Archive for October, 2002

Sharing What You Know

Thursday, October 31st, 2002

I once hit a problem whilst developing that meant I could do no productive work for five days. Five days may not seem like a long time but when you only have 13 days to complete an iteration it feels like a lifetime. I was working with a new product and no one on my team had encountered the problem before and I found it very difficult to get support from the vendor who also hadn’t encountered the problem. I don’t remember how I fixed this but I remember how annoyed I was a few weeks later when I discovered that someone else in the company had previously solved the same problem. It turned out that there were three different teams all learning to use the same technology at the same time!

When I spoke to my boss about this communication problem he told me that although the company talked about knowledge sharing from time to time they had never been able to come up with a way to make this work.

I contacted the leaders of the other teams and pointed out that we were all busy struggling with the same things. We were all in agreement that we could benefit from each others mistakes and successes. However, no one could think of a sensible way to pass on the knowledge. All the suggestions we had involved writing documentation and no one had any time in their budget to write these documents. From past experience they also knew that the team members would resent having to write them and that no one would bother to read them.

I left the company not long after this and went away with the impression that knowledge sharing, whilst being a nice idea, didn’t really work in practice.

Tonight I was reading Nancy M. Dixon’s book Common Knowledge in which she discusses the pleasure we feel when we pass useful knowledge to other people.

The truth is that if we know something that we think someone else needs to know, it is difficult for us to refrain from telling them. It is almost a natural impulse to tell others what we know.

So why couldn’t we get people to share knowledge? Well it appears that one reason for this was that we tried to get people to write about their experiences instead of talking face to face. It seems that part of our willingness to share information is to do with the personal benefit we will receive from doing so – even if the benefit is nothing more than a smile or a thank you.

If we want people in our organisations to share what they have learned, we would be wise to create the conditions in which sharing results is of personal benefit

Instead of dreaming up document sharing systems to solve the problem we probably should all have met for pizza once a week and the knowledge would have flowed naturally.

Performance Appraisals

Wednesday, October 30th, 2002

Tony quotes Weinberg.

Under a performance appraisal system, placating or irrelevant managers can think, ‘Well, I won’t bring that up right now. I’ll save it for the performance appraisal in December.’

Before I gave my first performance appraisals I asked my boss if he had any suggestions as to how these should be run. He said, “Nothing that is said at an appraisal should surprise the person who is being appraised”. Good advice.

Trade Perfection for Improvement

Tuesday, October 29th, 2002

If the new system can’t be perfect, how can I use it so that it will be better than the one I have now? Improvement is easier than perfection, and as the Chinese say, the best is the enemy of the good.

– Gerald M. Weinberg, The Secrets of Consulting, Chapter 9

Requirements Reuse

Monday, October 28th, 2002

The first time you conceive a system based on a requirement, estimating the costs and benefits might be difficult. But, after implementation, you will have a much better idea of the costs and benefits triggered by that requirement.

A well-formulated, measurable, reusable requirement – including a full cost-benefit analysis as part of its description – is every bit as valuable as a reusable software module.

– John Favaro, “Managing Requirements for Business Value”, IEEE Software, vol. 19, no. 2, Mar/Apr 2002, pp. 15-17

Be Wary of Unanimous Agreement

Sunday, October 27th, 2002

If people are unanimously behind a concept, my first instinct is to think there’s something wrong with the concept

– Mark H McCormack, Never Wrestle With A Pig

Mark’s four reasons to be wary are:

1. The concept is too bland
2. People don’t care
3. People don’t get it
4. People are intimidated by the group leader

Measurement Dilemma

Thursday, October 24th, 2002

A while ago Tony quoted Weinberg.

In their desperation, they grasp at anything that’s easily measurable and has some apparent relationship with quality or

Again he is talking about managers and the things we like to do to put in our
day. The example he gives is counting the number of lines of code. I don’t
measure this as I don’t believe it is a particularly useful measurement when
writing programs in Perl. However, I have been guilty of measuring things
without having a clear idea as to what meaning the results will give me.

Now I measure the amount of time spent to produce a function. I do this
because I want to improve our estimation process. By comparing actual time
with estimated time I can work out what is really meant by, “that will take me
3 hours”.

I also calculate final project costs. On client based work I use this to decide whether or not the job was completed quickly enough. If it cost us more to produce than the amount we were paid – we took too long to complete the job. What I haven’t been able to do is apply this to internal projects. We always have reasons why the job wasn’t completed within the estimated time and I don’t have enough information to know whether or not it would have been better to either not do the job at all or get someone else to do it for us.

Sawdust On The Floor

Monday, October 21st, 2002

At lunch time today I glanced into a butcher’s shop and noticed that there was sawdust all over the floor. I haven’t seen sawdust on the floor of a butchers since I was a child. As I had no idea why they did this I thought I would look into it. It appears that sawdust is used as a soaking agent and is wonderful for helping you to clean up things like vomit and blood. So, this was put onto the floor to make it easier to clean up the blood that would drip from the carcasses. It was also used by some butchers to make sure that they never sold meat to people that was dropped on the floor.

Everything I read suggested that putting sawdust on the floor was something that butchers did years ago, which makes sense as I don’t recall seeing any dripping carcasses whilst shopping lately. So why do butchers in Belfast still put sawdust on the floor?

The Best Way

Friday, October 18th, 2002

That some way of doing things has survived over time does not mean that it is the best way or the simplest way. It may only mean that no one has yet tried to find a better way.

– Edward de Bono, Simplicity

Some Things Take Time

Thursday, October 17th, 2002

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

– Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah”

It took Leonard Cohen more than two years to write that song.

I was reading an interview with Cohen and I was impressed with the amount of effort he puts into writing his songs. Many people talk about songwriting as a mystic art, even Cohen himself.

If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition. It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery”

Many songwriters, such as Bob Dylan, claim to write songs in about fifteen minutes and talk about songs as flowing from them and coming from a source beyond them. This can lead to the impression that writing good songs is just something that happens spontaneously to gifted people. This isn’t true. Good song writing is both a mixture of inspiration and hard work. Like any other craft it takes years of ground work to produce something special.

Cohen has spent years perfecting his craft. The finished version of “Democracy” contains six verses from the sixty or so that he wrote. This is one of the ones that he discarded as not being good enough.

From the church where the outcasts can hide
Or the mosque where the blood is dignified.
Like the fingers on your hand,
Like the hourglass of sand,
We can separate but not divide
From the eye above the pyramid.
And the dollar’s cruel display,
From the law behind the law,
Behind the law we still obey
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

– Leonard Cohen, from an interview published in “Songwriters on Songwriting”


Wednesday, October 16th, 2002

Every occupation has its characteristic diseases. The inability to resist solving problems is only one of the occupational diseases from which consultants suffer. Many consultants pickle their livers at business lunches, blind their eyes on voluminous reports, or bend their spines in endless meetings. But the most serious occupational disease is known as optimitis.

Optimitis can be found in anyone who is asked to produce solutions to problems. It is an inflammation of the optimization nerve, that part of the nervous system which responds to such requests as

“Give us the minimum cost solution.”
“Get it done in the shortest possible time.”
“We must do it in the best possible way.”

In a healthy individual, the optimization nerve responds to such requests and sends an impulse to the mouth to respond,

“What are you willing to sacrifice?”

In the diseased individual, however, this neural pathway is interrupted, and the mouth utters some distorted phrases like,

“Yes, boss. Right away, boss.”

– Gerald M. Weinberg, The Secrets of Consulting, Chapter 2