Category Archives: Socio-Technical Systems

Setting Expectations Early & Often

Agreeing on simple things (for example, where and when to meet) can be anything but simple. There can be miscommunications, incomplete communications, desires can change along the way, or people can learn things that change their availability or ability to get together. How do you make sure that you stay on the same page, even as you (and the things around you) change?

The remedy is effective expectation setting.

Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to

If you search YouTube for videos on expectation setting, though, you’ll get lots of results that talk about one-way communication around making sure someone (often someone with less organizational power) knows what you want from them. Lots of these videos are great, but they are limited to helping you build your skills around clear, concise, meaningful, tangible communication. And sometimes, expectation setting is indeed one-way, like for example when a company explains its return policy before you purchase something, or lets you know that there’s a real person behind its chat rather than a bot.

More often, expectation setting requires dialogue, and can’t just be unilaterally set by one party. When two parties (or a group of people) establish or update their shared understanding of a problem, situation, or scenario, then confirm that shared understanding, expectations are set. But that doesn’t mean you’re done.

Expectations erode over time. People learn, situations change, and relationships change. Especially in a work context, we might be setting expectations with a role, and people can flow in and out of roles. It’s not uncommon that we won’t have all the information or context we need going into a discussion, or that the information has become stale since the last time the parties reviewed it. Sometimes, new people are at the table, and we can’t make assumptions about how much understanding they have (or whether they’ve been introduced to the problem at hand at all).

For example, it’s common to scope a services engagement with the decision maker and project champion (who signs the contract), but be handed off to more operational contacts for the day-to-day work. Sometimes these operations people will not have had the opportunity to be briefed by the decision maker, who may or may not have prioritized getting their buy-in. You’ll have to deal with this challenge during the first opportunity you get to engage in expectation setting with this group of people.

The dialogue around expectations is ongoing, and you can tell it’s happening when you hear things like:

  • “What we think we’re going to do next is [this]. Has anything changed since the last time we reviewed this?”
  • “What I’m hearing is… [this]. Is that your understanding too?”
  • “So what I think you just said is… [thing I think you just said]. Is that accurate?”
  • “Let me reflect that back to you, and you can assess how close I am.”
  • “So if we do [this], does everyone here agree that’s the next step?”

I’d rather be disappointed now than disappointed and overwhelmed later by having to pivot. It’s good to be agile and be able to pivot, but it’s bad to have to pivot over and over again. (You have to regain your balance after every pivot. Sometimes this rebalancing is quick, and other times it never quite happens. Pivoting always comes with a risk, just like not pivoting can be risky.)

Expectation setting is one of the most valuable skills you can develop, especially if you are working as part of an agile team. Not only can expectation setting help you become a badass at work, but it will also help you build better relationships with friends and family.

Don’t assume that the world is the same as it was last time. Set expectations early and often.

Dean Meyer’s “How Organizations Should Work” – an A+ Reference on Intentional Organizational Design

The organization that you design designs you back.

Similarly, the organization that you fail to intentionally design will also design you back. And you probably won’t like the pain it inflicts… whether that pain manifests as political battles, conflicts of interests, or just plain stonewalling or slow-walking. People tend to perform based on how well their goals and objectives are defined, how effectively their roles (and the relationships between their roles and other roles) are defined, and how rigorously the organization monitors and reinforces desired behaviors and outcomes.

Unfortunately, it’s rare to get all those pieces in place and functioning at the same time. But thanks to Dean Meyer’s new 2022 book, How Organizations Should Work, you’ll have a head start on lessons learned. Based on his multi-decade career in organizational design, he provides simple, tangible, and meaningful explanations that will help you learn how to intentionally design your organization.

I brought this book to Burning Man because I wanted to read it in a place where I could take my time, where I could allow my mind to expand and take in Dean’s lessons, where I could feel the inspiration all around me while figuring out how to bake more inspired organizational design into my own workplace. And I did start reading it there.

But this book is so packed with wisdom and insights that you’ll want to read it slowly. Plan adequate time for it. After getting through the first 80 pages or so at the event, I read one or two sections every weekend. It took me a full three months to get through cover to cover… and I’m someone who can read a whole book in one sitting. This one, though, will make you think, and you’ll need time to pause and reflect on each of the stories and narratives that Dean uses to make his points.

Here’s a small sample of the highlights (and there are more; you can find this book on Amazon for $37-40).

Book Summary (p. 465-494). The best way to develop a reading plan for this book is to start at the end. Dean provides a helpful synopsis of each chapter that you can use to figure out which sections are most relevant for your organization now. The book is structured so that you don’t have to read it from start to finish, but can pick the sections that are the highest priority for continuous improvement in your organization. Some sections (like Chapter 19, on managing workers in the field) may be less relevant to your needs than other sections (like Chapter 15, on aligning sales and marketing). I recommend starting with Chapters 1 through 6 (and if your time is limited, start with Chapters 5 & 6).

Chapter 5 – Market Organization & Chapter 6 – Empowerment (p. 33-57). These two chapters provide the best (and most concentrated) view of the main thesis of the book, which is that every organization should be structured as a market. Each functional area should have customers, and services they provide to those customers. Each functional area should be empowered to make decisions about how the business of that unit is conducted, and should also have the skills to do it (and to build trust within their business unit and between their business unit and others). Organizing according to a market allows people to specialize, makes it possible to monitor performance in a more modular way, and simplifies the cognitive complexity of an organization.

Appendix 4 – Culture: Examples of Behavioral Principles (p. 376-380). Dean notes that companies are great at defining their culture, but often not so great at explaining how people can embody that culture and monitor their behaviors to ensure that they are living it and reinforcing it. In this section, he provides specific examples of behaviors that can make goals like “maintain a high ethical standard” actionable. For example, you can say “we do not permit personal conflicts of interest”. You’ll have to test your processes against these behavioral expressions of culture, too: if you don’t permit personal conflicts of interest, you should identify areas where conflicts of interest might arise and anticipate ways to identify them, prevent them, or resolve them quickly.

There are so many things I like about this book, and it embodies so many principles of good organizational design in a light, conversational way. Although there are a lot of books I really like, I don’t typically gush over them… but this one meets my high standards. Coupled with Dean’s 2017 book, Principle-Based Organizational Structure (which has a less conversational and more academic style), these are the only two references I really need to remind me of the essentials for intentionally building healthy organizations that are aligned internally and externally.

Alignment is the best way to reduce friction between people, and accelerate real progress towards tangible goals.

Elon’s Modern Day Tower of Babel Event

So Elon bought Twitter this week, fired most of the staff (except the people who have been writing the most lines of code, and if you work in software engineering you know what a genius idea that is), alienated a bunch of potential 2023 advertisers, and then alienated them more by threatening to publicly shame them.

It reminds me of the Tower of Babel story, where ancient leader Nimrod (according to Jewish-Roman history) decided to build a tower so big that it would reach all the way to God. (How big? About 3x the height of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, which is pretty big at 2722 ft, just over half a mile tall.) Apparently God didn’t like that, so he decided to bust up the party by making people unintelligible to each other.

A literal Tower of Twitter. Image Source: https://sf.curbed.com/2020/5/13/21256351/twitter-building-headquarters-work-home-employees-sf

According to the mythology (which actually appears in many traditions), the reason God made the decision to magically and instantaneously create several languages was that the people were getting too powerful. Because they could communicate and coordinate, they were relying on each other to accomplish great feats (namely: building a giant tower) rather than putting their faith in their deity to help them overcome differences and achieve unity.

It’s pretty easy to see what role Twitter (powered by its Translate Tweet button) and Mastodon are playing.

The only thing I’d love to know is… in this modern drama of social media evolution, who’s playing God?

Agile Should Not Make You Feel Bad

Agility can be great (even though for many neurodivergent people, it’s the opposite of great). But when teams go through the motions to be “Agile” they often end up overcomplicating the work, adding stress to interactions, and achieving less agility.

If your agile processes are “working”, then over the next iteration (typically 1-4 weeks):

⬜ You have a clear understanding, as a team, of the value you’re working to demonstrate. (Note that this is not a promise or a commitment, but a shared purpose, direction and intention.)

⬜ You have a clear understanding, as individuals, of the actions that will generate that value. You know what to work on (and think about) when you’re not in meetings or with clients.

⬜ You don’t feel alone – you have teammates to communicate with and collaborate with, and resources you can use, as you move forward to advance project objectives.

⬜ You are working at a comfortable, sustainable pace.

⬜ Your team is improving every week – you continually do things a little differently to help improve quality, productivity, collaboration, or other outcomes.

None of these things require meetings (or “ceremonies”) – just communication and inclusion. We should always be asking ourselves and our team members: what’s the easiest, smoothest, least intrusive way of building this shared understanding and maintaining it every day?

When teams work with agility:

⬜ Everyone understands the overall goal and the next increment of value to demonstrate.

⬜ Everyone has clear things to do to contribute to that value.

⬜ Each person (and the team as a whole) works at a sustainable pace.

⬜ Nobody feels alone. There’s a group of collaborators to share the work with.

⬜ The client or project champion has visibility into the work and is happy with progress.

⬜ There’s an opportunity to rest, reflect, and adjust every week or two.

It’s not ridiculously hard to adjust to changes in scope, tools, or personnel. 

But I regularly see “agile” teams flailing… unhappy… in constant panic mode, with stress that just won’t end. They are very busy and always seem to be scrambling to show their client or project champion some kind of value… with the feeling that they have to defend their existence. They have a nagging sense of confusion and impostor syndrome may be creeping in. They can tell you exactly what tasks are on their JIRA boards, but they can’t tell you why those tickets exist or how their task is contributing to overall project value. They have lost sight of the forest (value) because they have planted so many trees (tickets).

For these teams, the Scrum process and Agile ceremonies may be adding layers of stress and bureaucracy rather than helping the team work sustainably to consistently drive value. They are “doing Agile ” but have actually made themselves less agile… less able to flow and adapt and respond to changes in scope, tools, or participants.

Agile methods first emerged in response to the slow, painful, unsatisfying, unhappy practice of software development. It was really depressing to spend months building software, only to have customers and users complain how bad it was when they got it (especially when you developed exactly what they specified). It felt isolating to have to figure out how to deliver a piece of the software without any input from other engineers, and it was distressing when others were blocking your work and you had to convince them to listen to you. The whole endeavor was inefficient, and people were often tense and stressed. 

The realizations in red (in the 90s) led to the Agile Manifesto items (2001) in blue

We’re applying processes and tools without really examining why we need them

So let’s prioritize…

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

  • Why this is part of the Agile Manifesto: Since the beginning of time, development teams tend to get hung up on the details of using tools (e.g. MS Project, JIRA, kanban boards) rather than why the tools are there in the first place: to make sure people are getting the information and context they need – on a regular, routine basis – to make continuous progress on the team’s overall deliverables.
  • What we should do in 2022: Focus on information sharing, context building, and working arrangements that help people get work done. This applies to interactions within the team as well as interactions with the client.

We’re doing a lot of work that doesn’t actually contribute to our goal

So let’s prioritize…

Working software [ie. tangible stuff that’s valuable] over comprehensive documentation

  • Why this is part of the Agile Manifesto: Software development in the 1990s was documentation-heavy. I even remember, in 2018, throwing away a few hundred pounds of paper (in about 20 4” binders) containing requirements and design documents for a really big software project that we did between 2002 and 2004. Often, development teams wouldn’t even produce software that matched the documentation because we’d learn about what was feasible and what was not as we were doing it. Everyone tended to deliver software that the business needed a year or two ago. We didn’t learn together and co-create the software. 
  • What we should do in 2022: We provide value in the form of information, shared understanding, and working software (which may be in the form of quality controls) – that’s it. Anything we produce that doesn’t directly contribute to making these things happen shouldn’t be done. 

We’re unable to deliver something we don’t know how to define or describe yet

So let’s prioritize…

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

  • Why this is part of the Agile Manifesto: Because deciding what you’re on the hook to deliver at the beginning of a project – and exactly what the deliverables are going to look like – is dangerous. You and the customer rarely have enough understanding of the problem (or of each other) to get it right. 
  • What we should do in 2022: Establish shared accountability. (Note: this is rare. How many times has a customer been on your team and just as accountable to the project champion for the end result as you are?) A workaround is to set expectations with the client that we are discovering the shared understanding together, and we will get as close to the desired deliverables as we can, given the fact that we are embarking on a process of learning together.

We’re unable to commit to a plan when we might learn that our plan isn’t feasible

So let’s prioritize…

Responding to change over following a plan

  • Why this is part of the Agile Manifesto: As you learn about what’s possible, what’s not possible, and what the client actually values… plans will change. Instead of establishing a timeline that won’t end up working out (and that will cause you a lot of stress when you start deviating from), just start with the understanding that your Gantt Chart and your intermediary milestones will probably not be achieved when you think they will – or maybe even at all.
  • What we should do in 2022: Always keep the final goal in mind, but revisit and adjust the plan as you learn more every week. Iterate! 

The Discovery Channel Test

Presentations can be boring. Talking about your work can be boring (to other people). When you’re sitting in a talk or a session that you find boring (and you can’t figure out WIIFM – what’s in it for me)… you learn less.

Although we shouldn’t have to use clickbait techniques to satisfy societally decreasing attention spans, it is easier to learn and retain information when it’s interesting. So I encourage all of you to apply the “Discovery Channel Test” to every presentation, talk, or session you contribute to or lead.

The reason I call it the “Discovery Channel Test” is that there used to be a program called City Confidential that was on all the time. Even though City Confidential was a show about murder mysteries, the first half of the one-hour show was about the city or region where the crime occurred. They talked about when the town was first settled, and key families who made the town what it is today. You heard about stories of intrigue, and challenges the town was facing today. They made the story about the town itself so captivating that EVERY SINGLE TIME I was caught off guard when they ended the first half-hour segment with “You’d never believe a murder could happen here.” Through the hundreds of times I watched this show, I was always shocked when this point came. “Oh, yeah… this is where that murder mystery happened, and we’re about to find out about it.”

Any production crew that can spend a half hour off-topic, keep me interested, and give me a dopamine burst right before the main point of the show… has achieved something great. And you, too, can achieve this same greatness when you’re talking about your tech stack or a new architectural initiative or that project you did last year that improved customer sat. Make it interesting by applying….

The Discovery Channel Test (* = could also be called The Good Podcast Test)

Rule 1: Use an emotional hook up front. Why should any of the people in your audience not leave after the first five minutes? Don’t make them guess! Tell them specifically why this topic might be interesting, or surprise them with an initial feeling of novelty or unexpectedness. Jonathan Lipnicki’s character in Jerry Maguire (1996) was great at this, with his “did you know?” questions. The dopamine surge you create with an emotional hook will keep them engaged for long enough to get hooked on your story.

Rule 2: Find the wow nugget(s). This is one of the things the Discovery Channel has always been really good at: getting me interested in things that I didn’t think were interesting to me. Remember that your projects and initiatives, no matter how cool they are to you, will be boring to other people unless you TRY to make them interesting. I try to tell my high schooler that even in the most boring classes you should be able to find some nugget, some angle, some insight that helps you see the subject matter in a way that grabs you. Find that angle for your audience, and then spoon feed it to them.

Rule 3: Use examples, screen shots, visuals, diagrams. If your presentations are full of slides with words, people will start yawning immediately and may or may not actually hear those words. You can also reduce ambiguity with examples and screen shots. For example, saying “we used Python for this project” is far less compelling than showing the tree structure of the code (or a simplified diagram) and annotating it with what each piece did to get the overall job done. Saying “we used Confluence” is less compelling than saying “we set up a confluence site at [this location] and agreed to put [this kind of information in there]” because if someone has a need for [that information] – at least they know a first place they can look for it.

Rule 4: Spoon feed the closing thoughts. At the very end, remind people what you want them to remember when they leave. Remind people why that’s interesting, and how it might benefit them in the future. Make it concrete and tangible. For example, can you give them reference material, or an infographic, or a checklist that they can use in the future? Don’t assume that people will get something out of your presentation just by attending… spoon feed what you WANT them to get out of it.

“Documentation” is a Dirty Word

I just skimmed through another 20 page planning document, written in old-school “requirements specification”-ese with a hefty dose of ambiguity. You know, things like “the Project Manager shall…” and “the technical team will respond to bugs.”

There’s a lot of good content in there. It’s not easy to get at, though… for each page I want to understand, I can expect to spend between ten minutes and an hour deciphering what’s going on. (That’s half a week of work, and I have a lot of other work to do this week. Is it even worth it?)

Also, this document is boring… and there’s a lot of filler (like “package X is useful, flexible, and open source” – OK, that’s great, and factually correct, but not very informative).

The whole document could have been condensed into 4 or 5 slides of diagrams plus annotations. If that had happened, I’d be looking at a 10 to 30 minute commitment overall to get my brain into this particular company’s context… and then I’d be able to make some useful contributions. (As it stands, I’m weighing whether it’s worth my time to go spelunking in that 20-pager at all. Probably not.)

Unfortunately:

  • The bulk of technical documentation that I read is unintelligible or lacks sufficient meaning. I have three decades of exposure to this stuff, so if I can’t understand it, I feel super sorry for the early career people (who might think they can’t understand it because they don’t know enough).
  • Nearly all of the technical documents I see are uninteresting. And tech is interesting.

99 times out of 100, technical documentation is dull and dysfunctional. While it’s supposed to help people and teams establish a shared understanding of a system or a process or a concept, it just ends up looking really impressive and convincing you that the authors know a lot more about this than you do. It doesn’t help you much, if at all.

And as a CTO, CIO, or VP of Engineering, I don’t want to pay for crappy documentation. This particular document probably cost me between $32K-50K, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg… because it doesn’t account for the incremental costs of the people who will attempt to decipher it – which could be 10-100x more over the lifetime of that document. Although the person or team that wrote the 20-pager probably knows what’s going on (at least a little bit), the artifact itself is going to cost other people time and take them away from more value-adding tasks.

The sheer volume of information we’re required to wade through to gain understanding – without the assurance that it will lead us in the right direction, or even in any direction at all – is probably what’s led to the disease of devaluing documentation

A lot of managers think documentation isn’t value-adding, and shouldn’t be done, because… in most cases, people do it so badly that it wasn’t worth the investment in the first place.

Dear tech workers: can we fix this, please? I know it will take a whole generation to effect meaningful change, but… I’m ready to roll up my sleeves.

Burnout at Work? It’s Not Your Fault

Over the past week, I’ve noticed lots of people on social media talking about burnout — loss of energy, loss of enthusiasm, and loss of self-confidence at work. The holidays have ended, and it seems many are not getting back into the swing like they hoped they might.

Are you burned out? If so, you’ve probably taken steps already to fix it. Most people have a natural desire to do well at work, and to make valuable contributions… and besides, burnout doesn’t feel good day to day. Maybe you spent lots of time away from your email or phone, and with family or friends. Maybe you focused on “self-care” — those activities that are supposed to pull you back to center, to restore your depleted energy.

And if the concerted steps you’ve taken don’t seem to be working, you’re probably even more stressed out (and more burned out) than you were weeks or months ago.

What’s the solution?

The good news is, the burnout won’t last forever. There’s a natural endpoint for burnout, and that’s when you completely reach your limit and don’t even have the energy to remember why you cared in the first place. Most of us would rather not get to this point. So what’s the alternative?

You have two choices, both of which can have huge impacts on your life:

  • Stay, and work on improving the situation, or
  • Leave, recognizing that you’re not able to contribute to a solution.

But how do you know which path to take? First and foremost, it’s important to understand where burnout comes from. In December 2019, Harvard Business Review published a great article that makes it clear:

  1. Unfair treatment at work. If you’ve been treated unfairly, or if you see coworkers being treated in ways that you feel is unfair, your trust in the organization is going to falter. It takes a long time to build trust, but only one or two incidents to break it.
  2. Unmanageable workload. If you’re given too much to do, or if you work on tasks that (for some reason or another) tend to get changed, shifted, or cancelled in-progress, you’ll have a hard time seeing your efforts pan out. Everyone needs a chance to see their work come to fruition.
  3. Lack of role clarity. If you don’t know (or are not told) what to focus on, OR if you’re told to focus on one area and then later discover someone else actually owns it, conflicts are bound to emerge.
  4. Lack of communication and/or support from your manager. This doesn’t mean you don’t talk to each other, or that your manager doesn’t philosophically support your work — it means that they aren’t doing enough to make sure that #1, 2, 3 and 5 aren’t happening.
  5. Unreasonable time pressure. Being expected to pull off heroics can lead to burnout, especially when it’s the status quo. The people who do the work should always be asked to provide effort estimates, particularly when the work is engineering or software development. Failure to develop and implement systematic, repeatable processes for effort estimation can lead to mass burnout later.

But here’s the part of that HBR article that really resonated with me…

The list above clearly demonstrates that the root causes of burnout do not really lie with the individual and that they can be averted — if only leadership started their prevention strategies much further upstream.

In our interview, Maslach asked me to picture a canary in a coal mine. They are healthy birds, singing away as they make their way into the cave. But, when they come out full of soot and disease, no longer singing, can you imagine us asking why the canaries made themselves sick? No, because the answer would be obvious: the coal mine is making the birds sick.

Jennifer Moss, in Burnout Is About Your Workplace, Not Your People

The lesson here is: If you’re burned out, it’s not a personal failure.

Burnout is a symptom of structural or process issues… that senior leaders are responsible for repairing.

The “Should I stay or should I go?” question, then, boils down to this:

  • Stay if you can help the organization treat people more fairly, establish manageable workloads, define more clear roles, improve communication with managers, and/or alleviate time pressure.
  • Leave if you can’t.

Granted, the decision process for you individually is probably more complex than this… but perhaps, by realizing that burnout is a characteristic of your environment and not a referendum on your personal resilience, you’ll be able to figure out your own path more easily. Good luck!

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