Sunday, October 07, 2007

Q: How long is forever?

A: 10 Years

I was having a discussion with a colleague the other day about team maturity. His take was that the team of which we are both members is young, that we have been working together only for about ten months.

I was surprised. To me a young team is one that has been together about month. So I asked my teammate about his work history. Turns out that of his last two jobs, he was employed for ten years at the former and six years at the latter.

Holy moly!!!

In my forty plus years in the work force I had never met a person that had worked anywhere for ten years. I realized that I had stumbled upon a perspective on commercial life that was completely unlike my own.

So, I tuned in to listen closely. There was serious learning to be had.

One thing that I learned was that because my colleague’s perception of time is different, his expectation of team integration is different. It’s sort of like understanding time in terms of a fruit fly and a dog. A fruit fly is born, lives and dies in a span of 4 weeks. A dog lives for about twelve years. If you’re a fruit fly and you're not married with kids by Week 2, you can almost guarantee that you’ll be foraging around garbage heaps old and alone. On the other hand a dog doesn’t even start dating until Year 2.

It’s all about perception.

So I realized that what I thought to be running late in terms of team formation, my colleague had accepted as right on schedule. Whereas my thinking is that a team needs to go through the stages of Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing in about 30 days, for my colleague a year is a very acceptable time span.

In a way I was envious. Part of me longs for the notion of doing interesting work in a place for ten years. Jeepers, why settle for 10 years? Why not 30 years?

I wonder what it would be like to say, “Oh yeah, I worked with Bill for 30 years. I remember when his kids were born. I remember the day he came in with pictures of his first grandkid. I remember what it was like when his mother died. We all went to the wake. It was a tough time. He was really hard to get along with after the funeral. It took him a long time to talk about it.”

The way I see it is that at one time work wasn't something that we did to make money to pay down the credit card balance, just like shopping wasn't something that we prefer to do online in order to avoid the human contact of a sales person. Work was something that we did to feed the kids, pay tuition and take our place in the world.

Oh yeah, it’s true that 5% of the population still owned 50% of the places where we went to work and most of the work was monotonous, if not dangerous . But, so what? We had each other.

It seems as if we’re free agents completely focused on the short term, never knowing what team we’ll be playing for next year. Why get close to someone? We’re all just passing through.

It takes time to have a common experience upon which to have a history. And, a culture without a history is no culture at all.

Sadly, given the velocity of life today, it seems as if the experience of longevity in the workplace has gone the way of the rotary phone. We don’t seem to have to the time to dial the numbers.

And some of us will miss it.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Q: What’s the easiest way to control your mouth?

A: Format your language

Here's a dirty little secret: I have trouble expressing myself using my mouth. When I talk it’s almost as if my oral cavity has a mind of its own. I mean, I could try to be doing something as simple as ordering breakfast as the counter, completely intent on getting two eggs scrambled, ham and a black coffee. The next thing I know something that sounds like the Gettysburg Address is coming out of my lips: I am asking the waitress what she thinks of Hillary Clinton, offering a medium size dissertation about the proper roasting of coffee and then maybe, if there’s time left I’ll mutter, “Oh by the way, please give me two eggs scrambled with ham and a black coffee.”

Then the next thing that I know I am wolfing down breakfast trying to be on time for my next appointment.

I’ve been described as a person that has a dense neural net, an opinion on just about everything coupled with a fondness for talking and a gift for gab.

Believe me, I can go on… and on and on. And I will.

I am not alone. At another time, in another place I played in bands. These were more like cooperatives. Nobody was on salary. We all volunteered our time to make music and maybe make some money from making music. That it was a volunteer activity meant that anybody in the band was entitled to introduce musical ideas for us to pursue. And many did...for as long as it took. In most cases in took a long time. Twenty minutes of talk time to introduce a musical idea that took 20 seconds to execute.

This sort of band never really made a lot of music or a lot of money. It took too much time to get the sound into the air. All we heard was talk, talk, talk.

I was having what one could call a discouraging musical experience. If I wanted to keep playing cooperatively something had to change.

So I had an idea. It went like this: What if anytime anyone of us had an idea to present, we would start out by saying verbatim, “I have a musical idea. Here is the idea:” and then present the idea in ten words or less.

My bandmates thought I was daffy.

I said that even though it sounded hokey; we should just say the words no matter what. Always start with, “I have a musical idea:”

My thinking was that if you follow the format, the idea will come out clearly and concisely. So we tried it.

I found my suggestion quite useful when I executed it. After all, it was my idea.

My experience with others was not quite so useful. One of two things happened. Either a player would go to no end to justify his or her right to take as much time as he or she wanted to express even the smallest of ideas while never really expressing an idea. Or, the player would be speechless, unable to express a musical idea within the ten word constraint. It was painful to observe.

So, over time I learned that in the cooperative context, the best way to have a good musical experience is to show up and play. No talking allowed. Thus, I did a lot of pick up work and jam sessions. I didn’t make any real money. But at least I got to play and enjoy it.

I knew that if I wanted to make enough money to feed the kids, I would have to do salaried work.

Salaried gigs were a lot different. Each and every band leader knows that time is money. So the rules are simple: Here’s your play list, here’s your charts, here’s the rehearsal schedule. Know your stuff and show up on time. That was the good news. The bad news was that the democratic, free flow of musical ideas was sorely lacking.

So I went back to software.

Now, I think that making software is more like making music than not. You put a bunch of people in a room (virtual or real) and you hope that all have a similar conceptualization about the software to be made. Then you play. Hopefully the software (music) that comes out is what everybody had in mind.

Most times it’s not.

And then the talking starts and it goes on and on and on …. And the next thing you know you have two hour meetings and no software. Four hour meetings and no software. Then two day off-sites with no software. Then one week off-sites….This can go on for years, until the project is canceled.

Yet, the solution is so simple. What if every word uttered in a design meeting or code review had to conform to a certain format? What if when expressing an idea you said, “I have an idea and here it is: [in ten words or less]”?

Or “I have a question and here it is: Is it, Are There, Where, Who, What, When, or How…[in ten words or less]?”.

Or, “I have an observation and here it is [in ten words or less]”

You might very well say that there are some ideas and questions that require more than ten words to express, unless the idea is a really, really, really big idea such as F=ma.

You will be correct because some ideas can take reams of paper to explain. Well then, do the obvious; write the idea down and then go to your meeting and say: “I have an idea and her it is:”. Then pass out the paper(s) on which your idea is written. You'll amaze your friends and dazzle your relatives.

Or you can create a language format the works for your group. I mean, jeepers, it’s not about making cognitive zombies. It’s about having a way to get the best possible software (music) out the door as quickly as possible.

Or, you can talk on and on and on and on and maybe, just maybe, one day you’ll get around to making software that changes the world, if you live that long.