Tuesday, August 27, 2013

When Should You Go to War?

I usually have a good laugh, at least in my mind, when I hear people say that they don't or won't engage in conflict.  The fact is that every human being on Earth comes from a background of conflict.  Since the beginning of time, humans have competed over everything although most often resources.  If you are alive today it is because your ancestors were able to survive where other, less hardy or adaptable groups of people could not compete.  You don't have to take my word for it - just look at the daily news.  Humans go at it on a daily basis.  Try playing a season of fantasy football if you want to see the warrior come out in both you and your opponents.

In the workplace conflict is inevitable but not always winnable.  Obviously any rational person should avoid conflict when there is no way to win.  Just read the poem "Charge of the Light Brigade" and ask yourself whether or not those men were noble or just dumb.  So we know that we shouldn't fight un-winnable battles with our co-workers.  Yet, as managers if we fail to stand up for ourselves, our teams, or the "right" course of action we are poor leaders indeed.

Anyone in a position of leadership already understands what I have said so far.  The bigger topic to discuss is how to actually engage in conflict within the workplace and come out ahead.  I'll throw in the usual caveats about conflict - don't engage in it unless you have to; always try to be collaborative; look for the win-win scenario; be respectful; remember that you should prioritize your actions in terms of "Company, Team, Me".  But when all else fails, you need to play to win.  In order to do that, however, you need to know who you are and how you are "constructed" to fight.  After all, Sun Tzu said it best: "Know your enemy and yourself and in one hundred battles you will never be in peril." (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Sun_Tzu)

Let's examine the part about knowing who you are in this context.  For simplicity sake, I like to classify corporate warriors into three different buckets.  Sure, this takes out any chance for nuance or "unique-ness" but the categories fit.  They are:
  1. Vikings 
  2. Spartans
  3. Romans
Here is the context for you to better understand what these categories mean.

Vikings - these warriors are raiders.  The way they fight is not to conquer but to generally gain a specific objective.  In ancient times the objective was usually gold, wealth, livestock, and slaves.  In today's corporate setting, a "Viking" is someone who wants to win in terms of a singular goal.  The struggle is usually not about power but over a specific item or event.  Corporate Vikings tend to battle over tactical things like office space, project participation, or "being right".  The aftermath of a Viking battle is usually measured in hours or just a few days.

Spartans - the ancient Spartans were a fearsome society of men and women based upon martial principles.  Despite their military prowess (they had no city walls - the army was the city wall!), the Spartans only ever fought in the Peloponnese.  This is the area of southern Greece that makes up about a third of the country.  The Spartans were strong but brittle.  They could win almost any battle but due to a very limited supply of elite soldiers, they could not stand to lose any major encounters because they would be unable to replace their losses.

In the corporate setting, Spartans are usually managers and directors.  They have strong power but it is highly localized within a group.  The conflicts that they engage in are over resources, budgets, ownership of projects, or other political issues within a department or sometimes division.  Since their strength may be high but limited in scope, the Spartans usually engage in conflict that is smaller in scale.  After all, if the corporate Spartan loses, the consequences are usually a total loss (read: demotion or termination).

Romans - without a doubt the Romans were the preeminent power of ancient times.  They had a fearsome military but also the political and economic infrastructure to fight on multiple fronts.  For about 700 years the Romans were constantly at war on fronts all over the world.  Unlike the Spartans, the Romans could suffer tremendous losses and still be viable.  In fact, on a single day at the battle of Cannae (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Cannae) the Romans lost a staggering 80,000 troops.  To put that into perspective, the bloodiest day ever for the United States came in 1862 at the battle of Antietam (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Antietam).  The combined Union and Confederate losses were about 23,000 men.  Despite being 1/4th of the losses suffered at Cannae, can you imagine how the American public would react to those types of losses today?  The point is that Rome could wage war all over the world with multiple enemies, take a licking, and keep on ticking.

If you are a corporate Roman, odds are that you are highly placed in your organization and have many resources reporting to you.  If you are that fortunate, you are probably playing politics at the division level with some type of involvement from the Board of Directors.  You are likely battling over the strategic direction of the company, future business engagements, and are probably either the CEO or are in that "inner circle".  In any case, as a Roman you can afford to get into extended conflicts and even lose some of the battles if you think your cause is right.  Unlike the other two categories, you are built to win the larger strategic battles.

The purpose of all of this information is for you to think about what type of corporate warrior you are and maybe what you aspire to be.  Knowing who and what you are will allow you to successfully engage in the conflicts that you deem important while having a good chance of winning.  For every leader, conflict is inevitable - losing is not.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Joys of Quantum Physics

In my last blog I spent some time talking about why I thought that organizations like the NSA may be using technology to gather information in ways that are "contemporaneously controversial".  No need to rehash that in this post.  In fact, if you're reading this post I commend you.  Just the mere mention of the term quantum physics sends most people into deep Beta sleep.

What I want to discuss here is how advances in one area of technology usually lead to advances in others.  We could go all the way back to the battle of Kadesh in ancient times, circa 1700 B.C., and look at how the advent of iron weapons (versus bronze) made for huge counter-advances in armor technology.  Then we could fast forward to 1415 to look at how the English Longbow (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Agincourt) ended the 2000 year reign of heavy cavalry.  Then, 100 years later the full use of gunpowder removed heavy armor from the battlefield altogether.

Today, advances in technology are much more consumer driven than they are by war.  People are still competing, it's just for dollars and not survival!  In the IT world, more complex applications drive changes to hardware, which in turn drive more innovation in software development.  If you look at the advances in medicine, robotics, and nanotechnology, it would be easy to argue that we'll have computers hardwired or grown into our brains within the next 50 years.  In fact, it will become a necessity.  Traders on Wall Street today are investing in networking technology that will allow them to be milliseconds quicker on their transactions.  Talk about the early bird getting the worm!

On the subject of the NSA and their surveillance program, when the news broke about what they were doing a whole new technology gained a huge amount of momentum.  Think about this fact for a second.  If you know that someone can see everything that you send electronically, what is the counter move?  The answer is, of course, encryption.  If I encrypt something then I don't really care who can see the information because they won't be able to understand it.  The Germans created the Enigma machine during WWII as a way to encode their messages.  However, the Allies, just like the NSA found out that through brute force analytics (and some spycraft) that they could break that coding.

Would that war have gone differently if the Allies did not know every German plan for the last 1.25 years of the conflict?

Most people "in the know" understand that the NSA and most 1st world governments have the ability to brute-force crack any encryption.  That's why the game has changed.

Back in 1927, a physicist named Werner Heisenberg came up with a theory called "The Uncertainty Principle". (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncertainty_principle)  In a nutshell, it stated that no-one could know both the position and speed of a particle in motion.  You could know one or the other but not both at the same time.  Yes, this is boring stuff.  But what is not boring is one of the side effects of the Uncertain Principle called "The Observer Effect". (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Observer_effect_%28physics%29)  The meaning of the effect is that, everything being part of a quantum universe, every time something is observed it changes.  In other words, you cannot look at or measure anything without changing its nature.

The science and benefits of Quantum Encryption are all built and predicated on the validity of the observer effect.  Using modern science, technologists have developed software and hardware that allows a sender to apply quantum encryption before sending.  Of course, the recipient has the key.  What makes quantum encryption so powerful is that it cannot be cracked.  Because of the observer theory, every time someone looks at it the encryption changes.  No matter how powerful you are and how much computing resources you have, it is impossible to crack an encryption schema that changes every time you view it!  It doesn't matter to the recipient either because the key will unlock the encryption no matter how much it has changed.  Anyone in the middle, however, will find themselves quite frustrated.

It is a testament to how effective it is that so many "experts" have come out to try and debunk the efficacy of quantum encryption.  However you want to look at it, the emergence of quantum encryption shows that there is always a check and counterbalance to every technology.

Such is human nature and the drivers of human kind.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Ready Player One

In days gone past I used to love to travel.  However, that was a million miles, six continents, and three children ago.  Today I approach travel with a much more jaundiced eye, usually only committing to go somewhere if it's an absolute necessity for business or a pleasure trip that involves the family.

That being said, traveling isn't all bad for me.  I usually get a chance, due to all the waiting at various locations, to catch up on my personal reading.  The book I was able to delve into during my latest excursion was a title called "Ready Player One" by an author named Ernest Cline.  I found it to be a rare treat for many reasons.  It touched on deep sociological and political issues from a perspective heavily based in 1980s pop culture.  Although Cline's view of the future is much bleaker than I believe it to be, it has a lot of relevance to certain topics we (as USA citizens) are dealing with today.  Probably the most poignant takeaway that I gained was that the power of the individual to overcome seemingly impossible challenges is what has and will continue to make us, as humans, transcendent.

If you're not interested in deep philosophy, buy the book anyway.  From the point of pure adventure it's truly a non-stop thrill.  And don't take my word for it - Warner Bros is going to make it into a film at some point.

So why tell you about the book?  If you read it, what I'm about to say next will make a lot more sense. 

Since the scandal broke about the copious amount of snooping that the NSA has been conducting on U.S. citizens, and the world in general, I've thought about one thing.  Is the NSA "evil" or are they a giant shield that holds the world's bad guys at bay while we all continue to live the American dream? I have mixed feelings that we will not explore here in much detail.  Since we already know the "what" in relation to the NSA, let's explore the "why".  Why did the management and staff of the NSA go the extents they did to basically record every call, email, and other communication in the world?  Why did they share the information with other governmental agencies?  Did it qualify as benevolent protectionism of citizens or an abuse of power?

The answer to the "why" I believe is quite simple.  It's a matter of human nature.  All throughout history, humankind has ever striven to do more and more.  That's how we have evolved, by pushing the boundaries of what is possible.  "Because we can (or could)" is the motto that fits almost all of human behavior and advances since the beginning of time.  Whether it is the NSA conducting surveillance operations or a single programmer working in a basement on a new paradigm of digital reality, people will always, irresistibly be drawn to push the envelope because that's how we are made.

Whatever your opinion of the NSA, they are a perfect example of how predictable humans are when presented with a challenge.  In order to protect the United States, people within the NSA developed a vision of how that could be done.  The vision included being able to intercept and analyze all communications throughout the world in real time.  Given that goal, the NSA was able to use the power of the human mind to harness technology to make that dream a reality.  Today they use servers, software, and storage on a scale never seen in human history.  Ever heard of a zettabyte?

Given all that said about the NSA, they have been brought to heel (at least partially) by the actions of a single person.  Going back to the book Ready Player One, it's easy to see that the power of the individual will always be a major factor even in the face of a near-omnipotent government or authority.

When as CIOs and technologists you look at your staff and customers, realize the power and nature of the human condition.  Whether you know it or not, various people are always hard at work finding ways to expand their horizons and challenge their constraints.  Embrace it, harness it, and believe in the power of the endless capabilities of humankind to shape and control the reality in which we live.

P.S. Readers, look forward to my next posting called "The Joys of Quantum Physics".  In there I will describe how situations like the one involving the NSA are actually bringing the theoretical into reality.  "For every action there is always someone standing in front of you pushing back."  -Anorak's Almanac, c46, p3, ch7

Monday, August 5, 2013

"Time Served" is Time Wasted

I feel it appropriate to warn my readers when I think what I'm about to say will blow their minds.  So, if you are easily offended be warned - I'm about to speak corporate blasphemy.

Like many of you I have discovered different "truisms" about work and the corporate environment as my career has progressed.  I could make up a Top 10 list a la Letterman to cover some of the funnier ones.  But I won't do that because this blog is meant to cover a very serious topic.

As I've mentioned before, my career in IT began in the early nineties.  During that time I started to learn about management from a collection of individuals coming from the Silent and Baby Boomer generations.  One of the biggest tenants of their collective management style was a value that basically meant, "The best employees are the ones who work the hardest."  What they were really saying is that they had a preference for those that worked the longest.  The measurement typically being hours spent at the office every week.  Yet, from the very beginning of my career, I was disturbed by this method of measuring the worth of an employee.

By about 1999 I had watched these so-called "great employees" in action for long enough to notice some trends.  In general, a "great employee" would show up at 6:30am-7am in the morning, grab a huge coffee mug, and spend the next 10-12 hours going from meeting to meeting to meeting.  When I looked for the productivity from these people it was tough to consistently find.  As it is in my nature to challenge practices, however traditional, that don't seem productive I started developing descriptor terms in my mind.  When a person would expect me to respect them solely on their years worked I would ask questions like, "Do you have 25 years of experience or one year of experience 25 times?"  When someone would say (expecting praise), "I worked 60 hours last week!" I would think to myself, "Are they bragging about their 'time served'?"

I am not a sarcastic person, nor do I consider myself to be flippant.  I give those examples above to illustrate the evolution of my thought process.  In the beginning I had no science to validate my observations.  I was also in the unenviable position of pushing back against 50 years of previous workplace dynamics.

Even though I was ahead of my time in terms of understanding how to identify and reward truly valuable people, I was actually on to something important.  The revelation is thus: What we really want AND need are creative, energetic people.  These are the people who get the work done that is important to the organization and drive things like profitability, growth, and improvement surges. 

Now that we are in 2013 the science finally exists to prove that "time served" is actually time wasted.  Many psychological studies show that the average American worker can only produce a maximum of 6.4 productive hours per day.  Even that figure is in dispute.  There are articles such as this one from Behance (http://99u.com/articles/5718/focus-on-results-not-time?utm_content=buffer8527f&utm_source=buffer&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=Buffer) that drop that number down to 4.8 productive hours per day.  Even if the truth lies somewhere in between the message is the same.  Your employees can only give you so much productivity in a week and that's it.  Yes, there will always be someone who says that rule doesn't apply to them, that they can work 10 hours a day and nail it every second.  Fine, but let's measure that person working like that for 52 straight weeks and see if they keep the same tune.

What we have here as leaders is a golden opportunity.  We must stop being lazy about our expectations.  When we aren't specific, then it gets too easy to give the most kudos to the people who spend the most time at work.  Let's instead focus on giving very specific expectations but not directions.  Let people figure out how to get the work done using their own faculties.  But let's do all of this with one big twist. 

Let's tell people that our expectations are that they should spend no more than 40 hours maximum in the office per week.  We want them to "get in, get done, and GET OUT".  It's just a fact that people are not wired to be office fixtures.  Besides, with modern phone and mobility technologies they are always reachable, anyway.  Tell them that the most important factor in their evaluations is how productive they can be in a limited time frame. Let them know that we actually expect them to take time to attend to their personal needs.

When people feel that you've unchained them from their desk, you will be rewarded by higher morale, higher productivity, and better overall employees.