, the one who can’t organize the buttons on his shirt, wants to put in the gluelam from tomorrow’s stack to save time, listen to him. He might have a point. If you’re the manager of the Accounting Department, make sure the rules are clear about cutting checks for vendor discounts. But listen to Abstract Jane when she says that by dipping into the line of credit for one day, you can save 3,000 dollars.

And you do have the latitude to design, but you have to choose to.

Complexity, continued

I got some pushback on my definition of complexity–people thought I oversimplified it. Through discussion, there were good points made.

People trying to protect their jobs is NOT the most common cause of unnecessary complexity. Often, people are asked to do things with little help or training, and they do the best they can in the time given. Often this leads to a hack or patch just to get the item off the table, and these build up. In programming, this is called technical debt, a debt that must be paid down with hard, often boring, work. In management, this often happens when fixing a problem in the short-term, for example assigning an employee to a new manager rather than addressing the root problem. In accounting, the word “allocation” leads down a twisted path of complexity: if you begin allocating costs to other areas within the company to help with job or product costing, you’re creating unnecessary complexity. The approach taken by Eli Goldratt in The Goal and subsequent books was revolutionary in its simplicity, not in its new idea.

I’ve created unnecessary complexity in projects I’ve tackled by not seeing the elegant way to solve a problem. When people are tasked with something over their heads, the solution they come up with is often impressively complex. In these situations, the history turns into baggage, weighing down the person mired in the problem.

Probably the most common form of complexity is completely human, the swirling mixture of pride, failure, honor, success, jealousy, personality, and relationships that form anytime people are together. This political complexity happens in all organizations, and it is the rare company that can avoid all of the negative ramifications of it.

Where it becomes dishonest, in my eyes, is when given a truly better way to solve the problem, the maintainer of the system refuses to even contemplate it. You must be willing to examine the complexity you have created and that you have allowed others to create around you. And you must be willing to tackle the complexity through hard work and clear thinking to avoid allowing the entire system to grind to a halt.

Honest Complexity

Dishonest complexity happens when you make things more complex to protect your job. IT technicians can do this and get away with it. Accountants can too. Lone programmers often do this as well. Its easy for doctors, pharmacists, dentists and other highly-educated workers to make this happen. Making something more complex than it needs to be, with no documentation, can seem to guarantee your position as the one-and-only expert in the pool.

Honest complexity is forced on you by the system in which you exist. Accountants live in a world of honest complexity, where the tax code created by the US government is as complex a beast as you’ll find. Similarly, an employee working in a highly charged political environment, where authority isn’t clear and motives go unspoken must deal with human complexity.

Dishonest complexity nearly always surfaces, because the person who created it eventually is faced with somebody more experienced that is willing to call the bluff. Honest complexity, however, is harder to deal with. You must model it in your company or software or process, and oversimplifying is rash. In a world of honest complexity, guiding visions and strategies that speak of the future light of simplicity that shall prosper in the land of milk and honey are as likely to stop people from learning what’s necessary as they are to motivate them onward.

Make a distinction between the complexities in your life. Cut out the gangrene with a sharp knife, and put your head down and learn what you must without complaint.

A system’s ability to learn

Learning is not strictly an individual human’s job. It is also the job of the system in which they work. There’s examples of computer algorithms that learn from experience, some with more success then others. My favorite algorithm is the auto-correct on my iPhone, that allows my thumbs to flail about with wild abandon and still get the word right 80% of the time. “Yje” changes to “The” and “Tenecka” changes to “Rebecka”. It learns from you, from the way you correct words, and from the other words your phone has access to.

A learning system is more impressive when it is not just one computer or one person, but when it is a group of people working with a good system. Part of a company’s culture is the collective knowledge of their domain, the ability to access the people and information that will help solve hard problems. In fact, every group of people learns over time, simply by working on similar problems and talking about it with one another. But there are some that are fantastically better than others.

Take, for example, Xerox Parc, that legendary research center that developed the computer mouse, ethernet, object-oreinted programming, laser printers, and a host of other things. They did this at one campus, over a period of approximately 10 years. How? Was it simply that they hired superstars, put them down in an office, and asked them to think? It was more, as Malcom Gladwell argues, that they were creative people who were asked to work in a creative environment. And creative environments are learning environments, environments where people can see and talk about and think of other disciplines. They’re environments where heated debate is encouraged, and intelligence and book learning are as sexy as a new truck or a trophy buck.

But Xerox Parc is not a long-ago fantasy that cannot be replicated. No, learning and creativity and energy can be created in any system, provided you give it room. Take a single step in that direction in your company, and start to write down small lessons that you learn and email them to everyone. Perhaps it’s an interesting conversation with a customer, perhaps its a new idea of how to put something together, perhaps its a productivity tip you leaned from Twitter. You can eventually take it a step further and use a knowledge repository of some kind, or get software that does the heavy lifting for you. But it is irresponsible of you to believe that nobody would be interested in what you know, and it is critical to the health of your company that the systems you live in and create and work with can learn and improve.