Nothing “senseless” about it

I don’t like war. But when it happens, it doesn’t matter what I like. And if I dub an act of violence “senseless” when it makes perfect sense in war, I practice self-deceit.

We’re watching war, like it or not. We’re at war, like it or not. We have a tough time saying that word “war” because a) the events don’t fit our patterns of territorial acquisition – though they really do – and b) our very neighbors can be turned into the enemy without our knowing. And let’s be sure we fully understand the murderous antipathy that happens in b); body counts tell a vivid story of hatred.

The root of Islamic terrorism is a mix of greed, poverty and broken, missing or dysfunctional government. I don’t mean American or European government, but that in the Middle East from where most jihadists hail. They find Quranic verses to justify all manner of depravity and slaughter. But they recruit those who calculate they have little to lose in life and yearn to be heroes of something. And indeed they do not.

jihadpic

Why then are the targets America and Europe? It’s because those nations are seen – somewhat accurately – as those with interests that prop up corrupt and oppressive regimes while vaunting an un-Islamic culture. Jihad is waged against infidels – those of another belief system. But it’s more than that internally. It’s a tribal-based chauvinism directed against those who have shamed the tribe. And there is no statute of limitations on such feelings of shame – the nations of Europe and America are called Crusaders due to a long, selective memory (indeed there was no America yet).

It is of interest that if America and Europe stopped consuming Mideast oil that China and Russia would continue – propping up those same leaders.

As important as any of those sentiments are, there is one that is greater. It is so strong that bitter Muslim enemies unite behind it. Of course I mean resentment towards the democratic state of Israel. Its Jewish identity offends Muslims. The tragic relations between Arabs and Jews have created a permanent state of war. Of course, who but the Europeans and Americans are those who support Israel? Thus, the lumping. And again, not inaccurate.  Though to emphasize the good sense in supporting Israel – it remains one of the only nations in the Middle East where an Arab (yes Arab!) can vote.

But there’s no getting around it – Western Civilization, for all its flaws and injustices – stands opposed to the caliphates, monarchies and oligarchies of the Middle East. And I have no issue with citing its evolved superiority. I don’t say that proudly because there is no human history without systemic crimes and injustices. But the means in place to address those are further along in the West.

It’s obvious that this war cannot be fought conventionally. George W. Bush said that after 9/11 but no one has gone deeper into strategy beyond better military options. I am no pacifist in this conflict, but if one leads with guns one or uses only guns, then it will only enforce the hatred, ironically because our guns are better than theirs.

So, what to do? There are thousands of lists out there, so here’s number 4903:

  1. Love a Muslim. It is absolutely true that most Muslims are NOT jihadists. They don’t even bite. They need to be heard, understood and loved.
  2. Nix the tribe. Individuals are much more effective to engage with than armies. And I don’t even mean the armies with guns. If I want another to surrender his/her preconceptions, I should surrender mine. Because most of them did not come from me in the first place.
  3. His name is Jesus.  The Crusaders got it wrong.  Very wrong.  This is not at odds with “nix the tribe” because Jesus followers are from every tribe.  He didn’t conquer by force, he did so by dying, loving those who were killing him.  And yes, that’s more powerful than suicide belts.
  4. Work and support justice for the poor. Very few charities get the money to the problem. Find one. Support it. Raise a child.
  5. Become energy independent. Not only in the name of being green, or more natural but because Mideast oil is too valuable to the whole world.
  6. Advocate for better Israeli/Arab relations. It’s a bitter past but not all Arab people are united in the desire to destroy Israel. Nor are all Israelis hateful of Arabs. There has to be middle ground to find here. Support those who seek to find and walk on it.
  7. Pray. Doubtless there are those who are decidedly non- or even anti-spiritual reading this. That’s okay, we’ll pray for you too. These problems are bigger than us all, so I have no problem promoting them to One who can actually help.
  8. Fight and support the fight. Yes this includes supporting the military forces of the West, but it’s also a cultural and moral fight. Learn the truth and tell it – even if it indicts our side and thus pollutes our cause. Truth wins the war.

We have a mess on our hands. Doing nothing is not an option. Jihadis want us dead. It’s a war.

The lure and peril of quick-fix

I recently was called into a meeting to review an alternate approach to a technical problem I knew very well. The presenters smiled a lot, joked incessantly with one another (though not with their audience) and showed how their approach would deliver a solution faster than another other way. As I spoke with my management friends afterward, I didn’t even have to prompt their reactions. “It won’t work, not at scale” and “I don’t see this working” came from those who are not paid to be technically savvy.

Those reactions were right. And though the work is only beginning, the approach is not sound and is destined to known dysfunction and hand-waving, compromised workmanship. I don’t say that from an envious heart of “not invented here” but from the perspective of one who’s seen too much and too many fail for the same reasons.

QuickFixEgg

The deep lure of the quick-fix has repeatedly astounded me. In the corporate world, it happens when those in power don’t understand the work it takes to produce goods and services and develop suspicion based upon reports of others who don’t understand the work. They come to the conclusion that they are over-paying and over-indulging their most productive workers.

But quick-fix can happen any time that impatience is adopted. Any group or leader can fall prey. Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign was wildly successful because it attacked procrastination. What other footwear would you buy to attack your complacency? But projecting complacency, inefficiency and practical waste onto those who work hard and with integrity is misinformed.

Despite all the spin and Teflon-coating on those responsible yet not accountable, a quick-fix is very often disastrous.

This is not to say it’s easy to fight. Those prone to it want to be process heroes. And there is legitimate process evolution to be done. But it’s also the job of those who know quick-fix when they see it and are called to speak up. Here are some alternatives to offer:

  1. Planning and design. Eisenhower said “Plans are worthless but planning is everything” – meaning that contingencies can’t possibly be known beforehand but they can all be considered beforehand. An obvious and usually required phase of any project, but overlooked or partially done for quick-fix, the need to to brainstorm, write down and bat around the details of how the desired goals will be met is indispensable. The battle for doing planning/design is a hill to die on, truly.
  2. Do it right – quickly. Are there ways to correctly accomplish the task that get you and those waiting for you to the goal faster than traditional means. Nine women can’t have a baby in a month, but they can have nine babies in nine months. And that’s just citing parallel labor (intentional pun). A solid antidote to quick-fix is innovative process. Tools and technique, all that.
  3. Do it right – in phases. Software, even that in the Cloud, has the notion of releases or versions. For sure there is a bare minimum of what is viable – call that Release 1, which is never very useful. So you do need something that is standing, even on crutches, which meets impatient demands. But after that, amendments and replacements are less noticed but vital. You can even correct go-faster mistakes. Caveat – this does require buy-in from the powers that be who will be tempted to declare “all done” and move you on to other things before you are really “all done” – to their own discredit and at their own cost.
  4. Patience. When people cite their goals in their field of endeavor there is an implicit time line. And there is inherent impatience with the project not meeting the time goals. Therefore, impatience is highly valued trait in leadership. Now, the time aspect is not imagined – it’s very real. Whether I am working with people, machines or markets, there are such a things as “late”, “very late” and “too late”. That said, the virtue of “early”, “under budget” or even “on time” is often overblown. It is the folly of quick-fix leaders to blow that trumpet only and never consider – or be called to account – for the long-term effects of what they have produced. It’s a ploy, and one that sacrifices value for appearance. So, a balance needs to be struck here and doing a job right needs to be tempered by doing it quickly.

This is not a call for sloth or unionized slowdowns or overarching process. And sometimes quick-fix is the way to go; it’s important to be real about that.

But the time to oppose and suggest alternatives to a quick-fix approach is earlier than later. Citing the past and asking hard questions.

It’s a good fight to have.

Candidates and leaders

The presidential election season is at its hottest point right now and it won’t cool off until a POTUS is elected in November. I have puzzled for a long time at my inability to embrace candidates. Listening to the diatribes of rabid fans from the left of right – and I am most delighted to have dear friends from both persuasions – has only made me more alienated.

It’s not so much with the process – the fire of political rhetoric both positive and negative has its place – but with the actual field of candidates we have this year. And .. well, most election years. It always seems that in the end I am voting for the lesser of two evils. There hasn’t been a candidate I would endorse for decades. Part of that is because I’m not an institution like a newspaper or trade union and I don’t have to endorse anyone. And part of it is that I just don’t align with the two party approach. But even that is not the whole story as I’ll talk about below.

So, in the first place, we have the issues that everyone crows about. The voting public is asked to fit into 2 groups – conservative (Republican) and liberal (Democrat). Using just three categories of stances one might have on the issues and allowing for only three view on those issues (I insist there is a moderate place in each category), we have a 9 entry table:

basicpoliticalspectrum

The “International” category includes things like foreign relations, immigration, etc., though most would include some of that in “Social”. My points are 2:

  1. This is a very simple picture of the true spectrum.
  2. If one fits into a solid conservative or liberal stance everywhere, there is still no candidate that does and that is a statistical rarity.

But I don’t even think an issues-based affinity works to choose a Commander-in-Chief. What I want, and what I think the nation needs, is a leader.  The qualities of a leader are different from those of a candidate who can draw a crowd and go toe to toe in a debate.  Leaders do that too, but they do much, much more.  Here are some qualities that show what I mean:

  1. Inclusion over issues – The ability to unite and inspire even ones ideological foes is a rare talent, and even more rare among presidential candidates. The president heads up only 1 branch of a three branch government. An issues-only presidency makes for legislative gridlock and aggressive judicial review. And this applies to the leading the American people, because crisis – and there will be that – requires it.
  2. Compassion at the core – While the left would lay claim to this point; I don’t mean it that way. The ability to hear out others and address their concerns with what are overriding concerns on your part matters. People are going to disagree, for lots of reasons. How someone treats his/her detractors speaks volume to that person’s character, and fit for the job. An inability to rise above vitriolic, ad hominem rhetoric disqualifies any leader.
  3. Courage to be unique – More than fitting a party’s platform, or the patterns of any tribe, the best presidents have convictions informed by higher sources. As a person of faith, I admire those who know that the parties do not fit with what they know to be true. Self- and tribal-interest mar righteousness, pulling its actions to into harmful directions. A leader with courage to be him/herself will receive accusations of not being strong-enough and others of being oppressive and abusing power. When both of those happen, we have a president.

 

I know I’m not alone in my reticence about this year’s candidates. And I know even writing this will alienate those who have been polarized. My goal is not that, but to help us all understand what a real leader is.

 

 

 

Cancelled

The business world is unpredictable. I have learned over many iterations and through the depths of devastation NOT to cement my hopes to promises of management and plan my future according to their word. When I do, I will almost invariably find myself awash in the emotional muck of betrayal, futility and just fatigue.

The problem is that I want to be passionate about my work. It has to matter to me to do it right, with excellence and diligence. I want to finish the job. And I’m good at what I do. That’s not a boast; it’s the testimony of those who regularly review and evaluate my “performance”.

So it happened again.

Cancelled.

canceled

The cycle goes like this:

  1. A project starts up, designs happen, maybe a prototype.
  2. Preliminary results roll in and they are somewhere between auspicious and stellar.
  3. The meat of the project gets underway. People work hard, together and intermediate results are produced.
  4. Management reviews the project or there is a business event or shift.
  5. The project is cancelled.

Now, I’ve been on projects that are canceled earlier than point e). And this most recent cancellation was after point b).

And most painful were those project canceled who had lasted 2-5 years before point d).

I had someone once tell me to “just get over it” and that stung almost as much as the cancellation. You don’t just turn your passion off like a switch.

They say it’s not failure; that 70% of all projects never finish. You can imagine how much that helps.

Now it is a business fact that management loses confidence if a deliverable is not produced in months and not years. They are not paid to be patient or risk-tolerant.

In engineering it’s supposed to be adult and well-adjusted to just produce. Anything. For any amount of time. Dispassionately. Without attachments or emotions.

I can’t do that. Or I won’t. And I don’t really care which it is. It’s not me.

So where do I go when this happens? I go to loving people; it’s all that keeps going.

  • There will be a new team with people I can love, encourage and do stuff with. I don’t know how long it will last but the people are what matter, not the work. No matter what management says.
  • I will love management. Those people live in fear and under constant criticism. They don’t need more from me. It’s not that I won’t speak my mind – they also need to know they don’t manage robots.
  • I will love my wife, my family, my friends and my church. They are always there for me and .. they are a big reason I go to work in the first place.
  • I will love my work. Picking up the pieces, assessing what I’ve learned, I will dare to try again. In smaller places. Even unapproved ones. Because that’s where I’m a genius.

Canceled. It’s not the end of the world. Just another disappointment.

The greatest corporate investment

I have applied to work at a certain software company twice over the years. Both times I already had a job, so it was really a probe. It was a way to see what’s out there and how it might fit me. I carry no guilt in looking. I actually believe it’s healthy. And it was at the encouragement of a good friend who works there. I like the person, we get along very well, are a good team and we’d gladly work together again.

As part of this company’s vetting process – to qualify or disqualify candidates – they give you a test. I forget the name, but it involves a fake but integral (sound) computer language that is progressively unveiled as the test goes on. The syntax and semantics are to be quickly processed and a series of around 25 questions is to be answered in 30 minutes. If you fail, the company wants nothing to do with you and management sends you a form letter that makes you feel like an impostor human being.

Now, it is that company’s right to do whatever they want to qualify people. The CEO wants who he wants and doesn’t want who he doesn’t want.

But I’ve worked with enough people in management that I’ve seen the addictive draw of metrics – any metrics – that classify or rank people. They’re always in large part wrong. They always tell only part of the story. But they make life easier for those who don’t really want to think about people. You know – for those who want to manage them like objects. And presented with evaluative measurement data, that is a constant balance to be struck among responsible leadership everywhere. On the other side, employees will conform to any metric at the expense of integrity, competence and real work throughput. And that’s a whole other topic.

So you probably guessed that I have flunked this test – twice, that is. That’s not how I learn computer languages. I try them. I tinker. I read examples and see how they work together. I apply principles of programming and data management that span languages. I would say my way of learning technology is vastly superior to manual-reading. And yes, I guess by some metric I have a deficiency in that.

Now when it is my focused job to write code, I write up to 10,000 lines a year. That’s quite a bit, for those outside the software industry. It’s hard to argue that my way of learning is inferior.

Concerning the test, what then is it meant to eliminate? What kind of people does it reject? Well, all non-technical people will certainly fail. But among the technically literate, it rejects those who might ask questions and thereby interrupt the work of others. THAT is the underlying business goal. And THAT is dubious.

To be sure and to be fair, there are those who are a constant interrupt to work flow. They have poor work skills at any job. But this goes beyond that and hits at the heart of human interaction at work.

So let me provide some reasons that avoiding interrupts is a foolish goal, addressing management in the 2nd person:

  1. Communication is two-way. During one of the dreaded interrupts, your existing work force is not merely giving information, they are receiving it. If you think there is no gain in hearing experiential wisdom from the new hire, then you should never hire anyone, regardless of the test.
  2. Interrupts happen and they are not bad. If your claim is that your existing employees are so focused and productive that they always make right decisions and always take optimal paths in work flow then you are intolerant of their mistakes. And very wrong. If you can’t make a mistake, you can’t make anything. I have seen huge, overwhelmingly beneficial changes in my work just by receiving the advice of another. It happens in your company too, whether or not you see it or officially allow it.
  3. Collaboration is the birthplace of genius. Speaking to some employees, the company I spoke of above apparently has one “idea guy”- the CEO. All others are his implementers. I don’t believe that; the company would have gone under a long time ago if that was the case. Great invention happens as a brain child of one, with contributions from collaborators. It’s happened at your company whether you’ve authorized it or not.
  4. People are wisest investment. The supposed cost in interrupts is a small price to pay for years of productive service and the great benefit an employee brings to your bottom line. My portion of contribution to my employers is somewhere between $250M and $500M, by way of raw calculation. They have made a profit from my employment. And that’s just talking about monetary gain. The personal, emotional and spiritual contribution of human beings to a company don’t make for metrics you can graph, but your company would dies without them.

This is not an exercise in sour grapes. I had a job when I applied at this company. I now have a job and I will have a job. It’s about lost opportunity and poor judgment among those in charge. A leader with responsibility to make progress against objectives does need to protect his/her productive people. But s/he also needs to grow people; it’s just good leadership (a different word from management, reader take note).

And recently someone dear to me was also disqualified from work because of similar concerns. There was no patience and no investment in the time for that person to get up to speed. And it is to the loss of that boss and his organization that the investment was not made.

And I have no animosity towards the managers who have these policies and practices. But I will say categorically that they are simply not worthy of the talented people working for them.

I’m glad and proud I flunked the test.

Recognizing a death march (and doing something about it)

No, this isn’t about a real death march.

It’s not about a bloody dictatorship arresting its foes and forcing them to trek thousands of miles by foot, watching, even delighting, as they fall along the way.

But there are enough similarities to what I’m talking about to warrant the name.

And I didn’t make it up.  I remember when I first heard the analogy and it stuck because it applied well.

What I mean by “death march” is a long, drawn out season of work towards an elusive goal.  If the goal is even stated and known.  Sometimes it isn’t, or it’s hidden behind in some bean counter’s (accountant type’s) head or in some private meeting of decision makers.  The first time I heard the “death march” analogy it was describing the tedious throes of a startup company being driven by uncaring venture capitalists.  Now, not all venture capitalists are uncaring – the best ones care deeply – but these were.

In addition to mystery goals, this kind of death march has some distinguishing characteristics:

  1. Efficiency takes a back seat to daily, even hourly goals.  Deliverables that purportedly enable business advances are vaunted as so vital, so necessarily punctual, that their achievement drives the corporate conscience.  And the way the organization gets there can be as manual and costly as possible.  No one cares; it’s all about getting it done.
  2. Fear-driven micromanagement is stifling and pre-emptive.  This of course adds to the inefficiency.  Gathering status becomes a job in itself.  Showing progress against a burn-down graph or chart takes an inordinate amount of time, but that is dwarfed by the time it takes to explain schedule slippage.  And explain you must.
  3. Creativity and innovation, the lifeblood of realized value, are tolerated at best.  This is not a quashing of “fun” in the workplace, it’s a buy-in for a uniform, utilitarian approach to the work.  If there’s a better way to do something, and you come up with it, it threatens everyone else as it threatens the lockstep of the march.
  4. People are leaving; newbies are confused.  This is the “death” part of the analogy.  Workers, even the best ones, drop off the march, departing to retrieve their sanity and joy.  When they are replaced, the new hires have a terrible time climbing the learning curve because no one has time and no one will take the time to help them.  Thus, the culture and cycle is perpetrated.

Can this end well?  Yes .. and it does sometimes.  But only when goals are known, achievable and bought into by the masses.  Only when strategy is as important as tactics.  Only when there is enough management commitment to see things through and to see them done well, remembering the principles of efficiency and productivity.  And that takes guts to stand up to the holders of graphs and charts.  Personally, I try to do that regularly.

Can this end poorly?  Yes, it is likely that will happen.  The practices are bogus and unsustainable.  Everyone knows it.  But fear keeps the march going.  Until what everyone fears actually happens – funds dry up and people get their resumes on the street or at least down the hall.

Am I in a death march like this?  Are we?  I hope not, but I can’t avoid the signs; they’re everywhere.

Even if I am, there is ministry and help I can give even as things fall apart – so that people don’t fall apart as well.  It’s clear that I should not merely watch out for myself at this point.  I’ll be okay; well I think so.

But I can certainly refuse to be fear-driven myself.  I can force myself to do creative things.  I can take the newbies to lunch.  In fact, that’s how we all stop marching like this – one person at a time!

And if the powers that be shut the thing down well then it wasn’t worth working on and/or they weren’t worth working for in the first place.

To be sure:

Isaiah 43:1-2
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.

Yes, it’s a faith thing for me; and deeply so.   It turns out that fear is no match for faith.  I invite all to try it.

Leading in balance – Ruling by fear

I don’t like to work for or with people who scare others into doing things.

It bothers me; and I generally stay away from it when I am called upon to lead, as I am and have been for years.

Instead, I do my best to enunciate the goals of the organization/institution so that people sign up for those, and when they do, they sign up for what I ask them to do.  And it works a good deal of the time.

But there’s a chink in my armor, a hole in my thinking.  I knew about it a long time ago but it’s being trumpeted over my leadership style by an entire brass section lately.

There are those who won’t be ruled any other way than fear.

I’m reading through War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy as I do my daily time on the treadmill (43 minutes, count ’em).    It is such a long book with so many vignettes and scenes that I hope they don’t turn into one big mushy mess in my mind, but for now there is one I recall clearly:

[begin scene with commentary]

The French army has invaded Russia.  They are on the move.  The gentry – which is the class that Tolstoy writes about the whole book – is fleeing the countryside.  The serfs, at that time little more than lifelong indentured servants, sense the disorder to come and begin throwing off their bonds and start to drink and rebel.  Princess (meaning rich lady) Mary is stuck because of this; no one will drive her in a carriage away from her dead father’s estate in the country to safety in Moscow or Petersburg.  She despairs.

Into the scene comes riding Nicholas Rostov, one of Tolstoy’s main heroes in the book.  He is a Russian hussar (calvary soldier) and is dressed as such.  He finds Mary, whom he remembers as the sister of one who was engaged to HIS sister Natasha.  He is infuriated by the behavior of the peasants and goes out, two against 20 (?) and intimidates them back into serving the princess and her attendant.  She gets a ride away from danger and her heart is won by Nicholas (I haven’t seen how that will turn out yet; Tolstoy’s love plots are incredibly twisted).

[end scene with commentary]

Now I work with no Russian 19th century peasantry and I think I’m thankful for that.  Not thankful for having no contact with the poor, but for the dissolution of the institution of serfdom that kept the poor that way.

But there are those who, like those poor serfs in the story, will take advantage of any let up in authority, any sense of “getting away with it” or living for their own agenda, given a lack of strong consequences for doing so.

I have not dealt well with them and I’ve paid the price of latent and more severe consequences, which is no fun for anyone.  But I’ve learned and am getting better at it.

So there is a place and a time for ruling by fear, for some will be ruled no other way:

Romans 13:2-5 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you.  For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.  Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

One of the problems I have (and we have) with this principle is the obvious abuse of authority.  We cite examples of that faster than almost any kind of relational phenomenon.  But abused authority doesn’t negate the need for it nor its proper and helpful use.  Can I read that part of the passage?  Can we?  Or do we only see the wrath and feel the spanking?

Now, this has to be tempered with the blessing of free choices – and they do exist in my life at least – we have in the 21st century.  If my job is oppressive, I can leave.  And not everyone will fit in every organization.  As I have said many times, if I am not someone you can work with in submission – and that’s not a dirty word – then 1) find someone who you can work with in that capacity or 2) start your own institution, organization or tribe.  I begrudge no one who moves on like that.

For sure, I will rule by fear over some.  Not oppressively but with resolution and applied force.  Because it’s the only way in which the organization will properly function.