While watching the world cup cricket match between South Africa and West Indies, I checked the history of cricket in West Indies. I was impressed with the side’s virtual invincibility in the 70’s and 80’s. There were so many greats and top achievers and at a point of time many records were being held by their team. Even more impressive was the fact that it was not a single nation’s team but a federation of cricket clubs spread across 12 different countries. Going by the performance in the last decade or so I could hardly believe that they fielded the greatest cricket team.

I inferred that the team suffered a learning disability when they were at the height of their power. Peter M Senge in his book “The Fifth Discipline” lists out the learning disabilities a person or organization can go through. The one example that comes very closely  to explain the case of West Indies’ decline is “The Parable of the boiling frog”. A frog will jump out of kettle if you try to drop it inside boiling water, but if the frog was already there inside the kettle and slowly the temperature is raised; chances are very high that the frog doesn’t realize until it is too hot and dies in the boiling water.

Humans evolved to react to sudden threats (fight or flight) and not to slow changing events, the West Indies team members would have thought that they are being too successful in cricket that they will be able to face any team any day and win. What they did not look forward was to groom the next generation of greats and ignored the responsibility to promote new members.Combine this disability with the economic issues and weird logistics issue in the federation of clubs across 12 countries, the cricket team board never got up from deep trenches.

Organizations and individuals can also get stuck in a similar situation where they are on a performance plateau but don’t really see up what is in store for them. One of the factors which holds back anyone from learning or moving on, is to leave the comfort zone and venture into cold waters. The other significant factor is the learning horizon, if we don’t get an immediate feedback on what we do; we generally tend not to pursue that activity. Constant learning is a continuous and long term investment which can’t be very easily observed or quantified. Great flourishing civilizations have disappeared due to outdated weaponry and fight methods. Companies and individuals will have no other way to stay up than to keep on learning.

Mark Glouston in his book “Just listen” says

Every one has an invisble tag around their neck which says Make me feel that I am an important person

That quote made me recollect my experience at the work place and ended up coming with a theory to explain the behavior which I named as firemen theory. I classify firemen into two types based on their reaction to a scenario.

SCENARIO: A fireman is on duty in a shopping mall and notices a dustbin on fire….

TYPE A: He notices the fire from the bin, swiftly acts on putting the fire out. Not only he does that but investigates for the root cause by talking to people nearby about the incident and educating the people around what could have caused the fire. This act helps in putting the fire out easily and makes sure people are educated about it.

TYPE B: He notices the fire from the bin; runs around crying FIRE FIRE FIRE. People notice him and try to locate where the fire is and a mix of panic and curiosity sets in. In the meanwhile he announces that people need not bother as he is well trained to handle the situation and directs two civilians nearby to fetch water. The fire grows in size and looks like it will spread its wings to nearby locations. After a tough attempt the fireman manages to put the fire out along with some of the civilians and ends up getting standing ovation and countless compliments.

The regular workplace is no different, people like to be recognized and that makes them feel happy. Heroic efforts are well rewarded & recognized and hence some people resort to seek attention. As it takes a good deal of time to understand the system and the good effects of living in a symbiotic relationship with the environment; it is so easy for a type A person to become type B as the personal gain and the sense of well being is granted, but it comes at the expense of more work to everyone and loss to the overall system.

Every workplace has to nurture the symbiotic culture and educate people about the delayed feedback about the overall gains in such a setting. It is very evident from football games where every team member’s move counts and all it takes is one selfish person to spoil the goal. Sadly people have a narrow learning horizon that many don’t see the long term effects about immediate actions.

How to bring the mindset of type A firemen into everyone? My observation so far has been that it is a slow process which involves a lot of patient type A people educating every one around non intrusively and show immense perseverance to drive the culture up. They should also tackle type B people which will be an art in itself. We should also be very cautious because all it takes is one selfish person to spoil the entire effort of a well knit team.

Let us strive to make our workplace environment healthy.

Before you begin reading  you must watch the short 45 second clip.

This video towards the end shows a hesitant thief mustering the courage to pick a pocket. On hearing the kid snap his finger he is disturbed and out of fear drops his idea and walks away, hence a crime has been prevented from happening. It was a coincidence that the thief thought that someone else was looking at him.

I loosely compare this to the Continuous Integration server where the build turns RED for the standards we set. Most of the bad parts while coding goes in inadvertently during the rush hour of check-ins. I usually observe the rush hour to be close to the end of the day and the next day, the refactoring is put into back burner which grows into tech debts and makes you repay at a later stage. Along with the other devs in the team we set some simple rules in the CI to fail the build. The rules are

  • More than 12 lines in a method
  • NPath complexity more than 4 in a method
  • More than 4 lines of code copy pasted across any file

An intentional check in to avoid these rules and send in a bad code could not be prevented; but someone in a hurry or tired individual checking in gets a hint that code could be bad. A quick introspection will lead to corrective action and things could be addressed then and there instead of carrying a tech debt. The rules above are neither comprehensive nor does this guarantee awesome code, but it has caught me and others red handed when looking for quick gains. We are exploring more options to configure the CI to help us keep on our toes.