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The first non-bullshit book about culture I've read (zwischenzugs.com)
358 points by zwischenzug 13 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 150 comments

My experience as a Development Manager for the past ~year (YMMV):

1. I'm playing chess; senior management is playing checkers. No, not because I'm some sort of genius and they are simpletons, but rather they talk about interchangeable "resource units" and I know these FTE's as "Tom" and "Amy", each with specific strenghts and weaker areas. Big strategic plans cannot differentiate but we front-line managers need to figure out how to position and leverage individuals.

2. Actually, genuinely, caring about your direct reports goes a very long way towards solving a lot of culture problems but...

3. Dev Managers need to put a lot of effort out into their teams to drive change and it is often (most of the time?) not returned. Your biggest enemy is not active sabotage, it's apathy at all levels of the organization. I started pushing for some specific cultural-ish changes about this time last year and, while I was given passive approval & support and lots of latitude to make change, it has been physically exhausting. If I was in an organization that didn't even give me this much freedom it would have been exhausting and pointless.

4. A Dev Manager can make localized changes when not all teams want or can reciprocate, but I'm not convinced yet that the requisite firewalls you need to erect aren't ultimately harmful in the long run. It is a very delicate balance.

In the end my take-away is you need space and time to make any meaningful change, and even that is limited by the crushing inertia of the organization. For me personally it has been physically consuming and I have 6 month & 1 year goals, plus an overall 3-year plan that I'll either complete in the coming year or look for an new opportunity elsewhere.

A few thoughts.

If you want a better analogy that doesn't belittle senior leadership, try Go instead of Checkers.

One of the keys to successful management and leadership is understanding sustainability. Incremental changes over a period of time beat a huge lift followed by burnout and stasis.

A senior leader wouldn’t be caught dead holding the same position for more than 18 months. The whole game is to make a huge lift, collect the monetary and prestige rewards, and move on to the next thing before burnout becomes apparent.

Sustainability is the domain of entrenched/ossified/bureaucratic middle managers, moderating or outright sabotaging whatever BS senior leadership is excited about this month.

I actually think current "leadership" is on its way to being extinct. It will be replaced by algorithms and best practices, along with better tools. If you're not contributing to code, there will be very little room for them in the software company of the future. The concepts that non-technical leaders have to learn are trivial compared to the advanced techniques of software development.

If leading people is so goddamn easy compared to software engineering, why do so few engineers want to move into people leadership, and why do so many of them absolutely suck at it?

I think you are severely discounting the skills it takes to lead people, and you are also making an extremely optimistic assumption that companies in the future somehow would be magically more meritocratic than existing companies, when there's no evidence of the sort. On the contrary, people with great interpersonal skills will continue to advance off of the labour of the people with only great technical skill.

Your glorious engineer's revolution will probably not come to pass if history is any indication.

Maybe I should have clarified, but leadership will have to be an additional requirement on top of knowing how to develop. If you look at the history of software development in enterprise, software developers have increasingly had to work multiple overlapping roles, the more recent of which, in my experience, is making developers be testers as well. It used be QA was a separate role, but now it has evaporated because there are so many tools surrounding this discipline that require knowing how to code, so exclusive testing roles are not favored as much anymore. I don't how many years from now this is, but I really believe that everyone will have to know how to code to a great extent in order to use the software tools of the discipline.

If you look at the history of software development in enterprise, somehow, engineers never seem to be rewarded according to their actual contribution to the bottom line.

Somehow, the managerial class and the investor class insert themselves between the fruits of the labour and the engineers performing said labour. And if you think that's suddenly going to stop because the nature of the labour changes, then I think you're mistaken.

Enterprise structures rewards rent-seekers, because they are built by, and controlled by rent-seekers, utilizing disposable labour. The only way a power structure like that can be flipped, is through revolution. Or by forming your own company, out-competing these enterprises.

That's an interesting point. I worked in QA for years and was out of the country for a few years. When I returned my old role (QA and process development/project management) didn't exist. The industry had moved on and those roles were handled by SDET/automation engineers and product managers respectively. I had to do a bit of retooling of my skillset.

Every QA person I've worked with that is still in the industry has moved on to almost pure test automation. A few years ago that was more like 30% of the role. Now I rarely do almost any manually testing, except for exploratory purposes and to design the test plan. Also for certain things that don't automate well. These days I do more pure development than I have at any other point in my career. It's been super fun, but still quite a change. I've seen colleagues that were more the business analyst flavor of QA get pushed out of the industry when they couldn't/wouldn't adapt.

I don't disagree with you about leadership being hard. But the argument you use to get there is easily rebuttable:

> If leading people is so goddamn easy compared to software engineering, why do so few engineers want to move into people leadership,

a) because they wouldn't enjoy it as much as their current job?

b) because for engineers, being a manager does not give them status amongst their peer group.

> and why do so many of them absolutely suck at it?

a) citation needed. Is it provable that engineers are particularly worse at leadership than the rest of the population per capita?

b) if engineers tend to suck at being managers, it doesn't show that managerial roles are harder than engineering ones. How good are managers at attempting engineering roles, for comparison?

"b) because for engineers, being a manager does not give them status amongst their peer group."

I am so reminded of Brave New World...

"Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they're so frightfully clever. I'm awfully glad I'm a Beta, because I don't work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki...I'm so glad I'm a Beta"

You are an optimist in a way. What you seem to be forgetting is that the leadership does make the decisions. What do you think are the odds of making a decision hurting their bottom line? It is a rhetorical question.

It will happen in the future, but we need algorithms capable of empathy to replace human leaders. Let’s say we’re not close.

That's why CEOs make less $ than software engineers right?

I don't really agree with commenter above, but this argument is blatantly wrong. Executives are paid the way they are just because they are in charge of, among other things, compensations.

The executive is not choosing their own pay. The CEO's "boss" is generally a board representing the owners of the company.

An explanation that contains circular logic is not an explanation.

You're joking right?

No, but I did leave out some important clarifications. It's not that leaders will go away, but that I think leaders will also be required to contribute to some code. Also this isn't in the near future either, but just like many roles (i.e. QA), leadership will slowly become absorbed by developers who will have multiple specializations along with knowing how to code.


Well stated. Bookmarked.

One additional bullet point I would add: Hiring.

If an isolated HR unit controls hiring and freezes the hiring managers and team out of the process, or effectively alienates them, you're wasting a huge amount of energy.

This is part of the methodology I try to weave into my organizations:

- A thoughtful and literate job posting, purged of gratuitous jargon, will accurately describe the job and foreshadow the company culture.

- Candidates will be evaluated using a simple quantitative assessment of core competencies (see Ch. 21 of Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow).

- Final decision will be a collective decision of the hiring team.

- After hiring cycle is complete, hiring team will hold a retrospective.

- We will acknowledge mistakes and work to correct them quickly and humanely.


>Candidates will be evaluated using a simple quantitative assessment of core competencies.

I've tried implementing that with a coding take-home task, with "mixed results".

On-paper great candidates often refused.

On-paper good candidates made mistakes because they completed it very quickly, while mediocre candidates invested x10 the time and produced "better objective result".

Comparing code turned out to be much less straightforward or objective than I've anticipated: X handed great consistent well-commented code, but didn't null check inputs, Y covered all cases but left internal class implementation details public, and so on and so forth.

So, what is more effective than a talk home task?

I posit it's still the least bad way to evaluate a candidate. If a 'mediocre' candidate is able to complete the task well, they have still completed the task well.

And, IME, 'great' candidates, even with a storied resumes, can simply be good at self-advancement and job application as much as actual competent at their job.

So...how did you actually do in filling the role?

I don't care how someone looks on paper. Nor should you. Your process should optimize for people who are good at the job. You can look at all the negatives and try and guess "maybe that was a false negative!"...but who cares? What's your rate of true/false positives? That's the only data point you have; optimize for that.

In my case I got zero positives. It's easy to build an accurate classifier if recall is ignored. Not a single candidadte completed the task perfectly. Not hiring would be a failure for me.

If I remember correctly Kahneman said not to do this though and to just go by the quantitative evaluation you mentioned in the previous point. 'Final decision will be a collective decision of the hiring team'

From the other side (lead dev) I feel the apathy part pretty acutely.

I go so far as to say I think Hanlon needs a new razor. Never attribute to stupidity that which can be adequately explained by apathy.

Those insights are right on. I respect those dev managers beyond measure... they have to say no often and deal with the org red tape.

Can you supply some examples of good goals? Thank.

Not the parent but a good goal for me is a goal that will stand the test of time. If your change is fundamentally a good one and is part of a strong industry trend it will more likely succeed. I have been pushing a consolidation system for finance (2,000+ finance professionals where I work) over the past 3 years, only lately it's picking up steam with the leadership. If I had been pushing a change that was not so strongly trended (automation and all) I would have failed because something else would have come up as "best practice" in the industry. This does not mean you just go with the industry and become a "benchmark" monkey, hype is still a problem. Take AI, Big Data, etc., those are not so good trends to latch on today because they seem to be too hyped. But it means you stay real with yourself, your company and, most disregarded, your industry.

This reads like a commercial, but I'm not going to downvote it. I read the book and liked it, along with about a hundred other books on culture over the years. There is a similar pattern: a problem, an old way of doing things, a hero, a change, and a beautiful sunset with our hero riding off.

I think there are really, really good things in these kinds of books, especially if you identify with the problem and hero. At the same time, having gone through a bunch, there's a tendency for them to be like self-help or diet books: lots of great feelings while you're consuming them, energetic talking about the ideas with your friends, then a slow die-off until the next book.

Years ago I started collecting news articles and bits of information on culture. (IT culture). It's a fascinating topic because it intersects hype and measurable reality. Unlike a self-help book that promises "Be a happier you in 3 weeks!", your job is something that either gets better or doesn't.

For what it's worth, my best choice so far is "The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups" I read this book and thought "That son of a bitch! He's stolen all of my research material!" There is a bunch of anecdotes, stories, and research in there. I am still thinking over many of the ideas in the book I hadn't considered before.

This is important stuff. If it's something you're concerned about, don't give up. Read as much as you can. Just step back a bit from the hype cycle as you do so.

> then a slow die-off until the next book.

I'm curious if you think that it's actually possible for a book (or perhaps more generally, a school of thought) to actually break out of the cycle, or whether it's just the natural order of these sorts of things.

What I mean is, maybe what we get from these sorts of "self-help" pieces of literature/philosophies/whatever is less like a mantra that's one and done, and more like food satisfying a nutritional need, and just as you can't expect to eat a perfect meal and never be hungry for the rest of your life; when you get hungry again, you just need to find the next thing to eat.

I ask because I've gone through a number of these sorts of cycles in my own personal development over the last decade or so, and I'm finding that success tends to lie in seeing things in the latter light.

Like you describe, I just kept sucking it all in, consuming as much as I could. I have self-taught through a few of these subjects. I don't have an answer for you, but I have an answer for me. Perhaps sharing my answer might help you too. I hope so.

These are unsolved problems, that's why the material keeps getting produced. I think if you can find inspiration or a good "nutritional meal" to last for a while, it's a good thing. If nothing else, it serves to motivate. That's a big plus.

I'm pretty dense and hard-headed, so I have the hand-grenade theory of teaching myself: I just keep lobbing book-after-book into my own ignorance over time until I make progress. The vast majority of my attacks on my own personal ignorance are ineffective in the long run, but you know what? Little pieces here and there tend to stick. Maybe nobody's said it before or maybe it just takes the right author in the right context to get to me. I suspect the latter. After enough pieces stick, I can start actually working the problem of making myself better.

People who want to help in areas like this (unsolved domains) will BS one another in a heartbeat. I suspect that it's all so contextual to each of us we're just not aware of what we're doing. I don't know. But it means that personal recommendations of material should make you wary, especially if they come with heavily-laden emotional terms. ("Fight the evil corporate management structure!" or something like that) Like an organist that rests on the pedals too much, you get a long ways with books like this by making them emotional. Once again, motivation is great. If that's all you get, that's still a win for many.

So now we get to the heart of it. The real problem is coming up with evaluation criteria. Everything is great until there's a feedback loop and a way to fail, so your long-term job in trying to learn is setting up faster feedback loops and clear criteria to indicate success or failure. From there you can begin sorting out the "good" parts of the material from the fluff.

But that's just me. Until I had a good, solid way of evaluating whether something failed, a criteria that could point me to consuming smarter the next time, I was just going meal-to-meal.

An unsolicited advice that might cut your learning time in half:

Every book gives advice, every advice is an answer to a question. Ignore the answer, but scrutinize the question.

For example: "embrace remote work, go remote-first even!" says one book, "face-to-face is the only thing that works in the face of inevitable confusion and complexity" says another. Not helpful, right? However, consider that the first author got good result with remote work, and the second one got great results in-office. The two may have had different circumstances which they fail to describe for the reason you're describing the air you are breathing - being very immersed in something makes that something invisible. So a question to ponder then: under what circumstances is remote work possible, and if/how can one modify those circumstances?

Scrutinizing the question is a lot more work than getting excited with the first answer that came your way, but it's that much more likely to yield applicable result on top of a bout of enthusiasm.

Also, thanks for [The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups] suggestion.

I both strongly agree and strongly disagree with your comment. Not sure, I think this makes me a consultant (smile)

Yes, it does boil down to questions. However questions drive out language, so simply saying that "scrutinizing the question" is the real work is both true and incomplete.

It is an important point, though. Thank you.

> I both strongly agree and strongly disagree with your comment. Not sure, I think this makes me a consultant (smile)

It may or may not, naturally.

> questions drive out language

What do you mean by this?

> This reads like a commercial, but I'm not going to downvote it

Is it possible to downvote a submission? I thought you could only upvote and flag?

When your internet points on HN exceed some threshold you may be able to downvote. I’ve heard there’s also a thing called a supervote. (I have neither of these privileges)

This is not true, no matter how much karma you have, you can never downvote stories on HN, only flag.

Super down voting is something only mods can do (maintains the story, but it gets nuked off the site index)

You may be correct, though you have a lot fewer internet points than the person who was talking about downvoting ;)

Also, I was referring to a super upvote, not a downvote, sorry if this was unclear. I’m pretty sure this is a thing, I have it mentioned by an extremely high karma HNer.

Culture Code is a fantastic book. I'm almost done reading it. My main takeaway: decent cultures are built by good people doing good things. In some ways, it's really as simple as good leadership. (Kindness, empathy, filling people's cups, listening skills, etc.)

"This makes me wonder whether a good way to make needed change as a leader when there is no obvious crisis is to artificially create one so that people get on board…"


You cannot fix people who don't admit that they are broken.

As someone who has been called into broken projects often, I've had this conversation often. If you "help" a project that is floundering, it will just continue floundering, wasting money and time. You have to wait until it's completely broken and an admitted crisis, and you can ask, "Would you like me to take it over?" and not have interference.

I've never had to artificially create a problem, though. That sounds like agent provocateur stuff.

I don't intentional break things just to create crisis, but I have pushed for change that I know highlights problems and forces us to address them. For example, after many acquisitions by our company you could still identify the old companies by the insular cultural characteristics of siloed product teams; I pushed very hard to restructure teams and this required learning how to cumminicate and collaborate with new people. Now we've acquired more companies and (while in hindsight I guess I should have seen this coming) I'm learning this is an ongoing challenge that I treated as a one-off project.

It’s crazy how long mergers and aquisitions can be seen in IT infrastructure. There are always little warts here and there, and if someone was around for it they can say, oh yeah, we had to deal with such and such a team’s way of doing things. And the naming, always you see random names of things that basically no longer exist, but the names live on because some script names some report based on a system that existed 10 years ago.

The archeology of IT systems is part of what I liked about supporting legacy systems.

"Turn the ship around" is one of my favorite books too; most leadership books follow the same formula- everything is broken, the consultant arrives with a magic fix, and voila! Unicorns start flying.

"Turn the ship around" is unique that it shows the problems with the author's approach- how it failed at first, how he had to work around it, how he tweaked the approach.

A very honest, no BS book. Highly recommended

Yeah, that's the joy of it. Mis-steps, and dark nights of the soul and all. That's the reality of leadership; it's poking around in the dark.

If you like that you should read "About Face" by David Hackworth. I have not read it but I've hear about it via the Jocko Podcast.

I cannot recommend "About Face" enough. However it is a long read and covers the whole life story of Colonel Hack.

Instead you might want to check out "Steel My Soldiers' Hearts" where he focuses specifically on the time when he turned around the worst fighting battalion in Vietnam.

Yeah heard that was good too. Thanks for the tip. I feel like that would give you the real details that one would need to know for a situation like that.

To some extent, I'm no longer curious about "leadership" ideas about organisational culture.

I understand that culture counts for a lot, but modern organisational cultures are getting complaints that "leadership" is not going to solve at scale.

Maybe motivation/attitudes can be improved and a naval hierarchy can work better, but this is not the typical issue in corporate culture.

I'm curious about structural answers. A lot of culture comes down to how success and failure work. If a company culture is bad at risk-taking and internal entrepreneurship, a "culture of openness" can't fix it.

To get genuinely failure tolerant and opportunity seeking, organisations need to structure for successes and failures.

How are resources really allocated in the company? How are successes and failures really determined and what are the real ramifications.

So... (a) organisations need some formal/mechanical processes governing the pertinent decisions: resources and goals. Formal processes can be examined more honestly and biased to (or against) risk.

(b) If you really opportunity-seeking, risk taking culture... then you need "money-where-mouth-is" mechanics. It doesn't need to be fully "market-based," but someone needs to be throwing themselves behind opportunities because they think that they'll be successful.

The problem that runs through both Google (eg) and the naval ship is a culture of "do enough, and no more." The solution is usually to raise the "enough" bar somehow... motivation, discipline. That works when what you want from employ/organisations is "enough."

If you want more than enough, I think the structure needs to change.

>I understand that culture counts for a lot, but modern organisational cultures are getting complaints that "leadership" is not going to solve at scale.

I'm not sure if I agree or disagree with you - on the one hand, this statement seems wrong, but on the other hand, everything else you said makes a ton of sense to me.

Everyone seems so caught up by culture these days that they forget the other big part of the leadership battle: process. Nobody on HN likes to hear it. It's unsexy, and, to a creative type (like a designer, PM, or, to some extent, SW engineer), threatening.

At the end of the day, though, people don't scale. Processes do. I believe good leadership has a lot to do with setting up good processes.

Edit: maybe I'm wrong, but tons of companies humbleblog on HN about their brilliant cultures. Very few of them open the kimono on their processes. Largely, I think, because those are what really make their businesses money.

Lord yes. It's both. It's very much both.

Small companies tend to have everyone working on the same thing. You might have a marketer, a couple engineers, etc, but they all care about the same thing.

As you grow, you silo. You have a marketing department, and an engineering department. There starts being disconnects between each group; engineers don't know what marketers are doing, marketers don't know what engineers are doing.

As you get bigger still, you silo the silos. Now you have your client dev teams, maybe a couple backend dev teams, various marketing teams, some data analysis/engineering teams, etc. To get a change through, now, you have to get disparate teams, all with different criteria for success, pulling in the same direction.

A lot of the time companies notice that better culture helps. It surely does. If I care about the other teams, even for things whose success/failure does not impact me directly, it leads to better results.

But the core problem is one of process. It's also one of the things that these companies trying to be 'agile' have clearly missed; rather than creating a 'self-organizing team' by taking one dev from the client team, one dev from each backend team, a marketer, a data guy, etc etc, and building a team out of them, that is responsible for a feature (and it can be a somewhat ephemeral team, it just needs to be one who is responsible for the success/failure of something, and can truly own it), they've instead created "self-organizing teams" inside each silo, and then are left with trying to chart a path for a feature across all of them via project managers or similar, and it's both incredibly slow, and incredibly painful.

How would you approach customizing the process to the individual or to a given circumstance?

For example, I had a situation where I had a story to write functional tests for a piece of our software. The story's scope had creeped (there turned out to be disagreement between different levels of leadership over what the tests should cover), but I had reached a point where I had implemented roughly 80% of the tests that we needed. I submitted a pull request for the progress that I had made so that it could be "locked in" and I could get it out of my mental overhead. However, the person who reviewed the PR refused to merge it because we apparently had a policy that each story could only have one PR. Ultimately, the overhead of trying to get everything in all at once resulted in the story not being successful.

Although maybe that example illustrates your point about the importance of process, because I had been asking for weeks for us to actually have sprint planning so that I could break up the story, but it kept getting canceled because people felt that they were too busy.

When people follow policies strictly to the exclusion of work getting done, that's not something to be solved with another policy. In a well-functioning environment, people are very willing (too willing, if you ask most security teams!) to ignore or override annoying policies that stop things from getting done. If people are working to rule, that's almost always a protest action, and the only real solution is resolving the protesters' frustration.

>How would you approach customizing the process to the individual or to a given circumstance?

Ideally, you don't. The heart of a good process starts with asking up front: "Is this situation generic enough that we need a procedure for it?"

If yes, write process.

If no, handle as a one off.

I'm not sure how your example applies.

We disagree somewhere, but I'm not sure where. Let me take a stab...

If people don't scale, why are we hoping for "leadership" to be at the heart of it. The whole idea behind "inspired leadership" is that it's a person, and they need to be really good.

I'm saying too things, rely on simple, honest structural procedures to drive cultural changes... not leaders.

A lot of leadership is cosmetic. I'm not discounting the importance of feelings and symbols to an organisation. Just focusing on symbols, attitudes and such though... it's nonsense.

If you're trying to solve problems like "innovation at big companies," you'll need to deal in real currency. The stuff of real incentive... cultural stuff, but also monetary stuff, power stuff, etc.

“Culture can’t be broken, any more than complexity can be the cause of failure”.

Am I in the minority thinking that “complexity is the cause of failure” may in fact be a useful and actionable statement? Start analyzing where complexity resides, cope with failures caused by inevitable complexity…

Of course, qualifying the sources of unnecessary complexity would be even more helpful, but even merely pointing it out may be more strategically useful than “X and Y caused an error”. (So you’ll fix X and Y; then Z will start causing trouble.)

It’s a tangent, I agree that “culture is broken” does seem like a useless statement.

> Am I in the minority thinking that “complexity is the cause of failure” may in fact be a useful and actionable statement? Start analyzing where complexity resides[...]

I think the spirit of the original statement is exactly that: complexity is the cause of failure is an awful conclusion to reach.

What you're saying sounds like you think it's a good first intuition to start going deeper and reach more specific conclusions.

Even if you can reach a more specific conclusion, that wouldn't necessarily rule out complexity as the cause of failure.

It's a question of how far you zoom in or out.

In the micro-level you can find the particular bug that causes failure, while on the macro-level it's still complexity that's causing failure (because it causes bugs like that to occur more frequently).

The complete tweet was:

Culture can’t be broken, any more than complexity can be the cause of failure. Fucking get specific.

So you agree with its author.

some authors try to distinguish complexity from .. hm.. "chaotic" ? in that, complex means a lot of working parts to form an action chain (or similar) .. contrast to other systems that are not knowable or repeatable, like actual economic systems, or an enterprise of humans doing a business function, including the considerations of humans

Engineers are often taught to simplify and clarify, for great result.. but not all systems are actually decomposable that way .. some schools of business management too..

So a moving, non-trivial, not-reproducible system of systems cannot be considered 'broken' because.. there is no substitute for it to test a fix

All good points, although "rather than just punishing, he spent 8 hours discussing with his team"...? There needs to be less punishment as methodology out there, but an eight-hour discussion IS a form of punishment in my book. And for everyone else, too.

They discussed for 8 hours because they had to figure out how to avoid a repeat in a practical way. The discussion was not with the offender, but among the leadership team.

At NASA, this is called a "Root Cause Analysis" or RCA. A multi-hour meeting all about punishing the guilty via embarrassment or at least making sure you can shed the guilt.

On the other hand, "announce what you are about to do" is likely the best way to solve the problem.

This book has had the single biggest influence on how I motivate and lead engineering teams[1]. It's an easy read, and the main thought on delegating decisions down hold very well for software engineering, and on how to create a culture of high-autonomy, high-performance.

[1] https://blog.pragmaticengineer.com/a-team-where-everyone-is-...

I've worked at all sorts of companies but it's actually been the same company over and over it's the broken top down hierarchy mixed with control dramas and disempowerment where initiative is punishable and the only way to get ahead is to strike a deal with some kind of clique at the expense of the client

It's refreshing to know this book exists and I'll certainly look it up but I have zero hope for so called corporate culture because it's lemmings all the way down and lead follow or get out of the way is blocked by some callous know it all opening their yawning pie hole to dish out googlisms

The problem is that many people believe "empowerment" means "do whatever the fuck I want." At any company you are going to have objectives and goals, and empowerment means getting the responsibility to make the hard trade offs yourself.

It doesn't mean you can do something outside of the corporate goals, and it doesn't mean you can just ignore some of the challenging parts of the job like delivering a working product to customers in a timely fashion.

The problem is theres's no natural distinction between "what" and "how." Every aspect of how you do your job is meaningful in some way. You have to have a good understanding with your boss about where you have discretion to follow your judgment and where you don't.

That's probably one of the most important things a good boss can do: give exactly that clarity. Define the lane you can run in, and point to the place we want to get.

“the only way to get ahead is to strike a deal with some kind of clique at the expense of the client”

Ugh, it makes me sick how true this is, and how much shit I take for refusing to go along with it.

Yes, the writer talks about his failed attempts when he was not in charge of the whole boat in the book.

Here's the "Non-Bullshit Book on Culture" book this post discusses:

Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders, by L. David Marquet

Also here's a great speech given by the David Marquet (with drawings!) on the same topic:


Is it very narrow minded of me to think that, even for HN, recognising "culture" as "company culture" demonstrates a very blinkered view of the world?

I think it’s okay to recognise the shorthand and not feel bad about it. The author of this article clearly doesn’t think he’s describing all culture. I didn’t from the link title.

We’re humans, we cut corners. We all understand the intent.

I didn't understand the poster's intent until I read some of these comments. I thought the article was going to be about human culture in general.

I found it quite strange too. Saw two different versions of the HN title before I clicked, only because it seemed so ridiculous.

Maybe it's just click bait; hard to imagine people think more about company culture than culture in general.

that's why you click on the article and see what it's about.

The fact that headline points out that it's not bullshit makes it sound like bullshit.

When a pitch answers a question that no one asked, it's a pretty good indication that something's wrong. Like when an employer says they're looking for "team players", it means they have an aggressive workplace with a lot of backstabbing. If a restaurant specifically advertised that it was clean, and had a sign saying "clean food and kitchen" in the window, would you eat there?

Well, we don't really have a choice in Seattle / SF; they hang those signs in every restaurant.

But the sign's content is chosen by external audit right? That's different.

I had my hopes up, but this is about Team Culture (not Culture)

Ferengi Rules of Acquisition #239: Never be afraid to mislabel a product.

Also, exquisite irony serving up a "non-bullshit" book with the requisite amount of bullshit to make up for it. After all, the total amount of bullshit in the universe can never be reduced, only increased.

Or better yet, The Culture (Iain Banks).

Does anyone have book suggestions on leadership and management which aren't just pop-business BS?

I like books which are sort of lessons within a biography format. Points pulled from real experience. For me, this adds context and makes a book readable. If you don't learn anything, then at least you might get to read a good story.

The hard thing about hard things, by Ben Horowitz

The Score Takes Care of Itself, Bill Walsh (49ers Coach)

Creativity, Inc, Ed Catmull (Ran Pixar)

To Pixar and Beyond, Lawrence Levy (CFO of Pixar with interesting different POV than Ed Catmull)

Otherwise for any dumpster fire of a subject I want a book on, I'll try to trace the "lineage" to see where the starting points were. The trash today won't be a thing 50 years from now. So, maybe look at books from 50 years ago or more.

+1 for Creativity, Inc. (haven't read the others on the list).

I also liked both books by Ricardo Semler a lot (Maverick and Seven Days Weekend).

> I like books which are sort of lessons within a biography format.

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert) also fits this description.

Why is this being downvoted? Did Scott Adams get cancelled or something?

Adams has gone a bit nuts in recent years and has become quite a controversial figure. Like, Ive seen him in political flamewars on Twitter responding to criticism with pictures of his abs.

He was a little weird for a long time, but his divorce in 2014 kind of unmoored him.

He's still very lucid, creative, and open-minded. If you have the energy to not get offended by ideas, he's a good read.

Absolutely. He's a heck of a writer. I loved his older books. But for me his problems have made him intolerable.

oh that’s a shame. I used to really like his work back in the day - thanks for the answer

As far as I know, his “cancellation” stems from one thing, and one thing only: He says that Trump is skilled at being convincing (and explains how, at length). This, in the eyes of others, makes him a Trump apologist, and must therefore be shunned.

If you had a link to that weird tweet I would like to see it; it would be interesting to see if I agree with your characterization.

"Trump is skilled at being convincing"

Isn't that an odd thing to say, from a completely objective, dispassionate, and non-partisan perspective?

Perhaps it just seems obvious to me because I am familiar with the page on 538[1] where they track approval ratings in parallel with (I think) every other administration that was heavily polled.

Every other president has had their ups and downs, no matter how controversial or how partisan people were. But with this one, the percentages for and against seem practically set in stone at approximately the same ratio as the election. That seems to indicate he's convincing almost nobody who likes him or who dislikes him to change their minds.


It might look odd but to me it is no difference in saying that charismatic religious leaders are good at convincing people, even if the vast majority that represent non-believers think that the person is nuts.

I am sure that I am not the first person looking at the polarization of US politics and finding similarities to religion, and with religion it makes sense that the more conflict there is between religions, the more set in stone people's beliefs become. It is likely even a effective strategy for religious leaders in position of power to fuel that conflict in order to cement their followers' conviction even further.

People make similar comments a lot, but something sounds off to me about this sort of summary.

We haven't been gradually moving towards this quasi-religious situation, as evidenced by past polling, which I linked to. It's just this administration.

So I think the evidence suggests that something about the current president is fundamentally different, maybe that he is for most people a symbol or placeholder and not a person.

Although, looking again at the polls from 2008-16, it might be that the current situation is something that happened gradually during that time period, and 2016 was not really a discontinuity.

Edit: Also, my point was it doesn't seem like he's changed people's minds. Being a religious leader may or may not mean you converted people.

Well, that’s like saying “Trump lost the popular vote”. Sure, he did. But that wasn’t the game Trump was playing. Trump was aiming for the electoral college, which is the actual game that matters. In the same way, (Scott Adams claims) Trump is skilled in convincing the people who matter for each issue, Trump is not trying to convince all people in general.

Trump did not in fact win the most electoral votes by convincing the electors. They normally vote for the winner of their respective states, and 2016 was no different.

If the electors for states he won had been persuaded to vote for the popular vote winner, that's what would have taken convincing.

> Trump did not in fact win the most electoral votes by convincing the electors.

That’s not what I meant. It was really just an analogy. I meant that Trump aimed to win the actual election as performed by the electoral college, not the popular vote, since the popular vote does not determine the election. Trump convinced the states that mattered, not the electors. In the same way, Scott Adams would have it, Trump is skilled at convincing people who matter to the issue currently at hand, not the popular opinion of all people in general.

Arguing that Trump's success is due to his personal qualities is very controversial. I think Adams is trying to emulate Trump's purported persuasive abilities, so whether people are convinced by Adams is evidence for or against what he is claiming. I think this is the attraction of the whole thing - magical things might happen because he believes in them.

> Arguing that Trump's success is due to his personal qualities is very controversial.

That never occurred to me. I simply assumed that everyone thought that Trump won the election by somehow being different from the other candidates. I mean, an election is a competition; One would normally assume that a winner had something personally to do with actually winning, you know?

But now that you mention it, it’s clear why it indeed is very controversial to assume this; the popular explanation (in many circles, at least) instead assumes an incompetent Trump and/or external electoral influence, and anything which detracts from this view (including alternative explanations) would therefore obviously be controversial.

I’ll try to not make this unwarranted assumption in the future. It was only an analogy, anyway, and since I have no stake in whether or not Trump has personal qualities, I hope I’ll be able to refrain from ascribing such where not warranted.

Also, good point about the correctness of Adams’ explanation somewhat hinging on itself being successful.

"the popular explanation (in many circles, at least) instead assumes an incompetent Trump and/or external electoral influence,"

There is also a view that he won because of luck. Not that he won the lottery against incredible odds, but that he had about a 1/3 chance of winning enough electoral votes on the eve of the election, and also his polling followed a cyclical pattern that happened to have just peaked a few days before.

It's hard to say what governed that cyclical pattern, but if it was skill at convincing people, it seems like it wouldn't have been cyclical. It would have gone up and stayed there.

Sure, that also fits. The problem with “it was just luck” is that it’s essentially the null hypothesis; it’s always a possible explanation, but unprovable except by eliminating all the other explanations.

That seems like...an unconventional epistemic outlook. Enough that, if you are saying this is Adams view, it might explain why people think he's acting insane.

No, I’ve never seen Adams say this. Can you explain what’s insane about it?

If some unlikely event happens, one could assume that it was just a random occurrence, and leave it at that. But that is an assumption one could always make, for any event; “random chance” can explain anything. If, instead, one sets random chance aside for a moment and looks for reasons beside random chance, one could find other possible reasons for the event, and possibly learn something new. Of course, there’s always the possibility that it actually was random chance, in which case one risks seeing spurious non-related events as being causal, and thereby learning the wrong thing. But I think it’s a risk one will have to take in order not to always go “a wizard did it”, never learning anything.

I didn't say it's insane, I said it's "unconventional".

I'm not sure of the connection between wizards, the null hypothesis, and random chance never being a component of an explanation.

You make me think of this:


The expression “a wizard did it” means an all-purpose explanation. (https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AWizardDidIt). I did not refer to literal wizards. I assumed that this expression was well-known enough for me to use here.

The null hypothesis is, likewise, an assumption that nothing has happened; in this case, it would mean that no events have happened to cause the observed unlikely event (which, to be clear, did happen); i.e. it must have happened by random chance.

Yes, to ascribe causation to random chance could be the result of the Holmesian fallacy. But, of course, not necessarily.

I don’t know what you’re unsure about.

It's not just the Trump thing. He loves to butt heads with the social justice types in a way that makes him look awful. Wrote some creepy antifemist blog-posts too.

In the wake of a shooting (can't remember which) he tried to push his WhenHub product as a journalism tool.

And his fence-sitting support of Trump has always been "now I'm no Trump fan but here's a long list of things Trump is good at and I'll be very defensive about criticism".

I was a huge Dilbert fan, so watching his decline sucks.

Again, actual references to your allegations would be useful.




Also the sockpuppet incident:


There's also the Affirmations thing - the guy believes in his own brand of The Secret, where writing something down over and over again and wanting it bad enough will magic the universe into making it happen.


The guy is kind of a mess. At this point he's his own worst enemy, PR wise.

All right. Let me respond point by point.

> > It's not just the Trump thing. He loves to butt heads with the social justice types in a way that makes him look awful. Wrote some creepy antifemist blog-posts too.

> https://ew.com/article/2011/03/30/dilbert-scott-adams-femini...

That article, about a blog post of his, is a hit piece which takes the most inflammatory-sounding quote and displays it out of context. I think his explanatory post (https://www.scottadamssays.com/2011/03/27/im-a-what/), which includes the whole original blog post, explains everything quite clearly. Note that even the original blog post text includes a clarification that precisely the quoted inflammatory-sounding text does not mean what one might be tempted to believe if one were to read it out of context.

> > In the wake of a shooting (can't remember which) he tried to push his WhenHub product as a journalism tool.

> https://mobile.twitter.com/ScottAdamsSays/status/11556797972...

It’s a free app, where people can declare that they have been witnesses to a newsworthy event, and journalists can use the app to find said witnesses and even talk to them using the app. What’s not to like? It’s like mentioning your gas-powered generators rental service during a widespread power outage. It might be slightly self-serving, but it’s useful information, and it’s not like he’s price gouging or taking any specific advantage of people’s misfortune. In fact, the very people who were impacted by the shooting can choose to earn money by setting an hourly price for journalists to interview them. Or they can set the price to zero if they just want to get the information out.

> > Like, Ive seen him in political flamewars on Twitter responding to criticism with pictures of his abs.

> https://mobile.twitter.com/ScottAdamsSays/status/75939845922...

That tweet was a response to someone else’s tweet saying “this coming from the guy who thinks pop news nutrition is same thing as science.” – a picture displaying his health status was a perfectly relevant response (a mite adversarial, but this is Twitter) to something which, mind you, was an irrelevant off-topic ad-hominem personal attack. This is what you call “criticism”?

> Also the sockpuppet incident: https://www.salon.com/2011/04/19/scott_adams_sock_puppetry_s...

Yeah, OK, that one was weird.

> There's also the Affirmations thing - the guy believes in his own brand of The Secret, where writing something down over and over again and wanting it bad enough will magic the universe into making it happen.

> http://mindhacks.org/scott-adams-affirmations/135

What? No. Here’s a direct quote from that very link:

At this point, allow me to correct a mistake I made the first time that I described my experience with affirmations. If you only hear the objective facts, it sounds as if I believe in some sort of voodoo or magic. That’s not the case. While I do think there is something wonderful and inexplicable about affirmations, I have no reason to conclude it is any more than a pleasant hallucination.

Hilarious people downvoted me even asking why the other guy was getting downvoted. I guess people are so upset by even seeing this guys name they feel the need to lash out at it no matter the context. My inquiry was a sincere attempt to understand what had happened with Scott Adams, but I guess even mentioning his name is enough to justify a downvote. Hacker news used to be able to discuss things without everyone trying to silence and censor anything they disagree with...

Maybe explain how it fits. All the books I mentioned were written about these people running or being placed at a high level in these organizations and making decisions which had a substantial impact on them.

Does Scott Adams cover this in his book or did he largely work solo?

It fits your description of being a book of advice about how to succeed which is also largely autobiographical.

As far as I know, Adams worked solo, and failed to gain any traction in any large organization, so if that’s what you want to have advice about, the Dilbert guy might not be the one to advise you about how to enjoy success in large organizations.

+1 for all of these.

Ben Horowitz's new book "What You Do Is Who You Are" is also well written and quite entertaining. There's a good mix of personal experience, humour and history.

Skip the business books and just study the lives of great leaders. Personally I recommend Napoleon, Orson Welles, Kurosawa, Fellini and Hitchcock. Basically anyone that was consistently productive in a group-based endeavor.

I'm dumbfounded... this totally makes sense. I know what my holiday reading will consist of now. Business books with no actionable or repetitive content bores me after awhile. The last few years I've been getting the cliff notes first then if I find any substance in that, I buy the book.

This is a bloody good constraint. Thanks.

I gave “Leaders eat last” a try, but found it unreadable.

It starts with SEALs in Afghanistan, because of course it does, and then the author loosely strings together a bunch of unconvincing anecdotes to support his core idea.

The worst part is his constant reference to various hormones and fight or flight responses in a superficial way that would make even TEDx feel ashamed.

Edit: there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the military can produce outstanding leaders. Humans have been battling for too long as not to have developed specialised training systems.

My gripe is with the book alone.

If your looking at the military for examples I would suggest you have a read of a conventional leadership manual like what the MOD put out for Sandhurst.


Obviously office work isn't the Army and you really shouldn't frame your work like a battle but generally. Everyone has a job, they are the one doing it so they are best to do it. Be professional, respectful and share a vision and you'll see people you lead follow you and mirror those traits. Your culture will start to reflect the environment you create.

Thanks! Will do.

I don't think I'd ever read a book purely on 'leadership' but I read a fair bit of military history and there is no doubt that there are some examples of outstanding leadership to be found there.

I really like "The Art of Action" by Stephen Bungay, who's a military historian/management consultant.

It's interesting to compare the Taylor vs. Drucker view on management against the Bülow vs. Clausewitz view on war.

Thank goodness! I had the same response to this book - it seemed so shallow but I'd heard people rave about it...

Ultimately I just couldn't finish the book because of the constant unrelated anecdotes.

I rate 'High output management' by Andrew Grove (founder & CEO of Intel). He has clearly lived a lot of the experiences he wrote about and the advice was pretty timeless.

"An elegant puzzle" is also a book with a lot of meat on it.

His other book "Only The Paranoid Survive" also contains some useful advice, albeit can be a little repetitive.

While not exactly a book on leadership, I've picked up quite a few valuable lessons from 'Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed' by Ben R. Rich.

I can recommend “Radical Candor”

If I may ask for something a bit more radical: workable suggestions on leadership of diverse teams? The military-based ones tend to be a bit too macho for applicability outside that environment.

Even more so for leadership within loose and/or voluntary organisations such as open source projects.

Another book from the military space is "Extreme Leadership" (which also puts emphasis on "leading up").

But it's definitely also pop.

I've read and enjoyed a bit by Edwards Deming recently, specifically Out of the Crisis and The New Economics.

New Economics is good if you make it through the first chapters, which are more or less "old man yells at cloud" or "what I've always wanted to say". They are highly political, the subjects range from how bad anti-cartel law is to telephones to hitting children.

When he finally gets to special causes vs. common causes, control charts etc. the book gets quite good.

I agree, though I also think it is hard not to be political when you start seeing things through the lens of special vs common causes. So much of the rhetoric in politics surrounds taking a common cause produced by a system working as designed and treating it as a special cause to rally people behind. To the long-term detriment of society, in part because the adjustments promised frequently ruin the system that actually worked fairly well, and because trillions is earmarked for chasing ghosts getting nowhere.

Read military leadership manuals, like Serve to Lead.

Any business leadership book is likely to really be a management book.


This book explained a lot about a boss of mine. Ex-military, tried to run our department like a battalion, took pride in "battlefield repairs" of code, never let anyone think for themselves or contribute.

Only communicating through superiors...Micromanaging at its best, it was an all-out terrible way of doing things.

Wonder if anyone on here has read Ben Horowitz's latest book on culture "What You Do Is Who You Are"?

I skimmed through a bit of it but find the war analogies to be a little over the top so far...

It's worth sticking with. Later on he draws more on some of his personal experience (similar to THTAHT) and there are some hilarious anecdotes.

wishfully, I read this as a "Book on the Culture". Does anyone know of such a thing, aside from the actual Iain M Banks novels?

I will definitely read this book. I recommend Leadership is Half The Story.


as @gexla mentioned down below, I prefer looking for leadership/culture advice on historical / biographical books.

For example, "Making of the Atomic Bomb" was recommended to me, for examples of how on earth did the US manage to get a bunch of primadonna scientists to finish a megaproject on time (though this is not the main scope of the book) -- I haven't read it yet, but I would it put forward as a suggestion.

"primadonna scientists"

Feynman's shenanigans at Los Alamos are famous due to his memoirs, but at the time, he was not an important person, was he? Is it possible that peoples' viewpoints are distorted by this?

Also, the Apollo program seems more impressive and worth studying than the atomic bomb to me. Like, in one case, they produced unprecedentedly large explosions, and in the other, they did that and balanced people on top and got them to the moon and back.

@ianmiell awesome post. Part of the issue: The word “culture” does not fully describe the intentional “Org OS” choices that need to be made to optimize how people can better work in a knowledge economy. https://drodio.com/creating-an-open-source-culture/

There's a really great animation done on top of a talk by David Marquet which summarizes the book, I believe.


I recommend The Rise of the Creative Class.

people need to be told what to do loop people wait do only what they're told; people need to be told what to do; if people don't have to be told what to do, exit; end Deming made this observation 50 years ago.

Some good pirate ship techniques in a Navy submarine.

leader-leader only works if the commitment and incentives are relatively uniform.

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