Monday, June 16, 2014

What if Big Brother isn't all that smart?

Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving. William Shakespeare, Othello

Here's a positively frightening statement to consider:

“But so long as everyone knew they were being monitored and understood what for, I don't see why it should be such a terrifying idea - except perhaps for those who bully, shout at or harass others and who have until now been getting away with it.”

I read the article this came from a couple of times hoping to find out it was a satire, but it looks sincere. What we have here is a real financial writer named Lucy Kellaway in the UK saying that constant managerial spying would be a good thing. Apparently she feels this way in part because every time her boss may one of his rare trips to her desk, she was “writing a shopping list or was on the phone to my mum.” Well, there's the possibility that she was unlucky or perhaps she just spent too much time doing shopping lists and making personal calls. Or maybe the boss had a surveillance camera in her cubicle, hmmmm?

The conclusion Ms. Kellaway draws, though, is that had she been monitored full-time, the boss would have detected her “otherwise diligent behaviour” so that would have been just fine. Of course, it would also have detected her trips to the rest room, how many trips she made to the break room (or whatever the British equivalent is) to get her cuppa, how many people she chatted with going to and from her desk, and so on. Come review time, she'd have gotten an itemized list of the time she wasted all day in the rest room and break room, and by making out shopping lists and talking to mum on the phone.

Just to add to the irony, she thinks that such monitoring would stop bullying, shouting, and harassing others. Since these are traits exhibited in the average staff meeting, monitoring is hardly necessary. Besides, those are qualities that get people promoted to upper management.

To give herself some wiggle room, she does admit that for the system to work “you would need some faith in the regime that implemented it.” Seems to beg the question, doesn't it? How on earth could you trust an organization that would stoop to constant monitoring of personnel? Well, in that case, she says, “...you are done for, anyway.”

I'm not sure what “done for” means, but it doesn't sound good.

Strangely, Ms. Kellaway is listed as an author and Financial Times columnist, so she obviously doesn't have to worry about being in this enlightened environment any time soon.

Maybe this sort of thing would be considered acceptable in the UK (I doubt it), but since I've only worked in the USA, but my attitude toward this sort of thing in any form is that any manager or executive who would try it would find him- or herself rather short of good employees. It's not that they wouldn't want to do it, it's just that it doesn't work out in the long run. Companies have been pilloried for monitoring rest room time, recording phone conversations, and various other dirty tricks.

I'm sensitive to this whole thing because of a couple of issues that occurred during my work career. One probably cost me my job. I got a call one day from headquarters where the boss' son had been given control of the company. My boss had made a career out of mocking the young man, mostly because he deserved it, and now that same person was his boss. I got a call from the new supremo one day, advising me that he would be appreciative that if I had any concerns with my immediate boss, I should feel free to call him and report any “problems” I was having. I told him, sure, but obviously I'd tell my boss I was calling his boss because of any disagreement we might have.

That wasn't the right answer. About three months later, I was moved to a new position, and three months after that the new position was determined to no longer be necessary.  Which put me on the street.

At an earlier job, we had gone through a major management upheaval which had led to a lot of reorganizations and general unhappiness in the employee ranks. One day, we were invited in small groups to meetings with the HR people. When we got there, we got a multipage survey which, we were told, was to see what issues might be on the minds of the plebes. The survey was completely confidential, the HR person said, so we should feel free to be candid. Someone spoke up and mentioned that there was a serial number on each survey set. If this was a confidential survey, why would they have an identifier on the forms? The HR guy about herniated himself trying to explain how numbered forms couldn't possibly be traced back to the person who filled them out.

We didn't buy it. Needless to say, the overall survey results were far from “candid.” And the exodus of employees, which had already started, began to really pick up pace.

Now, call me naive, call me irresponsible, call me for dinner, but it seems to me that the very companies that would stoop to full time monitoring are exactly the ones you don't want to work for. Consider this: the organization where I worked the last 10 years, the IT department of the City of Birmingham, didn't require weekly status reports, didn't have weekly (or, ugh, daily) department meetings, didn't require detailed weekly time sheets. (1) Oh, and didn't have monitoring devices attached to every employee. And yet, our supervisors always seemed to know what we were doing, most likely because they talked to us regularly, knew what our jobs entailed, and trusted us to talk to them when we had a problem.

Gee, maybe they were monitoring us. Or just paying attention.

(1) We did have a time sheet, but it showed only hours worked or taken off per day.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Postmortem or postvitam?

I think there needs to be a meeting to set an agenda for more meetings about meetings. ~ Jonah Goldberg

I came across an article recently about how much time is wasted in meetings. I didn't have this problem much in my last job before retiring because I was known to have such a lousy attitude in meetings I generally got notified of a meeting but attendance on my part was voluntary. Now I could get away with this for two reasons. First, I was good at my job, so, while no one is indispensable, it was generally thought that firing me because of my attitude toward meetings would be more of a pain than it was worth. Secondly, when I was dragged into attending a useless meeting, I'd let the meeting organizer know before, during (especially during), and after the event how useless it was.

What this meant was that I generally only went to useful meetings like project status, problem resolution, or potential system change/addition/improvement discussions. It also meant I got a lot of regular work done.

It should be noted I was not alone in this attitude. My fellow system administrator felt the same way. While he was nicer about it, he made it clear he could either sit in meetings or keep the network up. We system administrators get away with a lot of stuff that way.

All that being said, there was one kind of meeting that was necessary but often not real useful, the postmortem. You know the situation. A project has flopped, or something bad happened that wasn't supposed to happen, so there's a meeting to try to figure out what went wrong and how not to do it again. These meetings all tend to be the same. If you try to fix responsibility for the problem, someone, usually the person who called the meeting, says we're not here to blame anyone, just to figure out what went wrong and prevent it from happening. Well, if Joe screwed up because he didn't follow procedures, what needs to happen is to agree that the procedures would work if followed. However, since we can't “blame” Joe, we end up changing perfectly good procedures into bloated messes – which Joe won't follow next time, either.

Seriously, this business of not affixing responsibility (rather than “blame”) frequently gets in the way of getting anything done. I've even tried to take responsibility for a failure myself and been told that we're not here to blame anyone. Fine, don't blame me, but realize I made a mistake and I know it and will try to avoid doing so in the future. We're done here, so let's go back to work.

Postmortems have a history of not really fixing anything. Would you care to estimate how many postmortem meetings have occurred at the various auto makers after recalls? I would bet whole bunches, but the recalls still happen because someone decided to go ahead and use a bad design or questionable parts, usually to save money.

NASA showed how successful postmortems can be by following the Challenger disaster with the Columbia disaster. One of the findings of the Columbia investigation is that NASA was still making the same mistakes they made that led to the Challenger debacle.

History shows that organizations simply don't learn from their mistakes. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between. So, since we aren't getting any benefit from postmortems maybe it's time to consider an alternative.

NASA has had many notable successes. The ones that come quickly to mind are the moon landings (which was not without it's stumbles along the way), the Voyager 1 and 2 missions, and the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Spirit finally gave up the ghost some time ago, but Opportunity continues chugging along several years past it's 90-day expiration date. So, the question is, does NASA have meetings to discuss what they did right on those missions?

I've had the good fortune to be part of few very successful major projects. None of them had a “success postmortem” to figure out why they did so well. Oh, there's often a wrapup meeting with goodies to eat and much patting on the back, but no one asks, “How come you guys got this done on time and on budget when so many IT projects fall on their face?”

Now you might say the answers to the question are obvious. The project has sufficient resources, well-defined requirements which didn't constantly change, and it was given the appropriate priority by the managers. In addition, the schedule was well-defined, any variations from the schedule were addressed quickly, and any problems that came up were also addressed quickly. Obvious stuff.

Well, if it's that obvious, why is it that the same organizations where the successes happened had projects that were dismal failures? Because one or more of the elements of success were ignored. And why was that? Because managers didn't pay attention to what those elements were.

Now, I can guarantee that some or all of the success factors came up during the postmortem, but they were brought up as failure factors and given alibis. Someone brought up the constant changes to requirements, but someone else excused these as needed. The real problem, of course, is that the project wasn't defined correctly to begin with. Someone brought up a lack of resources, but no one mentioned the real problem of a lack of commitment by managers to provide those resources or that the needs were underestimated at the start. Because of those problems the project went over budget, but the reasoning is that the budget wasn't big enough.

Now, if instead of focusing on the disasters, we would focus on successes, we would learn the factors for succeeding and make them the basis for future decisions in projects. So, we should have post-success meetings to drive these things home. Maybe if the factors that made things go right would be pounded into everyone's heads, there would be more successful projects. And, since going over success factors is quicker than slogging through all the reasons things flopped, those meetings would be shorter. Which would mean less time wasted in meetings.

A win-win situation if ever there was one.