The value of delayed decisions

decisions by mihaibrrr

decisions by mihaibrrr

Most conversations about improvement revolve around finding ways to speed things up.  Whether by focusing on the elimination of unnecessary activities, doing less more often, reducing clutter, training the mind to avoid multitasking, or any other approach to speeding up decision making the prevailing message is clear:  do things faster.

The desire to do things faster necessitates making decisions faster, of course.  Process improvement schools of thought are, essentially, designed to speed up decision making to one degree or another.  Last year, I came across Frank Partnoy’s Wait, however, which advocated something different – slowing things down.

Partnoy investigates the cognitive science of decision making across multiple situations, from athletes making decisions in milliseconds to investors like Warren Buffet who delay decisions for weeks, months or years.  In his investigations, he discovers a seemingly simply truth:  That the longer you can delay a decision, the better decision you will make.

Partnoy’s take seems to be out of synch with improvement methods that look to speed up our ability to make decisions. Nonetheless, I think there’s more in common than might meet the eye.  What I see in Partnoy’s book  is that decision making needs to be slowed down in order for genuine improvement to occur.  Adopting continuous improvement methods allows  for as much information gathering as possible prior to making the final decision.

The iterations surrounding any approach that looks to fail fast and learn constantly are all doing 1 thing – allowing for as much learning as possible prior to making a decision that can’t be undone.  Partnoy’s work reinforces the wisdom of this approach and makes it clear:  slowing down your thought processes, rather than speeding them up, results in the best possible outcomes.

 

Stump the Chump, and the Steve Jobs Paradox?

Paradox

iTime paradox by IlookingYou

Two weeks ago, I delivered the presentation that’s been adorning the home page to a monthly meeting of the New Hampshire chapter of the project management institute.  That presentation was drawn from a series I put on the blog just a little over a year and a half ago, where I made a connection between common, sub-optimal activities that are found in project environments and Lean’s 7 wastes.

I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to stand up and speak about how Lean is not a set of cost reduction techniques nor a quality assurance program, but a philosophy of how organizations work, how people work, and of how people within organizations work.  While several in the audience were expecting a discussion of Agile software development when they heard the topic would be about Lean in Project Management, I think my focus on understanding environments and behaviors resonated with a few of the audience members.  Many asked if they could obtain a copy of the presentation, which I took to be quite the complement, also.

If the Q&A that followed, however, I was asked a question that – as I put it, “Stumped the Chump.”  One gentleman asked, in response to the portions of my presentation that focused on the Respect for People foundation of Lean and, in particular, the Shingo model, how I would characterize Steve Jobs and Apple’s success, given that Jobs was a well-known egomaniac and had a reputation for being quite stern and non-compromising.

While some members of the audience offered their take on what might have happened at Apple as others took up the cause of Respect for People and the “appropriate” management styles, in an effort to help me out as I stated that the question would require some thought, I thought up my response.  I briefly recounted my understanding of the work Steve Jobs did at Pixar, and the interpersonal dynamics he created within the hallways of Pixar (quite literally) that fostered collaboration and creativity – including several dynamics for idea sharing and generation that were drawn from – you guessed it – the Toyota Production System.

While this answer satisfied the gentleman asking the question, it has stuck with me for the past couple of weeks, as I felt the need to contemplate the question a bit further.  What I may have come to realize, is that there is something of a Paradox involved when a true visionary ascends to the position of influence within an organization.  These situations are remarkably rare, I believe, which is why they are so disruptive, revolutionary, and highly successful.  It is dependent as much upon the circumstances as the traits of the individuals involved, but it is clear to me that the person(s) who creates a whole new paradigm for conducting the work of an organization very often must embrace what I will call the “Jobsian Paradox.”

Clearly, the stories of the founders of the Toyota Production System are not that far from what we hear of Jobs doing at Apple.  The outcomes are revered by many, studied and copied by others, and delved into by an army of commentators looking for the secret to the success these visionaries bring about.  What they have in common, however, is something that is, indeed, contrary to the tenets of creativity and innovation in both project and process.  That is, that at the beginning – when people’s mindsets need to be calibrated towards a new understanding and  that understanding needs to translate into action, someone authoritative, demanding, relentless personality must be at the forefront of creating and driving the system under which change will occur.

From those personalities come systems, and from that relentless focus on driving people to the correct behaviors comes guiding them to possibilities, and from satisfactory mediocre comes the expectation of greatness.  It must begin, however, with unique individuals willing to drive others to the point of aggravation in order to be achieved, which is something of a paradox in the realm of thinking that believes people are intrinsically motivated and that all a brutish task master can do is to de-motivate them.

This is, in many ways, akin to the concept of a Level 5 Leader that Jim Collins discusses.  To foster change, unique, rare, visionary people are needed.  In order to turn their vision into reality, however, a certain drive is required that leads the people with that vision to adopt behaviors we tend to believe, at least in the short term, are counterproductive and entirely suboptimal.

To wrap it up, the Jobs-ian paradox is this:  For true visionaries with the ability to persevere, many of the management practices and behaviors that we associate with high levels of creativity  and innovation among the workforce, are ignored or simply not practiced in order to bring the organization, as a whole, to high levels of creativity and and innovation.

 

Why your PMP prep doesn’t feel like reality (and why it shouldn’t)

A Break in Reality

A Break in Reality by xetobyte

I am in the midst of a PMP prep examination these days, diving deeper into the project PMI’s methodology for project management than I ever have before.  Despite more than a decade of working on nothing but project & program teams, I’ve never gone after PMI certification.

True to my affinity for Lean thinking, I don’t put much stock in these type of certifications.  The class is bearing out that the intent is simply to pass the test, not build better project managers.  Everything is about the test, the test, the test – and there is very little about the development of the principles taught and how they came about.  Just. Pass. The. Test.  The test is also intentionally deceptive – minor turns of a phrase mean different things in “PMI Land” as the instructors like to call it.  A big part of passing the exam is tuning your eye to catch these clever little interpretations and usages – a skill which is useful for only 1 project: passing the test.

It is easy to understand why so many fellow students get frustrated and jokingly state that the exam does not reflect reality.  Unfortunately, what seems to get lost, is that it’s not supposed to.

What?

As I study the guidebooks for this class that are introducing us all to the PMI concepts, I am harking back to my Lean training and the years I’ve spent contemplating Operational Excellence through my writings on this blog.  In my mind are the oft-repeated Lean-thinking mantras: “Theory guides practice” and “There can be no improvement without a standard.”  Thank you, Dr. Deming and Mr. Shingo (and, please, OpEx gurus out there – correct me if I am quoting them wrong.)

I feel lucky to have the benefit of my time spent trying to understand the Lean paradigm because it is offering so much insight into what the PMI framework is trying to do.  It is establishing a standard.  It is offering a methodology for managing projects against which all other management styles, and outcomes, can be measured.  In a way, it depicts the ideal – if all projects, everywhere, operated in the way the PMI describes, then all projects would deliver on time, within budget, and with inputs from all stakeholders at every level of the organization – including customers.

Is that reality?  No.  Of course not.  If the standard was reality, there’d be no need to set up a test for it.  A standard is not meant to depict reality.  What it does do, however, is give us an ideal scenario against which to judge and measure the current state.  How far from this standard are we?  Did we make an intelligent deviation, based on detailed analyses of how our environment differs from that depicted in the standard, or did we simply throw up our hands and say, “But this is the way we’ve always done it?” (Or words to that effect, such as “I’ve never seen that” or “That just won’t work here.”)

When theory doesn’t match reality, there are 2 options:  Change the theory to match reality, or change reality to match the theory.  Those who argue the PMI framework just isn’t reality will be the ones trying to change theory in order to better align with their expectations – nearly all of which demonstrate a daunting tolerance for inefficiency & waste.  On the other hand, if you accept that the “theory” is really just a depiction of the ideal – you instantaneously give yourself something to work towards.  It is the “true north” of the program & project management world – to have a perfectly managed, documented, planned, monitored, tracked and executed set of activities that are completely understood and performed by all stakeholders.

My advice for those who are poo-pooing the PMI framework as nothing more than an academic exercise designed to pass a test (which, to some extent, it is), is to think of the methods provided within the framework a bit differently.  The tools and techniques they teach are not  a set of instructions on how to effectively manage projects.  Think of them, instead, as a depiction of a perfect universe – and use that depiction to begin thinking about the gaps between your current reality and the PMI’s idealized scenarios.

 

The paradoxical inefficiency of thought

Imagination

Imagination by silverin87

One of my life’s great frustrations is the number of good ideas that get lost throughout the course of a normal day.  Before I can find a voice recorder, pencil, or something to write my ideas on, they fly away and my train of thought is lost forever.  It’s not an unfamiliar tune – authors, artists, musicians – all of them frequently relate stories of how much goes through their minds that is simply lost before they get the chance to write it down or record it.  Such is life for anyone any kind of a creative bent – be it an innovative scientist, a performer, or even a part-time blog writer who likes to ramble about life’s daily struggles.

My own difficulties with the passive annihilation of good ides got me thinking about how good ideas can be actively squelched as well.  People who are asked to “be professional”, not make a “Career limiting move” by speaking their minds, or who are asked to just live with a problem or not step on someone’s toes – all of these sometimes innocuous messages serve to do one thing – actively decrease the number of ideas that get poured out.

When I do get to writing down or recording my thoughts, I also often find that a lot of those really don’t have any legs and never go anywhere.  So, too, the number of ideas you get might result in only a few gems – but therein lies a certain discovery that needs to take place.  That is, that you can’t demand good ideas.  You have to sift through all the ideas to find the really good ones – because generating good ideas comes about only through the process of crafting them.  Also, the value of an idea is not something that is inherent and internal to the idea itself.  Rather, it is a function of time, place and circumstances that make any idea valuable.  What seems like a really, really good thought and the solution to all our problems today might be utterly ridiculous tomorrow.  Nonetheless, that value judgment can’t take place as the idea is being formulated in someone’s head.  It has to come about and be judged under the lights of the here and now.

This is something of a paradox, I suppose – that in order to attain high levels of ingenuity in products and activities, the environment in which those ideas are created must support an endless ocean of thoughts that yield very little value, in the hopes that, eventually, a single very good one will be produced. Generating ideas is an inefficient process, even if those ideas are generated around improving efficiency.

Therefore, the efficiency of thought should never be pursued.  Only the efficiency of implementation.

Product Innovation vs Operational Excellence (or, Magic vs. Might?)

 

Warrior vs Sorcerer

Warrior vs Sorcerer by Pydracor on deviantart.com

There is so much written about innovation these days, it’s mind numbing.  Most of what you read, however, is all about product innovation – and there is very, very little written about process innovation.

Product innovation is something that is discussed as almost ethereal.  It is something that comes about through a little bit of magic & wizardry.  It’s romantic, intellectual, and fun.  It is the thing that enables companies like Apple & Google to push to the forefront of their industries and become the giga-bucks companies other people write books about.  It is the Holy Grail of major corporations and startups alike – both are encouraged to go on a quest for the magical, mystical powers of innovation.

Product innovation appears to be the realm of the unexplainable – that the way to go about that business is to assume a muse, or some divine spark is, ultimately, going to descend upon the workers bees and imbue them with the powers of insight and creativity.  You have to create innovation space, and adopt managerial styles and practices, that allow creativity to flourish.

Process innovation, on the other hand, is seen as something a little more grungy and foul-smelling.  It is the world of brute force and awkwardness, no matter how elegant it tries to become.  Process innovation tends to be something that people feel can be learned.  All you need to do is study Toyota, or Southwest Airlines, or General Electric and Motorola – and you will soon understand the simplicity of process innovation and be able to apply it easily, right?

Wrong.

The world is littered with great product ideas that could not be produced, as well as with companies that couldn’t sustain their operations long enough to even see the next wave of competitors, much less contend with them.    It doesn’t really matter if you have a great idea, but can’t operate the company, and especially not in the long run.

Even Google, which would seem to be a company based on Magic over Might, understands the need for a strong Operational focus in order to achieve the much-sought-after essence of Innovation.  Consider this passage from their recruitment site (emphasis added by me):

How we hire

We’re looking for our next Noogler – someone who’s good for the role, good for Google and good at lots of things.

Things move quickly around here. At Internet speed. That means we have to be nimble, both in how we work and how we hire. We look for people who are great at lots of things, love big challenges and welcome big changes. We can’t have too many specialists in just one particular area. We’re looking for people who are good for Google—and not just for right now, but for the long term.

This is the core of how we hire. Our process is pretty basic; the path to getting hired usually involves a first conversation with a recruiter, a phone interview and an onsite interview at one of our offices. But there are a few things we’ve baked in along the way that make getting hired at Google a little different.

How we interview

We’re looking for smart, team-oriented people who can get things done. When you interview at Google, you’ll likely interview with four or five Googlers. They’re looking for four things:

Leadership

We’ll want to know how you’ve flexed different muscles in different situations in order to mobilize a team. This might be by asserting a leadership role at work or with an organization, or by helping a team succeed when you weren’t officially appointed as the leader.

Role-Related Knowledge

We’re looking for people who have a variety of strengths and passions, not just isolated skill sets. We also want to make sure that you have the experience and the background that will set you up for success in your role. For engineering candidates in particular, we’ll be looking to check out your coding skills and technical areas of expertise.

How You Think

We’re less concerned about grades and transcripts and more interested in how you think. We’re likely to ask you some role-related questions that provide insight into how you solve problems. Show us how you would tackle the problem presented–don’t get hung up on nailing the “right” answer.

Googleyness

We want to get a feel for what makes you, well, you. We also want to make sure this is a place you’ll thrive, so we’ll be looking for signs around your comfort with ambiguity, your bias to action and your collaborative nature.

How we decide

There are also a few other things we do to make sure we’re always hiring the right candidate for the right role and for Google.

We collect feedback from multiple Googlers

At Google, you work on tons of projects with different groups of Googlers, across many teams and time zones. To give you a sense of what working here is really like, some of your interviewers could be potential teammates, but some interviewers will be with other teams. This helps us see how you might collaborate and fit in at Google overall.

Independent committees of Googlers help us ensure we’re hiring for the long term

An independent committee of Googlers review feedback from all of the interviewers. This committee is responsible for ensuring our hiring process is fair and that we’re holding true to our “good for Google” standards as we grow.

We believe that if you hire great people and involve them intensively in the hiring process, you’ll get more great people. Over the past couple of years, we’ve spent a lot of time making our hiring process as efficient as possible – reducing time-to-hire and increasing our communications to candidates. While involving Googlers in our process does take longer, we believe it’s worth it. Our early Googlers identified these principles more than ten years ago, and it’s what allows us to hold true to who we are as we grow.

These core principles are true across Google, but when it comes to specifics, there are some pieces of our process that look a little different across teams. Our recruiters can help you navigate through these as the time comes.

At Google, we don’t just accept difference – we celebrate it, we support it, and we thrive on it for the benefit of our employees, our products and our community. Google is proud to be an equal opportunity workplace and is an affirmative action employer.

 

So……these wizards of innovation have a clearly operational focus – collaboration, trust, responsibility, a focus on the long-term, and all of those things emphasized right from the beginning – in the hiring process – to make sure the company is populated with people who allow the organization to sustain its operational focus.

That is the strength of the organization – not it’s magical ability to develop innovative products & solutions, but it’s powerful, day-to-day, operational focus and wherewithal to sustain it.  No matter the industry, any organization without a sense of its self and dedication to the every day operational activities of the company, will fail in its quest.  Others will out-innovate and pass you by, talent will leave the organization and, at best, you will find yourself an also-ran in the market desperately clinging to a plummeting reputation as you pursue weaker and weaker opportunities until, eventually, the light goes out.