Only parts of us will ever
touch o̶n̶l̶y̶ parts of others –
one’s own truth is just that really — one’s own truth.
We can only share the part that is u̶n̶d̶e̶r̶s̶t̶o̶o̶d̶ ̶b̶y̶ within another’s knowing acceptable t̶o̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶o̶t̶h̶e̶r̶—̶t̶h̶e̶r̶e̶f̶o̶r̶e̶ so one
is for most part alone.
As it is meant to be in
evidently in nature — at best t̶h̶o̶u̶g̶h̶ ̶ perhaps it could make
our understanding seek
another’s loneliness out.
– unpublished poem by Marilyn Monroe, via berlin-artparasites
This poem inspired me to put some ideas into words this morning, an attempt to summarize my current working theory of consciousness.
Ideas travel through space and time. An idea that exists in my mind is filtered through my ability to express it somehow (words, art, body language, …), and is then interpreted by your mind and its models for understanding the world. This shifts your perspective in some way, some or all of which may be unconscious. When our minds encounter new ideas, they are accepted or rejected, reframed, and integrated with our existing mental models. This process forms a sort of living ecosystem, which maintains equilibrium within the realm of thought. Ideas are born, divide, mutate, and die in the process. Language, culture, education and so on are stable structures which form and support this ecosystem.
Consciousness also has analogues of the immune system, for example strongly held beliefs and models which tend to reject certain ideas. Here again these can be unconscious or conscious. I’ve seen it happen that if someone hears an idea they simply cannot integrate, they will behave as if they did not hear it at all. Some ideas can be identified as such a serious threat that ignoring them is not enough to feel safe: we feel compelled to eliminate the idea in the external world. The story of Christianity describes a scenario where an idea was so threatening to some people that they felt compelled to kill someone who expressed it.
A microcosm of this ecosystem also exists within each individual mind. There are mental structures which we can directly introspect and understand, and others which we can only infer by observing our thoughts and behaviors. These structures communicate with each other, and this communication is limited by their ability to “speak each other’s language”. A dream, for example, is the conveyance of an idea from an unconscious place to a conscious one. Sometimes we get the message, and sometimes we don’t. We can learn to interpret, but we can’t directly examine and confirm if we’re right. As in biology, each part of this process introduces uncountable “errors”, but the overall system is surprisingly robust and stable.
This whole system, with all its many minds interacting, can be thought of as an intelligence unto itself, a gestalt consciousness. This interpretation leads to some interesting further conclusions:
- The notion that an individual person possesses a single, coherent point of view seems nonsensical
- The separation between “my mind” and “your mind” seems arbitrary
- The attribution of consciousness only to humans, or only to living beings, seems absurd
Naturally, this is by no means an original idea (can such a thing exist?). It is my own take on the subject, informed both consciously and unconsciously by my own study, first-hand experience, conversations I’ve had with others, and so on. It’s informed by the countless thinkers who have influenced me. Its expression is limited by my ability to write about it in a way that makes sense to other people.
Maybe some of this makes sense to you, and maybe I seem insane, or maybe both. Hopefully you don’t find that you have an inexplicable unconscious desire to kill me!
When I first read that Linux kernel developer Valerie Aurora would be changing careers to work full-time on behalf of women in open source communities, I never imagined it would lead so far so fast. Today, The Ada Initiative is a non-profit organization with global reach, whose programs have helped create positive change for women in a wide range of communities beyond open source. Building on this foundation, imagine how much more they can do in the next four years! That’s why I’m pledging my continuing support, and asking you to join me.
For the next 7 days, I will personally match your donations up to $4,096. My employer, Heroku (Salesforce.com), will match my donations too, so every dollar you contribute will be tripled!
My goal is that together we will raise over $12,000 toward The Ada Initiative’s 2014 fundraising drive.
Since about 1999, I had been working in open source communities like Debian and Ubuntu, where women are vastly underrepresented even compared to the professional software industry. Like other men in these communities, I had struggled to learn what I could do to change this. Such a severe imbalance can only be addressed by systemic change, and I hardly knew where to begin. I worked to raise awareness by writing and speaking, and joined groups like Debian Women, Ubuntu Women and Geek Feminism. I worked on my own bias and behavior to avoid being part of the problem myself. But it never felt like enough, and sometimes felt completely hopeless.
Perhaps worst of all, I saw too many women burning out from trying to change the system. It was often taxing just to participate as a woman in a male-dominated community, and the extra burden of activism seemed overwhelming. They were all volunteers, doing this work in evenings and weekends around work or study, and it took a lot of time, energy and emotional reserve to deal with the backlash they faced for speaking out about sexism. Valerie Aurora and Mary Gardiner helped me to see that an activist organization with full-time staff could be part of the solution. I joined the Ada Initiative advisory board in February 2011, and the board of directors in April.
Today, The Ada Initiative is making a difference not only in my community, but in my workplace as well. When I joined Heroku in 2012, none of the engineers were women, and we clearly had a lot of work to do to change that. In 2013, I attended AdaCamp SF along with my colleague Peter van Hardenberg, joining the first “allies track”, open to participants of any gender, for people who wanted to learn the skills to support the women around them. We’ve gone on to host two ally skills workshops of our own for Heroku employees, one taught by Ada Initiative staff and another by a member of our team, security engineer Leigh Honeywell. These workshops taught interested employees simple, everyday ways to take positive action to challenge sexism and create a better workplace for women. The Ada Initiative also helped us establish a policy for conference sponsorship which supports our gender diversity efforts. Today, Heroku engineering includes about 10% women and growing. The Ada Initiative’s programs are helping us to become the kind of company we want to be.
I attended the workshop with a group of Heroku colleagues, and it was a powerful experience to see my co-workers learning tactics to support women and intervene in sexist situations. Hearing them discuss power and privilege in the workplace, and the various “a-ha!” moments people had, were very encouraging and made me feel heard and supported.
– Leigh Honeywell
This is part 6 in a series on organizational design and growth.
“The change from a business that the owner-entrepreneur can run with “helpers” to a business that requires management is a sweeping change. […] One can compare the two kinds of business to two different kinds of organism: the insect, which is held together by a tough, hard skin, and the vertebrate animal, which has a skeleton. Land animals that are supported by a hard skin cannot grow beyond a few inches in size. To be larger, animals must have a skeleton. Yet the skeleton has not evolved out of the hard skin of the insect; for it is a different organ with different antecedents. Similarly, management becomes necessary when an organization reaches a certain size and complexity. But management, while it replaces the “hard-skin” structure of the owner-entrepreneur, is not its successor. It is, rather, its replacement.”
What it means
Management is the art of enabling people to cooperate in achieving shared goals. I’ve written elsewhere about what management is not. Management is a multifaceted discipline which is centered on people and the environment in which they work.
Why it’s important
In very small organizations, management can be comparatively easy, and happen somewhat automatically, especially between people who have worked together before. But as organizations grow, management becomes a first-class concern, requiring dedicated practice and a higher degree of skill. Without due attention to management, coordination becomes excessively difficult, working systems are outgrown and become strained, and much of the important work described in this series just won’t happen. Management is part of the infrastructure of the organization, and specifically the part which enables it to adapt and change as it grows.
Old Status Quo
People generally “just do stuff”, meaning there is little conscious understanding of the system in which people are working. If explicit managers exist, their jobs are poorly understood. Managers themselves may be confused or uncertain about what their purpose is, particularly if they are in such a role for the first time. The organization itself has probably developed more through accretion than deliberate design.
New Status Quo
People work within systems which help coordinate their work. These systems are consciously designed, explicitly communicated, and changed as often as necessary. Managers guide and coordinate the development and continuous improvement of these systems. The role of managers in the organization is broadly understood, and managers receive the training, support and coaching they need to be successful.
Behaviors that help
- It can be helpful to bring more experienced managers into the organization at this stage, especially if there isn’t much management experience in house.
- Show everyone in the organization (including managers themselves) what managers do and why it matters.
- Consider very carefully whether someone should become a manager.
- If someone does take on a management role, treat this as a completely new job, which requires handing off their existing responsibilities and learning a new discipline. Don’t treat it as just an extension of their work. Write a new job description and discuss it up front.
Obstacles that stand in our way
- Management misbeliefs
- Granting “promotions” to management roles as rewards for performance
- Many people, when they experience what management work is like, don’t enjoy it and aren’t motivated by it. It can be hard to predict when this will be the case, and people can feel “trapped” in a management role that they don’t want. Make sure there are mechanisms to gracefully transition out of roles that don’t fit for the people holding them.
You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. -Inigo Montoya
Having worked in full-time management positions for some years now, I am increasingly convinced that management is widely misunderstood as a role, as a discipline and as a field, and that this makes a lot of lives more difficult and stressful than necessary. It is the subject of much speculation and misbelief, and I’ve chosen a few of my favorite examples to deconstruct here.
Misbelief #1: management is what managers do
I’ve noticed a trend among a certain class of companies, whose employees will tell anyone who will listen that there is no “management” in their organization, they never plan to have any, and neither should you. I think these statements are respectively a lie, a naïve belief, and a piece of bad advice. Usually, these companies are just a few years old and relatively small, most of the people in the company have been there for less than a year, and the speaker is trying to persuade us what a unique and innovative company they work for because nobody there is a “manager”. They invariably have not read The Tyranny of Structurelessness.
Management is the practice of enabling people to effectively cooperate. A manager is someone whose job is to do that. It’s that simple. It usually involves tasks such as sharing information, agreeing on a course of action, dividing up work, and figuring out what to do when there’s a problem. They’re things that every team needs to do, whether anyone is designated a “manager” or not. Teams can function without managers, but they can’t function properly without management. Someone (or everyone) has to do the work to make cooperation possible.
Modern management is a specialized discipline, which draws on a broad range of skills in communication, psychology, empathy, problem-solving, leadership, and more. These skills aren’t unique to managers, but it often makes sense to designate certain people to do more of the management work, on behalf of the team. By devoting more of their time and attention to it, they free other members of the team to focus on other tasks. They can act as a coordinator to help the team stay in sync, and by focusing on this job, they may be able to do a better job of it, and acquire a higher level of skill through practice and study. But it remains an inherently collaborative practice.
Misbelief #2: management is about telling people what to do
There are many different varieties of management, each of which is oriented toward a particular type of team or organization. Factories are managed differently from design studios, large companies are managed differently from small companies, and every team has its own distinct management style which arises from the unique group of people involved. Some managers are specialists in a particular type of management, while others are more generalists.
The “telling people what to do” style of management is called “command and control”. It’s characterized by authority, hierarchy, and strict adherence to protocol. It’s widely employed by military organizations, and by the managers we see in television and film. It has some advantages and disadvantages, which I won’t discuss here. My point is that it is just one example, but this example is used to represent the general concept of management. Self-organization, where no one in particular is responsible for group decisions, is another, quite different, style of management.
Small, self-organizing teams are capable of amazing feats of productivity. They’re less difficult to manage because they’re comparatively simple, and so simple tools and techniques work well. Everyone can be fully aware of what everyone else is doing, and new information propagates quickly throughout the team. But as the team or organization grows, it will often outgrow this way of working, and needs to adapt. There is no single management approach which works universally well.
Misbelief #3: management is a promotion
You know the story. When an employee is successful within their area of expertise, someone will eventually offer them a management role as a “reward” for their good work. This is utter nonsense. Management is not a promotion: it’s a career change. It means starting over as a beginner in a new discipline and learning from the ground up. Domain expertise is important, as a manager needs to understand the work of the other people on their team, but it is no longer paramount. The team, the human system, becomes their focus.
When organizations fail to provide career advancement within a discipline, people may turn to management as “the only way to get promoted”, only to discover that they are completely unprepared for this new field, and often their new job when they realize what they’ve gotten into.
If someone were “promoted” from a position as a financial analyst to a new job as a biochemist with no training or expertise, we would probably find this bizarre. But this is analogous to what happens to new managers all the time, and has become almost standard practice in many organizations and industries.
Management is misunderstood. So are science, engineering, and many other fields. What does it matter?
“People leave managers not companies…in the end, turnover is mostly a manager issue,”
– Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman, First, Break All the Rules
This mythology leads to massive organizational dysfunction, making it harder for everyone to do their jobs. It virtually guarantees incompetent management, which is a scourge on anyone who is exposed to it. It ruins days, weeks, jobs and careers. It leads talented people to leave companies, and it drives them out of their chosen professions.
I recommend that we stop denigrating and ignoring management, and start doing a better job of it.
This is part 5 in a series on organizational design and growth.
What it means
Each of us has a job to do, probably more than one, and our teammates should know what they are.
Why it’s important
Roles are a kind of standing commitment we make to each other. They’re a way of dividing up work which is easy to understand and simple to apply. Utilizing this tool will make it easier for us to coordinate our day to day work, and manage the changes and growth we’re going through.
Old Status Quo
Roles are vague or nonexistent. Management roles in particular are probably not well understood. Many people juggle multiple roles, all of which are implicit. Moving to a new team means learning from scratch what other people do. People take responsibility for tasks and decisions largely on a case-by-case basis, or based on implicit knowledge of what someone does (or doesn’t do). In many cases, there is only one person in the company who knows how to perform a certain function. When someone leaves or goes on vacation, gaps are left behind.
New Status Quo
Each individual has a clear understanding of the scope of their job. We have a handful of well defined roles, which are used by multiple teams and have written definitions. People who are new or transfer between teams have a relatively easy time understanding what the people around them are doing. Many day to day responsibilities are defined by roles, and more than one person can fill that role. When someone leaves a team, another person can cover their critical roles.
Behaviors that help
Define project roles: when starting something new, make it explicit who will be working on it. Often this will be more than one person, often from different teams. For example, customer-facing product changes should have at least a product owner and an engineering owner. This makes it easy to tell if too many concurrent projects are dependent on a single person, which is a recipe for blockage.
Define team roles: Most recurring tasks should fall within a defined role. An owner of a technical service is an example of a role. An on-call engineer is an example of a time-limited role. There are many others which will depend on the team and its scope.
Define job roles: Have a conversation with your teammates and manager about what the scope of your job is, which responsibilities are shared with other members of the team and which are yours alone.
Obstacles that stand in our way
Getting hung up on titles as ego gratification. Roles are tools, not masters.
Fear that a role limits your options, locks you into doing one thing forever. Roles can be as flexible as we want them to be.
This is part 4 in a series on organizational design and growth.
What it means
Getting things done together, as a team, achieving more than the sum of our individual efforts.
Why it’s important
Once a company reaches a certain size, perhaps with a substantial customer base and ambitious goals for the future, it takes a lot more momentum to move it forward. No one person can do it alone. From product delivery, to strategic decision making, to customer service, no single individual has all of the knowledge, skills or time necessary to perform these functions at the scale and velocity necessary to make real progress. Cooperation is not just a good idea: it’s essential to success.
The most important system we’re building is the company itself: a system of people working together to achieve common goals.
Old status quo
In a startup, everyone embodies the spirit of the pioneer: passion, fortitude, individualism, daring, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to reach the goal. Individuals wear many hats: engineering, product management, marketing, customer support. We often don’t even think of them as distinct disciplines. Projects often depend on the resoluteness of a single Jill-of-all-trades to drive them to completion, and the culture may reward this kind of heroism. Thanks to the relatively small scale of the company and its customer base, one person working independently can effect significant change without much risk. If what was delivered wasn’t good enough, it could be discarded with no great loss.
New status quo
In a growing company, we still need a variety of different disciplines in order to reach our goals, in fact more than ever. A successful product needs to be conceived, validated, designed, built, documented, adopted, supported, and we need to confirm that it satisfies customers over time.
These elements are all essential, and each requires deep knowledge, expertise and practice. Good engineering + mediocre product management + inept marketing = total failure. It’s not realistic to expect one person to do all of these things and deliver consistently good results, but consistently good results are exactly what we need. The solution is to organize for individuals to do what they do best, and cooperate effectively together.
We also need to manage risk more carefully: our customers are depending on us. We have a lot more to lose now, and need to learn how to maintain forward progress while continuing to meet our customers’ expectations. Delivering sub-par products would damage our reputation and erode their trust.
Most of all, we need to be getting better at all of this over time, faster than our competition.
Behaviors that help
- When embarking on a new project, recruit others to your cause instead of going it alone. In particular, consider which other teams you may need help from, and ask for their support from the beginning
- Make your work visible to others (for example through a shared work board like Trello). Push context out of your head and into a workspace where others can see it.
- When you run into trouble, make a point of asking for help early. Not only does this help build relationships, it also gets problems solved faster.
- Agree on explicit shared priorities with your immediate teammates, and stick to them until the team agrees to change. Make sure that you’re working on things that matter to the people around you, and that they know that’s important to you.
Obstacles that stand in our way
- Heroism. There is a place for heroism in growing organizations, but save it for responding to exceptional problems. Day-to-day work and objectives should not depend on one person’s heroism
- Attributing too much credit to individuals. Feedback and praise are invaluable, but be careful not to excessively recognize and reward individuals for what are fundamentally team efforts. Few things will erode team spirit faster than rewarding someone for other people’s work.