Seek feedback and iterate

As I sat there in front of my screen developing the spreadsheet/tool that was to be shared with the more than hundred salespeople in the company I realised I had doubts – would this really work? Was this an improvement to what they already had? Or was it more change for the sake of change?

I honestly felt that it was a genuine improvement, but I didn’t know. And having spent so much time already getting to where I was on its development, the last thing I wanted to hear was that I was on the wrong track, and that my work would come to nought.

Also, I was in a state of flow, and getting feedback was an overhead that would break that. Did I really want that?

I got up from my seat, walked over the coffee machine and made myself a coffee while mulling over this: to get feedback or not to get feedback – that was the question.


Development’s fun – I enjoy it. Solving technical problems and shipping something useful is one of the main reasons I entered the tech/data space. But having moved into a managerial role it’s something I do less and less – development’s now a team sport, one in which I’m no longer the star.

That sense of accomplishment when something you create goes out into the wild and receives accolades is something I really miss.

If this piece of development went live, I would well get back that high.


The steaming cup of coffee in my hand relaxed me and made things a little clearer: I made a mistake of having worked on the development as long as I had without getting feedback. I should have followed the same advice I always give my team: don’t work on something for too long without getting feedback, otherwise you may just find yourself spending days or even weeks on end working on something nobody wants to use.

(Thank goodness I also always drill it into them: “Do what I say; not what I do.”)

The longer I went without feedback, the harder it was psychologically to want to seek it. But I knew I had to do it.

I personally had doubts, and this was my baby here. I gritted my teeth, got up from my seat, and started seeking feedback. Like Sun Wukong (aka Monkey King), I reluctantly travelled to collect the sutras, during which I had to bear the pain of hearing things like “it won’t work” and having my “great” ideas turn bad.

It was emotionally draining, but it had to be done.


Hard as it was, I stopped development that day. The week (and weekend!) of frantic development came up to nothing.

Still, there was something I got out of it — like they say, there are no mistakes, only learning opportunities. And for me, it was a reminder to myself to seek feedback early, and iterate.


It was ironic that it was about this time that I was reading the Lean Startup by Eric Reis, one of the pioneering books on iteration and getting feedback. I leave you with this passage that I always use to remind myself before I go too deep into a development or process rabbit hole (text in bold mine):

From the point of view of individual efficiency, working in large batches makes sense. It also has other benefits: it promotes skill building, makes it easier to hold individual contributors accountable, and, most important, allows experts to work without interruption. At least that’s the theory. Unfortunately, reality seldom works out that way.

Consider our hypothetical example. After passing thirty design drawings to engineering, the designer is free to turn his or her attention to the next project. But remember the problems that came up during the envelope stuffing exercise. What happens when engineering has questions about how the drawings are supposed to work? What if some of the drawings are unclear? What if something goes wrong when engineering attempts to use the drawings?

These problems inevitably turn into interruptions for the designer, and how those interruptions are interfering with the next large batch the designer is supposed to be working on. If the drawings need to be redone, the engineers may become idle while they wait for the rework to be completed. If the designer is not available, the engineers may have to redo the designs themselves. This is why so few products are actually built the way they are designed.

On doing a great job, and not.

There’s this post on Seth Godin’s blog called “Avoiding the GIGO trap” that other than being brilliant as Godin’s posts so often are, also reminded me of what I’ve always felt differentiated the people I’ve worked on the spectrum of face-slappingly awful to walk-on-water great.

On the awful side of the spectrum, you have people who just don’t do anything beyond the bare minimum, and they don’t care that they’re doing that. They’re the ones who go, “she asked for ‘XYZ’, we give her ‘xyz'”. It’s close enough, and with some semantic manipulation even meets the requirements.

On the great side of the spectrum, you have people who do all that they’re asked within their power, care tremendously about the product or service they’re looking to provide, and look to go even beyond that. They’re the ones who go, “she asked for XYZ, but we know that isn’t the best thing for us. What if we give her XXZ? Based on my experience, that’s likely to work better and allows us to deliver us even earlier than expected.”


But… let’s introduce context for a moment.

The phone rings. You pick it up. At the same time a nasty e-mail comes in from a colleague whom always seems to make it hard for you. The person on the phone asks where’s the report you promised him. You tell him you’d sent it two days ago only to realise it’s stuck in your Outbox – for some inexplicable reason it never went out, perhaps to do with the e-mail IT had sent earlier but which you didn’t have time to read. You apologise. As you listen to him say he’s “disappointed” you realise you’re at the start of a marathon list of back-to-back meetings.

Imagine that’s a typical day.

Now, to be on the “great side of the spectrum”… perhaps you could push yourself to give that bit more of emotional labour, and still come out on top, but what would that mean for you at the end of the day? What’s the post-work you like after you’ve given it your all? After mental fatigue sets in?


I hadn’t actually expected to write the passage on context above. I was going to end at the first section – “ra-ra great people do this and so should we”. But I realised that in our lives it’s not always easy to be on that “great” side of that spectrum because we have limits. Some less limited than others, but eventually we hit those limits. Just think of Elon Musk on a great day and Elon Musk on an awful day.

I know of people who, if they hadn’t had so much on their plate, would be great. But because of the nature of the job find it difficult to. Going “above-and-beyond” on second- and third-priorities is never a good idea when even “meeting spec” on first-priorities is a problem.


But in the end I am optimistic that it is possible. I personally like to think that we have more opportunities for great days than awful days.

Luck plays a part, surely, but there’s also an aspect of it that involves an investment of time and labour. The concept of “sharpening the saw” that I first read in 7 Habits was one that changed my life. Though I can’t remember exactly what I read, the one key takeaway for me was that despite the allure of “chopping wood”, where your results are instant, once in a while we need to step back and sharpen our proverbial saw, allowing us to chop more wood at a quicker rate in the future.

Sharpening the saw isn’t sexy, and the results can be quite indirect. For example, for me one of the things I did in school was read lots of books on psychology and management, which didn’t do much for me academically at that time.

But by the time I entered the workforce, many of the things I saw and experienced I could relate to because I had already gone through that in a “virtual” manner through books. And when I eventually took on a formal leadership role, the transition was relatively smooth because I knew what to look out for. Same goes with analytics – I was reading and playing around with scripting and data manipulation years before I formally took up a Masters degree and started working professionally with data.

(As an aside, I also read books on Alzheimer’s, Autism, post-retirement activities, and coping with the loss of loved ones because I know one day I’ll be in a situation in which I may have to face these things – even if not directly, through friends or family. My way of sharpening the saw, in the context of life as a whole.)


Awful people aren’t always awful. They could just be great people in awful days. But whom, perhaps, are working diligently in the background sharpening their proverbial saws, so they may one day come out of their chrysalis and show their walk-on-water greatness to us, positively changing the world.

The passionate introvert

This TED talk really surprised me.

The content was great, but it was Brian Little’s delivery that really made me go “wow!”

So many times during the talk it felt I wasn’t listening to him talk on the subject of “personality” but rather his grandchildren. His passion was evident, and his joy contagious. I couldn’t help but give him a personal standing ovation at the end.

It is with this sort of passion that we should approach our careers; our lives.

Deciphering Fake

This was supposed to be a post on radical transparency.

But an article bashing radical transparency just left me feeling so outraged with its lies and misleading statements that I just spent the last four hours of my life writing this warning to all of us media-consumers out there: Don’t trust all you see, even if it says “research”, links to academic papers, and cites its sources!


The first time I heard about radical transparency was from G.

And though I hadn’t heard the term before then, it was something I felt that I could really relate to; something I already did.

Not because I thought that it brought the best outcomes, but because my mind was just wired that way.

I’ll tell you why in the post on radical transparency I eventually do write (maybe next week?), but hint: it’s got to do with having an awful brain for lies.


For today, let’s talk about the article that enraged me.

I found it while reading up on radical transparency for the post I had intended to write: Radical transparency sounds great until you consider the research.

I looked forward to reading it just based on its title, as it was perhaps a warning I needed to heed: maybe I ought to be a little less transparent with my dealings with people?

The word “research” also appealed very much to the scientist in me, giving it more weight than it would have had without.

Almost immediately though, within the first paragraph, a red flag was raised.

Here’s what it said:

Radical transparency is an old management approach with new branding. Previously called micromanagement or snooping, this approach supposedly creates higher performance and trust by letting everyone know what’s on the table.

You see, I’m an amateur rhetorician (well, not really, but I am currently reading Jay Heinrichs‘ book Thank You for Arguing) and smelt a rat: I knew radical transparency wasn’t synonymous with “micromanagement” or “snooping”, or even remotely analogous.

My rhetoricsense tingled. Something was up but I didn’t quite know what. So I did a quick search on logical fallacies, and identified what was wrong: the author was guilty of a false comparison!

Snooping, micromanagement, and radical transparency were qualitatively very different things, and there was no “new branding” apparent to me whatsoever.

  • Snooping to me implies trying to find out information others deem to be private and not expect to share;
  • Micromanagement to me implies a person in authority dictating to a worker how to do a job without giving the worker much or any degree of autonomy;
  • Radical transparency to me implies making what may sometimes be deemed private open to everyone, but making sure everyone knows it is no longer private.

I could live with micromanagement, to a certain extent. I could live with radical transparency (I think). But I would probably not be able to take snooping very well.

You can’t really club them together.

Was the author trying to mislead his readers by saying they were the same except for rebranding?

Whatever the case, I continued, albeit with caution.


Then I came across this paragraph, which appeared filled with juicy insights:

But research about human judgement suggests that relying on such data is a mistake. People are terrible at assessing trustworthiness and most skills. Assessments are driven not by real actions, but by appearance and personal situation. On top of these potential inaccuracies, labeling someone as untrustworthy or poor in certain skills has a corrosive effect on collaboration and morale, perhaps one of the reasons why Bridgewater has in the past had very low retention rates that costed the company tens of millions of dollars a year.

The links in the quote above were found on the original article. I clicked on every single one of them to learn more.

(And boy did I learn. I learned that if you take an author’s word for it at face value, despite the authoritative-looking links you’d be hoodwinked quicker than you can say “radical transparency”.)

Here’s my commentary on each of the links in the paragraph shared above:

  • “terrible at assessing trustworthiness”
    • This link brings you to a paper talking about assessing trustworthiness from facial cues. The experiment involved asking strangers to play a game to see if people would invest more money in faces that appeared more trustworthy. If radical transparency involved asking you to rate your colleagues, an hour after you got to know them, on trustworthiness based on how their face looked, then yes, this is relevant.
  • “most skills”
    • This link brings you to a paper talking about the JDS or Job Diagnostic Survey tool, which basically assesses the fit between workers and their jobs. The paper surmises that the tool works, though warns that it is easily faked. But for it to support the premise that “people are terrible at assessing most skills” is ridiculous, because the paper actually doesn’t say that.
  • “appearance” and “personal situation”
    • These two links are paywalled, but based on the abstracts these are related to people assessing people in TV commercials (for the first link) and strangers (for the second). Like the experiment in the “assessing trustworthiness” link above, this is about assessments of people whom you know very little about. Radical transparency isn’t about assessing strangers one-off. Again, I don’t see the relevance.
  • “has a corrosive effect on collaboration and morale”
    • Paywalled. The first sentence of the abstract? “Four studies examined the relation between trust and loneliness.” I’m curious to know what the article is about, but given I don’t know enough I’m not going to judge on this one.
  • “very low retention rates”
    • This link brings you to an interview with an author who wrote about Bridgewater’s radical transparency. The author actually praised its implementation at Bridgewater and was extremely supportive of it. Though it was mentioned that there was a 25% turnover rate, there was no mention of it costing “the company tens of millions of dollars a year”. Also, assuming that it does cost the company tens of millions of dollars a year, could the benefits outweigh the costs? If being radically transparent brings in more than the “tens of millions of dollars a year” that it  hypothetically costs, it’d still be worth it.

I’d always been extremely curious as to the effect of knowing my peer’s salary, and them knowing mine.

I’d even considered moving to a company that did just that for just this reason because I personally thought it was a great idea.

So when I came across the following that the author wrote, it came as quite a surprise:

Publishing individual salaries has negative consequences. While companies should never prevent people from sharing their compensation (and in many states it’s illegal to do so), publishing these numbers for all to see psychologically harms people who are not at the top of the pay scale. Research shows that this directly reduces productivity by over 50% and increases absenteeism among lower paid employees by 13.5%, even when their pay is based exclusively on output.

The first link talks about income disparity and its negative effect on happiness, a common finding in psychological research.

That the author worded it in this way (i.e. “top of the pay scale”) seems deliberately misleading. There’s a lot of dependence on the “reference group” – e.g. a junior employee, despite earning far less than the CEO, would generally not be too concerned. Also, full individual salary disclosure isn’t necessary for radical transparency; compressed payscales and other forms of salary disclosure could be used instead.

The second link was the one that I was more interested in: could salary disclosure really lower productivity and increase absenteeism, even when pay was based on output?

The author said yes.

I read the paper and found otherwise.

What the study found was that it was perceived fairness that had the greatest negative effects, not the disclosure of salary information per se. Where there was wage disparity and output was not easily observable (i.e. there was no way to tell which worker “deserved” the most), those who were paid less than their peers were the most negatively affected, as they would have perceived it as unfair.

And in a world of radical transparency, I’d think that “output” information would also be something that would be freely shared, reducing any perceived unfairness.


I don’t know what led the author to write what he wrote. I was very close to just taking what he wrote at face value, and if it wasn’t for me being a little perplexed and curious at some of the claims that were cited I’d never have uncovered the deceits.

To be clear, I’d just like to add that there is a chance that there was no malice involved, just sloppy research and misinformed conclusions.

But whatever the case, it made me realise how much we take good, honest writing for granted.

We shouldn’t.

And for me, not any more.

Getting the most bang for your charitable buck

I just received a mailer from Effective Altruism, via which I do a monthly donation to charity. The mailer asked me to rate from 1 to 10, with 1 being least likely and 10 being most, how likely I would be to recommend Effective Altruism to a friend. I gave it a 10.

And since we’re all friends here on edonn.com… I recommend Effective Altruism if you’re looking to make your charitable dollar do as much as it can.


Effective Altruism is an organisation that’s, in their own words: about answering one simple question: how can we use our resources to help others the most?

I first learned about them through a book called Doing Good Better (loved it; it absolutely changed the way I thought about giving – especially the part talking about the careers we ought to pick for maximum societal impact: should we pick the higher-paying career where we have little opportunity to positively impact society, e.g. an investment banker; or the lower-paying career where we can make a positive, direct impact on society, e.g. a social worker? The book argues that it is the former that we can do more good, if we direct the funds we earn to charitable causes).

Its basic premise is this: all charitable interventions should be scientifically tested to determine how effective they are, and money should only flow to those that are more effective.

The more good an intervention does for a given amount of money, the more effective it is deemed to be.


How much “good” an intervention does is determined by the amount of QALYs and WALYs. This is a very interesting concept that I’d not heard of before coming across Effective Altruism.

A QALY stands for “quality-adjusted life year”, defined as (from Wikipedia):

[A QALY] is a generic measure of disease burden, including both the quality and the quantity of life lived. It is used in economic evaluation to assess the value for money of medical interventions. One QALY equates to one year in perfect health.

A WALY, on the other hand, stands for “well-being adjusted life year” (from the US Institutes of Health website):

[A WALY] is a measure that combines life extension and health improvement in a single score, reflecting preferences around different types of health gain.

In essence, the amount of good relates to how much life and life improvement it brings. The benefit of of using QALYs and WALYs is that they are fungible, and are therefore able to act as very versatile measures of charitable intervention.  A little like good old money.

For example, if you want to take up a new job, it’s extremely convenient to start thinking about the benefits in terms of money, even when some of the benefits are non-monetary. If you get more vacation time, how much more is an extra day of vacation worth to you? If the working hours are less, and you are planning to spend this extra time with your kids, how much more is this worth to you? And so on.

It helps us make apples-to-apples comparisons between two very disparate things, like deworming vs. microfinance.


Effective Altruism thus looks at the quality of all interventions, and aims to focus funds toward interventions that are the most effective. And though it may not be perfect, I find that it gives me peace of mind.

It allowed me to finally get past paralysis by analysis, making me comfortable with giving more money than before.

I still do give to random strangers on the street because it feels good; but for regular and systematic giving, the kind that I think will do far more good, this will be my avenue of choice.


And to those who ask: Is this “too scientific”? Shouldn’t giving be from the heart?

My answer is: No to the first question; and yes to the second.

The science and experimentation behind Effective Altruism helps to ensure accountability – charities that are deemed ineffective tend to be ineffective for very good reasons, and every dollar given to an ineffective charity is one less dollar given to a more effective one. Why should less effective charities, even those with the best of intentions, take money away from those that can do more good?

To be honest, I did have some concerns about how newer interventions or charities would be handled by them – many charities and interventions start out less effective than the most effective ones and need to be given a chance to grow and show their worth, and may eventually become as effective than the most effective ones or even more so. However, Effective Altruism does take care of some of that by having a dedicated allocation of their fund that looks at just these “promising charities”, which introduces a little bit of randomness into their portfolio of current strong performers.

On giving from the heart, to be honest I never really found a “logical” reason for giving, nor have I looked for one. Giving to me has always just been something we should do to be thankful we have what we have, that we are who we are.

Anticipation, proactivity, and the Invisibles

Just read an article via Slashdot on this thing called “Tab Warming” that the Mozilla team is testing for the Firefox Web Browser.

I won’t go into the details, but in essence what Tab Warming does is that it anticipates whether or not you’ll click on a link, and if it does it “paints” the page in the background saving you milliseconds of loading time when you eventually click on it.

Despite the seemingly very small difference in absolute time, (I mean, really, milliseconds?) it has the potential to be the difference between somebody thinking about the page loading versus somebody not thinking about the page loading at all and purely on the content of the page.

And that’s huge. Isn’t the ultimate aim of interface usability to become invisible, after all?

This reminded me of how the best people I’ve worked with are those who pretty much do this all the time: they anticipate what I may need, and even before I’d mentioned it they’re bringing it up and telling me it’s already done.

And to me, despite my never thinking about them (because I don’t have to!), they’re the ultimate stars in our work lives.

To the invisibles: Thank you.