Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Communication out

I wanted to write on this topic for a long time, but recent piece by Joel Spolsky has made me do this.

Joel talks about having less conversation in a project and communicate less during software project. The point is logical: the more people involved in decision making, the more time it takes to reach a decision and the less chances of success the project has. Proposed solution is logical as well: limit communication. Do not tell everyone what you are doing and ask their opinion. Decide in small numbers.

I am all for small numbers. Let me decide my own fate. There is one small correction though…

There is a difference between duplex and half-duplex communication. Computer networking distinguishes between those two, however, in a day to day life we tend to forget about half-duplex communication as full duplex is a default:

  • Face to face conversation is full duplex.
  • Phone is full duplex.
  • IM/email is full duplex. This one is not trivial, but the information flows both ways.
  • Even web blog/twitter/facebook, that once was half-duplex now is full duplex, as everyone can leave comments.

We are so used with full duplex communication that there is a tendency to think of it as the only type. How it is related to software projects?

I had virtually joined another team during last project. This team held daily sync as the deadline approached and it appears that I misunderstood the purpose of those meetings. I thought that the meetings are there to sync team members regarding their doings, plans, what they did and etc. However, the moment I said: “I am working on a problem A”, the immediate reaction was: "Why don’t you try this”, “You should do that”, “Try to turn this flag on” and etc.

I wasn’t asking for help or directions! I was telling my status so they would know.

This the major difference between full duplex and half-duplex communication. It is good and desired to communicate out your status, plans, what you did, why you are doing this and that. However, this communication is half-duplex. You are not interested in other’s opinions, unless of course you are going full speed into abyss. People have to understand that their opinions are not required, however, they do need to know what their peers have been up to. This knowledge is essential both to prevent duplicate work and to provide a bigger picture.

Communicate out. Do not ask permissions.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

System Thinking – 2

Recently I’ve got an email from one of my managers saying: “If the team will solve K bugs this week, I will make you a breakfast”. It can be food, it can be money or it can be sex. Does not matter. The idea is: you work hard and do something that is not possible otherwise and you will get a reward.

This is a good case to apply system thinking! 

Managers sometimes think, and my guess is that this manager in particular, that the dynamics looks like this:


Meaning that raising reward/incentive will increase the amount of hard work that people are putting.

There is a number of problems with this approach, for example: it assumes that people aren’t working hard enough already. However, I will concentrate on the connection between reward and hard work.

On a basis of my observations, this method does not work. At least it didn’t in this particular case. It does sounds logic, so why it does not work?

More people-aware managers find out that the connection between award and hard-work is not direct, but rather looks more like this:


Meaning that if the motivation is low, increasing reward will not really increase the amount of hard work. Reward will influence motivation, which in turn will influence hard work.

This view is much more realistic and sometimes appears to work. It does even shows a basic problem with this approach: there is a connection between reward and hard-work and it will go into both directions. Once reward is gone, the hard-work is gone as well.

Even though the above view works from time to time, it is still simplified. One sigh of the simplification is that:

  • There are people that do not work for reward/incentive. At least not for material.
  • It works temporary. At some point people will not work hard even if reward is substantial.

The above two observations together mean that there is another relation that is not covered by the above view.

Closer to reality view looks something like this:


Notice that there is a motivation->hard-work->pride force-feeding loop. Meaning that people with motivation will work harder, will take pride in their work, which will motivate them again.

The inner loop is the one targeted most of the time. This is also the one that is the easiest to target. However, notice that the larger the “greed” the lower the motivation. This means that increasing the reward will increase the “greed”, but decrease motivation. Sometimes it will work, but sometimes the reward will be increased, but this will decrease the motivation in such way that people will not work harder. This will happen when there is no trust between developers and management.

What happened to that manager? He got promoted.