Sunday, September 07, 2014

Why smart people get depressed, and what you can do about it


About a week ago I posted an article on the IHM Business School blog about an important, but very taboo subject.  At more than 15,000 unique page views the first few days, it is probably the most read article I have ever written. With more than 130 comments on the IHM Blog, it is certainly the most discussed.

I was amazed, not only that the article arose such interest, but of the very thoughtful responses, and how many people that have had similar experiences.

Leif Claesson, one of the commenters, even took the trouble to translate the article into English.

Because of the interest in the original article, I am publishing Leif's translation here.

Here is a link to the original article on the IHM Business School blog.

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This was a very difficult article to write. If you prefer reading easy pieces regarding easy subjects, you should skip this one.

Robin Williams recent suicide, received a lot of coverage. The speculations with regards to why one of the world’s most gifted comedians would take his own life have spanned the entire gamut from “cowardice”, an unfortunate statement from a news anchor, to depression, resulting among other things from the fact that Robin Williams had been diagnosed with Parkinsons.

“Depression is an illness” say many well-meaning people, and “we have to start talking about it”.

It’s actually only half correct. Depression is not an illness! Depression is a collection of symptoms. It is however correct that we have to start talking about it.
Depression can have many different causes, for example physical brain damage, and a genetic disposition for depression. That type of depression can be treated medically and therapeutically. There is a third cause. A cause that is so taboo that not even the ones who say they want to talk about depression, want to talk about this particular one.

It’s a type of depression that afflicts highly talented and intelligent people. Highly intelligent people are often depressed, but certain research has shown that they commit suicide with lower IQ. One possible explanation is that intelligent people more often find concrete and workable solutions to desperate problems. They are more introspective and can monitor and understand their own emotional reactions in a way that most people cannot. Another explanation is that smart people often have smart friends. They know how to express their feelings, and they have friends who understand what they mean. This creates safety valves which not every person has.

But, if smart people really have a higher than average resistance to depression, what is it that makes them depressed more often? What can one do about it as a manager?

Let’s start by trying to wear a smart person’s shoes. I’m not talking about real geniuses, but about people with an IQ of about 120 and up.
The average IQ level is 100. A person with an EQ of 120 is above the 95th percentile, but we all tend to use ourselves as a reference. A smart person often views himself as fully normal. For the highly intelligent, it is average people that look weird: Doesn’t like to think, has trouble with simple mathematics, cannot create logical models, does not understand elementary statistics, cannot think critically, never attains a high level of competency in any particular field, isn’t curious, has no endurance for learning new things…

To illustrate the difference: Many people photograph their food and post the pictures on Facebook. It usually looks rather disgusting. I’ve never quite understood why people do that, but I figured I’d give it a try. If I did it myself, perhaps I could gain a better understanding.

Just taking a picture was of course too boring, so in order to make things interesting I decided to challenge myself: Create a short cooking show. Record and edit everything on an iPad, just to see if it was possible. To heighten the challenge, simultaneously record both a Swedish and an English version. How did it go? Rather well for an amateur video, thank you. If you want to see a show about how to cook Paccheri with minced meat sauce, drop me a line in the comments and I will post the link.

The point is that above-average performing individuals make more of an effort, almost whatever the subject. Others often appreciate the result, but want no part of the process.

If the work that the above-average performing individual results in others having to alter their workflow, the reaction is often negative: “We’ve never had to do that before.” Often there is a return to the old way of doing things, no matter how bad the old way was.

On top of that, one is inundated with “good” advice: Don’t think so much, dumb down your resume, try to be more like other people, stop dreaming, do as you’re told (no matter how stupid that is)…

Have you seen the movie Dumb and Dumber? Imagine living in a world where 19 out of 20 people you meet are like the main characters of that film.

A world like that is no fun to live in! For many people high intelligence is a curse, a torment that means you can never fit in, cannot laugh about the same things as others, cannot agree with others, cannot sit and chit-chat with others at parties… One becomes uncomfortable and therefore one goes to the trouble to find out why, when most would just accept the status quo.

A normal brain is designed to save energy. As the frontal lobes activate, the pain center of the brain also activates. This is why many people think solving math problems is uncomfortable. This is also why many people consider talking to intelligent people to be an uncomfortable experience. It’s difficult to follow the logic, evaluate facts and see correlation.

It’s not much fun for smart people either. It’s not fun to present a logical thought process, only to see the face of the person you’re talking to distort into a painful expression. Even worse when the person you’re talking to is a friend, relative or colleague.

So, you learn. You learn to hide what you’re thinking, to always wear a poker face. Never let down your guard at work, around relatives, when you’re out among people. Only among a small subset of people, those who suffer the same affliction as yourself, can you relax.

A good friend connected me with one of his friends, who happens to be a highly skilled mathematician. My good friend doesn’t live in my home town of Gothenburg, but the mathematician does, so we went out for coffee together. It took more than eight hours. We were both so starved to have a conversation with someone, without having to adapt, without slowing down, without having to be afraid of not being understood.

And, please note, I’m not all that smart! The problem is that much worse for people with really high intelligence.

I have a friend who is a brilliant programmer. Early in his career, he was an international troubleshooter at a well-known American technology corporation, and travelled anywhere there was a difficult-to-solve problem to be found. He has a photographic memory, speaks seven languages, is nice and pleasant, and enjoys working with others. He is even a good dancer.

Unfortunately, it was difficult for him to find a job for many years. Nobody wanted to hire him. Other programmers didn’t want to work with him. As he told me the story, I was bewildered. I’ve worked with him, and pair-programmed with him. He’s one of the two best pair-programming-partners I’ve ever had the honor of working with. So, why was he ill liked? Simply because when he is part of the team, it becomes impossible for anyone else to retain any illusions of their own competence.

Not that I could either. After working a day with him, my brain was like a wrung washcloth. And the next day, and the next, and the next… and I loved it! Fantastic challenges, every day. It was one of the most educational and most developmental periods of my life. For someone with low self-esteem, on the other hand, it could have been devastating.

He never did manage to find a job in Sweden. He finally moved abroad to find employment.

I once applied for a job at a large Swedish corporation. As part of the procedure I had to take an intelligence along with many other applicants. Afterwards, two of the testers took me aside. One of them asked me:

“Do you have any idea how intelligent you are?”

“No,” I said. I had a serious cold, my head was pounding, my nose was running, and I felt anything but smart.

After some time, I found out my application was not accepted. I assumed they had been looking for smarter people than me, but about a year later I talked to a recruiter who was very familiar with both the tests and the company:

“The tests purpose is to filter out people with excessive intelligence and initiative,” he said.

They simply didn’t want to have too smart people among the employees. Too great a risk that they have ideas of their own. Note that this was a technology company.

Many years have passed since that intelligence test, but I recently ran into another “knowledge company” which rejects people with a high level of knowledge. When they hire managers they filter out applicants with knowledge of Deming’s knowledge model: An appreciation of a system, understanding of variation, psychology, and Epistemology, or a theory of knowledge.

Reject! This is akin to searching for writers but only hiring illiterates.

I do realize that it’s not a direct goal to have incompetent managers, it’s just that the people responsible for hiring do not have a knowledge model to reference the applicants against. (Oh yes, I’ve checked, there is no other knowledge model either. It really is “no knowledge model”.) When they run across phrases they are unfamiliar with, such as “An appreciation of a system”, the reaction is negative.

No wonder intelligent people are often disillusioned and depressed. You throw yourself into working life to pitch in, help people, accomplish something good, and rather brusquely find out that the only thing that counts is the ability to fit into the system.

The first few years the effects are hardly noticeable, but it’s easy to let one-self wear down over time. When you’re young you fight the battles. When you’re a bit older you learn to choose which battles are worth fighting. Eventually there comes a time where you start thinking that, even though you have exactly the same need to participate and belong as everyone else, it’s just too strenuous. You pull away. Withdraw from associations, lose touch with friends, and at work you hide in your office. You stop presenting ideas or make suggestions because you know they will only result in fruitless arguments.

The need to think and do things is still there, but the possibility of finding an outlet for the energy withers away. Yet you become more and more isolated.

A few years ago, I had an idea: I realized how to reduce the energy consumption of the average home by 10-20%. Wise from the experience of previous attempts, I did the following: “I wrote the idea down, printed it on a piece of paper, put it in an envelope, and mailed the letter to myself. When I received the letter, I put it in my book shelf, and that’s where it stays. I’m not going to do anything with it. A year or so ago I heard of a team in the states who is working on an almost identical idea. I wish them success. (Update from Henrik: After I wrote the article, an Innovation company has expressed some interest, so I am going to present the idea for them after all. I can't stay grumpy all the time.)

Nowadays choose easier ways to express my creativity. I choose things I can handle myself, or with a small group of interested friends. I avoid things that require people outside the inner circle to think, because it usually ends badly.

Does it sound cruel and egotistical? Is my view of humanity all too dark? Let me tell you about the last time I engaged myself in something important.

I was working on risk analysis and discovered that a product at a company had a design flaw: The operator could end up in a position where he must make a crucial decision first, and only afterwards get the information which would have been the basis of the decision. Unfortunately lives could depend on the decision of the operator. That is, the wrong decision could have deadly consequences. I started evaluating competing products and found that they performed in the correct order. Then, I noticed the same procedural error was in the next generation of product the company was in the process of developing.

I sounded the alarm. Which resulted in: Nothing at all! Nobody wanted to correct the problem, because that might have led to extra administrative work. Implied: They might have to recall already sold units. It could also lead to the authorities critically looking into the company. They didn’t even want to correct the problem in the next generation of products, because that would be admitting that something was wrong.

This wasn’t the only problem at the company which could cause death. You can probably guess what happened when I tried to start these discussions.

So, you live and learn!

Depression because of these kinds of events is no illness. It’s simply a normal response to the situation. Once the depression is there, it in itself of course becomes yet another reason to stay depressed. It feeds itself. Additionally, if the self-esteem is tied to the ability to perform, as it often is, there’s the perpetual worry to lose the ability to think clearly, and that the energy to get things done may never return.

So, what can you as a manager do in order for highly intelligent employees not to break down?

It’s actually very simple: Let them floor it and go full speed, even if the rest of the company is still traveling by horse and carriage.

Within the field of strategy there is a very important principle, the Interaction and Isolation principle:
Strengthen the bonds between your own forces and allies, isolate your enemies.
The principle applies to war, chess, love, revenge, and business. You need to strengthen the bonds between the high-performing individuals in your organization. You must also isolate them from those who can, intentionally or unintentionally, hurt them. Thus, you have to make it easy for the high-performers to find each other, and organize themselves. You must also protect them, because people around them often feel threatened.

I’ve worked in environments like this. We employees were told which tasks had to be performed, but we ourselves got to organize ourselves and figure out the best way to get the job done. This resulted in us studying work methodology, organization, queueing-theory, psychology, and a host of other things. We then applied this knowledge in practice and learned how to work as efficiently as possible.

It would not have been possible for a manager to get close to organize us as effectively. We became a tightly welded gang. We made use of each other’s strengths, and we helped eliminate weaknesses.

It was fun to go to work in the morning, and sad to leave in the evening. When we were in the middle of a project, our bosses used to walk rounds in the evening and order people to go home. On Friday you couldn’t wait until Monday.

One more example:

My first real job was as a programmer at a marketing department. This was quite a while ago, so programmers were regarded as slightly mythical creatures. Not quite as rare as unicorns, but still magical. I was seventeen and knew better: I didn’t feel magical at all.

I’d learned to program by reading programming books at the library, and writing programs on paper. The school I attended had a computer room, but students had no access. Luckily there was this one teacher who didn’t mind smuggling those of us who were really interested inside. Qualified for product development I definitely was not, but all I could do was to try.

The first time I met the boss of the marketing department, he said: “I don’t know the first thing about programming, so I’m not going to tell you what to do. If you tell me what you need, I’ll take care of it.” He then took me out to one of the company’s customers, so that I could learn not only what needed to be built, but why.

It was wonderful! Many years passed before it finally dawned on me that most managers do not work this way.

When I subsequently worked on the project, I got to do it at my own pace. I stayed closely in touch with the hardware developers, but had no unnecessary brakes. The result? It went well! Everybody was satisfied beyond expectations, the work was done on time, and there were no bugs.

I’ve seen many companies where skilled managers have managed to create habitats where creative people can work without someone souring as soon as they get a new idea. Unfortunately these habitats are often dependent on individual managers. They’re not a part of the structure of the organization as a whole.

It’s also risky. A good manager gets loyal workers and a highly effective organization, but it’s also easy to make enemies. The manager who built that first effective organization I just told mentioned, where you didn’t want to go home at night, was reassigned in a subsequent reorganization. He quit about a year later.

I wish I could give you a recipe. Five easy steps that ensures the well-being of the people who work for you. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. You can do a lot of good things just by caring, helping with practical things, help the person find meaningful tasks and connect them with other high-performing individuals. The truth is of course that you need to have a strong position in your own organization in order to implement this without risking your own job and your own career.

You have to be the type of person who puts ethical principles before the instinct to fit in and be like everyone else. This of course means it’s likely that you yourself is a high-performing individual and have yourself experienced the problems that other high-performing individuals experience.

Good luck!

P.S.

Don’t forget to write in the comments if you want to see how to cook Paccheri with minced meat sauce.

DS.
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Note: A lot of people have asked about Paccheri with mincemeat sauce. Here is a link to the video: https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=2572665214719&set=vb.1796957830&type=3&theater

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Why gifted people commit suicide

Robin Williams at the Stand Up for Heroes charity benefit in 2007. Photo was taken by John J. Kruzel/American Forces Press Service, and placed in the public domain. Downloaded from Wikimedia.
I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It's not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone. 
Lance Clayton (Robin Williams) in World's Greatest Dad, 2009. Written by Bob Goldthwait.
By now I am sure you have heard that Robin Williams, a brilliant actor and comedian, took his own life on August 11, 2014. His death has sparked an incredible amount of discussion and speculation about the causes. The opinions I have seen range from the incredibly stupid (he killed himself out of cowardice), to the well meaning, but wrong (he suffered from depression, which is a disease, and it killed him).

Out of all the pieces I have read about the death of Robert Williams, only one gets it right, Why Funny People Kill Themselves, by David Wong at Cracked.

However, there is more to it. Wong focuses on comedians, but the causes apply to anyone who deviates from the norm. Humans are social animals. We need other people. If we cannot connect, we get depressed.

This means depression is not in itself a disease. It is a symptom! Depression can have many different causes. There may be organic damage, a genetic disposal to a chemical imbalance, or you may be a perfectly healthy individual getting depressed because you are in an unbearable situation.

Being isolated from other people is one of the hardest things to bear.

Your default level of happiness and energy may be very high, but if you cannot build close relations with other people, you may still get depressed.

People who are smart, dedicated and principled are often shut out and isolated. Thus, they are prone to depression. There does not have to be any disease involved, no genetic or physical damage. Just isolation will do the trick.

Why do intelligent people become isolated? Neuroscientific research has showed that the human brain is designed to save energy whenever possible. Thinking requires a lot of energy. So does diligent practice.

Thinking actually triggers the pain center of the brain. No wonder solving math problems is perceived as very unpleasant by a majority of the population.

Intelligent people tend to have active brains. They delve deep into problems. They notice inconsistencies other people pass by. They come up with solutions instead of ignoring the problems. They spend many thousands of hours practicing their skills.

Most people do not want to do that. While everyone loves their results, normal people do not want to spend time with people much smarter than themselves, at work, or in their spare time. It is mentally exhausting, and actually painful. Thus, avoiding smart, dedicated, principled people becomes an autonomous response to the pain caused by the thinking, and other activities, required to keep up with them.

Thus, intelligent people will find themselves rebuffed or ignored, over and over again. They soon learn that reaching out, at work or in their own time, is to invite rejection.

No single one of these rejections is likely to cause a significant mood change, but tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, will.

Even a very resilient mind can, over time, be bent and broken by a barrage of tiny, and not so tiny, rejections.

Having strong principles can cause the same kind of rejection as high intelligence. People with strong principles are often unwilling to go along with illegal or scatterbrained schemes because someone in authority tells them to. They may be unwilling to go along with group consensus, if the group is clearly wrong.
Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self esteem, first make sure you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.
Steven Winterburn (often incorrectly attributed to William Gibson
Depression is a mood, and moods are, to a large extent, dependent on our surroundings. Thus, if you are depressed, the cause is likely to be external. If not in whole, at least to a significant part.

If you are highly intelligent, and depressed, you may need smarter friends and workmates. Because you spend most of your time awake at work, finding a job with better colleagues, not necessarily with a better job description, may be your best move.

Same thing with friends. Which ones lift you up? which ones bring you down? Not to forget, take a long, hard look at yourself. Are you a positive influence in their lives? Don't assume that you are. Observe! Study your interactions.

There will be good days and bad days, but on the whole, try to create feedback loops that bring you a positive mood and the energy to do things. And, don't be afraid to let your friends help you. Your real friends will do that, just as you would help them.

Actually, helping others is one of the best ways to lift your own mood. Be a bit careful though. Some people will not understand when you are doing them a favor, or going out of your way to do a kindness.

Giving a small amount of money to a beggar will generally work. Giving serious advice on process improvement when someone asks for it is far more risky. If you do not tell people what they want to hear, or force them to think, they are liable to interpret it as hostility.

If you are a highly intelligent person, if you study and practice, and hone your skills, if you do your best to be kind and thoughtful, and yet, you are often rejected. If people like you less the more skilled you become, if they reject you when you hold on to principles you thought you shared with them, if you feel depressed by it, even to the point of wanting to end it, you may be surrounded by assholes.

Try to get a job with better colleagues. Spend more time with your true friends. If you do not have any, make more of them. Surround yourself with brilliant misfits!

I am in the process of doing just that. If you are interested in how I do it, or want to share your own experiences, please do comment on this article.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

The Lost World – A vacation project

I recently had to jump head first from a cliff to escape a T-Rex. I am on vacation, and I can't stand having nothing to do, so, I decided to run a little vacation project. Because I am interested in photography, never outgrew my fascination with dinosaurs, and read the occasional comic, I decided on a Lost World photo comic project.

If you are into management, I highly recommend running a non-profit, all volonteer project now and then. Because people won't get paid in coin, you have to do something else: You have to make it interesting and educational.

You also have to find the right people: People who share your interests. Preferably people who get a bit obsessed when they are doing something interesting. They need to be creative, and learners willing to try new things. Oh, and they have to be able to work well together.

The Plan: The Lost World

Running from dinosaurs
When I was a child I read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's book The Lost World (Wikipedia article) about an expedition that finds dinosaurs on an isolated mountain plateau in South america.

Doyle's book spawned an entire literary genre. Edgar Burroughs (Pelucidar), Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park) and many others have written Lost World genre books. Doyles's book has been filmed eight times, directors who have made genre movies include Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park) and Peter Jackson (King Kong).

Writing a Lost world book would not be original enough. Making a movie would be fun, but also much too expensive. There was however another option. 

One of my little hobbies, is photography. My idea was to make a Lost world photo comic. I knew it would be possible to accomplish this with a very small budget.

Putting the team together

Team members clockwise from the left: Petra Brewitz, Petri Olderhvit, Jesper Andersson, and Robert Johannesson. Not in the photo: Marie Eriksson and Lennart Guldbrandsson.
For this project I knew I would need help. I needed to put together a team of dedicated people, willing to do a lost world project just for the fun of it.

I have spent about eight months building a loosely coupled network of photographers. When I come up with one of my over-the-top photography projects, this is where I go to recruit.

Anyone in the network can initiate any kind of event, ranging from having lunch, to launching a major project. Of course, most members are not interested in the more advanced, and time consuming projects, but with 120 members, we do have a pretty good base to recruit from.

Thus, recruiting for the project was pretty easy. I wrote a one page proposal, and published it in our Facebook group.

I also put the ad out in a couple of other forums. While a few people responded and joined, when it came down to the crunch, the people showing up where already members of the photography network. The exceptions are Lennart and Marie. Lennart is an old friend, and Marie just happened to be in a café where we held a meeting. She was interested in the project, and joined up.

Prestudy and planning

We did not have the budget, nor the time, for a Hollywood movie quality project. I decided to simplify a bit. I would have liked to go with 3D dinosaurs, but we simply did not have the prerequisite 3D modelling skills.

Instead, I opted for a much simpler solution: Toy dinosaurs. The toy manufacturer Schlecht makes a line of very realistic dinosaurs. we could use them, and use digital composition to make people and dinosaurs interact.

Good as they are, close up the Schlecht dinosaurs are not quite photo realistic. It is possible to fix this by digitally adding skin, but it is very time consuming. Also, compositing people into a miniature set, or a miniature into a full scale set, is difficult and time consuming.

A simpler solution is to change the viewers expectations: A photo is expected to be realistic, but a drawing is not. Converting a photo into a drawing is a quick and easy process, so that is the route I decided to go.

Even with this simplification, we'd have plenty of challenges.

Lots of planning, but very little scheduling

After each session, I update the panels we have shot. When all panels are done, the project is done!

For a project like this, a plan is indispensable. A long term schedule, on the other hand, is not. There is a lot of uncertainty in a project like this, and this makes long term scheduling inappropriate.

Instead, I made a plan: I layouted the entire story, as a comic, with empty panels, and brief descriptions of what was to go into each panel. I also scripted the dialogue.

This gave us a framework to work with. It also gave us a lot of flexibility. If something changes, adapting the outline is quick and easy.

We do have to schedule photo sessions, of course, but these are scheduled with rather short notice. We use a Facebook chat to discuss scheduling and other topics, and then schedule an event when we are as certain we can be that everyone needed will be able to attend.

If you are familiar with agile planning methods, you will recognize the similarities.

So far, so good!

After each major session, I put together a collage. I publish the collage in the photography group. The purpose is dual: It keeps everyone informed that the project is progressing, and it may entice more people into joining future projects.
As of now, we have had six photo sessions, and we are more than half-way through the project. There is a lot of photo editing and compositing work to be done, but that is no problem. The priority is to get the principal photography done.
A sample page from the comic.
The project has begun to attract some attention, from dinosaur buffs, photographers, and also from the IHM Business School in Gothenburg. I blogged about the project there, and they asked for pictures to publish, which I of course sent them.

I still have a bit of vacation left, so now it is back to the project for me.

Be seeing you!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Management models - Why they are useful


Put yourself in the shoes of a CEO. What is your primary goal? There are many different ideas about that, but I like this one:
To ensure that the organisation can survive and thrive on its own terms!
Not my idea by the way, but the idea of Colonel John Boyd, U.S. Air Force.

No matter what goal you, as the CEO of your organisation, subscribe to, you have a problem:
How do you make the organisation move in the right direction?
One of your most important tools is the set of managers in the organisation. According to Gallup, companies recruit the wrong kind of talent for management jobs 82% of the time.


Why is that? Gallup puts it down to failure to identify the right personality traits, or talent. Though that is probably true, it is unlikely to be the whole truth. There is another thing that matters:
Skill matters!
Talent alone won't make a manager great, or even good. Talent is just a measure of the aptitude a person has for a certain kind of tasks. To be good at it, it is necessary to develop the right skill set. Before you can do that, you need to figure out what the right skill set is.

That is what this article is about: How to identify the skills that will enable your managers to be really great.

Try to stay in the role of CEO throughout reading this article. The managers work as an extension of your brain. (Or, you are part of the same organisational hive mind, depending on how you view the organisation.) Managers are supposed to detect and correct problems, and continuosly strive to innovate and improve the organisation.

That takes skill. Actually, it requires a fairly complex set of skills. Your managers must hone their skills to a quite high level to be efficient. If the managers are unskilled, or have the wrong skills, your organisation, and your own job security, is toast.

Therefore, you, the CEO, need to think about the skills you want your managers to have,

That is where management models come in! Models are useful because they help us visualise, and think about things. Management models help us think about management.

Specifically, a management model can help when hiring or training managers. As the CEO of a large company you cannot personally oversee all hiring and training, but you can, and should, make sure that the people who do use relevant models.

There are many such models. The ones I write about in this article are models I have found useful. They are by no means the only useful models.

Beware of models that don't work!

Many organisations have only implicit models for how management, or any other kind of work, works. The problem with implicit models is that it is very difficult to see if they really work or not. It is taken for granted that they do. Often they don't!

For example, during my more than 25 years as a software developer I maintained a work portfolio, showing things I had done, from design, to code samples. Not once in my career, not once, did any recruiter or HR person want to see my portfolio.

Hiring a programmer without looking at code is like hiring a juggler without actually seeing the person juggle anything. It is completely daft, and yet it is common practice.

The problem is that many organisations delegate hiring and training to separate departments, but in these departments very few people have the skill nessesary to assess the level, or relevance, of the skills of the applicant.

The people who were assessing me had no clue how to distinguish a great programmer from a poor one. Instead, they fell back on checklists of tools and frameworks, i.e. things a programmer learns very quickly, and have very little to do with the ability to work well with other programmers, solve programming problems and write code that works, and can be maintained.

To assess the skill of a knowledge worker you often need to have the same skill yourself, at a very high level. This means you have to be a highly skilled programmer to assess the skill of other programmers, and a highly skilled manager to assess the skill of other managers.

Think about it: How would you estimate the competence level of an aircraft pilot, a surgeon, a chef, or an optician, just by talking to them? Unless you yourself have relevant skills at a fairly high level, it is not possible to do it reliably.

Same thing with managers!

To make it even more difficult, most of us overestimate our own skills. We know what we know, and that is what we make our assessment based on. We have no way to assess the importance of the things we don't know, because we don't know them. This is sometimes called The Asognosic's Dilemma.

If you have a good model as a base, you can at least get started in the right direction. You know what you need to learn. By comparing your model with other models, you can begin to understand where the gaps are, and how to fill them in.

So, let's look at some management models.

Fayolism, the Classic


Henri Fayol divided management into six functions
Henri Fayol described a management model in his 1916 book General and Industrial Management. Fayol divided management into six functions, and laid out fourteen principles for managers to follow. In this article, I'll just briefly discuss the functions, and the skills necessary to execute them.

Now, let's do some magic: We can look at Fayol's model and figure out what kind of skills are necessary to perform the six functions. There is more than one way to do this. there are different skills that can support the same function. A function can also be interpreted differently depending on the situation, and the skill and background of the person doing the interpretation.

When Fayol's book was translated from French to English, there was an error in translation. This error caused a fundamental change in the ideas about how to manage:

The French word "contrôle" means "check", or "inspection". "Contrôle" was translated into the English word "control", which means "to influence or direct people's behavior". Thus, the idea that a manager must know how to inspect results was replaced by the idea that a manager must direct people's behavior.

That is a pretty big change. For the purpose of this article, I am retaining Fayol's original meaning:


Fayole's management functions mapped to management skills. This is a modern interpretation. Most of these skills  did not exist in 1916.
Of course, you do have to be familiar with the skills in the figure to be able to assess their relevance. For example, why is statistics relevant to planning? It is partly because of the Planning Fallacy, the tendency for people and organisations to underestimate the time and cost of projects.

Nobel prize laureate Daniel Kahneman, and his colleague Amos Tversky, showed that the key to avoiding the planning fallacy is to use statistical methods of planning. However, this does require that managers have a basic grasp of statistics.

Queueing Theory is also important, because once a project is under way, and the workload builds up, processes will start to exhibit non-linear phenomena that has a great effect on time and cost. Knowing Queueing Theory allows a manager to avoid a great part of the adverse effects. It also has a great impact on how processes are designed.

However, if you do not know about statistics and Queueing Theory, there is no way to assess their importance. Of course, it is the same thing with Systems Thinking, Network Science, and Psychology.

Do you agree with my mapping of skills to functions? If not, still thinking as a CEO, what skills would you map to these functions?

Even more importantly, is Fayol's model still relevant? A lot has changed since 1916.

Deming's System of Profound Management

Deming's System of Profound Knowledge
After WW II Japan set about rebuilding their devastated country. The result was unprecedented economic growth throughout the 1950's through the 1980's. (And unfortunately an economic bubble that burst in 1991, and caused a decade long depression.)

W. Edwards Deming, an American statistician was sent to Japan by General Douglas MacArthur to help with the 1951 Japan Census. While he was there, Deming taught hundreds of Japanese engineers and managers Statistical Process Control  (SPC) and concepts of quality.

Some of the people taught by Deming were top management, like Akio Morita, co-founder of Sony.

In the 80's, Japan became so successful it was a threat to the U.S. economy. Deming developed a knowledge system for managers that was designed to enable U.S. industry to catch up again. His 1980 book Out of the Crisis is one of the most influential management books ever.

By Deming's time much had changed compared to the world Fayol lived in. And, new sciences had emerged, which enabled Deming to be more specific as to the skill set a manager would need.

Deming designed his management model in a manufacturing society. Since then, we have moved into the information age, so the skill sets of managers would need to evolve and adapt.

What would Deming's system look like if he had created it today?

Deming's knowledge system updated for the information age. Neuroscience and Complexity Thinking have contributed greatly to the understanding of management over the past 10-15 years.

Amazingly, these skills are still rare among managers. They are more common among management consultants, although I must admit, we consultants far to often focus on sales skills so much that the skills for getting the job done are in danger of atrophying.

Mintzberg on Managing

Henry Mintzberg's 2009 management model
Henry Mintzberg is considered to be one of the world's foremost experts on management. In his 2009 book Managing, Mintzberg presented a management model based on his research.

Mintzberg's management model with mappings to to skills and entities in Tempo!

I read Mintzberg's book while working on my own book Tempo!. Tempo! is intended as a practical guide for managers, so I was interested in how well the things I wrote about mapped to Mintzberg's model.

Though I did not have Mintzberg's management model in mind when I wrote Tempo!, the mapping is pretty good. This is not surprising, because good management models are bound to have similarities. After all, they all describe the same thing, albeit from different perspectives.

IOHAI – Boyd on leadership

The IOHAI leadership model is part of the Maneuver Conflict strategic framework developed by Colonel John Boyd, U.S. Air Force.
The 1960 book The Human Side of Enterprise by Douglas McGregor presented a new way to view organisations, Theory X and Y. The U.S military, who understood the limitations on the classical functional hierarchy very well, were much quicker to pick up on McGregor's work than the business world.

In general, the military is more focused on leadership than management, so their models are a bit different. When Colonel John Boyd of the U.S. Air Force developed the Maneuver Conflict strategic framework, his IOHAI leadership framework was an important part of it.

Boyd stressed the importance of being able to shift from one point of view to another, in order to better understand and solve problems.

For example, an IOHAI trained business manager would be able to shift between useful frameworks such as Systems Thinking, Lean, Statistical Process Control, Self-Determination Theory, Theory Of Constraints, and others, to come up with innovative solutions to problems.

The Power of Paradigms

Donella Meadows's famous System Intervention points.
The Systems Thinker Donella Meadows wrote a famous essay about places to intervene in a system. A manager who understands this model has a powerful tool for applying effective change.

Like Boyd, Meadows considers the ability to consciously switch between different frameworks for thinking, the most powerful ability of all.

To be able to do this, a manager, or leader, must of course be trained to use more than one framework. If the framework is implicit, that is, no one thinks about how the thinking is done, shifting frameworks becomes impossible.

Now, still putting yourself in the place of a CEO, would you like to have explicit management models in your company, as references, to help you decide what skills to hire for, and how to train your managers?

Assuming the answer is yes, do any of the models I have written about fit the needs of your company? If not, what are the needs of your company? What skills do your managers and leaders need to master to fulfill those needs?

Do you have anything like an explicit management model in use today? If not, what is stopping you, and how do you fix it?

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Coffee, LEGO movies, questionnaires, and complexity theory


I recently had a cup of coffee with a friend, and the discussion turned to the difference between complicated and complex, and why the difference is important.

I have had reason to think about that recently, so I had a couple of examples fresh in my mind, both relating to questionnaires and surveys.

As it turns out, many questionnaires you are asked to fill out have a common design mistake: The assumption that the subject under investigation is complicated, rather than complex. It is an easy mistake to make. The result is increased risk that the survey points you in the wrong direction.

Let's briefly define what we are talking about before digging in to the meat of the matter:
  • Complicated systems have many parts, but they also have predictable cause and effect relationships. For example, a mechanical watch is complicated. It is also predictable. It runs like...well, it runs like clockwork.
  • Complex systems have parts that can adapt to the behavior of other parts in the system. A family is a complex system. All family members both react and adapt to what other family members do. Business organisations, countries, teams and workgroups, ecological systems, the scouts, my photo club, and aquariums are also complex systems.

You can pick a mechanical watch apart and study each piece, that is analyse it, to figure out how it works.

On the other hand, studying each member of a family, or a software development team, or each fish in an aquarium, will not necessarily tell you how the system as a whole will work. A family has emergent properties, properties that belong to the family as a whole, but not to any of its members.

LEGO movies and unpredictability

Here is an emergent property of the system consisting of my eight year old son and me: Stop motion movie making.


My son asked me if we could make a LEGO movie. I said yes, of course, and we created the short movie above. It would be impossible to predict in advance that my son and I would produce a short LEGO movie featuring Thor and The Hulk.

In retrospect, it does not seem farfetched at all that we would do such a thing. It would be easy to construct a Future Reality Tree explaining why and how we did it. However, the tree would have to be created afterwards. It would be impossible to construct a tree that accurately predicts what we will do.

What on Earth does this have to do with surveys and questionnaires? As it turns out, a lot!

Questionnaires: The art of asking the wrong questions

To find out something about a complicated system, you can ask a question about a part of the system. If you want to know more, you can continue to ask questions about parts of the system. Eventually, you can compile the answers, and they will tell you a lot about the system as a whole.

With a complex system, that does not work very well. Knowing each part won't tell you the emergent properties of the system. Another problem is that with a complex system, you do not necessarily know which parts and properties of those parts, that are important to the functioning of the whole.

Systems where humans interact, are complex systems, but questionnaires are very often designed with the implicit assumption they are complicated, or even simple. Thus, most questionnaires, even the ones you pay specialists to create, are designed wrong. They do not tell you what you need to know!
As the illustration above shows, asking many specific questions means you get specific knowledge of the things you assume are important. however, you have no real basis for making these assumptions, because you haven't studied the system yet.

For example, some time ago a coffee shop I sometimes visit made a survey using touch screen computers and a set of specific questions. The questions were about the quality of service at the counter, whether the personnel behavied in an appropriate manner, whether there were cups and plates left on unoccupied tables in sight of the computer, and other things the management wanted to know.

As a fairly frequent guest, I noted that all of the things the questionnaire had questions about worked very well. There were problems, but the questionnaire did not mention them.

For example, there were several electrical outlets that were damaged well beyond the point of being dangerous, the toilets often ran out of soap and toilet paper, the free WiFi-system did not work. While  there was no problem with cups and plates lying around near the computer terminal, there were often several tables on the second floor that could not be used because they were covered in cups, plates, and glasses.

Nobody asked about it, because they did not know they should. The things they did ask about were the things they already had control of.

Thus, the questionnaire was all but useless as a tool for improving the café. All it could do was confirm that things the management had focused on in the past were ok.

The questionnaire created a false sense of having everything under control, which reduced the incitament to do real improvement.

Query Fatigue

Thinking requires a lot of energy, and the human brain has very limited energy reserves. This means a questionnaire with many questions will tire the brains answering the questions. Thus, the quality of the replies will degrade significantly, so that replies to question 26 will be much less trustworthy than replies to question 3.

Many people will of course opt out of replying to a questionnaire altogether, if it has too many questions.

To know more, you must ask less!

So, if a questionnaire gets worse the more comprehensive it is, what can you do about it?

Well, if asking more questions makes the questionnaire worse, then you can make it better by asking fewer questions.

If you ask only a few questions, then obviously you must ask the right ones, or you will learn little of significance. You cannot know what is important to ask, but there are people who know: The people answering the questionnaire. They probably do not know it as individuals, but collectively they do.

How can you tap into that knowledge? You can ask broad questions.
If you ask broad, open-ended questions like:

  • What is the single most important thing about X that we should improve?
  • What are the most important problems with X?

Then you will get the respondents to tell you what they believe is important, rather than telling you their beliefs about what you believe is important to them.

The difference is quite important.

There are many ways of doing this. Personally, I like the Crawford Slip brainstorming method. I also use a modified form of Net Promoter Score. (I had to modify it, because the original version of NPS botches the statistics and makes the assumption all systems are complicated.)

Scope and analysis paralysis

There are two important questionnaire design problems I am saving for another day and another post:

  • Scope: Which people should you ask? This is sometimes obvious. On the other hand, the obvious answer is often wrong, so you need to give this some thought.
  • Analysis paralysis: What do you do once you get the responses to your questionnaire? How do you know which answers are important, and which ones are not?
With those two questions I bid you farewell, for now. Until next time, think about questionnaires and surveys in your own organisation. Did they really tell you what you need to know? Were the big problems solved? If not, what can you do about it?

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Systems archetype: Success to the Successful


The Success to the Successful systems archetype explains how very small differences, and random factors, can lead to one actor in a system to be hugely more successful than other actors:

  • how monopolies are created
  • why income is so unevenly distributed in many countries
  • why success in the school system leads to success later in life
  • how Microsoft became dominant in the software market

...and many other phenomena. Success to the Successful provides an explanation model for the Pareto Principle, the observation that in many systems, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

To understand the causal loop diagram above: Assume that you have two actors A and B. A and B compete for resources. A and B may start out being equal. That is, there may be no observable difference that would give either a competitive advantage.

As long as the system is perfectly balanced, nothing interesting happens, but, if there is a random event that either favors A, or hampers B, then A will gain an advantage over B. A can use that advantage to gain more resources. Because resources are limited, B will be starved for resources. This will mean a greater advantage for A. When the cycle repeats, A will be able to gain even more resources, and B will have less.

If the cycle is not checked, it will continue until A kills off B. In cases where A and B are interdependent for survival, A will then die too.

Examples

Two recent Youtube videos provide excellent examples of the effects of the Success to the Successful systems archetype.

The first video describes how income distribution in the United States have changed in the past few decades:

The second video shows the same income distribution phenomenon occurring in Sweden. The video is in Swedish, and I have included it mainly for my Swedish readers.

Remedies


The video above shows Warren Buffet and Bill Gates discussing a remedy to the problem of uneven income distribution. It is well worth watching.

There are two tactics that can be used to restore balance in a Success to the Successful situation:

  • Identify the resource being unequally distributed, and redistribute it more equally. For example, this is why tax scales in many countries are progressive. It has nothing to do with justice. It is a way to prevent distribution imbalances that would eventually lead to economic collapse.
  • Separate the reinforcing structures, so that they no longer are allocated resources based on their relative results. For example, when Apple was being outcompeted by Microsoft and the PC manufacturers, Apple broke into the music market with the iPod. This reduced Apple's dependency on the computer market, a system dominated by Microsoft and the PC, and allowed it to build strength in an area where there was less competition.

Review

I have asked the very nice people in the Systems Thinking in Action group at Linkedin to review this post. The comment thread is here (for group members only). I will update this article whenever someone catches me making a mistake.

References

Higher Learning Research Communications, March 2013, Volume 3, No. 1
Systemic Perspective, Vol. 4, Gene Bellinger (Out of print. Visit the Systemswiki instead.)
Business Dynamics, John Sterman