The Skeptical Methodologist

Software, Rants and Management

Slack

The Four Hour Workweek blog interviews Rob Mee on ‘classic entrepreneurial myths’.  There are a few things I agree with, and a few I don’t. It’s not that controversial to agree with someone, so I’ll focus on where we part ways. You’ll notice a pattern.

Rob says that interruption is unavoidable in the modern work place, and then somehow follows with a non-sequiter about pair programming. I have nothing against pair programming, but it is not a golden hammer. It is just another tool in the chest. Some people liken it to a continuous peer review, which it can be if used successfully. But it can also very much be likened to a continuous meeting.

It’s a slippery slope to go from pair programming back to the bull pen. As Peopleware very successfully argued years ago, measurable progress, in terms of features completed and defects prevented or fixed, increases when distractions decrease. I could write a whole ranting blog post about why manager’s like pair programming (hint, it’s the same reason managers like meetings and bull pens) but that’s not really the point here. The point is that sometimes you need to collaborate, sometimes you need to be alone. And when I say alone, I mean alone alone. Private offices, chat/phones/twitter off, and allowed to concentrate.

“But SkepticalMethodologist!”, you might respond, “That implies management is harder than simply taking one philosophy (collaborate/work alone) and taking it to its extreme!” Yes, and I’m sorry I’ve scared you so. Management… nay, Leadership requires reacting to the problem at hand in its context and solving it with the best tool available for the job. It cannot be outsourced to some guru or methodology. It also implies that if you want to succeed, you need to have ways to easily switch between collaborating and working alone. This implies some excess in capability – if we don’t focus on one thing the whole time (collaboration/working alone), we can no long afford to neglect alternative methods. That means, yes, you should have private offices. But yes, you should have open spaces with white boards a plenty! And no, they will not always be in use!

The second point I disagree with Rob on is his argument against specialization. The argument goes that if you have a specialist, then you have a risk, and risks can sink you. There are a few things wrong with this – the most glaring is that successful companies did not succeed because they were so insured against risk that nothing could sink them. Instead, they succeeded because they took risks, rolled the die, and won. Which I guess gives Rob less consulting work to do, as entrepreneurs who understand that a great deal of success is luck probably aren’t willing to shell out as much in ‘guaranteed success’ consulting fees. Another is deconstructing this argument to a classic management laziness that would rather hire and fire a commodity product (generalists) than something hand crafted and unique (specialists).

Most importantly, though, is that frequently a business must do one thing well. That’s more or less what a business in a free market – it’s a specialization, an optimization of the local economic space. It does one thing better than it’s competitors, well enough, in fact, to make an economic profit.

Focusing on generalists won’t get you that.

The main risk of having specialists is losing them. The response should not be to only hire people who are easily replaced, but go to the human root of the problem and decrease turnover that way. Why is your specialist leaving? If you can’t afford to compensate your specialists or you treat them like shit, well then, hiring generalists just make it easier for you to be a cheap asshole. They don’t increase the chances of your success at all. Certainly there are reasons outside of your control in people leaving – perhaps their spouse got a job elsewhere and they aren’t willing to telecommute, or they want to shift careers altogether, or their hit with health problems, etc…

Engineers deal with these kinds of risks with redundancy. After all, a team of general practitioners is simply not as qualified to deal with my brain fog as a single neurologist. And if that single neurologist fails, I get a second opinion. Having a specialist is not a risk. Having only one specialist and not having plans to get another is. Having two specialists, or more, is expensive. It’s hard to either pay them, as a start up providing a salary, or get their buy in, if they want a piece of the company. Too bad! That’s your job as a leader. Making your job easier doesn’t help the company grow. Solving high level problems like finding expertise in the domain you’re trying to break into is. And I’m sorry it’s so hard. Really, I’m fighting back tears here.

The theme of both of these points is slack. You need slack to react, to stay agile, and to turn your company from a cupcake bakery into a hedge fund in the blink of an eye. Companies that can change and adapt thrive. Adaptation takes slack, and yes, slack can be expensive. But worth it.

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June 9, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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