Asshole driven development

Scott Berkun has a great post entitled Asshole Driven Development, which expounds upon various software project management styles, including Cognitive Dissonance Development, Cover Your Ass Engineering and my favourite, Development By Denial. The eponymous management style is described as:

Asshole Driven development (ADD) – Any team where the biggest jerk makes all the big decisions is asshole driven development. All wisdom, logic or process goes out the window when Mr. Asshole is in the room, doing whatever idiotic, selfish thing he thinks is best. There may rules and processes, but Mr. A breaks them and people follow anyway.

Sound familiar? There are another couple of hundred management anti-patterns listed in the comments, from which I rather like Idiot MBA-Driven Development.

These aren’t just specific to software development, though, but are general management anti-patterns. I recognise both Asshole Driven Management and Idiot MBA-Driven Management, for example, from personal experience. Not to mention a wonderful case of Management by Denial that was so point-blank it was almost convincing, but when someone says, “Oh, no, we don’t have that problem here. We only hire smart people.” you just know there’s going to be trouble.

Do you have space for incubators?

Robert Biswas-Diener, who studies the psychology of happiness, writes on about the difference between people who procrastinate and those who incubate:

Procrastinators may have a habit of putting off important work. They may not ever get to projects or leave projects half finished. Importantly, when they do complete projects, the quality might be mediocre as a result of their lack of engagement or inability to work well under pressure.


In a pilot study with 184 undergraduate university students, we were able to isolate specific items that distinguished incubators from the rest of the pack. Incubators were the only students who had superior-quality work but who also worked at the last moment, under pressure, motivated by a looming deadline.

This set them apart from the classic “good students,” the planners who strategically start working long before assignments are due, and from the procrastinators, who wait until the last minute but then hand in shoddy work or hand it in late.

I can certainly relate to the concept of the incubator. Whilst I like to have a long run up on important projects, they almost always end up left until the last minute.

This is problematic in a business context, where the slow-and-steady approach is the assumed default. Most project planning, for example, assumes that people will hit intermediary deadlines regularly throughout a project. Yet sometimes, particularly in areas where the ground is constantly shifting beneath your feet such as in tech, this can be a really bad thing because work done and decisions made early in the project can be out of date by the end of the project, ensuring the final deliverables are themselves obsolete as soon as completed.

I do think that social media can help with this, letting incubators share their thoughts, their incubation process with their team and manager without having to hit artificial deadlines that ultimately have a negative impact on the final result. I did this myself with a big report that I wrote last year. We agreed that I would not provide a “first draft”, but would instead put each section up on a wiki for the team to look at as it was completed. That meant that, come the “let’s assess your progress” meeting, I didn’t have anything much to show, but my final draft was something I was very proud of.

The major issue with that experience was that I was quite happy with the approach, it being one I am used to taking, but the people I was working with did not always seem to wrap their heads around it. Such an approach changes how the project should be managed, with ongoing communications the norm instead of sporadic, milestone-based catch-ups. If managers struggle with this different style, then they are unlikely to get the best out of incubator-type personalities.

The cost of inauthentic communities

Roger Martin has an excellent post on Harvard Business Review that looks back at how business executives used to be embedded in the community they served but are now disconnected from it, as are the businesses they work for. It is a must read.

In the 60s, business were smaller, executives knew their customers and their staff. Shareholders were in it for the long run so tolerated long-term planning. Companies had more loyalty to their home city, so “doing things to benefit the city made sense both corporately and personally.”

While not perfect, this structure enabled the executive to live a reasonably authentic life; the way he wanted to live personally was largely aligned with her corporate responsibilities. He wanted to make the customers — whom he was likely to know personally — happy. He wanted to support his employees’ well-being — employees who he and his family probably knew. He wanted to be a respected figure in the city, a city that was important to his company and his family. And he wanted to make his shareholders happy because he knew that they had placed a long-term bet behind his company. If he worked on all those aspects of his community, he could be successful and happy. And by serving customers and employees well, the corporation was likely to keep on prospering.

But now companies and the executives that work for them have become dissociated from their environs, their staff, their customers and, crucially, from long-term thinking. Martin says:

[T]he idea that shareholder value was a corporation’s principal objective function took hold, largely, I think, through the agency of business schools, whose dramatic rise coincided with the decline of the traditional business community.

This disintegration of community is not a good thing for the exec, his business, the community or frankly, anyone else. It leads to the sort of short-termist thinking that led to the Crash.

Martin paints a fairly bleak picture, but I think there is a cause for hope: Social media. Blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn and a host of other tools provide a way for the people in business, whether executive or not, to get back in touch with their wider community. It also allows customers to collaborate and to become a countervailing force to shareholders, Wall Street and analysts who encourage companies to make bad decisions.

The new community that businesses find themselves in isn’t a geographically constrained community, but a community of interest, or rather, a community of people who have an interest, whether they are customers, staff or curious onlookers.

And there’s nowhere to hide, either. The sunshine of the public’s attention can illuminate any previously hidden nook or cranny, and behaviour that businesses once got away with can now be exposed and challenged. The broader reach of businesses also frequently allows customers to swap away from the worst offenders, using their dollar or pound to vote against a company’s policy or behaviour.

I think we have a long way to go before we make real progress, and the largest of companies frequently have the longest journey, but I think the tide is finally on the turn.

Are we building better tomorrows?

Via Christian Crumlish, I discovered the excellent essay Are we building a better Internet? by Matte Scheinker. Matte’s essay looks at how seemingly small design decisions can have huge impacts on the way that the internet evolves. He says:

The first design meme I encountered with true deleterious power was the opt-out check-box for marketing emails on sign-up forms. Our argument for it to be opt-in instead was user-experience focused with a nod to the business folks. Undesired emails would hurt the brand, annoy the user, and not necessarily generate qualified leads. What we didn’t consider back then was how that small decision would help create today’s Internet. These undesired marketing emails — along with the invention of V1@gra — contributed to the cacophony of commercial noise that now pollutes the Internet. As far as I know, this noise hasn’t killed anyone. Yet most of us would prefer the Internet to feel a little more like relaxing on a secluded beach with a good book and less like Times Square on a muggy Saturday night.

Imagine for a moment what today’s design decisions will do to mold the Internet’s future. What if every product decision you made last week became a successful design meme? Would that create an Internet where you’d want your kids to play?

Sometimes we get lucky and it’s not difficult to discern the difference between right and wrong. Don’t sell user data because you’re short on beer money. Don’t keep emailing users after they unsubscribe. Don’t read user emails to find the next great stock pick. These are certainly over-simplified dilemmas, and sadly, most ethical dilemmas aren’t as clear-cut.

He goes on to talk about other ethical decisions that designers and businesses make and the impact that they have. You really should read the whole thing.

But Matte’s questions are not just for web designers and developers, they are also for business managers: Are you making business decisions that might affect the future of the internet? Of your business? Of Business? If everyone behaved as you do, would the world be a better place?

Decisions that affect the internal world of your business don’t just affect your staff, they affect their spouses, families, friends. If you’ve ever known someone who’s unhappy at work you know how far and how fast that unhappiness can travel. And if you’re making good decisions – enabling and empowering the people you work with to communicate, collaborate and be more effective – then your influence will also spread as the people you work with pick up good management habits.

Of course, this isn’t just about feeling good: if you have passionate employees you have a whole raft of potential evangelists who can represent your brand in the wider community. If you treat your customers with respect, they’ll be more likely to recommend you to their friends. And if you make good decisions about your website’s design, you’ll gain much more goodwill than abusing customer’s trust.

Being ethical isn’t just a nice thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.

Social isn’t just online

The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest Blog carries a post about how much better we feel when we get absorbed in a social task than if we do the same task on our own. You’ve probably heard of ‘flow’, the feeling of being so absorbed in something that time stands still. Flow “is highly rewarding and usually provokes feelings of joy afterwards”, but Charles Walker has discovered that “social flow is associated with more joy than solitary flow – ‘that doing it together is better than doing it alone’.”

The ‘social enterprise’ isn’t just about using social media to make connections between people via technology, it’s also about using that technology to bolster face-to-face relationships. Wouldn’t it be great if we could provide people with opportunities to experience social flow on a regular basis as a part of getting their job done!

Data security vs agility and cost

Third party social media tools really are a two-edged sword. On the one hand, they allow you to get up and running almost instantaneously for little or no money, but on the other hand you have no data security or guarantee of uptime.

I’m reminded of this dichotomy by the recent closure of a number of music blogs by Google’s Blogger service. Despite the fact that these blogs were all operating legitimately and within the law, Google removed their content from Blogger without either a warning or an opportunity to back up. This appears to be bad behaviour from Google, but they are not alone. Yahoo! has a track record of closing down Cinderella services without much of a by-your-leave, resulting in confused and unhappy users whose data has been lost forever. And, of course, there was the catastrophic server meltdown at Ma.gnolia, a rival, which resulted in their entire bookmark repository being lost.

Whether it’s a company targeting a few users, closing down underachieving services, or suffering massive data loss, there is just no guarantee that the information you put online is still going to be there in the morning.

So does this mean that corporate information should never be entrusted to third party sites? Not at all. Firstly, it’s not always possible to run your own internal version of a third party tool, and often it’s not even desirable. You could never replicate the networked nature of a third party social network, for example.

Sometimes you can install software, such as WordPress, on your own servers, but if your IT department is maxed out or uncooperative, you may be forced on to instead. There could be a significant cost to the business if you have to wait months for your own installation to be set up and for your project to get started, in which case the hosted option becomes the most viable option.

The answer? Your social media tools should, where possible, be regularly backed up just as with your own servers. Recovery of your social media presence should be at the top of your disaster recovery plan, if only because if something serious happens to your company or any of your other data, your blog could be a key communications channel. (This is also a good reason not to host your own blog on the same servers as your main website, by the way! If everything else goes down, you need to have some way to communicate with the outside world.)

Are you T-shaped?

I recently discovered Keith Sawyer’s blog, Creativity & Innovation. Keith is a professor of psychology, an expert on creativity and well worth a read. In his post about cross understanding in teams he discusses the observation that teams including people with the ability to understand another’s perspective do better than teams that don’t:

[…] cross understanding can help us to explain several apparently contradictory findings in group collaboration research:

1. Diversity often has a negative impact on team performance, and this is sometimes explained by the “social categorization bias” that people have towards similar people. But in some groups, diversity does not result in reduced performance; the authors argue that this will happen when cross understanding is high.

2. In some groups, strong sub-groups can interfere with effective collaboration. But if cross understanding is high, this problem can be reduced.

Related to this is the idea of ‘T-shaped people’ who have one particular area of deep expertise which makes up the shaft of the T, but then also have knowledge and skills in other areas (the crossbar).

It strikes me that most of the social media and tech people that I admire look T-shaped to me: Leisa Reichelt, Stephanie Booth, Stephanie Troeth, David Weinberger, Euan Semple, Lloyd Davis… the list goes on. I wonder if being empathic, able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, curious about the world around it and other people’s experiences, and able to recognise patterns across disciplines is really what marks out a social media natural.

Some people really do just ‘get it’, almost without trying, whereas others just can’t wrap their heads around even basic concepts no matter how often or how clearly they are explained. I have never been able to spot a correlation between age, online experience, social media experience, activity in communities and that ability to comprehend what makes social media different to other forms of communications. Hm, that could be an interesting area of research!

Embrace your daydreams

Psychology Today has an article by Amy Fries on how daydreamers are also more intelligent:

Researchers using brain scanning technology found that the “default network,” the relatively new buzzword for the daydreaming state, was significantly more active in the “superior intelligence group” than the “average intelligence group.” According to the study, this suggests that the stronger connections displayed in the “functional integration of the default network might be related to individual intelligent performance.”

My nonscientific translation of this: while daydreaming, your thoughts are gliding and ricocheting all over the place–past, present, future–accessing all your stored knowledge, memories, experiences, etc. What the study seems to be saying is that these connections–the ricocheting thoughts if you will–appear to be stronger in smarter people. Maybe that’s why they can get more out of their daydreaming states of mind. They can dig deeper. This seems to fit nicely with other studies that say that people who can go deeper into daydreaming states are more likely to come away with worthwhile insights.

I’ve spoken before about daydreaming and it’s importance to my writing life. I also think that daydreaming is important in business, particularly if you’re in a creative or innovative role. Yet daydreaming is verboten in a professional context. We’re supposed to be heads-down, focused on our work all day every day. That’s not physically possible, of course, so people fake concentration by doing low-energy tasks, like cleaning out their inbox, to give their brains some time to spin freely.

When it comes to social media, I see this need to freewheel as even more important. I can type at over 90 words per minute, but it can still take me an hour to write even a short blog post because for much of that time I’m reading and mulling (a more acceptable word for daydreaming, perhaps). Blogging is, at its best, about people synthesising new ideas from the works of others. That sort of thought, where you’re taking in different strands of information and forming novel links between them, requires time, not to mention a good night’s sleep.

This is why bloggers need managerial support to be effective. Blogging at work can put serious pressure on the blogger, who may want to spend a day figuring a post out, but who feels that they are supposed to be banging out something quick. Acceptance from colleagues that blogging is a legitimate way for them to be spending their time is also important – there’s nothing like negative peer pressure to kill off a blogger’s enthusiasm. Without that support the blogger can wind up abandoning their writing or not fulfiling their potential, and everyone loses out.

The long and the short of it is that if you want your staff to be creative, innovative, thoughtful and to benefit fully from their intelligence, give them the time and space to cogitate, mull, consider and daydream.

In praise of messiness and noise

Excellent talk from Euan at last year’s Lift Conference, talking about some of the daft attitudes prevalent in management and IT and how they get in the way of knowledge sharing, innovation and, in some cases the basic act of getting on with our jobs.

I love Euan’s comment in the discussion on his blog post too:

People are so much better able to cope with apparent messiness than we have been led to believe. And as you say helping them cope with messiness is better than tidying up.

How are you helping people cope with messiness?

Making the case for internal community managers

i was reading a great post on Fresh Networks about the key mistakes community managers make when it struck me: Most people are sold on the need to hire community managers for public facing communities, but how many businesses hire community managers for their own internal social networks?

Most communities rely on a small number of individuals who glue the group together socially. It’s a role that I have been discussing with many people, especially Kevin Marks, over the years. Kevin and I first met on IRC (Internet Relay Chat), in a channel where one person in particular played a key role in keeping things moving smoothly. She wasn’t chosen by the community, nor did she put herself forward to fulfil the role: it just sorta happened.

Since then, we – and many others – have been trying to find the right word for that sort of role. Whether you want to call them tummlers, geishas, animateurs or Chief Conversation Officers, these people are essential to the smooth running of a community. Kevin said in 2008 (read the whole post, it’s well worth it):

The key to [successful communities] is finding people who play the role of conversational catalyst within a group, to welcome newcomers, rein in old hands and set the tone of the conversation so that it can become a community. […]

The communities that fail, whether dying out from apathy or being overwhelmed by noise, are the ones that don’t have someone there cherishing the conversation, setting the tone, creating a space to speak, and rapidly segregating those intent on damage. The big problem with have is that we don’t have a English name for this role; they get called ‘Moderators’ (as Tom Coates thoroughly described) or ‘Community Managers’, and because when they’re doing it right you see everyone’s conversation, not their carefully crafted atmosphere, their role is often ignored.

These people are as essential in internal communities as they are in public ones, yet somehow we expect internal communities to just run themselves. It’s no wonder that so many social media projects wither on the vine: they are not getting the right social conditions to flourish.

Instead, I suspect that the tummler role is rather frowned upon in business contexts. That person who makes sure that they talk to the new users, who spends time tidying up the wiki and talking to people about how things work, who reads all the internal blogs and highlights favourite posts, is probably also the person whose jobs review says, “Spends too much time on the intranet”. The expectation is that everyone will take a share of the tummler role, that everyone is responsible for making the community work and so therefore it will. “Because we’re all professionals round here, and that’s just what professionals do.”

That is, I’m afraid, deluded bullshit. We need tummlers internally just as much as we need them in external communities. Certainly they’ll have to be much more capable diplomats and skilled in recognising and smoothing out internal political shenanigans. They’ll also have to be good coaches, helping people understand how to use the tools and why they should bother.

The payback from employing a tummler could be huge as they would be the people who’d help drive tool adoption across the business. I’m sure some will read this and think, “But this is what evangelists/champions do. We don’t need tummlers too.” I think tummlers and evangelists are very different indeed. Evangelists tend to be people who are superusers who are massively enthusiastic about the tools they are using. They often manage to persuade the people around them to use the tools too, but they don’t always have the social skills required to achieve even that. I have certainly come across “evangelists” that were so obsessive about their new favourite toy that they put people right off. They also, of course, have their own job to do. They can’t spend all their time helping others get to grips with social software.

A tummler, on the other hand, would be hired for their social skills, their ability to communicate, teach and explain, and their knowledge of the different tools and how they work. In a way, a good social media consultant acts as a tummler-by-proxy, encouraging their clients to adopt more sociable thinking patterns, but they can only do so much. A full-time tummler who only needs to focus on nurturing internal communities could achieve so much more.

I guess we’re back once again to the 20:80 rule: 20% of social media is tech, 80% is people, so focus on your people!