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

Busting Assumptions

The video in this post is one I show when talking about the need to question assumptions while working to integrate Agile principles and practices into an organization. It was taken with the dash camera in my car. The drama seems to make it easier for people to see the different points of view and associated assumptions in play. (The embedded video is a lower resolution, adapted for the web, but it still shows most of what I wish to point out.)

First off, no one was injured in this event beyond a few sets of rattled nerves, including mine. Even though this happened fast, there were signals that immediately preceded the event which suggested something strange was about to happen. The key moment is replayed at the end of the video at 1/4 speed for a second chance to notice what happened.

  1. The truck ahead of me was slowing down. Unusual behavior when the expectation is that traffic would be flowing.
  2. The driver in the truck was signaling that they intended to move to the left, either to switch lanes or turn left.
  3. This activity was happening as we approached an intersection.

Something didn’t seem right to me so I had started to slow down. That’s why it looks like the driver of the Jeep appears to be speeding up.

So what are some of the assumptions that were probably in play?

An important piece of information is that the road in the video is a two lane one way street. The driver of the Jeep clearly understood this and assumed everyone else on the road would be following the rules of the road. The driver of the truck appears to be assuming he is driving on a two lane two way street and so prepared to turn left onto a side street. His signaling and subsequent behavior suggest this. So the driver of the truck was assuming everyone else on the road was operating under this incorrect understanding. So when he began his left hand turn he wasn’t expecting the need to check the left hand lane for cars coming up from behind him. One second difference, literally, in the timing and this could have ended badly for several people.

Assumptions are unconscious and everyone has them. By design they never represent the full picture. Yet we almost always act as if they do and, more importantly, that they are shared by everyone around us. Events like those in the video clearly demonstrate that is not the case. If it was, there would be far fewer road accidents.

Organizations that are seeking to implement Agile principles and practices are guaranteed to be operating under a mountain of assumptions for how work can or “should” be done. They’re easy to spot based on how strongly people react when someone fails to follow the rules. It’s important to examine these assumptions so they can be either validated, updated, or retired. If we don’t do the work to identify and understand the assumptions driving our work processes we will usually be made aware of them when some crisis occurs. Where’s the fun in that?


Photo by Jaroslav Devia on Unsplash

Good Intentions, Bad Results

In The Logic of Failure, Dietrich Dörner makes the following observation:

In our political environment, it would seem, we are surrounded on all sides with good intentions. But the nurturing of good intentions is an utterly undemanding mental exercise, while drafting plans to realize those worthy goals is another matter. Moreover, it is far from clear whether “good intentions plus stupidity” or “evil intentions plus intelligence” have wrought more harm in the world. People with good intentions usually have few qualms about pursuing their goals. As a result, incompetence that would otherwise have remained harmless often becomes dangerous, especially as incompetent people with good intentions rarely suffer the qualms of conscience that sometimes inhibit the doings of competent people with bad intentions. The conviction that our intentions are unquestionably good may sanctify the most questionable means. (emphasis added, Kindle location 133)

That sounds about right. To this I would add that incompetent people with good intentions rarely suffer the consequences of imposing their good intentions on others.

The distinguishing feature of a competent individual with good intentions and an incompetent individual with good intentions is the ability to predict and understand the consequences of their actions. Not just the immediate consequences, but the long term consequences as well. The really competent individuals with good intentions will also have a grasp of the systemic effects of acting on their intentions. People with a systemic view of the situation are deliberate in their actions and less likely to act or react emotionally to circumstances. Doesn’t mean they will always get it right, but when they fall short they are also more likely to learn from the experience in useful ways.


Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

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 Team Hero

Very good article from Margaret Heffernan, “It’s Finally Time to Retire ‘Good to Great’ From the Leadership Canon.” This quote stands out:

Collins insists that great companies get the right people on the bus and the wrong ones off. But how do you identify them proactively? Collins is thin on detail. Their values matter more than skills, but how can you tell? They’re unafraid to face brutal truths — but we all avoid unpleasant realities, so how do serious leaders foster candor? There’s evidence that what distinguishes high-achieving teams is the quality of connectedness between people rather than the individuals themselves, but such systemic thinking is absent from Good to Great, which inhabits a strictly linear universe. You either are Level 5 or somewhere lower on the ladder. The people on the bus are right or wrong. The toughest parts of leadership are, apparently, easy.

This reminds me of the the 1998 Sydney to Hobart yacht race as described by Dennis Perkins and Jillian Murphy in their book “Into the Storm.” Larry Ellison’s purchased professional crew on his yacht, “Sayonara,” put in a mighty fine performance. But the race was won by the scrappy and tight knit little crew on the “Midnight Rambler.”

If the quality of connectedness between people is a distinguishing characteristic of high-achieving teams, what does that say about the team “hero” – that individual who insists on outperforming everyone else on the team? In my experience, the team hero’s contribution to the team effort is much more likely to be disruptive than productive. I’ve observed the following qualities:

  • They manufacture crisis that only they can solve.
  • They work outside the team, pleasing others – particularly people with status – while progress on work assigned to the team suffers.
  • They hoard information and work assignments.
  • Show little interest in mentoring or helping others on the team succeed.
  • Are acutely sensitive to criticism and dismissive of feedback.
  • Display many of the attributes of a fixed mindset.

Managing a team with a hero on it usually means you spend most of your time managing the hero or scrambling to mitigate the adverse effects of their behavior. The team suffers and second order effects soon follow. I’d much rather manage a team of solid performers who understand how to work together.

 

Photo by Javier García on Unsplash

The Wonder of the Early Web Returns to My Intranet

Once Upon a Time on the World Wide Web, before Google arrived and established a self-fulfilling prophecy as their motto, “Don’t be Evil,” you could ask a question of the Internet and it would reflect what was known about the world’s thinking on the subject. I used to do this quite frequently. I don’t do it so much anymore because all I get back are advertisements or an algorithmic regurgitation based on partially digested bits from my search history and bottom dwelling sludge from who knows what data mining expedition.

I recall one example. Fifteen years ago or so, the phrase “shallow tasking” came to mind as a description of what’s really going on inside people’s heads when they claim to be “multi-tasking.” I wondered if it had been used. It hadn’t. It didn’t show up in any of the searches. It’s still a pretty lonely search result page, I see.

The internet now, thanks to Google, is garbage for this type of purpose. I can’t trust that what comes back is any kind of impartial reflection of what might be happening in the world. That seems to be changing in my own little world since organizing my disparate bits of knowledge and wisdom in Obsidian.

As I add more and more bits and pieces from things I read here and there and couple them with my thoughts – Zettelkasten style – I’m seeing interesting patterns emerge. I’m seeing what I’m most interested in. I’m seeing what I’m obsessing with. I’m seeing how this connects to that which connects to those which connects to these. And I have enough references now that I can search for a word or phrase and see what my little knowledge base has been collecting. I can do this for ideas I didn’t know I was collecting. And once again I have the emerging feeling of interesting curiosity that I used to get when I would query the Internet on Altavista or Yahoo or the pre-Hell-Yeah-We’re-Evil Google.

Of course, there is a significant risk of building little more than a private echo chamber. To counter this, there are a number of safeguards built in to my little microcosm. This blog is part of that system of safeguards. I expose my ideas back to the cruel crucible of the World Wide Web. What, if anything, comes back by way of feedback informs my internal knowledge-base. And it grows stronger, more robust, more valuable.

System Dynamics and Causal Loop Diagrams 101

Reading causal loop diagrams can be a little counter-intuitive. It will be important to understand how to read them in order to understanding the dynamic quality of the models that will appear in subsequent posts. The interactions between the various elements and the effects of those interactions on stocks and flows are typically represented by a solid black arrow (Figure 1.)

Figure 1

“A” has an interaction with “B” and that interaction is in the direction of “A” to “B.” But what’s the effect of “A’s” interaction with “B?” To display this effect, a green open head arrow or a red closed head arrow is used to describe the type of interaction between the two elements.

Figure 2
Figure 3

A green open-head arrow (Figure 2) is a direct relationship. A red closed-head arrow (Figure 3) is an inverse relationship.

To help understand these relationships, consider the analogy of being in the driver’s seat of a car. Imagine the car has a constant speed of 40 miles per hour. The car has been designed to go this speed with your feet off the peddles. (Not a particularly safe design feature, I’ll grant. But this is a thought experiment. So ride along with me for a little while. I promise we won’t crash.) Now, when you increase (↑) pressure on the gas peddle the car’s speed increases (↑). If you then decrease (↓) pressure on the gas peddle the car’s speed decreases (↓) until it returns to the original 40 MPH. That’s the direct relationship illustrated between “A” and “B” in Figure 2. As “A” increases, so does “B.” Increase pressure on the gas peddle and the speed of the car increases. As “A” decreases, so does “B.” Decrease pressure on the gas peddle and the car speed decreases until it slows down the the original 40 MPH. More of “A” results in more of “B” (↑↑) while less of “A” results in less of  “B.” (↓↓)

Now for the brake. If you increase (↑) pressure on the brake peddle the car’s speed decreases (↓) – it slows down to something less than 40 miles per hour. Increase the pressure on the brake enough and the car will stop. However, if you decrease (↓) pressure on the brake the car’s speed begins to increase (↑). If you remove all pressure on the brake peddle, the car returns to the constant 40 mile per hour speed. That’s the inverse relationship illustrated between “A” and “B” in Figure 3. As “A” increases, “B” goes the opposite way and decreases. Increase pressure on the brake peddle and the speed of the car decreases. As “A” decreases, “B” goes the opposite way and increases. Decrease pressure on the brake and the speed of the car increases until it is once again moving at 40 MPH. More of “A” results in of less of “B” (↑↓) while less of “A” results in more of  “B.” (↓↑)

For an example of these relationships in action, let’s look at the dynamics behind two cosmic quandaries: Which came first, the chicken or the egg and why do chickens cross the road?

No matter which came first, eggs come from chickens and chickens come from eggs. If the number of eggs increase, the number of chickens will increase. If the number of eggs decrease, the number of chickens will decrease (Figure 4.)

Figure 4

If the number of chickens increase, the number of eggs will increase. If the number of chickens decrease, the number of eggs will decrease (Figure 5.)

Figure 5

These are direct relationships as described for Figure 2. Taken together, the causal loop diagram is shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6

If times are good, there are more and more eggs leading to more and more chickens and Chicken World starts to get a bit crowded. In search of a better life, some of the chickens decide to cross the road (now you know why they cross the road!) Another direct relationship in the system (Figure 7.)

Figure 7

However, life is so good on the other side of the road that chickens never cross back over to where they started. An increase in the number road crossings result in a decrease in the number of chickens. (Figure 8.) This is an inverse relationship as described for Figure 3.

Figure 8

Connecting all the pieces, the very simple causal loop diagram describing Chicken World is shown in Figure 9.

Figure 9

This simple example illustrates how systems stay balanced. If there are too many eggs, leading to too many chickens, more chickens cross the road until the population is restored to a sustainable level. If too many chickens cross the road, the number of chickens decrease and therefore so do the number of eggs which means there are fewer chickens crossing road. Once again, the population is eventually restored to a sustainable level.

That’s all the system dynamics you’ll need to read the causal loop diagrams presented in subsequent posts.