McKnight pinciples (1948) – or why it is important to think

 “As our business grows, it becomes increasingly necessary to delegate responsibility and to encourage men and women to exercise their initiative. This requires considerable tolerance. Those men and women, to whom we delegate authority and responsibility, if they are good people, are going to want to do their jobs in their own way.

“Mistakes will be made. But if a person is essentially right, the mistakes he or she makes are not as serious in the long run as the mistakes management will make if it undertakes to tell those in authority exactly how they must do their jobs.

“Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative. And it’s essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow.”

Bored bored bored bored

The more astute among my gentle readers will have spotted that I have not written much about the company for which I purport to work lately.

There are two reasons for this. One is that it hasn’t been very interesting. Life has carried on, with the dreaded rain of brown envelopes, asking for the normal collections for birth and marriage (though not death). There has been canoeing down the Wye for charity and people’s children running marathons for other people’s children who have (take your pick) need of a mouth-operated wheelchair, a cancer ward, or a memorial charity for drug rehabilitation.

I could discuss the difficulty of making people redundant and the effect it has on company morale, or perhaps whether the privatisation of the NHS is going to bring us in as much money as we hope. But the second reason that I haven’t written about the company is because currently I am totally and utterly bored by it. Everyone is working very hard, and their little foibles are more concealed than usual. It is intriguing to see who is browsing which websites on the run-up to Christmas: is it amazon or ebay? Hunting for a job or trying to move house?

I myself am spending more time researching the latest discussions on the benefits of U/X thinking than is required for working through the tests I have devised for the latest products.

I don’t know whether it is the time of year, the shortage of daylight hours, or just an overwhelming weariness with the futility of life and the avarice and laziness of a vast proportion of the populace.
Perhaps it will improve when the child has its wheelchair, and a few more teenage souls are reclaimed for hard-working family values.

Come cheer me. remind me that applied cognitive psychology is not merely about making it easier for people to do what you would like them to do, but can also be used to, somehow, encourage people in those seasonal pastimes of good will towards mankind.

Net promoter score (NPS) – or how do you think about customers.

First of all, I’ll start with the credits: The Net Promoter Score, or NPS┬« was developed by Fred Reichheld, Bain & Company, and Satmetrix in 2003. (See The One Number you Need to Grow). It assumes that all customers can be divided into three categories: Promoters, Passives, and Detractors.

It seems that the big idea was who you should concentrate your marketing on. There are your loyal recommenders, who will buy your stuff pretty much whatever, there are the people who don’t really care one way or another, and there are the people who had a bad experience with you. Given a limited budget, where should you concentrate your efforts?

You will notice some sympathy with triage. I think the human brain is naturally comfortable dividing things into three groups. Like Gaul. (For anyone who has neither read Asterix or De Bello Gallico, that is a reference to Caesar. Caesar’s title is not a reference to his summer holiday in beautiful Gaul, but to the Gaulish wars. I love faux amis, or in this case, armies.) Back to triage. This used to be the battlefield technique used to decide who to save and who to leave. The ones that you saved were the ones that you could save and who would not survive if you did nothing. How does this relate to customers?

You don’t want to spend much effort on your loyal supporters. They don’t need it. You don’t want them to resent you (see the bad publicity that accrues when people realise that new customers are getting better deals than old faithfuls) but you don’t need to woo them either.

The people who hate you hate you. There are those who bad-mouth you, which has a major effect on your business, and those who only chose you because you were the last one left in the playground. Who can you safely sacrifice and who is worth turning around?

This is where one number doesn’t cut it. Bye bye NPS. It’s a fair measure if all the bodies on your battlefield are privates, but we all know that what counts is the power that the body wields. You’re obviously better getting a loyal high-spender than a low-spender, turning round the opinion of someone who whose opinion is listened to than that of a dead end Derek. The thing is, you can never be quite sure who that is. First, you can see who in the middle section has money and is worth investing in. Secondly, you can see what the cost of attempting to fix the problems are. If it’s going to cost more to fix than you’re going to gain in sales or spend in support, then consider leaving the problem as a straightforward problem. People do it all the time. Look at the list of known bugs. Look at that well-known bug category of “won’t be fixed”. So long as it isn’t a deal breaker, you can ignore it.

Finally, be honest to yourself. Remember that everyone likes to think that they’re important. If you can convert someone, they may turn out to be your strongest supporter.

The arthritic kitchen

First exciting information. I have an MSc certificate. With a hologram.
Second less exciting information. I have early-onset arthritis. In my right hand (I’m right-handed). As I said to one of my friends, this wasn’t in my life script.

There are many good things though. I’m not saying that in a “cancer is a gift” sort of way, but in a “well, if this had to happen” sort of way.

First of all, I realised it was happening while I was designing the kitchen rather than afterwards. This meant that I chose nice big handles for my cupboards, rather than those invisible finger-tip numbers. Note well, kitchen designers: if your hands are swollen and painful, you cannot hold those dainty handles, your pinch grip is not what it used to be.

Secondly, I can still type.

Thirdly, pain-killers are brilliant.

Fourthly, I can find it funny that I’m running my hand sensuously along the cold edges of the cabinets in the supermarket because it eases the pain. Hot bodies, though probably more appealing, are less capable in the anaesthetising department.

I’ve had a functional kitchen for nearly a week now.(yes, that’s terribly terribly exciting). Big handles (remember the big handles), iroko worktops, soft-close shiny white units.

I’m already discovering lots of things I got wrong. The most crucial of these is the distance from the oven to the sink. It’s delightful, there is space in the kitchen, I can have friends in and all that jazz, but if, as I have done, you suddenly realise that you cannot carry a pot of boiling pasta to the sink to drain one-handed because it hurts too much, those extra steps are a total waste of space.

Next week, the exciting limitations of posh kitchen utensils. Send me your incredibly expensive item, and I’ll review it from an ergonomic arthritic perspective. I’ll even show you the hologram on my MSc certificate. If you don’t, I’ll just have to review what I already own, starting, perhaps, with the Samsung fridge.

And finally, assignment of blame

I was discussing the natural progression of projects with an experienced friend. Here are the real project stages:

  1. Planning (have an idea)
  2. Estimation – always wildly optimistic
  3. Design – this stage may be done while implementing
  4. Implementation – project starts to overrun
  5. Private discussion with customer introduces a few trivial changes
  6. Design is finally written down – this stage may be omitted if time pressing
  7. Changes are discovered to double the project time and budget
  8. Project starts over-running severely
  9. Features start being cut, but are replaced by new features
  10. Project now massively over-running
  11. Features cut again
  12. Project released in beta
  13. Steady set of bug fixes
  14. Blame assigned
  15. Testing carried out – this stage can be omitted if customers desperate
  16. Innocent punished

Obviously this is different from the Design – evaluate – implement – evaluate – test – evaluate cycle that I learnt during my MSc, but I fear that even that included the two vital stages: assignment of blame and punishment of the innocent.
The easiest technique for blame assignment is, of course, to blame the absent. They are safely out of the way, and it will not harm them. Second is to blame the customer and the boss. This does not damage the team. Finally, blame may be placed on whoever appears most vulnerable to it. This has no relation to responsibility

Costing projects

I’m very aware that I should put keywords in my blog. I’m also aware that I’m not attempting to monetise my blog. Anyone who reads it regularly, leave me a comment and I will be most grateful. Anyone who doesn’t read it regularly: you’re missing out.

I was comparing the fantasy of Agile management to the joys of converting a house.

Firstly, no matter how tightly you plan your project, it won’t work. The tyres get punctures, the render doesn’t go off because it’s cold, the plaster sets too quickly because it’s warm and so on and so on. One of the illusions that computers peddle is that values are fixed and unchangeable. Over years of experience one discovers that an apple this year is not the same as an apple last year: it may be smaller, sweeter, less common and so on and so forth. In the same way, programmers get ill, libraries get updated, life turns out to be a little difficult. It’s fine if you’re building on a greenfield site, but in the real world you may not be.

So we are dealing a non-representative series of events. Estimates are based on normal – that frictionless set of billiard balls or that perfectly rational economic creature… Life is imperfect, unbalanced, frustrating, and driven by chance. People on the top want to believe that it is driven by skill. They wish to confirm that it is their qualities that have given them their privilege, and others’ failures that have denied it. When talking about becoming a premier league footballer, people are willing to admit that some people are born with more talent than others. You rarely hear the fact that given a couple of X chromosomes, you’ll never make it. One sperm over another. Your chances ruled out, just like that.

Given the innate unpredictability of life, you need a reserve fund to cover the likely overruns in time and cost and temper whenever you’re planning a project. You also need a contingency plan.
This is one of the things I find most interesting. What do you do when a project has overrun? At what point are you prepared to say “pull the plug/cut the costs”?

It is my belief that life is much simpler if you have a hard deadline, chosen in advance, such that when you go over it, the project is pulled automatically. I would be curious to see how many things would get sacrificed if you knew that at fifty per cent above the original estimate, or at twenty per cent above the original time, consequences dropped in.

When I was in a partnersip, I rekember bidding for a contract. We honestly told the buyers “It’s not possible to do y in the time, but we can do x”. We didn’t get the contract. We were correct, of course, but people want to hear that they can do y in time t. Anyone who says “No” will lose out to anyone who says “yes”. You therefore need heavy penalties for misleading on contracts.

There is less temptation to gain a contract bby being over-optimistic if you know there is an automatic penalty for getting it wrong. But how may customers prefer illusions to truth?

Project management and priorities

As detailed before, I have the hardback book (it’s green – anyone else remember the Porridge quote). It has pages and pages of lists, all neatly sorted into four sections, interspersed with scribbles, diagrams of flues, back of the list calculations and so forth.

Approximately once a day we have the discussion.

The discussion consists of:

1. What can we cross off yesterday’s/this morning’s to do list?
2. Oh, what did you do then?
3. Oh

Long pause

4. Well, I’ll add them to the list and cross them off.
5. Where are they in the list of prioritites?
6. OK, these are my priorities
7. What do we absolutely have to get done before we move in.
8. OK, we can survive without a shower.

Heated drawing up of two lists: one of things that must be done and one of things that are nice to have
We end up with three things crossing the line (insulation, decoration and chimney cowls if you must know).

9. So when you say do floor, what exactly does that involve?

Calmer and much longer list of all the components of the “things that must be done” list. During the discussion, we discover other things that must be added to said list.

What user interface design point am I demonstrating (or any other point)? I would say that it’s a technique that is a refinement of Bill Buxton’s Sketching User experience.

It is only when you have your ideas out there in some form that you can discuss them. I cannot stress this enough.

What I have in my head is non-negotiable because nobody knows about it.
What I say is somewhat negotiable, but it is often not clear what I mean.
What I sketch or model or put on paper is utterly negotiable because there is something to negotiate over.

Here is a mock-up of the stairs to the basement. It’s a starting-point.
They’re not on the priority list though.

Houses and the Harvard method

Do you know about the Harvard method?  I’m not talking citations or negotiation; I’m talking making lists. I was told it by a friend of mine and it’s the best thing ever. (That, obviously is a wild exaggeration. I can think of many things that are much better, including champagne, my daughter’s GCSE results, the smell of jasmine on a summer evening, etc etc, but in the breathlessly excited tone that is required for this sort of blogging, I will let the statement stand.)

Step 1: You take a piece of paper, preferably A4 or letter but it can be any size

Step 2: You divide it into three or four sections using a pen, pencil or other writing implement of your choice

Step 3: You write your list

The amazing and wonderful thing is that the process of thinking “which section shall I add this item to” causes you to sort the list items on the fly, and helps you to prioritise.

Because that point is, after all, the key struggle in project planning. How do you set your priorities? Do set priorities, you need to know what your goals are. And if you haven’t recognised your goals, then they change and flip around and mess up the priorities. I’ve been reading a book by Gavin Essler, “Lessons from the Top” (no, I am not going to cite that correctly in italic and publisher and blah, I’ll give you a link, isn’t that enough? And it’s not to amazon because of their behaviour on UK tax – correct but amoral.)

Sorry, got slightly distracted their. Essler quotes Alistair Campbell as saying that the key questions are: objective, strategy, tactics. And if you lose sight of the objective and get distracted by the cleverness of the tactics, you will fail. The tactics must always be subordinate to the strategy which must always be subordinate to the objective.

This is true for all projects.

An example of how it goes wrong (substituting stategy for objective) is to think that the point of the house conversion is to have a beautiful house. It’s not. It’s to have a happy family life. If you get stuck on the beautiful house bit, then you invest all your resources into the house, lose money, have enormous rows and go bankrupt, get divorced and everything goes phut. Having a nice place to live is a way of assisting the objective. And the method of converting the house to make it a nice place to live is merely a tactic.

So when you sit down in the morning or the evening with your piece of paper (or in our case a hardback book) and draw the lines on it, and start sorting the items in your list. Think clearly, think long-term. Some of it really doesn’t matter that much, but sometimes, short-term goals will hinder that final objective.

Feature development and house conversion

I’ve not been blogging for a while because we have bought a fixer-upper house which needed a fair amount of work. I can’t help but be struck by the horrifying similarities between house conversion and software development.

  1. The estimates are always too short: people calculate the work period, and even when they’re being generous, they forget to allow for being pulled off onto another more important (paying) job, set up costs, or the time spent searching for the library routine/thermostat which will do the job you want rather than all the others which nearly do the thing you want.
  2. The code/wiring/plumbing that you have to interface with is always spaghetti and it takes much longer than it should do.
  3. The code/drainage/etc that you have to interface with has not been documented and you will need to follow it through twisty strange paths and try and work out where the spurs go.
  4. Even if it used to be fine, old code/wiring/plumbing does not match with current building standards/operating systems and has to be re-done.
  5. Good programmers/builders etc cannot resist the temptation to do something well rather than well enough. This can take a long time.
  6. Ambitious heads of engineering/house owners will suddenly have a brilliant idea about how something could be done better and require the whole thing to be re-designed half way through. They may well be correct but it adds a great deal to the time and cost.
  7. It is disheartening to see no apparent progress.
  8. There is a struggle between designing a usable interface and a functional system. Sometimes the people who have to do the extra work to make something easy and pleasurable to use rather than the way they’d first thought of it can be resistant to extra work.

So, given the fact that all the engineers/builders involved are intelligent craftsmen, how can the process be less painful?

I decided to apply some of the principles of Agile project management to the building project.

In Agile management, there is this fantasy (and it is a fantasy in many cases) that you can work on a discrete feature and get it through design and test in a solid blast, close it off, and then go onto the next thing. There are various buzz words around it, such as the scrum, the daily stand-up meeting when everyone talks through how they’ve got on and what needs to be done.

It’s not a place for novices.

Solidified thought and an Inkscape review

Life has been busy lately. I’ve been revising the test schedules; not my absolutely favourite thing but better than a poke in the eye with a blunt fish. After the first desperate loops round the build, build broken, build buggy cycle, we have reached the stage of catch-up that we should have been in to start with, where features are being cleaned and polished, and software updates are being released every couple of days.

Apart from work, I have bought a house, and have been using Inkscape to plan the structural changes. It’s a nice tool. I started using Autocad Architect, because I can get it free as a student, but it isn’t merely using a sledgehammer to crack a nut; it’s using a Boeing Dreamliner to commute down the road to work. Yes it’s possible, and no doubt once it’s all set up it would be quicker than walking, but the learning curve is so steep and time-absorbing that I’ll just slip my shoes on for now.

OK, why do I like Inkscape?
It’s pretty basic, but it’s a proper vector graphics program, and it has all the things that I like using, in terms of converting objects to paths, grouping, layering etc. It lays things out properly with co-ordinates, and gives you accurate measurements.

There are some things that I’m pissy about – such as the way it seems to scale things proportionately when you don’t want it to, and I look forward to discovering about using 3-D stuff.

You can import bitmaps, and export bitmaps, so I’ve done some beautiful scale drawings of walls and windows so I can do accurate sketches of the planned mural.

All right, I admit it. The whole Inkscape exercise was a procrastination. It enabled me to spend a whole evening doing scale drawings. Possibly even two, and I haven’t done a single sketch on them. I have, however, borrowed a nice large book of tree photographs from the library. Get me!