In Trust I Trust

May 14, 2010

“I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche

This was for a long time something that I held for true. I thought that the resulting breach in trust coming from a lie or from a disloyal action would be, if not permanent, at least the responsibility of the breaching party to repair. I considered trust something that a party would have to earn and once the trust had been broken it would be very hard to earn back.

I don’t hold this for evident anymore. I’m quite convinced today that a trusting relationship is first and foremost the responsibility of the partner issuing the trust.

In order to get a relationship to work, we have to begin with trust. We can not start a realtionship off with distrust and expect it to transform into something else. Suspicion and distrust will surely build a behaviour but most likely not a favourable one. Distrust will never be a fertile ground for building a healthy partnership. If the trust has once been broken, we have the choice of breaking the partnership or to resume it if we believe that the issue has been dissolved. If we decide to resume the relationship then we’ll have to let go of our suspicions or we might as well have finished it off immediately.

I’ve heard people say that employees have to earn the trust neccessary for managers to allow for self organization and self management. How can people act in a way that would earn them this trust if they are constantly supervised and micro managed?

How can a child learn to act responsibly if we don’t trust her to make the responsible decisions?

I also believe that a trusting relationship is an investment made by both parties. To throw away the trust but still uphold the relationship seems to me a big waste. Either we decide to give the partner another chance in order to salvage the investment or we cut our losses and start investing somewhere else.

Consumers have trusted Toyota for decades and now have the choice of either putting their faith in the good intentions of the company or to break the relationship. Toyota made mistakes on several levels and I would totally understand anyone saying that they never wanted to buy another Toyota. But, the company contains a large investment in know-how that we all have benefitted from in one way or another and to me it seems to be a waste to throw this away. I would thus likewise understand anyone expecting Toyota to resume their quality work that they have been known for. What we cannot do is to suspiciously sit by and wait to see where the relationship is heading because then it will certainly head south (or at least Toyota will).

I’ve been using the words “partnership” and “relationship” interchangeably above, because I think that this applies in all kind of relationships/partnerships where trust is involved. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the trust between a manager and employees, trust between lovers or friends, or if we’re considering the trust between a supplier and a customer. Trust can never be built unless we begin by offering it. So Mr Nietzsche, if that’s how you truly felt, I hope that you ended the relationship after writing those words.

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The following list could probably be read in a Jeff Foxworthy style prefixing each item with “You might be a (some derogatory term) boss if …”. However, that would be immature so please refrain from doing that.

Anyway, here are my top 10 signs that you’re about to bring your company down by poor organizational measurements.

10. You have a list of names paired with numbers – The first sign that you’re probably not measuring just for logistics and informative purposes anymore.

9. The list is ordered according to the numbers – You’re probably not looking for teamwork. At least, don’t hold your breath waiting for teamwork to happen.

8. The first name on the list is mentioned below the list in positive terms – So it’s official that it’s every man for himself?

7. The last name on the list is mentioned below the list in less flattering terms – This road isn’t even paved with good intentions anymore. The slippery slope is now a non-stick coated vertical drop.

6. The first name on the previously posted list is no longer on the list at all, he/she is now compiling the list – Now it’s getting obvious how we got into this situation in the first place.

5. The last name on the previously posted list is no longer on the list at all, not even on the payroll – Reason has left the building.

4. The numbers on the list are rising but your actual throughput is decreasing – Oh, the irony.

3. You’ve added another list with other numbers in order to balance the first one – How many lists do you think it’ll take to perfect this?

2. Your name is posted on another list for another audience and it’s moving down – Like father, like son.

1. Random names from the list are disappearing both from the list and from the payroll on their own accord – There are companies out there that know what’s useful to measure.

Did you see what I just did there, in the header? I created a metaphor. Do you envision me as caught in a bear trap right now? Probably not if you’re an adult capable of abstract thinking. In fact, if anyone interprets my header to imply anything else then a possibly improductive side of metaphors, then my metaphor itself was improductive.

 “Life is like a box of chocolates” according to Tom Hank’s character Forrest Gump (from the movie with the same name). However, I’d like to disagree with Forrest on this one; life is not at all like a box of chocolates … except maybe from one certain aspect – “You never now what you’re gonna get”. Oh, he said that too did he? Well, that would make the first statement somewhat useful but please don’t ever use it standalone if your life is not sweet, brown, sticky and delivered in a cardboard box.

Metaphors can sometimes be useful when you’re trying to explain a complex concept or when you want to be poetical about something. Comparing fractals to coastlines is a useful metaphor. Judith Moffetts translation of Karlfeldts poem “Winter Organ” contains several beautiful metaphors, e.g. when describing icicles:
“… On frosty evenings a silver arcade,
A glittering row of pipes, is made …”

Metaphors can also be bad and even harmful when applied in the wrong context or when people try to interpret them too literally. Godwin’s Law predicts with scary precision how metaphors and analogies can, and will be used in the wrong place. Most arguments in forum threads show no similarities whatsoever with Hitler and Nazis but yet we get to see the comparison again and again.

In the world of software development, we’ve been living with the house building metaphor for as long as I can remember and probably long before that. This is an example of a metaphor taken way too far. There might (in some cases) be certain aspects of software creation that resembles certain aspects of building a house, but when people try to fit other aspects of either side of the metaphor into the interpretation we end up with a horrible combination of code, hammers, foundation, architecture, languages, mortar and design. This is not a useful metaphor at all anymore. I’ve seen better and worse attempts at trying to get this to work but the heritage has rendered the metaphor completely useless and I hope that I never have to hear anyone use it again. I do think that we should continue to look at the world around us to find new patterns and similarities in order to learn from other fields but I don’t think that I want to hear another “creating software is like …” because most likely it isn’t.

Just one more for the road; creating software IS like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. At least not if you’re doing it right and have a willingness to learn along the way.

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