Friends, Guides, Coaches, and Mentors

The “conscious competence” model for learning is fairly well known. If not explicitly, than at least implicitly. Most people can recognize when someone is operating at a level of unconscious incompetence even if they can’t quite put their finger on why it is such a person makes the decisions they do. Recognizing when we ourselves are at the level of unconscious incompetence is a bit more problematic.

A robust suite of cognitive biases that normally help us navigate an increasingly complex world seem to conspire against us and keep us in the dark about our own shortcomings and weaknesses. Confirmation bias, selective perception, the observer bias, the availability heuristic, the Ostrich effect, the spotlight effect and many others all help us zero in on the shiny objects that confirm and support our existing memories and beliefs. Each of these tissue-thin cognitive biases layer up to form a dense curtain, perhaps even an impenetrable wall, between the feedback the world is sending and our ability to receive the information.

There is a direct relationship between the density of the barrier and the amount of energy needed to drive the feedback through the barrier. People who are introspective as well as receptive to external feedback generally do quite well when seeking to improve their competencies. For those with a dense barrier it may require an intense experience to deliver the message that there are things about themselves that need to change. For some a poorly received business presentation may be enough to send them on their way to finding out how to do better next time. For others it may take being passed over for a promotion. Still others may not get the message until they’ve been fired from their job.

However it happens, if you’ve received the message that there are some changes you’d like to make in your life and it’s time to do the work, an important question to ask yourself is “Am I searching for something or am I lost?”

If you are searching for something, the answer may be found in a conversation over coffee with a friend or peer who has demonstrated they know what you want to know. It may be that what you’re looking for – improve your presentation skills, for example – requires a deeper dive into a set of skills and it makes sense to find a guide to help you. Perhaps this involves taking a class or hiring a tutor.

If you are lost you’ll want to find someone with a much deeper set of skills, experience, and wisdom. A first time promotion into a management position is a frequent event that either exposes someone’s unconscious incompetence (i.e. the Peter Principle) or challenges someone to double their efforts at acquiring the skills to successfully manage people. Finding a coach or a mentor is the better approach to developing the necessary competencies for success when the stakes are higher and the consequences when failing are greater.

A couple of examples may help.

When I was first learning to program PCs I read many programming books cover to cover. It was a new world for me and I had very little sense of the terrain or what I was really interested in doing. So I studied everything. Over time I became more selective of the books I bought or read. Eventually, I stopped buying books altogether because there was often just a single chapter of interest. By the time I concluded my software development career, it had been many years since I last picked up a software development book. This was a progression from being lost at the start – when I needed coaches and mentors in the form of books and experienced software developers – to needing simple guidance from articles and peers and eventually to needing little more than a hint or two for the majority of my software development career.

A more recent example is an emergent need to learn photography – something I don’t particular enjoy. Yet for pragmatic reasons, it’s become worth my time to learn how to take a particular kind of photograph. I needed a coach or a mentor because this was entirely new territory for me. So I hired a professional photographer with an established reputation for taking the type of photograph I’m interesting in. My photography coach is teaching me what I need to know. (He is teaching me how to fish, in other words, rather then me paying him for a fish every time I need one.)

Unlike the experience of learning how to program – where I really didn’t know what I wanted to do – my goal with photography is very specific. The difference had a significant influence on who I choose as guides and mentors. For software development, I sought out everyone and anyone who knew more than I. For photography, I sought a very specific set of skills. I didn’t want to sit through hours of classes learning how to take pictures of barn owls 1,000 meters away in the dark. I didn’t want to suffer through a droning lecture on the history of camera shutters. Except in a very roundabout way, none of this serves my goal for learning how to use a camera for a very specific purpose.

Depending on what type of learner you are, working with a mentor who really, really knows their craft about a specific subject you want to learn can be immensely more satisfying and enjoyable. Also, less expensive and time consuming. If it expands into something more, than great. With this approach you will have the opportunity to discover a greater interest without a lot of upfront investment in time and money.

Root Causes

The sage business guru Willie Sutton might answer the question “Why must we work so hard at digging to finding the causes to our problems?” by observing “Because that’s where the roots are.”
Digging to find root causes is hard work. They’re are rarely obvious and there’s never just one. Occasionally, you might get lucky and trip over an obvious root cause (obvious once you’ve tripped over it.) Most often, it’ll require some unknown amount of exploration and experimentation.

Even so, I’ve watch as people work very hard to avoid the hard work needed to find root causes or fail to acknowledge them even when they are wrapped around their ankles. It’s an odd form of bikeshedding whereby the seemingly obvious major issues are ignored in favor of issues that are much easier to identify, explain, or understand.

One thing is certain, you’ll know you’ve found a root cause when one of two things happen: You implement a change meant to correct the issue and a whole lot of other things get fixed as a result or there is noisy and aggressive resistance to change.

Poor morale, for example, is often a presenting symptom mistaken for a root cause. The inexperienced (or lazy) will throw fixes at poor morale like money, happy hours, or other trinkets. These work in the very short term and have their place in a manager’s toolbox, but eventually more money becomes the new low pay and more alcohol has it’s own very steep downside.

Morale is best understood as a signal for measuring the health of the underlying system. Poor morale is a signal that a whole lot of things are going wrong and that they’ve been going wrong for an extended period of time. By leveraging a system dynamics approach, it’s relatively easy to make some educated guesses about where the root causes may be. That’s the easy part.

The hard work lies with figuring out what interventions to implement and determining how to measure whether or not the changes are having the desired effect. A positive shift in morale would certainly be one of the indicators. But since it is a lagging indicator on the scale of months, it would be important to include several other measures that are more closely associated with the selected interventions.

There are other systemic symptoms that are relatively easy to identify and track. Workforce turnover, rework, and delays in delivery of high dependency work products are just a couple of examples. Each of these would suggest a different approach needed to resolve the underlying issues and restore balance to the system dynamics behind a team or organization’s performance.

Layoffs

I’ve never been fired, but have been laid off three times over the course of four distinct careers. I’m also three-for-three for having landed in a much better place after having been laid off. So with three data points, maybe there is some truth to the street wisdom that a little adversity is a good thing.

“I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent- no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.” – Seneca, On Providence, 4.3

I have also survived 17 layoffs. And I remember them all.

Paradoxically, many of the layoffs I survived were more painful than the layoffs in which I was included. I have clear memories of people I enjoyed working with that one day were simply gone from the place I was spending more than one third of my life. The resulting crash of morale at the workplace simply added to the sense of dread and “why bother” attitude. Their absence became a reminder that we were all living under someone else’s Sword of Damocles, that we would pay the price of poor decisions made by someone else. In some instances, the nauseatingly smug expression of schadenfreude by a few well-connected corporate parasites and toxic individuals cruising the corridors just added to the sting. It doesn’t seem this is easier to deal with by those that remain after a layoff in a distributed work environment.

To say I’ve “survived” all the layoffs that occurred throughout my multiple careers, whether I was culled or not, is more than a little melodramatic. I have truly survived much, much greater losses. Layoffs are not lethal events and living according to several key Stoic principles has helped me to persevere and gain strength from the brief storms of finding work.

“To bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and burden.” – Seneca, Hercules Oetaeus, 231232

Reflecting on work transition experiences, I wondered what is it about having been laid off that made the next place so much better.

I have always worked hard to add value to my employer’s business. If that value was either not appreciated or the business shifted away from needing the value I was capable and willing to provide, it was a clear sign that it’s time to move on. By making this a choice, I could leave with no hard feelings and no burned bridges. Psychologically, this is more intimidating but much healthier.

Seeing the positive side of being laid off can be a little more difficult, particularly if one has been blind to the signs that every company and manager broadcasts when a layoff is eminent and is surprised when they happen. For starters, layoffs erased all the baggage I was carrying that belonged to the employer and made it much easier to strike out in a direction that suited my interests, skills, talents, and goals. Each of the three layoffs launched new, more lucrative and rewarding careers.

“Today I escaped from the crush of circumstances, or better put, I threw them out, for the crush wasn’t from outside me but in my own assumptions.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.13

Switching employers, even careers, more frequently than previous generations is a good career development strategy. In the dot com era, it was the only effective way to find meaningful raises and career advancement. Why toil away for a decade under Management-by-Taylorism to scratch out incremental pay increases when a salary could be increased by 10%-20% just by switching employers? Twenty-five years on, staying with the same employer for more than five years actually looks odd to many recruiters I’ve been talking to.

A friend of mine has a personal policy to commit to an employer for 1,000 days. At that point, she decides if the workplace it meeting her goals and expectations. Doesn’t matter if it’s a shortcoming of her employer or if her goals and interests have changed – a mismatch is a mismatch so it’s time to leave. I think it’s a good policy, particularly in the Age of Information and Knowledge and distributed workforces.

A policy like this builds resilience in several ways.

1. It’s important to know what it takes to persevere with the crap work that goes with just about any job. Flitting from job to job doesn’t develop this. A 1,000 day commitment is enough to show that you made it past the “honeymoon” period every job has, have worked more than a few significant problems into solutions, and generally paid your dues and demonstrated – if only to yourself – you have the chops to do the work.
2. Deciding to leave a job and doing so multiple times throughout your life builds confidence in your abilities to create your future.
3. It adds a valuable layer to your talent stack, as Scott Adams has described it.

If it was generally known that employees had this policy, employers might expand their efforts to foster cultures that allow employees who are creative and collaborative to thrive and grow. Instead of what’s more common: Cube farms propped up by career leaches that brag about having worked at the company for 25 years when in fact all they’ve done is worked one mediocre year and repeated it 24 times.

I’m done with that. Forever.

“There are those too who suffer not from moral steadfastness but from inertia, and so lack the fickleness to live as they wish, and just live as they have begun.” – Seneca, On Tranquility of Mind


Photo by Benmar Schmidhuber on Unsplash

Show Your Work

A presentation I gave last week sparked the need to reach back into personal history and ask when I first programmed a computer. That would be high school. On an HP 9320 using HP Educational Basic and an optical card reader. The cards looked like this:

(Click to enlarge)

What occurred to me was that in the early days – before persistent storage like cassette tapes, floppy disks, and hard drives – a software developer could actually hold a program in their hands. Much like a woodworker or a glass blower or a baker or a candlestick maker, we could actually show something to friends and family! Woe to the student who literally dropped their program in the hallway.

Then that went away. Keyboards soaked up our coding thoughts and stored them in places impossible to see. We could only tell people about what we had created, often using lots of hand waving and so much jargon that it undoubtedly must have seemed as if we were speaking a foreign language or retelling a fish-that-got-away story. “I had to parse a data file THIIIIIIIIIS BIG using nothing but Python as an ETL tool!”

Yawn.

This is at the heart of what burned me out on writing code as a profession. There was no longer anything satisfying about it. At least, not in the way one gets satisfaction from working with wood or clay or fabric or cooking ingredients. The first time I created a predictive inventory control algorithm was a lot of fun and satisfying. But there were only 4-5 people on the planet who could appreciate what I’d done and since it was proprietary, I couldn’t share it. And just how many JavaScript-based menu systems can you write before the challenge becomes a task and eventually a tedious chore.

Way bigger yawn.

I’ve since found my way back into coding. A little. Python, several JavaScript libraries, and SQL are where I spend most of my time. What I code is what serves me. Tools for my use only. Tools that free up my time or help me achieve greater things in other areas of my life.

I can compare this to woodworking. (Something I very much enjoy and from which I derive a great deal of satisfaction.) If I’m making something for someone else, I put in extra effort to make it beautiful and functional. To do that, I may need to make a number of tools to support the effort – saw fences, jigs, and clamps. These hand-made tools certainly don’t look very pretty. They may not even be distinguishable from scrap wood to anybody but myself. But they do a great job of helping me achieve greater things. Things I can actually show and touch. And if the power goes down in the neighborhood, they’ll still be there when the lights come back on.

Tools for Practice

Building the tools you need to develop a skill will also deepen your understanding of that skill.

The pandemic has offered unprecedented opportunity for reflection and self-improvement. Unsurprisingly, most people don’t see it this way and therefore have failed to take advantage of the opportunity. Upsetting the status quo and the familiar – however slight – leads to a disproportionate amount of stress and anxiety for many people. The prospect of getting to know their families or themselves better proves uncomfortable enough to drive people toward bing-watching TV, over-eating, alcohol, or any number of other distractions. Anything to avoid introspection. My theory is that this happens because most people have either lost or never had the skills for self-reflection. External validation is the way of the 21st century. That usually ends up with them expending exorbitant amounts of effort justifying their shortcomings or assigning blame to the nearest face they can put on their problems – an “annoying” partner, an “uncooperative” co-worker, etc.

I also believe it takes very little effort to begin the work of reflection, introspection, and self-improvement. Start simple.

When it was clear the pandemic lock-downs were going to go on longer then the “experts” kept saying – evidenced by the weekly movement of the goal posts – I began to wonder how I might use this newfound flexibility for how I organize time. No longer confined to the hours during which I would normally be in the physical office, I could now complete my 8 hours of work – broken into pieces – at almost at any time during my waking hours. Plus the distance I had to commute back and forth from home and work shrank to an incredibly small fraction of what it used to be. This, too, opened up more time. This change didn’t just occur in my world, but globally. And since everyone else still needed to stay employed, many creative people found ways to continue their professions in a virtual environment. Suddenly, engaging in things of interest but were unattainable because of time and space requirements became available.

I had been wanting to rekindle my interesting in playing cello for years. I hadn’t had a lesson in over 10 years and practice had fallen by the wayside. Now, connecting with an instructor was not only possible, but the number of options had exploded. There are now many on-line videos and instructors available. After a little research, I connected with an instructor in New York City and have been taking weekly lessons for the past three months.

The re-introduction of live music – particularly music that I’m playing – has had a surprisingly positive impact on my disposition. As a card carrying introvert, I thought I’d been handling the pandemic lock down pretty well, especially when compared to many of my peers. Yet this small change, focused on personal development, brought warmth and light to mid-winter days.

So that’s the back story. Now that I’m in the groove again with playing cello, I can describe several things about this experience that I’ve learned with respect to practice, particularly deliberate practice.

Along with playing cello, I wanted to deepen my understanding of music theory and learn how to sight read music. During one of my lessons, the instructor and I kicked around the idea of using flash cards. The card would show a single note and the student would play that note. Searching later for such an application was unsuccessful. It probably exists, but it wasn’t something I wanted to spend more than 30 minutes trying to find.

All the flash card programs I looked at are designed to teach things in a question – answer format. They work well for subjects like history or learning a new language. But nothing that would simply show a new card after a time delay. So I wrote my own program to accomplish this. In the process, I developed my understanding of the cello’s range of notes and music keys in general. Here’s a screen capture of the first iteration’s MVP:

At an adjustable interval, a new note within the cello’s range is displayed in the selected key. For my skill level, this is immensely challenging. And I can tell it is developing my skills for sight reading and quickly finding a particular note on the instrument.

Developing tools like this is second nature to me and the result of many years of experience working with wood and solving business problems with software. Each of these activities has a tenet that if you can’t find a tool you need, you build what you need from scratch. This tenet is all the more powerful by having stewed in the mindsets associated with hand tools and open source software. In a very real sense, creating tools that support acquiring a new skill are part of the practice. To build an effective tool, you must fully understand the problem it is intended to solve. An effective tool is the result of having asked and answered many good questions. And, of course, all this is driven by an Agile mindset (iterations, tests, experiments, redesign, retest, etc.) design thinking, and understanding the context in which the tool will be used (systems thinking.)

 

Image by endri yana yana from Pixabay

The Perfect System in an Imperfect World

With apologies to Winston Churchill,

Many forms of project management have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that Scrum is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that Scrum is the worst form of project management except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Agile in general, and scrum in particular, has suffered their share of hard yet deserved knocks. But many of these complaints come from people who are expecting perfection, some panacea or magic remedy to what ails their project management world. Often they want this perfection out of the box and miss the hard work needed to implement a relatively simple set of rules and guidelines while shifting from the “old ways” of getting work done.

Consider a flock of geese.

Over the course of hundreds of thousands of years they have worked out an efficient way to migrate. Not perfect, but well adapted to the world in which they live. At the heart of this behavior are several important principles: Shared responsibility, clear communication, and coordinated effort.

Consider Agile similarly. It is a perfect system for an imperfect world. The principles found in the formation of a flock of geese can be found within the Agile Manifesto. Its foundation of assuming the need for experimentation, learning, and adaptation is central to it’s enduring success. If these values are absent from or poorly represented in an organization’s culture, the chances for sustainable success using any methodology are diminished.

Photo by Josh Massey on Unsplash

Parkinson’s Law of Perfection

C. Northcote Parkinson is best known for, not surprisingly, Parkinson’s Law:

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

But there are many more gems in “Parkinson’s Law and Other Studies in Administration.” The value of re-reading classics is that what was missed on a prior read becomes apparent given the accumulation of a little more experience and the current context. On a re-read this past week, I discovered this:

It is now  known  that  a  perfection  of  planned  layout  is  achieved  only  by institutions  on  the   point  of  collapse.  This   apparently  paradoxical conclusion is based upon a wealth of archaeological and historical research, with the  more esoteric details of  which we need not concern  ourselves. In general  principle, however, the method pursued has been to  select and date the buildings  which  appear to have been perfectly  designed for  their purpose. A study and comparison of these has tended to prove that perfection of planning is a symptom of decay. During a  period of exciting discovery or progress there is  no time  to  plan the perfect headquarters.  The time for that comes  later, when all the important work has been done. Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death.

Several years back my focus for the better part of a year was on mapping out software design processes for a group of largely non-technical instructional designers. If managing software developers is akin to herding cats, finding a way to shepherd non-technical creative types such as instructional designers (particularly old school designers) can be likened to herding a flock of canaries – all over the place in three dimensions.

What made this effort successful was framing the design process as a set of guidelines that were easy to track and monitor. The design standards and common practices, for example, consisted of five bullet points. Building just enough fence to keep everyone in the same area while limiting free range behaviors to specific places was important. These were far from perfect, but they allowed for the dynamic vitality suggested by Parkinson. If the design standards and common practices document ever grew past something that could fit on one page, it would suggest the company was moving toward over specialization and providing services to a narrow slice of the potential client pie. In the rapidly changing world of adult education, this level of perfection would most certainly suggest decay and risk collapse as client needs change.

Image by EWAR from Pixabay