Management Patterns – From Donuts to Dollars
1. Sandwich (aka Bookends)
Frequently as a manager you need to give someone bad news, provide some negative feedback, or just say “no”. No matter how you say this, it’s still negative. It has been my experience that it is very easy for the person to take it personally. It can be perceived as an attack on them as a person, and not what it is: enforcement of a company policy, or an attempt to correct behavior.
One approach to this is to sugar-coat the news. This basically disguises what you have to say, and distorts the message. A better way is to sandwich it. Start with something positive, such as “In general, your work is very good.” Then deliver the news. “However, the quality of the Foo project was not what we needed. You’ll have to do better next time.” Then close the sandwich (or the other bookend) with something positive. “I expect you’ll be able to solve this problem, since you’ve solved other problems in the past.” What this does is to isolate the behavior that you’re trying to address, while allowing the recipient to save face, and not interpret the news as an attack.
2. Stone Soup
The old story goes that a hungry traveller came into a villiage, and had no money and no food. So he picked up a stone from the road, and told the people he met that he could make “stone soup” with this magic stone. The people were interested and helped him get some of the “other” ingredients. He sent them off for a cook pot, some carrots, cabbage, water, spices, etc. All these things would make the stone soup even better. So they made soup with this magic stone in it, and everyone liked it. Then the traveller opened a car dealership and retired owning half the town.
The relevance to management is that the manager really doesn’t have any carrots of her own – she must focus people’s efforts around a magic stone, or the vision/goals/mission, and let the people make their own soup. By giving up some control over what’s actually in the soup, the manager allows the villiagers some creativity in choosing ingredients, and the results are frequently different, and better, than the original idea.
3. Count Down (aka Time Box)
It’s well known that “work expands to fill the time allotted for it’s completion.” It is therefore useful to impose limits on the time allotted. This is standard project management – set an end date for the work. However, as people get busy, they tend to get deeply absorbed in the details of the work. It’s easy to lose sight of the deadline. By keeping a countdown to the deadline clearly visible, an interesting thing happens. Since people see it every day, they get used to it. But as the deadline approaches (the number gets under 10 days), there is a new realization that time is limited, and people naturally triage and prioritize their work to meet the deadline. It cuts down on the amount of nagging that a manager has to do.
Donuts have amazing powers. They cost about 35 cents apiece. They weigh about 4 or 5 ounces. They are for sale almost everywhere. So they’re not hard to come by. Yet, when I take 5 minutes out of my day and 5 dollars out of my wallet and show up at work with a couple boxes of donuts, people react as if I’m Marco Polo back from the far east with exotic treasures, or Santa Clause with a bag of very special toys that are only available once a year. Actual quote as I walked the donuts into the building “You are God.” I think that’s a little strong. But the point is clear – donuts have supernatural powers because they come from another realm.
So, what’s the management lesson? Cheaply and easily available deep-fried, sugar-coated dough buys a disproportionate amount of loyalty and goodwill. Just amazing.
Buckminster Fuller thought outside the box his whole life. It wasn’t even a box. It was a tetra-hedron or dodecagon, composed of triangles, which are much more stable than squares. Why are they more stable? Because they balance the opposing forces of tension and compression. Tension wants to pull things apart, as in centrifugal force, entropy, or magnetic repusion. Compression wants to squash things together, like gravity, or impact, or magnetic attraction. Balance these forces or tendencies, and you have stability.
A great example is the old fashioned barrel. The vertical staves (the wood part) are wider on the outside than on the inside. The outward pressure of the contents of the barrel makes them want to radiate (go outward). This is the tension, as if they are being pulled away from the center. To counterbalance this, there is the hoop. It is perpendicular to the staves and thus encloses them all. It forms a limit, past which the staves cannot expand. Since the staves are wider on the outside than on the inside, they can only be compressed to a certain minimum degree. This is the right radius for the hoops to hold them. So the barrel is held together without nails or glue because it effectively wedged together: balancing these opposing forces.
Still with me? Good. What’s the relevance for management or software development. I’m glad you asked. The tension (or radiational) force is analogous to functional decomposition and specialization. Digging deep into the details. The compression (or integrative) force is analogous to communication, or connecting all of these deeply dug details. So the manager’s responsibility is to be the barrel hoop, constraining the divergent nature of specialization into a coherent whole. This means filling in all the cracks between people’s knowledge of what others are doing, preventing leaks. As we’ve all seen, when this integration is lacking, all the juice and pickles spill all over the floor and it’s a big sticky mess. Yuk.
6. Cannon Balls
Did you ever notice that the tiles in a bathroom are never, ever round? That’s because circles don’t tesselate. Squares do – you can completely fill in a given area with squares with no space left over. Same with hexagons. Circles just don’t do that very well. There’s all those curvy diamond shaped areas that you have to fill in. And if you use smaller circles, you get into an infinite regress of ever smaller circles, and you never, ever finish. So don’t go there.
Ok, crank it up to three dimensions. Cubes tesselate, you can completely fill space with cubes. Same with tetrahedrons (a solid with four triangular sides – the minimal polyhedron (tetra==four, poly==many, hedron==face)). But spheres don’t tesselate. Look at the oranges in the supermarket, there are all those spaces between them. Look at cannonballs on the courthouse lawn. Spaces. (Read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. Ice Nine DOES tesselate, and you REALLY don’t want to go there.)
So what? Well, developers are cannonballs. They represent spheres (not ammunition). They have spheres of knowledge, spheres of experience. They have social circles and spheres of influence on each other. The point here is to note the radial nature of people’s experience – it starts with them as the circle, and goes approximately the same distance in all directions. It is the manager’s job to either turn people into cubes (CSAWs? I’m DEFINITELY not going there!), or fill in the spaces between these spheres. You can put smaller spheres (interns) between the larger ones to fill some of the space, and just tolerate what’s left over. Or you can find diamond shaped people to fit between these curved surfaces.
So, even though as a woodworker it pains me to say it, we need to cut down the “tree” model, and think more along the lines of the cannonball (or barrel-hoop) model of management. Fill in the gaps. Connect the dots. Tesselate.
7. Fail (in order) to learn
Failure is the big bugaboo, no one’s allowed to fail. Everyone defines success criteria, wants to be successful. And that’s hard, you have to know what you’re trying to accomplish, and get it right the first time. The odds are stacked against you. Don’t get me wrong, it’s extremely important to try to succeed, but you should not be surprised (or ashamed or disappointed) if you don’t.
That’s where learning comes in. Rather than sweeping the failure under the rug, plop it right on the table and take a good hard look at it. It’s loaded with useful information. It will tell you about your assumptions that you’re not aware of. It will tell you about factors outside of your control that you did not account for. It will tell you whether your goals are even achievable, or if there are better goals to shoot for. The point is to learn from your mistakes. In this light “mistake” is a terrible name for a very rich source of guidance. And learning is a good thing.
It makes sense to remove the stigma from “failure” or “mistake”. Recast it as research and learning. The person who tries the most things is going to be the most knowledgable. It’s hard work, but it’s quite useful to know all the things that don’t work – you can help others not waste time trying them.
The problem here is that we carry around the assumption that if we think about things enough, plan enough and analyze enough, we’ll solve the problem in advance, without the benefit of experience. This is rarely the case. We only hire people with experience. We talk about the voice of experience.
The scientic method is based on testing assumptions, hypotheses and theories. The results of the test have a huge influence on the theory – the theory must fit the experimental results.
So what’s the point? As a manager, encourage a culture that values experimentation, learning, open analysis of unexpected results. Words like “failure”, “mistake”, “risk” don’t apply (if there is no stigma for an unexpected result, there is no risk in trying.)
So, starting next Monday, the dress code will be amended: everyone must wear a scientific-looking white lab coat.