Monday, August 27, 2007

Confused about Open Source?

I found this excellent reference from O'Reilly, which compares various licensing mechanisms including GPL, LGPL, Apache, etc. The entire book is online in PDF format, and it walks you through the important legal language of each type and then explains it to you in english. You don't have to read the entire book to get to a good understanding of how they differ. I recommend this for any manager whose department uses open source or free software and obviously if you are considering putting some of your code into open source this is an essential read.

Blog Action Day: the environment

On October 15, blog action day, thousands of bloggers will blog normally, but include something regarding the environment. If you blog, check them out and register! If you read blogs, October 15 should be interesting. The promo video is here:

Sunday, August 19, 2007

"Buying Back" risk

In the September 2005 issue of the Communications of the ACM, Philip Armour touches on a method to keep two plans: the work-to plan, and the commit-to plan. He says that if an organization chooses not to intentionally manage the risk due to uncertainty, that either the customer (through lack of quality) or the development team (through overtime) ultimately pays for the risk as it materializes into problems and issues. I would like to add that the third possible payee is the organization itself, through missed commitments.

I've worked in environments where we had a buffer, but not quite the way he describes. Most places I've worked felt that the buffer would be spent because with lack of pressure, people will work less hard; therefore you will still miss your dates and you will produce less output. However, Mr. Armour talks about a way to consciously manage the buffer which I think alleviates such concerns.

When the initial plan is built, the team puts together a "Management Risk Reserve". If you have metrics from your history, you might be able to do this in a way that scales with the complexity of the project in a very meaningful way. In exchange for regular attention to this reserve by management, the team agrees to try to work to the "work-to" plan, which contains all the things that the team knows they need to do. As work progresses, some risk is reduced, and other risk is realized. It's a short article and not particularly operational, but you can imagine doing this quantitatively on the risk reduction as well as the realization of new work that must be done.

I contend that this is totally doable within an iterative/agile environment. Most organizations still have a long term commitment they want to manage to. Agile development helps you quantify the risk better.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Harmony and Apathy

In a 1997 article entitled, How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight, Eisenhardt, Kahwajy and Bourgeois make the case that the absence of conflict is not harmony, it's apathy. They talk about healthy conflict versus interpersonal conflict. Healthy conflict explores options and leads to better understanding. Interpersonal conflict involves emotions which block efficient and effective resolution.

They note a number of attributes that executive teams with good conflict management skills have; first and foremost is management with data. In the absence of good data, they point out, executives waste time in pointless debate over opinions. I have personally seen such a spiral; it is difficult to break free from that, especially when the opinions are strongly held, because then gathering data is perceived as a waste of time.

They also point out that humor is strikingly absent from teams which demonstrated high interpersonal conflict. The natural question here is whether this is cause or effect. I am a large fan of humor, it tends to defuse tension, even if contrived. People appreciate it. However, once your environment is plagued with high interpersonal conflict, it might just be that it is no longer fun, and therefore not funny either.

The factor that led me to the article, is what they refer to as balanced power structures. To minimize interpersonal conflict, they say, the CEO has to wield ultimate power, but the executives all participate in strategic decisions, and each has power over their functional areas. The opposite of this is a "power vacuum".

I really like their advice on how to build a team that deals with conflict well. It seems like it could be almost as effective with management of peers in the case of a power vacuum, or from above. Their last line: "often, what passes for consensus is really disengagement".

Don't let your reports or peers off too early or easily, and work to remove the emotion.