“Two percent of the people think; three percent of the people…

“Two percent of the people think; three percent of the people think they think; and ninety-five percent of the people would rather die than think.”

George Bernard Shaw

(I don’t think that there is any scientific basis for this quote 🙂 )

Office Speak: Onboarding

The Very Short Version

The act of joining and integrating into an organisation, but also…

The Longer (More Interesting?) Version

There are certain words which I like and others that I don’t. My preference for a word often relates to its feel and aesthetic. I like word which are simple and elegant, onboarding, to me, is neither of these things. I see it as a clumsy overweight word that doesn’t have a straightforward meaning or portray a complete concept. For onboarding this distaste is compounded by my common dislike of flipping a verb into a noun, particularly when the original word in this case was an adjective.

The concept that onboarding is trying to portray is one of someone joining a ship or a plane – getting on board. This concept was at some point in the late 1990s applied to people joining an organisation and thus was born the term onboarding, it was rarely used before then. Wikipedia relates the term to organisational socialisation and in what is quite a long article highlights the various approaches and challenges of onboarding. Whilst I, personally, don’t like the word it makes sense in this context and highlights an important challenge that many organisations experience as people join them and try to become productive. Onboarding as, if nothing else, easier to say than organisational socialisation.

This is where, for me, the more significant problem arises – term expansion and subsequent degradation. Sometimes it feels like every act of implementation or change has become onboarding:

“I’m just onboarding this application”

“Next week we will onboard our new facilities”

“We are in the process of onboarding several updated processes”

“We are looking forward to onboarding our new customer”

“The new cat is part way through the onboarding activities”

None of these are organisational socialisation, apart from, perhaps, the cat.

This is what happens in the modern world of corporate speak, people leap into using a term that they perceive everyone else is using without understanding its origin or original meaning. This leads to expansion of the term’s meaning and a degradation of its value. Eventually the meaning is so diverse that another term gets picked and the cycle continues.

We don’t appear to have reached peak onboarding yet, if the Google search trends are anything to go by, but I suspect that we will have found a replacement for it in the next few years. I wonder what the replacement will be?

Office Speak: The Tracker

The Very Short Version

A tracker is a list: Normally it’s a list of activities that need to be tracked and is often created in Microsoft Excel.

The Longer (More Interesting?) Version

A tracker is a list which is commonly a list of activities that someone has decided to put together for their own purposes which has sometimes been created from a template. The common purpose of a tracker is to place responsibility on other people for completion of the activities within it. The infection mechanism for trackers is simple, only requiring an individuals name or initials to be added to a line in a tracker at some point. Once added the individual is permanently infected by the tracker with limited chance of rehabilitation. Individuals do not need to be present to become infected.

Trackers are reproducing organisms that can multiply into plague inducing swarms if hygiene activities are not undertaken. There can be multiple trackers for each activity and multiple activities within a tracker, there are even organisations with trackers that track the number of trackers. Each tracker is commonly associated with a progress meeting which will require all of the infected members to attend for the entirety of the meeting even though they may only have limited exposure to the disease. A single record on a tracker is enough to mandate attendance at the progress meeting, some trackers have several hundred records associated with them and the expectation is that every line in the tracker is being worked on.

The common tracker is also likely to morph from a simple organism into a complex mind-bending organism that confuse everyone apart from the creator of the tracker. The scope of a tracker is one of it’s primary morphing mechanisms, the scope is rarely limited which allows it to grow and shrink at any time.

The primary infection source for trackers is Microsoft Excel which, when combined with email can achieve impressive rates of disease amongst the standard workforce. This form of contagion is extremely difficult to monitor as it slips unseen into the normal operation of many businesses through the standard communication mechanisms. The multiplication effect of email communicated trackers produces a significant increase in repetitive data being sent across these mechanisms whilst at the same time making the creation of a comprehensive view of the works required almost impossible. The lack of a comprehensive view of activities is commonly managed through the use of another tracker.

Trackers are non-exclusive infectors with workers experiencing the combined effects from exposure to multiple trackers. The nature of these symptoms differ between the trackers with each tracker having morphed slightly from its previous incarnation and trackers themselves having no defined structure, other than being based on a list. Individuals with multiple tracker infections will be expected to attend the progress meeting for each infection, even if the infection relates to a single activity being undertaken.

One effect of trackers is to make people colour-blind, this has been concluded from a multi-year review of the contents of trackers and the formatting of the cells within these trackers. Particular favourites are red text-on-blue background and yellow text-on-green background.

It is very rare for a tracker to die, they nearly always become dormant before they can be completed. They then lie dormant until someone, generally the person who created them, revives them and reinvigorates the infection for the people named within the tracker.

Some trackers are able to slip under the attention radar and possess cloaking capabilities. If an individual has not noticed an infection by a particular tracker they are liable to be embarrassed in a progress meeting. If you are invited to a progress meeting it is likely that you have been infected even though that infection may not be evident.  Trackers do not actively alert those that have been infected, the disease lies cloaked until a meeting.

Other, more effective, mechanisms for tracking activity do exist and can be successfully deployed as a vaccine, but these are only partially successful and rarely eradicate the tracker infestation completely. This does not mean that attempts to do so are without merit because deployment of alternative mechanisms will allow workers to be effective in the parts of their life where the tracker has been eliminated.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with tracker infections, I am considering the creation of a support group for those impacted and would like to know whether you would be interested in attending. I will, of course, create a tracker for this.

Concept of the Day: The Law of the Instrument – “To the man with a hammer…”

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Abraham Maslow

More commonly expressed as:

“To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

(I’ve not attributed the common version to anyone because that appears to be up for debate)

The Law of the Instrument is another of those cognitive biases, which appear to be fruitful ideas for these Concept of the Day posts. I think that the reason I find biases so fascinating is that they reveal things about the way we think and provide explanations for why we behave in certain ways and certain situations. The Law of Instrument highlights our tendency to place an over-reliance upon a familiar tool. I suspect that each of us has at least one example of situations we’ve encountered where this has been the case.

I used to have a colleague who would write documents in Microsoft Excel spreadsheets – which his Personal Assistant would then retype into a Microsoft Word document. He knew how to use a spreadsheet, so that’s what he used.

In a similar vein, many organisations send out corporate communications as Microsoft Word documents because that is what the corporate communications team are comfortable creating them in. This annoys everyone, especially the people on mobile devices.

We’ve covered Excel and Word, so I didn’t want to leave PowerPoint out :-). Not sure I need to give an example here though. we have the phrase “Death by PowerPoint” for a reason.

Most of the features of most applications are rarely used, because people don’t go looking for more effective ways of doing things. Once you’ve worked out how to create a table it’s likely that you’ll always create a table that way. I’ve seen several methods employed by applications to nudge us away from our ingrained behaviours, but we keep coming back to the hammer that we already have available to us.

Organisations are dependent upon the data analysis that people do in Microsoft Excel because that’s the tool they are familiar with, when far better tools exist.

The language used by many coding projects is defined by what the chosen developer knows. There’s rarely much discussion about finding the right language, and hence the right developer, for the project.

There’s a current trend to move people to Agile project management methods. In many cases organisations are moving from having one methodology for project management, which was only appropriate to some types of project, to another project management methodology which is only appropriate for a different set of projects. The thought of running two different project management methodologies is regarded as heresy. Agile has become the one-size-fits-all answer to project management.

The Abraham Maslow in the original quote is the same one who produced the Hierarchy of Needs. What better example of The Law of the Instrument could you wish for? The Hierarchy of Needs has, for many, become the universal tool for explaining people’s behaviour. Whilst The Hierarchy of Needs is a useful tool, it’s very unlikely that there is a universal tool for explaining all of human behaviour.

Like all biases, the first step in overcoming it is to recognise that it exists. What we all need in our lives is someone who is regulalrly asking us “why did you do it like that?” Our answer to that question will be a good guide to thye impact of The Law of Instrument in our lives. Another good question to ask is “is there a different way of doing this?” It’s unlikely there isn’t an alternative but if you can’t think of one then you need to challenge your bias.

Cognitive Bias Posts:

The 7 Personas of the Office Move – Which one are you? Which one am I?

I’ve seen more office moves than I care to count. They happen regularly in most organisations and ought to be quite straightforward, but they aren’t. All of those pesky people and their personalities get in the way. I’ve met a number of these personalities down the years and thinking they can be arranged into about 7 different personas:

1. Stephen Simple

Stephen is the basis of all office move plans. He is the person who has a few things on his desk that can be moved in a single go. He sometimes has a single drawer pedestal of other things that need to be moved, but sometimes he doesn;t even need to do that. Moving Stephen just requires the pedestal and the few items on his desk to be moved from one desk to the other.

On the day of Stephen’s move he moves in a few minutes with the minimum of fuss. Just tell him when and where and it will be done, most of the time he will move himself.

2. Cathy Clutter

Cathy’s desk is a wonderful assortment of personal trinkets, photos of family members and pets, internal process guides, corporate and cartoon mugs, tubs of pens, and management or technical books. Each of these items look to the uninformed randomly placed, but each one has its place and each one has its uses. Once placed each object will remain in that place, objects are never discarded.

The desk pedestal that Cathy uses is full of even more of the wonderful assortment. There will be more wonderful assortment under the desk, on top of the pedestal and on any flat surface that Cathy can claim as her own.

Moving Cathy is best left to Cathy. There’s no point in trying to move her, she’ll need to place everything in its place, even if you think it’s in the right place it won’t be.

Starting the move is a significant event for Cathy, she’ll need plenty of notice to prepare. Preparation will not involve moving anything, preparation is a state of mind. Once she’s started the move, she will complete it, but it will take a while, her challenge is starting.

3. Keith Cupboards

Keith’s desk is a tidy place without too much clutter, but start planning an office move and Keith will feature highly on your list of issues to be resolved. He may look a bit like Stephen Simple above the desk, but he is nothing like Simple away from the desk. As you look around the open office and ponder the ownership of various cupboards distributed around the answer will become clear once you engage with Keith.

There is no doubt in Keith’s mind that everything that is in a cupboard is still required. It’s all there for a reason and Keith needs to be able to get access to it at all times. He might not need regular access, but he needs all of it, in the office and not in long-term storage.

Planning Keith’s move will be a logistical challenge. All of the cupboards will need to move and all of the cupboards are full. Keith is unlikely to be prepared to move anything between cupboards so the whole thing is going to have to move, that may be easier said than done. Moving Keith’s desk is a relatively straightforward thing, moving Keith is significantly more complicated. Moving Keith may even involve a structural engineer.

There’s little point in discussing a reduction in cupboard space with Keith, if anything he wants more. Any suggestion of reduced capacity will make him intransigent, the skill is to understand what’s in it for Keith, but don’t ever trade more cupboard space for the move.

4. William Whiteboards

Similar to Keith, William’s desk is relatively clean and straightforward to move. William has a different challenge; William will only move where he has the required whiteboard space, furthermore, he would prefer to move with his whiteboards.

William’s whiteboards are a work of art with numerous diagrams, columns of writing, arrows, boxes and colour. William’s whiteboards have become an extension to his mind and any separation from them would cause significant psychological impact.

The reliance upon whiteboards will significantly restrict the locations where you can place William. the need for a wall to support the whiteboards will mandate that he is at the edge of any room. Please do not expect to reduce the size of his whiteboard or try to fool him into using an inferior whiteboard, this will have a significant impact upon his well-being. He will not “just get over it”.

5. Penny Precise

Penny is happy to move, but she wants to know what the move will entail. Will she be closer to, or further away from a window? Will she have a view out of the window? Will she still be next to her colleagues? Will she be closer to or further away from the water filter machine? Will she be sat next to a corridor? What distance will she be from the toilets? Will it be lighter or darker than her current location? How about heat? Or draughts? Or air conditioning?

On the day of the move what time will she be moving? Will she be moving her pedestal, or will someone else? Will she be taking her fan with her? Who will be moving the phone? Will she be moving her laptop? Who else will be moving at the same time as her? What should she do if she isn’t available on the day of the move? What’s the name of the person doing the move? Will she be moving her own chair or using the one that’s already there?

She’ll have even more questions on the actual day of the move.

Penny can be exhausting, each question is valid, many of the answers are unknown, others have obvious answers. The answer that you want to give to many of the questions is another question: “why do you care?” But Penny does care, that’s why she is asking. She doesn’t necessarily care about the answers, she cares about the questions.

6. Lesley Leaver

Lesley’s desk is a bit cluttered, but nothing like as bad as Cathy’s, she’s also got some items in various cupboards around the place. The truth is Lesley has no idea what she’s got and that’s fine for Lesley. When it’s time to move she’ll move the things that she thinks she wants and leave the rest behind.

The people doing the office move will then be left with a dilemma, do they assume that everything that has been left can go in a skip, or do they try to find the owner so that it can be returned to them? This isn’t as easy a decision as it sound, but Lesley isn’t worried about it, she’s already moved on.

As I write this there is a cupboard beside me of which one whole shelf has become orphaned from its owner. I think that it used to belong to someone who left the company over 3 years ago. There are all sorts of things in there including digital media and a laptop, but numerous attempts to dispose of these items have resulted in failure.

The Leavers create a snowball effect during most office moves. The person who moves into the place where a Leaver has been moves the left items onto another desk where other left items have already been deposited. The person moving into that desk then has the joy of moving two lots of left items onto a third desk, and on it goes until eventually a whole desk is full of the leavings of others.

Lesley is easy to move, dealing with the aftermath of her move can take weeks.

7. Ian Island

In every office move there is always an Ian, he has been sat at the same desk since he joined the company in 1982. Somehow every office move happens around him, they never require him to move. Ian is a mystery, it’s not clear what the impact on him would be, if he did have to move, because it’s never happened. No one knows whether he likes it where he sits, no one bothers asking because he has been their so long.

Ian sits amongst the world that is changing around him oblivious to the experience that others are having. Thankfully Ian can be pretty much ignored during an office move.

As I’ve sat amongst an office move over the last few weeks I think I’ve witnessed each of these personas at play, but have I missed any?

Do you identify as one of these? Do you have any recommendations on how to handle the various personas?

I’m reading… “Hit Refresh” by Satya Nadella

How do you bring significant change to an organisation? Particularly a large, multi-national organisation?

Where do you start once you’ve decided what it is that you want to change? How do you make change that is sustainable?

This is no ordinary organisation either, this is Microsoft, an organisation that has some huge fans, but also massive detractors. It’s an organisation that has made some very public missteps and become regarded as arrogant, but is also one of the most valuable organisations in the world.

How do you revive a giant?

Microsoft has, for a long time, had a reputation for being an organisation with an interesting way of working. This is something that Nadella refers to early on in the book by using a cartoon from Bonkers World that depicts Microsoft’s organisation structure as being one of a set of warring factions:

While it’s a cartoon, it has meaning because it is based in a truth. Moving away from this situation required a significant change of culture and to use Satya’s words for Microsoft to find its soul.

This book is partly an autobiographical telling of how Nadella got to be Microsoft CEO, it’s partly an outline vision for the future of Microsoft and partly a discussion on some of the opportunities and challenges currently facing the wider technology industry.

I found the autobiographical parts the most interesting, but I like biography. These sections give some insights into how someone born in Hyderabad becomes the CEO of an organisation that has had a dramatic impact on the world that we know. There are part of these sections that are very personal, particularly when he is talking about his son Zain who suffered in-utero asphyxiation during his birth which caused severe brain damage and left him with cerebral palsy. This isn’t one of those management books where someone tells you how brilliant they, there’s more humility than that.

Nadella describes the role of CEO as “curator of culture” and it’s clearly culture that he regards as the primary change required. Speaking as someone who works in the technology industry, Microsoft is an organisation that divides opinion, and it takes people a long time to change an opinion. Nadella took over as Microsoft CEO in 2014, since then Microsoft has sought to show a very different culture, embracing many things that previously would have been regarded as red-lines. Two words that Nadella uses several times in the book are listen and empathy neither of them words you would have associated with the Microsoft of the Steve Ballmer era.

The CEO is the curator of an organization’s culture. Anything is possible for a company when its culture is about listening, learning, and harnessing individual passions and talents to the company’s mission. Creating that kind of culture is my chief job as CEO.

The culture change I wanted was centered on exercising a growth mind-set every day in three distinct ways. First, at the core of our business must be the curiosity and desire to meet a customer’s unarticulated and unmet needs with great technology. This was not abstract: We all get to practice each day. When we talk to customers, we need to listen. We need to be insatiable in our desire to learn from the outside and bring that learning into Microsoft.

Still, many responses to the recently announced purchase of GitHub reflected suspicions of the arrogant Microsoft. I suppose it just goes to show that 4 years isn’t a very long time in people’s memories.

The third section, on some of the opportunities and challenges facing the technology sector are also interesting, but for a different reason.  These sections aren’t as insightful into Nadella’s thinking on a particular subject, but feel more like the thinking of the broader Microsoft organisation. There wasn’t, for me, any particular revelation here.

Summarising: Nadella is an interesting character with an interesting background. He seems to me to be taking Microsoft in the right direction, but it will be interesting to see where he gets put when the history of the current age is written.

Three Days to Become Normal – A Story About Shorts

It’s been a remarkable year for weather here in the UK. We are currently experiencing something that other nations regard as normal. Outside it is sunny, it has been sunny for weeks, and the weather forecast says that it is going to be sunny for the foreseeable future.

We obsess about the weather here because it is different every hour, or part of an hour. It’s extremely rare for it to be so stable for so long. We are normally inappropriately dressed for at least part of every day but regard that as the consequence of living somewhere with such fickle weather.

It’s been sunny, and hot, for so long now that it seems daft to go into an office, where there is no air conditioning, dressed in trousers and a long-sleeve shirt. My normal attire is long trousers and long-sleeve shirt; but our corporate policy on clothing does include “smart” shorts in our definition of “business casual”.

(“Business casual” is a term that everyone hates because it include such a diverse set of clothing as to be meaningless. What it really means for most people is: “dress in a way that doesn’t get you noticed”.)

I decided, on Monday, that it was time to move over to shorts. I’m wise enough to know that I would get some reaction to this, but decided to do it anyway. There were a number of reactions on the first day, a few looks and some comments about the knobbliness of my knees.

On Tuesday the shorts were, again, my chosen attire. This time there were very few looks and only one comment, from someone who hadn’t been in on the Monday.

Today is Wednesday and no one has said anything about the shorts.

It took less than three days for the shorts to become normal.

We talk about change being difficult, and often it is, but sometimes it only takes three days for the change to become normal.

UPDATE: On day four the number of people wearing shorts has increased dramatically, perhaps that’s because people are happier being a follower.