The Art of War

I solve problems. This is just a rough manual on how to do what I do and how I do it effectively (courtesy of a series of very inquisitive emails I’ve gotten lately).

Clients have their own vocabulary

By the simple virtue of all our experiences and backgrounds being different, clients sometimes use their own words to explain what is that they want. Quite often, the description bears no resemblance to the actual problem in industry lingo which means your solutions are going to be wrong.

Clients, in my experience, rarely admit the words they chose to describe the problem are incorrect and even more unlikely to admit they don’t understand what the true source of their problem is. So it’s up to you to poke and prod as much as you need to in order to make sure you understood the problem, if necessary, to discover the true source of their ills.

Now that means getting under their skins on occasion, but if they really want to advance and want your services, and you’ve stayed within your limits, you’re doing the right thing. A client who can’t or won’t understand that you’re trying to make sure you’ve got the problem right to provide the best solution isn’t worth working for.

Learn to fire your clients

There’s a prevalent myth in consulting and other fields that a high-profile client with deep pockets is always worth keeping not matter how unreasonable, obtuse and otherwise toxic to morale they are. This is not only false, it’s the number-one reason your people aren’t as productive as they could be and possibly also why you’re losing money.

A client that pays well can also cost you a lot more money in resources (time x effort) since there’s a plateau of give vs. gain when it comes to investing in your client.

And you must learn to look at it that way. You’re making an investment in a client whose partnership is, hopefully, going to provide a source of good, honest, revenue for in exchange for honest work. Learn to leave sentiment that more money is good money and be selective with whom you please with your services, but…

Your service should be genuinely excellent

Hire your own company to do some work for you, at least as a mock exercise. Keep the same exact methods you use with a real client and see how far you will go before you consider your own product or service a success, a failure or one that requires some significant overhauling.

We call this dogfooding and it works for services and products. And it’s an excellent way to stress-test your company to expose what hidden problems lie in the background. It also helps you keep a sane view of your own work and allows you to see your company from your client’s perspective. Try to stay objective while dogfooding… remember, you need honest feedback.

Firing your clients only works if the work you do is really up to par or beyond. You can’t expect your clients to not be demanding if you leave a lot to be desired and demanded so it’s important to be very honest with yourself to realize this before it’s too late.

Hard decisions are only hard if you don’t accept the truth

The truth shall set you free isn’t just a motto. These words should be tattooed on your forehead (figuratively) if necessary, if that helps you remember every time you look yourself in the mirror. If your job involves lying through your teeth to your clients and the public then at least learn to be truthful to yourself.

Never believe your own lies.

If the public perception your company gives off is that of excellence then you must realise the truth of the matter in order to maintain or achieve that excellence internally (hopefully soon) and you can’t very well do that if you can’t admit there’s a problem…

Sometimes the problem is you

I’ve made many terrible mistakes in the course of my life and career and I can trace almost every instance to one glaring and blindingly obvious (in retrospect) truth… I couldn’t admit I was wrong.

Now, sometimes, stubbornness is a very good thing because it helps you focus on the solutions and drive home points to get the work done in time and under budget. But when this stubbornness is decoupled with objectivity, it’s a recipe for disaster. You’re more than happy to plow through a field of actions until someone taps on your shoulder and point out, you’ve plowed the wrong field.

This is bad.

Or the problem is that you’ve sown the wrong seeds in the first place and it’s also the wrong field.

This is worse.

Whether this was due to denial or shortsightedness is irrelevant since the damage is done. You can try damage-control, but it’s just better come out and admit you’ve made a mistake and start over. I’ve found this to be the quickest, least painful method to get back on track. Damage control is for your clients and the public, not for your employees and never for yourself.

There are always other chances for people who admit their limitations since knowing the boundary is the first step in crossing it.

Here’s a sample of what I’m talking about courtesy of Adam Savage (pay attention to 3:50 onward).

Admitting your flaws and failures to yourself at least and taking the appropriate measures is vital before it’s tool late. Especially if you have more than a few employees as…

There are no secrets

NDAs get violated all the time. No exceptions. You don’t hear about it that much, obviously, due to the legal ramifications and also because some people really don’t know that they’ve violated corporate/trade secrets. But systems, methodology, lessons from your mistakes, and — least of all, code — leak to other companies with every new hire or even with just a seemingly innocuous email or just plain gossip. One more reason I hate office politics so much.

Your only recourse is to never sit still with regard to what you do and innovate and work hard as much as possible to stay ahead of the curve. A company that cannot keep up with the changing times will stagnate and die, much like many an ancient civilization.

The law will only protect you if you discover that your secrets have been pillaged, and have actual proof, and you won’t know this in most cases until months or years later anyway. At which point, your competition may well be light-years ahead using your own hard work.

Your most valuable weapon is skill. Keep it sharp.

Don’t bother too much with encryption or other such fancy methods to keep your trade secrets since… well…

Anything that can be viewed can be copied

That’s not to say you should forgo encryption altogether, but this should be ancillary to the loyalty of your employees. Cultivating loyalty to make sure your trade secrets are safe even after an employee leaves the company and discouraging gossip can be just as effective as any encryption. That loyalty will make your employees be more careful with what they discuss outside the work sphere, which you cannot control (and, realistically, can’t control that much at work either).

There’s a scene in the show Burn Notice where Michael Westen gets a hold of the noc list of spies responsible for ruining his life. The data is on an encrypted thumb drive and yet he’s able to scroll through the list on-screen. But the team is seemingly unable to copy the data they see due to the afore-mentioned encryption.

Sidetrack – What bothers me about this scene is that they’ve ignored this prime rule of all security. Now, granted, this is just a TV show and isn’t always bound to the scope of reality, but it had the same effect on me as the Fiona Taser scene with an about-to-be kidnapped Russian mobster. You can’t zap yourself while you’re zapping someone else even if he’s holding you. – End sidetrack.

What I’m trying to illustrate is that you need your employees to have knowledge of the inner workings of a system at some point in time. You can’t run a company without some measure of trust and that exposes you corporate espionage; with or without your employees’ compliance.

Your employees also need to know what you do in order for them to do it. How will you encrypt that? And speaking of employees…

Learn to stop bad behavior early

I’m surprised this even needs to be mentioned, but I’ve lost count of how many people just put up with unproductive, uncooperative and outright unhealthy attitudes of their employees.

We’ve all seen the bad apples ruin an otherwise productive brainstorming session or meeting, and yet these people get to keep doing it because bosses are under the impression that they’re worth putting up with.

Here’s a hint: No one should be above being fired.

If you’ve invested all your talent in a few bad apples, it’s time to hire better apples and fire the bad ones. Please note whether you’re not part of the problem first before doing any hiring or firing as mentioned above.

And I’ll let you in on a secret… Most programmers don’t know how to program. Either no one taught them the proper way or they were happy hiding their inability from bosses or managers who didn’t know better.

We had to fire an entire IT team and escort them out of a building. That means everything, and I do mean everything — the keys to the castle — was in limbo for a while, but we managed pull the company out of a hole. It was a self-inflicted hole mainly because the entire IT department turned out to be one bad apple and a pair of cheerleaders keeping productivity down.

They adamantly stuck to the same aging technology despite the demand causing several catastrophic failures because the software was in their comfort zone. The same problem-solving methodology involved throwing just more of the same software — not even better software or at the least more hardware, which we were willing to invest in — at the problem and, worst of all, the same attitude of it can’t be done until we brought in our own people to show that it most certainly can be, they just didn’t know how.

An IT department is an extreme example, but it illustrates the point that, short of destroying the infrastructure of a company, it sometimes does take radical measures to ensure it can improve internally. You can find out exactly how competent your IT department or indeed any department is in their field by making them explain what they do.

The main excuse I get from people as to why they don’t stop bad behavior is that they’re busy with work themselves and don’t always have the time to play referee. Well, then you should make the time somehow, since it’s your future as well, or hire a referee since…

Being engrossed in work isn’t always productive

It sometimes takes a detached look at what it is you’re doing to truly appreciate and understand the your abilities and those of your company to engage the scope of the problem. The hard part may also be admitting that you don’t know what the problem is let alone solve it.

I was notorious in the past for beating myself up for nights on end to solve problems, partially destroying my health, until I came to the realization that I could have been just as productive by taking my time and, more importantly, taking a break. Solutions don’t always come to you when you’re physically and emotionally trashed and you’re more likely to make mistakes.

Consultants in particular also fall into the over-analysis problem on occasion where the problem isn’t what you think it is and your client may not know how to explain it or may not even know what the problem really is since…

Clients clients have their own vocabulary.

One thought on “The Art of War

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