The Skeptical Methodologist

Software, Rants and Management

Ambiguity

For Beau.

Prologue

My sister and I had a debate a while ago. I mentioned that I had seen some requisitions that specifically mentioned “Comfortable in ambiguous situations”. I felt like this was a cop out – I argued that it was management’s job to remove ambiguity. Ambiguity is, of course, a common occurrence in the workplace, but management is out there to make decisions and remove it.

She disagreed. Some people need to be comfortable with ambiguity, she argued, as it’s just how life is. Management has nothing to do with it.

I’ve found that we were both right.

Good management seeks out, finds, and removes some ambiguity. To do that effectively, the manager herself needs to be very comfortable with the rest of the ambiguity.

Tangent

Small foray into quantum computing. A traditional computer has on or off states, and it uses a clock to cycle through those states many millions of times a second. A quantum computer, on the other hand, can be both on or off. It’s only when you measure it that it ‘collapses’ to a single state. If you feed it a problem that’s amenable to quantum computing, it can solve it exponentially faster than a traditional computer.

The kind of ambiguity you remove

To work effectively, as a manager, your team members need to have a clear idea of what it is they need to do. In terms of keeping your team gelled and your team members engaged, they need over communication. People want to know what’s going on at all times, otherwise, they’re going to be preoccupied with figuring it out. And team members need especially to know how their actions are coordinated to get the most effect.

So a manager needs to root out the ambiguity in that situation, dissolve it, and make sure everyone knows the game plan. This is not micromanagement, very few real decisions need to be made. Often, when everyone knows everything they can, the right course of action is obvious. Nothing is so persuasive as a clear chance at success.

To set a quantum computer in action, you must entangle it’s ‘qubits’. That means they must each share state with each other at the get-go so that they can begin computing. If each qubit itself was just a fuzzball of 1 or 0, you’d get a pretty shitty random number generator. Instead, each qubit is a fuzzball of probability, and they’re all highly correlated. They’re on the same page.

The kind of ambiguity you keep

Another part of working effectively as a team member is being able to focus, and also being trusted to make the right decisions, even if it means you go down a rabbit hole every now and then. That means an effective manager needs to be comfortable with the ambiguity of herself not always knowing exactly what’s going on.

Get that? The team needs to know everything, you do not. Well, in a less hyperbolic way, there are contexts in which the team working as a single unit is very important, either during complex tasks or during emergencies. It’s an effective manager’s job to make sure that communication is loud enough that everyone feels comfortable and on the same page.

If you check a quantum computer – its state collapses. It’s now a traditional computer, with a state that’s now known. You might have to do that periodically to get the answer you’re looking for, but the longer a quantum computer can stay entangled, the more powerful it is as it explores more and more of the ‘solution’ space, or in our team’s case, the ‘decision’ space.

There are rarely times when the manager herself needs to know everything. Did someone use an OO style strategy pattern, or just pass a first class function? Are we going to use Redis here or Mongo? The more you meddle here, the less your teammates feel trusted. You need to be comfortable with the ambiguity that the choice of Redis or Mongo may be an unknown. You especially need to be comfortable with the fact that you might not know, and you may still be asked by your management what cache was chosen.

My boss is going to find out I’m a fraud

Don’t get me wrong – if your own management meddles and asks for details they don’t really need, it’s not like I’m saying that’s a good thing. An effective manager, even yours, ought not to ask what cache was chosen. But you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want, and if we all quit whenever our managers made mistakes, everyone would be unemployed.

There are times when your own management might meddle, and that’s the worst. Because you’ve put effort into not keeping up with every detail of your team, which means you don’t know what to tell them.

The cost of ‘checking in’

Let me put it this way. You could try and stay in the loop and know the nook and cranny of every decision your teammates face. Ultimately what we do in knowledge work is just make decision after decision, and most of them are noisy. If you have a team of two or three people, or if they’re particularly junior a few more, you may be able to do this. But this doesn’t scale. An effective, large team can make decisions faster than you can understand them. You can become the bottleneck and double check everything. This is the exponential speed up of the quantum computer – the quantum team.

The more you check, the more all you’re capable of is traditional computing. You lose the exponential speed up that’s found in quantum computing. You collapse the system too often, and it’s no faster than the processor in your laptop. It may, in fact, be slower. You let it hum, and only check it periodically, and it will hum.

You start to let most of those decisions smear together. You can gather the large details when it’s low effort for your team members to provide them, and trust that even though the actual state of the project is ambiguous to you, your team is going to take care of it.

Let them entangle.

BUT AUSTINWILTSHIRE, WHAT DO I SAY TO MY BOSS?!

It’s surprisingly easy to respond to a manager asking for details they really have no benefit asking – let them know that you:

  1.  Don’t know and
  2. You’ll look into it

Take an action to get the answer to their question in a timely manner. It’s not that hard.

What you’re really afraid of, here, is that you’re going to look stupid in front of your boss and colleagues, or that you’re going to look inept that some bad decision is taking place that you don’t know about.

What’s actually going to happen

No one is really going to give a shit what you say, they’re all more worried about looking dumb themselves. And for the most part, your boss just wants the answer, she doesn’t care if you have it right now. This isn’t a pop quiz.

Moreover, the chances that the decision is going to turn out ‘bad’ are slim to none – a trusted and gelled team makes the best decisions, on average. So, sure, maybe you do some digging and you find out something’s wrong. But 99 times out of 100, you’re not going to find anything. You’re like, the least qualified person to do so.

I followed your advice and now I think I’m going to be fired

What if you have a boss who actually ridicules you for not knowing? Well, you can attempt to convince them of the wisdom of this. They clearly aren’t comfortable with ambiguity, and maybe if they opened their eyes and learned that knowing every little detail of the organization doesn’t make it run faster or better.

Most likely they have a managerial “philosophy” (if you want to call it that, really they’re just bad at management) that’s going to clash with yours. In this case, I would probably consider updating your resume. Your boss is actively trying to slow down the engine of the organization, either because their ego is so big that no decision ought to be made without them, or so small that they’re panicked they’re going to be found out by their boss. Poison either way, really.

Tl;dr

Embrace ambiguity. Wait until there’s a question until you find an answer. Let the quantum computer churn. It’s capable of way more than you are.

August 16, 2016 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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