Status Reports

A few weeks ago Rands posted a couple of articles (1 and 2) about status reports, those things that people hate writing, hate reading, and rarely tell you anything useful even when you do. In particular, he tries to come up with some ideas about how they can be improved in order to actually contribute to the running of a company instead of just slowing everyone down with paperwork.

I’ve been wanting to comment on these articles for a while, but I’ve had trouble crystallizing my thoughts. I’m still not sure if I can, but if I don’t get this out before the New Year, it’ll just sit in my head forever. It’s not a refutation of anything in particular that Rands said, just a bunch of ramblings that his articles sparked off in me.

To start with, there are two issues:

  1. Why are status reports necessary?
  2. Why are they such a problem?

The answer to these are linked:

  1. Managers need true and accurate information to run the company
  2. Providing true and accurate information–whether it’s good news or bad–is rarely in an underling’s best interests.

In any human organization, whether that’s a family, a company or a country, there is a certain amount of friction generated by self interest and lies, however white and small. Like in mechanical systems, this human friction can be minimized; but just as the second law of Thermodynamics forbids perpetual motion machines, basic human nature means that the whole truth will never make it from one end to the other intact.

A typical modern company is made up of three elements, in varying proportions:

  1. Systems
  2. Processes
  3. People

Those are the ingredients for a beast that eats raw materials and shits finished product (metal into cars, requirements into code, whatever). Status reports are a process. Wikis and blogs are systems. There is only so much in the behaviour and output of a company you can change by tinkering with its processes and systems.

In traditional industry this “so much” can be large, because you’re delivering tangible output from assembly lines (systems) and logistics (processes). Still, there is a limiting factor imposed by the people who have to operate the factory: it’s the workers who implement the directives from management.

In the “knowledge” industry (software houses, financial institutions, etc.) people play a much greater part. Which is a problem, because people are so much more complicated than systems and processes. They get depressed, they affect morale in their departments, they raise awkward questions in meetings, and they need paid every damn month.

Executives hate this, which is why they cream themselves over workflow and knowledge management systems that promise to get the workings of the company out of the heads of their staff, and into easily tweaked databases. These knowledge systems can then be shipped offshore to wherever the labour costs are lowest this month, the original staff can be made redundant, and the executives can jerk off about shareholder value in their annual reports and reward themselves with some healthy stock options.

But surely reducing a company’s reliance upon its people, and increasing its systems load can’t be the only option for affecting overall performance? I don’t think that Rands’s quest for a more systems-based approach to status reports is going to lead to massive redundancies, but I do find it symptomatic of this particular school of thought.

So what’s the alternative? I can only think of one:

  1. Hire people you can trust
  2. Give them a measurable stake in the success of the company

The (big) problem with this approach is that it isn’t scalable. From my experience, it works fine with a company up to about 30 people, but after that it breaks down. First of all, the company starts to get too big for the founders to handle all the recruitment themselves, and secondly, unless the company’s revenues scale with the number of employees (hint: they don’t), the “measurable stake” dwindles to the point where it’s nothing more than a 5% Christmas bonus.

So here we’re back to where Rands started: how do you improve communication in a larger organization, when you’ve had to hire people you don’t even know, let alone trust, and where the only stake an employee has in its success is the continued arrival of his salary every month?

Here is also where Rands ended: have people tell the truth.

Teams represent[ed] by more compelling Status Reports are going to be rewarded by getting their agenda fulfilled. People will talk about these teams and wonder about their success. Soon, we’ll be talking about the products created by these teams and trying to figure out what is the secret of their success… which is simple… they’re just writing down the truth.

Except…they won’t. Human friction, selfishness, and little white lies to cover your ass will get in the way. Better social software (whatever) will result in more innovative ways for staff to hide what it is they’re really doing all day. The content-free status report will be replaced by the content-free daily blog entry. It may be a slight improvement, but only a slight one. If you want to tweak the people of a company, you actually have to tweak the people, not just the systems they work with.

Summing up: damned if I know. But if I ever start my own company, I’m going to try and keep it small and successful, rather than aiming for enormous growth and a fat IPO.

Quick Plug: Glen Phillips

It looks like Glen Phillips has got most of his new album in the can, and has got proper label backing for its release early in the new year. This is a Good Thing. Glen’s debut solo album Abulum is a solid favourite of mine, and I’m eagerly looking forward to hearing the new material.

One of the tracks is already available for download, and not just as an mp3. The artist Ken Fountain has produced a sweet and sad animated video to go with the sweet and sad song “Brain Trust Kid.” It’s quirky, melodic, moody, emotional, and very typically Glen. (The smoky backroom jazz club feel is a new and interesting direction, though.) If the rest of the album is as good as this, it’s going to be something very special indeed. Head for Glen’s site forthwith, and indulge yourself.

Glen Phillips - Live at Largo

A Very Whisky Christmas

About eight years ago I spent a short time in a temp job working for the whisky company Macdonald and Muir, which is now known as Glenmorangie PLC. At the time, the company was still based in Leith. Their main industrial plant occupied pretty much one whole side of Constitution Street between the Shore and the part of Leith docks that has now been turned into the very fashionable Ocean Terminal. The factory held three or four bonded warehouses (“bonds”), administrative offices, a bottling plant, a small cooperage, and an enormous vatting and blending operation. Most of their output was blended Scotch whisky rather than single malt, primarily the Highland Queen and Bailie Nicol Jarvie brands.

Most of the job involved enumeration: counting barrels as they were trundled into and out of storage, weighing the barrels on enormous industrial scales to see how much was still left in them, checking the volume of spirit pumped into and out of the tanker trucks that transported the stuff, and double-checking as the vat men took dips and measured the strength of the spirit. One of the great things about this job was that hardly any of these tasks took place in an office. I had to wander around the whole plant, from bond to bond, to wherever the latest counting operation had to be performed. It involved a lot of standing around and chatting while whisky was being pumped or poured into the huge wooden vats. I learned an awful lot about whisky production.

But the very best part of it was…the smell.

Whisky barrels are not spirit-tight. Over time, a certain percentage escapes into the air. As casks are emptied into the blending vats, a certain amount is lost on the floors. Also, taking dips from casks for nosing or measuring the strength of the whisky is not exactly a tidy, clinical process. It splashes and spills. And while the drops and splatters evaporate away, the peaty, flowery aroma of the whisky stays behind. It soaks into stone and wood, softening and mellowing as it does so, and it permeates the whole fabric of the bond. There is nothing quite like walking into a bond first thing in the morning, and being enveloped by the sweet aroma of decades-old whisky. I adored it.

But the taste? That’s a different matter. I love the smell of coffee, but I’ve never learned to like the drink itself. Even though I grew to love the smell of whisky in the morning, I could never abide by the harsh burn of the actual spirit in my mouth. Until recently, that is.

As I was reading Iain Banks’s new book, Raw Spirit, I was heartily affected by his enthusiasm for our national drink. A good few years had passed since I’d last tried a dram, so I figured it was time to give it another try. A fortnight ago we were out to dinner at No. 3 Royal Terrace with my parents. After a rather splendid steak, I ordered a glass of Highland Park to round off the meal. I nosed the glass with some apprehension because Abi and my parents–knowing how much I’ve disliked whisky in the past–were all watching me intently to see what I thought. I took a sip, let it wash around in my mouth a bit, and drank it down.

“Hmm,” I said. “That’s actually quite nice.”

Hence the “A Very Whisky Christmas” title of this post. As soon as it was known in my family that I liked whisky, my Christmas present fate was sealed. I now have a nice selection of malt whisky books with notes on all the distilleries, tasting notes for the spirits themselves, and a tidy little collection of single malt miniatures.

Can’t say that I mind, you understand.


In the Netherlands, the whole New Year thing is called “Oud en Nieuw”, which means “Old and New”. One of the traditional things to eat around this time is Oliebollen, which translated literally means “Oil balls”. Essentially, they’re deep-fried balls of dough, dusted liberally with powdered sugar. Mmm, donuts.

But don’t picture American style cake-like donuts, or British style sweet dense bread-like donuts. Oliebollen aren’t for dunkin’. They really are oil balls. They’re fried to an greasy golden crisp on the outside, and are hot, thick and sweet on the inside. You can buy them in bakeries and in oliebollen stands on street corners. Buy them from a street vendor, and they’ll come in a white paper bag that will be saturated to the point of see-through by the time you get them home. If they last that long. They’re delicious on their own, or with a beer, or with some champagne at Oud en Nieuw.

We bought my parents a deep-fat fryer for Christmas. Guess what we were munching on Boxing Day?

Here’s the recipe we used, cribbed (and translated) from the web site of Bakkerij Steevens:

Ingredients (makes about 40 oliebollen)

  • 1kg flour
  • 1l water
  • 25g salt
  • 50g sugar
  • 80g yeast (yes, really 80g)
  • 10g cinnamon powder
  • 200g raisins
  • 100g chopped apples
  • A splash of lemon juice

Dissolve the yeast in the water. Mix the cinnamon, salt and sugar into the flour, and then add the yeasty water. Stir this for a short while (or use a blender on slow) until you’ve got goo. Fold in the raisins, apples and lemon juice. Then cover the mix with a damp tea towel (to stop it drying out) and leave it to stand and rise in a warm place for at least 45 minutes. Make sure you put it in a big container, because it’s going to at least double in size.

Heat your oil to 180° C (350° F). Use an ice cream scoop or a large spoon to drop lumps of the dough into the oil, and let them sit and bubble for about 5 minutes, turning them over half-way through so they are golden on both sides. Then take them out and let them rest on some kitchen roll.

Don’t eat them immediately, because they’re burning hot. You can let them rest for a while until they’re merely warm, or you can keep them for longer and then gently re-heat them in an oven. Don’t re-heat them in a microwave, because they’ll go all soggy and horrible. (You can eat them cold, too, but they’re really meant to be eaten warm, on a frosty night.)

To serve the oliebollen, place a whole bundle of them on a big plate, and smother them in powdered sugar. Then make sure that everyone has enough napkins to wipe their fingers with….

Jak II: Renegade

Jak II: RenegadeI finally finished playing through Jak II: Renegade yesterday evening (well, kinda early this morning, actually). It’s an excellent game, but in places it’s fiendishly hard and frustrating.

Tough boss battles I can handle. At climactic moments in a game, it’s fair to throw some heat at the player. You push and push, you spend time learning the boss’s moves and attack patterns, and you gain great satisfaction from overcoming your adversary. Jak II has some pretty good boss battles. But there are also a handful of missions in there that are even harder, and they pull the game’s progress curve off balance. There were occasions where I spent hours trying and retrying a mission dozens and dozens of times, only to finish it and see a measly 1% added to my tally.

These missions, and the incessant back-and-forthing across the city (because no mission ever ends any closer to the beginning of the next than two or three minutes cruising through trigger-happy-guard-infested streets) are intensely annoying in their own right. However, what’s even more annoying is that the game has a good story, and very engaging characters that made me want to know what was going to happen next. So no matter how much I swore at the screen and the game designers, I couldn’t just throw the controller away in disgust and bite chunks out of the disc. I had to keep coming back for more punishment.

I suppose that’s the sign of a “great” game, but I’m still not convinced that it was. In too many of those really tough missions I felt like I was battling against flawed design rather than pitting my wits and skills against the in-game baddies. For most of the second half of the game, the missions were something to be suffered between cut-scenes that advanced the plot. For a game that ought to have a wide appeal, I imagine that only a relatively small proportion of people will actually play it all the way through to the end. Which is a shame, because the final pay-off is worthwhile, and despite all the frustrations I did enjoy it. A lot.