Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Review: Poliitpäevik

PoliitpäevikPoliitpäevik by Viktoria Ladõnskaja
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Aus ja avameelne, samas lühike ja kuidagi kiirustav. Viktoria kirjutamisstiil ei ole ülikooli ühisaegadest õnneks muutunud - sama huvitavad metafoorid ja sõnamängud.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Leading from a distance - personal learnings

Remote work is hardly surprising for anyone - especially in the area I work in, IT. Software developers, testers, designers have worked remotely for many years now - and it is often claimed to be "the future of the workplace".

However, remote management is not as often talked about.

It is not as straightforward indeed - as a manager, one has few pre-packaged specific tasks to fulfill. As a leader, one shall rather... well, lead. But what is leadership besides communicating to the people, both internally and externally?

For the past seven months I have been located several thousands kilometers away from both my colleagues as well as clients. The business department I am responsible for has more than 30 people. I am visiting our office and our clients on average every 1,5 months. Otherwise, I have on average 3-5 videoconference calls every day (and an impressive amount of e-mails and text chats).

So, here are some reflections so far:

What is good about remote management:

  • It pulls you out of your familiar environment, it gives different room for thoughts and innovative ideas
  • It provides a push for greater efficiency - being stripped away of usual working methods, you are pushed to think differently
  • Whenever you come to office, it feels like a special occasion both for you and your colleagues
  • Less disturbance and more room for concentration (like with any remote work)
What is difficult about remote management:
  • No social source of motivation (not having your excellent colleagues nearby)
  • No possibility to have spontaneous (but meaningful) lunches or talks in the coffee corner
  • If there are videoconferences with several people and someone is showing something on the screen or whiteboard, it is difficult to see it
  • (this is by far the most difficult) If the Internet connection is slow - or even down - the bad video/audio quality can ruin the whole experience of the calls or videoconferences - and be highly inefficient
  • It requires strong discipline (like any remote work)
Additionally, I live in Central Asia, while the office and clients are 3-5 hours "behind" me in Central / Eastern European time zone.

Upsides of working remotely 3-5 hours ahead of the time zones of your colleagues / clients:
  • Allows "slow" start of the day - provides flexibility to use this time for sports (e.g. swimming in my case), reading interesting articles or books, playing with kids
  • Allows to start working day before everyone else and focus on tasks requiring concentration
  • Allows to do personal duties (like shopping, hairdresser etc) in the mornings when there is least demand and fewest other customers
Downsides of being several hours ahead of your colleagues / clients:
  • Sometimes need to take meetings during late hours
  • Need to operate in 2-3 time zones simultaneously - sometimes creates mental errors as of at which time I have which appointment
Preconditions of remote management - it is only possible if:
  • The teams and people in general are, to a very large degree, self-going and autonomous 
  • There is a very strong middle-management level (in my case, team leads) 
  • There are frequent video conference calls with the key people 
  • Need physical presence time-to-time (once every 1-1,5 months in my experience is a good frequency)
All in all, what is my evaluation of this experience so far?

 At times challenging, but very stimulating and useful if not lasting for too long.

I am happy to work in and have a strong impact on an organisation allowing me such management experiments. :)

Monday, October 02, 2017

Book Review - Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates UsDrive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I generally like books substantiated by and based on the research. This one is. It explores human psychology in light of what motivates us as humans to do what we do. It refers to several psychological experiments done over the past decades.

Not surprisingly, it is not money (money is more of the "hygiene factor"). It is the purpose of what you do, the possibility to be better and better in what you do and the autonomy of your actions.

All of that is presented in a clear, structured and even entertaining manner. Many examples and some helping illustrations.

However, I missed the team / comradeship as one of the motivating factors.

I also found the explanation of purpose to be too "grandiose", missing the link to the ones the activity is directed to (your customers, your partner, your kids, your colleagues etc).

The last 1/3 of the book was too American chewed-and-overchewed DIY approach ("10 tips how to do it at work"). The first 1/3 is quite powerful though.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A proof that environmentally friendly behaviour makes economic sense

One thing I enjoy about living in Almaty, Kazakhstan is an abundant supply of fresh and tasty vegetables, fruits and berries - with so much sun and Uzbekistan (with several harvest a year) being relatively close one gets much better selection than in the Northern Europe.

I do the shopping of fruits and vegetables at the same small store run by a Tajik family. All the berries are packaged in plastic containers like this (and the rest of fruits and vegetables in the countless plastic bags) which come "for free":
It is not a secret that production and throwing away the plastic has created a gigantic problem for the nature - and it only gets worse. So what I did is basically re-using those plastic containers - washing them and bringing back to the family I buy berries from. I did it few times already - and the guys were positively surprised (recycling is not very "in" in Kazakhstan unfortunately).

What have I gotten in return besides a good feeling of doing something good for the environment? Discounts on every shopping I do there plus selection of the freshest stuff (the seller guys have become much more helpful and started to treat me with more special care "Do not take these tomatoes, let me pick better ones for you"). So, every time I go there I not only get a little bit less costly shopping, but also fresh selection - which means less potential waste and less need for an additional shopping.

Environmental behaviour can result in a win-win-win situation (for the seller, for the buyer and for the environment!

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Review: Montessori from the Start

Montessori from the Start: The Child at Home, from Birth to Age ThreeMontessori from the Start: The Child at Home, from Birth to Age Three by Paula Polk Lillard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a practical guide for parents interested in quite famous Montessori's approach to children's education (this particular book focuses on the youngest age - from 0 to 3 years).

Its basic principles are: involve your child into your everyday activities, treat your child as a future adult helping him/her to develop independence and self-esteem, do not treat your child as a puppy or a doll to be taken care of, give your child place and time to focus on specific tasks without distructions, do not try to entertain your child so that he/she has "fun" at all times, provide patterns and predictability for your child, be consequent in your behaviour.

One quote to illustrate one of these principles:
“No” must mean no every time. “No” cannot mean “Ask me again and maybe I will give in.” Or “Scream loud enough, hit me, break something, tell me, ‘I hate you, you’re mean,’ embarrass me in a public place or at my in-laws and I might give you what you want.”
It is a lot of sensible principles in this book. However, as the quote above illustrates, this book can also make you as a young parent somewhat depressed - "Am I not a good parent then if I am not doing it all like that?" It is written as if raising a child would be the only task in the life of a parent. It solely focuses on what is good for your child and does not soften up this message by accepting that parents have their own wishes, they are sometimes (often) exhausted and need room for themselves, a child might have a younger/elder sibling which might make all the nice Montessori-like environment rather difficult to create at home etc.

Although authours say several times that "the brain research supports that...", they do not quote any specific studies. Instead, a lady called Montessori (who gave the name for this movement) is referred to many times - as if she were an ultimate expert in everything concerning children education. That was a bit too religious to my taste.

The frequent references to "monumental task of raising a child to make him or her a better human-being" seemed a bit too pathetic perhaps.

All in all, if one takes pragmatic approach to this book, tries to learn the new insights and treats it as one potential philosophy towards raising children (without stressing about potentially not being able to do it all "by-the-book"), it is a very nice and useful read for any parent.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Review: Professional Service Firm

Professional Service FirmProfessional Service Firm by Mark C. Scott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very good book, outlining some of the basic principles that one managing a (unit in a) professional service firm should remember, such as:
"If there is one single thing the professional service firms must do right it is attracting and retaining the highest-calibre individuals"

"Differentiation in the form of intellectual human capital is a barrier to new entrants"

"The highly competitive professional service firms will typically have a very low degree of client churn, as it becomes an indispensable part of the client’s value chain."

“The choice of client may dictate the professional development of the firm - it has to be made in full understanding that whatever else happens, the professional life of the firm will not be the same afterwards”

"The client relationships have “time economies”, the counterpart of industry’s “scale economies”. The firm does not need to incur acquisition, learning and start-up costs every time as with a new client."

"It is better to have an excellent general understanding of the issues facing a client and fashion the the professional service firm’s services to meet those needs rather than continuing to sell them the same solution to different problems. The power of the professional service firms is to customise, not to mass market."

"Most healthy PSFs compete on quality and not price. Their focus is achieving high enough levels of value added to sustain higher salaries that competitors and hence maintain the best professional talent."

I liked the systematic approach of the book: most of the principles (some of which are outlined in the quotes above) are substantiated by underlying economics, supported by charts or spreadsheet calculations.

The style of the book is rather dry, there are not that many examples - and those that are mainly come from the advertising industry. Many of the chapters are written with the focus on corporate finance, rather than company management - which might be too detailed if one is not concerned specifically about M&A.

All in all, a really good read and recommended for anyone willing to study economics of the service industry (as opposed to product-based companies / industrials that traditional economics focuses upon).

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Review: When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management

When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital ManagementWhen Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management by Roger Lowenstein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At first, the book did not feel that easy to read: price-to-equity ratios, risk multipliers, derivatives, swap contracts... But the more I read the more it felt like a financial thriller, only more captivating and eye-opening.

The book tells the story of a darling of the Wall Street in the 1990s, the firm that attracted awe of investors, financial regulators, academia and business leaders in general. The firm which was called Long-Term Capital Management was established and ran by the cream of the cream in the U.S. financial industry and financial education. Its investment placements were based on sophisticated mathematical models developed largely by the founders themselves. The partners managed to raise huge amount of investment in a very short time (because everyone else was blindfolded by the partners' credentials) making it one of the most successful start-ups in history. At certain moments, the firm was managing rather astronomical volumes of investments.

And then it all failed. It required an unlikely cooperation of the largest Wall Street banks to avoid a larger financial shock, similar to what happened in 2008 after the fall of Lehman.

There are many lessons to draw from this book:

Financial lessons:
- There is a big difference between investing and gambling. Similarity is that the risk is involved in both.
- Quantifying and estimating risks does not equal avoiding them- one should not mix up these two

Management/business lessons:
- An assembled dream team is the best one can make - it would attract the other dream players, clients and investors alike. Everyone wants to be part of success and it is contagious
- Loyalty and companionship is something that can and shall be fostered
- Risk-taking in a company shall be checked and balanced (to a certain extent)

Personal lessons:
- Greed and hubris have their big limits - you can only go further that much with them

A great example of how a book based on investigative journalism shall be written.
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