3 Dimensions of a Technology Team

Organizing Software Engineering Teams to Balance Products, Partners & Professions

This organizational design for a technology department aims to optimally blend the need for the technology team to be an engine of innovation, a customer-service organization and technically excellent.

It views the staff, roles and responsibilities in three dimensions: products, partnerships, and professions.

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  1. Products and projects the technology teams work on
  2. Partners, customers, and stakeholders of the technology department
  3. Professions of the various technology staff members

Organization by products focuses on providing great user experiences via small, agile and nimble teams that have ownership of their work.

Organization by partners focuses on being an effective client-service organization to other parts of the company.

Organization by professions provides for learning, best practices and career development of the tech employees.

This article first describes the three models and then suggests ways to bring them together into one integrated organization design.

Organizing by small product focused teams

Product

A product is defined as something that customers use and experience. A product consists of content, features and functionality.

It refers to a digital entity, a physical good or a combination of the physical and virtual. For example, it could be a communication app that people use via their smartphones and computers. It could be a health device that people wear and access via their smartphones and computers.

The goal of a product is to meet customer’s needs & desires, to solve problems for customers including ones they didn’t know of, and to delight them. Many products aim to help make the world a better place, be it in small or big ways.

A Key Difference Between a Product and a Project

A project has preset start and end dates. A project, by definition, is supposed to be complete when it delivers its desired outcomes.

A product typically does not have a preset end-date. Most products are meant to exist and evolve for the foreseeable future. Products are (and should be) discontinued for good reasons (e.g. when they no longer have a viable future, or the organization needs to divert resources to other products).

Upgraded versions of the product are delivered via projects.

Projects are successful when they end.
Products are successful when they persevere.

Product Team

One way to think of a product team is as a mini-company within the larger organization. A product team has customers, which could be external, internal or both.

A product team develops the product, makes it available to customers (“ships” it), and maintains the product. Maintenance of the product includes new features, major upgrades and innovations.

Roles in a product team

A product team has several roles which are filled by professionals with certain skills, knowledge and interest.

The roles can be narrow in scope, like front-end JavaScript developer or broad, like software engineer. The roles include the professions of engineers, designers, subject matter experts, marketers, and managers. For a longer list of roles in a product team with examples, see the section titled “list of professions/roles” under organization by professions below.

People and Roles

These roles are not necessarily each held by different people. There is no prescribed restriction on who can hold which role or how many roles. Depending on the team’s needs, people’s skills & interests, and budget & resource situation, any permutation of the roles can be held by the people in the team.

A team should make the best decisions in allocation of the roles. The roles held by people are expected to change as the team scales up or down. The team should give importance to checks and balances via separation of duties where required for compliance of regulations.

Team Size

As a minimum requirement, at least three people are required for it to be a product team that encompasses a sufficient set of the roles required. In a few rare cases, the team might be able to start with just two people.

Proximity

For a product team to be successfully implemented, it needs to consider and address evidence-based management science related to human collaboration.

An important recommendation is that the team “resides” together, i.e. works together on a weekly if not daily basis. If the team works out of the same office, then they should work in close proximity. If the team is geographically separated, like the teams at Auttomatic/WordPress, then they should have “virtual proximity”, i.e. be in close contact using video conferencing and other online collaboration tools.

Organizing by Partners, Customers, and Stakeholders

Aligning the technology department with business departments

In this model, each line of business, department and product/service at the company is assigned a technology partner in the technology organization.

Examples of stakeholders in a media company include the heads of advertising, marketing, finance, customer service and editorial.

The technology partner is a senior, widely-respected and influential member of the technology management team who serves as the primary technology leader for that business, department or product/service. Excellent client-relationship skills are a requirement.

The technology partner may also serve as the solutions architect for the client, or may have solutions architects assigned to them.

Technology Partner Role Description

The technology partner is the go-to person for all technology matters for the client department, including for engineering, project, and technology, areas that the technology partner does not directly manage. For example, a large department like Advertising will have projects that could span multiple tech departments.

The responsibilities of the partner include:

  • Assess Current Capability: Evaluate the current technical capabilities of all the technology systems.
  • Define Future Capability: Understand strategic industry trends to plan future technology roadmaps.
  • Technical Lead for product development: Responsible for technology execution, bringing new products to market and optimization of existing offerings.
  • Plan Capacity: Translate roadmaps into future year capacity plans.
  • Collaborate with other tech teams: Work with other product teams to service the needs of the business needs / departments / products where other teams in the technology organization are the owners of systems.
  • Subject Matter Expert: As the primary contact for a business / department / product act as the SME for all technology.

Organizing by Professions

In this model, the technical people are organized by the professions they choose to belong to.

Professions and Roles

This is a sample list of professions and roles gleaned from companies that have products in the digital media space. This list can be easily adapted to other industries, for example, by including the relevant subject matter expert roles. This was compiled between the years of 2007 to 2014 and reflects some prominent roles from then.

Each profession/role is grouped under one of five major categories:

  • Technologist/Maker
  • Designer/Artist
  • Subject Matter Expert/Analyst
  • Marketer/Seller
  • Manager/Admin

List of professions/roles

Technologist/Maker
Software Development Engineer, Server-side “backend” Software Engineer, Client-side “frontend” Software Engineer, Mobile iPhone and Tablet Software Engineer, iOS Software Engineer, Android Software Engineer, Content Management (CMS) Engineer, Testing Engineer, App Release Engineer, App Operations Engineer, DevOps Engineer, Systems Administrator, Database Administrator, Security/Privacy & Compliance Analyst

Designer/Artist
User Experience Designer, Visual Designer

Subject Matter Expert/Analyst
Product Manager, Business Analyst, Journalist, Reporter/Content Author, Editor

Marketer/Seller
Salesperson, Marketer, Customer Service Representative, Internal Advocate, Documentation Writer

Manager/Admin
Project Manager, Finances & Budget Manager, Team & People Manager

Integrating the three dimensions

Now that we have described the three dimensions, let us discuss ways to make it all work together.

Reporting Relationships

Some people believe that “reporting relationships are irrelevant in today’s world”, but social science research has repeatedly proven this to be false.1  Reporting structures and hierarchies are an essential and integral part of any organization of humans.

So rather than pretend that reporting relationships in a team don’t matter, it is important to address them in setting up these teams.

Let us start by acknowledging that human relationships are complex, nuanced and changing, so there is no one formula to organize your teams. Every approach to organizing reporting relationships has its advantages and drawbacks. Here, we present a reasonable but imperfect model.

This model applies to medium to large size organizations, but not to small companies or very-large companies. In a small company of less than 10 people, there are unlikely to be departments by profession where people report into. In very large companies’ each business unit may operate as an independent company with its own departments by profession (e.g. their own finance, HR and engineering).

We also make some assumptions. For example, that it is preferable that each team member has exactly one primary boss who they formally report to.2

Departments by Profession

It is important to define what is expected of a primary boss in your organization so you can best determine how to structure reporting relationships. For example:

  • Does a boss’ role include the long-term development of the employee’s career, existing skills and new skills?
  • Does a boss need to be a subject matter expert in the chosen profession of the employee? Or, is the employee best served by being part of a team of others with the same or similar professions?
  • Does a boss need to objectively and independently look at the employee’s work as serve as a checks and balances relative to the product/project team the employee is presently doing day to day work in?

If your answer to the above questions is yes, then it is likely that setting up the primary reporting relationships by profession is a good solution for you.

What does reporting relationships by profession mean? It means that primary (and formal) reporting relationships are organized by departments of people in similar professions. For example, HR professionals report into the HR department, finance professionals report into the finance department and software engineering professionals report into the software engineering department.

In medium to large sized companies, having the primary reporting relationship by professional departments often has advantages over having direct reporting into the product/project team. In fact, most consulting firms use this model. Some of the benefits include:

  • As new products are created, old products decommissioned and projects start and end, employees don’t need to switch from boss to boss. By having a boss who has seen an employee’s work over multiple products, services and projects, the employee can receive better coaching and development support.
  • A boss who manages a team of employees of the same profession helps share best practices, standards and development opportunities across the organization.
  • Such a boss can also serve as a check and balance for a product/project team’s short-term needs vs. the best long-term interests of the company. The employee has a primary person higher up to consult with outside their current product/project team.

Most medium to large size companies have departments by profession. For example, they have departments for finance, HR, sales, marketing, software engineering, design, etc. This makes good sense for reasons like the above.

Such departments often assign (or even embed) their professionals within other departments and product/project teams. For example, finance (or HR) may assign a finance person or team (or HR person or team) to work with the technology department. This person would likely be assigned full time to the technology department and work in close proximity to a part of it.

The organizational model recommended here views technology as a collection of departments by technical professions. For example, software development, quality assurance and testing, infrastructure engineering, and project management. Each of these technology departments embeds their staff into product/project teams.

The overall technology department also assigns a technology partner to every other department by profession. That’s how these three dimensions come together.

Balancing Professional Departments with Product/Project Teams

In setting up direct reporting relationships by professional departments, it is critically important to not let the departments become siloed. Each employee should be focused on, deeply care about and feel accountable to the product/project they are working on.

When the person’s primary boss is a functional head outside the team they are currently doing day to day work in, both the employee and the boss must ensure the employee is highly committed to their product/project team whether it is in their department or outside it. One way to accomplish this: Each employee can also be accountable to a lead within the product/project team via a dotted line if needed. In some cases, the employee’s boss and their lead within the team can be the same person.

The goal of the functional department is to both support product/project teams and serve as checks and balances, but never to work against them.

Non-Technology Departments

While this article was written for organizing technology departments at companies where a substantial amount of work involves software engineering, the thinking here might be adaptable to other types of departments. If you have thoughts on how to do that or have other approaches to organizing teams in organizations, please do share them.


This article is mirrored at LinkedIn and Medium.

  1. Hierarchy is Good. Hierarchy is Essential. And Less Isn’t Always Better by Professor Bob Sutton at Stanford University https://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20140112221140-15893932-hierarchy-is-good-hierarchy-is-essential-and-less-isn-t-always-better  []
  2. If someone has scientific evidence supporting this, please let me know.  []

Mandela’s Way: Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage (Book Review)

[amazon-product align=”right”]0307460681[/amazon-product]

I find many books on leadership to be fairy tales: Inspiring to read, but misleading about leadership that is actually effective in our real world. Real leadership — leadership that is based on evidence and science, and thus statistically more likely be effective in practice as opposed to “feel good leadership” — is less commonly found in leadership books. Mandela’s Way, written by Richard Stengel, a respected journalist, is one of the few books about leadership lessons from the real world presented with journalistic integrity.

My rating of this book: 5/5 stars.

Suggested Template For Requesting a Meeting

Every time someone calls a meeting, they should consider using this simple template.

[ meeting-invitation-template begins ]

The desired outcome of this meeting is:

  • e.g. Come to agreement on solution for issue X
  • e.g. Make a decision about Y.
  • e.g. Share announcements about topic Z.
  • e.g. Continue to grow a good working relationship with each other by socializing in person.

Note: Explain what this meeting is meant to accomplish, instead of providing a description of the meeting. Focus on the desired result of the meeting. A meeting should accomplish one or more of three things:

  1. Solve problem(s)
  2. Make decision(s)
  3. Share knowledgeand agree to act on it and/or make it a practice
    • Knowledge, as in: data –leads-to–> information –leads-to–> knowledge –leads-to–> practice

You should come to this meeting because:

  • e.g. You are likely to have input into potential solutions for issue X
  • e.g. You are one of the folks who has a viewpoint on what decision to make regarding Y.
  • e.g. It would benefit you from hearing the announcements in this meeting.
  • e.g. This is your opportunity to ask questions about topic Z.

Note: Give the attendees at least one good reason to attend. Sometimes attendees have no idea why they are invited to this meeting. Don’t be seen as a waster of others’ time.

The guidelines for participating in this meeting are:

  • e.g. Please come prepared having read the document about ChaosMonkey.
  • e.g. Laptops & mobile communication devices are considered contraband during this meeting. If it is critical for you to have a computer during this meeting, bring a desktop computer :-)

Note: Set the expectations of the participations.

[ meeting-invitation-template ends ]

Further Reading & Thoughts:

Templates for Replying to Meeting Requests & Polite Ways to Decline Meetings

By default, we should only attend meetings where we are active participants, not passive attendees with not much to contribute to the desired outcome of the meeting. There are some exceptions to this like training sessions, educational presentations or others where the purpose for attendees is to learn something.

When I receive a meeting request, I often reply with the following text.

May I please request the following information in advance of this meeting? It will enable me to prepare, participate and be productive in the meeting.

  1. What do you recommend I should prepare in advance of this meeting?
  2. What decisions do we need to make at this meeting?
  3. What problems do we need to solve at this meeting?

Thank you in advance,

Time Management Tip: When you receive an invite for a meeting at work where you believe you may not add much value, reply to the invite with a polite message like:

Thank you for inviting me to this meeting. It seems from the subject, agenda, and attendees list that I’m not a required participant for this meeting. If I’m mistaken and my presence is required in this meeting, please accept my apologies and let me know that I should attend.

This is preferable to ignoring the meeting invite or declining without comment that may come across as rude.

To save time, you can save the above templates as text snippets to be inserted via a keyboard shortcut/macro or in a place from where you can quickly and easily copy and paste.

Discussion about declining meetings: https://plus.google.com/107443707510532643538/posts/inUkYy1Ufg7

When to have and when not to schedule meetings

Companies should, by default, avoid scheduling meetings that start before 10am or end after 5pm. If an employee comes to the office at 8am on some days, it is often to use the two hours of the morning before meetings to catch up and/or get a head start on the day. Meetings that start before 10am are often harmful overall since they put the attendees in reactive catch up mode for the rest of the day. Similarly, meetings that go on beyond 5pm (or worse, start after 5pm) take away valuable time from employees that they use to absorb information and events of the day, catch up with replying to email and get ready for the next work day.

i.e. Companies should consider any time outside the 10am to 5pm window to be not available for meetings and definitely not any weekly recurring meetings.

Preferably, employees who are ‘makers’ should have one 4-hour continuous block of time each day when they are free from meetings. (‘Makers’ differentiated from ‘Managers’)

50/25 Meeting Format

If you manage a team, value your team members time and want to improve productivity at your workplace with a simple change, consider implementing the 50/25 Meeting Recommendation that some companies are embracing. You can communicate something like the following to your team:

Dear Colleagues,

We deeply value your time, your productivity and your comfort at the workplace. As a part of our initiative to make your workday more productive, less hectic and better manageable, we recommend a 50/25 meeting format. It is simple concept: As much as possible, let us take all our meetings that are 1-hour long and shorten them to 50 minutes. For our meetings that are half-hour long, let us limit them to 25 minutes.

You will find that a 50 minute meeting will accomplish no less than a 60 minute meeting did and a 25 minute meeting will be as productive as a 30 minute one was. In fact, by having clear 50 minute and 25 minute deadlines, our meetings are likely to be better focused, on topic and more attentive. (For example: Since you will have time after the meeting to check email, there is likely to be less temptation to check emails during the meeting itself.)

The extra 10 and 5 minutes will give you valuable time back that could be used for many useful activities: Getting in the frame of mind for the next meeting or task; checking your messages to see if there is something urgent that needs your attention; or simply taking a bio break.

Please note that this not a mandate, but a recommendation. We realize that you may not be able to do this for every meeting. What we ask is that you consider doing this for meetings that you organize or can influence. As a result, we will make our great work culture even better, less stressful and even fun.

Tip: If you use Google Calendar, turn on the “Speedy Meetings” setting to have the calendar automatically use 50/25 as the default setting.

Further Reading & Thoughts:

Thank you for considering this,

[Signature]

Using Laptops or Smartphones in Meetings

You might think that no one is noticing when you are using your phone if you try to hide it below the table surface, but you’d be mistaken. It is like picking your nose: Your being oblivious of others doesn’t make you invisible to them. Photo Credit: Brad Kagawa

Using smartphones — or worse, laptops — during in-person meetings diminishes productivity, is disrespectful to others and decreases your brainpower. Yes, scientific evidence indicates that multitasking makes people less intelligent.1

When you are  doing something unrelated on your phone or laptop in inappropriate situations (e.g. during business meetings), you lose out because you become oblivious to the environment, people, and subtleties around you.

However, there are a few situations where it makes good sense to use a laptop or smartphone during in-person meetings.

  • When you are the designated note-taker for this meeting.
    • Taking notes on a computer or smartphone saves time, and is more accurate than taking paper notes and digitizing them later.
    • Notes on paper can’t be searched easily, pile up as clutter and are less environmentally friendly.
    • It is more secure than taking notes on paper that can be forgotten and read by others who should not have access to the information.
    • Meeting notes and action items can be automatically saved in real time and shared quickly after the meeting.
    • There should be only one person taking notes during a meeting. If it is a negotiation between two opposing sides, then there should be no more than one note-taker per side.
  • When you need to quickly look something up that is relevant to the discussion and is either necessary or helpful to the meeting in progress.
  • Entering action items that come up during the meeting into your to-do-list so that you can focus on the meeting. This is useful for people who use the GTD system with a tool like OmniFocus.
  • Quickly and discreetly asking a question, or sharing an opinion or information over instant message without disturbing others in the meeting.
  • The distractions on the device could be managed if the user is disciplined and remains focussed on the meeting, perhaps even using the laptop to participate more actively in the meeting. After all, even a person using pen and paper can be distracted doodling or daydreaming.
  • This is the digital age.

Tip: When you bring a laptop to a group meeting or one-on-one meeting, each time respectfully explain to the others beforehand that you will use the laptop for taking notes and recording action items in your to do list only. Inform them that you will be focusing attention on the discussion and that the laptop is simply your digital notepad.

There are also many reasons against using laptops or smartphones during meetings:

  • It comes across as disrespectful to some other meeting attendees, especially those with traditional styles of working.
  • The laptop screen creates a “wall” between you and the people sitting across you.
  • The laptop does make it easy to get distracted into reading your email or other online activities. (A tablet like the iPad that lies flat on the table like a writing pad does not have this problem.)

Tip: At the start of your meeting, announce that if anyone needs to use their phone or laptop, they should step out of the room, use their device outside and return when done. This way, attendees have the freedom and won’t feel constrained.

In most situations, the drawbacks of using a laptop or smartphone during an in-person meeting far outweigh the benefits.

Tip: Provide a mobile phone charging area in your meeting rooms to encourage attendees to put away their mobile phones and participate.

What do you think? Here is link to a related discussion about using laptops, smartphones and other communications devices in meetings.

(Updated: 2014 July 26)

  1. The High Cost of Multitasking: http://blog.fuze.com/the-high-cost-of-multitasking-infographic/  []

What I Learned During the Hacking Attacks of August 28, 2013

One of the most important lessons that was reinforced to me during the Aug 28th hacking attacks on Melbourne IT, the domain registrar for the Web sites of The New York Times, Twitter and many others was the importance of human relationships, personal networking and real-time communications during an emergency situation.

In this article, I’ll mention some of the human collaboration and technical aspects of the lessons that were reinforced. Minimizing the chances of having outages and getting hacked is beyond the scope of this article. This post is about resilience (i.e. dealing with and recovering) not prevention.

Note: To learn about the incident itself, see the section ‘Hacking Incident: Information & Misinformation‘ below.

The Power of Human Collaboration

I witnessed the power of multi-participant video conferencing that is commonplace these days thanks to Google Hangouts. Back in 2009, I wrote an article about the benefits of using real-time textual group chat during incident management and emergency situations. All the lessons mentioned in that article were yet again reinforced to me during this incident. I suggest reading that article to review the real-time communications recommendations in it.

Matthew Prince, CEO of CloudFlare summed it up well at the end of his blog post:

We spend our time building technical networks, but it’s comforting to know that the human network is effective as well.

My colleague Jon Oden Tweeted:

Well that was a fun day… lots of fantastic people in the tech community is a silver lining

I felt so honored, humbled, and happy when my friends and their friends at some of the best known Internet companies went above and beyond to help and spent most of their day in a Google Hangout video conference, helping restore public access to The New York Times’ Web site and other sites for the public on the Internet. They did this because they are good, helpful and tech experts. They took time out of their own jobs to help because they care about a common good cause and fighting against malevolence.

It was inspiring to watch so many brilliant tech people and leaders from multiple companies, many of who met on the video call for the first time, collaborated so well together and overcame the problems together. The combination of multi-participant video conferencing and text chat in Google Hangouts made it feel like we were all working in the same physical room together.

I’d like to thank John RobertsMatthew Prince and the engineers at CloudFlare; David Ulevitch and several engineers at OpenDNS; Mandar Gokhale, John W. McCarthy and others at GoDaddy;  The technical infrastructure engineering team at Google; Bob Lord at Twitter;  Sara Boddy and team at Demand Media; and many others who helped yesterday. You all showed amazing teamwork on the video conference yesterday.

Technical Lessons

If you run a high profile Web site, it is critically important that your Disaster Recovery & Business Continuity Plan includes dealing with an emergency when your primary systems  are unavailable, despite all the safeguards and backups you have in place. The domain registration hijack was one such example. A company can only have one registrar that holds their domain name registration information. There is no concept of a backup or failover registrar for a domain. To deal with this single point of failure, you need a backup Web presence on a separate domain.

Backup Web site on Separate Domain

You should maintain a backup Web site that:

  • Has a different domain name. For example, if your site is at example.com, your backup domain could be example.net.
  • Is registered with a different domain name registrar than your primary one. For example, if your primary registrar is MarkMonitor for example.com, then use Network Solutions for the backup domain example.net.
  • Uses DNS service hosted somewhere else. For example, if you run and host your own DNS servers for example.com, use an outsourced DNS hosting service like CloudFlare for example.net.
  • Uses a different Content Delivery Network (CDN). For example, if you use Akamai for example.com, use CloudFlare for example.net. You must have a CDN on your backup Web site so that it can handle your traffic.
  • Is hosted somewhere other than where your primary site is hosted and is implemented using a different (much simpler) technology platform that is highly likely to not have the same vulnerabilities.
  • Can feed your Mobile apps. Your mobile applications should be designed to be aware of this backup Web site and should be able to switch to it (automatically or via manual intervention) for retrieving content.
  • Does not share administrative access, logins and passwords with the primary site.
  • Preferably, this backup domain example.net should be managed by a separate team. This has two benefits: 1. In the situation of the primary team itself being compromised (sysadmin accounts hacked or a rogue employee) 2. The separate team can work on activating the backup site while the primary team focuses on restoring service of the primary site.

What you use your backup Web site for is up to you. If your primary Web site is a news and media Web site, you could use the backup Web site to publish content during an emergency impacting the primary Web site. If it is impractical for the backup Web site to provide similar (or a subset of) functionality, you could use it for providing status updates and communicating what is going on.

When the backup domain is not needed (which will hopefully be the case 99.9% or more of the time), it could simply be used for providing systems status, explaining it is in place for emergencies and linking to the primary Web site.

Access to a Reliable Public DNS

For end users (i.e. people on the public Internet visiting Web sites), I highly recommend considering using OpenDNS (instructions here) and/or Google Public DNS (instructions here) either as primary or as backup DNS providers.

Other

There are also other lessons, not specific to this incident, both process-related and technical that I’ll write about in a separate article.

Hacking Incident: Information & Misinformation

Wired Magazine’s article titled ‘Syrian Electronic Army’ Takes Down The New York Times correctly explained that:

There’s no evidence that the Times’ internal systems were compromised. Instead, the attackers got control of the NYTimes.com domain name this afternoon through the paper’s domain name registrar, Melbourne IT…

Melbourne IT is the company that manages the domain name registration for The New York Times, Twitter and many other well-known sites. On Aug 28, it was Melbourne IT’s computer systems that were hacked which enabled the perpetrators to hijack The NY Times, Twitter and other companies’ domain names.

Surprisingly, the article on Ars Technica (an otherwise well-respected technology publication) was inaccurate and misleading. It incorrectly stated (quote) “The Times DNS records have been altered, and now point to an Australian hosting company, Melbourne IT.” (end quote) That would lead readers to incorrectly believe that the hackers redirected nytimes.com to DNS or fake Web sites hosted at Melbourne IT.

I’m surprised that the Ars Technica staff did not do their research before writing that post. Melbourne IT is (and has been for years) the official domain name registrar of The New York Times. In addition to being a domain name registrar, Melbourne IT also happens to be a hosting company, but that had nothing to do with the incident. As far as I know, none of the sites impacted that day used Melbourne IT for anything other than domain registration.

What Ars Technica should have said (like their sister publication Wired did) is that the perpetrators hijacked the nytimes.com and other Web sites by hacking Melbourne IT, the company that holds their domain name registration.

The Ars article is also misleading in its claim that The nytimes.com DNS records were altered. It was the domain registration records at Melbourne IT that were altered that then pointed to a whole different set of DNS servers outside of The NY Times’ control.

The Ars Technica article also pointed readers to NY Times’ URL by one of its IP addresses, which was also a mistake. If the Ars Technica folks had tested it themselves, they’d have realized that pointing people to the URL by IP was not the recommended way to access nytimes.com during the incident. Clicking on links on the IP page leads back to www.nytimes.com by name. They should have instead pointed readers to the alternate news.nytco.com URL recommended by The New York Times’ staff, which is what the Wired article did. They could have also suggested other good solutions like switching to using OpenDNS. In fact, I’d have expected a technical publication of Ars Technica’s good reputation to have published a step-by-step guide on switching to OpenDNS, which they wrote about back in 2006.

Ray Dalio, Randall Munroe and I Think Alike – Culture of Courage & Candor

On the matter of bad behavior of complaining against others behind their backs, Ray Dalio, Randall Munroe and I share the same viewpoint. This article starts with Randall’s cartoon, Ray’s and my quotes on the subject and then discusses the causes of and solutions for this problem. Please note that this article is not about ethical whistleblowers, people who have no choice but to complain secretly about someone in a position of great power and formal authority above them engaged in wrongdoing. Backstabbing (the subject of this article) and whistle-blowing are two completely different things.1 This post is about someone complaining against his peers, those he sees as  competition or those who may be in his way.

Cartoon from XKCD by Randall Munroe

Ray’s quote:

I learned that I want the people I deal with to say what they really believe and to listen to what others say in reply, in order to find out what is true. I learned that one of the greatest sources of problems in our society arises from people having loads of wrong theories in their heads—often theories that are critical of others—that they won’t test by speaking to the relevant people about them. Instead, they talk behind people’s backs, which leads to pervasive misinformation. I learned to hate this because I could see that making judgments about people so that they are tried and sentenced in your head, without asking them for their perspective, is both unethical and unproductive.2 So I learned to love real integrity (saying the same things as one believes)3 and to despise the lack of it.4

— Ray Dalio, an American businessman and founder of the investment firm Bridgewater Associates. Bridgewater is the world’s largest hedge fund company with US$122 billion in assets under management (as of 2011). In 2012, Dalio appeared on the annual Time 100 list of the 100 most influential people in the world. In 2011 and 2012 he was listed by Bloomberg Markets as one of the 50 Most Influential people. Institutional Investor’s Alpha ranked him No. 2 on their 2012 Rich List.
Quote sourced from Principles by Ray Dalio. Emphasis mine. Brief bio of Ray Dalio from Wikipedia. Thanks to my colleague Leon Shklar for introducing me to Ray’s philosophy.

My quote:

When someone complains negatively about a problem, person or situation it often indicates a lack of courage, skill, desire & collaboration required to solve it. Worse, it may be for nefarious reasons.

Senior executives should listen to and reward employees who focus on solutions and support their coworkers. People in leadership should be wary of people who habitually complain about others. Since complainers misleadingly pretend to be smart or helpful, you should always question their motives, challenge their statements and let them know you will ask for others’ viewpoints.

Once you know about such behavior, you should strongly discourage it. The first step is to make sure you don’t reward it. When a senior executive simply listens to a complainer and does not challenge their statements and does not tell they will solicit others opinions as well, the complainer may feel rewarded with the executive’s attention and implicit approval. Things an executive hearing the complaints can say:

  • What did [the target person] say in response when you told them this?
  • Have you spoken to [the target person] about this clearly, honestly and comprehensively? I will reach out to them to understand their viewpoint. (This makes it clear to the complainer that they can’t get away misrepresenting things behind another’s back.)
  • Do you have a collaborative solution to offer that makes it a win/win for both you and [the target person]?

— Rajiv Pant
Quote originally published on Rajiv’s Google+ Page

Why badmouthing others behind their backs is bad for business…

Its toxicity kills productivity. Robert I. Sutton, Professor of Management science at the Stanford Engineering School and a researcher in the field of Evidence-based management writes: [emphasis mine]

… if you want people to think you are smart, apparently you can feed their stereotypes by demeaning others…  I should also warn you that although unleashing your inner asshole may help persuade people of your intellectual superiority, we also show in The Knowing-Doing Gap and Hard Facts that the climate of fear created by such nastiness undermines team and organizational effectiveness.  Potential victims become afraid to try (or even mention) new ideas and hesitate to report mistakes or problems out of fear that the resulting anger and humiliation will be aimed at them.

It creates distrust among coworkers which hurts collaboration and productivity. It distracts focus away from productive work to “watching your back”. It lowers morale at work, which is also bad for business.

On the perpetrator’s side, it diverts creative energy away from business innovation, solving problems and achieving greatness. Instead the perpetrator’s talents, time and tricks are applied towards crafty, cunning and cruel behavior that only hurts the organization.

At its worst, when it becomes a rampant problem, it can lead to costly lawsuits against the organization. When you develop a habit of badmouthing someone behind their back thinking your accusations will remain secret, and you keep getting away with it for a while, you are likely to start saying things that cross the line.

 

Why it happens…

So why do people engage in smear campaigns? Simply because they have found them to be useful for their benefit in the past. There is ample evidence in multiple fields ranging from election campaigns to organizational behavior that despite being immoral, unethical and unfair, smear campaigns can sometimes be highly effective for the perpetrators. At least for the short term. In an organization with a bad culture it benefits the perpetrator every time they do it and there are minimal harmful consequences to the perpetrator.

I asked my friend Professor Jeffery Pfeffer, a well-respected guru of organizational behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business why such behavior exists. He explained that “It persists because it often works, and it often works because negativity and criticism seem more profound than positive statements.” He pointed me to his5 article The Smart-Talk Trap published in Harvard Business Review and the article Brilliant but Cruel by Teresa Amabile, now a professor at Harvard Business School. (The word “brilliant” here alludes to a pretense of brilliance, not the real thing.) Those two articles explain that people who disparage others or the work of others falsely appear to look smart and competent, even when they are not so in reality. Basically, it is a cheap trick that works until it is exposed.

The false feeling of being honest (when in reality they are being dishonest) in supposedly exposing  the flaws in others and/or other’s work provides misguided gratification to the perpetrators. When the important person to whom the clandestine complaint is being made to (and it is usually an important person) listens to the complainer in private and engages in that conversation, the complainer sees that as a reward. This encourages more of such bad behavior.

An even bigger mistake a person in a position of power can make after hearing a one-sided complaint is to substantially reward the complainer. By a substantial reward, I mean giving a promotion, power or pleasure of winning. That is not only unjust, unfair and unwise, but a display of poor judgement.

A root cause of this problem is lack of courage. Another is insecurity. It takes courage to walk up to someone you have a problem with, to tell them that on their face with candor especially when you are insecure inside that your accusations will be able to sustain to a fair trial. It is much easier to be a coward and do it hoping the accused will never find out, at least not until it is too late.

Insecurity and an inner lack of confidence in the merits of their accusations are behind complaints that are supposedly backed by unverifiable sources. When someone complains about another and says “others have also complained about [the target person], but they confided in me privately and wish to remain anonymous,” the listeners’ alarm bells should go off. This method of trying to sully someone’s reputation by adding the supposed support of unidentified others is weak at best and disingenuous at worst. There is no way for the leader to know what the unknown people actually said, and if they did complain in what context and what state of mind it happened. Worse, this perpetrator could have baited them unwittingly into speaking negatively about someone they otherwise wouldn’t have. Remember that the complainer is not an unbiased journalist with integrity writing an article citing anonymous sources (and even they have to verify their sources to an Editor), but is most likely an opinionated person with an agenda. If you are a leader, think like a judge or a journalist. Don’t just believe what you hear, especially this type of BS.

On the leader’s side, the one to whom the one-sided complaint is brought, the problem is also a lack of courage. It takes courage to tell someone who is seemingly confiding in you and appears to be trusting you that you do not entertain such bad behavior and that you will put this person and yourself in a deeply uncomfortable position by bringing the accused in to the discussion.

Especially in this day and age of political correctness, being sneaky, disingenuous and cowardly is much easier than being open, honest and courageous.

Unless your organization has a great culture.

…and how to discourage it

So how should executives in an organization discourage such bad behavior? With a culture of continuous and consistent fairness.

In many cases, complaining behind others’ backs also badly backfires. I mentioned earlier that it is cheap trick that works until it is exposed. An effective way to hinder such behavior is to spread awareness about it, for example, by sharing this article. By making it a well-known fact in your organization that such behavior is bad for the business and backfires for the perpetrator, you eliminate its effectiveness.

People for whom such behavior has backfired, causing them harm instead of benefitting them, learn to not do it anymore, provided they quickly realized that it was their bad behavior that hurt them. The human mind learns best when the feedback is immediate or comes soon after.

Therein lies the key to solving this problem in your organization.

Senior executives should build and maintain a culture holds open courts. What does that mean? This:

  • There are no trials held in private. Both parties must be present when any arguments are made in front of the judges (deciders, people with power). In other words, senior executives never entertain clandestine complaints made secretly behind the accused’s backs.
  • The accused always gets a fair hearing. If the accused does not have the debating skills to defend their case, the senior executives should assign someone strong to support them in a public-defender-like role. Winners should not be decided on the basis or their ability to win debates, but on the merits of their case.
  • Senior executives should be careful to never reward this bad behavior, and not even give the complainer the pleasure of indulging them in such a conversation.
  • Most importantly, senior executives must model good, desirable and fair behavior themselves.

The last point is especially important. People look up to successful, effective senior executives. People copy the behaviors they see emanating from the successful person. If senior executives badmouth other people behind their backs, people who look up to them are likely to emulate that behavior. If they see senior executives as respectful, supportive and caring of others, they will learn that. Mirror neurons in action. Which reminds me:

Look in the mirror.

Further Reading

Some neuroscience research related to this

(Shared by Cameron Brown)

 In person learning

badmouthing-behind-back-bad-for-business-cover-slide

  1. For whistle-blowing, there are formal established means. For example, speaking with legal authorities, human resources, or journalists, depending on the situation. []
  2. It is unethical because a basic principle of justice is that everyone has the right to face his accuser. And it is unproductive because it does not lead to the exploration of “Is it true?” which can lead to understanding and improvement. — Ray Dalio []
  3. I do not mean that you should say everything you think, just that what you do say matches your thoughts. — Ray Dalio []
  4. The word “integrity” is from the Latin root “integer,” which means “one” i.e., that you are the same inside and out. Most people would be insulted if you told them that they don’t have integrity—but how many people do you know who tell people what they really think? — Ray Dalio []
  5. co-authored with Bob Sutton  []