3/19… Not Bad

3 = number of blog posts that I published in 2016

19 = number of blog posts that I actually wrote in 2016

Not publishing… I think that this may have been my most impactful discovery in 2016. Writing with no intent to publish is something I hope to continue. I have been writing so often this year… to help me reflect… to help me structure otherwise scattered thoughts… to help me focus.

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“You’re letting your brain dial turn your fear volume up” – Finn

For years, it seems that my lifelong fear of public speaking has been secretly impacting my ability to blog without me knowing it. Those who know me best know what I go through before stepping on stage to speak. Even standing up to ask a question causes my heart to race. This seemed to creep in when I wrote blog posts as well. I would often be so very inspired to start writing, but then constantly be thinking of the reader, and how they might (or might not) be entertained or inspired by my every word. I was incapable of simply letting the words flow from me (with some rare exceptions when I was compelled to share something very personal).

This year I decided to try writing just for me. “Just ignore that magic Publish button Martin”. It was a self imposed challenge, and in many ways an experiment. I wanted to know a bit more about how I structure my own thoughts, and how my loosely connected ideas might change when I tried to explain them to others. I also wanted to further explore my own fears of public speaking, and see how they may have manifested in other areas of my life.

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“Dude, suckin’ at something is the first step to being sorta good at something” – Jake

Interestingly enough, with the pressure of “Is this good enough?” gone, I discovered that the very act of writing is a powerful tool for me. Not just challenge my ideas and strategies, but also as an effective method to perform thorough self-retrospectives. I started experimenting with writing extensive retrospectives on my workshops, my business trips, and even started revisiting my failed efforts in answering difficult questions throughout the year. There seems to be something very powerful about how one chooses to structure recent memories when converting them into text. It helps you extract so many subtle details that are not easily remembered when just quietly reflecting or simply talking about the events.

To be clear, I am not simply describing a personal diary. I am in fact talking about blogging here. On each occasion, I am intending the reader to be an unknown “someone else”, “somewhere on the internet”. The only change that I have introduced was removing the pressure that I have always felt about quality, and focused on fully exploring the topic to MY satisfaction. I guess, you could call it a “Potentially Publishable Blog” or “Minimum Viable Post” (sorry… I could not resist).

Okay. That felt good… So now the question: do I publish this?

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Am I A Good Manager?

I am sitting in a cafe in San Francisco, enjoying my double espresso and killing  bit of time before I fly home. I love this city. There is so much more of it that I want to visit and explore, so why am I instead churning over a simple question?

 

Mirror mirror in my mind

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I had a lovely day yesterday with two friends from back home who recently moved out here. I worked with Sylvain at a software company in Ottawa for over a decade. One problem we clearly have is that when we do get together, our conversations tend to drift to our shared experiences at that company. I am quite positive that this gets annoying for anyone else who is along for the ride (sorry Andrew, and thank you for accommodating our social dysfunction).

Somewhere along the way, Sylvain asked me the following question:

“Do you think you are a good manager?”

I opened my mouth expecting an answer to join me in this effort. I closed my mouth. Opened it again… still no answer. It has now been a full day and I find myself still considering this question. It feels like an amazingly simple question, but I have discovered it to be very complex. Not just in how I evaluate “good” but also with respect to how I feel about the way I go about answering it.

Am I a good manager? What does this simple question mean? Am I contributing to a safe environment for the team? Am I challenging them? Am I helping them with their careers? How would I gather evidence to make such an assessment? Also, what are we comparing me to? The last person in this role? Other people that members of the team have reported to over their careers? Expectations that were set over a lifetime of growing and learning? Wait, this is only considering those who were in my group. I would need to consider many dimensions for members of other teams. What about the other managers? I worked with them on a daily basis to help our department function. I should consider my department executives, and the senior leadership of the company. With each new connection, I am not only measuring my effectiveness using different parameters of what interactions took place, but also applying a different measuring stick based on their personal histories and beliefs.

 

It’s just a question

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At this point, Sylvain deserves an answer for such a great question. I won’t lie, I truly wanted to answer “Yes I am”. But I not only struggled to properly evaluate myself given everything I just wrote, it also weighed on me that I had not really ever considered this before. I really need to do this. This should be important to me. This is important to me.

I started to think back to my time at my old company. I always discover a lot of joy thinking back to the relationships that I formed there. Some of my closest friendships formed there over years. We still meet often.

Some of my greatest learnings (professional and personal) took place at that company as well. And… Not all of these learnings were emotionally positive. While I know of many individuals who speak quite fondly of my efforts within the team and across the organisation, I have also heard that others do not share these views. Especially my colleagues in the management layer. I have been told that some of the executives and directors mostly remember me as being aggressive… and angry. To them, I suspect that this is the lasting image of me that will stay with them forever. Truthfully, I was really quite hurt when I heard these opinions. It rocked me for a few weeks, but over time I have learned to accept it. I do not like being remembered this way, but those opinions are very fair. They reflect the relationships as they existed towards the end of my time there, and the deterioration of those relationships was a big part of why I left, and when I left.

 

So???

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I am still struggling with the question. Am I a good manager? Do I think that I am a good manager? Did I do a good job being a manager? Clearly I need to consider a point in time. Opinions on this question change depending on when the question might be asked. While trying to evolve a way to properly evaluate myself, I realised that there are some of the dimensions of “good management” that I should have considered more often:

 

Thinking About the Now, and Then

I have always felt that the role of a manager required releasing control of tactics, and helping others contribute to evolve a common strategy. I wanted to focus on providing others some insights to help them identify factors that contribute to their ability to make responsible and informed decisions.

However, as I consider the question that started this blog, I now am trying to define how I might best have worked on the relationships that could best define “Am I a good manager?” Taking a moment to reflect on individual relationships, it is immediacy that matters most. I am trying to consider a specific point in time, and evaluate all individual relationships. Why was each relationship important (from both perspectives)? How was I contributing to (or damaging) those elements that I and the other person each felt were the most valuable? Working across the identified relationships that I maintained at that time, I can likely form an evaluation of how I did… At that point in time.

I can then move to a different point in time to gather data and see how things changed. The very act of doing this causes me to question what internal and external factors contributed to the changes. If only I was still working at that company, I could probably align it to emails and events that might have impacted priorities and behaviours across the organisation.

Based on this effort, I am identifying some moments at my old company where I feel that I indeed was a good manager. I can also clearly circle some periods where in fact I would say that I was not. Certainly the period when I left is the strongest example of me not being a good manager, and leaving probably stands as the best “good manager” decision that I made at that time.

 

What is your point?

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I should apologise here. Most often when I write something, it is to share something that I feel is well thought out and “clear to me”. This time, I am writing to help me make sense of something. Specifically, why is this one question was so difficult to answer, and why that difficulty bothered me so much.

I think that I have settled on the following ideas:

  • One method of evaluating yourself as a manager is to do so based on maintaining relationships (in all directions)
  • As a tool, I have found that this works best when you focus on all relationships at a specific point in time. (If I had done this iteratively, I suspect that it would have been much easier and I might have designed an interesting approach to do so)
  • This helped me be be a bit more objective about my behaviours and helped me move away from summarising decades of professional work when considering the question.
  • I accept that I find that it is exceptionally hard to evaluate myself as a good or bad manager without providing context: “with who?”, “under what conditions?” and “pursuing what goals?”. It is a bit like being asked “are you the right person for any job?” without knowing what the job is and who you will work with.

I wrote my friend Sylvain to thank him. I feel that I have stumbled on an interesting new method to review my work week to week, and help me identify opportunities to improve my effectiveness within organisations. I have not fully flushed out an approach just yet, but it is a good start. I am anxious to see how this goes.

I think that the next time I am asked if I am a good manager, I will answer: “I know that I always want to be.”

 

How Rules Change the Game

It has been a rough 2016 for me so far… It started with me slipping and falling down some steps back in late December. That resulted in some very annoying problems with my neck, a solid month of lying flat in bed and about another six weeks of rehab. No sooner than I was cleared to get active, I seem to have picked up some form of never ending flu or cold that has had me once again flat out in bed.

The truth is… that I am bored.

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Win Win Win!!!

But, I am not writing about that. This is just some context. Because of this boredom, I have found myself watching a bit more sports than normal. As I watch, and listen to the commentators, I am hearing a consistent theme. Players are being not only rewarded, but applauded for abusing the rules entirely against the spirit and the principles of the game. Principles that existed in the sport long before these rules were introduced to help ensure their persistence.

  • “That’s a veteran play” – An NFL quarterback uses a hard snap count to get the defender to jump offside… The resulting 5 yard penalty and first down is awarded without having to run a play.
  • “Amazing awareness” – An NBA point guard intentionally initiates contact with a defender who has left his feet, and throws up a low percentage shot quickly… The resulting team foul lands the defenders team into penalty, and in addition the shooter is awarded two free throws.

These rules were never intended to be used as offensive tools.

  • The rules in football surrounding the start of every play evolved over decades with an intention to ensure that nobody gets an unfair advantage. It was intended to defend a prone quarterback.
  • Most rules about contact in basketball evolved dramatically, but initially were introduced with the intention to eliminate (or at least reduce) contact between players.

But then competition sets in. An independent referee is in place to pass judgement. Rulings on fairness fall into a model of “allowed/not allowed”. Principles are pushed to the side. The sport changes, and the way in which it is played, and coached changes. The way that we observe and cheer changes. Players are mocked for being tricked into violating the rules, and the trickster is heralded. In many sports, teams ensure that they have a professional “instigator” or “rat” to try to draw the other teams into foolish rule violations.

It upsets me to be honest. It creates an environment where role models are effectively teaching our children “As long as you can get away with it, it is okay”. I have never met a parent who admits to teaching this sort of thing to their kids.

 

Worst possible example

Deep in our hearts, a few already suspect what I am about to suggest. Football… or Soccer (Depends on where you are from, or what you feel like calling it) I love this game. I have always been passionate about it. To many, it IS the beautiful game. There is so much complexity and teamwork needed… and skill… and yet, it often gets decided by one person feeling a grab or touch near or in the penalty box to ensure a sure goal from the spot. 

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Diving in men’s football is so well known that people who have never ever seen a game are familiar with this problem. It is a prime example of playing to the limit of the rule… cheating to get the rule to work in your favour.

But… there is hope. When rules are missing, and principle is the guiding source of behaviour… things change. We see this happen every game. We see it when a player goes down, and the ball is kicked off the pitch to stop the play. The ball is then returned to the team once the game restarts. It is a tradition, and it is almost never violated. Even the most supportive of home crowds would turn on their team if they violated this principle of fair play.

A similar principle exists in the touching of gloves in combat sports. If ever a combatant were to use this to advantage, they would pay a very steep price within the community of fighters.

Interestingly enough, I am willing to bet that if a rule were put in place for either of these examples, teams (or combatants) would do their very best to gain an advantage when adhering to the rule. It would destroy the spirit. The rule would replace the principle and would evolve into some form of competitive advantage as all rules do.

 

Since when do you write about sports?

Well, I don’t. This is really about leadership. When you ask your team to work within a set of rules, they will not just play to the limit of those rules… they are smart and may find ways to unintentionally abuse the rules to achieve goals. Principles however are something that can be discussed… often. I find that teams who have worked in a rule based culture rarely have a grasp of “why” we are trying to do something. This sort of conversation however is the cornerstone of a principle based culture. Even in the football (soccer) example above, I am willing to bet that any self respecting fan with children happily explains the principle when their young one asks why his or her favourite team is giving the ball back after an injury. The “why” IS the point. The “why” is what makes the act important, and is something that we feel we can align to.

I won’t be sick or injured forever. At some point, I will be able to get back into the swing of things, and I will be able to look at this period knowing that one new idea came to mind. And when the time comes, I will try to remember this. I will soon be part of a team trying to adopt a new methodology, or an approach… and I will do my best to suggest principles over rules, and open dialogue over why they matter, and not where the limits live.

 

 

It begins….

Let’s be clear. I love the relationships that can be formed by software testers. When we focus our efforts on empathy and relationship building, we are in a position to help everyone around us be great. Technically, we provide skills and techniques that can help designers, developers, product managers… everyone who has a role to play in the ideation and creation of software products. We can truly be a developer’s best friend. Step one is making sure that they know this. Start today.