Planning: Trading predictability for intelligence

I spent hours meticulously drawing an old castle, three levels of floor plans and carefully populating every room with Orcs, Trolls, Undeads and treasure. But even more hours was invested in planning how the players would approach the castle with their Role-Playing characters. The front doors would be unlocked and the characters would discover that, sneak inside, engage in a small fight with two filthy Orcs playing dice instead of guarding the castle, commence to the guard room, find a treasure, get surprised by a lutenant Orc walking into the room, etc. The plan was a masterpiece, but upon reaching the castle, I was taken completely off guard. They walked around to the back side, got out a grappling hook and climbed in through a small kitchen window on the second floor and… completely wrecked my plan! Dang! I hated unpredictable players.

castle

The purpose of planning is to increase predictability. Regardless of the name and the scope – strategy, plan, tactic, game-plan – the purpose is to avoid unpredictability. With the knowledge of Now, one seeks to make decisions into the future. The aim is to focus effort and to limit dispersement.

Sounds all good, perhaps. But there is a flip-side to this coin. When one focuses, one also limits and excludes.

planning

In opting for predictability, you trade in intelligence, creativity and agility. By limiting future choices, you limit improvisation and potential genius. This is why most creative geniuses prefer not to work in large corporations or set structures, but rather in lean and mean startups or prefer to work on their own.

What you gain in focus and stability and predictability in the short run, you lose in attainment of long-term valuable skills.

To quote Ole Wiik, “one must practice what one wants to be good at”. As you focus your training in one area, you become less adept in other areas. Planning makes you better at planning. But it makes you less adept at improvising. By avoiding the unpredictable, you will never get good at tackling the unpredictable. Your mental dexterity will suffer proportionately with your increasing planning skills.

Another factor to consider is that decisions are always sharpest with the best and up-to-date data readily at hand. Thus, any decision made by planning, decisions into the future can never be potentially as good as a decision made in the Here and Now with fresh data and input. Limiting mental dexterity by planning and adding some blinders will make you less sharp mentally. Planning adds preferences, it adds filter that makes fresh input looks dimmer while you become dumber. In an interview with Chess.com, Magnus Carlsen said: “Having preferences means having weaknesses.”

planning2

Planning is a tool, a crutch. It enforces a view of the future based on today’s data. It stimulates preconceived ideas, adds a filter for new data, tend to help you avoid unpredictability and helps you never get good at tackling surprises. Tools and crutches are needed if you cannot cope with a situation without them. But right there it should make the alarm bells go off. Instead of getting addicted to the tool of planning, how about starting to practice tackling the unpredictable? Scary shit. I know. But it does add spice to life and skills to you.

planning-planning-unemployment-obama-demotivational-poster-1244320193

sharp

The cult of ITIL

ITIL is the major framework for IT Service Management.

ITIL-V3

It comprises 5 books of Shakespearian English flanked by huge amounts of models, figures and diagrams. It is unwieldy and complex, leaving the reader in awe of its awesome.

chart-itil-v3-v1.9

ITIL has thousands of followers organized in country chapters of the IT Service Management Forum. Piles of papers are written every year, ITIL projects abound, and it remains a huge industry with vendors eager to leech off the ignorance of customers. And while organizations experience real IT challenges, they all too often jump to the conclusion that ITIL is the savior.

  • Problem with Peter.. Peter will not take responsibility? Enforce ITIL!
  • Trevor and Jack won’t work together? Go for ITIL!
  • Lack of IT documentation? ITIL!
  • Sandra shows lack of motivation? ITIL!!
  • Ben is a horrible manager? ITIL!!!

The less passionate employees are about their job, the less they feel a strong purpose, the less they take responsibility, the more ITIL seems required.

The ITIL congregation knows that it has the ultimate solution to every issue facing an IT organization. ITIL is the answer. Never mind the question. Bring out the Powerpoints and hard hitting argument. Oversell like mad and brainwash the customer into a true ITIL believer. The cult of ITIL rolls on in the all to recognizable self-serving fashion.

Sounds like Scientology, doesn’t it?

While the differences are obvious, the similarities are striking. Method before result. The tool becomes more important than the objective.

ITIL has been around since the early 90′s. My experience dates back to the early 2000′s. I used to be an ITIL evangelist, but the glare and glitter wore off along with my many ITIL projects. I did several high profile and very successful projects, but they often succeeded despite of ITIL rather than because of it.

Few ITIL projects succeed in making customers happy. Most fail due to some serious faults in the very foundations of the framework. Like the responsibility model, the complexity of the framework, the lack of true customer focus, the lack of real service focus, the lack of people focus. And above all, the belief that a certain method yields a certain result when the input is unknown. One should be very careful trying to implement a mindset of industrialization in the human spheres. What works splendid in a factory may wreck havoc on human initiative, creativity and motivation.

It is more important to help and motivate people than to enforce tools, processes, methods. The belief in the superior process rather than the superior will to deliver excellent results is the hallmark of a failed ITIL project.

People matters. More than the rest.

This is not to say that ITIL doesn’t have some excellent tools and tips. ITIL is good at describing the playing field and different typical
positions for people to play. It points to some good practices in dealing with IT issues, incoming requests, changes to systems that affect many, etc. But as with Scientology, one has to tread carefully in a minefield and wade through some rubbish to get to the good bits. As Scientology fosters a culture of irresponsibility, ITIL tends to do the same. Not by teaching irresponsibility per se, but by focusing so much on everything else as to leave little room for real empowerment and create a culture of self-thinking, responsible people with initiative and guts.

ITIL purports itself as “Best Practice“, but I was there when Sharon Taylor, the Chief Architect for ITIL version 3, said that the framework contains about 60% Best Practice and some 40% Wishful Thinking.

The best that Best Practice can do is to create followers. Leaders innovate, tread new ground and through guts and allowing themselves to fail come up with ingenious ways of doing things even better. Broad ideas and principles may be great guidelines, but when a framework becomes too detailed, it looses its punch and becomes a one-size-fits-few.

ITIL has created hoards of followers. Resembling a cult. But we don’t need cults. Rather than producing followers, one should strive to make everyone a leader in his own work area – even if the person leads only himself to deliver great results.

A few days ago I came across a blog post that was distributed by the LinkedIn news feed titled, “Top 5 ITSM Tips for 2014“. It reads like a gust from the past and serves well to underline what I wrote above. Tip #1 “Cost-effectively implement best practice ITSM” starts off with a whiff of fluffy business English:

Implementing best-practice IT service management not only ensures you are improving customer satisfaction and relationships with better reliability and quality of service, it will also give your service desk a competitive advantage.

Say what? Implementing this will ensure customer satisfaction? The answer is given. Don’t mind asking the customer. Maybe they don’t need anything even resembling ITIL. Maybe they don’t even need an IT department. Maybe they just need more care from the IT staff. Maybe something else entirely.

I don’t think the health profession was ever as narrow minded as this. Enter the doctor’s office. He has already decided what you need. Without even a second of examination. “You sir, is in dire need of an appendectomy!”

The article goes on with tip #2, “Measure your success”. Now this sounds very good. Except:

Measuring the success of your IT service desk will become ever more crucial as senior management hone down on overspending and look at ways to cut costs.”

The IT service desk… What if the customer got such amazing IT that a service desk was hardly ever needed? How about instead asking the customers what they think about the IT services and measure that instead?

Then tip #3 reads “Manage ITIL like never before”. So, instead of managing customers, and IT staff, we are lead to believe that ITIL is something to manage. Actually, it is the thing to manage. You don’t really manage ITIL or even processes. It’s like stating that the soccer manager should manage ball passing like never before. Nope. Manage the players like there was no tomorrow.

“Deal with the increased demand for accelerated delivery” is tip #4. Sound advice as long as your customers needs are assessed and as long as you are not relying on rubber stamp conclusions from analysts. Your customers matters. More than Gartner statistics.

And finally, the sales pitch for the ITIL certification industry: “Qualify your team”. If that would only advise the reader to qualify your team toward what your customers really need. But no, it means getting your staff through multiple choice questionnaires to pass a theoretical exam. A great exercise to produce followers. A louse exercise to enable IT staff to handle customers better.

The article manages to miss the major point in making IT successful – that what is really needed is motivated people that take 100% responsibility for delivering amazing service to their customers. The area of IT thrives through creative genius, people with heart, people who give it all to deliver excellent products and services, interested staff, real and honest communication and people with guts.

ITIL is traditionally very introverted. Not surprising given it’s a framework for an industry overrepresented with people having a hard time picking up girls. More extroverted contributors have come on board in recent years, but as the framework piles on with complexity, it still suffers from the internal focus.

To enhance IT, we need to inspire dedicated customer focus and a culture marked by 100% responsibility.

Get to the bottom of it!

The insistence on finding the WHY is pervasive. Psychoanalysis. Dianetics and Scientology. ITIL and Root Cause Analysis. The belief that one has to get to the bottom of a problem can be blinding. Because it is far from the only way to solve problems. Sometimes it is better to evade the problem, to find another path or to stop creating the problem altogether.

If you face a difficult situation or problem in life, do you need to find the cause of the problem to solve it? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. It depends. There is no ultimate answer to such a question. Maybe you need what you ultimately think you need in order to solve it.

If your car breaks down, smoke and fire erupting from the engine, do you need to find out why the engine broke down? Not if it is an old wreck of a car. It would be cheaper to buy a new one. And not if it is cheaper to replace the engine than spend much time investigating the source of the engine trouble. It all depends. On the business case. Maybe it was an omen that you should start get in shape by riding your bike more often.

The insistence that one must get to the bottom of it can create tunnel vision and lead to endless hours of therapy or auditing or figure-figure why it is this way or that way. At least sometimes it’s better to just give a fuck.

Slightly more uzbl

To make uzbl even more usable, I have added a download viewer script that is easy to configure and maintain. The purpose was to get uzbl to launch the appropriate viewer program when a file is downloaded from the net (like launching mplayer for a downloaded movie or zathura for viewing a downloaded pdf file). Other browsers do this as default, but as there is hardly anything default about uzbl (that is the whole point, really), one is left with the task of finding or creating the best add-ons even for viewing downloaded files. No add-on that I could find did the trick, and so I made one.

uzbl-logo

It wasn’t easy to figure out exactly how to hook a script into uzbl that fires upon a completed download. But with some pointers from people at the uzbl IRC channel, it was very easy to make it work.

Here’s what you do on a Linux system.

Add to your uzbl config file:

@on_event DOWNLOAD_COMPLETE spawn @scripts_dir/downloadviewer.sh %s

Then create the script “downloadviewer.sh” and place it in the scripts folder (on my system, that would be “/usr/share/uzbl/examples/data/scripts/”). Do a “chmod 755″ on the file to make it executable. The script would contain something like this:

#!/bin/sh
case "$1" in
*.pdf*) zathura "$1" & ;;
*.jpg*|*.png*|*.jpeg*) feh "$1" & ;;
*.txt*|*README*|*.pl*|*.sh*|*.py*|*.hs*|*.hl*) urxvt -e vim "$1" & ;;
*.mov*|*.avi*|*.mpeg*|*.mpg*|*.flv*|*.wmv*|*.mp4*) mplayer "$1" & ;;
esac

Edit to accommodate for your choice of viewers and file types to view.

Additionally, to set the “download directory” for uzbl, edit the file “/usr/share/uzbl/examples/data/scripts/util/uzbl-dir.sh” and change the line starting with “UZBL_DOWNLOAD_DIR=” to what you like.

hth :-)

UZBL: Hardcore Browser

I finally managed to migrate away from Firefox!

After having tried all the major browsers like Chrome, Konqueror, Opera, and dozens of minor browsers like Midori, Epiphany, Vimprobable(2), Jumanji, Luakit, etc… I found it!

Meet the hard core browser that gives you the ultimate control of your surfin’ experience: UZBL

As Firefox and the other Big browsers got bigger and bigger and steadily requiring more resources and becoming more sluggish, my desire to move away from Firefox increased. Until I decided to make a real effort and a final jump. Although I have tested many browsers over the years, I have only been dead serious about a migration in the past two weeks. Having been accustomed to many neat Firefox plugins, it seemed like a tough challenge to find a browser that could match at least my basic requirements:

  1. It must be fast
  2. VIM-like key bindings. I want my browser to be modal and act like my favorite text editor.
  3. Fully customizable key bindings
  4. Easily configurable and extensible, putting me in the driver’s seat
  5. Ability to edit text fields with VIM – like I do now, writing this blog post
  6. Tab-based
  7. Password manager
  8. Form filler
  9. Ad blocker

…and with UZBL I get this. And much more. It is dead easy to extend and customize almost every aspect of the browser in the config file or via scripts. And I can write scripts in any language and set uzbl to launch a script via a key binding. I can write scripts in Shell, Ruby or even Raven :-)

Bliss.

Click for full-size image

Click for full-size image

My system is now finally lean & mean with Ubuntu Linux as the OS, i3 as the Window Manager (no Gnome or KDE), Conky as a notifier, Mutt as my mail client, Newsbeuter as RSS reader, VIM for any and all text editing, LaTeX for writing books and articles, ZSH in urxvt, and now UZBL for surfing the Internetz. My perfect setup.

I had to tweak and squeeze the browser to make it behave just like I want it to – small stuff such as hitting “ogs” and then some search words to make the browser open up Google with the search results, or hit “tbi” to open up my blog in a new tab. And more involved stuff like restoring a closed tab by simply hitting “u”.

Firstly, I run “uzbl-tabbed” with this config and this follow-links-style. I changed the undo-tab scripts to this and this (so as to make it run on the latest uzbl version). If you want to try this browser, make sure to check out my config file – it includes some nifty stuff.

Enjoy (as long as you run Linux/*BSD/Unix/Mac OSX)

BBC: How Scientology changed the Internet

Interesting overview of the history of Scientology vs. the Internet over at BBC Technology.

The Internet may be the one factor in society where Scientology has had the biggest negative impact. The church is busy moving the arena of free speech into a tightly regulated and controlled venue, smacking of 1984.

Read the BBC article here.

The video that helped spark BBC’s interest:
Church of Scientology and their Internet war

Video on the Wikipedia ban:
Video: Scientology and Wikipedia (Internet war)

Why is it important that we talk about feelings?

Because they are the only real markers we have.

You can present uptime statistics, production efficiency, delivery times and numbers of this and that as much as you want. At the end of the day, it is the customer’s feelings that determines if he will continue buying your products or services.

Our emotions, our feelings are the sum of the impressions we value. And our emotions direct our actions. It matters little that you complied 100% with the SLA if the customer doesn’t feel like renewing the contract. You may think it’s unfair, that you did everything you could, or that it is irrational on the customer’s part. But the fact remains, if it doesn’t tickle the customer’s fancy, he will vote with his feet.

This is precisely why it is so important to talk about feelings. Invite the customer to open up. Make it safe to talk about that elusive airy-fairy stuff that women have been babbling on about for eons. Just as you tell the customer straight what you think, just like you open up fully about your emotions, so should you help the customer open up to you. Get underneath each other’s skin. Only then will you be able to figure out what’s really going on.

But a customer’s feelings toward you are usually not conglomerated only from his experience with you. He may have had a bad day, a quarrel with his wife or an excellent weekend trip camping with his daughter. They are elusive, these feelings. But to figure out what you can do about his experience with you, you need to get him to talk about it. Only then can you better sift out what emotions he may have specifically toward you.

Management frameworks tend to disregard emotions. Frameworks such as ITIL or PRINCE2 treat them as irrelevant and tries to supplant them with SLAs and the like. Other frameworks, such as Hubbard’s Management Technology treat them as contemptuous… HE&R (Human Emotions and Reactions) is an example of inventing a term to belittle another’s feelings.

All this goes for other relationships as well. The more important the relationship, the more important it is to talk about feelings. If you value the other person, value his or her feelings.

I hold that your feelings are your most important markers in life. It is the zest of living and should be treated with utmost respect. It is what we live for, the reason to enjoy the games we love to play, even the game of life itself.

Overconfidence

Having started and run several companies and a few IT companies in particular, this latest story from Slashdot particularly grabbed my attention. The point of the story, “overconfidence” is applicable is many fields and situations besides that of estimating IT project. First a copy-paste from Slashdot:

“Dan Milstein from Hut 8 Labs has written a lengthy post about why software developers often struggle to estimate the time required to implement their projects. Drawing on lessons from a book called Thinking Fast and Slow by Dan Kahneman, he explains how overconfidence frequently leads to underestimations of a project’s complexity. Unfortunately, the nature of overconfidence makes it tough to compensate. Quoting:

Specifically, in many, many situations, the following three things hold true: 1- ‘Expert’ predictions about some future event are so completely unreliable as to be basically meaningless 2- Nonetheless, the experts in question are extremely confident about the accuracy of their predictions. 3- And, best of all: absolutely nothing seems to be able to diminish the confidence that experts feel. The last one is truly remarkable: even if experts try to honestly face evidence of their own past failures, even if they deeply understand this flaw in human cognition they will still feel a deep sense of confidence in the accuracy of their predictions. As Kahneman explains it, after telling an amazing story about his own failing on this front: ‘The confidence you will experience in your future judgments will not be diminished by what you just read, even if you believe every word.’

And then quoting Laurens van der Post: “Human beings are perhaps never more frightening than when they are convinced beyond any doubt that they are right.

And when people are convinced about their conviction, things tend to go south pretty fast. This is seen also during Internet discussions as well as real life discussions. People seek certainty. And the quest for certainty is the real value, not the attainment of it. Quoting Voltaire: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.

Thinking back to my childhood, I remember with fondness how I cherished the mysteries and uncertainties of life. I loved how I didn’t know, how I wanted to know, and my quest for new knowledge. But as time went by and I grew up, I unfortunately became more certain, less fondly in awe about life’s mysteries and less inquiring.

I am currently trying to find ways to kill my own certainties, be more open for new views and uncertainties and to bring more awe back into life.

Hugs.

Scrap the SLA (Service Level Agreement)

According to Wikipedia, an SLA is:

A service-level agreement is a negotiated agreement between two parties, where one is the customer and the other is the service provider. This can be a legally binding formal or an informal “contract” (for example, internal department relationships).“.

SLAs is a hot item in IT, and is given much weight in the organizational framework called ITIL.

Almost all IT directors I talk to rely heavily on SLAs or blame the lack of proper SLAs for lack of success.

But seriously, do you have an SLA with Google? With Facebook, Twitter or the scores of Internet services that you use personally? No – and if you are unhappy, you simply find another solution or service provider.

An IT service provider would be wise to simply scrap the SLA or any contract that seeks to bind the customer. Instead, let the customer be free to choose and move to another vendor if they feel like it. In that way, the service provider will have to be constantly performing better than the competition. And that is the best solution to keep the customers.

Instead of locking the customer with contracts, service the customer like no one else.

No contracts, no lock-in and you have no choice but to become and be the best.

Without even intellectual property protection, you would have to rely on pure and excellent service to retain your customers.

Customer lock-in mechanisms makes for laziness, dwindling creativity and thus ironically opens the door to better service providers.

SLAs are only warranted where the customer are not free to choose another provider, such as when the business strategy dictates the business units to only use the internal IT department.

Feel free to ask

q

When the traffic gets high, when posts get more than 500 or even a 1000 comments, I am bound to miss questions from my readers.

I want to answer your questions, and to ensure you are not left without an answer, I propose you ask any questions you may have to me as comments to this blog post.

Just add your question as a comment here and I will get back to you with an answer. Ask anything – from my views on life, IT, Scientology, my favorite HP calculator, music, art, preferences in any part of life or whatever else you may have on your mind. Do not hold back. I am not shy.

This post is not an arena for long discussions – or I may again miss some questions buried in long threads. Interesting topics may instead earn separate blog posts.