Paul Kocher doesn’t let the pressure of solving complex data security problems get to him. That’s more than he can say for an old customer of Cryptography Research Inc.
“The people who were doing the testing and finding the problems would get so much anger thrown at them from the developers for criticizing their work, that it was necessary to put in a firewall to shield the testers,” says Kocher, the 50-employee company’s founder, president and chief scientist.
Kocher takes a slightly different approach when someone brings him a problem.
“As projects are getting ready to ship, if somebody finds a big bug, the person who introduced the bug in the first place is supposed to eat a pastry of the choosing of the person who found it,” Kocher says. “If the extent of the downside is you admit you made a mistake and you have to eat a pastry, it’s a culture that encourages that sort of interaction.”
Smart Business spoke with Kocher about how to help your business deal with problems effectively.
Seek the center. I’m somebody who looks toward moderation. I’ve worked with people and sometimes my instincts even go in directions where I’ll talk way too much or too little or get involved in minutiae or not be involved enough. Or I’ll be overprepared for something minor or underprepared for something major. It’s trying to find that question of, ‘Where am I?’
Which direction am I too far away from the center? You don’t want to tell someone who is already quiet to talk less. You also don’t want somebody who is dominating a conversation to talk more. The question of figuring out where are things out of kilter, how do you bring them into balance, is an important thing to think about.
If it’s a really critical issue, it’s important to make sure I’m there and participating. There are two reasons somebody might not be talking. One is they are inherently shy and the other is fear. If somebody is afraid of the repercussions of expressing an opinion, it doesn’t really matter who is leading the discussion. It’s the cultural issue that needs to be dealt with. The role of the group conversation is to make sure everyone voices their opinion. If there is going to be a strong objection, that’s not the first place you want it aired.
Manage the conversation. If you’re trying to make a decision between A and B, and it’s suddenly going off on a tangent and other things are being introduced, that conversation isn’t being guided very well because you’re not focused on the decision at hand. Make sure information is presented clearly.
Probably two thirds of the time I already know before I go into a meeting what the outcome will be. Perhaps I’ll even talk to a few people to make sure that they are on board with that. There are also times where you think you know what it’s going to be and you get surprised by some of the discussion that happens and change your mind. With a decision that is going to be contentious, you don’t want to have the people who are going to have strong opinions about it be surprised by the conversation in front of the group of people.
If somebody is particularly difficult about a certain issue, have a conversation with them afterward and try to make it so they’ll try to choose their fights a little more judiciously. Help them realize that being too vocal can make it difficult for the team.
Likewise, if there is somebody who has got an opinion that they’re not going to feel comfortable expressing before the group, make sure to get that in advance. I’ll make sure that I express it or that somebody else is there to vocalize their opinion.
Gather input. We are inherently trying to find solutions to problems where there isn’t an existing solution.
It actually makes the decisions a lot more difficult because you’re always asking yourself, ‘So why has nobody else gone down the direction that I’m contemplating? Or if they did, why did they fail, and how can I make sure we won’t?’
I need to get the right voices and have the right people around me to provide the criticism when I need it and also the support when needed to make something happen.
I make sure I get feedback from as many people as possible. If somebody has an idea that affects the decision, I want to make sure that idea gets heard and incorporated. It also ensures, once a decision has been made, hopefully people are on board with it and it’s viewed as a consensus decision that’s right for the team. In contrast, if I just made a declaration by fiat, then it would be something where people might not be on board with it.
Keep the peace. You have to have people that have seen, over a long time, that when a decision is going to be made, it’s going to be the right decision for the group and not individuals fighting for themselves. Once you have that sort of culture, the biggest challenge is to make sure there’s not going to be some lone voice that will try to pull the team off in a direction where nobody wants to go.
It means knowing who are going to be the people that are going to need to be bought in and perhaps talking to them first. That’s my job to make sure the discussion and debate doesn’t break down.
Part of it is making the process less threatening. For example, if somebody makes a mistake and they get humiliated and fired, that’s going to result in a different culture than a situation where somebody makes a mistake and then people work together and fix it.
It means making sure that if past decisions didn’t work out well, that there was an appropriate conversation that was had. A leader that doesn’t get their hands dirty and understand what’s going on will have a hard time leading that kind of discussion.
How to reach: Cryptography Research Inc. (415) 397-0123 or www.cryptography.com