Tag Archives: project management

How to Become a Successful Change Leader

For this month’s Influential Voices Roundtable, the American Society for Quality (ASQ) asks: “In today’s current climate, transformation is a common term and transformative efforts are a regular occurrence. Although these efforts are common, according to Harvard Business Review two-thirds of large-scale transformation efforts fail. Research has proven that effective leadership is crucial for a change initiative to be successful.  How can an individual become a successful Change Leader?

Change is hard only because maintaining status quo is easy. Doing things even a little differently requires cognitive energy! Because most people are pretty busy, there has to be a clear payoff to invest that extra energy in changing, even if the change is simple.

Becoming a successful change leader means helping people find the reasons to invest that energy on their own. First, find the source of resistance (if there is one) and do what you can to remove it. Second, try co-creation instead of feedback to build solutions. Here’s what I mean.

Find Sources of Resistance

In 1983, information systems researcher M. Lynne Markus wanted to figure out why certain software implementations, “designed at great cost of time and money, are abandoned or excessively overhauled because they were unenthusiastically received by their intended users.” Nearly 40 years later, enterprises still occasionally run into the same issue, even though Software as a Service (SaaS) models can (to some extent) reduce this risk.

Before her research started, she found these themes associated with resistance (they will probably feel familiar to you even today):

By studying failed software implementations in finance, she uncovered three main sources for the resistance. So as a change leader, start out by figuring out if they resonate, and then apply one of the remedies on the right:

As you might imagine, this third category (the “political version of interaction theory”) is the most difficult to solve. If a new process or system threatens someone’s power or position, they are unlikely to admit it, it may be difficult to detect, and it will take some deep counseling to get to the root cause and solve it.

Co-Creation Over Feedback

Imagine this: a process in your organization is about to change, and someone comes to you with a step-by-step outline of the new proposed process. “I’d like to get your feedback on this,” he says.

That’s nice, right? Isn’t that exactly what’s needed to ensure smooth management of change? You’ll give your feedback, and then when it’s time to adopt the process, it will go great – right?

In short, NO.

For change to be smooth and effective, people have to feel like they’re part of the process of developing the solution. Although people might feel slightly more comfortable if they’re asked for their thoughts on a proposal, the resultant solution is not theirs — in fact, their feedback might not even be incorporated into it. There’s no “skin in the game.”

In contrast, think about a scenario where you get an email or an invitation to a meeting. “We need to create a new process to decide which of our leads we’ll follow up on, and evaluate whether we made the right decision. We’d like it to achieve [the following goals]. We have to deal with [X, Y and Z] boundary conditions, which we can’t change due to [some factors that are well articulated and understandable].”

You go to the meeting, and two hours later all the stakeholders in the room have co-created a solution. What’s going to happen when it’s time for that process to be implemented? That’s right — little or no resistance. Why would anyone resist a change that they thought up themselves?


Find the resistance, cast it out, and co-create solutions. But don’t forget the most important step: recognizing that perfection is not always perfect. (For quality professionals, this one can be kind of tough to accept at times.)

What this means is: in situations where change is needed, sometimes it’s better to adopt processes or practices that are easier or more accessible for the people who do them. Processes that are less efficient can sometimes be better than processes that are more efficient, if the difference has to do with ease of learning or ease of execution. Following these tips will help you help others take some of the pain out of change.

Markus, M. L. (1983). Power, politics, and MIS implementation.  Communications of the ACM, 26(6), 430-444. Available from

Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP) with the ahp Package

On my December to-do list, I had “write an R package to make analytic hierarchy process (AHP) easier” — but fortunately gluc beat me to it, and saved me tons of time that I spent using AHP to do an actual research problem. First of all, thank you for writing the new ahp package! Next, I’d like to show everyone just how easy this package makes performing AHP and displaying the results. We will use the Tom, Dick, and Harry example that is described on Wikipedia. – the goal is to choose a new employee, and you can pick either Tom, Dick, or Harry. Read the problem statement on Wikipedia before proceeding.

AHP is a method for multi-criteria decision making that breaks the problem down based on decision criteria, subcriteria, and alternatives that could satisfy a particular goal. The criteria are compared to one another, the alternatives are compared to one another based on how well they comparatively satisfy the subcriteria, and then the subcriteria are examined in terms of how well they satisfy the higher-level criteria. The Tom-Dick-Harry problem is a simple hierarchy: only one level of criteria separates the goal (“Choose the Most Suitable Leader”) from the alternatives (Tom, Dick, or Harry):


To use the ahp package, the most challenging part involves setting up the YAML file with your hierarchy and your rankings. THE MOST IMPORTANT THING TO REMEMBER IS THAT THE FIRST COLUMN IN WHICH A WORD APPEARS IS IMPORTANT. This feels like FORTRAN. YAML experts may be appalled that I just didn’t know this, but I didn’t. So most of the first 20 hours I spent stumbling through the ahp package involved coming to this very critical conclusion. The YAML AHP input file requires you to specify 1) the alternatives (along with some variables that describe the alternatives; I didn’t use them in this example, but I’ll post a second example that does use them) and 2) the goal hierarchy, which includes 2A) comparisons of all the criteria against one another FIRST, and then 2B) comparisons of the criteria against the alternatives. I saved my YAML file as tomdickharry.txt and put it in my C:/AHP/artifacts directory:

# Alternatives Section
# THIS IS FOR The Tom, Dick, & Harry problem at
# https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Analytic_hierarchy_process_%E2%80%93_leader_example
Alternatives: &alternatives
# 1= not well; 10 = best possible
# Your assessment based on the paragraph descriptions may be different.
    age: 50
    experience: 7
    education: 4
    leadership: 10
    age: 60
    experience: 10
    education: 6
    leadership: 6
    age: 30
    experience: 5
    education: 8
    leadership: 6
# End of Alternatives Section
# Goal Section
# A Goal HAS preferences (within-level comparison) and HAS Children (items in level)
  name: Choose the Most Suitable Leader
    # preferences are defined pairwise
    # 1 means: A is equal to B
    # 9 means: A is highly preferable to B
    # 1/9 means: B is highly preferable to A
    - [Experience, Education, 4]
    - [Experience, Charisma, 3]
    - [Experience, Age, 7]
    - [Education, Charisma, 1/3]
    - [Education, Age, 3]
    - [Age, Charisma, 1/5]
        - [Tom, Dick, 1/4]
        - [Tom, Harry, 4]
        - [Dick, Harry, 9]
      children: *alternatives
        - [Tom, Dick, 3]
        - [Tom, Harry, 1/5]
        - [Dick, Harry, 1/7]
      children: *alternatives
        - [Tom, Dick, 5]
        - [Tom, Harry, 9]
        - [Dick, Harry, 4]
      children: *alternatives
        - [Tom, Dick, 1/3]
        - [Tom, Harry, 5]
        - [Dick, Harry, 9]
      children: *alternatives
# End of Goal Section

Next, I installed gluc’s ahp package and a helper package, data.tree, then loaded them into R:

devtools::install_github("gluc/ahp", build_vignettes = TRUE)


Running the calculations was ridiculously easy:

myAhp <- LoadFile("tomdickharry.txt")

And then generating the output was also ridiculously easy:

> GetDataFrame(myAhp)
                                  Weight  Dick   Tom Harry Consistency
1 Choose the Most Suitable Leader 100.0% 49.3% 35.8% 14.9%        4.4%
2  ¦--Experience                   54.8% 39.3% 11.9%  3.6%        3.2%
3  ¦--Education                    12.7%  1.0%  2.4%  9.2%        5.6%
4  ¦--Charisma                     27.0%  5.2% 20.1%  1.7%        6.1%
5  °--Age                           5.6%  3.8%  1.5%  0.4%        2.5%
> print(myAhp, "weight", filterFun = isNotLeaf)
                        levelName     weight
1 Choose the Most Suitable Leader 1.00000000
2  ¦--Experience                  0.54756924
3  ¦--Education                   0.12655528
4  ¦--Charisma                    0.26994992
5  °--Age                         0.05592555
> print(myAhp, "weight")
                         levelName     weight
1  Choose the Most Suitable Leader 1.00000000
2   ¦--Experience                  0.54756924
3   ¦   ¦--Tom                     0.21716561
4   ¦   ¦--Dick                    0.71706504
5   ¦   °--Harry                   0.06576935
6   ¦--Education                   0.12655528
7   ¦   ¦--Tom                     0.18839410
8   ¦   ¦--Dick                    0.08096123
9   ¦   °--Harry                   0.73064467
10  ¦--Charisma                    0.26994992
11  ¦   ¦--Tom                     0.74286662
12  ¦   ¦--Dick                    0.19388163
13  ¦   °--Harry                   0.06325174
14  °--Age                         0.05592555
15      ¦--Tom                     0.26543334
16      ¦--Dick                    0.67162545
17      °--Harry                   0.06294121

You can also generate very beautiful output with the command below (but you’ll have to run the example yourself if you want to see how fantastically it turns out — maybe that will provide some motivation!)


I’ll post soon with an example of how to use AHP preference functions in the Tom, Dick, & Harry problem.

When Your Ideas are Met With Resistance

bm-survivalHas anyone ever opposed your ideas? Punctuated your plans? (This could be something you’ve experienced at work, or just in the regular course of life.)

Has anyone encouraged you (subtly or not so subtly) to remain entrenched in the status quo? To not “rock the boat”?

Yeah, me too.

Usually, when people question my ideas, plans, or approach – I’ll step back. I don’t want to be perceived as pushy, or aggressive, or anything other than basically nice and considerate of other peoples’ positions and feelings. I like to work in the shadowy background, producing what is meaningful to me, while others focus on what is meaningful to them – never the two paths to meet. If I’m working on projects or products for clients or customers, I defer to them entirely – using my experience or expertise only to guide or inform the process of discovery. I don’t like conflict, but when I do, I’d rather it’s between two OTHER people or organizations – and I’m just in the middle as the broker, attempting to fuse the two positions into a cohesive and mutually agreeable vision.

Sometimes, though, you can’t avoid being one of the parties in conflict – and as a result, today I discovered the blessing of opposition.

In the Summer 2004 issue of Journal for Quality and Participation, Thomas Berstene discussed “The Inexorable Link Between Conflict and Change” — explaining how conflict can facilitate transformation, that is, “the passing from one place, state, form, or phase to another.” He notes how every organization has examples of how constructive conflict can lead to positive transformation, if that conflict is honored for its potential value. Most significantly, he describes the cultivation of power as a means to resolve conflict, by “achieving self-interests without inflicting force on others.”

Cultivating power requires four things:

  • Authenticity. Being totally, completely, unabashedly true to your own needs, desires, and aspirations.
  • Synergy. Cultivating relationships so that you can work in harmony with (most, if not all) others.
  • Inner Strength. A sense of calm, and a higher level of peace and resourcefulness – you know you can come to a positive conclusion!
  • Quality of Being. The “experience of joy, ease, and serenity that derive from identification with one’s authentic Self” which renders these individuals “able to focus their attention on the current situation without dragging in history or resisting what might happen.”

I just got back from Burning Man (more on that later – MUCH more, in fact) so I’m nestled firmly in the womb of my power. All of the cobwebs that have clouded my mind and psyche for the past five years have been whisked away. I’m calm. I trust.

I’m unwilling to be anything other than true to myself right now. There’s just not enough time in this life to be otherwise.

And from this vantage point, I’ve discovered the blessing of opposition!

Today, it became pretty clear that some projects that are important to me are experiencing some resistance from others. That’s OK – maybe they don’t understand why my projects are so important to me. Maybe I can explain it to them. Maybe I’ll never be able to.

But instead of stepping back, this opposition unexpectedly, unashamedly rebirthed the dragon in me.

The opposition to my approach quickly – and with tsunamis of emotion – clarified, for me, what I believe in – the essence of what I think is really important.

And now I know what I believe. I think I knew it before, but now my gut knows it, and my body is ready to live it. I’m committed to what I believe. I’m willing to give up everything to follow what I believe.

And that’s what makes today starkly different — and entirely more colorful — than the potentials I embodied yesterday.

How to Prepare a Good SWOT


(Image credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)

SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) is a strategic planning tool, originally developed by Albert Humphrey of SRI in the 1960’s, to clarify an organization’s capabilities within a particular competitive environment. It’s not just a useful technique for business… I encourage many of my graduate students to use SWOT to better understand the context of their thesis problem or capstone project. SWOT is also a popular tool for quality professionals – the ASQ Service Quality Division maintains an introduction to SWOT on their web site.

However, it is REALLY EASY to do a BAD SWOT. If you try to use a bad SWOT to support your strategic decision making, it’s very likely that you’ll draw conclusions that are inconsistent (at best). The worst case scenario is that your SWOT can lead you to totally incorrect conclusions – and interventions or strategic decisions that damage your organization, rather than support and grow it. In a collaborative situation, it’s easy to deliver a BAD SWOT, especially when you genuinely wish to acknowledge all voices – and this wish is coupled with a tight schedule to deliver the SWOT.

How do you prepare a GOOD SWOT? Here are the four tests I ask my students to perform on each and every point within the SWOT analysis:

  1. Is the point supported by data or a reference in the literature? It’s easy to let anecdotes or personal opinions slip in to a SWOT. Requiring that all points are supported by data or research helps; personal opinions must be captured carefully (e.g. survey results over a representative sample of the population).
  2. Does the point address the issue at the right scale? If you are analyzing strategy for your organization as a whole, you don’t want your individual SWOT points to address the division, product-line, or product level – unless you can make a clear case for how your point impacts the scale of the whole analysis.
  3. Have you accounted for variation? Not everyone will agree with all points. One way around this is the poll the stakeholders within an organization (at the appropriate scale) to determine whether they strongly agree, agree, disagree, etc. with each point. Prioritize the items according to greatest agreement.
  4. Do you know why the point should be classified as a strength, weakness, opportunity, or threat? Sometimes a threat or a weakness is an opportunity, when considered in the context of the strengths; try to make connections between the four quadrants by considering these relationships.

And in addition, it’s important to do this final test at the end of the SWOT:

  • Do any of the points directly conflict with one another? If so, REMOVE THEM.

Here are some real (modified) examples extracted from real SWOTs (to show you what I mean). Feel free to add your own guidelines to the Comments about what makes a GOOD SWOT.



Our headquarters is beautiful. This statement fails primarily on #3 and #4. Does everyone agree that the headquarters is beautiful? Probably not. But if they do, why should this be considered a strength? Do we have evidence that a beautiful headquarters contributes in any way to our organization’s ability to meet its strategic goals? A simple link should be made explaining why this is relevant as a strength.

The number of new customers is increasing. This statement is OK, but should be supported by data, a check to make sure that data is at the right scale, and an explanation of why this is a strength. “The number of new customers has been steadily increasing over the past 5 years, from 600 new customers in 2007 to over 8,000 new customers in 2012. Demand for our services across the organization is strong.”

Two thirds of our budget goes to supporting our consultants. So what? Why is this a strength? How do we compare to other organizations that also allocate budget to supporting consultants? Does this indicate that our funds are being prioritized properly? Maybe this in, in fact, a weakness – but we won’t know it until we compare ourselves to benchmarks.



We don’t acknowledge or discuss our weaknesses. This point is weak on all four criteria. If this is a true statement, what data do we have that supports it? Are such conversations lacking at the organizational level, the division level, or the team level (or all three)? Most significantly, which one of those levels is relevant to the SWOT at hand? Does everyone feel this way, or is there some variation in the sentiment? Furthermore, is this really a weakness? I’d say it is potentially more of an opportunity to stimulate wider discussion. Can we position this statement as an opportunity instead? I also find it funny that this is a weakness in a SWOT that is specifically designed to encourage acknowledging and discussing weaknesses. Hmm.

Our technology organization is decentralized. This point fails on all criteria except #2. How is the technology organization decentralized, and why is this a weakness? Comparison to benchmarks of organizations with centralized vs. decentralized technology is merited here. For some organizations, decentralization of technology services in fact makes it easier to achieve high levels of customer service.

Nationally, there is low or declining confidence among employees of their executive management teams, particularly in larger companies. OK, this one fails on all four criteria. First, where’s the data? Second, this is totally outside the scale of the organization, and I’m not sure what relevance it has to the organization completing the SWOT. Furthermore, there’s definitely an issue of variation here: what’s the variation in the opinions among employees here? And finally, why is this a weakness? It might actually be a threat.



Globalization provides opportunities for international experiences for our consultants. According to what data? And what opportunities are relevant to our people? Do all of our consultants need international experiences, or do we just want to make it possible for the ones who are interested to get such experience? Is this an opportunity across the organization, or maybe just for our consultants who we are assigning to projects for which international experience is appropriate?

We are competing with other organizations for top-quality entry level employees. How do we know that we’re competing? Are we defining this opportunity at the right scale – that is, are we competing across the organization, or maybe just for one or two key products or product lines? Furthermore, is this really an opportunity? Seems it might be more of a threat.

We should leverage our high demand. OK, fantastic… even more fantastic if you can reiterate the data that justifies that claim, and make sure that the data is on the appropriate scale. But why? Why should we invest the time or resources in leveraging this demand? Towards what goal are we reaching here? And do our defined strengths point to ways how we can accomplish this?



The human capital threat. Retirement of knowledgeable and qualified people are on the rise. Fails on all four criteria. How do we know retirements are on the rise? How do we know those retiring people are qualified (maybe it’s good that they’re leaving, and we have room for new blood and new ideas in our organization – meaning this would be an opportunity). Perhaps the real threat is that we’ll lose their institutional knowledge. And if so, is this across the board, or just in one division or product line?

Population growth of our consultant pool undermines the rigor with which they are solving problems. Senior consultants are spread too thin. This statement is a tricky one, because it’s assuming a cause and effect relationship: the pool of internal people is growing, so the mentors are stretched thin, and so the teams aren’t able to solve problems with such high levels of rigor. How do we know that this causal relationship exists? In addition, how do we know that it results in less rigorous solutions?

We may have utilized all available, qualified, local part-time staff in the community. Again, this is an example where the data is key, and it’s not provided. How many people do we have? How many people do we need? What are our projections, across the organization, for how many people we’ll need in the future? This may not be a problem or a threat at all, unless our plans for growth and the ability of the local community to support that growth are not aligned. More analysis is needed.


Direct Conflicts

I recently saw the two statements below in a SWOT for a university, conducted at the university level. First, as a strength: “Our intercollegiate athletic programs add value.” Second, as a weakness: “The athletic funding model and return on investment are questioned.” In addition to being in direct conflict, there is no data provided, and there is no assertion of why this is a significant issue. I can guess, but I don’t want to. I want the data to guide me to my conclusions!

The Rubric as a General Purpose Quality Tool

According to dictionary.com, one of the definitions for rubric is “any established mode of conduct; protocol.” But the context you’ve probably heard this word in is education – where a grading rubric or a scoring rubric is used to evaluate a complex artifact like a student essay.

In my opinion, it’s time to move the concept of the rubric from the classroom into the mainstream, because it can be applied as a very practical general purpose quality tool! (Hear that, Nancy Tague? I think you should write about rubrics in your next edition of the very excellent book The Quality Toolbox. Let me know if you’d like me to help make this happen.)

A rubric is basically a grid with 1) levels of performance indicated along the top row, and 2) criteria or dimensions of performance listed down the leftmost column. Each cell of the grid contains a descriptive statement that explains how the level of performance in that column might be achieved for a specific dimension:

For example, here’s a rubric that one group constructed to evaluate the quality of the mind maps that they were producing. The performance levels are organized from high performance in the top left (smiley face giving a thumbs up) to low performance in the top right (smiley face that looks like he’s about to pass out):

The dimensions of performance are neatness and presentation, use of images/symbols, and use of color. The descriptive statements in each cell provide specific examples of how the performance level might be achieved, e.g. “has failed to include color in the mind map” is an indicator of a low performance level for the dimension of “use of color” – which is very understandable!

The concept of the rubric as a performance assessment tool is relatively new! Griffin (2009), in a brief history of the rubric, notes that since its introduction in 1981, “the scoring rubric has evolved into a more precise, technical, scientific-looking document. It carries a tone of certainty, authority, and exactitude.” However, she notes, the utility of a rubric will depend upon the thought and consideration that goes into its construction. “A rubric is a product of many minds working collaboratively to create new knowledge. It will, almost by definition, be more thoughtful, valid, unbiased and useful than any one of us could have conceived of being as we worked in isolation.”

Advantages of applying a well developed rubric include:

  • Provides a common language for sharing expectations and feedback
  • Helps to clarify and distinguish the differences between various performance levels
  • Helps to focus an individual or group’s ATTENTION on relevant aspects of each desired quality characteristic or skill area
  • Provides a mechanism to more easily identify strengths and opportunities for improvement
  • Helps lend objectivity to an evaluation process that might otherwise be subjective


  • Different rubrics may need to be devised for the different activities or artifacts that are to be evaluated using the rubric
  • Not all evaluators will apply the rubric in exactly the same way – there is a subjective element at work here – so people may need to be trained in the use of a rubric, or perhaps it would be more effective in a group consensus context where inter-rater variability can be interactively discussed and resolved
  • Creating a rubric can be time consuming
  • The rubric may limit exploration of solutions or modes of presentation that do not conform to the rubric

Using Rubrics for Quality Improvement

Rubrics are already applied in the world of quality, although I’ve never heard them go by that name. The process scoring guidelines for the Baldrige Criteria are essentially rubrics (although the extra dimension of ADLI and LeTCI has to be considered in the mind of the examiner). The International Team Excellence Award (ITEA) criteria in the Team Excellence Framework (TEF) also forms a rubric in conjunction with the performance levels of missing, unclear, meets expectations or exceeds expectations.

I see a lot of ways in which rubrics can be developed and applied in the quality community to help us establish best practices for some of our most common project artifacts, such as Project Charters. Nancy Tague includes a Project Charter Checklist in The Quality Toolbox to help us create better and more complete charters… but what if we added a second dimension, which includes performance levels, and turned this checklist into a rubric? Any checklist could be transformed into a rubric. Furthermore, to develop a good rubric, we can brainstorm and rank all of the potential criteria in the left hand column, using a Pareto chart to separate the vital few criteria from the trivial many.

Are any of you already using rubrics for purposes outside training or education? I would love to start a list of resources to share with the quality community.

Reference: Griffin, M. (2009). What is a rubric? Assessment Update, 21(6), Nov/Dec 2009.

Note: There is a comprehensive site containing many examples of rubrics at http://www.web.virginia.edu/iaas/assess/tools/rubrics.shtm – however, they won’t open in Google Chrome.

How I Passed My ASQ Certified Six Sigma Black Belt (CSSBB) Exam

I very recently took my ASQ CSSBB exam and passed! Here’s what I think helped me:

[And here’s my OTHER POST that has my notes attached! Enjoy!] – October 2012

[Note: On February 9, 2015 I added my Top 10 Statistics Topics for the CSSBB Exam to this blog]

1. I studied for about 4 weeks (2 weeks very gently, 1 week much-more-work-because-the-exam-is-getting-closer, and 1 week of panicked, freaked out all nighters) using these great references that I wrote up tons of comments about.

2. I took about 10 pages of really good, concise notes. (I’ll share those with you sometime before the end of the year… want to write them up for public consumption.) (Note from October 4, 2012: OK, so I didn’t package them for public consumption, but I did post PDFs of EXACTLY what I brought in with me to the exam.)

3. I brought about 15 super sharp #2 pencils just in case 14 of them broke. I made sure all the pencils actually SAID #2 on them, so the Scantron machine wouldn’t fail me.

4. I brought my SMART RULER. I’ve had this ruler since the late 1980’s, and every time I’ve taken a tough test, I’ve had my smart ruler with me in case I need to underline anything, or draw dividers between notes. I usually never have to USE the ruler. Usually, its presence is enough to make me do better on any exam.

5. They (the people who say such things) say that peppermint makes you smarter. So I got a new pack of Orbit peppermint gum and chewed it like I had obsessive compulsive disorder for all four hours. (Afterwards I found out that the peppermint thing isn’t really backed up by research, but I didn’t know that going into the exam, so I believed that the peppermint would make my brain work better, and that belief probably helped me out. Got to stack the deck in my favor… didn’t want those 4 weeks of studying NOT to pay off.)

6. When I wasn’t chewing gum, I was nibbling on a Reese’s peanut butter bar. Best 300 calorie investment ever made… the protein made my stomach stop growling so it wouldn’t bother the other test takers.

7. I also brought a couple very cold Diet Cokes, to wash down the peanut butter and the gum taste.

8. To appropriately address my superstitious nature, I wore my Ganesh necklace. In Hindu parlance, Ganesh helps break through obstacles, and I figured the exam that stood between me and CSSBB-hood was definitely an obstacle I wanted broken. (Hey, whatever works, right??)



Maker’s Meeting, Manager’s Meeting

In July, Paul Graham posted an article called “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule“. He points out that people who make things, like software engineers and writers, are on a completely different schedule than managers – and that by imposing the manager’s schedule on the developers, there is an associated cost. Makers simply can’t be as productive on the manager’s schedule:

When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.

For someone on the maker’s schedule, having a meeting is like throwing an exception. It doesn’t merely cause you to switch from one task to another; it changes the mode in which you work.

I find one meeting can sometimes affect a whole day. A meeting commonly blows at least half a day, by breaking up a morning or afternoon. But in addition there’s sometimes a cascading effect. If I know the afternoon is going to be broken up, I’m slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning.

This concept really resonated with us – we know about the costs of context switching, but this presented a nice concept for how a developer’s day can be segmented such that ample time is provided for getting things done. As a result, we attempted to apply the concept to achieve more effective communication between technical staff and managers. And in at least one case, it worked extremely well.

Case: Ron DuPlain (@rduplain) and I frequently work together on technical projects. I am the manager; he is the developer. More than we like, we run into problems communicating, but fortunately we are both always on the lookout for strategies to help us communicate better. We decided to apply the “makers vs. managers” concept to meetings, to see whether declaring whether we were having a maker’s meeting or a manager’s meeting prior to the session would improve our ability to communicate with one another.

And it did. We had a very effective maker’s meeting today, for example… explored some technical challenges, worked through a solution space, and talked about possible design options and background information. It was great. As a manager, I got to spend time thinking about a technical problem, but temporarily suspended my attachment to dates, milestones and artifacts. As a developer, Ron got the time and attention from me that he needed to explain his challenges, without the pressure of knowing that I was in a hurry and just needed the bottom line. As a result, Ron felt like I was able to understand the perspectives he was presenting more effectively, and get a better sense of the trade-offs he was exploring.

We had the opportunity to meet on the same terms, all because we declared the intent of our meeting up front in terms of “makers” and “managers”. Thanks Paul – this common language is proving to be a powerful concept for achieving a shared and immediate understanding of technical problems.

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