A Core Issue

The Wall Street Journal this week, published a piece about the impact of “bad apples,” or toxic, lazy, or incompetent employees on the work place. It makes sense that a bad employee affects an organization more than a good employee. It’s basically the second law of thermodynamics for corporations. There is a tendency toward maximum entropy (disorder), so the the bad employee is simply going with the flow. A good employee is fighting against that tendency.

I’ve seen this in action in the past, in a number of environment, both big and small. In smaller organizations, the problem is generally dealt with more rapidly, although there was one individual years ago who was hired on reputation, but who’s only skill appeared to be criticizing the work of others. This went on for a while until someone in management realized that he hadn’t actually produced anything, and then he was gone. In larger corporations, toxic or incompetent employees tend to stick around, in larger numbers, for a much longer time. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is that HR and legal departments are extremely nervous. The slightest threat of litigation if not every i is dotted and t crossed. Therefore, elaborate processes are established, which allow the employee in question to just do well enough to not be terminated, but not actually become one of the strong employees. There are other reasons, as well, such as decisions being made fairly high up the management chain where the decision maker is too far removed from the actual operations, and a generally useless performance review process. I’ve even heard of situations where senior management makes ranking and merit increase decisions before evaluations have been written, thus ensuring that the direct supervisors have little input in the process and thereby eliminating one very effective tool for managing difficult employees.

What is interesting is that this situation, of a large number of bad apples, especially in larger organizations, came up at the end of last year, as I discussed here. The one issue I haven’t discussed regarding causes of the existence of bad apples, is that of training. There are plenty of bad apples who have absolutely no interest in improvement, but there are those employees who either start out wanting to improve, or wake up and smell the coffee and come to realize that they need to improve their skills. Unfortunately, especially in larger corporations, where actual process improvement to drive the lowering of costs is out of the question, the solutions are often the following: restrict travel, restrict cell phones, restrict training, and outsource. All of these force the short term improvement in the bottom line that drives most CEO’s. All of these, at the same time, can cripple in the long term.

So what does all of this have to do with the mission of InfoSynergetics? Well the first is simply a reality check. If one is going to engage in a project in any organization, especially a larger one, you have to be prepared to cope with the bad apples. I find it most useful to attempt to engage them head on. If they are toxic, don’t let them succeed with you. I had one situation where a somewhat toxic person involved with a project I was running would come in my office almost looking to pick a fight over some imagined slight. The more I refused to engage in either combat or becoming defensive, and merely sought to solve their problems, the quicker the relationship improved and the toxicity became less prominent. For employees who might not be very skilled, they present a worst case scenario from a systems standpoint. How can I design a system that will allow them to be functional in spite of their lack of skills? In some cases, the lack of skills is not actually in the area they get paid for, but more in the IT arena. While these people hardly fit the category of bad apples (they are usually very effective in their disciplines), they represent a similar challenge from a design perspective – and thus can help in the creation of a truly useful system.

So, I guess that the moral of the story is that while bad apples can be a drain on an organization, from a project and systems perspective, we can find them to be, if not beneficial, then at least not inhibitory in successful project execution. We need to anticipate their presence, and be prepared to adapt appropriately.

The Legacy of Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs passed away yesterday. There are probably few people in at least the western world who don’t know that. Like many thousand of other bloggers, I’m left pondering the Jobs legacy.

Like many of those thousands of bloggers, much of what has happened in my career (at least the good parts), may not have happened if it weren’t for Apple and the philosophy of the Macintosh and subsequent products. Note that I said the philosophy. It wasn’t really about the machines per se. Although they are a fitting tribute to Jobs’ creativity and approach to life, that isn’t where his real legacy lies.

In the mid 90’s, the San Diego biotech world underwent a dramatic shift. What had been a predominantly Macintosh world was lured into the Novell/Lotus/Microsoft realm. While short term hardware costs were reduced, to this day I’m not convinced that the loss in productivity that accompanied this change was ever offset by the short term cost savings. Such is life in the modern business era. Shortsightedness is the mantra, even if it’s not intentionally so. I, unfortunately, had to go along for the ride. At least part of the ride. I kept a Mac for a number of years, as the core systems of the department I had created were running on an Apple server. The tool I used, 4D provided what was, I believe, the first truly, and easily cross-platform development environments. You could host the solution on a PC or a Mac, and serve it to either platform. 4D, of course, was significantly influenced by Apple back in the day – even hoping to become the database standard for the platform. It was that influence, I think, that allowed 4D to be such a powerful tool in the hands of entrepreneurs. With little budget, and no full time developers, you could put in place extremely powerful solutions.

So that brings me back to the philosophy thing. Apple has long been about aesthetics. Steve, in his commencement address to Stanford, told the story of how his “dropping in” on a calligraphy class ultimately led to the beautiful typography we have on personal computers and other devices today. As any of those who lived in the command line world of DOS, the switch to a pleasing interface, especially for the non-techie folks, had a massive impact on how people worked. For the first time it felt as if the computer was a tool meant to empower the user – not a task master under who’s control we slaved. That is where the real legacy comes. The entire mindset that computers must truly benefit us in order to be valuable. That means that they must be intuitive, in the words of Steve Jobs, they should “just work.” In the words of a book on interface design I’m reading, “don’t make me think.” My job is primarily not about computers per se. In the early years of my career, my job technically had nothing to do with computers. My brain power needed to be focused on solving business challenges. Every second spent trying to figure out how to make the &@!*& computer work was a waste of time.

This same is true of most business people. To the degree that developers of software and hardware follow this philosophy, their customers benefit, and they will succeed. To the degree that they don’t… This has been true of Apple, as well as others. In the field that I’ve predominantly been involved with for the past 10 years or so, that of LIMS, I’ve seen many shifts in the top product. The previous front runner didn’t go away, they just failed to follow this basic philosophy, and fell to the back of the pack. Ultimately they end up acquired by someone else. It will happen again, and again, until somebody finally gets it.

The legacy that Steve leaves us, and the challenge as well, is to continue to make computer technology a thing that benefits mankind. It serves no purpose on it’s own, and that is something Steve, I think, would want us to remember.