Tag Archives: improve

When doing more means having done less

While no one likes working with negative productivity, sometimes we will find ourselves  not contributing in a constructive manner but detracting to the overall productivity.  This can/will be discouraging.  Becoming sour at oneself or any others in the team in whom one recognizes as a negative contributor is just adding to the madness, however.  I feel the best way to get over it is to take a closer look at what happened, to prevent recurrence, as much as possible.

What is negative work?

The idea of negative work is not readily acceptable.  Someone can deliver zero productivity by ‘not working’ at all.  How does negative work happen?

Let’s go through an example.  An awful team-member that once worked with me.  The person made roughly 3 significant changes to the work process and output over his 7-month time there.  The result first:  first 2 changes simply did not improve any part of team-work and broke other processes and capabilities.  The 3rd change was to revert everything back, explicitly.

So adding a couple, then subtracting to revert the previous 2 may look like it’s zero productivity.   The point is that that multiple people had to also follow his mistakes until it was resolved.  Don’t take me wrong – the person was not of ‘junior’ caliber.  I would not be fair to expect net-positive productivity from the get-go, especially for a person who needs mentoring and leadership.  Experience was there, as well as the ability to explain his work – the person also had the title ‘senior’.  Others not only had to track down why something wasn’t going as planned, but had to figure out whether the issues they were seeing were the result of their work or someone else’s.  Since it’s not often that the person with the mistaken sense of correctness is up to fixing whatever is supposedly done wrong, the whole team had to discuss fixing the issue. The team had to collectively determine that none of the 2 changes were worth fixing and that the team was better off reverting those changes.

Across the entire team, the result was that a lot of hours were wasted.  The one member did zero net-work and also reduced others’ productivity.  Again, I’m not saying this is a special case or that it is inconceivable.

The other kinds…

There are also many workers who can make changes that work, but end up with a large amount of confusion or lack of clarity – that others have to spend a larger amount of time trying to understand how & why those changes are necessary.  To be sure, understanding why a change is needed and how the changed process or item leads to improvement is not always necessary – and often outside scope of many mid-to-entry level workers.  And for those whose work-scope includes such an understanding, it can be time-consuming, regardless of the quality of work.  But the degree of difficulty in understanding something does matter.

Yet another sort of productivity killer is sticking to workflows that are eating up time.  I once worked at a different company where we were trying to decide on using a new way to integrate multiple developer’s work-product.  The reason:  the method we were using was taking hours of whole-team discussion, when only subsets of the team were needed for many of the integration sessions.  This was before modern integration practices (such as continuous integration, devOps, etc.) proliferated, so we did this twice a week.  Most of the team were convinced using the new method would have brought it down to under an hour.  It did not go well.  It took the team 6 months to put the new method in place, because one influential team-member didn’t want to change the existing process and was able to veto major changes.

3 hours x 2 times a week x 6 months x 4 weeks a month = 144 hours

1 hour x 2 times a week x 6 months x 4 weeks a month = 48 hours

Essentially, 96 hours were wasted.  But that is just for each member of the team.  Multiplying 96 for each member of the team would show even more egregious waste of time that could have been spent on other items.  (one excellent reason why things like BPR – business process re-engineering – is a clear need in some situations)

Negative work –> Low Morale

Most people work to feel a sense of accomplishment, aside from making their ends meet. They want to feel like their time was spent on something worthwhile. That means delivering results that bring value to the business. Wasted time prevents that.

Most of us also want to work with talented people.  Working with someone who is a burden on the team is an emotional drain.  Not only does that one person act as an obstacle to achieving success for a given item, the influence of such a person can also make us feel we bring less value as a team.

The job market is one way to solve this problem: find another job.  This is obviously an undesired outcome for a company.  When one team-member leaves, there is bound to be an emotional instability in the rest of the team.  

Entrance of the negative worker

How do such people get hired, when it is apparent that the cost of a negative worker is so high?  An interview process sorely in need of improvement can be blamed for this.  But succumbing to the temptation to lower standards or considering attitude less important than aptitude is most likely the less talked about part.  

Sometimes a lot of work needs to be done very quickly.  If there are not enough human resources in the company to accomplish that goal, then more need to be hired – either in-house or external contractual.  If the job market is strong for workers, it will take longer to make a good hire – and this is when the temptation to lower hiring standards is strong.  When there is a lot of work, some management start hiring in panic-mode.  They think having more bodies in the project can only contribute to more work getting done.

While such a mentality may have been valid in the traditional/manual manufacturing era, it is now far from the truth.  The informational and technological capability of this era ensures that quality matters more than quantity, when it comes to productivity.  10 positive, well-communicating contributors may actually bring more value to the workplace than 100 of the mix.  

Desperate hiring will not solve the problem of tight timelines in projects.  There is a good chance that it will make it worse.  Negative workers will not only slow the team down, but they can cause your great producers to leave the company or team.  Sadly, the project will now be even further behind schedule.

The flip side – a manager

From management perspective, a way to get a sense of productivity is to measure the decrease in administrative workload.  More often than not, if management tasks take less effort to carry out, with same or more level in project results, that means someone (or something) is helping to do more by allowing the management to do less.  One common mistake is to recognise ‘not having to know’ as a way to  determine whether productivity is increasing.

Management is often related to delegating work.  In a Forbes article about increasing productivity through delegation there is even  a mention of a book, “Work Less, Do More:  The 14-day Productivity Makeover”.  Single 14-day period is by no means a guaranteed time to overhaul any environment, but a basic goal is required.  A good starting point is to understand how to delegate.

Delegating work is not a ‘you know what to do, so I do not need to’ approach.  Rather, it is closer to a ‘set it and forget it’ approach.  One needs to:

  • Choose the tasks to delegate
  • Pick the person to delegate to
  • Give clear assignments and expectations
  • Set a date and ways to follow progress
  • Delegate responsibility and authority, not just the task

A couple key factors in a management style that fosters team-building are:

  • Trusting those who you delegate work to
  • Giving credit publicly

People who micro-manage a team into decreased productivity are doing so, because they mistakenly believe that close scrutiny is same thing as attention to detail.  This failure to appreciate a team-member’s capability (potential or proven) is bi-directional, coming from lack of trust and fear of not getting credit for work done.

Now…

I recommend identifying characteristics in yourself first, that match the negative worker qualities.  Try to reduce the occurrence of exhibiting them.  Then determine how those efforts are paying off, all without involving anyone else.  When you are confident about a set of practices, or others commend you, that may be the right time to share the journey.

I would try to take the holistic approach – contemplate as both a delegator and the delegated.  Clarity in communication is always key, while committed responsibility is the path to walk.

I am interested in feedback and other ways of approach – for obvious reasons.

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the curse of ASAP

People sometimes ask me what the number one thing I wished did not happen in the tech development industry.  It may be different some days, but often it is:

Due yesterday, needed it yesterday & variations

I have nothing against working hard or working fast.  In fact, I have no doubt that is one of the primary drivers working for the software or tech industry.  The capability to achieve same or similar amount of work in a shorter time is competition won.  The manufacturing industry has showcased how this is true, for several decades.  The Lean Process and many offshoots also guide us in how to try to replicate such success in the newer industry of virtual products & services.

Interestingly, the very application of such need-driver of “faster” and “deliver ASAP” seemingly can become a toxic element in the companies that try to harness the Agile and Lean processes – manifested as technical debt in common techie view.  The prototype is built quickly, but the final delivered product takes much more and the quality suffers AND the maintenance and support effort needed becomes unexpectedly large – which leads to terminating the product support.  Sometimes it can get as bad as leading to an organization’s demise.

Why and how does ASAP-culture become problematic in the software industry?  The cause can be summarized into three points:

First, software is complex.  Apologies to other industries that may object, but software engineering has become a most complex information industry field.  Someone shouts ‘just start coding already’ and ​the prototype is started – and the architecture becomes a blurred mess of lines and the actual implementation is delayed as a result.  One alternative of taking the time to create necessary documents and diagrams would be ideal, but if it’s followed true to its literal dogma, too many projects will not finish within 10 years.  Optimal balance between the two is the most difficult to achieve.

Second, software engineering, at its epitome, is near art-form.  Architecture in software is so much like creating an art-piece, that hurrying it along or pulling an over-nighter does not guarantee faster arrival or a better result.  Not being given enough resources to deliver a near-optimal architecture and embarking on implementation often entails 100 or even 1000 times the resources to make modifications after a certain iterations – maybe even releases.

Third, software is like a living thing.  There are several concepts brought in from building architectures and many are very similar.  But the difference is that a building’s foundation or structural pillars does not change much for a century, while software architecture becomes more emergent after its release into the wild, being improved and re-worked as needs arise.  General ball-park estimate is commonly at 4 times the amount of resources are needed to maintain a piece of software system than the amount to develop, after its release.  But if the architecture is not flexible or modular enough, it may end up costing upwards of 10 times that (i.e. 40 times the amount taken to implement the original released version) – and still have difficulty keeping up maintenance or upgrades.

Then is it better to be thorough and develop slowly?  Never.

Most global, commercially-successful softwares are not slow, monolithic solutions that have really long update cycles.  The foremost utility of software development is to deliver market-ready software faster – or as is the curse and driver of need availability ASAP.  Any factor that slows that goal, regardless of methodology, regulations, limitations or process can and should be scrutinized for validity.

In other words, the ASAP need or impact-driven culture to delivery of software is what actually slows down the implementation and eventual delivery of software, and the culture is what also induces other technical debt not apparent at release-time.  Some technical debts that are by-products of such culture are:

  1. Lack or absence of project knowledge, insights and data sharing and collaborative strive to be at a state of tranparency to be at the same page, regarding such.
  2. Difficult-to-scale, incomplete architecture(s)
  3. Dependent on very few, key developer resource
  4. Numerous copies of duplicated code
  5. Lack of work-life balance and inability to increase capability individually and as a resource-pool
  6. Ever-increasing cost of maintenance

This sort of result can occur, regardless of development methodology or tools employed.  SRS (software requirements specification) format of technical spec or using TDD to front-load automated tests as technical specification of features are both ways to develop software faster, by clearing away what is not a well-defined set of features and definitions of the ultimate desired need from the product.  Documentation, code-review, process of development, etc. are all ways to help reduce learning curve on knowledge sharing – so doing away with those steps in hopes of getting the product delivery earlier is essentially impractical (and borderline mis-understanding of how to increase effectiveness of available development resources).

Of course, in order for such tactics to be effective in delivering software fast, a well-seasoned architect is needed, but the software development culture supported by the company, not just the project team, needs to be at a good, acceptable level of maturity.

Very few, if any, people would argue that the bricks must be stacked prior to actually designing the building.  Foundation work and design of the architecture must first be agreed upon, to build a building as quickly as possible, without a heap of modifications and other related troubles, later in the building process.  By the same token, software needs a some firmness with flexibility and modularity afforded in the architecture agreed upon by stakeholders, to respond to changes in the desired features and build-outs – not to mention facilitating collaborative effort expenditures to ultimately reduce both time and cost of development.

In fact, most developers would agree that limits on time creates many serious issues for arriving at such architecture(s).  Even so, there is a distinct culprit factor for accelerating the onset of the culture to work in terms of “ASAP”:  it’s the business management and the clients/end-users.

To most project management, short-term result is de-factor standard for survival.  Owner-stakeholder of a project has a bit longer window on producing results, but many management have a 2 to 3-year contracts (if not less).  Extension or conversion of contract into different terms can become horridly difficult if visible results are not shown in those times.  Essentially, management that focuses on 6-month to a year’s results prioritizes marketing and top-line sales – it falls on others to think about architecture or maintenance costs.

If a company has a firm stakeholder role of a CTO, the CEO might not be able to demand that architectural flexibility or scalability be sacrificed for short-term impacts – but most situations do not have this safety-net for due-diligence.

The client attitude can also be problematic.  Most end-users demand a faster turn-around on their feature-demands from a regional or in-house development teams, while expectations of a fix on a global-scale product usually hovers at around 6-months, and thankfully, at that.  They know from previous experience that the global enterprise solution provider that they’ve worked with before does not release a fix any sooner than that.

The clients sometimes actually demand that the developer resources work on-location at the client premises.  Instead of properly organizing specifications and getting used to developing software collaboratively via modern communication channels, clients often want to have the developers available on-demand and develop as need arises, to prototype as-fast-as-possible.​

The business is used to the culture of impact-drive, client-flavored solution being the highest priority in external parties providing software solutions that are customized.  Such experience is often times a barrier to scaling the software solution.  The business may have achieved number-1 rating in limited regional scope with such approach, but they often face significant challenges scaling the same solution globally, or to global coverage needed for a client.

Having seen such smaller-scale solutions fail, when delivered as a result of an ineffective, ineffective culture-environment in the solution provider, one must wonder how different the expectation of an issue turnaround might be, by a client used to dealing with robust, global enterprise solutions.  Not all, but many would be surprised when there is a response that indicated that a bug will be fixed in a day or two.  This would be especially true, if for a critical system – possibly leading to a decrease in confidence-level about the solution provider.

Many smaller-scale development software companies fight through lack of clarity to promise a better fitting solution to the client – and the end-result is an overall shortage of capacity in real terms.  The actual software developers end up having to pay for such lack of resources.  Developers must quit being able to balance work-life times and end up burning the mid-night oil over longer periods of time, prior to the promised delivery date.  There is no doubt the developer talent has no room to grow, in such a situation.​

Culture change being difficult is simple-hard fact.  It cannot be successful unless the client, the management and the developers all ascribe to the same change in the culture – and foster near-sameness in expectations in the process, as well as deliverable and timelines.  It’s simply impractical to expect to change the world, as a single developer.  But the first step is by communicating the need to change.  Change must also be facilitated by starting with realization about the need to change.  Someone must make the sacrifice of being the first one to change and convincing others to follow suit.

But if one developer is the only one that employs the vision of the changed culture and other associates and stakeholders do not embrace the culture change, the expectation would not have changed.  Therefore, it’s clearly the highest priority for the business to realize how important architectural engineering is – and the first step can be to enhance the capability of the architectural stakeholders for the projects.  The business must do its utmost to balance first-to-market impact-driver and the development/maintenance driver – so instead of just fast, properly-but-fast must be the solution perspective.​

Foundational tools and frameworks, methodology and process need to be balanced.  It also helps to look at maturing various other development lifecycle cultures and work-flows as a way to fix the effects of being short-termed fulfillment culture.  There is no way except to start at least at a single point in the project deliverable.​

It can also become a question about chicken-or-egg-first – but just recognizing that development culture maturity​ is actually an important, high-priority issue is in itself the right first step.  Culture is not documentation or mandate – but something that must be lived-through experiences and learning from those with prior experience in changing the culture can significantly reduce the time vested in trial-and-error.  It’s a way to improve continually, not just arriving at a path to stop progressing.

Waterfall or Agile or otherwise, that’s why it’s a method/ology, as opposed to a solid piece of scripts that are followed in developing software, for the modern world.