notes from _peopleware: productive projects and teams_ by tom demarco and timothy lister



~11 min read


2143 words

Below are the notes I took from Tom Demarco and Timothy Lister’s Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams in their rawest form. As with Thinking In Bets, one day I plan to go back and refine them. However, for now, they serve as a nice reminder of what I read and found interesting.

Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams

Table of Contents Part I - Managing the Human Resource

  1. Somewhere Today, a project is failing
  2. Make a cheeseburger, sell a cheeseburger
  3. Vienna waits for you
  4. Quality—If time permits
  5. Parkinson’s law revisted
  6. Laetrile Part II - The office environment
  7. The furniture police
  8. “You never get anything done around here between 9 and 5”
  9. Saving money on space Intermezzo: Productivity measurement and unidentified flying objects
  10. Brain time versus body time
  11. The telephone
  12. Bring back the door
  13. Taking umbrella steps Part III - The Right People
  14. The Hornblower Factor
  15. Let’s talk about leadership
  16. Hiring a juggler
  17. Playing well with others
  18. Childhood’s end
  19. Happy to be here
  20. Human capital Part IV
  21. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts
  22. The black team
  23. Teamicide
  24. Teamicide revisited
  25. Competition
  26. A spaghetti dinner
  27. Open kimono
  28. Chemistry for team formation Part V: Fertile soil
  29. The self-healing system
  30. Dancing with risk
  31. Meetings, monologues, and conversations
  32. The ultimate management sin is…
  33. E(vil) Mail
  34. Making change possible
  35. Organizational learning
  36. The making of community Part VI: It’s supposed to be fun to work here
  37. Chaos and order
  38. Free electrons
  39. Holgar dansk

Types of problems: software problems and people problems - the strategies are different. This book will focus on the latter.

Social complexities on most of the projects we’d known simply dwarfed any real technological challenges.

Part I Thinking about abstracting implementation details, those implementation details for humans are our personality

Ch 1

  1. We often confuse the actual cause of failure w/ politics
  2. We focus on technical details because a) we’re trained to do it, b) most managers weren’t trained as managers
  3. even known problem can fail as a project because of people

Working on tech is only a detail - most of the day to day involves working with people

Ch 2 My favorite chapter of the entire book? Basic premise: Doing a novel thing once vs doing a thing repeatedly and consistently require very different environments

Fostering an atmosphere that doesn’t allow for error simply makes people defensive.

The bigger the effort / size of project - the larger the percentage of time that should be spent thinking, not doing.

Ch 3 There’s more to life than work.

Once the idea is digested, the worker is lost forever after to the project The realization that one has sacrificed a more important value (family, love, home, youth) for a less important value (work) is devastating. It makes the person who has unwittingly sacrificed seek revenge. He doesn’t go to the boss and explain calmly and thoughtfully that things have to change in the future - he just quits, another case of burnout. One way or the other, he’s gone.

P: Productivity gains must be measured against the cost of turnover / replacement for burnt out employees.

Ch 4 Egos are the cause of most workplace emotion The quality of work affects self-esteem

Iron cross of product - time, quantity, quality - pick two

Fixed time vs. fixed quantity -> if you try to fix both, your only lever is quality.

Quality is free, but only to those who are willing to pay heavily for it.

Ch 5 Parkinson’s law: work expands to fill the time allocated for it.

It gives them the strongest possible conviction that the only way to get work done at all is to set an impossibly optimistic delivery date.

P: Parkinson’s law doesn’t apply if:

  1. Workers are able to derive satisfaction from the work
  2. Estimates/expectations are reasonable - i.e. systems analyst, a dispassionate 3rd party can provide a better estimate than the developers / management.

Ch 6

People who are desperate enough don’t look very hard at the evidence

(As it relates to magic bullets, cures, etc.)

Most problems are people related, not tech - don’t think that a tech solution will fix the problem

The manager’s function is not to make people work, but to make it possible for people to work.

Part II

Ch 7 Ch 8 If people avoid the office more as deadlines loom - it’s not a good sign about the physical environment

Ch 9 Another way to think about investing in the physical space: for most companies, the costs of the space compared to the people who inhabit it can be on the order of 1:20.

This means that there’s tremendous leverage in improving the physical space. If you spend on the 1 to increase the productivity of the 20 - that’s tremendous.

It can also be very value destructive if you affect the physical environment negatively.

Gilb’s Law:

Anything you need to quantify can be measured in some way that is superior to not measuring it at all.

Seems to compete with Goodhart’s Law

Ch 10 There are different modes and to accomplish your work successfully, you’ll likely be going between them:

  1. Working alone
  2. Working with one other person
  3. Working with two or more people

The interesting thing is that junior level engineers tend to spend almost all of their time in 1 and 2. Management / leaders are likely almost exclusively in 2 and 3

“Official Fictions”

E-Factor (Environmental factor): E-Factor = Uninterrupted hours / body-present hours

Ch 11 Phones are inherently interruptive, use them as such. (Slack is a new phone / psa)

Ch 12 P. Humans are a diverse set of beings. Why do we insist that all work environments be completely uniform (besides the benefits that come from managing a simplified problem)?

Ch 13

In place of a master plan, Alexander proposes a meta plan. […] It has three parts:

  • A philosophy of piecemeal growth
  • a set of patterns or shared design principles governing growth
  • local control of design by those who will occupy the space

Part III Most management lessons focus on the manager as a protagonist and actor - they do not emphasize the ways in which the manager can get out of the way.

Ch 14 Ch 15 Rebel leadership - provide cover and space for your team to work on meaningful projects. Ch 16 Ch 17 Ch 18 Technology is what is around you today that was not present when you were growing up (Alan Kay, Disney)

Ch 19

  1. What annual employee turnover has your organization experienced over the last few years?
  2. How much does it cost on average to replace a person who leaves? ^ Two questions that should be measured and answerable by management.

There are some very obvious direct costs of turnover, but longer term costs are seen in how people work. Work takes a short-term perspective because employees don’t expect to be around

Regardless of reason when a company moves, the way it feels is personal: as if the company is exerting control over their personal lives.

Part IV

The challenge of the work is important, but not in and of itself; it is important because it gives us something to focus on together. Ch 21 Look at how people describe themselves. It’s most often not by their job function. At least not in most circles.

Individuals achieve goals, but aligned teams do so headed in the same direction.

The purpose of a team is not goal attainment but goal alignment.

Teams and cliques - connotation vs denotation breeze vs draft. The connotations are different, but the denotation is the same. Similarly, there is no difference in denotation between a team and a clique, but the connotations are opposite.

Ch 22 Once a team has built its identity, the norms can survive turnover - as long as the turnover occurs at a manageable pace.

Ch 23 Inversion - a problem solving technique in which, rather than looking for solutions to a problem, look for solutions to the exact opposite problem.

The role of the manager is to:

  1. Hire well
  2. Provide cover
  3. Trust
  4. Clear obstacles (including yourself, the manager)

Teams take time to jell. No individual can be part of multiple jelled teams.

Ch 24

Most forms of teamicide do their damage by effectively demeaning the work, or demeaning the people who do it.

Ch 25

One of the first victims (of competition among a team) is the easy, effective peer-coaching that is ubiquitous in healthy teams.

We tend to look back on significant coaching we’ve received as a near religious experience. We feel a huge debt to those who have coached us in the past, a debt that we cheerfully discharge by coaching others.

Ch 26

The common thread is that good managers provide frequent easy opportunities for the team to succeed together.

Ch 27 P. Trust. Do you?

It’s heady and a little frightening to know that the boss has put part of his or her reputation into the subordinates’ hands.

Ch 28 Part V Ch 29

People want to accept responsibility, but they won’t unless given acceptable degrees of freedom to control their own success. -> trust people. Don’t limit their ability to do their jobs. Have high standards.

Nothing could be more demotivating than the knowledge that management thinks its workers incompetent.

[…] Hawthorne Effect. Loosely stated, it says that people perform better when they’re trying something new.

Ch 30 What deadlines communicate to the team: limited appetite

[…] executives in this position might find themselves saying, “this work is so important that we must have it done by January first.” What they really mean is, “this work is so unimportant that we don’t want to fund it beyond January first.” ^ getting back to fixed time vs fixed quantity.

Ch 31 An acid test for meetings: Do you know when it’s over? If you don’t - there’s probably an opportunity to improve.

Ch 32 The ultimate management sins are:

  1. Status meetings are about status
  2. Early overstaffing
  3. Time fragmentation

Ch 33

A decent coach understands that his or her job is not to coordinate interaction, but to help people learn to self-coordinate. We think that’s the job of a knowledge-work manager as well.

Corporate spam = public slack channels

P. Repeal passive consent. In a low-trust environment, it can only be replaced with explicit consent, however, which seems only to increase the action requirement. If the environment is one of trust, however, passive consent can be replaced with implied consent.

Ch 34

And it should be considered that nothing is more difficult to handle, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage, than to put oneself at the end of introducing new orders. For the introducer has all those who benefit from the old orders as enemies and he has lukewarm defenders in all those who might benefit from the new orders. — Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

Resistance to change continuum

William Bridges in Managing Transitions, suggests that we never demean our old ways. Instead, we need to celebrate the old as a way to help change happen.

It’s worth keeping in mind that any improvement involves change:

You can never improve if you can’t change at all.

  • TDM All improvements involve change (and people hate change) - therefore to effect change, don’t demean the old way, celebrate it as a way to help change.

The reason the Satir model is so important is that it alerts us that chaos is an integral part of change.

P. If your risk tolerance is 0 you can never improve because all improvements require change and every change has a non-zero chance of failure.

Ch 35

Learning is limited by an organization’s ability to keep its people. The type of learning affects which people matter over what time horizon.

Ch 36 Aristotle’s five Noble Sciences:

  1. Metaphysics
  2. Logic
  3. Ethics
  4. Politics
  5. Aesthetics

Ch 37 Humans love chaos because it’s an opportunity to create order. Most managers hoard that opportunity for themselves. Open kimono (i.e. trusting) managers extend the opportunity to their teams to wrangle the chaos.

Strategies for introducing limited amounts of chaos:

  • Pilot projects
  • War games
  • Brainstorming
  • Provocative training experiences
  • Training, trips, conferences, celebrations, and retreates

Hi there and thanks for reading! My name's Stephen. I live in Chicago with my wife, Kate, and dog, Finn. Want more? See about and get in touch!