March 16, 2010

Workarounds Don’t

Posted in Life, Technology tagged , , , , , , , , at 11:01 am by lindaslongview

I was reminded recently of one of my long view axioms – workarounds don’t work (for long).

Workarounds have a finite duration for which they will enable correction/detection of an existing problem.  This is because they require extra effort for what is usually an infrequent problem.  Thus, as humans, we tend to forget, begin to believe it is unnecessary (it doesn’t really matter), or it was simply too much effort (not worth it to me), so it just does not happen.

I was reminded about this axiom last week when my 16-year-old daughter passed her driver’s license exam.  Although she passed, she couldn’t get her license because the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) computer system had a known counting error that indicated that she was two days short of her required permit duration, yet the workaround had been forgotten.

The time-based requirement for teenagers to receive a full license is that they must have held their permit a minimum of six months.  My daughter received her permit on 09/09/2009.  She scheduled and passed for her driving exam on 03/09/2010 – exactly six months later.  So, how could she be two days short?

It turns out if you assume that SIX MONTHS = HALF-YEAR = 365/2 DAYS = 182.5 DAYS and then assume that a minimum of 183 DAYS is the appropriate standard to apply to ensure completion, then the criteria FAILS six-months of the year:  March, April, May, June, July, and August, (see graphic) for the condition when a teenager schedules their six-month driving appointment exactly six-months out (date to date).  This happens because there are only 181-182 cumulative days in the six-month periods, falling immediately after February, which has only 28 days.

Can you imagine how frustrated and aggravated the two of us were?!  She was quite disappointed at not receiving her license and thus not being able to drive her planned excursion the following day, not to mention it was rather anti-climactic to return two days later to get her license.  I was aggravated on her behalf and because of the hassle of having to go to the DMV twice in two days.

I was sufficiently aggravated about the situation to contact Gary, the Drive columnist in my local paper, to help me get the problem fixed.  Gary successfully got to the right folks at the DMV.  The DMV confirmed that the problem was a known counting issue (the computer had been programmed with a 183 DAY threshold rather than programmed for six MONTH threshold). The DMV agent also informed me that a fix was in the queue to convert the counting from DAYS to MONTHS (but there wasn’t any priority for it) AND that there was a workaround in place to allow the field offices to allow a DMV manager override the system but that my local office had forgotten the procedure.  (My daughter should have been able to get her license on the day she passed her driving exam.)

Although the DMV representative was very apologetic and promised to write a memo to all the field offices reminding them of the workaround, I was disheartened by the futility.  How much work was created because because they did not expeditiously fix this known problem and allowed a persistent workaround?  For example they could simply change threshold from 183 days to 181 days – one line of computer code!  What’s the risk – a teenager sneaking in to get his/her license a few days early in November?  How many managers at the hundreds of field offices will have to read another memo about the workaround and remind their staff to override when needed?  Of course, all will be forgotten come September and experienced again come March!

My long view advice:

  • Expeditiously fix problems – workarounds don’t work.
  • Do not allow workarounds to persist for any more time than it takes to solve the problem permanently.  (It costs more than you are probably aware.)

Are you avoiding workarounds in favor of solutions?

April 20, 2009

Finishing School

Posted in Business, Technology tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 12:37 am by lindaslongview

balancebookseyesonlyMy mother always said that I needed to attend “finishing school,” but early on I did not see the value. As such, I started my career with poor interaction skills.  Luckily, my undeveloped social skills were tolerated because of significant technical contribution.   However, as my career progressed, I found that the technical problems were increasingly complex and without adaptation on my social skills side, it was clear that I would perish. So even though I did not balance books on my head, my latent abilities were nurtured and I learned to collaborate, lead, and be more socially refined.

I don’t have any really great stories, just an accumulated “what were they thinking?” collection in my head that has helped me to learn the following key principles:

  • Understand motivation and human behavior.
  • Get to know your colleagues.
  • Work to the strengths of each individual.

I learned from academic (reading the work of others), experiential collaborative technical projects (doing and learning from mistakes), and more recently through service and leadership in community organizations.

I have observed that there are fundamental differences in the motivation between industry (paid for service technical effort) and civic service (volunteer community effort).  The motivation for collaborative effort in typical technology organizational culture is recognition, reputation, and PAY.  Whereas in community volunteer organizational cultures, motivation is recognition, reputation, and RECIPROCITY.   Although they both share similar features (recognition and reputation), there is quite a difference between pay and reciprocity.

Others (real experts, not just amateurs like me) have studied pay and reciprocity differences.  A particularly engaging study can be found in Predictably Irrational (Ariely, ch.4, social norms v. market norms).  Ariely points out that, although social norms are more powerful motivators than market norms, the social contract required to achieve success with social norms is very tenuous! Expediency must be abandoned and long view commitments forged, because social contracts must be maintained under all circumstances to be effective.

As usual, there are blurred lines that create tension.  Industry desires to capitalize on social leverage requiring social skills of business leaders (understand motivation, get to know people, work to strengths), but is not always willing to take the long view. Conversely, sometimes, civic leaders desire expediency, in the process forgetting the social contracts they have engaged to achieve volunteer participation.

Although, more and more, we hear about self-organizing mass collaborations building value (Wikinomics, by Tapscott & Williams), motivated in unusual ways, it is not likely that it will be the case for most technology projects in the near term.  I recently read about 100,000 gamers unraveling the secret life of proteins (Wired, 17.05, There’s Power in a Puzzle), their motivation being competitive fun!  Wouldn’t it be great if we could achieve that everywhere?!

As I continue to grow, I hope to learn more, and I look forward to a future where powerful motivators, like competitive fun, can be harnessed and retained for industrial and civic service more and more routinely.  However, in the meantime, there is still much that requires coordinated collaborative leadership and excellence in social skills.

Do you have suggestions or observations that could add to this thinking?