Afterthoughts on Hive Minding

It’s a powerful thing to understand how your brain works, what motivates you, and what you don’t care about. There are so many things that can distract, but at the end of the day, there are very few things measurable immediately worth having done. Shipping myself to Europe until next week, for example, has already had measurable personal and professional impact.

One thing I experienced this week after injecting a little disruption to conformity yesterday was what I now call “hive minding”, or otherwise assisting independent contributors in rowing in the same direction. The classical stereotype of “herding cats” infers that actors only care about themselves, but unlike cats, a bee colony shares an intuitive, survival imperative to build and improve the structure that ensures their survival. Each bee might not consciously think about “lasting value”, but it’s built into their nature.

Be Kind, Rewind

I’m always restless, every success followed by a new challenge, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it does lead to a growing consideration about plateauing. Plateauing is a million times worse than burning out. There are plenty of people and companies that have burned out already but are still doing something “functional” in a dysfunctional industry, and if the decision is to flip that investment, it’s an easy one to make. Fire them, trade or cut funding; but what do you do with a resource when they plateau?

I think you’ll know you’ve plateaued when you find yourself without restlessness. If necessity is the mother of invention, restlessness is the chambermaid of clean mind. Al least for me, like a hungry tiger in a cave, I must feed my restlessness with purposeful and aligned professional work. The only problematic moment with me…I like to get ahead of the problem of someone telling me what to do by figuring out what we (everyone, me and them) should be doing before someone dictates it with less context.

The sweet spot of this motion is to do this together, not in isolation and not dictatorially, but coalescing the importance of arriving at the “right” goals and in alignment at the same time. The only surprises when you’re riding the wave together is what comes next, and when you engineer this into the process, surprises are mostly good.

It took a while to arrive at this position. I had to roll up sleeves, work with many different teams in multiple organizations, listen to those whose shoes I don’t have the time or aptitude to fill, figure out how to synthesize their inputs into cogent and agreeable outcomes, and do so with a level of continuity that distinguishes this approach from traditional forms of management and group facilitation.

Don’t Try This On Your Own

The cost of adaptability is very high. If I didn’t have an equally dedicated partner to run the homefront, none of this would work. She’s sought out the same kind of commitment and focus on raising the kids as I do with what goes into pays the bills. There are very few character traits and creature comforts we share, but in our obsession over the things that make the absolute best come out of what we have, she more than completes the situation.

In this lifestyle, I have to determine day by day and week by week what net-new motions/motivations I need to pick up and which I need to put down, either temporarily or permanently. This can feel like thrash to some, but for me, every day is a chance to re-assess based on all the days before now; I can either take that opportunity or not, but it is there despite whether I do or not take it. If my decisions are only made in big batches, similar to code/product releases, I inherit the complexities and inefficiencies of “big measurement”…namely, granularity in iterative improvement.

Feedback Loops, Everywhere

As I explore the dynamics of continuous feedback loops beyond software and into human systems, a model of frequency in feedback and software delivery not as separate mechanisms, but as symbiotic, emerges. The more frequently you release, the more chances there are for feedback. The more feedback you can synthesize into value, the more frequently you want to release. One does not ‘predict’ the other; their rate bounds each other, like a non-binary statistical model.

What I mean is that a slow-release cycle predicts slow feedback and slow feedback predicts low value from releasing frequently; a fast feedback mechanism addicts people to faster release cycles. They share the relationship and depending on how extreme the dynamics feeding into one side of the relationship, the other one suffers. Maybe at some point, it’s a lost cause.

An example from the performance and reliability wheelhouse is low/slow performance observability. When you can’t see what’s causing a severe production incident, the live investigation and post-mortem activity is slow and takes time away from engineering a more reliable solution. Firefighting takes dev, SRE, ops, and product management time…it’s just a fact. Teams that understand the underlying relationship and synthesize that back into their work tend to use SEV1 incidents as teachable moments to improve visibility on underlying systems AND behavioral predictors (critical system queue lengths, what levels of capacity use constitute “before critical”, architectural bottlenecks that inform priorities on reducing “tech debt”, etc.).

The point is that feedback loops take time and iterative learning to properly inject in a way that has a positive, measurable impact on product delivery and team dynamics.

Going from Feedback Loops to Iterations…Together

All effect feedback loops have one thing in common: they measure achievement levels framed by a shared goal. So you really have to work to uncovered shared goals in a team. If they suit you and/or if you can accept the awesome responsibility to challenge and change them over time, it’s a wild ride of learning and transforming. If not, find another team, company, or tribe. Everyone needs a mountain they can traverse and shouldn’t put themselves up to a trail that will destroy them. This is why occasionally stepping back, collaborating, and reporting out what works and what doesn’t is so important. Re-enter the concept of “team meetings”.

Increasingly, most engineers I talk to abhor the notion of more meetings, usually because they’ve experienced their fair share of meetings that don’t respect their time or where their inputs have not been respectfully synthesized in a way they can see. So what, meetings are a bad thing?

Well, no, not if your meetings are very well run. This is not one person’s job, though scrumbags and mid-level management with confirmation bias abound, and especially so because they don’t have built-in NPS (net promoter score). A solution I’ve seen to the anti-pattern of ineffective meetings is to establish common knowledge of what/how/why an “effective” meeting looks like and expect these behaviors from everyone in on the team and in the org.

How to Encourage Effective Collaboration in Meetings

Learn to listen, synthesize, and articulate back in real-time. Too much time goes by, delay and context evaporate like winter breath. Capture as much of this context as you can while respecting the flow of the conversation. This will help you and others with remembering and respecting the “why”, and will allow people to see what was missing (perspectives, thinking, constructs), afterward. Examples of capture include meeting minutes, pictures of post-its, non-private notes from everyone, and even recordings.

But in just about every team and organization there’s a rampant misconception that ALL meetings must produce outcomes that look like decisions or action items. These are very beneficial, but I’ve seen people become anti-productive when treating themselves and others as slaves to these outcomes. Taking decisions too early drives convergent attitudes that are often uninformed, under-aligned, and often destructive.

Some of the most effective meetings I’ve had share the following patterns:

  • know why you’re meeting, provide context before, and set realistic expectations
  • have the “right” people in the room
    • who benefit from the anticipated outcomes and therefore are invested in them
    • who bring absolutely critical perspective, where otherwise invalidates outcomes or cause significant toil to refactor back in afterward; not to few
    • who contribute to functional outcome (as opposed to those who are known to bring dysfunction, don’t respect the time of others, argue over align); too many
  • agree on what positive and negative outcomes look like before starting in
  • use communication constructs to keep people on track with producing outcomes
  • have someone to ensure (not necessarily do all the) capture; note and picture taker
  • outcomes are categorized as:
    • clear, aligned decisions (what will happen, what worked, what didn’t, what next)
    • concrete concerns and missing inputs that represent blockers to the above
    • themes and sense of directional changes (i.e. we think we need to change X)
    • all info captured and provided as additional context for others

Trust AND Verify

One thing I keep finding useful is to challenge the “but” in “trust, but verify”. In English, the word “but” carries a negating connotation. It invalidates all that was said before it. “Your input was super important, BUT it’s hard to understand how it’s useful”…basically means “Your input was not important because it was not usable.”

My alternative is to “trust and verify”, but with a twist. If you’re doing it right, trust is easy if you preemptively provided an easy means to verify it. If you provide evidence along with your opinion, reasonable people are likely to trust your judgment. For me, rolling up the sleeves is a very important tool in my toolbelt to produce evidence for or against a particular position. I know there are other methods, both legitimate and nefarious, but I find that practical experience is far more defensible than constructing decisions based on shaky foundations.

All this said, even if you’re delivering self-evident verification with your work, people relationships take time and certainly take more than one or two demonstrative examples of trustability to attain a momentum of their own. Trust takes time, is all.

Takeaways and Action Items from This Week

Democratic decision processes are “thrashy”. Laws and sausages: no one wants to know how they’re made. In small teams going fast, we don’t have the luxury of being ignorant of outcomes and the context behind them. For some people, “democracy” feels better than dictatorial decisions being handed down without context; but for those who still find a way to complain about the outcomes, they need to ask themselves, “did I really care enough to engage in a functional and useful way, and did I even bother to educate myself on the context behind the decision I don’t like?”

Just like missing a critical perspective in a software team, in a global organization, when one region or office dominates an area of business (U.S. on sales, EU on security, for instance), this will inevitably bias outcomes and decisions affecting everyone. As the individual that I report to puts it, “scalability matters to every idea, not just when we’re ready to deploy that idea”. Make sure you have the right “everyone” in the room, depending on the context of your work and organizational culture.

Someone I once met and deeply respect once told me “it’s not enough to be an ally, you need to be an accomplice“. In context, she was referring to improving the epic dysfunction of modern technology culture by purposefully including underrepresented persons. Even if we make a 10% improvement to women’s salaries, hire more African-American engineers, create a safer place for LGBTQ, I still agree with the premise that doing these things isn’t good enough. Put it another way, receiving critical medical treatment for a gushing head wound isn’t an “over-compensation”, it’s a measured response to the situation. The technology gushing head wound, in this case, is an almost complete denial from WGLM (white guys like me) that there is a problem, that doing nothing continuously enables the causes of the problem, that leadership on this doesn’t necessarily look or think like us, and that this isn’t necessarily needed now.

Bringing it back to the wheelhouse of this article, true improvement culture doesn’t just take saying “sure, let me wave at you as an ally while you go improve the team”. It takes being an accomplice (think a getaway driver), we should ALL be complicit in decisions and improvement. Put some skin in the game, figure out how something truly worth improvement and your effort maps to your current WiP (work in progress) limits, and you may find that you need to put something less worth your time down before you can effectively contribute to improvement work. Surrounding yourself with folks who get this too will also increase the chances that you’ll all succeed. This is not an over-compensation, it is what everyone needs to do now to thrive, not just survive.

Socratic Method for Advocacy

In disassembly of how I approach a zero-knowledge situation, a few key dynamics emerge. The goal of this simple framework is to accelerate the bond-forming process of dialog between individuals.

Not everyone has an appetite for the full menu of techniques here, and right-fitting takes sizing up others in real-time, which itself takes practice. If you’re really interested in how to have more effective conversations that leave all parties feeling positive, this is what I can currently offer.

  • Introductions
  • Exploratory Listening
    • Open-ended questions (a.k.a. “double-clicking”)
    • Challenging to understand how topics relate and handling skills
    • Confirming what was shared with close-ended questions
    • Synthesizing the crucial point
  • Identifying the “as-is” current state
    • Share “the Summit”
    • Assess the journey to date
    • Materialize motivations (unearth drive)
  • Planning the “to-be” desired state
    • Identify milestones, past and future
    • Hunt for and prioritize gaps in order of risk to reach the summit
    • Summarize approach and obtain permission
  • Co-develop a plan of action
    • Goal-Strategy-Objective-Tactic
    • Visualize the timeline to reverse-engineer milestones
    • Socialize with key stakeholders

Introductions

Be cordial, clear about your role, short about your background, and quickly move to questions that help the other person(s) engage about themselves.

Present well. Shave, brush your teeth, wear a bit of a smile. Smell like someone you’d want to be around. Be attentive, particularly in the eyes, and suppress the urge to look like you’re anywhere else but this conversation right now.

Make sure that the person has time to talk a little. If not, politely ask when. If so, ask them how they arrived here, where they’re headed, and what’s got them going this direction. Build a basic rapport in the first few moments. Start off well and build on the previous moment at every opportunity

Exploratory Listening

Ask far more questions than the number of statements you make. Extroverted learning prefers information you don’t know over suppositions you could make alone.

Use open-ended questions when you want to explore directions. If you don’t know enough about what someone’s describing, open more windows. When the way of conversation is unknown, let them talk and learn how they communicate. There’s a lot of ‘meta’ information in human speech.

It’s important to challenge people, in no abrasive manner, but through asking how the current conversation point or branch relates to another topic or branch. The dichotomy of human behavior is that what is unknown represents simultaneously a source of both intrigue and fear. Questions can either encourage people to engage or to retreat, and our job is to engage.

Asking a question that someone doesn’t have an answer for leads to insight no matter what. How someone deals with unknowns will become useful later. When the question is right-timed and right-fit to the context, people without an answer are likely to explore with you. Poorly-timed or out of context, a question where no one has the answer feels awkward and often causes people to retreat.

When something seems very important, narrow down the scope of the questions you ask, never coerce. Close-ended questions confirm that what you think you heard was actually what was said. Don’t ignore non-verbal cues. Look for expressions of emotion surrounding quantities. Form a mental map of how these points affect their recipient and which seem relevant to them, not just you. Verify their relevance to others with close-ended questions.

Once a branch of exploration is sufficiently developed, synthesize the crucial point uncovered back into the main theme of the conversation. By understanding it’s impact, you can bring the point of the branch back to the goal of the conversation: to understand and support what the person is currently working on, suffering from, or driving towards.

Anyone can voice the crucial point, but it’s better if it’s someone else. You don’t have to be the one with an answer. This is why being curious about their perspective is so incredibly effective. Questions (open or closed) guide the conversation, even though people tend to think that an idea is original and their own simply because they voiced it. When someone thinks the idea is theirs, they tend to champion it with banners and bugles. Questions help steer champions in the right direction.

Identifying the “as-is” current state

The first move in any consultation should be to gain situational awareness. In other words, qualification of what dynamics and decisions are currently in place. Before a hypothesis and plan of action can be formed, observation.

To make broad and holistic observations, you must share the summit. As the landscape of context emerges from your listening expedition and as you process that landscape together into a shared construct, a key state will emerge, “what we have accomplished so far.” This is often coupled with pains and challenges regarding where the person currently is in their journey. Point and click with the camera in your mind because later we’ll be doing a before-and-after photo collage. The highest point achieved is a summit, even if it’s not the tallest peak visible.

You may need to know more about how they arrived at their current summit in order to fully flesh out gaps in context. This sense is highly subjective and experientially developed, so practice earning the right to get to this point. It’s important to step back and assess their journey every so often. This helps to uncover information gaps.

These gaps of context, though you may be the one to bring them up, must be accepted by others before they can be addressed. You can’t convince someone of a solution if they don’t think there’s a problem. And if something really isn’t a problem, it’s important for you to know that too. This is just another form of permission. The best way to ensure people show up to a party is to bring them with you.

Equal parts collected context and ‘meta’ (appetite, capabilities, deficiencies) makes for a very good peep into what motivates someone, either to stay in the current state, migrate to a future state, or even drive a future state. Motivations are imperative to materialize about others. An accurate understanding of someone’s motivations is worth more than developing a trust between you and them.

Planning the “to-be” desired state

Moving from what is to what could/should be the summit, start with our friend, an open-ended question, about where they want to be. In a group, this may get complicated; everyone communicates differently, and everyone has a different perspective. Quantize. Start with one person at a time. Give them non-verbal cues about length, but let them finish. The smaller the group, the easier this process is.

With a shared vision of the future summit, ask what it would take to get there. Searching for important, measurable future achievements is called identifying milestones. Again, not something everyone knows up front, and while some people have immediate intuitions or ideas, others take time to form their thoughts and answers. Since humans are notoriously bad at predicting the future, extrapolating future milestones may be difficult. If stuck, revisit past milestones, the ones that brought them to the current summit. This will help form a ‘meta’ understanding about how people categorize just-busy-work from notable achievements.

Make sure that the flow of questions to answers at this stage is 100% you questioning to 100% them answering. Questions may come up, but anything can be put in the “parking lot” provided it is suggested politely by you and agreed to by them.

With a set of milestones laid out, reorder them based on which events are dependent upon others. Ask about which milestones enable other milestones. Build the most efficient decision tree. As always, pause at junctures that feel important to obtain agreement. For those that don’t obtain consensus, circle back once, but otherwise parking lot it to keep the conversation flowing in the forward direction.

Now that you have a map of the landscape and have sketched out a path to the new summit, hunt down gaps (unstated objections, parking lotted details, well-known deficiencies) to arrive at MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive) on a list of variables that exist between knowns. There will always be another iteration, so “exhaustive” simply means when people seem like they are happy with moving on.

With this list of gaps, ask how people would prioritize them. Root the conversation in terms of establishing priority based on relative risk to achieving the milestones and accomplishing the goal, getting to the summit.

There is no one right answer so long as those in the conversation express their perspectives on what order things should be prioritized. The how and the why they prioritize things the way they do is not key to this logistics exercise. Though useful meta information about individuals, justifications and disputes drag down the goal, which is alignment and on an approach to confidently arriving at positive outcomes together.

With a sense of how to prioritize milestones and gaps, circle back verbally to summarize the approach to moving from the old summit to the new one. This should take no more than 60 seconds. By now you should have mentally wordsmithed the goal, the milestones, and the approach such that you can do this. Those involved in the conversation up to this point will very likely unanimously agree because the summary incorporates their perspectives and terminology. When you do this effectively, you fade into their view of how to accomplish the goal. You are part of their team. You’re in.

Co-develop a Plan of Action

With all this context and alignment under your belt, it’s time to whip out some artisan management tools and have at it.

Crystalize the new summit into a single statement/slide/executive summary structured as a Goal-Strategy-Objective-Tactic (GSOT) framing. This progression properly organizes information in an approachable hierarchy that stakeholders and sponsors can grok quickly. Everything in it will be defensible because it came from the people that know how to accomplish the new goal and they’re already aligned with the details.

There typically should be only one goal, otherwise, the approach serves more than one master and the purpose of the objectives become muddied. An approach (or strategy) should express a strong point-of-view about the objectives that is fundamentally different from the prior approach which led to the current summit, even if the prior approach was good at decision time.

Every leg of the journey requires a pivot to ensure the direction is correct. Once a GSOT is constructed, make it easy for humans to visualize the timeline of objectives and key tactical events that support forward motion. These should be expressed in relative timeframes. Ranges, not absolute dates/times, are best at this point.

Reverse-engineer where/when to place milestones progressively. Start by placing the biggest rocks in dependent-events order, then layer in tactics that support various objectives. Adjust as necessary when tactics are tight (risk of slippage) or clustered too closely together (work bottlenecks). Do this with one slide, and you have the most effective meeting with an executive sponsor you’ve ever had.

Finally, with your ducks in a row, with everyone aligned, it’s time to socialize with stakeholders one at a time. Don’t present an idea for the first time in a boardroom. Objections are a fixture of the boardroom, so make it hard for them to maximize negative impact. Start with individual stakeholders. Do this under the auspices of collecting feedback, but then actually incorporate the feedback so you’re not a liar.

Pick your early stakeholder reviews carefully. A troll will turn around and proclaim your incompetence, but people with the most to gain will become your champion army when it comes time to fight the trolls. I wish you zero trolls, but living under bridges makes it hard to see them in advance.

On a Personal Note

The narrative above is a reflection of my observations and collaboration with technical engineering teams, boardroom executives, investors, sociologists, bartenders, and wolves. I broke my finger pretty badly two months ago which helped me deeply understand what would really hurt someone else. Likewise, as we exercise empathy and effective patterns of communication, we better understand how they improve us and their importance in our work together.

Thank you for your time, and as you may guess, I’m also on a journey. We all are. If you found anything in this post useful, connect with me so we can journey a bit together.