Arguments don’t create decisions

Arguments don’t work like we would want them to. It is essentially impossible to change someone’s mind with factual claims. Why is that?

Here’s an example. I happened to read a book by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow yesterday. It is called The Grand Design and it tells about recent advances of modern physics and their philosophical implications. Let’s say we have an argument whether reading this book is good for my career as a software developer. I come up with these arguments:

  • Reading something out of my field is good exercise for my brain.
  • If I ever write software for related to modern physics, I understand a bit of the background already.
  • There must be non-obvious parallels from physics to the software world. Reading this book gives an opportunity to see software development from a new point of view.
  • Understanding the deep questions about our existence gives truer purpose to the work we do.
  • If quantum computing becomes available during my career, I already understand a bit more of its background.
  • If it turns out some client or partner is interested in this kind of stuff, understanding a bit about this provides an opportunity to strike an interesting conversation with them, improving trust etc.

The arguments I present here are probably all true to some extent. The problem is that I could come up with a similar list of arguments about any book, or pretty much any activity I do.

It is not enough that arguments are true, you must weigh the arguments too. Each person gives weights according to their own priorities and values. Presented with the same arguments, two people will come to different conclusions.

There is value in arguments, but in the end, decisions are made with intuition.

Agile charted

Here’s how I think of agile.

Traditional software development has the problem that it gets feedback only after it has lost its ability to make relevant changes.

Agile on the other hand aims to get the feedback quickly while still having room to maneuver.

The upper right-hand corner of the chart is the sweet spot for development. It is the place where learning is possible and true innovation can occur. This is the heart of agile development. If your agile process leads you to the lower left side for whatever reason, you are doing it wrong.

I’ve pessimistically drawn both arrows’ ends’ in the lower right. From innovation point of view, the goal of course is to stay as long as possible on the upper right, and for example Facebook has kept in that general area for admirably long. But there seems to be a very real gravity that takes successful products down on the chart. This is The Innovator’s Dilemma: successful competition in an established market requires sustaining innovation, and companies that invest heavily in it tend to lose their ability to change direction. (Example: Nokia’s phones in 2000-2010.)

But while the individual products and product families are brought down by gravity, a company may escape it by cultivating disruptive innovation. Apple and 3M show that it is possible, but it appears to be very hard, since there are not many companies like that.

Great conversations

Some conversations have this warm sense of companionship. Why do some discourse have that and some do not? I talked about it with my girlfriend the other day and I think we found something. Let me try to describe how I see it now.

Talk is just talk. It is not a description of reality, not even a description of our understanding; these are more complex than can be put into words. True agreement is an illusion – we cannot understand each other fully.

The surest way to kill a conversation, therefore, is to aim for absolute truth. When you try to make sure everything you say is correct, a few unfortunate things happen: the pace of the conversation slows down, it becomes very serious, and you become irritated when the conversation doesn’t lead to the way you see the world. Consequently the conversation becomes less stimulating and attendees start to drift off.

When you accept that you will not be able to convey your exact thoughts or feelings to others, a positive feedback loop appears:

Another way to look at it is that great conversation is story-telling. The number one thing for a good story is suspension of disbelief. As long as the reader accepts that the events are believable in this story, the story makes sense. In great stories most events stem from the story itself, and are not introduced by the author’s will.

So it is in great conversations. First you create the setting, and then you go wherever the conversation takes you. You accept that you don’t know where it will end, and you dive in. Isn’t that stimulating?

Business vs. development

A friend said to me this week that he left his previous job because the balance between business and software development was skewed too much towards business. It was all about the profits for the company, he said.

If you think this way you have already lost the game, and you will not be satisfied with your job.

First of all, you are missing the most important player from the picture: the client.

Secondly, this isn’t a zero-sum game. We are not dividing a pie into three, we are creating new, larger pies. In every software project I’ve experienced there have been huge untapped opportunities to help the client, to push the boundaries of how we are helping him. (And this includes some very unsuccesful and very succesful projects.)

As long as you focus on the division of the pie, you miss the opportunity to do truly valuable work.

What would Richard Feynman do?

I read Surely You Are Joking, Mr. Feynman! Richard Feynman tells stories from his life, from learning to fix radios when he was ten to helping build the atom bomb to playing bongo drums in a ballet. It’s a very entertaining book.

We happen to have bongo drums at home but I almost never play them. After I finished the book I got them out and started playing. The fact that Feynman played bongos made it more interesting to me.

A few months ago my girlfriend gave me for my birthday a gift card to a day spa that has an isolation tank. Isolation tank is a coffin half filled with salt water, and tries to deprive you from sensory experiences to help you meditate and relax. So I went and stayed an hour in the tank and was not overwhelmed. In the book Feynman tells about his visits to an isolation tank and his experiments to hallucinate there. He was quite enthusiastic about it. Now I’m thinking, why didn’t I see it that way?

It is curious how something becomes interesting merely when someone we admire does it. Doubly so in this case because Mr. Feynman followed his own interests, not anyone else’s. That more than anything else set him apart and above the most of us. His curiosity on actual things, not the social theatre around them, let him see what others didn’t.

Imitating Mr. Feynman’s actions makes us less like him. Imitating his attitude, more like him.

Think different

When Steve Jobs came back to Apple in 1996, he rehired Chiat\Day, the advertising agency behind the famous 1984 commercial. Jobs and the agency created a new campaign, Think Different, that became as iconic as 1984. It targeted Apple employees as much as it targeted the rest of the world; it positioned Apple not based on the products it makes but the values it stands for.

Another change was to put the focus back on products. No more dozens of indistinguishable Macs built to satisfy focus groups and market research, but four products, clearly different from each other and their competition.

We can only marvel at how well, how quickly, Jobs ingrained these ideas into the Apple DNA.

Imagine Jobs had taken a different route. Imagine he had invited everyone in Cupertino to an auditorium, and said “Our new values are Think Different and Products are everything. Your superior will talk with you about what they mean to our company and what they mean to you.”

Pretty much every management guide recommends to clarify company’s purpose and values. It makes sense to me. But as soon as you start to talk about them explicitly they start to taste artificial. Would it be better to talk about values without talking about them?

Winning by evading

Back when I worked in Tampere University of Technology I shared a room with a skilled programmer called Warp. We worked in different projects and didn’t ever collaborate in development, but we played go together in the evenings. We were both about 5 kyu at the time.

Our approach to go was very different. I remember especially well one game which ended in my win by about ten points. Warp said after the game: “I don’t understand how I lost this game. In every single fight I gained and Antti lost territory.” And he was correct. I played slack moves and let him have what he wanted. But in go there is a balance between territory and influence. If you choose to grab territory, your opponent will gain influence, barring major mistakes. While Warp valiantly wrestled small territories from my control, he ignored all the influence I gained in response, until my influence itself became territory, much larger than his. I won the game without ever winning a fight.

We played a lot and he won as many games as I, but I recall this one because of his comment. It tells a lot about our characters. He always focused on local moves and willingly ignored the big picture. I was soft in tactics and evaded confrontation to the fault. There was a lot for us to learn from each other and I hope we did.

One of my regrets regarding those times is that I never programmed with Warp. Very rarely in my career have I had a chance to work with someone much experienced than me, and back then I didn’t appreciate the opportunity. I suspect that just like our approaches to go, our approaches to programming would have turned out different enough to be worth a story or two.

Jobsian influence

Walter Isaacson: Steve Jobs

I read the Steve Jobs book by Walter Isaacson. I feel more Jobs-like, not in skill but in attitude. More direct, less willing to tolerate bad ideas. I am worried it affects my coaching.

Coach should have no agenda, I hear. Coach should inspire by asking questions not by giving answers. But this is hard when I have an urge to say “that is an incredibly shitty idea”.

Perhaps I am still inside the reality distortion field, but I feel this is the right direction. Having no agenda and inspiring by asking are only tools. We are here to create something beautiful. I am here to help you do that using whatever tools of influence I have.

If a coach is indeed someone who asks questions and doesn’t give answers, then perhaps I am not a coach every day. Sometimes I am just a guy who tells you what he really thinks.

Busy tone

I like Kindle’s lack of features. I read a book and after I have finished one, I order another from the Kindle Store.

Not so with iPad. Every moment I use it I am aware of the possibilities: I can check my email and answer them. I can browse the web. I can play games. I can read books. I can check Facebook. I can check Twitter. I can browse pictures.

I descent into opportunistic curiosity hedonism. Behind every link is new information. Every moment is a moment of choice: what shall I do next? Even when I start to get bored, the hardest decision is to put the iPad down.

This morning I woke up earlier than usually and surfed the web with my iPad. Now my head is spinning and it is hard to concentrate on anything. I tried to write a blog post on a different subject but I just couldn’t organize the thoughts in my head. Part of my brain is still giving busy tone.

I’ve often wondered what causes my behavior. Perhaps I learned in my childhood, when information was scarce and I immersed myself into books, that all information is valuable. My first web experiences were immensely rewarding (and no, I don’t mean porn this time). Perhaps the kids of today have intuitively learned to devalue raw information, and don’t suffer from this problem. I hope.

Injecting reality

When coaching teams you want to use appropriate time to understand the current reality. Not too little, lest decisions are based on fantasy. Not too much, lest talk fails to turn into action. How much is enough? This is actually a wrong question. It is not about the time you use to dissect the situation, it is the manner. Here are the things you want the team to see:

1. The big picture.

You want the coachees to see the situation beyond their usual point of view. You want them to consider how the different problems they have fit together. For example, the fact that the build monitor is nearly constantly red, and the fact that customer never seems satisfied with the sprint results may be tied. If so, it is important to notice and understand the systemic relationship. Otherwise the team a naive solution to one problem may make the other problem even worse.

2. Just enough details.

Avoid going to too much details. The right level of discussion is such that everyone can follow and understands what we are talking about. There is a tendency to talk about individual tools or people. If a specific tool or person really is a problem, then go ahead and discuss it. But almost always, the actual problem lies elsewhere.

3. Both the team and the environment affect the situation.

Teams tend to blame others of their problems. This is usually fruitless and should be avoided. However, it is not good to deny the current reality. The constraints of the environment (including other people) must be understood, and taken into account. Otherwise the team will bump into problems very soon when they try to change things.

4. Improvement is possible.

The aim is always to turn understanding into action. The team must not be overwhelmed by the trouble. It is not the size or the amount of problems, it is how they are viewed. A myriad of problems becomes reachable, when you see the connections between them. A depressing problem becomes an exhilarating challenge when the teams believes in its ability.

5. This is interesting and important.

What form the above suggestions take in coaching depend entirely on situation. For example the number of people involved: it is practically impossible to reach a common deep understanding with a conversation of, say, twenty people. In that case you may will want to talk to individuals beforehand so you understand the situation very well when the whole group meets. On the other hand, with four people, you can actually have a fruitful discussion right then and there.

Good coaching captivates people, makes them feel the things are important and they are important.