Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The history of hierarchy


Many modern organizations, ThoughtWorks included, hate the word "hierarchy". Understandably so, since most hierarchical organizations tend to slow down decision making, add process and undermine exceptional people. Its useful to try and explore the history of organizational hierarchy to know why this came into existence. In ancient kingdoms, the kings had quite a few things to deal with, many of which they were not qualified to handle. So kings appointed a group of ministers to help them make intelligent decisions. The king would spend time with each of his ministers and help them work with each other; help them through any problems they were facing and remove any blockers that came in their way. The ministers did pretty much the same thing -- they appointed a bunch of advisors to help them do their job and they'd communicate frequently with these advisors who in turn worked with their staff.

As you can imagine, it would have been well nigh impossible for the king to actually spend time with the staff and the advisors and the ministers. The hierarchy was in place to achieve a set of organizational objectives and for leader to actually spend more time with their people. So the purpose of hierarchy in the first place, wasn't really to add process or slow down decision making -- in fact it aided decision making in a big way. Nor was this to undermine exceptional people - in fact it was put in place to get the best out of them and to ensure that there was someone empowered to help them remove blockers and look at problems differently.

Its unfortunate then that organizational structures have turned out the way they are today. Its more unfortunate that in some places we've interpreted "flat" as the exact opposite of what we perceive as hierarchy. In my world, "flat" structures should retain all the positives of the above example and have none of the ills of the current methods of implementing hierarchy. What this means:
  • Small teams/ units of upto 15 people each;
  • Leaders that are obligated to spend at least 30 minutes (one-on-one) with each of their team mates;
  • Leaders that are invested in growing their people - having a fair idea of each team mate's career plan is advisable;
  • Shared leadership for large teams -- if you aren't able to spend time 1-o-1 with all your team mates, then find a group of people that can provide leadership and divide the responsibility amongst them. Ensure that you spend time 1-o-1 with these "first-tier" leaders so that you can coach them through their experiences.
  • Open channels of communication - people should have the opportunity to approach and talk to just about anyone in the organization, to make their work easier;
  • A culture of two-way delegation;
    • where team members can ask their leaders can do something;
    • where the leader is happy to spend double the time in coaching someone on a task when they could have done it themselves -- this is growing and empowering people.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Of stuffed bears, brick walls, dreams and lesssons learnt!

I recommend everyone listens to Randy Pausch's last lecture. If not for anything else, just for his brilliant eloquence -- The Six Minutes blog, calls him the best communicator of 2008. I completely agree -- Randy's last lecture is the best speech I've ever heard. I tried doing a tag cloud (Seth Godin style!) of his speech and you'll see that he talks about people, carnegie, dreams, work and many other things about his life.


I love some of his quotes from the speech:
  • Brick walls are there for a reason; they help prove how badly we want something.
  • If there's an elephant in the room introduce it.
  • You cant change the cards you've been dealt, you can only change the way you play the hand.
  • Inspiration and permission to dream is huge.
  • Experience is what you get when you didnt get what you wanted!
  • I can show them the bears!
  • Everything that can go wrong will go wrong.
  • Wait long enough and people will surprise and impress you.
  • I dont know what's in that bag but I know its cool.
  • Brick walls help us show our dedication to people we love.
  • Dont bail; the best gold is at the bottom of barrels of crap.

Be convinced that there are so many more of these in that 80 minute roller coaster. If you haven't watched the video watch it here - 10 million others already did!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Aiding Student Recall through Interim Reviews

I wrote many months back that the five factors on which recall of certain information delivered in a classroom depends are as follows:
  • First: We are likely to remember the beginning of events or the first series of events
  • Reviewed: Recall falls rapidly after 24 hours without review
  • Outstanding: We remember outstanding/unusual/strange things exceedingly well
  • Linked: Recall is high for things that are linked by mnemonics or analogy
  • Last: We are most likely to remember the end of events or the last in a series of events

I refer to these with the mnemonic FROLL -- the Finnish cousin of the Norwegian Troll! Research has proved that for someone to have a recall of 90% for material taught 24 hours back, the message needs to be delivered six times! I know many smart people may scoff at this, but that's true!

So how do you achieve this? I've often heard the following lines from successful training practitioners:
"Tell them what you're going to tell them,
Then tell them,
And then tell them what you told them."


One of the often neglected parts of training is interim review. A strong system of interim reviews, not just strengthens understanding, but also increases recall. That said reviews are often boring and the simple "trainer asks questions - students give answers" method isn't the most engaging for learners. If you were to go back to the FROLL, this method is simply not "Outstanding". Here are some of my favorite methods of reviewing learning in a classroom.

  • Line Jump (TPR): This is a simple review and requires little or no preparation. Look at the previous day's learning and come up with a list of True/ False statements. Move furniture to the sides of the room. Ask all students to stand in a line (two or more lines with large classes). Tell students that you will read a question. If the answer is yes (true), they all have to jump to their right. If it is no (false), they all have to jump to their right, if it is no (false), they all have to jump to their left. Students who jump the wrong way are out and have to stand/ sit out of the activity. They can help the teacher monitor or police the activity.

  • Running Dictation: Print out a list of multiple choice questions on a sheet of paper. Divide the class into teams. Get into a seated position and use a wooden ruler/ book/ sheet of paper to hide the questions when necessary. One runner from each runs to read the first question with the Trainer. They run back to their groups and dictate the question. Groups then discuss and agree on an answer and send another runner back to Trainer with written answer. If correct, the runner gets to see second question. If wrong the runner's sent back to group to try again. First group to finish wins.

  • Scavenger Hunts/ Reading Race: Suitable for any question and answer type activity. Put students into teams and assign each student in the team a number, beginning at the number one. Stick up answers randomly around the room. Tell students that you will call out one runner from each team at a time. For example, "Runner number four, start running!". Stick up answers randomly around the room. Tell students that you'll call out one runner from each team at a time. They can choose any answer in the room. The read and remember the answer, run back to their team and dictate the answer to the team. The team then has to match the answer to the correct question. When they've done this, the second runner can run and read another answer. the team with the most correct answers wins.

  • The whiteboard table filling race: Suitable for matching type activities. you will need one board pen for each team. Divide the class into teams. Draw a table on the whiteboard with the number of columns corresponding to the number of teams. The number of rows should correspond to the number of matches, or questions. Move furniture and have teams stand in lines in front of the board. Call out one question number at random and ask the first runner from each team to run and write the correct answer in the space provided. Every correct answer wins a point for the team. All runners then return to the back of their team line and the trainer proceeds with another question for the second runner.

  • Run and touch team race: Suitable when answers can be stuck around the classroom. Stick answers randomly around the room. Put students into teams and assign each student in the team a number beginning at the number one. Read one of the questions and ask the first runner from each team to run and touch the correct answer. The first student to touch the correct answer wins a point for his/ her team. All runners then return to their teams and the teacher proceeds with another question for the second runner.

  • Matching: Suitable for any question and answer type activity. Get students into teams and hand out cut up questions and answers on strips of paper. Tell the teams to match the questions with the answers. When the first team finishes, the whole class stops. Check answers using a student led approach.

  • Pictionary: Come up with a list of keywords from the previous day's session and write them out on individual index cards. Divide the class into two or more teams, while ensuring that each team has a set of whiteboard markers, a whiteboard eraser and a whiteboard. Have a volunteer from each team come up and take a look at the first index card and start drawing their representation of that keyword. Use standard pictionary rules - no miming, no writing, etc. The first team to get the keyword gets a point. You could add bonus points for being able to explain the significance of the word/ phrase. Repeat until you've exhausted your list.

  • Hangman: A game that brings the child out of most people. Get a list of keywords and divide the class into teams. In a round robin format, go through the words on your list using the rules of the Hangman game. Add bonus points for passes and for being able to explain the significance of the word/ phrase.

  • Charades: Pretty similar to the Pictionary format except that the students have to act out the word without speaking or using any props.

  • Musical Chairs: An all time favorite! Keep a list of questions equal to the number of participants ready with you. Run the musical chairs game and use the questions as forfeits. The last person to survive, wins! Mind you, this activity could take an extremely long time with big groups, so use this with groups of 15 students or less.

  • Talking Trash: Compile a list of questions from the previous day and write them out on chits of paper. Crumple these and throw them into a clean, trash can. Get a soft toy as a speaking token. The first person with the speaking token picks out a chit from the can, answers the question to the best of his ability and passes the token to someone else to pick the next chit. Anyone who wants to elaborate on the answer can do so, by asking for the speaking token. When all questions are answered, everyone crumples their pieces of paper and tosses them back into the can.

  • Balloon Reviews: This is suitable for any question and answer activity and adds a festive mood to training. Blow up a reasonable number of balloons and while you do that place small strips with key program concepts written on them. Have your students pop balloons in turn and read aloud what is written on the paper. As a group, you could discuss what the words mean and their significance.

  • The Group Recap: At the end of the day's training you could split the group into small teams and ask them to do presentations of the previous day's learning at the start of the next day. Teams invariably vie with one another to make their presentation the best and the most amusing and it tends to be quite a good learning activity at the end of it all.

  • The Quiz: This one's quite common, where you could divide the groups into teams and run a well devised quiz. The key is to invent different categories of questions, just like the ones they have on TV, and to keep a big, visible record of scores. Teams often push themselves to excel and the end result is well reviewed learning.

  • The Auction: This is a quiz with a twist. You will need to write out questions on the sticky side of post it notes and assign each note a price (on the non-sticky side) - ranging from $20 to $500. Stick up all these notes on the whiteboard. Give each team $1000 - you could use play money or simply mime this. The idea is for you to start auctioning notes one by one (using your best auctioneer's voice) and for teams to place their bids. The only rule is that the teams should never bid for anything that will leave them with a balance of less than $200. The highest bidding team pays the auctioneer the money and gets to answer the question - if they answer incorrectly they gain nothing; but if they answer correctly they get double the money back from the auctioneer. The richest team at the end of the game, wins!

Using a number of activities doesn't just add variety to the course, but also also allows you to appeal to differently learning styles and preferences. Even if you were to use one activity each day, there'll be very few activities that you'll need to repeat, even if you're on a really long course (say one month!). The key thing to remember is that reviews are as important as new learning and as trainers we should budget time for them. We're often afraid of using up too much time though we shouldn't be, since this will only aid future learning. I consider this to be more of an investment than an expense!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Our Unique Experiences

Its fascinating how our personal maps of the world can differ so hugely and lead to endless arguments. I find our home messy though my wife complains that its horribly messy. I sometimes think she borders on paranoia. On the other hand, I am a stickler for the way I want things to be done and I get horribly upset if I don't reach a place on time. To my wife "That's OK!". I find it fascinating to think how differently we experience the world, despite being so close to each other. I find it all the more fascinating to consider the limitless possibilities that this phenomenon conjures as every person experiences the world in her own unique way. The fact that three people could view the same situation is three completely unique ways is not just amazing, its awesome!

Growing people in a growing organization

How does an organization grow? Does adding heads make an organization bigger? Or is size a product of various factors, including but not limited to diversity of business; geographical spread; success of external and internal ventures; maturity of your practices and the abilities, potential and growth of your own people? I am inclined to think of the latter. Being a professional in the people function I feel quite strongly about growing people and while I'm sometimes guilty of the same mistakes that I may point out in this post, my views remain as strong as ever.

In the services/ software industry I hear the term "project management" quite often and the "project manager" is seemingly a prized commodity. In ThoughtWorks, I've in fact had the privilege of working with one of the finest project managers - Tiffany Lentz. This said, I get the impression that the "fine project manager" is turning out to be an endangered species. With delivery pressures consuming most teams; a project manager's role remains confined to assuring successful delivery of a project. Its difficult to recognize though, that the role has a two fold responsibility:
  • managing your project;
  • and leading your people

I've been a functional manager for quite some time now but have little or no experience of managing software delivery projects. As a manager though, I remember one thing one of my old mentors told me the first time I started to handle a team; "Lead your people well and the function will manage itself." I might be naive to believe that this can directly translate to a project; "Lead your people well and your project will manage itself." I somehow believe that this could really be true. I've been fortunate to work with some extremely capable individuals; highly motivated, responsible and intelligent. I've strongly believed that each of them could perform almost any task given the opportunity; thankfully no one let me down. What did I have to do -- I guess nothing special. I just ensured that I was investing two things - my time in them and me in their growth. Many of us hear that a bunch of highly intelligent people will produce great results regardless of the quality of management. OTOH; I believe that productivity != busy-ness as some managers will make you believe. As a great manager, one should be able to develop people and accomplish results at the same time. Trading one for the other, is equivalent to settling for mediocrity.

Unfortunately this is easier said than done. Given the pace of business today, while there's a lot of technical training available for billable professionals, there's little or no training for new/ potential leaders. As it turns out, many of us young managers have learnt by observing others; by trial and error and by imitating "the easy way out". Its quite harsh then that your people expect nothing but the best from you as a leader! Regardless of which organization you work, we expect great things from our leaders. Given the quantum of "management work", how do we invest anything in our people, especially time? The answer as "Esther Derby" puts it is, "Spending time with people is management work!". So even if you spend four hours each day in meetings; it leaves you with at least 1.5 hours each day to spend with people. If you have a team of 10, you could happily afford one-on-ones with each of them in the week. The advantages of spending one-on-one time with your people are plenty. To quote a few:
  • you get to delegate intelligently and effectively and follow up on progress of actions;
  • you get to remove obstacles from your people's paths;
  • you get to offer help if someone needs it;
  • most importantly you get invest time in their career and build a relationship based on trust.


If all works well, you'll hopefully not have to spend four hours in meetings each day, since your team members will soon step upto many responsibilities. Hopefully the so called "management work" could be taken up by more seasoned members in your team, while you can focus on growing more people. I guess this is your investment in making your function/ project the best you can make it. I'm no expert at management - if you're interested in the topic of leadership through the act of individualization, refer Esther Derby's little book - Behind Closed Doors. Its a thin little book and quite a gem.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Ghajini is no Memento

Before I watched Ghajini, I was told that it bears a close resemblance to Memento. Having seen both movies now, I can safely say that to compare Memento to Ghajini is like comparing a Mercedes Benz to a Maruti 800. Yes there are similarities but I guess that's obvious - after all a Maruti 800 has wheels and so does a Benz. Now I don't say you shouldn't watch Ghajini. Its a nice simple movie - boy meets girl; girl gets killed by goon; boy loses short term memory; but finally this is an Hindi movie - so all ends well when he kills the goon. If you've watched Memento, the 90 minute story is far more complex than the simple one that Ghajini tells in a 180. Christopher Nolan expects to leave you in a daze when the movie gets over. Ghajini, on the other hand is a pretentious action film, where you can predict the end, the moment you understand the protagonist's objective.

I have just one piece of advice -- watch Ghajini if you want to. If you've watched Memento however, expect no parallels because they're completely different.
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