Hibri Marzook Musings on technology and systems thinking

On Donuts

Donuts. The Krispy Kreme assorted box of donuts. They’ve been a recurring theme during the last decade of my career. Once or twice a month I’ll bring two or more boxes to the office on a Friday  morning. I’ll put them close to the area where my team sits. I’ll go to my desk and compose an email to the staff mailing list, with one word on the subject line.


Many would ask, while munching on a vanilla cream donut, if it was my birthday, and I’d say no. My reason for bringing in donuts, I said “Just because I wanted to”.

However, there is a reason. The tyre shaped treats were another way of building my people skills, and getting to collaborate with others outside of my team. Mostly the rest of the company.  There is an official name for  this pattern of providing donuts. Coined by Linda Rising in her book, Fearless Change It’s the Do Food pattern.

Sharing food, made it easier for me to discuss difficult topics, and approach people to get things done. I didn’t have to appeal to their rational mind. I didn’t have to make convincing arguments. Didn’t have to use data. Minds are already made up.

” I’ll listen to him, He’s the guy who brings me donuts”.

This post is inspired by a former colleague’s post on Emotional Intelligence for teams. It made me think of my own path to improving my people skills. I’m the archetypical techie. People don’t compute. Humans aren’t programmable. Yet, this thing called “Collaboration” is pretty damn important if you want to build the right thing, and change people into adopting ways of working that makes us happier.

It’s pretty damn important if you want to enjoy building software. I’ve seen it too many times. Frustrated developers, unsatisfied customers, stressed managers and flaky software. I had to learn more tricks to make changes. Here are a few.

Have a bag of tasty treats on your desk.

Like the donuts, I normally have a box of chocolates or some other candy on my desk (I also have healthier options like cashew nuts and fruit).

Why ? It’s easier to have a conversation whilst eating something nice. People see the treats and come over to ask what  you are working on. You can then pitch your idea and start evangelising your vision. People listen while munching.

Even more, take said bag of treats over when you need to get something done, especially when working with sysadmins/ops folk.

No candy ? “Did you raise a ticket for that?” .

With candy, “Let me get that done for you after this”.

Most likely to do with the brain experiencing pleasure making difficult decisions more enjoyable. There is some science to this, but let someone else figure it out. It works.

Lead your own retrospectives.

Officially, a retrospective is supposed to be lead by a neutral facilitator. I get quizzical looks when I say I’m leading the retrospective for my own team, because that is not the format.  Why do I do it ?

It’s a good way to observe your team, in a relaxed setting. In the early stages of forming a team, badly run retrospectives can have a negative impact and It’s important to have effective retrospectives early on. When introducing a collaborative culture and it’s not always easy to find good retrospective facilitators. This is sometimes where agile adoption fails, because of ineffective retrospectives.

Leading a retrospective, as a team/tech lead allows you to show leadership in non-technical areas. The team will feel like they can talk to you about the issues they are facing, instead of an external facilitator.  You can also try innovative retrospective ideas that are tuned to your team’s current situation.

Read Maverick by Ricardo Semler.

This is the book that convinced me that there is a better way of working than what is experienced in most places. Trust, transparency, diversity and giving the space to do what they want, brings out the best in everyone.  The book is full of ideas on how to improve working practices, and to deal with the complex issues that arise with a work place democracy.

Observe first, reflect and then talk.

Take all the time you need to observe and reflect. I’ve learned to let the conversation continue without having to say anything.  To be a catalyst,  you’ll have to observe the whole system and figure out there to start nudging people towards the change you want to see.

Observation enables you to develop empathy, since you are not reacting to what they say immediately.  Have them explain, till you understand. Cluelessness is ok. Ask questions till you understand. Harness your inner introvert.

It’s hard to avoid office politics.

At its core, an organisation is a complex system, which behaves the way it does because of the emergent behaviour of all the chaotic interactions with the people (influenced by what they had for breakfast/what side of the bed they woke up on) inside it and the entities outside of it. The goal of making money somehow guides this katamari-damacy-esque blob along.

Everyone around you has their own agendas, goals and what they want as rewards. To achieve your goal, you’ll have to channel your inner “Henry Kissinger”.  People will be amenable to changes as long as they get what they need out of it. Be it a position of power, a sympathetic ear or a reward.    

Next ?

All of this is pretty new to me and extremely interesting. I love reading about how techies move out of their “cubicles” and and the tools they use to address human problems.

Thoughts ?

By Hibri Marzook

Discuss this post with me on @hibri