Kaizen, Nietzsche, and the Fly Lady

November 21, 2008

As I was driving into the office yesterday morning listening to local talk radio, the host mentioned ‘creative destruction’ in a segment on the need for government to retool and purge itself of outdated ideas (and legislation). Creative destruction is a term made popular by economist Joseph Schumpeter to describe the creativity that springs forth from the continuous cycle of destruction and rebirth.  The philosopher Nietzsche also used this idea in his writings, but with an existentialist (and slightly less 200px-FWNietzscheSiebe optimistic) perspective. I was familiar with the concept, but it got me thinking — about both my own team, and Microsoft at large. Creative destruction is, in management terms, the process of innovating over bad design. Or less efficient design. This is, as the Japanese refer to it, Kaizen: the act of continual improvement.

The concept is simple enough: every product or process has a lifecycle. An idea is formed, a prototype is created, it is introduced to the market, it grows and matures, it goes into decline, and then…

Well, if it’s a policy or process that we’re all used to because “that’s the way things have always been done,” then nothing usually happens at the logical end of its life. Occasionally someone brings out a can of fresh paint and spruces up that old process with a fresh coat, but it’s still outdated.

Think about how you are managing your team, and whether this describes your modus operandi. Are you throwing fresh paint on a tired process or bad habit? Or are you constantly throwing away what clearly doesn’t work, looking for incremental improvements? Are you taking time in team meetings or in your 1 on 1 sessions to get some real feedback about what you or your team are doing right, areas where you can improve, and processes that you can retire?

Jumping to the third item in my cryptic post title: my mother in law introduced my wife and I to the Fly Lady a few years back. I don’t flylady_toonexpect many people reading this to have heard of this self-help system for de-cluttering your home, but my wife and I really took to it (we are HUGE fans of the control binder). Something that I have incorporated into my professional life, in a way, is the concept of “de-cluttering”: simplifying your life one baby step at a time, identifying and ridding your house/office/life of clutter. The idea is that once a week you find 27 items to throw or give away. I don’t know the magic behind the number 27…..so find the right number for you, and just do it. Make a conscious effort to simplify your life, your team processes, and your product solutions.

Hopefully you can see how these things all fold together. At least they did in my mind in the short time it took for me to turn from Novelty Hill onto Avondale while driving toward the end of 520.

Find what is broken, what has stopped working, what has no value and get rid of it. Embrace the creative destruction, find your inner Fly Lady, and maybe get a little existentialist.

And I’ll try to focus more on the road next time…

Exploring Management Conference

October 24, 2008

Yesterday I had the honor of serving once again as “table coach” for five sessions at the Exploring Management Conference. (A table coach sits at a large table and leads a discussion on a given topic for about 20 minutes; then the attendees change tables and you do it again.)

First, I encourage any experienced manager to do this. If you’re at Microsoft in Redmond, participate in the formal Exploring Management sessions. Otherwise, gather a bunch of folks who wonder about moving into management and have an open, honest discussion about some of the pros and cons — and your experiences with them. You’ll learn as much as those you coach, not just about them but about yourself and your assumptions.

My topic this time was “Tradeoffs: Manager vs. Individual Contributor.” I’ve done considerable coaching on this topic with newer managers working for me.

One day some years ago, a new manager threw himself down on the couch I’ve squeezed into my office and asked, “Why do I feel so bad about my job as manager? I work hard, I like everyone I work with, I even like you, but at the end of the day I feel exhausted and like I haven’t accomplished anything.”

Think about that for a minute. Have you been there?

We came to a realization through coaching. [My coaching technique is to pose clarifying questions to the person I’m working with and help them work out an answer — an answer that I myself may or may not know.]

  • – As an IC, you get a win every day. Tasks are bounded and relatively short. Code a function, contact a customer, prepare a report. Tasks usually have a clear beginning and, more importantly, a clear end, one at which you are present.
  • – Managerial problems beyond the administrative tend to be formless. They drift up on you, you work the levers of influence and coaching, and eventually there is improvement in the situation. You probably spend the same amount of time on a given task/problem, a day or two. But it’s discontinuous time. These tasks often lack a clear point marking the start of your ownership. And they almost never have a clear end, an “aha!” moment. Three weeks or three months later, you may notice the change, the improvement. But by then, a dozen other tasks and problems have drifted down on you.

In other words, a manager spends much of his or her time setting wheels in motion — but at the end of the day, she has dealt far more in moving problems along than in exulting in solutions. Closure is hard to come by.

And if you don’t recognize that, you go home miserable, sometimes kick-the-dog, hate-the-job miserable. Or you start doing more and more IC tasks to get those endorphins flowing — which deleverages you and makes your team wonder why you’re micromanaging.

That’s the cost; what does the manager get in return? I got a sense of pride in helping my team grow, and a sense of accomplishment in making progress on larger problems than I would normally see as an IC. But there were many days where I had to think about that consciously.

What’s your experience?

  — Steve

Team Morale Is Not an Events-Driven Protocol

October 16, 2008

I think we sometimes try to buy rather than earn morale.

Many companies, Microsoft included, have these things called “morale events.” They often run something like this: Take[1] the team[2] on some activity[3] and then have food[4] at the end.

  1. In other words, they require significant time out of the office, often spent in transport.
  2. In part as a consequence of #1, there are numerous no-shows.
  3. High-tech-industry managers seem to gravitate toward ropes courses, rock climbing, and mini-car racing. My own experience is that mini-golf and bowling work better — everyone is (usually) equally horrible, and we all start laughing at each other.
  4. Catered food at these events is usually very expensive and not terribly good. If you really want food to be a part, take the team out to a restaurant. It doesn’t even have to be a good restaurant; it’s the camaraderie that matters.

You can’t buy morale any more than you can buy morals. (I can’t tell you how many times in my 16 years here I’ve been invited to “moral” events.)

The best morale events I’ve ever been involved with have been cheap or free. Getting the team together for late-afternoon beer and cookies, for example, is cheap and effective. (Don’t cater it; buy and expense the beer if that’s allowed.)

Giving out $6 lunch or $3 espresso cards is also effective; have a bunch handy and award them generously for even minor above-and-beyond acts. (Obviously this particular item works best when the team is in one place.)

The best morale event I ever held, according to my team, was taking them out for an afternoon on my sailboat and letting them all take turns on the wheel. Yes, I’m lucky to have had a big sailboat, but the point is that I used “available materials” to come up with a fun, inexpensive (for Microsoft) event. Even as that particular team grew, they continued to look back fondly on that afternoon.

But I think the four biggest morale boosters are free:

  1. Trusting your team. There are many right ways to do something; it doesn’t have to be your way.
  2. Listening with respect, always, no matter how frazzled you are.
  3. Saying “thank you for your work” and “well done” regularly and at least some of the time in public.
  4. Telling your team the truth rather than trying to build your status by information-hiding.

I won’t pretend I have always practiced what I preach; I certainly screw it up at least as often as most of us. But I know that when I am open and honest, when I praise solid work, when I have trusted them, my teams have responded very well.

So now that times are tough and money is tight, consider how to build team morale. Sometimes constraints are a blessing in disguise.

  — Steve 


Delayed Gratification

September 29, 2008

My seven-year-old wants everything now. Delayed gratification for him means a few minutes. The future isn’t quite tangible yet.

Most new managers I’ve worked with want everything now. Delayed gratification for them means a few days. The future isn’t quite tangible yet.

My seven-year-old, with much mentoring from my wife (and with insufficient help from her spouse), is growing out of it.

New managers need delayed-gratification mentoring too. Unlike children, they often don’t get it.


Most managers are promoted from individual-contributor (IC) roles. They’re very good at some set of tasks — writing code, or managing a project, or selling to customers, say. A great hand comes down from the sky, extends its finger toward the IC, and suddenly the IC is a manager.

It’s supposed to be a reward for good work.

Instead, it’s often a recipe for failure.

The IC is no longer doing what she’s good at. So the company loses the value of the IC work she did, and has to make up the value and then some in her managerial leverage. Without planning, it sometimes works, sometimes, doesn’t — but there’s a lag in the value curve either way.

That story is pretty well known. Good companies and good managers and good HR folks have some awareness and strategies and methods.

(For now, let’s leave out the variant of this story where the new manager is expected to do everything she did before and also manage some people and exert a degree of functional leadership. That’s a post of its own.)

But I’ve rarely seen new managers prepared for the sudden shift to delayed gratification that managing brings.

The IC got stuff done. Bug in the code? Go fix it. Project slipping? Examine the schedule and address it. Customer isn’t buying? Get out there and close the deal.

All of a sudden, the problems are different. The manager isn’t dealing with today’s bug, or finding hidden slack time, or negotiating a close.

Rather, the manager’s problems are that the code is more buggy than normal, or the schedule seems divorced from reality, or the customers aren’t buying what the team is selling.

In other words, it’s stuff the new manager can’t fix by herself. She needs to work through others.

Working through others takes time.

The problems may present as symptoms. An employee mentioning that he’s stuck on a bug. In a one-on-one, the report notes that Task X will be late. In a team meeting, the manager hears that Customer Y is being difficult and another salesperson chimes in with similar information.

What’s a manager to do?

What the manager should do, in some way, is gather more information, distill it down to “facts” (i.e., best bets on what’s actually happening), confirm, and then think about the direction in which solutions might lie.

And then the manager coaches her reports on how to address the issues in a way that helps the employees grow.

So the employee figures out the bug and how to improve the overall state of the code. He gets the project back on track, or at least keeps it from falling further behind. The team improves the value proposition and messaging and starts winning customers.

They do that over the ensuing weeks, or months.

None of these issues are explicitly solved; there’s no dramatic “bomp-bomp!” music from the Law & Order theme to indicate a solution; there’s no drama. Stuff “just” gets better.

And in the meantime, the new manager has weeks filled with issue after issue. She sees the issues, feels the pain… but doesn’t get the resolution. Not directly, anyway.

So the new manager gets discouraged. She starts to hate managing; it’s all pain and no emotional rewards.

Or she solves some of the problems directly, goes back to being an IC instead of exerting leverage. Suddenly managing is fun again… for them. She wonders why her team’s morale suddenly starts dropping, though.


Managing is about delayed gratification. Being an IC is a win every day; you see a problem, you solve it, you go home happy.

Being a manager is a problem every day, but the win is diffuse, in the future, often unseen, the problem long since replaced with newer, hotter fires to fight.

Managers will work through this on their own, often, with a variety of strategies. Some become the seagull manager, dropping in to poop all over something as an instant IC before flying away again. Some give up managing. Some become distant and withdrawn. And some, of course, figure this out themselves and adjust.

Just like some seven-year-olds eventually “get it” without mentoring from their parents.

But it’s not efficient or effective to wait for the manager (or seven-year-old) to figure it on herself.


If you’re elevating an employee to manager, or coaching a new manager, watch out for the delayed-gratification slump. Make sure the new manager is aware of this pattern. Help them understand the long-term value of working through others — and the rewards that come from making an employee stronger.

It’s not the same reward as fixing the bug or closing the sale, but it’s a reward nonetheless — and I think a bigger, richer reward once you recognize it.

Or maybe it is the same reward after all. You spot a problem and you solve it.

It’s just that the problem you’re solving is the human one.

The reward just takes longer.

  — Steve