Sunday, July 8, 2018

Expectations and Technical Debt

The Employer's Dilemma

Increasingly we read articles that examine the low US unemployment rate along with the difficulty in finding qualified employees to fill those positions. I recently came across an article that explores some of the reasons that according to author Josh Bersin contribute to the problem and perhaps more importantly, what can be done about them. Here's the full article: The Ugly Side To Today's Low Unemployment Rate.

My Reaction

I read this article at least twice, took notes, tried to gain some sort of overview of what was being said, and came away feeling that while the article was "okay," it was hardly something I would call great or even above average.

What Bersin Said to Me

I actually found two key observations in Bersin's article, but I'm not certain he intended his writing to convey the importance I attach to them.

Expectations and Reality

After itemizing a bunch of statistics that highlight a disappointing state of affairs Bersin notes: "Expectations are sky-high, which of course makes all our jobs harder than ever." This is a key observation. Unfortunately he doesn't catch on that the disparity between expectations and reality is one of the major causes (perhaps the only cause) for disappointment and unhappiness. The disparity certainly contributes to stress. Yet he never questions the expectations, one-half of the equation. He takes expectations as some sort of "given," (they are not) and by implication seems to think we need to find ways to meet them no matter how unreasonable or impossible to attain.

Technical Debt

We then arrive at another key observation: "I think this is caused by many factors (commute time, poor infrastructure, and also re-engineering of work practices), but ultimately it shows a "sloppiness" in the way we run our companies. Why? We are in such a rush to "grow" and hire people to meet demand, we don't always have time to really re-engineer what we're doing to become more efficient." Not particularly profound since we already knew all of that, and certainly not very illuminating to call the cause "sloppiness." What does that mean?

What Bersin has actually identified is more accurately described as "technical debt;" we have delayed until some future time the costs involved in building—transportation, corporate technologies, government systems, roads—a culture and environment that is both sustainable and amenable to the human existence. He then arrives at "We can't fix what's going on in Washington, we can't necessarily fix the commute or the state of traffic - but we have to realize that our focus has to change."

What's to Be Done?

Berson dismisses the idea that we have much control over technical debt and expectations.

Fixing Technical Debt

Well, yes, we can fix what's going on in Washington and we can fix the commute and state of traffic but it will take a long time and serious commitment to pay down the technical debt we have accumulated by our failure to adequately plan. 

Fixing Expectations

When he says we need to change our focus, he comes close to identifying that "other half" of the equation for happiness: expectations.

Recommendations

This is, after all, a piece to promote Bersin's area of expertise (HR mostly) so it's time for the commercial about stuff he can help you attain:

Bersin Says

Bersin finishes up with five ways to address the issues he has enumerated.
  1. Focus on employee productivity and well being. He seems to dwell on stress and yes, stress is bad. I don't think that it requires a major program to deal with however. I'd be interested to see what he has to say about this in detail. I deal with stress every day, and it's not that hard to do.
  2. Get your recruitment house in order. Don't get me started on this! The very notion of HR "screening" applicants implies "keeping people out." If you're really serious about building a solid employee base you should be seeking talent and then trying to see how you can integrate those talented folks into your organization. That's a completely different mindset than most hiring managers and HR people now have. You won't always be successful in crafting a fit, but the shift in approach (remember? change your expectations!) will result in lots of serendipitous discovery.
  3. Take your employee engagement problems very seriously. Do you mean to say that you haven't already been doing that? Shame! (And a pretty obvious thing to say.)
  4. Simplify your technology. Humorously, he recommends fewer communications tools and then enumerates Slack twice in the same sentence. I guess he feels overwhelmed! But it's not so much quantity as quality when it comes to applications. We are so intent on being the first to market that we publish the first app that doesn't crash within the first 3 minutes as the savior of whatever problem we're trying to solve. That rush to the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) is the great danger. Don't think about your technology in terms of number of applications, but how well they are integrated and what your costs of maintenance are. (Remember technical debt? Very important here but not necessarily related to number of applications.) What he really means is that your integrations should ideally be seamless and transparent to users.
  5. Get C-Suite folks to talk to each other about these issues. Well, yeah. You mean they didn't already know that? Why do we pay them so much if they are clueless about the obvious?

Here's What I Say

  • Change your expectations by trying to align your recruiting efforts in ways that serve both candidates and your organizational objectives. If you continue to have expectations that cannot be realized by reality, you are necessarily likely to experience disappointment. On the other hand, if your expectations align with reality and benefit your organization and candidate, your chances for success will dramatically increase.
  • Be aware of technical debt, which I define in an expanded sense to mean that by refusing to invest in employees or supporting infrastructure today you are probably ensuring future difficulties that will have to be solved at a greater expense than if you had simply addressed them immediately. This is not necessarily wrong, but an awareness that today's omissions will at some time have to be corrected at a cost in excess of today's cost should be part of your thinking. Business "borrows" all the time, but the cost of borrowing should be a part of the decision making process.

Changing Your Overview

Try sitting in a comfortable chair with the lights dimmed in a quiet place where you won't be disturbed. (Turn off your cell phone, too.) Close your eyes and breathe very deeply in and exhale very slowly out. Do that for about one or two minutes. Then imagine yourself floating out of your body and looking down at yourself from the ceiling; float up even more, until your above the building; keep floating upward until you can barely see yourself as a small speck on the earth below; keep going until you can see the entire earth and can only approximate where you might still be sitting, deeply relaxed. From your new vantage point, try to imagine what your life might be like if things were different; what would change? What should you be striving to make different? What does your new "global" perspective teach you about problem-solving? And while you're up there, you might just notice some of the stress disappearing as your neck, shoulders and rest of your body unwinds.

When you're ready to return, gently descend back to your chair, open your eyes and have a nice stretch. You might also find that you've brought back some new perspective to solving the problems of technical debt and expectations. Cheers!

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