How to Grow and Keep Geeks

So, in recent muses, i’ve tried to establish that our next step is a) restructuring economy to b) grow & keep geeks.


What changes do I make in my org, assuming that I have restructured the economy to give me space to do so, to increase the org’s ability to grow and keep geeks?

In no particular order, then, here are a bunch of ideas about this.

1: Stop hiring people whose chief attribute is their capacious memory for library calls in your tech stack, and start hiring people whose chief attribute is collaborative learning.

Rationale: the blockage in modern geekery are only very rarely about lack of technical skill, and are most commonly about people who can’t/won’t learn together. Further, an inexperienced technician with good collaboration will overtake an experienced technician with bad collaboration quickly, especially when teamed together with other collaborative learners.

2: Support the collaborative enterprise physically.

This means two things to me for now: a) providing a composite variety of physical spaces for the variety of types of interaction, b) putting people who are to work together daily in to that space.

Rationale for varied spaces: different modes need different rooms, and they need them a) at-will and b) simultaneously. We need space that can hold many, a few, and one. And we need it whenever we need it. Seeking to have floor-space at maximum load is optimizing the wrong thing.

Rationale for togetherness: in settings where we’re trying to emphasize collaborative learning, there’s really only one show-stopper: the person we need is only accessible via appointment. We want to minimize those occurrences.

(side note: this is not a slur on working remotely. We can be remote in the same space, too. It takes just what it takes to be collocated in the same space: money & attitude.)

3: Support the collaborative enterprise culturally.

There are many small items here — culture isn’t slogans — but the gist is that we seek to both encourage & reward those among us who work well together. Some sub-items. 1) abandon 95% of meeting appointments. 2) abandon tracking below the level of team. 3) establish core collaboration time. 4) ask for swarming & mobbing & pairing. 5) vary session structure and session leadership, both, and dramatically.

4: Catch up to the last 50 years of research in motivation.

And accept that the humans who work for you are humans before they’re employees, and employees before they’re geeks.

(or maybe humans before they’re geeks, and geeks before they’re employees? Consider that an edit.)

Rationale: a staggering number of people still think carrot and stick is how you achieve maximum performance. We have considerable evidence that this doesn’t work when that performance requires simultaneous creativity and technique.

Bear in mind, from my RAMPS ideas or those of the HBR, or Pink’s Summary, or Flow: Autonomy and Mastery are keys to this population.

5: Start seeing variety-of-practice in your organization as a positive not a negative, and avoid premature standardization.

Rationale: the trade is still changing at a pace no other technology has ever changed, and it’s been doing it for fifty years. We need varied practice because fixed practice can not possibly keep up.

To the extent you need to fix enterprise policy at all, define such policy in terms of "risk we can’t afford", and let individual teams solve the risk in different ways. As long as its solved for each team, we actually don’t even want one solution.

6: Make your entire organization worry about minimizing WIP in their daily context, and build an ethic around finding "what’s the next tiny step that is not-definitely-wrong?"

Rationale: too much WIP and too much attention to the future are the two great killers of mind-work, because they both expand mental bandwidth requirements far beyond the limits of normal humans.

For WIP teams multi-task almost as effectively as individuals do, which is to say, not very well at all. We will never get to a pure "one thing at a time" approach, but the closer we get to it, the better we’ll do.

For attention to the future, the reality is that sitting and thinking about the future is dramatically overvalued in our trade. No one, absolutely no one, knows where we are going to be six months from now. Hazard a guess, pick a not-definitely-wrong step, and act. Repeat.

That’s my list for now.

We could talk at length about how avoiding these ideas is preventing us from growing and keeping geeks. Some of them are obvious, some of them less so.

To pick one at random: what does variety-of-practice have to do with geek growth and retention? When we prematurely standardize it has two effects aside from just locking us in to obsolete ideas.

That prevents us from growing & keeping geeks by reducing both their ability to innovate and their will to do so. It makes every team the same, every company the same, and when all the companies are the same, the one who pays the most will win.

Similarly with the others. Anyway, feel free to probe & challenge. As always, these muses are WIP for me.

I’ll say again what i’ve said before. This is about enlarging our focus. At one time, the trade only ever spoke about "the made" — the product we wish we could build. This movement is about enlarging that focus to include "the making" and then again to include "the makers".

Growing and keeping geeks can be done, but only if we’re actually trying to do it.

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