Archive for the 'Work' Category

Virtual Teams and Conflict Resolution

Wednesday, May 30th, 2007

Everyone knows that when you bring a group of people together to work on a project that there will be conflict. In the workplace how this conflict is resolved will have an impact on the success of any team. Small group theory shows that there are five main ways that teams deal with conflict: avoidance; accommodation; competition; collaboration; and compromise.

Competitive behaviour can be seen when one person tries to force their views on the other members of the team. It also happens when one member of the team is more interested in their own goals than those of the teams and as a result starts to withhold information or become very negative about any solution that isn’t their own. Not surprisingly this has a negative impact on the team causing friction and division which stops the team from bonding and results in poorer team performance. What I’ve been fascinated to learn is that competition can actually be beneficial in virtual teams.

Why should this be any different in a virtual team?

There are a variety of different ways to show your competitive nature, for example the tone of your voice, your body language, and the actual words you use. In electronic communication these social cues are removed and it’s much harder to tell the emotional state of the writer. If I write an email stating “I don’t think that solution will work” it could be seen as a very reasonable response. If I’m talking to you in person and I say the same thing in a terse voice while looking at you as if you are a complete idiot, my response is going to have a negative impact on you. So while I may exhibit competitive behaviour all the time it may not be perceived by the other team members when only electronic means are used to convey it. If the team members don’t perceive the behaviour it doesn’t have a negative impact on them.

This shows why the negative impact of the behaviour is lessened but why does it actually become beneficial?

It happens because we mistake it for something else. We think that the person is participating more in the team instead of recognising them as someone who has their own agenda for the team. It doesn’t cause the same division or resentment.

Mind you, it’s just as well that this behavioural trait doesn’t have the same impact on virtual teams as it does on co-located teams: it’s much easier to show your competitive side when you have a computer to hide behind.

Listening: an important management skill

Tuesday, May 29th, 2007

Today I’ve been reading about listening skills and how we convey our interest and attention. To be an effective manager you need to spend a lot of your time listening to your team. When someone is speaking it is important to show your interest because it is one way to form and build a relationship.

Body language is a key element to this. One aspect of that is eye contact. It is important to use the correct amount of eye contact, though it’s very difficult to tell what the correct amount is. Too much eye contact and you are going to make the listener think that you are threatening. Too little eye contact and you are going to appear as if you aren’t actually listening at all.

This is a complex enough area when you are dealing with people from the same culture. From various things I’ve read it appears that the British are taught to look into people’s eyes when they listening. People who don’t do this can be considered to be untrustworthy or unfriendly. Of course they could be just be shy. However, in Japan it is considered rude to look into the eyes of someone who has a higher position than you do – whether they are your boss, your teacher, or your elder.

If body language is so important in showing that you are interested and actively listening to someone, how do we deal with this in the virtual workspace? Many people now interact with their team mates primarily through electronic means. When you are talking to some one over Skype, how can you tell if they are listening to you? Does this make it much harder to manage a virtual team because you are missing one of the tools for relationship building?

Management – a skill in its own right

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

Why do so many software companies treat management as if it’s something that people are just born knowing how to do? It seems that the standard career path is – programmer, senior programmer, team leader, project manager, and then senior manager. This is just ludicrous. What is it about software that makes us think that the only people who can manage a software team are people who, given enough time, could sit down and write all the software themselves?

I believe that I learnt how to manage by working with musicians and not because of anything I was taught whilst working as a programmer. I did learn that programmers think managers are stupid – which is interesting as nearly all the managers I know in the software industry started their career as programmers. And yes, it is possible for someone who has been a programmer to become a great manager but I believe that this is not the norm.

The skills required for being a manager are not the same as those required for being a programmer. This isn’t a shocking thing and seems almost self-evident. When have you ever seen a university course in programming that had a management module attached to it? The top management skill is probably communication and I don’t mean being able to write a tool that allows you to produce automated emails so you don’t have to respond to idiots. There are so many jokes around the fact that programmers are anti-social and find it easier to communicate via electronic means that it seems possible that programmers are maybe not that good at communication. To be an effective manager you need to be able to understand people and not machines.

I’ve put together a short list of the skills that first come to mind when I think of managers and programmers. As you can see from my lists I can’t see why anyone would think that their senior programmer is the obvious choice for their next manager.

Management Skills

  • Communication
  • Time Management
  • Leadership Ability
  • Delegation
  • Common Sense

Programming Skills

  • Attention to Detail
  • Problem Solving
  • Abstract Thinking
  • Logical Thinking
  • Creativity

Wikis – for fearless information entry

Friday, September 22nd, 2006

Tony’s recent post regarding using a wiki as an accounting system details some of the problems we have had with traditional accounting software and how we have been able to use a wiki to overcome these.

The thing I love most about having information on a wiki is that I can see it from multiple locations. I no longer have to go into the office to use the one machine that holds the accounting information or to check a folder full of paper when I want to know which suppliers need to be paid. Of course the web has given me this ability for years so there must be more to the wiki than that. And there is. I believe the power of the wiki is in how easy it is to use. People actually take the information we receive in the post and put it onto the wiki instead of leaving it in files with a note to work out what to do with it later.

Financial information falls into a class of information that no-one wants to touch. If you want anyone to update your accounting information they usually require specialist training. And some accounting software makes it really hard to change data once it’s been entered. If we had created a web-based accounting system we, like so many others, would probably have ended up recreating something like Sage only with the ability to use this remotely with multiple users. Although this would probably be more useful than the system we used to have we wouldn’t have trained all our staff in how to use it. As we use wikis to store all information all members of staff are comfortable with them and can enter the financial information. We have removed the complexity that used to be involved in entering financial information because it’s no longer seen as a special class of information. It’s just more data about the business that it would be useful to have on the wiki.

It still requires specialist knowledge to understand and make use of the data we are storing to improve the business but now information can be entered easily without the wiki user having to understand how to use nominal, purchase and sales ledgers or to even know what a journal entry is.

Accessible Calendars

Tuesday, November 19th, 2002

I have not found any insurmountable barriers building an accessible site in Movable Type. And every time I discover a new accessibility-enhancing technique, I find that I can easily implement it. And yes, the calendar output is completely configurable using Movable Type

New Systems Never Work

Thursday, November 14th, 2002

The first line of defense is accepting that the new system will fail, possibly in several ways. When I find myself thinking, “I must have this change because I can’t afford failures,” then I’m in big trouble. If I can’t afford some failures, a new system won’t help. And neither will an old one.

Nothing new ever works, but there’s always hope that this time will be different.

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

Enjoying What You Do

Wednesday, November 13th, 2002

Lately, I have been meeting with various people who work for professional service firms. They all seem to lack the same thing – passion. I want to meet people who are passionate about the job their doing. I don’t want to meet lawyers who are less interested in company law than I am!

Success comes from doing what you enjoy. If you don’t enjoy it, how can it be called success?

- David H. Maister, True Professionalism

Business Development

Tuesday, November 12th, 2002

Being good at business development involves nothing more than a sincere interest in clients and their problems, and a willingness to go out and spend the time being helpful to them.

- David H. Maister, True Professionalism

Improving Team Performance

Thursday, November 7th, 2002

I really liked this article which lists ten cheap actions you can take today to improve your IT team’s performance.

However, the one I would like to implement, code in a conference room, wouldn’t be cheap and I certainly couldn’t do it today.

Get a conference room big enough to hold everyone. Put the very best hardware in it. Mix in comfy chairs, both working and lounging. Food is good, too. Make sure there’s plenty of wall room for diagrams, white-boards, and so on.

The Accuracy Unmyth

Thursday, November 7th, 2002

Apart from being an oxymoron, there is a very simple reason why estimates cannot be “accurate” – we simply do not have the data necessary to be accurate. It is a sad fact that the earlier the estimate is made, the less data we have available, and therefore the less “accurate” we can be. The only time we have sufficient data to truly warrant the label “accurate” is at the very end of the project when all the variables have been resolved.

- Phillip Armour, The Business of Software, Communications of the ACM, November 2002, Vol. 45, No 11.