May 2, 2009

Dancing Monkeys

Many years ago, before I started my software development career, I had a job call-center representative for a national automobile association. This included a twelve-hour shift by myself on Sundays.

The Sunday shift was a bit of a grind. It could be a long, silent, boring wait for calls that never came, or if the weather was inclement somewhere on the other side of the country, it could be very busy handling a spate of calls all alone.

During the normal workweek, when there were a bunch of us working, we would pass the slow times doing paperwork. By Sunday, when I was often the only person in the building, the paperwork was usually all done, so to pass the time I took to listening to the radio. As soon as the phone rang I would shut the radio off and pick up. There was no doubt in my mind that I was doing my job fully and faithfully, in spite of the discomfort and difficulty of the job.

One Sunday, the Vice President of the company decided to come to the office to catch up on some work. At some point, he wandered back to the call-center where it was a slow day, and I was sitting there by myself listening to the radio. He may have greeted me, or asked me how busy I was, but he didn’t stay long and he didn’t say anything significant.

However, on Monday I heard from my boss that he had complained that I was listening to the radio instead of working.

This was my first significant experience of a phenomenon that I call “Dancing Monkeys”: the tendency of arms-length leadership to prefer situations where everyone “looks busy” or is “hopping to”, even when the expected effort would have no additional effect or might even be counterproductive.

There are many reasons for this phenomenon some pernicious and some benign. The pernicious ones that we will all have seen at some time or another is pure ego-tripping: “I’m the top monkey here, so you lesser monkeys start dancing!”

A common, more benign reason is lack of understanding of the work domain under observation. Software development is particularly prone to this one.
For example, more than once I’ve heard some executive complain that he stopped by the development team area and no one was typing, with the implication being that no work was getting done, since as every non-technical person knows programming is all about lines per minute of code typed.

Another common scenario is that inevitable day when, under some unforeseen deadline pressure, some executive asks the development manager when he is going to institute overtime to help meet the deadline. Because of course, as any non-programmer knows, there is no degradation to the quality of software development when the team is exhausted, since typing lines of code is a purely mechanical process.

To come back to my call-center job, effective execution of my duties required that when I got a run of long, stressful calls, I had the energy and focus needed to solve the clients’ problems efficiently and effectively. Anyone who has ever made a service call to a droning zombie service rep knows what happens when someone doing that job lets their energy reserve run down.

Listening to the radio helped me recharge between calls, kept my morale up on quiet days and improved my performance. Doing mindless, unnecessary busy-work would have sapped that energy and morale. Asking my boss to find work for me to do that was meaningful but would not interrupt my real work would have just increased her workload without increasing the efficiency or effectiveness of our department.

So that Vice President had to ask himself: was making himself feel better by getting a dancing monkey really in the best interest of his company?

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