Problem Solving in the Corporate World

Every business, irrespective of its publicly claimed vision and mission, has a sole purpose: to thrive financially. This fundamental ‘law’ of survival for any business small or large, although trivial, is easily forgotten by many of its employees.

With the entrepreneurship wave gaining more momentum, many authors have shifted their focus towards what I will call ‘corporate reform’ and the disruption of classical management models. One cannot but notice the growth in the number of books discussing how to start and grow a new enterprise, how to enhance one’s recruitment strategies, how to build better products for end-users, how to create and maintain a culture of creativity and productivity, how to provide better services, so on and so forth. And the focus on topics related to the corporate world has diminished.

Yet it remains a matter of fact that market dominance is still maintained by large enterprises in numerous areas and the probability of finding a job in a large institution is still much higher than finding one in a startup. At the end of the day, one of the main exit strategies for startups is an acquisition by a large entity.

This is all to say the following. If you work for a large entity, specifically if you are a manager at any level, you know quite well that 80% of your time is spent on politics and the remaining 20% on getting things done. Everyone is trying to climb the pyramid. Where you position yourself matters.

Indulge me for a moment.

blocker vs growth chart

Each company has a specific set of KPIs (Key performance indicators) that it religiously tracks over specific periods of time. The growth of a large enterprise cannot be rendered in such a simple manner as the chart above, but this is simply used to illustrate a point.

The up and down arrows linked to the growth line (in blue) represent 2 different types of managers or a single manager using 2 different strategies on 2 different occasions. One (arrow pointing down) refers to the manager who wants to implement a certain agenda that is in the best interest of the business but influences the short-term growth negatively (for example, pushing for a large investment in a cost center). The other (arrow pointing upward) refers to the manager who wants to implement an agenda that is in the best interest of the business and contributes positively to the growth.

Do not position yourself as the former manager. And by position, I mean do your homework to ‘sell’ the agenda in a manner that makes you look like you’re heavily invested in maintaining a positive growth. This is a tricky matter. Usually the dilemma presents itself when the project falls into the long-term return on investment (ROI) category.

No one wants to see a dip in his (her) charts.

Another scenario where the same situation presents itself is when a more senior manager is pushing for a project to fulfill a certain agenda without having a deep understanding of the technical details associated with it. If the reporting manager does not have the necessary persuasive or argumentative skills he will try to respond to them with a blocker. Usually, the blocker being additional superfluous cost. This play will position the reporting manager in the first category (showcased above by the arrow pointing down). He (or she) might be right, and the agenda, while valid from a business perspective, might have a large risk associated with it making the business aspect not worth pursuing. However, instead of proposing alternatives more creative solutions or graciously presenting the risks leading to a more informed decision by the senior manager, she (or he) presents a blocker instead.

This is how corporate battles are lost before they even start.

Is this choice of a strategy indicative of poor management skills? Not necessarily. I’ve seen this happen numerous times with great managers. The poor play could be completely circumstantial or simply lack of experience. It could also be due to an overload in this manager’s bucket list or an underestimation of a senior manager’s power and influence.

As a rule of thumb, look at the offer you are presenting and assess in which category it makes you fall. Massage your response and enhance your selling skills. Do not respond to a problem-solving request with a blocker.

 

The Daunting Shackles

It is very strange, borderline depressing the feeling you get when a million and one ideas are flowing in your head but you’re not able to develop a single one of them. A hint of achievement and a fake sense of accomplishment accompany the act of jotting down these ideas on a notebook of some sort, drawing a few diagrams and laying it all to eternal hibernation. None seem so clear to drive you to pursue them yet all have a certain flare of potential that drives you mad, if not, insane.

You start wondering, why not? Why am I not able to effectively work on any of them? Why am I not able to pursue what shakes my intellect and drives a mesmerizing excitement in my head?

The answers start flowing in… None satisfactory but all so real. Loans, mortgage, family, financial stability, the economy, time, pressure of the day job, deadlines, deliverables, power drain, few elements of reality among many, many other uncontrollable barriers. You lay down that notebook with a strong feeling of anxiety and despair. The ‘daunting shackles of reality’ have bitten you again.

Quite often, an idea seems so good that you forcibly spare a few hours of what’s left of your evenings to actively engage in doing some research of what’s out there, developing a proof of concept or a rushed prototype. Sometimes, you develop a feeling of: ‘fuck if I care’, driving you to start tackling the business aspect of your idea, looking for some empirical evidence, with a shred of hope that it would be strong enough for you to let go of what’s holding you back and embark on the journey of the unknown. Yet again, the crazier the idea the smaller the needle becomes, and ever so larger the haystack becomes.

Many times, you wonder, how did my life reach this uncontrollable state? Where is that ‘freedom’ that I protected for so many years? When did it, disappear? When have I become so dependent on so many things that I cannot let go of? Why the hell am I so helpless in the attempt to pursue what ‘I care about’? Of course, the answers are not to be found because all the reasons that drove the decision making process are long gone, vanished. Yet, you’re stuck battling the consequences.

Have I crossed the threshold of no return? Will I ever make it? Will I ever be able to develop the chance of tinkering and doing what I enjoy, irrespective of how good am I at it? It’s ironic how as a kid, we used to believe that adulthood equated freedom. In some sense, that statement is far from the truth, yet so close.

With all that’s said and done, I used to joke with a colleague that ‘the only way up is down’. Funny how, now, I feel that this joke seems to be the only logical path to pursue.

P.S: I’m not a fan of posts reflecting helplessness and a victimization aspect, the purpose of this post is to describe a commonly shared, but not so spoken of, state of mind.

The key ingredient of success: Motivation? Creativity? Perfectionism? No.

Maybe the title is a bit vague and this specific topic has been used, abused and dwelt upon by so many. Nevertheless, I believe if the topic is to be treated from one’s personal experience and perspective value can be found.

Many claim that motivation, creativity, perfectionism, work life balance and many other hacks and shortcuts are keys to success or at least achievement. Articles keep pouring in the online streams with stories about leveraging different key ingredients of success. There’s a lot of truth in them, but a component is missing. Discipline.

Let’s ignore the negative connotation associated with discipline because here I’m talking about Self-Discipline: willpowerself motivation despite irregular emotional states, hard workpersistenceendurancecapacity augmentationperseveranceobjectivity, personal rectification of inadequate behavior. In short “The Hard Way”.

We keep looking for these magical shortcuts that promise life changing results submerging ourselves into an incapacitative state of mental numbness and non fruitful, never ending search for a non existing ultimate solution.

I have been writing code for a decade now, there simply are no shortcuts in this endeavor whatsoever! It’s a never-ending hardcore training journey that requires one to constantly keep pushing the boundaries over and over again. It has been and still is very daunting at times, boring at others and painful even (the countless overnights spent starring at the screen). If it weren’t for self-discipline enriching a goal oriented mindset I developed, I would have failed miserably. The same applies to many other aspects of my life: My projects, startups, research, implementation of ideas even writing this and other blog posts etc…

The only way for acquiring this skill, I call it a skill because you need to develop it, hone it, harness its power and keep pushing it without ever giving up or making exceptions, starts with a decision. It’s not a short path, it’s a long one so be prepared.

Step 1: Decision
It starts here. Start now, as soon as you finish reading this post, start immediately. Do not postpone, do not procrastinate.

Step 2: Trial and Error
It will never work out from the first trial. Keep that in mind. It takes time, keep iterating.

Step 3: Making no exception
We are emotional beings and we have this powerful instinct to protect and shield ourselves from whatever we deem is harmful or unpleasant. For you to reach advanced levels of self-discipline, you cannot make exceptions! Reduce them to a bare minimum. If you fail, go back to step 1 and start all over again quickly. Do not let it drag.

Step 4: Acknowledging the achievements and the failures
The sense of achievement is what keeps me going personally. Hard work that is rewarded (in so many different ways) is my positive reinforcement that I try to maximize as much as possible. Although the result is not always guaranteed and hiccups are due to occur, during these bad times, do not quit. Keep pushing.

I failed many times at reaching my self-set goals. I will fail more. However I succeeded in so many others and overachieved beyond my wildest imagination.

The Ultimate Creativity Test: Data Entry!

“The Nightmare” All hell has broken loose…

Let’s go right into the core of the discussion. During the recruitment phase many developers look great on paper, they are impressive during the interview, they excel in the programming challenges or exercises, seem very qualified etc…

Yet, there’s this period of time where a project really hits the point of no return: deadline was communicated to the client, lots of features are yet to be added, bugs are popping up right and left, the 24 hours a day seem no longer enough, bringing more resources is not a viable option because of the overhead required to assign tasks to them, emails, emails and more emails, management is breathing on your neck, status reports, in short all hell has broken loose, let’s call it “The Nightmare”. And right at the bottom of that list or backlog, there’s this tiny underestimated data entry task that you cannot assign to your main developers because they have much more important things to do, YET this data is vital to the project and to the end users eventually.

That pesky data entry task

The reason I gave the above (real life) example is to say, that during “The Nightmare” event, creativity and resourcefulness in solving problems in an efficient way become the essence of your lifeline. At that point in time, with barely enough stamina to write decent code, taking enough time to devise a proper plan to handle all the tasks on your task-list, especially the underestimated ones, is not an option.

Usually, the stupidest method to handle this data entry task is calling the most junior developer you have on the team and brainwash him into thinking that finishing it is what’s going to land Apollo 13 on the moon.

Hooray… Problem solved. NOPE

First day passes, the junior developer is blazing fast, 50 records are in the database already! Wow, this is going faster than anticipated!

Not so fast, the next day the number drops by 20%, the day after 60% and keeps on dropping until that developer quits, and if (s)he doesn’t, (s)he will be so demotivated and then we have a new problem.

Theoretical example of the deterioration of the speed of data entry per day
Theoretical example of the deterioration of the speed of data entry per day

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The real life scenario might not be so dramatic, other more “brilliant” solutions will be devised such as bringing another junior developer to do the task! Now they can alternate whenever one of them feels bad! (*Sarcasm)

Let’s get back on track

I’ve probably taken the discussion way too far to emphasize the importance of the following:

  1. In the Nightmare situation we tend to forget that one of the core functions of a computer and programming is to replace human beings in executing daunting tasks more efficiently.
  2. We also wrongly believe that writing a script or a small program to execute the data entry is not cost efficient and doing it manually is.
  3. We overestimate the complexity of analyzing the data and extracting patterns and falsely accuse the data to be random and dismiss any attempt to extract a repetitive model.

Now the role of creativity and resourcefulness shines. For every belittled developer, who took a data entry task and transformed it into a fun data analysis challenge, Kudos. The appraisal is not for rediscovering the obvious (that computers are there to alleviate us from boring tasks) but for the efficient use of their time.

The Creativity Test

With the above said, I strongly believe that a data entry challenge to developers who are undergoing an interview is a good indicator of resourcefulness and creativity. Throw a daunting task at your potential developer employee and see how brilliantly they figure out a solution for it. The efficiency of the solution is highly correlated with the ingenuity of the mind behind it (this is simply a real life observation).

No matter how theoretically competent a developer is, no matter how much experience he has on paper, no matter how many large scale projects they have tackled, if they did not master the art of leveraging their knowledge especially when “the shit hits the fan”, all the information they possess is simply a hidden/locked up treasure.

Conclusion

A lot of theories already debate the boosting elements of creativity, such as locking down the resources one can use for the execution, zoning out etc… But these are topics of later discussions. The beauty of data entry tests is that they can be morphed to discover mesmerizing treasures or malicious booby-traps.