Sweat the small stuff

I recently had to get some air-conditioning work done at home. The first time that was necessary (years ago, after moving to the US from Scotland where a/c means opening the window), we opted for a relatively cheap and local guy. After that was disappointing we moved up to a less cheap but still local company. Most recently though, after further disappointment, we went to one of the the better big firms and that’s who we called this time. A few observations then, applicable to Professional Services as a whole

So it turned out the job required two people. Technician A arrived first, to see what the problem was and I immediately picked up on two aspects of a poor initial impression. I wasn’t looking for them, but they became apparent very quickly. First, he rarely looked me in the eye. There was nothing shady about him; he just didn’t look comfortable doing what he was doing. Second, and much more important, he didn’t put on the little carpet-protecting plastic booties that all other techs from his company had done in the past. 5114N5BiTGL._SY355_OK, small unimportant things. Maybe. He then proceeded to investigate and came up with a (correct) diagnosis. He offered me two solutions; replace a component (cheap but possibly band-aid-like), or replace the entire 20-year-old system (expensive but thorough). Unfortunately, he offered me no help in deciding, and so when I chose to go with the cheap solution (since as a non-expert I was unable to justify the more expensive route), I was left feeling uneasy (because although I’m non-expert, I like to pretend that we engineers can understand anything technical :-) ). So much so that after a weekend of musing, I called the company to ask for a second opinion. Enter Technician B.

Now, Technician B was different from his predecessor from the get-go. He was much more confident, and eye-contact-making. Also, he put on his booties! He then redid the investigation, came up with the diagnosis, but told me there was only one option; the whole system needed replacing. I mentioned the other option, to fix a control board, and he said it was very inadvisable since our old unit was now out of code and its age meant it was probably very inefficient (not least because of heavy calcium build up). I discussed the matter further with him, testing to see if this was simply a sales-friendly technician who’d been primed by his boss with a message of “Client wants to spend more money; go make it happen”. Convinced he was giving me good information, I changed my mind from repair ($600) and ordered the full system replacement ($2000).
The work has since been done and I’m happy with it. Not only that, but the efficiency does appear to be dramatically improved. But, some key. professional-services-transferrable points arising:
  1. Consistency of standards is as important as height. The fact that the two techs acted differently, bootie-wise, undid some of the good impression made by Tech B. I’m not saying it would have been better had neither worn booties, but the fact that the two techs acted differently made me judge not just the bootie-less Tech A, but also the whole company. The lack of standards that are not only high but consistently so, was a black mark
  2. Attitude matters. Neither of the Techs had a “bad” attitude, but Tech A’s uncertain demeanor set him up for increased criticism when he later failed to offer me advice on choosing a solution.
  3. Upselling is neither good nor bad, but the client’s needs make it so. Providing a cheap soution is BAD CUSTOMER SERVICE if the best thing for the client is to buy the more expensive offering. The medical doctor analogy is useful to bear in mind as a guide. If someone goes to the Doc and complains of heartburn, the Doc is doing no one any good by not pointing out that the symptoms are more consistent with esophegal cancer (if, of course, they are).
  4. Little things matter, like the bootie-wearing. In an ideal world, maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe we should never judge books by their cover. But, you know, inept design in a book cover can, by signaling lack of money through lack of serious publisher interest, act as a proxy for poor quality. Of course, a tradesman wearing booties actually does have a purpose in that it stops me getting an earful from my wife when she sees his mucky bootprints on the carpet. But more than that it, like the book cover, can act as a proxy for quality, attention to detail, and piece of mind, all of which the purchaser of high grade Professional Services deserves.

Happy Birthday To Us

Today’s date is not necessarily the best on which to make any kind of announcement, and it’s true that the complexity of growing an international business from a standing start can often feel like an April’s Fool joke, especially when I consider all the silly government-induced things we need to put up with. But it’s true; Verilab is fifteen years old today!

Glasgow Herald, 2000

Mark, Jason and I started in Scotland on this same date in 2000, about a week before NASDAQ peaked and then began its heady fall. (Sorry world, we never meant to burst the bubble.) A year or so later, we opened an office in Germany, and then around 2004 we arrived in Texas. Today we have people in those places, but also in: England, Oregon, Washington, Ottawa, and Quebec. The number of states and countries in which we serve clients is at least double that. Overall, across many hundreds of projects, we have seen all the very best (and not-so-very-best) in the development of advanced silicon system. In fact, I think it’s likely that in Verilab there lives the single most concentrated collection of tool-independent chip verification expertise anywhere on the planet. In pursuit of the goal of helping clients to “tape-out” as quickly and as safely as possible, if we haven’t seen it, it probably doesn’t exist.

Well done and thank-you to all the team, our illustrious alumni, our many-splendored clients and partners, and of course our significant and long-suffering others. Happy Birthday to Us!

Othismos and the fine structure of mastery

As usual I’m tussling with the question: Why are some engineers just so much more effective than everyone else?; my current line of thinking being provoked by a series of books by Steven Pressfield.

First, let’s take with a pinch of salt the current flavor-of-day idea that “10,000 hours of deliberate practice” is both necessary and sufficient to achieve “world class performance”. Even K. Anders Ericsson, one of the academics involved in the research upon which that idea tries to sit, has gone to the length of writing a rebuttal article (MS Word), to try to tone down some of the hype. But let’s at least consider, for argument’s sake, the following as unobjectionable.

To get Really Jolly Good at something (i.e. let’s forget the “being as good as Mozart”, or even the lame “world class” superlatives — we’re just talking about being good enough that the rest of the world can’t ignore us) we should bear in mind that:

  1. Innate “talent” in the form of something like a gene for aptitude in Java or C++ is not, within broad limits, particularly important
  2. What is important is you have to do the thing a lot. Not necessarily 10,000 hours — maybe a lot less, or a lot more — but you can’t get to be Really Jolly Good without putting in a Decent Chunk of hours
  3. You can’t merely “do” the thing. This is the “deliberate practice” component. You have to push hard at it, work at the edges of your ability, get good feedback from an effective feeder-back (a.k.a. teacher/coach/mentor), and generally have an attitude that a Scottish friend of mine once called “borderline mental”.

Now at first sight, the above may appear to be blindingly obvious — work hard at something if you want to improve — but I think that is superficial. What I’m interested in here is what that last item looks like up close, because the more I look the more I reckon that the kind of deliberate-ness required for excellence is not at all like regular, common-or-garden hard work. And if there is anything innate in all this stuff — and the more I look, the more I think there is — it’s not “talent” per se, but my friend’s “borderline mentalness”. To get really good at stuff you have to do it a lot, and you have to do it in a way that most people just wouldn’t tolerate doing themselves. In other words, by definition you’re going to take diligence and hard work to a level that many would consider excessive, and just plain weird. So what exactly does that weirdness look like?

As I continue to read around this topic, and experiment with my own working on stuff, so far I can, on the surface, identify two  broad classes of weirdos. There are those who “love their work”, and those who are “acquainted with pain”. But I say “on the surface” because I think the two components typically arise together. That said, my main interest here is with the second aspect, if only because I think the first one is already being beaten to death in the popular literature to the extent  that many people are being left with the overly simple conclusion that all you have to do is “find your passion” and you’ll be happy every working hour of the rest of your life. I think that’s hokum partly because happiness is a far bigger project that can be fulfilled at work, but specifically because I think that finding one’s passion (even if such a unique-sounding thing existed) doesn’t appear to mean endless working bliss, not if the accounts given by Mason Curry in “Daily Routines” are to be believed. Many acclaimed authors, engineers, artists, and scientists report sustained pain and effort in maintaining endeavours (even though the pain is sometimes punctuated by periods of intense joy). So, if not bliss-inducing passion, then what? What is the deal with “acquainted with pain”?

And so here’s the Pressfield link. Two of the broad areas on which he writes are: how to be creative (e.g. “The War of Art“, “Do The Work” — both highly recommended); and historically accurate military fiction. One of the latter is “Gates of Fire“, a novel about the Spartan/Greek defense of Thermopylae against the Persians. I’ve often used military language in describing mastery, and Pressfield does the same in connecting actual warfare with the war he maintains goes on within an individual as they try to push themselves into their creative work. Pressfield, however, does it far better than I do.

One striking example is his description of the fine detail of the psychology of Greek Hoplite warriors, as they went to battle in their phalanx formations. Via what seems to be pretty rigorous research, backed by interviews with modern soldiers, Pressfield describes that internal struggle that every warrior faces and has to overcome to move forward. It is particularly apparent in that part of the battle known as the othismos (Greek: ὠθισμός, “pushing”). The exact nature and significance of the othismos is debated, but essentially it is that portion of the battle where opposing phalanxes have clashed together and proceed to shove, stab, and generally maim/kill the opponents, in an attempt to break them. OK, but how do 2,500 year old military tactics have any relevance for the modern day craftsman?
To see the connection, consider what those elite warriors represented in terms of training and determination. From early years they had been “trained” in the conventional sense, although that went far beyond merely knowing how to pick up a sword and not to drop one’s shield. Psychological training — and training in the management of personal fear in particular — was included. Then, even after training, they drilled and practiced continually, even in peace time. Then, in time of need, they would march hundreds of miles to engage the enemy. Then, after all that, they would throw themselves into combat conditions that make modern warfare — despite its far higher killing power — appear far less personal.

But there’s more. After all those years of training, and honing, and learning, and drilling, and marching, and fighting, when it came to the point where no normal person would criticize anyone for saying “Enough! No More!”, they executed othismos.  Therein lies an important key to mastery and excellence. There is something about some people that means they declare “Enough! No More!” far later than everyone else. They’re not satisfied with just writing an “acceptable” software design specification; they push beyond that, to write a Really Jolly Good plan (if not a downright excellent one). They’re not satisfied with code that just works. They want it to be clean, robust, “industrial strength”. They’re not willing to shrug when they find there may be a bug in the code library and leave it to someone else to fix; they push past that, digging into the library to find the bug and present the solution.

Crucially, none of this is about training content, or methodology, or “stuff” in general. This is about what is going on inside the individual’s head. It is a highly personal thing that points to a significant component of the difference between the merely average and the elite — the latter are acquainted with the pain of pushing past what the average allow themselves to be satisfied with. The elite, to use another military analogy — the Navy SEALs — embrace the suck.

If this is true in any significant way, one problem is that I don’t think we can teach this. We can certainly amplify it, demand it, encourage it. But I suspect we first have to select for it. Also, I say “if this is true” because I can’t say I’ve fully convinced myself yet. Also, I don’t know what the balance is — between bliss-inducing passion, and tolerance for pain. Pressfield talks of three components of esprit de corps — honor, shame, and love. Those seem to me consistent with a drive to push past one’s boundaries both because doing so is cool, and because not doing so is uncool. So I don’t want to over-stress the othismos angle. But so far, I think it’s one that is being under-stressed and a bit of compensation is needed.

Last point is directly to you dear reader. Do you recognize any of this struggle in yourself? Can you personalize any of this? How hard do you “push” when learning? What about when delivering to an employer or client. Are you aware of hitting your boundaries and pushing against them? I suspect that repeated failure, then used to build strength, goes hand in hand with the above. How often do you try so hard to improve that you fail?

An antidote to passion

Call me a cynical old git, but the whole “find your passion” thing has worn very thin on me over the past few years. It’s not that I think loving what you do and doing it with energy is inherently bad, but it seems to me that once you start focusing on that — on “my passion” — you have to take your focus off the thing you are doing and, just as (if not more) problematic, off the person for whom you are doing  it. Seeking your passion seems reminiscent of “the pursuit of happiness”; a pretty sure way of *not* finding it (or, at least, of discovering that when you do find it, it wasn’t really what you were looking for).

And my Scottish working-class grumpiness was made all the more self-satisfactory over Christmas when, while out for a family walk at Austin’s “Trail of Lights”, I came across a display for this: http://besomebody.co — “The World’s Platform for Passion”. At home after the walk, I watched their video and frowned, the old phrase, “ex nihilo nihil fit” coming quickly to mind. #besomebody #myass.

But Christmas was months ago. So what brought this to mind? Well it seems the staff at Austin High School are doing a great job in helping the students there build and maintain critical thinking skills. Well done AHS.
By way of antidote to the fluff, I strongly suggest pointing students at Cal Newport’s, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” And in fact if one of the AHS staff there wants to drop me a note (an email to tommy.kelly at verilab dot the usual company ending is fine) with a name and address, I’ll start your collection by having Amazon send 10 copies to the school.

Organizational Habituation

There’s a bit of a habit bandwagon on the move at the moment, with a rash of books, software apps, and so forth all helping us to understand the Trigger->Action->Reward structure of habitual behaviours, and how to use that understanding to build our own positive habits. In Verilab’s client work, and beyond that to other SMEs with whom I work, however, I’ve noticed what appears to be, in the group environment and even overall organization, a strong analog of habits in the individual person. I dislike gratuitous creation of neologisms, so I’ve looked for a phrase to denote this phenomenon, but haven’t been able to find one. So I’m naming it now. I’m calling it “Organizational Habituation”.

To explain further, first observe that probably the prime reason for the popularity of the habit books, and many others on personal development in general, is that many of us desire behavioural change but that such change is simply hard. Creating a positive habit such as taking regular exercise is difficult, as is stopping an unwholesome one like eating too much, and the typical solutions to those things — the statement “so just take regular exercise and eat less” — is both correct but next to useless as practical advice[1]. The fundamental reason most overweight people have that problem is not that they eat too much but that some part of them wants to eat too much. It’s as if there are actually two persons inside the one individual body, one saying “resist” and the other dangling images of BBQ ribs in front of the eyes (and nose…). And of course that notion of the divided self is ancient and venerable. A recent treatment of it by Jonathan Haidt, in his “The Happiness Hypothesis”, in which he pictures the two selves as an elephant and rider, is superb. The key point here is that it’s possible for an individual to be intellectually aware of the benefits of performing behaviour B and not performing behaviour C, and yet in practice do precisely the opposite. The age-old battle between our higher and lower brains continues, and the amygdala often wins. Habituation is a method whereby we can make that battle go more often in our (overall) favour.

My observation is that that gap, between knowing what is the right course of action and then actually taking it, seems to occur not just with individuals but at an organizational level too. In software development, for example, certain processes and standards have been developed over the years. Now although some do constitute fairly useless overhead, many represent serious distilled wisdom and are a pretty sure path to better product development. However, even in the case of the latter, it seems it’s not enough for an organization to “know” that behaviour B is correct. For example, it’s not enough to know that certain behaviours in code configuration management — committing changes regularly, working on the appropriate branch — are wise. In our experience in Verilab, and that’s covering many hundreds of large and complex projects across a wide range of clients, project styles, and application domains, many if not most clients already know what is the “right” behaviour, but only a subset do it regularly.  Project planning is another area subject to this organization “divided self” effect. Few if any groups would say that planning your chip development or the highly complex verification sub-project was anything other than essential. But the number who actually plan effectively and, more to the point, persist in effective planning and management discipline throughout the project, are far fewer.

And a telling observation is what happens if these issues are raised with a client. In the same way that if you ask me, “Do you really think eating that extra slice of cheesecake is wise?”, I’ll hang my head, frown, and sigh a pouting begrudging “No” as I put down my fork, cheesecake piece uneaten, so too will the typical chip lead hang his head and sigh if asked about their team’s lack of good practices in their chip flow. And the thing is, he and his team already know about those practices, just as I know that eating too much cheesecake is not good practice. The problem is not that we don’t know. We act “badly” despite knowing otherwise. That’s why we sigh! Over the years of personal fighting with cheesecakes, and watching my clients fighting with complexity in chip design, I’ve concluded that neither of us are bad people. Neither of us are stupid. Our problem is our failure to deal with the fact that both as individuals and, it seems, as teams, we are divided selves. In each case there is a higher brain that knows the right behaviour, but there is also a lower brain that has its own ideas, is stubbornly immune to the higher brain’s reasoning, and is extremely powerful. Whatever the solution is, it’s going to have to deal with that fundamental nature. The higher brain merely yelling at the lower is no more effective than an elephant rider yelling at his ride when the big animal has spotted some nearby food.

So, the answer? You’ll get no such silver bullets, lies, or marketing bullshit from me here. For now, this remains simply one of many pieces of what are effectively field research that my Verilab teams and I do as we help clients across the planet, understanding these challenges common to almost everyone, seeing patterns emerge, and hunting for solutions. We also link back to academia, especially groups working on the psychology of learning and performance, and on programming mastery in particular, to ensure we’re feeding our thought processes from the theoretical and scholarly side too. So no easy answers, but here are three thoughts or pointers.

First, let’s keep in mind exactly what we’re looking for here in building a habit. A key characteristic is that it’s a behaviour where it has become more normal for us to do it than not to. It may even become uncomfortable not to do the habituated action. At the extreme end of habituation — addiction — the discomfort of not obtaining the drug or cigarette can be so intense as to drive the individual into what is clearly self-destructive behaviour. But further down the scale, and more positively perhaps, we have regular runners who report feeling “antsy” if they don’t get out for their morning 3 miles. An example we can almost all relate to is the use of seatbelts in a car (hat tip to my friend Tony Chen for that example). That feeling of unease one gets when driving off having forgotten to fasten one’s car seatbelt is a sign that seatbelting has become habituated for you. And a good thing too! So you will know you are building an organizational habit when your “organization” starts getting grumpy when the action in question doesn’t get done. What is the organizational equivalent of grumpiness in an individual? I’m not sure, but I suspect it has something to do with where even junior people are allowed, expected to and regularly do raise red flags. If when, on a late Friday afternoon, with traffic heavy outside, and everyone anxious to get home, Joe Newbie pipes up “Hang on, we didn’t check in and kick off the weekend regression” and the response from everyone else is (a non-ironic) “Darn! Thank goodness you spotted that Joe!”, then you may be heading in the right direction.

Second, related to the above, Atul Gawande reports on significant developments in this area in hospital medicine. In fact it was Atul’s books that first alerted me to the idea that organizational habituation may be a thing worthy of a name. I strongly recommend first his “The Checklist Manifesto”, and then his broader “Better”. I suggest that order only because despite me saying there are no easy answers, Gawande’s checklisting may come close to that. In particular, checklisting has proven useful to empower nurses and junior medical staff to challenge the authority of hitherto unapproachable surgeons, to the betterment of performance all around. A particularly interesting point he makes is the usefulness of “positive deviance” (PD) when trying to transform groups of people. The phrase, not coined but probably given wider exposure by Gawande, refers to groups of people, within a larger group, who perform in some way at odds with the main group but in a way that is beneficial. An important aspect of such groups in terms of organizational habituation is that they can act as fruitful “seed points” from which to spread the beneficial behaviour. As consultants, we see this at work where it’s clearly much easier to help a small group already embracing a new behaviour to spread their wisdom throughout a client, as opposed to us arriving on parachutes to tell everyone to Stop What You’re Doing And Listen To The Consultants! Even purely within a firm, I suspect a key tactic is for management to figure out ways to be able to hear of such PD behaviour, and to develop at least a tolerance for it. That goes, however, to deeper cultural issues than I can cover here.

Finally, a negative pointer if you will. Almost every business talk I’ve been to about improving some aspect of a firm talks about the “what to do” where the target is one of the common areas of business operations — finance, HR, innovation, and so on. Having been working now for over 25 years, almost half of which as a CEO, I don’t think I’m being immodest to say that the chances of someone telling me something in those areas that I haven’t heard before is not high. Despite that, I remain far from the perfect CEO. In other words, just as with the overweight cheesecake eater, the problem for the beleaguered, battle-worn CEO is not that her firm doesn’t do X, it’s that her firm doesn’t yet “want” to do X. A part of the solution is, I propose, the organizational equivalent of habituation. The solution to getting a firm to do X is rarely, even if wrapped up in cheesy fighter pilot analogies[2], merely to tell them that they should do X.

*** ADDED 2014-04-11 13:50***

Funny how despite hunting around prior to writing something you find nothing, and only afterwards get some leads. Where “organizational habituation” picks up very little on Google, “organizational habits” does. Here’s the transcript of a 2012 podcast interview with Charles Duhigg, author of the well-known The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.” He speaks about habits at the personal and organizational level. Still no silver bullet answers mind, but at least the problem is being recognized. (Although in that case, why do so many business speakers appear to ignore it?)

[1] I have two simple test for diet books in a store. First, I pick up the book and look at the cover. If it shows a picture of someone so ripped and chiseled they clearly have never been overweight in their life, I return the book to the shelf. Weight control lives in the mind, not in the body, and unless a person has fought and won their own mind battles I very much doubt they understand and can help my problem. If it passes that first test, I then split the book around 3/4 of the way to the end and open it. If I find recipes, I return the book to the shelf. My thinking — backed now by experience — is that the recipes are designed to be in the range of 1250 to 1750 calories per day, being the typical range people need to consume to lose weight. In other words, no matter what the front 75% of the book has said, in fact it amounts overall to yet another “all you have to do is consume fewer calories than you emit”, and that phrase fails in its first “all you have to do”. There is nothing “all“, “merely” or “simply” about behaviour change.
[2] That is a link. It is absolutely not a recommendation.