Tag: decision-making

Minimum Viable Bureaucracy: Problem Solving and Decision Making

This is my fourth post on Laura Thomson’s excellent talk Minimum Viable Bureaucracy. In this one I’m focusing on the section she entitled ‘Practicalities’. All of the ideas in this post should be ascribed to Laura, apart from my random musings which I’ve tried to make obvious.

Posts in the series:

  1. Introduction
  2. Scale, Chaordic Systems & Trust
  3. Practicalities
  4. Problem Solving and Decision Making
  5. Goals, scheduling, shipping
  6. Minimum Viable Bureaucracy: Why have managers?

I chopped up the audio from Laura’s talk; you should find the part relating to this post below. Slides are here and it’s all backed up at the Internet Archive.

Self-organising does not equal democracy. Just because no-one is in charge doesn’t mean everyone has an equal vote.

(Laura Thomson)

Decision Making

How do we solve problems in a chaordic environment? People coming from a traditional company might wonder how decisions can be made. The short answer is that subject matter experts emerge. People gravitate towards projects they’re passionate about and become experts in that subject.

The second part of this is that there shouldn’t be a single person who knows or can do everything – there should be a ‘failover’. You should actively fight against there only being one person who knows or does everything. After all, if that person gets headhunted by Facebook or hit by a truck then suddenly you’re left with something that nobody understands. Leaving it at this isn’t enough, however, as there are some things that nobody wants to do – e.g. running weekly team meeting. These things should be rotated so it’s not too much of a burden on any one person.

What do an OSS decision-making processes look like? Well, says Laura, they all tend to converge on a model that looks a lot like this:

This is a reasonable structure for decision-making in any context: have one person who knows everything with (more) other people knowing almost as much. Things get done this way.

Laura adds a note in parentheses to this: ‘self-organising’ does not equal democracy. Just because no-one is in charge doesn’t mean everyone has an equal vote. But then, on the other hand, nor does self-organising equal anarchy. Self-organising systems emerge and converge on a structure, but they are not structureless.

Problem solving

“You should never have all of your time filled with things that other people have made for you to do.”

(Laura Thomson)

Bike Shed

Many architectural problems are like bikesheds, says Laura: they’re the thing you talk about over beers with the team or every workweek – but you never get around to doing. People have many different, possibly divergent ideas and think it’s too hard to get to a solution. As a leader, therefore,  you should pick someone and give them a week to go away and have a go at it. Get them to see how far they get with making a prototype. The important thing to remember is not to leave them too long in isolation as they can go down “a hell of a rabbit hole”. It’s good to have a time box for this kind of thing.

Laura’s advice is that you that you should ‘come with code’ for bikeshedding problems. This means you can point to something and say “hey, I built this”. People who don’t like it will no doubt say that they would have done it differently but when it exists, it’s much easier to just agree with something. The problem then kind of goes away. Many of the hardest problems get to 80% by one person over a two-day marathon giving the project a proof-of-concept and some momentum. In turn, this gives other people motivation and clears the path.

The moral? Give people room to do this and be innovative.

Moving on, Laura says she sees some things that are “really toxic”. Things like having an innovation department  where all the ‘innovative’ work is done. This is “silly”. Another management anti-pattern is giving engineers a number of tickets without giving the engineer space to think about the product. It’s true they may not understand the users, but they understand the product pretty well.

Depending on the company, a portion of time has to be spent by the engineer doing the thing that they think is most important. It might be 100% of the time, or 60%, 40%, one day per week – but it should never be zero. “You should never have all of your time filled with things that other people have made for you to do,” says Laura. There are so many reasons for this. One of them is you miss out on some of the most innovative ways of doing things. The second is that it’s toxic for engineering morale. It will make people leave. It’s a ‘super-critical item’.

This is true not only for engineers but for anyone in an pretty much any kind of organisation. Spending all day just implementing other people’s ideas doesn’t lead to a sense of agency or happiness.

In summary, there are three things to remember about problem solving in a chaordic environment:

  1. Push responsibility to the edges
  2. Adopt open source models
  3. Give people freedom to innovate.

For the things that aren’t ‘bikesheds’ figure out where the interfaces are. Interface design is more critical than component design. For example, your API is more important than the implementation, every single time. This makes everything more modular, allowing you to drop innovative things in more easily.

In non-technical language, this is about looking at how ideas and projects connect. This is important as it helps the organisation communication well internally and externally, helping things move forward smoothly.

Laura’s architectural goals:

  • Decouple replaceable components
  • Have clear interfaces and APIs
  • Make sure you have good tests for each component

For operational problems within an open source environment, the same principles apply, with two additions:

  1. Evidence > guts
  2. Immerse yourself in problems

In other words, use evidence to make your decisions rather than gut feelings. And when you’ve got a problem, set aside time for you (or someone on your team) to be fully immersed in it and understand it.


You can follow Laura Thomson as @lxt on Twitter.

Images CC BY-SA Pierre-Yves Beaudouin & John Myers

Colin Day on leadership.

Colin Day

Colin Day is Group Chief Financial Officer and Director of Reckitt Benckiser, ‘a global force in household, health and personal care.’ He has worked for a number of organizations, including British Gas (when it was the ‘Gas Corporation’) from which he draws experiences and lessons in leadership.

The following is what I learned from watching his seven videos on the 50 Lessons website:

Most people like being led

Day believes that most people want to be led and that very few want to lead themselves. This is mainly due to the necessity of making tough decisions as a leader.

Love/hate reactions

Leaders need to movtiave staff and inspire them, otherwise organizations can end up with dissatisfied staff. Inspiring a love/hate dichotomy regarding leadership style within an organization is not necessarily a bad thing.

Good leadership comes from confidence

Leaders need to be preapred to make decisions and lead by example. You need to be seen to be technically competent, which can be demonstrated through motivation, enthusiasm and commitment. Allied to this, however, has to be confidence. If staff see that you have their best interests at heart, that you will not let them down and that you will support them, then they will follow your lead.

‘Open door’ policy

It can be quite an intimidating experience to go an see your boss, which is why an open door policy always some fears. Leaders should be available day or night and tell staff that ‘there’s no excuse for not contacting me.’ People need to be put at ease by not treating them as if they’re slaves to you or in any way second-class citizens. Leaders need to be open with people – which is difficult to do consistently and honestly all the time.

Don’t judge books by their covers

It’s easy and part of human nature to rush into perceptions of people or organizations. Forming judgements from other people’s opinions and the media is easy to do. Leaders need to find out for themselves and be open-minded. Find out the facts so you can form an educated opinion. Ask relevant questions when recruiting and allow them to do due dilgence on you. Day provides prospective employees with a list of people whom they can talk to about his leadership style and what to expect if they work under him.

Autocracy is a necessity

Organizations and the people within them have to accept a certain measure of ‘autocratic’ style as it gets results. Consensus management doesn’t work, according to Day: someone needs to ‘call the shots’ as otherwise nothing gets done. The only leadership style that really works is one where you give very clear direction about what you want and then clear messages about how that should be achieved.

According to Day, it’s all about focus. If you say something and stick to it enough you will find people take onboard what you say. As a leader, you need to make sure that everyone shares your focus. Don’t lead initiatives until the last minute – plan well in advance and provide clear direction from the top so that ‘everyone marches to the same tune.’

Detail

Leaders need to know how much detail is required in various situations and how much to demand of their workforce. Analysis and statistics is not important if the bigger picture is being ignored. In Day’s experience, people hide behind detail for confidence purposes, producing endless charts tables to try and make a simple point.

As a leader, demand people focus on the larger issue. Use instinct and experience as much as data. Make documents short and to the point; they should be 4-5 pages long or take 4-5 minutes to present. If a point cannot be made in that amount of space or time then there’s something wrong.

No ‘job for life’

There are no ‘jobs for life’ any more: don’t encourage staff to think in that way. Instead, encourage them to talk about their career options, taking them out of their comfort zone, preparing them to take  risks and look outside of the organization. Career-seekers are more motivated than ‘company’ people. Those who stay in one job for a long time stagnate.

Self-confidence

It’s not enough for leaders to be intellectually brilliant or extremely technically competent. You also have to have the confidence to pull things off even when wrong-footed. Confidence also needs to be built and nurtured in your staff as well. Give them responsibilities to deliver on important projects. They will feel like they are part of the decision-making process even if not making the final decision.

Confidence can only be grown, not ‘taught’. Day talks of a ‘rock of granite’ within people that others can chip away at but will nevertheless remain solid. Look for this ‘rock’ when hiring people.

PS You can get access to the 50 Lessons website through the National College for School Leadership’s Leadership Library

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David Brandon on leadership.

david_brandon2

David Brandon is CEO of Domino’s Pizza. He’s one of the contributors to the 50 Lessons website. This website incorporates is a series of 4-minute videos from inspirational leaders of organizations. Brandon was a successful American Football player at college, an experience he looks back to often when thinking about leadership issues.

The following is what I took away from viewing his five videos on the 50 Lessons website:

Treat people the way they want to be treated

Leaders need to be able to adapt the way they deal with people to individual circumstances. The wrong approach is to take the same leadership style and apply it to all your dealings with staff in your organization. Find out the way people want to be treated and treat them that way. Brandon says this is the best piece of advice his father (who himself had no formal leadership experience) gave him early in his career.

Have a plan for ‘sudden change’

From an American football game between the Ten...
Image via Wikipedia

Looking back to his college American Football days, Brandon talks about how his coaches trained the team to recognise sudden change within a game and to respond to it in a positive way. Transferring this to organizations, it’s importance to instill the idea that ‘change is good’ whilst recognizing that many will approach it will trepidation and indeed may resist that change.

Brandon talks about when he was unveiled as CEO of Domino’s Pizza and kept his message simple. He contrasted ‘sitting around talking about the good old days’ with embracing change to make a good organization even better.

Things either get better or they get worse

An unfinished  miniature portrait of Oliver Cr...
Image via Wikipedia

Brandon’s comments on things ‘never staying the same’ reminded me of a saying I had on my wall in my old classroom, attributed to Oliver Cromwell. It read, ‘He who stops being better stops being good.’ It’s a phrase I saw every day and spurred me on.

Brandon believes that when things are going well  for an organization or team – sales are up, the team is winning every game, academic results are getting better every year – then it’s easy to fall into the mindset of ‘just turning up.’ To counter this, he says, coaches when he played American Football drummed into them the belief that ‘things either get better or they get worse, but things never stay the same.’ Fostering this mentality in your organization leads to constant striving towards improvement.

Don’t rely on internal benchmarks

It’s all very well hitting or even surpassing benchmarks and targets set internally within your organization. However, if no attention is paid to others in the field, then you can be left behind. Brandon talks about finding the best in the field and becoming as good or better than them.

With schools, this is less of an issue of competition and more one of keeping up with best practice, I believe. Of course, there’s local competition in terms of persuading parents to send their children to your school, but in the bigger picture it’s about raising standards across the board.

Deal with minor issues quickly

The time to deal with minor issues is as quickly as you can and when things are going well. Restructuring, procedural issues and suchlike are much better done at times of stability rather than when your organization is on ‘the edge of a cliff’. Making changes when things are going well means the organization is more resilient and can be more focused on those changes rather than on the survival of the organization.

Pivotal moments & decision-making

As a leader there will be ‘pivotal moments’ when going one way could lead to great rewards, whereas going the other way could lead to disastrous consequences. It’s the easiest thing in the world to make a decision when you and 100% of the people around you agree on what should be done. The tough decisions come when there is a 50/50 split.

When such a decision has to be made, make it and then act with ‘confidence, passion and a true sense of calm.’ Leaders, after all, must lead. Your actions after the decision has been taken are almost more important than the decision itself as you can energise the workforce into taking action for the organization to succeed. You need to explain your decisions and then stand by them.

PS You can get access to the 50 Lessons website through the National College for School Leadership’s Leadership Library

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