Human systems and the stuff they make

There’s so much goodness in Mandy Brown’s latest management post Made It, but it’s this paragraph that gets to the heart of it:

This is one of the ways that the adage about “maker time” versus “manager time” does harm. Setting aside the fact that it’s not even coherent—managers make decisions and plans and systems and visions all day long!—it also serves this notion that the stuff is what matters and the humans are just an unruly mess that gets in the way of the stuff. This is a self-defeating story, inasmuch as you don’t get good stuff without a system that takes care of the humans.

I have been thinking about human systems a great deal over the past few weeks. It started when I read Donella Meadows’s Dancing With Systems. When I applied that lens to my own work it was impossible not to see it in absolutely everything we do. Take this quote, for instance:

Don’t maximize parts of systems or subsystems while ignoring the whole. As Kenneth Boulding once said, Don’t go to great trouble to optimize something that never should be done at all. Aim to enhance total systems properties, such as creativity, stability, diversity, resilience, and sustainability–whether they are easily measured or not.

There are so many implications of this principle for the way we make software today. Here are a couple I’ve been thinking about in particular.

Quality

When we have quality issues in our product it’s tempting to try to solve those issues with process and overhead. Common ways to do that include instituting additional approval gates before code can be deployed to production environments, or adding “QA periods” where the entire organization is asked to test a feature before it goes live.

These solutions optimize for parts of the system—such as deployments or manual testing—while ignoring the system that is responsible for introducing quality issues into the product in the first place. To quote Deming:

Inspection does not improve the quality, nor guarantee quality. Inspection is too late. The quality, good or bad, is already in the product. As Harold F. Dodge said, “You can not inspect quality into a product.”

We have to look at the system as a whole. What kind of automated test coverage do we have? What bottlenecks exist in our CI/CD pipelines? What level of responsibility do we ask of engineers to be stewards of their own code? Do teams have enough time to make sure that quality is built in from the start and not an afterthought? These are the total systems properties questions that have to be addressed in order to fix quality issues.

Team stability

One of the bigger leadership mistakes we make is to think that the humans that make up a social system are interchangeable and can be moved around at will without impacting the system as a whole. You see this especially in engineering teams where “resources” are constantly moved from one project to another—usually to speed something up that is perceived to be behind schedule. But we forget that it is the human system that produces the stuff, not the individuals.

Similar to the discussion about quality, if we perceive a project to be off track we need to understand how the project came to be off track, and then find ways to improve the system to correct that. Did we place unrealistic deadlines on the team without getting their input? Are we asking teams to build features that have not been validated with customers? Do teams have adequate autonomy and ownership over the way they prioritize their work? Do teams have the business context they need to make the best possible decisions?

If we instead go for the shortcut of moving people around, we will never get to the heart of the matter. Inserting additional humans into a system can inadvertently break it—and worse, moving folks from one project to another leaves a gap that is very likely to destabilize the project that they were working on before. Suddenly Customer Success doesn’t have an Engineer to talk to about documentation, or the Marketing Team doesn’t have anyone to fix an issue with a piece of demo software.

Once again, Donella Meadows says this well:

Before you disturb the system in any way, watch how it behaves. If it’s a piece of music or a whitewater rapid or a fluctuation in a commodity price, study its beat. If it’s a social system, watch it work. Learn its history. Ask people who’ve been around a long time to tell you what has happened.

Stable teams that work together for an extended period of time all have a steady beat, and we shouldn’t make changes to the system until we know exactly how that beat works. Here’s Donella again: “Before you charge in to make things better, pay attention to the value of what’s already there.”

And that’s how all this connects to Mandy’s piece that I linked to at the beginning. If we want the stuff to be good, we have to pay attention to the beat of the system of humans that make up an organization. We have to understand how they work, and we have to ask them how they want to work. We have to listen to the people who are beating the drums.

It may sound a little counter-intuitive, but if we optimize for the humans who make up a system, the good stuff will follow.

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Link roundup for February 1, 2023

Inside the Globus INK: a mechanical navigation computer for Soviet spaceflight. Dang this thing is beautiful. And what an amazing piece of engineering.

Youth Spies and Curious Elders. Life goals: “Waters is what I call a Curious Elder — someone who manages to retain their curiosity as they age and stays interested in what young people are up to. The curious elder isn’t interested in judging youth, they’re interested in learning from them.”

The Thoughts of a Spiderweb. This is a fascinating article about animal cognition but I am especially blown away by the idea of spiderwebs being “an extension of the spider’s cognitive system” because I’m reading the sci-fi novel Children of Time right now and that is how the spiders communicate in the story.

Audi’s new EV is a luxury SUV with augmented reality that doubles as a pickup. I can’t decide if I love this or hate it.

Prisoners Usually Can’t Have Cell Phones. See How People Use Them Anyway. “Some men use their phones to take online classes, posing as regular students in the free-world, a ruse that only works in the age of Zoom classrooms and online meetings.”

It’s the Coolest Rock Show in Ann Arbor. And Almost Everyone There Is Over 65. “The show always starts at 6:30 p.m. and ends at 9 p.m., in time to get to bed at a reasonable hour.” Sign me up! (NYT Gift Link)

How ‘The Last of Us’ changed gaming, strained relationships and spawned an empire. Probably my favorite read of the week. “‘The Last of Us’ always felt like a mission statement, a game that wanted to prove that big-budget action shooters could not only have a sense of gravitas but could advance the medium in narrative, gameplay and representation.”

3 product management links for January 30, 2023

I have a few product-related articles that I wanted to reflect on and write more about, but I just don’t think I’m going to get to it. They’re all really good though, so instead of just archiving those notes I wanted to share them so you can check it out.

1.

Here’s some solid advice from Jason Knight on what to do when your product is a mess and you have to fix all the things all at once:

In a situation like this, you’re going to have to get super-pragmatic. You’ve got lots of fires all burning at the same time and you need to put them out before you can start prioritising ‘properly’. Your goal is to get back on track as soon as possible, and you’re going to have to do a bit of shovelling to get there. Do what you need to get done.

And:

What we’re doing here is looking to put out the fires, and get a variety of initiatives to a base level of quality. You’re very unlikely to be able to make 15 things amazing all at once. Your goal here is to make all ships rise together. This means working with your stakeholders to understand what the minimum viable solution to these issues is, getting brutal with scope, and expending as little precious development time as possible.

2.

Andy Nortrup writes about what he learned about product management from Bonsai:

Similarly, with software products, patience is an important skill to make sure we don’t push the team faster than they can write good code, or make changes to the product faster than you can learn from users’ response to the changes. Patience can help us be less frantic and pay attention to the work in front of us in this season rather than the whole roadmap.

3.

Rich Mironov talks about the differences between products and features, and I especially appreciated this point about what users care about:

Customers don’t care about how hard we worked. Our product either does what the customer needs, or it doesn’t. And it should be priced based on customer value, not recovering our expenses. Users don’t care how much we spent, how big (or great) our team is, margin demands from Finance, remote versus on-site teams, development velocity, scrum vs. kanban vs. XP vs. lean.

Obsession, endless curiosity, and the joy of iterative projects

I love when people get obsessed with a topic and then turn that obsession into an “iterative project” where they do the same thing over and over until the topic has nothing left to give. An example: my friend Dave watches sci-fi movies hundreds of times and obsesses about the typography for his blog Typeset in the Future. I think his post on Alien is my favorite:

The opening credits for Alien are nothing short of a typographic masterpiece. You can watch them in their entirety on the Art Of The Title web site, but here’s the general gist: a slow, progressive disclosure of a disjointed, customized Futura reveals the movie’s central theme over 90 seconds of beautifully-spaced angular lettering.

Dave’s book is also amazing and you should buy it.

Clive Thompson wrote about this topic recently in his essay The Power of Indulging Your Weird, Offbeat Obsessions. His point about the value of following your obsessions is this:

It’s enormously valuable to simply follow your curiosity—and follow it for a really long time, even if it doesn’t seem to be leading anywhere in particular. Surprisingly big breakthrough ideas come when you bridge two seemingly unconnected areas.

A few other recent examples got me thinking about this again. Ander Monson watched Predator 146 times and wrote a book about it. From an interview with him:

In following every rabbit hole of his obsession with the film through to its end, Monson creates a book that is truly one-of-a-kind—not just a dose of nostalgia for movie buffs, but a revelatory investigation for anyone who’s ever really loved a singular piece of culture, enough that it got tangled inextricably in their identity and could never quite be excised. In Monson’s own words: “I believe that if you look long and hard enough at what you loved best at fourteen and how you lived then and what you saw in the world, it will reveal both the world and you.” As the pages turn, a question inevitably arises: What have you loved in the way that Monson loves Predator? And, for better or worse, how has it made you who you are?

A few weeks ago Monson published an essay about a similar project: Sean T. Collins’s “Pain Don’t Hurt”, an out-of-print book of 365 essays about the movie Road House (you can read every essay on his website). Monson starts off by calling this a “bad idea essay”, and if anyone is qualified to say that, it’s the guy who watched Predator 146 times. But he goes on to say this:

The reason I love bad idea essays is not because they seem dumb or bad but that they’re hard. Anyone can write a good idea essay. But only a real pro—or a real fool, and it’s hard to tell which you are when you start one, which is the entirety of the stakes of the bad idea essay—can write a bad idea to its exhaustion/completion. Only after exhausting yourself will you see if it was worth it.

But it’s these paragraphs that really get to the heart of the matter for me:

365 essays about Road House is an idiotic thing, and its idiocy is part of its appeal. I am often moved by iterative projects, because in repeating an action every day or every week or every year you make time a subject. […]

The reason I love iterative projects is that the plot is inevitably the movement of the mind (or the life or the body) through time. Every piece is a technical problem: oh shit, what am I going to do today? And the technical problem just gets harder as it goes deeper: How can I not bore myself on essay 241?


The reason obsessive projects like these—or what Monson calls iterative projects—are so appealing to me is two-fold. One, there is The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going To Miss Almost Everything:

Surrender, on the other hand, is the realization that you do not have time for everything that would be worth the time you invested in it if you had the time, and that this fact doesn’t have to threaten your sense that you are well-read. Surrender is the moment when you say, “I bet every single one of those 1,000 books I’m supposed to read before I die is very, very good, but I cannot read them all, and they will have to go on the list of things I didn’t get to.”

Two, if we agree that we’re going to miss almost everything, there is a certain beauty in picking a small number of things you want to know everything about, and then sharing that with those around you. We know from the African philosophy of Ubuntu that “I am because you are”, or:

Humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am.

One of the most tangible ways we can “owe humanity to each other” is by crawling deep into the corners of a specific topic and picking out the best pieces of it for the people around us. It’s saying, “I know we’re going to miss almost everything, but on this thing I got you. I’ll go deep so you don’t have to, and I’ll share what I learn so we can both enjoy what makes it special.”

There’s one more thing that really drove this point home for me recently. Substack has an interview up with Nicola Lamb, author of the Kitchen Projects newsletter. Nicola has built a very large following on Substack, and her answer to the question “What have your subscribers taught you?” summarizes this entire post so well. In essence, her audience taught her that we all want to hear about each other’s obsessions:

[My audience taught me] to be unashamedly obsessed with whatever you are into. To not shy away from details and to get deep into whatever it is that you love. Thank you for that.

So maybe this is something for all of us to ponder a bit more. What are you obsessed with that seems so niche that surely no one else would care? I’ll say this: if someone can write a fascinating book about watching Predator, I guarantee that your “bad idea essay” is probably actually a really good idea for an iterative project. I, for one, would love to read it.

Link roundup for January 29, 2023

Internal communications for executives

Some great tips here from Will Larson on how to improve internal communications as a leader. I especially like “Maintain the drip”:

These updates establish a persistent drip of information from you to the wider organization. Some weeks you might have a light update, but rather than folks thinking that you’re not doing much, they’ll be reassured that they are up-to-date on what’s important. Dense updates are good, but it’s the brief updates that reassure the team that you would have updated them if there was something they needed to know.

Read on for the others: test before broadcasting, build the packet, and use every channel.

The importance of setting context as a product leader

I enjoyed David Pereira’s breakdown of The Three Phases of Product Managers—and not just because he got me with his jazz reference. The third phase:

A Product Manager acting as a Jazz Player will set the context, and team members will build upon it. They relentlessly search for opportunities to create something innovative and outstanding. This scenario is more or less like the following:

  • Context: Product Managers bring the proper context to the team. Goal, audience, value proposition, objectives, and strategy. The team can help sharpen the context, and that sets the playing field.
  • Uncovering Opportunities: Everyone in the team has the same voice. They bring potential opportunities and evaluate whether it’s worth investing in them.
  • Learning: Curiosity is what drives them. As in Jazz, the team isn’t afraid to try solutions as fast as possible. They improvise and don’t fear embarrassment, but they’re scared of not learning fast enough.

I also agree with David that the most difficult part about growing into a product leader is the shift from “Conductor” to “Jazz Player” (in the model he shares in the post). And among those attributes, context is the hardest, and remains something I am constantly trying to get better at.

Synthesizing information and providing the necessary context to our teams about projects or decisions take longer upfront, so many leaders skip that part because they have so many other things vying for their attention. But the problem is that if you don’t do that work upfront you’re only going to have to do it later—and in a more time-consuming way. The team will have questions, there will be lots of back-and-forth, and they will likely also be frustrated by the lack of clarity in their work. So don’t skip that part. Don’t just say “here’s what we’re doing”, say “here’s what we’re doing, here’s why we’re doing it, and here’s the data that supports why we’re doing it.”

Ben Balter puts it this way in his excellent article Leaders Show Their Work:

As the ones with that missing context, leaders sometimes naively or inadvertently assume that all that’s required for a change to take effect is to communicate the thing that’s changed, but humans are not servers. Unlike deploying a change to a codebase, a diff isn’t sufficient to truly realize what’s intended. Engaged humans rightfully seek to understand how and why the change came to be and often want to double check their leaders’ work to fully understand how it impacts their own.

Stray Links for January 26, 2023

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