Micro Versus Macro Solutions

Imagine a person who walks from her home to office. Frequently she is late to work as she takes time to cover the distance. She wants to improve her pace. She goes to a walking expert to get tips on increasing her walking speed.

thought-2123970_640

One solution to the problem is to use some other means of transportation instead of walking. If you go to a walking expert, you are going to get tips on improving your walking speed. The expert is not going to ask you to forego walking and use a different mode of transportation. Also, if you are deeply attached to the idea of walking, you might not think of a solution beyond walking. Improving your walking speed is a micro solution whereas using some other means of transportation is a macro solution.

The above is a contrived example but something we come across in our professional and personal lives, both as solution givers as well as ones facing a problem. Programmers sometimes try to optimize the hell out of a piece of code while the right approach might be to chuck the code and use something else. Organisations seek to nail down a process to the last mile while a sensible solution might be to do away with the process entirely.

We lean towards micro solutions when we are either deeply entwined in a problem or are the domain expert in that particular area. In these situations, we tend to think within the bounds of a problem and not outside.

When you come up with a solution, bracket it as micro or macro. Being aware is the first step towards becoming better at anything. Also, an outside view helps. Find someone who is not an expert in the domain or one who is not acutely aware of the problem. Run your solution through them. They might lead you to a macro solution or make you aware that what you have is a micro solution. Taking time and mind off a problem helps too like how Archimedes had his eureka moment.

Last but not the least, take a walk.

Process Introduction

Whenever a new process is introduced, there is always going to be some discomfort. The cause can be categorized into:
1. Uneasiness due to newness.
2. There is a problem with the process itself.

idea-1876658_640

Category one is due to human nature. Deviation from an established routine causes queasiness and a yearning for the old way. It takes over-communication, repetition and sometimes “just giving it time” to tide over this initial phase; this is usually a short-lived phenomenon.

Category two is the troublesome one. When someone complains about a newly introduced process, it is essential to get to the source of this discomfort. Prod as to whether the reason for disapproval falls into category one or two.

A suitable process has to roughly follow the Libertarian Paternalism idea popularised by Behavioural Economist Richard Thaler. The process should be a nudge towards better behavior rather than a dictatorial dictum. A process whose intention is to police people does not end up well.

A new process introduces some amount of friction, but this friction has to be local, not global. This friction should not slow down the task at a global level; instead, it should aid speed, agility, and stability.

Take the checklist process as an example. It nudges people towards being more aware and aids better behavior. It does introduce friction at the local level, but on the whole, globally, the task speeds up with a much better result on an average.

It always helps to think along these lines to figure out whether a new process is worth its salt. Instead of introducing a new process and then reneging, put in the effort to evaluate the efficacy of a process beforehand.

Checklist

Checklists have been in vogue for quite some time now. Probably Atul Gawde’s book The Checklist Manifesto kickstarted this. I have been late to the party but once I arrived, I never left. A checklist is an amazing tool to organize personal as well as professional life.

checklist-1266989_640

 

Hospitals have figured out that by following simple checklists they can reduce the surgical mortality rate by a big percentage. The airline industry, which is an epitome of the highest possible standard in safety and training, relies on checklists for fail-safeness.

Who does not forget daily chores? Who has not kicked themselves for being late on bill payments? A to-do list solves this problem. There are tons of to-do apps out there, just pick one to start with. Apart from solving daily trivial problems, a checklist is a great way to keep track of long-term goals too, be it saving more, losing weight or adopting a healthier lifestyle.

Professional life requires one to regularly follow-up. A checklist is a great way to list down the follow-ups needed. On the flip side, no one likes doing follow-ups. If you want to be one of those rare people who respond without requiring to follow up, use a timebound to-do app to keep track.

Checklist brings efficiency to project management. Having a checklist of all the tasks to be accomplished before taking a project live leaves little room for ambiguity, misses and last minute scurrying.

A short-term or throw away project may not justify the time spent in automating disparate tasks related to the project. In this scenario, a checklist is a great substitute.

automation

All organizations have an onboarding process. Make a checklist out of it and hand it over to employees on the day of joining. All software projects have some common alerts and metrics needed. Checklist them. Once you do this, you do not have to bother about this for every new project. View checklist as a temporary substitute while you scout for software to automate these.

In short, a checklist can be used as a Swiss Army knife to organize and automate life. A checklist institutes repeatability eliminates ambiguity and improves efficiency.

PS: Link for the above comic from XKCD.

Self-infliction

I recently watched the movie Hichki. The Plot of the movie revolves around a group of kids from less privileged strata of society who get a chance to attend an elite school. During the course of time, these kids feel that the school and the more privileged students there do not give them the respect they deserve. They rebel against this by not studying, causing nuisance and failing grades.

suicide-1267709_640

Kids can be excused when they exhibit self-inflicting behavior but sadly, a lot of adults too manifest this. One common adult refrain is – The organization is not treating me well, so I am not putting my best into the job. Keeping aside morality and call of duty, who loses due to this behavior? It is you. When you do not put your best into anything, you do not improve. If you do not improve, you do not progress.

It is in your best interest to put 100% into your job irrespective of how your organization treats you. If you feel you are not treated well, talk to your higher up and see if you can change this. If not, move on. Slacking is not an answer. You are harming yourself by exhibiting this sort of behavior.

Solving Problems

When faced with a problem, the way we should think is:
1. What is the quick and dirty solution?
2. What is the long-term solution?

hand-2208491_640

Most of the time, one tends to do only one conveniently ignoring the other. Our mind goes into overdrive and quickly implements a hacky solution and then we forget the problem only to find it re-occurring. Or, we languish to implement a long-term solution while the problem drags on.

One of the reasons why we might find it difficult to implement both is that they require a fundamentally different kind of thinking. The quick and dirty solution involves hustling and running around to get things done. Somehow by hook or crook, one wants to plug the hole. A long-term solution requires one to analyze the problem from all angles, think deeply about it and figure out a well-rounded solution. A vague comparison would be system 1 thinking versus system 2.

Both are equally important – neglecting either is a recipe for disaster.

Anti features

When evaluating new technology, framework or library; a lot of importance is given to the salient features. While it is very important to know the positives, the negatives usually tend to be glossed over. Being aware of the shortcomings of a framework gives one the ability to anticipate problems down the road.

feedback-3239454_640

For example, let us take NoSQL databases. A lot of time is spent on singing paeans to the scalability, malleability etc of NoSQL databases while hardly thinking about the negatives that come with it.

Two simple techniques which give a good visibility on anti-features:
1. The very obvious one, Google for the shortcomings. Someone would have written a blog post on the interwebs highlighting how a framework or technology let them down. For example, take this post by Uber on how Postgres did not work as expected for them.
2. Comb through Github and/or JIRA peeking at the bugs raised and enhancements requested.

Both of the above will provide a good picture of the shortcomings. If you are evaluating a closed source proprietary technology, the above may not make the cut.

Once a mental note is made of the negatives, ponder on the scenarios where this might affect your usage. It helps to spend quality time on this as this will save one from a lot of future trouble.

If you think about this, this might sound very obvious but tends to be highly neglected. We get so caught up in the positives of something that the negatives tend to be ignored and this usually comes biting us back later.

Taking calls

Making decisions is part and parcel of being a leader. It might feel empowering to take calls but the hallmark of true leadership is in enabling others to do this. The smoother the decisions making process and lesser the blockers, the better it is for the organization.

question-mark-1872665_640

One route to get there is to create frameworks, rules, and principles for decision making. When your team wants to do something and are confused as to how to get there, they just clawback to the principles and use them. For example, take hiring. Having a clear-cut framework for hiring that covers all aspects starting from what questions to ask, how many rounds of interview, how to reject or accept candidates, what qualities to look for in candidates aids the hiring decision process. By having this, teams are allowed to make hiring decisions on their own.

Also, when taking calls, openly articulate your thought process. Make it clear as to what assumptions you did, what questions you asked, what data you looked at, what trade-offs you did. Laying out in the open the way you arrived at a decision helps others to traverse the same path on their own the next time.

To summarise, instead of just taking calls on behalf of others, go that extra mile to create a framework which enables them to do this independently the next time. Also, laying out the decision-making process in the open gives everybody an opportunity to peek at your thought process so that they can borrow it the next time.