Friday, January 28, 2011

The Myth of Writers Block (and what to do when you're blocked)

Writing is one of the most important activities for successful consultants. Writing helps you capture and clarify your ideas. Writing helps you polish your presentations to clients. And published writing is probably the second most effective marketing tools in your kit. (First, of course, is recommendations from satisfied clients.)

Yet most consultants never publish an article. Of those who do publish an article, most write only one. Many consultants never publish a report. Of those who do publish a report, most write only one. And certainly, most consultants never publish a book. Of those who do publish a book, most publish only one. If you ask them why they don't write more, they will commonly say they are stuck, or "blocked." But these words are merely labels. They explain nothing. Most often consultants stop writing because they do not understand the essential randomness involved in the creative process.

The Structure of Creation versus the Structure of Presentation

Please don't get the impression that I read in the random way I write (my "Fieldstone Method." Reading, by its nature, is more or less linear, like a string of beads, and I tend to read most works through from beginning to end. But written works can be created by superimposing any of a variety of organizations on that linear string of words. For instance, novels, being stories, are more or less linear; but novelists may use flashbacks, stories-within-stories, or parallel stories to break the linearity.

Dictionaries, encyclopedias, and reference manuals—though consisting of a bound sequence of pages—are generally organized for a random access by the addition of tables of contents and indices. Internets and intranets allow us to hyperlink written works in much more complex structures, though in order to use them, we frequently need aids such as index pages and search engines.

But none of these reading organizations have much of anything to do with the organization of the creative process by which the works came into existence. These reading structures are presentation methods, not creation methods. Creation doesn't work in any such regular way. It's more accurately modeled by the Fieldstone Method. Every day is different; every idea is different; every mood is different; so why should every project be the same?

Writer's Block and the Goldilocks Questions

"Of course every day is different," you may say. "Some days I'm entirely paralyzed by writer's block, and I don't accomplish anything at all."

If this is your problem, I can help, as I've helped many other consultants and professional and amateur writers. I didn't always understand how I was helping, until one student wrote the following:

As evidenced in some conversations with other students of yours and in my own writings, I think there are number of intangibles that you do offer—in much the same way that a coach or therapist does. These include motivation, raising self-esteem, building confidence in writing, considering self-other-context, discipline, thinking more clearly, or awareness, to name only a few.

Writer's block is not a disorder of you, the person attempting to write. It's a deficiency of your writing methods—the mythology you've swallowed about how works get written—what my sometime co-author, Tom Gilb, calls your "mythodology." Fieldstone writers, freed of this mythodology, simply do not experience "writer's block." Have you ever heard anyone speak of “mason's block”? (But, yes, I have heard people talking about "consultant's block"—and what I'm saying here actually applies to much of the work consultants do, or try to do when they get "stuck.")

Many writing methods and books assume that writer's block results from a shortage of ideas. Others assume the opposite—that writers become blocked when they have a surplus of ideas and can't figure out what to do with all of them. But it's not the number of ideas that blocks you, it's your reaction to the number of ideas.

Here's how it goes. You have the wrong number of ideas, and that bothers you, causes you discomfort, or even pain. To lessen the pain, you turn to some other activity—coffee, beer, sex, movies, books, sleep, or name your poison. This diversion relieves the pain in the short run, but eventually your mind turns back to that unfinished piece of writing (or other work). Now you feel worse because you've avoided the task. You might try writing again, but your mind keeps returning to what a bad, blocked writer you are. So, eventually, you turn to your relief—coffee, beer, sex, or whatever.

Do you recognize the addiction cycle? (This dynamic is described more fully in my soon-to-be released Volume 5, Managing Yourself and Others, of my e-Series, Quality Software.) The Fieldstone method allows you to break this cycle in exactly the same way you break any addiction, by using your intelligence and creativity. I sometimes begin to feel "blocked," but when I do, I simply ask myself what I call the Goldilocks Questions:

"What state am I in now? Do I have too many ideas? Do I have too few? Or, like Baby Bear's porridge, is it just right?"

If I have too many ideas, I begin some organizing activities, like sorting ideas into different piles. If I have too few ideas, I concentrate on gathering more. Usually, the first place I look is in my own mind, staying in the flow of the moment, one idea building on the next.

For instance, when I’m writing dialogue, I don’t stop to search externally for just the right conversational “stone.” That approach leads to overly clever dialogue, rather than the more natural-sounding stones that just pop out of my head from millions of past conversations I’ve heard or overheard. Only if my natural mental flow fails me do I start searching for an external "fieldstone" to trigger a new flow.

Then, when the number of ideas is "just right," I organize them, trimming and polishing a bit in the process, until I have a finished product—or until I have to ask the Goldilocks Questions again. Sure, I may be stuck for a few moments, but I'm never "blocked."

In my book, Weinberg on Writing, I sketch all three parts of the Fieldstone Method—first the gathering of ideas (stones), then the organizing, then the trimming and polishing. The book describes them in that order, not because I perform them in that order, but because it's a book, and books are linear organizations of ideas.

Unlike what your schools taught you about writing, the Fieldstone Method is not dependent on any particular order of doing things. Instead, Fieldstoning is about always doing something that's advancing your projects. As a Fieldstone writer, you will have a variety of keep-moving activities, a handy list of tasks of all sizes, plus the knowledge to match each task to your mood, your start/stop time, your resources, and your total available time. As a Fieldstone consultant, you will have a second handy list of keep-moving activities—a list with your writing list as one of its sublists.

Each Fieldstone writer also has to find her own “magic” tasks, not all of which may seem “logical” to other writers. Meditation works for me, but others find it disturbing. Aikido boosts me, but it tires others. Some writers say you have to have a cat, a cigarette, and a cup of coffee laced with brandy.
The cigarette and brandied coffee would kill me, which would be merciful because then I wouldn’t have to watch the Lovey and Caro tear apart the cat.

Observing Your Activities

In order to be a non-blockable writer (or consultant), you need to do a bit of observation of yourself. Here's what I suggest you try:

1. Choose a day or several hours that you plan to devote to writing.

2. In your journal (all professional consultants keep a journal) record the start-stop time of different activities.

3. Record your feelings at the beginning and end of each activity. Don't interrupt your flow, but just capture a word or two.

4. At the end of the day, look at what you wrote in your journal. Do you see an addiction cycle?

5. How did you respond any time you were temporarily stuck?

6. What other activities could you have done that would have served you better?

7. How will you remind yourself of those activities when you repeat this observation exercise in a month or so?

(This article is adapted from Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method )


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Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Universal Pattern of Huge Software Losses

What Do Failures Cost?
Some perfectionists in software engineering are overly preoccupied with failure, and most others don't rationally analyze the value they place on failure-free operation. Nonetheless, when we do measure the cost of failure carefully, we generally find that great value can be added by producing more reliable software. In Responding to Significant Software Events, I give five examples that should convince you.

The national bank of Country X issued loans to all the banks in the country. A tiny error in the interest rate calculation added up to more than a billion dollars that the national bank could never recover.

A utility company was changing its billing algorithm to accommodate rate changes (a utility company euphemism for "rate increases"). All this involved was updating a few numerical constants in the existing billing program. A slight error in one constant was multiplied by millions of customers, adding up to X dollars that the utility could never recover. The reason I say "X dollars" is that I've heard this story from four different clients, with different values of X. Estimated losses ranged from a low of $42 million to a high of $1.1 billion. Given that this happened four times to my clients, and given how few public utilities are clients of mine, I'm sure it's actually happened many more times.

I know of the next case through the public press, so I can tell you that it's about the New York State Lottery. The New York State legislature authorized a special lottery to raise extra money for some worthy purpose. As this special lottery was a variant of the regular lottery, the program to print the lottery tickets had to be modified. Fortunately, all this involved was changing one digit in the existing program. A tiny error caused duplicate tickets to be printed, and public confidence in the lottery plunged with a total loss of revenue estimated between $44 million and $55 million.

I know the next story from the outside, as a customer of a large brokerage firm:
One month, a spurious line of $100,000.00 was printed on the summary portion of 1,500,000 accounts, and nobody knew why it was there. The total cost of this failure was at least $2,000,000, and the failure resulted from one of the simplest known errors in COBOL coding: failing to clear a blank line in a printing area.

I know this story, too, from the outside, as a customer of a mail-order company, and also from the inside, as their consultant. One month, a new service phone number for customer inquiries was printed on each bill. Unfortunately, the phone number had one digit incorrect, producing the number of a local doctor instead of the mail-order company. The doctor's phone was continuously busy for a week until he could get it disconnected. Many patients suffered, though I don't know if anyone died as a result of not being able to reach the doctor. The total cost of this failure would have been hard to calculate except for the fact that the doctor sued the mail-order company and won a large settlement.

The Pattern of Large Failures
Every such case that I have investigated follows a universal pattern:

1. There is an existing system in operation, and it is considered reliable and crucial to the operation.

2. A quick change to the system is desired, usually from very high in the organization.

3. The change is labeled "trivial."

4. Nobody notices that statement 3 is a statement about the difficulty of making the change, not the consequences of making it, or of making it wrong.

5. The change is made without any of the usual software engineering safeguards, however minimal, that the organization has in place.

6. The change is put directly into the normal operations.

7. The individual effect of the change is small, so that nobody notices immediately.

8. This small effect is multiplied by many uses, producing a large consequence.

Whenever I have been able to trace management action subsequent to the loss, I have found that the universal pattern continues. After the failure is spotted:

9. Management's first reaction is to minimize its magnitude, so the consequences are continued for somewhat longer than necessary.

10. When the magnitude of the loss becomes undeniable, the programmer who actually touched the code is fired—for having done exactly what the supervisor said.

11. The supervisor is demoted to programmer, perhaps because of a demonstrated understanding of the technical aspects of the job. [not]

12. The manager who assigned the work to the supervisor is slipped sideways into a staff position, presumably to work on software engineering practices.

13. Higher managers are left untouched. After all, what could they have done?

The First Rule of Failure Prevention
Once you understand the Universal Pattern of Huge Losses, you know what to do whenever you hear someone say things like:

• "This is a trivial change."

• "What can possibly go wrong?"

• "This won't change anything."

When you hear someone express the idea that something is too small to be worth observing, always take a look. That's the First Rule of Failure Prevention:

Nothing is too small to be unworthy of observing.

It doesn't have to be that way
Disaster stories always make good news, but as observations, they distort reality. If we consider only software engineering disasters, we omit all those organizations that are managing effectively. But good management is so boring! Nothing ever happens worth putting in the paper. Or almost nothing. Fortunately, we occasionally get a heart-warming story such as Financial World telling about Charles T. Fisher III of NBD Corporation, one of their award-winning CEO's for the Eighties:

"When Comerica's computers began spewing out erroneous statements to its customers, Fisher introduced Guaranteed Performance Checking, promising $10 for any error in an NBD customer's monthly statement. Within two months, NBD claimed 15,000 new customers and more than $32 million in new accounts."

What the story doesn't tell is what happened inside the Information Systems department when they realized that their CEO, Charles T. Fisher III, had put a value on their work. I wasn't present, but I could guess the effect of knowing each prevented failure was worth $10 cash.

The Second Rule of Failure Prevention
One moral of the NBD story is that those other organizations do not know how to assign meaning to their losses, even when they finally observed them. It's as if they went to school, paid a large tuition, and failed to learn the one important lesson—the First Principle of Financial Management, which is also the Second Rule of Failure Prevention:

A loss of X dollars is always the responsibility of an executive whose financial responsibility exceeds X dollars.

Will these other firms ever realize that exposure to a potential billion dollar loss has to be the responsibility of their highest ranking officer? A programmer who is not even authorized to make a long distance phone call can never be responsible for a loss of a billion dollars. Because of the potential for billion dollar losses, reliable performance of the firm's information systems is a CEO level responsibility.

Of course I don't expect Charles T. Fisher III or any other CEO to touch even one digit of a COBOL program. But I do expect that when the CEOs realize the value of trouble-free operation, they'll take the right CEO-action. Once this happens, this message will then trickle down to the levels that can do something about it—along with the resources to do something about it.

Learning from others
Another moral of all these stories is that by the time you observe failures, it's much later than you think. Hopefully, your CEO will read about your exposure in these case studies, not in a disaster report from your office. Better to find ways of preventing failures before they get out of the office.

Here's a question to test your software engineering knowledge:
What is the earliest, cheapest, easiest, and most practical way to detect failures?

And here's the answer that you may not have been expecting:

The earliest, cheapest, easiest, and most practical way to detect failures is in the other guy's organization.

Over my half-century in the information systems business, there have been many unsolved mysteries. For instance, why don't we do what we know how to do? Or, why don't we learn from our mistakes? But the one mystery that beats all the others is why don't we learn from the mistakes of others?

Cases such as those cited above are in the news every week, with strong impact on the general public's attitudes about computers. But they seem to have no impact at all on the attitudes of software engineering professionals. Is it because they are such enormous losses that the only safe psychological reaction is, "It can't happen here (because if it did, I would lose my job, and I can't afford to lose my job, therefore I won't think about it)"?

(Adapted from Responding to Significant Software Events )