“Requirements simply don’t exist…

“Requirements simply don’t exist. A requirement, by definition, is something required: the basis for a contract, a way of managing an external service provider, part of a deal where a buyer promises money and a contractor promises to deliver something well-defined. But within an enterprise, what does it mean for something to be “required”? A requirement purports to express a necessity, but where could this necessity come from? In a publicly held company, maximizing shareholder value might be a necessity, but how could a particular feature of an application be necessary when there might be many other ways of maximizing shareholder value?”

Mark Schwartz – A Seat at the Table: IT Leadership in the Age of Agility

Header Image: A spring sunrise taken on one of my pre-work walks. This was one of those cold and crisp days when sunrise often seems so vibrant.

How long do we need to keep transposing for?

I’m currently sat in one of those cafes that are now ubiquitous across the UK – the burgundy one, not the green one.

Next to me the conversation is of exam results and their meaning.

In England we have had a transition, in recent years, from a system in which the classification was given in letters to one that is given in numbers.

The letter system went from A* to G with A* being the best and F the poorest, a C and above being regarded as a pass.

The new numbers system goes from 9 to 1 with 1 being a low score and 9 being the best score. A 4 is now a Standard Pass and 5 is a Strong Pass.

This is where the conversation comes in, because the teenager on the table says: “Well I don’t need to worry about passing because I already have a 4 even before I’ve sat my exams.”

The adults accompanying him both look at each other puzzled: “What’s a 4?”

I’m pretty sure that one of these adults is the teenagers parent, and yet they are still confused by a system that has been being rolled out for a couple of years.

And so commenced the transpose from one system to another.

“So is a 4 like a C?”

“Sort of, it’s a pass.”

“What grade are you aiming for?”

“I’m hoping for an 8 or 9?”

“But you’ve already got a 4?”

“An 8 is better than a 4”

“So is an 8 like an A and a 9 like an A*”

“Sort of”

This is the point at which the teenager gives in and chooses to keep it simple for the parent, who’s clearly still confused. The reality is that there is no direct correlation – see the chart in this link for more information.

The adults’ frame of reference is one scale, the teenager’s is a different scale. The only way the adults can understand is by transposing, the teenager can’t transpose because they only know the new system.

We do all sorts of transposing in life, to get from one frame of reference to another. Somewhere along the line we sometime switch from one to another and sometimes we don’t. And so I wonder, how long does it take for us to switch? What are the reasons for us sticking with an old, out of date frame of reference? What are the things that help us switch to a new one?

Because it’s Friday: “Becoming” by Jan van IJken

This is a truly amazing time-lapse film, with amazing detail.

Watch as, over 6 minutes, a single cell zygote transforms into a complete hatched larva of an alpine newt. I remember being fascinated by cell division as a child in biology classes, but always struggled to comprehend how that became a living organism, that’s precisely what this film shows.

There are a few more details about the film here, but it’s definitely one to sit back and watch:

Is it me? My Speakerphone Dilemma

I think that I’m a relatively mild mannered individual, but there are certain things that get under my skin and into my head. When I work in an open plan office one of the things that puts tension straight into my shoulders is the speakerphone.

There are certain people who will, quite regularly, phone someone else on either their mobile phone, or the resident desk phone, and they will use the speaker to undertake that conversation.

Does anyone else find this annoying? Is it me?

Why? This is my dilemma, I have no rational reason for my ire. Why is someone on a speakerphone more annoying than two people having a conversation? One person talking to another person via a speaker is not significantly different, is it? Yet somehow it is, it is very different.

There are some differences:

  • People talking on a speakerphone always seem to be a little louder than two people conversing face-to-face. There’s something about a physical dialogue that causes us to calibrate our volume down to the level required. The reverse seems to be true for speakerphone conversations, we calibrate the volume upwards.
  • There’s something needless about it. I talk on calls all day utilising a headset so people are only hearing one side of the dialogue. I do this so that other people aren’t overly disturbed, so why can’t they? If you really need to use a speaker there are plenty of places in the building where that wouldn’t disturb anyone.
  • The sound from a speaker is, to me at least, harsher than a real voice. Even when the volume is turned down I can still tell when someone is on a speaker, and that harshness enhances the annoyance.

But are these enough to justify my grumpiness? That is my dilemma.

Header image: These snowdrops were getting ready for breaking out into bloom in Levens Park 

What’s wrong with being in the middle of the Bell (Normal) Curve?

It’s that time of year when we are encouraged to plan our year ahead and to become exceptional. Around us everything has become hyper-aspirational, with advertising selling us one-of-a-kind dream holidays, whilst also encouraging us to go extreme and add in another medium sized pizza for £5. Fitness and health-food adverts are everywhere with pictures of extraordinary people in them. None of us are being urged to be normal, why would we want to be normal?

Whenever I use the word normal I imagine a normal curve. We are surrounded by normal curves, you may know it as the bell curve, they are the same thing. These are the graphs that start at low, progress a little before rising sharply to a plateau, they then drop just as sharply before again levelling out at the same low level at the other side – making the outline of a bell.

You may not realise it, but these curves are found in many, many places. Many human dimensions follow a normal distribution – height, ring finger length, shoe size.

In reality most of these examples are not truly normal; it would be more accurate to describe them as approximately normal. This means that they are close enough to normal for us to use the normal distribution mathematical model to discern meaning.

What meaning can we discern from a curve? What wisdom can a simple line give us? There are many, but I want to return to the example that we started with and that pressure to step out from the mediocre – to differentiate ourselves from the normal.

If the normal is a bell curve, and the chances are it is, differentiating ourselves means moving to the edges of that curve. Most of the time exhorted to move to the right of the chart, to be exceptionally better than the pack.

I feel like we need an example. I have no evidence for this, but I suspect that the amount of reading that people do is approximately a bell curve. A few people read a lot, but not many, most people read a reasonable amount, and then a few other people read very little. The chances are, you are in the middle of this curve, I can say that with confidence because most people are somewhere in the middle, that’s how a normal curve works. Mathematically 68% of people are in the middle bit marked A below and 95% of people are in A+B:

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The leaves 5% of people in those tail bits at either end. If you want to be at the top of the curve, to the right, you need to recognise that the top only represents 2.5%. But the curve tells us more than that, it tells us that to move out of A we need to be twice as different as those within the middle of A, if you want to move out of B then you need to be at least three times different.

(Sorry for the terribly imprecise definition above, if you want to get more precise then please feel free to investigate the 68–95–99.7 rule)

These numbers show us just how hard it is to be truly exceptional, step back from the edge just a small amount and your are back in the pack with the other 84% of people. So you do need to be confident that driving to be truly exceptional is worth it, which it probably is in a few areas of life. For most things, though, I’m sure that it’s a much better for us to aim for the centre of the curve, to be normal.

We’ve already seen that being truly exceptional in one particular area is very difficult to achieve, it requires a huge amount of effort, and all of that effort drives to specialisation. Let’s return to our reading example, if you are going to be an exceptional reader then you are going to dedicate all of your time and energy to reading which means that you will have limited energy available for other pursuits. Your dedication to reading will mean that you unlikely to be a exceptional painter or even a writer. You may even struggle to be a normal painter or writer. It’s a trivial example, but I think that many of us would be far happier and more fulfilled in our lives if we weren’t seeking to be extraordinary and were more focused on being normal across a wide spectrum of areas.

While I was preparing this post I came across an article by Venkatesh Rao who argues, in a far more extensive way than I have, for something very similar: