Sunday, February 12, 2017

Meta leadership


The word leadership has a rather large spread and reach. It can mean a diverse set of behaviors. It can explain a wide variety of positive outcomes. It can effect a wide scope of results - from moving individuals within one's sphere of direct interaction, to moving an entire world far beyond one's direct influence. 

At its core, leadership is an attitude for influencing and executing transformation. It is a skill that results in exponential outcomes with a linear quantum of resource: Oneself. In this process, you leverage many sources both within, and outside, clear lines of control - resources, people,  organizations, domains of expanding knowledge, mental models, systems for doing things.

In today's world, leadership is probably the most important skill at every level of activity one wants to be successful at. This is simply because we are now connected to potentially billions of people within the palm of our hands, or within the reach of a keyboard.

Countless guides exist that promise to help us improve our leadership abilities. For every such blueprint to improve leadership, there are contrary blueprints that also promise identical behavioral/result transformations. 

If leadership is "exponential outcomes from linear growth of inputs and resources from within oneself",  the goal of leadership is "minimize friction, maximize traction, and transform from a state of existence to a place of success against all odds".

Upon thinking it through, I believe there are some high level principles, either in isolation or in combination, that can enable those outcomes.

The following are culled from personal experience through trial and error, with an assumption of common vocabulary, so we don't have to define everything.


Keeping management flat

Leaders promise outcomes. Management is about delivering what is promised. In our world, this is purely driven by information and communication. By keeping the management network to be as flat as possible,  you optimize the amount of communication of deliverables up or down your hierarchy. Every level's work should contribute meaningfully to the goals of every level up or down. This is a hard problem when abstraction of details multiply as you travel up or down the stack. Keeping things as flat as possible makes for less loss and noise as messages travel within the network.

This strategy answers the question: does leadership help you reduce the amount of communication required to get the job done? 

Dial your Delegation to "High"

Delegation is simply allocating the right kind of detailed action to the resource that is most capable of executing it. If done right, a high level of delegation will lead to minimal errors in translation of results up/down the management stack. Delegation reduces the need for translation of the effectiveness of promises delivered as they are communicated across management levels. But, if done wrongly, it can simply be a way of outsourcing one's own duties to someone else. The litmus test is always all about results: does the delegated action get performed more consistently, with less issues, and with more bandwidth freed up for management conversations across the levels? Does it, in short, improve the efficiency of execution?

Keep Cross talk low

Cross talk happens when teams discover redundancy in workload, resourcing, outputs or operational failures. It can also happen if there are more systemic ways to get the same set of results, even if there is no redundancy in resourcing. For example, the more different ways of doing the same thing, the more teams will try to compete for building solutions that are different, if there is high incentive to innovate and improve constantly.

Redundancy is good, in good measure. It is a proxy for "slack" (any available high quality capacity) within the system. However, too much of it leads to complex graphs of execution paths for achieving the same result. This leads to additional management resources to track it well. It also leads to creation of  "glue" functions to disambiguate truth. With this, we try to answer the question: How do you reduce the amount of superfluous work while maximizing the odds of finding a fairly optimal outcome?

Maximize Diversity

This is one of the most, if not the most, important principle.

To be clear, diversity is not about any class (eg. protected class), primarily, although this is definitely an important measure of delivering on our social responsibilities.

Here, we mean diversity of thinking styles, even if they are styles we disagree with. There are some limits that need to be set on diverse thinking styles based on organizational culture, legal requirements and basic sense of fairness, of course. However, it is diversity of thinking styles or modes that allows us to see a larger part of the exploding solution space. Most creative ideas come from mistakes and re-interpretations. This kind of diversity provides the framework for such things to bubble up fast.

Here, we are answering for the question: Do you get to "the right thing to do" in a more optimal fashion?

Demonstrate empathy

Empathy is a soft skill, and it works hand in hand with diversity of thinking. By identifying with a different point of view, you are finding ways to encourage that viewpoint towards its logical conclusion as it mixes with multiple other ideas. Without empathy, the common space of a group's ideas becomes smaller. With empathy, every idea or feeling gets appropriate level of importance.

In short, we are trying to maximize the opportunity for diversity to grow and flourish.

Mentoring as a primary focus for management

According to Andy Grove, there are only two things a manager/leader can do - mentorship and training. When mentoring happens as a dialogue among equals (in mind), it works well. When training is agreed based on how it affects the results of the team (along with the growth of the individual), it works doubly well.

Here, we are answering for: Do you encourage, and quickly percolate, the results of execution experiments? Do you make the learning from past experiments in leadership become the foundation of your organization?

Hierarchical check and balance

The goal is not to check hierarchy, but to check the overuse of hierarchy in decision making. Hierarchy serves two important purposes: abstracting details, and optimizing the flow of work to the right resource. Because we aren't rational actors, and we deviate systematically from rationality in many ways ("bias"), the default tendency for us is to design hierarchy as an "override" - in selecting, deciding or otherwise concluding a particular phase or activity early. When we go against this default usage, and instead use hierarchy to compress information or route workload, we encourage skills that accelerate our execution. Some of these are:

  • Using many layers of models to find the right check and balance
  • Percolate the checks and balances to as many of your organization layers as feasible.
In short, are decisions being taken at the place where they have the most impact to the goal?

Engineer discomfort around stasis

Our world is accelerating in many dimensions of progress. It is a result of continuous evolution of our needs and wants. Even basic needs have evolved to incorporate many things that we as a species were never evolved to adapt to.

Our habits of thinking, however, take much more time to catch up. The best way to lead is to let everyone be ready to act in unison. This means that we need to be able to work well, but also work well together. When you are moving fast, you need to form the right habits, and clean out habits that don't necessarily give us a long runway. We need to evolve our habits. 

Evolution involves change, experimentation and being subject to failures of many kinds. The clearest signal that one is evolving is a sense of discomfort or imbalance at the highest levels of one's performance.

We naturally seek security and comfort, and this can only be broken consciously.

A healthy respect for our own discomfort is good - the more we recognize that we enter into discomfort, the more we will do something about it.

In short, leaders enable people to stretch their limits of comfort so that they can iterate on ideas.

Surely, there is lot more to be said, but this is a starting point.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Architecture, Engineering, Operations - iteration 1

The world has infinitely more stuff to be "done" nowadays. At least in the sense of building/running an institution that uses technology, there are many roles that are involved in making things work. The world of IT and technology in general makes the speed and variety possible. We now have a platform of IT that is globally scale-able if we can put some new thinking to the old problems of "getting things done".

There are great organizations that do this well, and they use "modern" IT principles to achieve this.

Fundamental to engineering a modern IT (or infrastructure organization) are the three roles of Architecture, Engineering and Operations. Some would say Architecture is encoded Engineering-history, but for now, we will keep them separate.

The popular definitions for these roles are about "output" delivered or the "domain" of discourse. The personality drives that determine the actual performance are not discussed, as far as I can see, in a holistic fashion in these definitions.

To make the point clear: there is an existential pleasure in being that applies to each of these roles. Without understanding that, we run the risk of putting in a round peg in a square hole when we move people around these roles, or even allocate people to these roles. People aren't fungible, but the dry definitions can lull us into entertaining that very thought as we "scale" the world.

So, I want to make a case for an interpretation that goes to the heart of what it means to do those functions as a "human being".

To me, it all starts with the human faculty of being one with patterns.

We are all pattern machines. We imagine, dream, deign, conceive, abstract, create, build, preserve, destroy, encode, decode, consume, grow, deplete patterns and pattern pools.

NOTE: In the below roles, these are styles of functioning, and ways to behave. It is not something that IDs a person (someone can engineer one thing, support/operate another, and architect yet another thing).


Architecture is the mindset that helps define hierarchical patterns in a domain of activity. An architect places the fundamental functional pieces of the pattern puzzle up in the air, so that the assembly into a workable "thing", "product" or "solution" is easier than assembling it all from first design principles. In that sense, they set the "meta pattern" to generate viable patterns. 


Engineering is the systematic improvement to deliver a better solution for your audience, customer, business (your constituency).  An engineer makes, builds patterns and pattern machines. They can use architecture principles, or take the help of a mature operations team to reduce the workload, but essentially, the mindset of an engineer is to build patterns. 


Operations is the discipline of maintaining the promises you made to your constituency, and keeping them well heeled. An operations person remembers and preserves patterns that were promised. They keep the "lights on".

How do we put them together?

Although that seems like orthogonal sets of things, combinations can exist. An operations person can absolutely engineer a better process. An engineer can, and often must, operationalize every bit of context that they can, so that they can reduce the amount of engineering they need to do, as well as the kind of engineering they need to do.

As an example: you can maintain a business critical function by operating it without any change, or by engineering the operations once in a while so that you save effort and money, or by architecting a continuous process of engineering so that you can operate better and better over time.

Another example (for hiring): If you take a person who predominantly wants to preserve patterns, and place them into a creative role (operations mindset in an engineering role), they will succeed up to a point. But their solutions will lead them into certain types of "architecture" that may prove to be "too slow" (but "entirely reliable in a well constrained environment"). Examples are engineers working on traditional enterprise like solutions in version 10 (not version 1) - where the architecture of infrastructure is fairly high quality and fixed, the patterns that bind the solution are mostly fixed. Most of the greatest engineering work here will be in improving the operational quality. Fundamental creation engineering is going to sound "risky" and may not be properly funded, even if it is the right thing to do.

If you want to engineer, find the place where you can build patterns.

If you want to deliver excellent operations, find the work that allows you to guarantee and deliver a bounded promise.

If you want to architect, find work that allows you to specify the principles to create and preserve building blocks.


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Every day is an interview day

Over time, most organizations descend to the mean.

What happens in such cases is slow and simple: people start taking things as if they are entitled - to the culture, to their right to define culture, and to their special right to understand how the company works.

This is not a designed event.

It happens gradually as people become comfortable with their success.

It is also a result of the very factors that made the place extraordinary in the first place.

Extraordinary results come from founders and their mindset that is coded into behaviors that reinforce each other: scale that comes from a shared understanding; the understanding that forms a culture; culture that drives the quality of interactions;  quality of interactions that result in people being friends with co-workers (and vice-versa); the natural give-and-take of social norms that becomes the unwritten cookbook.

Without care, these very same factors become a potential place of stasis.

What happens cannot be noticed easily.

Most of us embrace the culture, some painfully, some naturally.

Except, of course, the beginners who have fresh eyes, and the job interview candidates who see the various interactions as a window into the culture.

For people to whom signs and slogans aren't everyday knowledge, the signal comes out of reality they see.

The culture of every entity has two faces -- the overt signs and slogans, and the actuality of existence in getting jobs done, making people believe in the purpose. This is clearly visible to any one as the difference between what is said and what is done.

Different people react differently to how this presents itself in their daily lives.

Those inexperienced in working at diverse places start imitating the overt signs of the culture. They become the current culture. Easily and naturally.

The experienced ones try to do what the local culture tells them to do. But this lands them into a fork in the road -- to do what the culture tells you, you have to create it, not just absorb it.

How does one succeed? After having done this many times, within the same organization and in multiple organizations, the moment of epiphany arrived:

Imagine that every day, every interaction, was like a job interview session (given, or taken)

This has changed how I perceive and rate myself. Not by money or other measures of company success, but by what purpose I represent, what value I deliver.

The lesson is: look at every interaction as if your response would help you gain entry into a new company, or gain a new customer, a new employee, or a new supplier.

If your constituents followed your regular conversation, will they buy it?

Some things about a culture are pointers for the real thing, but should not be confused for it. Examples - directness, plain speak, openness.

Yes, these are important. But habits diverge from reality over time, and morph into something else. Like, being direct and maybe crossing over into rude; being honest to the point of crossing over lines drawn by policy, law and basic decency; being sarcastic, but maybe crossing over into contempt; using relationships as a way to move things, but crossing over into creating exclusive fast lanes.

Courtesy and Service

Courtesy, attitude of service, transparency and good intentions aren't explicitly defined in any culture. But they are above anything else. Newbies, interview candidates and customers expect this from you. (Even assuming Akerlof's "Markets for Lemons" exist, this is still true).

Extraordinary organizations pull far more weight to make courtesy and service happen, more than what the average would lead you to believe.

The normal path for most people would be to work for something of personal worth.

The real path is to always work on something of universal value.

As an individual, treating some day, many days, or everyday as if it was your interview day (as a candidate, or as a recruiting manager/employee) with everyone around you is a way to keep the culture of any place alive, and to forge the real path.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

How transformation/change could be hard - an analogy from Life

The illusion of steady change

Most changes are gradual. Or it appears to be, as you read stories and narratives about successful people. Be it successful CEOs, scientists, artists, startup founders, you name it -- almost every one who has reached a state of success, it seems, has had a steady run of successes.

We want to believe that these fine folks transformed their lives because they worked hard,  had talent, or had help, or many other things -- and it was simply effort and reward.

But we all know this is not true. Otherwise, we'd be doing more of what we do best, every day.

What is it that can explain great changes? It is a transformation. Yes, it has gradual bits and habits thrown in. But in the end, they were ready to transform themselves. They were ready to re-work their brains, bodies and life into a new combination.

Example from the chemistry of Life

There is an example in Life that may shed some light. Treat this as an analogy, but it has some lessons.

To illustrate, we start with a picture. Not any picture, but a specific simple diagram.

If a picture is worth 1000 words, this one's worth 1000 pictures:

What is This?

It is a simple diagram showing the energy thresholds of an isomer in transition from one stable state (1) to another (2). This is explained in the book "What is Life?" by Erwin Schrodinger. The book was seminal in many ways. In this context, I want to focus on this one diagram.

A little background:

An "isomer" is a name for all the 3-D arrangement of the same atoms, of the same molecule. Isomers are the norm in complex organic chemicals that compose Life.

This diagram shows the energy required for some class of isomers to go from one stable arrangement of atoms(1), to another stable arrangement(2). The substances may sometimes have different chemical properties. The key is that they don't get from here to there by a steady climb. There is an intermediate hill (3) that needs to be crossed before they go from (1) to (2) or the other way around.

This is important and worth repeating -- they need to get to a very unstable, and high energy state, before they click into a new form.

Why Isomers? What does it have to do with me?

Stable, lasting change is hard because it is not linear. There is an energy wall. We need to put in way more effort to get to the next stable configuration than simply getting from here to there.

This, to me, is a metaphor for many efforts in various forms. Learning, breaking old habits, projects, team building, transformation, integration of new ideas, migrations of organizations, changes in infrastructures, moving to a higher performing plateau - there are are all simple and linear in concept.

But they need an extraordinary hill climb. Not the steady climb, not the sisyphean repetitive climb. Here, the climb is much higher than what is necessary. The goal is to reach a point where you get downhill to the better tomorrow and a better normal.

This image has transformed the way I think about work and change. It is always the hardest times when we have to push a little harder.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Timeless management

Managing your time is incredibly hard in today's world. Email, social networks, news, apps, places, things, books, relationships and one-on-one interactions - there are many that require our attention.

With such diverse sources, things don't happen in time, they simply surface like infinite waves in an ever present ocean.

This is the side of a communications utopia that we wanted but not quite anticipated.

You dip your sense into this ocean and scoop up a sea of things to do, and ideas to think about.

Your mental near field is an idea forest.

Its far-field is receding farther as you move faster towards it.

Abundant, yet mercurial, filling, but unfinished, pointed, yet leading to aimless frittering of your time. It seems that those magical pyramidal neurons have caught their idea virus and are unable to rest. Time passes, yet there is no end in sight.

How do you create your purpose? How do you manage the flow of time?

In the journey from ignorance to information, we are slowly getting away from wisdom.

In our growth from abundant suffering to on-demand pleasure, we need to continue to have a keen appreciation for boredom and struggle.

Give time. Take time.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Intangibly nice people

Being nice is so obviously a good thing.

The fact is that you'd be hard pressed to get a single, succint definition of "nice". Courteous? Yes. Reciprocal? Yes. Well mannered? Yes. Not rude? Yes. Win-Win? Yes. Giving? Yes. Etc. Etc.

In public interactions, nice is synonymous with keeping peace, moving in unison, making things easier for everyone. This is absolutely the right way to conduct oneself in the world, if we want to move the world. It is the habit that many of us mold our childhood innocence into, to make the world a better place every time we practice it.

But the nice that I want to frame today is different. It isn't a quality, but more than that. Without offending all of us, it is safe to say that only a few people are this nice. Of course, some of these nice embodiments are given to you - parents, siblings and early childhood friends. Their niceness lasts a lifetime if you are gifted enough to tend them against the escape velocity that space and time separation places into the mix.

This other kind of nice is something you know because you simply feel it as a presence around these people.  They are it. They make you feel - safe. With them, even if you are faced with a sheer face of a rock (of a problem), you know you won't fall if you let go. They are safety. 

And curiously, you tend to ignore these nice people the most, because, like the air you breathe, you don't see them in that light every day. (that is indeed a shame if that happens often).

I have the good fortune of being friends with some of the nicest people of this kind. Some, I have had short interactions, but with some, fairly constant over time. Some are great seers, some are exactly like me - every day folks.

I'm deeply indebted to all of them - for changing me beyond what I thought was possible, all without advice or request or demand or force (in the order of typical escalation of expectations).

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Zen of Trust

Zen master Himadri was reputed to be a great leader who built stunningly successful institutions multiple times in his life. One of his disciples, Supyo, wanted to know the secret to his success, so he could build an organization himself.

Himadri said, "leadership".

Supyo was a little irritated with this answer. He had read everything about leadership. Countless tomes, written by countless leaders. Every one explained how they (or someone else) succeeded in building something that lasted for a long time. But none of it explained how someone can succeed so well so many times. Supyo wanted to not just create something once, but may times, much like Himadri. And he knew he had other precedents (none of whom had written about their success, strangely.)

Supyo had heard of Master Jobs and Stargazer Musk. He considered these two giants to be the only exceptions to the rule - that it is rare to even get one attempt at creating something stunning and extraordinarily valuable.

Then there was Himadri, his own master, doing it every time. And he wasn't about to reveal how, in more than one word at a time. This  - to be brushed away with one word answers, even if was the Zen way - wasn't an answer, or if it was, it was as good as nothing.

Supyo persisted - "Master, what is the Buddha of Leadership?"

Himadri said "Trust".

Supyo was now really seething. He wanted to learn, but there was no opening.

He moved up a level. He said, "Lead! I Trust!"

Himadri smiled.

He walked Supyo along the beautiful artwork that was the centerpiece of the monastery's courtyard. As they were climbing the stairs, Supyo started listening intently. All the while, he kept a corner of his eye on the rest of the world. As he did this, he sensed that the very space around them seemed to rotate, ascend and descend around them as they talked.

Himadri swatted a fly midway, and spoke these words:

"Trust is the backbone of culture.
Culture is the backbone of execution.
Execution is the backbone of strategy.
Strategy is the backbone of operations.
Operations is the backbone of service.
Service is the backbone of 'permission to do more'.
Permission to do more, is the backbone of growth.
Growth is the backbone of reputation.
Reputation is the backbone of brand.
Brand is the backbone of Trust."

Upon hearing this, Supyo was enlightened.