29 August 2015

Oral versus written company cultures

I have noticed this thing a few years ago and it seemed like a very obvious concept to me. As usually when I invent something, I googled it, but unlike most times when I can read about others who already invented the same thing, I did not find any similar concept this time.
So here is the idea: in some companies (or organisations in general) writing is used more than in others to pass information around and to discuss things. This is obviously a gradual concept: some things will always be in written form, some always in oral form, but for many things in between, there is a choice of sending an email, creating a wiki entry, drafting a design doc, or talking to your coworker, or talking to the entire team of people sitting in front of their computers, or calling a meeting to discuss things and take decisions.
Let me just give one example out of many: a software team can come together in meeting to discuss requirements, specs (or acceptance criteria) for a new feature with one of them taking notes during the meeting and thereby complete the spec (or "user story"). Another possible way would be for one person to write a draft spec (no matter if that's a business analyst, product manager, lead developer, or just the person with the most interest and knowledge in that particular feature) and email it to others. (It's another question of culture not treated here, whether others can directly put their feedback into a shared document (wiki, issue tracker, whatever) or have to send it back to the responsible person.) In any case, the former way would be much more oral (keeping in mind that at a minimum meeting invitations are usually sent by email) while the latter is much more written (maybe with an oral part, when the document author reminds one or two coworkers to give their feedback while he crossing them in the company kitchen or hallway).
I can easily come up with a pro/con list of oral and written communication. Advantages for oral communication are:

  1. an asker of a question can get an immediate answer (which is very important when the question blocks their current task)
  2. people get a break from staring at their monitors
  3. being able to see another's facial expression transmits information that is often hard to put in words
  4. talking to just one person or a group of people all listening at once is faster than writing something. (this is even more true for people who aren't quick in formulating written speech; on the other hand, it's not true at all when the speaker makes notes for what they are going to say before saying it)
Advantages for written communication are:
  1. reading something is much quicker than listening to the same information spoken aloud. this is even more true when not all of it is relevant, because each reader can skip parts as they like, independent on all others.
  2. written information stays available for reading it again later. especially with modern computer's search capacity this can be very valuable.
  3. it's asynchronous: readers do not need to occupy the same time spot as the writer. each reader can read at their own preferred time. 
  4. both points 2 and 3 make written communication scale up much better: it is both hard to find a meeting time for more than six people and keeping all of them engaged all the time.
  5. writing something down helps clarify one's thoughts in a similar way that talking to someone does. but in writing the writer does not use another person's time and he or she can include their clarified thoughts into the communication that's sent out, possibly avoiding one loop of discussion.
  6. Writing allows to convey more complex information in more detail than oral speech can. In particular, for rational decision taking, writing has been shown to be extremely helpful, aiding in fighting many human heuristic biases that stand in the way of rationality.
Notice that text chat (such as via Skype, Jabber, SnapChat, etc.) is a form that combines advantages of both oral (it's instant) and written (it's silent and still somewhat asynchronous and can be looked up later) communication. Since it sits so neatly in between the two pure forms of oral and written, it can be used to differentiate company cultures on a single scale: a company has more written culture than an otherwise similar one if they use text chat in some places where the other uses talking. And the same goes for using email, a ticket system, or a wiki instead of text chat. (I would even argue that using a well structured wiki or task/project management system is more of a written culture than just using email all the time.

While I see that both sides (and all the shades in between) have their respective advantages, I find that most teams in the company I am currently working for, hang way to much towards the oral side than I would like. In particular, I am often disturbed by conversations in the team area that go over my head and distract from my current task. I find it hard to decide whether I should take of my sound-blockers to listen or (often unsuccessfully) try to ignore it. I hate spending time in meetings discussing things which one person could prepare beforehand, not just saving everybody time, but also often creating a result of higher quality. I hate it when a group has agreed on something, but later acts differently because the details and reasons had not been written down. I hate it when I miss an important discussion or information just because I was absent for a moment. And although I am not completely sure of it, I think that a written culture can encourage people to take more responsibility, for example, by drafting up suggestions to be approved instead of asking others and by just sitting down with a problem and a piece of paper (or text editor) before getting other's advice.

In other words: while I value the ease, quickness, and naturalness of simply talking to people, I would like my work environment to keep much more to the written way. After all, writing is part of what made our higher culture and our computing technology possible in the first place. Companies who neglect the writing, might not be able to tackle really complex issues and stay at the cutting edge of industry.

I want more of a written culture in my work life.

15 February 2015

Book Review: "Waking up. Spirituality without Religion" by Sam Harris

As usually, this is only partly a review and possibly for the larger part an account of the insights the book produced in myself.

What I really liked about the book:

  • the best part was the chapter on split brain experiments and observations. People whose right and left brains are less connected (for instance, due to an accident or surgery) seem to have two different personalities depending on which part of their brain one is interacting with. I found this hugely inspiring in understanding how some people like myself have trouble forming a steady opinion on things or trouble doing things which they have (not so long ago) firmly decided to do. Harris mentions that speech (although probably generated in both halves of the brain) can in most people not function without the left half of the brain. So in experiments, researchers had to use other ways (such as pointing their finger) of communicating with the right half of their subject's brains. This instantly reminded me of how much of my inner wisdom seems to be inaccessible to the verbalized thinking which I use to take decisions and solve problems. Although Harris doesn't mention this aspect of using more of one's inner resources, I still find his descriptions a powerful motivator to listen more to my body and to make more use of images and feelings when thinking about what I want to do or what I need to be happy.
  • another great motivator was his listing of many benefits of meditation (including some I didn't yet know). This is not a big part of the book and there is little advice on how to get those benefits if one doesn't want to spent entire weeks on silent retreats or travel the world to learn from dozens of spiritual teachers (such as Harris has done). The most practical manual which I can recommend for this is still "Search Inside Yourself". (And Harris' work motivated me to read SIY again! Or actually listen to it this time. I just bought the audiobook.)
  • I actually listened to the Audiobook of Waking Up, read by Harris himself. His voice and intonation is just as great as his choice of words and telling things as a story! I wish more authors would read their own books or at least get a really good and passionate voice actor to do the job.
What I found interesting, but not great:
  • Harris' view of what the purpose or end goal of Spirituality actually constitutes seems plausible and interesting to me, but not necessarily like something that would appeal to everybody. Just like all people share their very basic needs for food, air, sleep, socializing, and security, they diverge hugely on what they desire once the basics are met. One might see it as their goal to fly to Mars or at least prepare humanity to do this. Another might want to explore the ocean at thousands of meters of depth. Yet another might want to spread love and compassion to help the people around them, while again others (including some of my friends) see it as their goal to help as many people on earth as possible by earning a lot of money and wisely choosing to which altruist organisations to donate that. Similarly, Harris view of Spirituality (in a grossly abridged one-sentence summary) is that of an inquiry into the nature of consciousness and the self, followed (after long years of search) by the realization that consciousness is spotless like a mirror and there is no self. While I also find this realization quite comforting I am personally looking more towards how my meditation practice and my world view support my own well-being in the life outside the meditation hall. Others, again, are looking towards spirituality to find connection with other people or even with something that is more perpetual than us people.
    My own search is similar to Harris' in some regards. For instance, the importance of curiosity and inquiry and how I value teachers for the knowledge they share either with accessible explanations or by their good example. But as I see the differences between Harris' and my own goals, I see that many people will be even more different and maybe even unable to understand Harris' points. When it comes to their life's purpose, people are just incredibly different. For instance, while someone like Harris and (to some extend) myself is perfectly happy being the pilot of one's own life, many others simply seem to crave being led by someone who takes some (or more) responsibility off their shoulders. For some people this is so strong that they become devout followers of a guru. For others it is as simple as being one of the reasons (instead of having their own business) to work for a company large or small, where their boss takes some of the hard decisions. But this craving for leadership seems to be so basic, that there will always be some people who will not follow such a route of open-minded inquiry. 
  • His experiences with psychedelic drugs sound really fascinating and since I have heard similar stories from friends the book actually made me decide to try out some things myself – but that was just before Harris recounted his extra-ordinarily bad experiences with just the same drugs and how (as I understood it) he wasn't able to influence the outcome of his trips into the positive direction. And that was deterrent enough for me!
    In the end he gave a wonderful picture comparing drug-induced with meditation-induced higher states of minds: the first is like being stripped to a rocket that goes off with a large fraction of light speed. It can be truly mind-boggling when it goes to some place nice, but a nightmare if it goes wrong. And it is unclear whether one can influence the direction. Meditation, on the other hand, is like sailing when you start with a raft on still water: you can raise and enlarge your sail very gradually and it takes a lot of time to reach the open ocean. You will face troubles one by one so that you can learn how to overcome the obstacles and keep learning and growing. I personally like this image a lot because it can explain how many people are satisfied using meditation on one level (for instance, to calm their minds, or to better understand other people), but are not motivated to sail further out. Again, this was a wonderful motivator for me to engage in meditation more seriously!
Finally one thing I found really annoying about the book: his harsh criticism of Religion. Although he is factually right with all his charges against all the large religions, small cults, and other forms of superstition and mysticism. And although religions really have created a lot of damage to humanity and will continue to do so if humanity doesn't transform them into more open, accepting, and compassionate organisations, I simply believe that as a matter of how psychological defenses in the human mind work, criticizing religion in such a harsh way will only make it stronger. I, too, believe that religion as it is now has to disappear, but that this has to happen as some kind of embrace and transform. Probably religions of the future will have much less followers than in societies where religion was a mandatory part of the culture. Hopefully they will be free from any unethical behavior and even encourage people to explore there own ethics and learn to be more aligned to what they think and feel is right. Probably some superstition will never be rooted out, simply because colorful and dramatic explanations and justifications for good rules of behavior just stick better in the human mind than the dry scientific explanation which will yield the same conclusion. (As I like to say: usefulness of knowledge often trumps truthfulness.) And finally, I can't see how to completely root out the phenomenon of obedience from the basic hard- and software of the human mind. All we can do is to make people more aware of it, less dependent of it, show them more choices, and finally, create better and more ethical leaders.