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June 20, 2013

Working the Bell Curve

At my previous job, our company was bought out. We went from a smaller company that believed in hiring the best and the brightest, training them appropriately, and giving them what they needed to succeed, to a small part of a larger corporate structure. Part of the large corporate structure was the institution of a bell curve for worker reviews.

In case you don't know how this works, basically it says that each manager selects 10% of his/her workforce and designates them as "stars," 80% are marked as "adequate," and another 10% as "failures" or "needs improvement." Some companies break the 80% up into sub-categories, but essentially you still wind up with the majority getting the equivalent of a "C" in school, a few getting an "A" grade, and the rest getting the equivalent of a "D" or an "F" grade.

The problem with this way of doing reviews is this: why would  you hire people that are going to fail or will need a lot of improvement? And, if the same person gets the needs improvement grade enough times, they will either quit or be fired. This doesn't sound bad, at first, until you realize that you are left with "C" and "A" people who, on the next review cycle, must now be dropped down.

For example, let's say you are a manager of a company with this policy. You have ten employees. This bell curve style of reviews means that you can only select one person as a star, eight people who are generally adequate and do their work in a competent fashion, and one person who "needs improvement." Companies are often fine if you don't select anyone for the star level but they usually insist on you selecting someone for the lowest level each review cycle. Many companies have two review cycles a year, a non-monetary review and a monetary review.

If you like your employees, you either have to cycle through each person (and keep track of them) so that everyone gets to be a star and everyone gets to be inadequate or, after two bad reviews in a row (sometimes more, but companies are usually pretty strict), you fire a person for not being adequate or they leave due to frustration. To keep the bell curve working, though, you now have nine employees and one of the "adequate" employees has to be moved into the inadequate category and the cycle starts again. After two bad reviews, that guy leaves/is fired and you are down to eight employees. Rinse, repeat.

Again, during the hiring process, you are seeking out individuals who have strengths where you need them and who you think will fit into the corporate structure (or, at least, the structure you have created and workers you have already hired). You generally are seeking long-term solutions to whatever issue you have that is causing you to hire people. Therefore, your expectation is that everyone will be at least "adequate" and you hope to hire as many "stars" as you can, so your little part of the company works as smoothly, efficiently, and profitably as possible.

Let's give another example with the same setup. You are the manager of 10 people in, let's say, a sales department. Over the last six months (your company has biannual reviews), all ten of your employees have met the sales quotas you have given them. A few exceeded them by a large margin but most came in around or slightly over the figure you gave them. When review time comes, even though you had, let's say, three people double the sales quota, you can only pick one person to be the star due to the bell curve. That means, in essence, you are telling two other people that doubling the sales quota isn't enough to be a star and to get the perks. At the same time, even though, let's say, three people barely achieved the quote -- but did make it -- you have to select one of them (minimum) to say, "You did everything I asked you to, but it still isn't enough and you need to improve."

The end result of this scenario is that you have now negatively motivated three people (or 30% of your work force) into doing less work. The two who strove hard, did well, and did not get praised for it are now demotivated to work that hard for the next six months (and probably irritated at the one guy who did the same amount of work they did but did get the positive praise for it) and the person who worked his ass off, made every quota, and did as much as you told him to is now not motivated to work any harder and is probably seeking employment elsewhere. You may have also demotivated the one you picked as a star, because now he has two employees angry with him and he doesn't want to be singled out again because he knows they were just as deserving. You have also, possibly, scared and demotivated the two other people who barely made quota. So, now 60% of your work force is demotivated, working scared or angry, and possibly looking for work elsewhere, for a job where they will be praised for their hard work and making quota.

Now let's look at the same scenario without a bell curve. You now have seven employees who were adequate and did exactly what you wanted and what you hired them for. They get the praise they deserve, which motivates them to continue to do the job requested (at least). You give star status to the three people who greatly exceeded your expectations. All three feel the praise and are motivated to continue to work as hard going forward. The other seven see that praise (and, presumably, the rewards that go with it) and work harder to be a star, too. And, as manager, you motivate the three at the bottom by saying, "Because everyone met or exceeded my quotas this term, we're going to increase the quotas a bit and see if we can't do even better in Sales this next term! Go team!" This is a subtle, but positive, way to motivate the three at the bottom who barely made the quota that they are going to have to work harder, smarter, or better.

In this scenario, you have 100% who have received praise and are encouraged to keep working hard. Only 30% have any negative associations to the review (the bottom three, who barely made quota this term but know the quota is now higher for the next term), and the remaining 70% have positives to look at and to work toward (becoming a star employee and getting the rewards inherent in that position).

This second scenario also creates a natural bell curve as you keep raising the bar for all of your employees until you find who can hack at and who can't. Then, you can start giving those at the bottom the "needs improvement" treatment... but the remaining employees don't feel the same pressures as those of our first scenario. And, if any of those at the bottom quit or are fired, you have a new set of expectations with which to interview and hire replacement employees: you have the work ethic and attitudes of the stars to use as traits to look for in the new hires, you have your new sales goals to use as a barometer, and you have the team dynamic (which is much more positive) to consider when determining if the new hire will succeed with your team.

Now, I will grant that sometimes a new hire (or even an old hat at the job) is not properly prepared or able to do the job for which he/she was hired. They lied on their resume, a life event occurs that affects their job performance, or maybe you stretched to get someone who fits in one aspect and you hoped to "train them up" on the other aspects and it doesn't go as planned. Whatever the case, only when a person truly is doing an inadequate job, is not meeting your job expectation, can't make his/her deadlines, etc. should you give them a bad review. The bell curve should happen naturally/organically; there is no need to force one on what is otherwise a group of good to great employees, as all that does is demotivate your entire group.

June 17, 2013

Man of Steel

Note: Mild Spoilers ahead. You've been warned.

My wife and I like to pay attention to critical reviews for movies, but we make up our own minds. Some movies, however, we are going to go see regardless. I am a huge Superman fan, so Man of Steel was one of those "must see" movies. Reading the reviews via and Metacritic, review compilation sites, the movie was getting a just barely "rotten" rating and many critics complained that it had no heart or charm. The critical consensus seems to be summed up with, "It's just not the Christopher Reeve Superman."

In general, I respect critics and I am informed by what they say. But, in this case, I wonder where they came up with those responses. The movie I watched had a lot of heart and charm and soul. The first half of the movie is predicated on showing that Clark Kent was a picked on boy, confused by the emergence of his powers, with strong guidance from his Earth-born parents. Even through all of that, he wanders the world anonymously helping people and saving lives. Here's a guy who can lift mountains and survive virtually anything staying humble and trying to fit in with humanity without doing them any harm. The lessons he learns from his adopted parents are rich and give meaning to his life and direction to his wandering.

Once Clark puts on the red and blue, after "meeting" his biological father and learning of his origin and history, he immediately starts to question his place in a sudden conflict between the suddenly-appearing Kryptonians and the natives of planet Earth. He sides with the Earthlings and places himself between them and the god-like beings who want to terraform the planet and make a new Krypton. This leads to a global battle between Superman and the eight or so surviving Kryptonians under the rule of General Zod. With the help of a very spunky and smart Lois Lane, Superman hatches a plan to remove the Kryptonian threat. He single-handedly destroys one terraforming unit, and then helps the humans in the Army to destroy the other, sending all but Zod back into the Phantom Zone and away from Earth.

Zod remains and is still a threat, as his abilities are slowly rising to the level of Superman's during his time on Earth and under Earth's yellow sun. Zod is a multifaceted villain. He actually thinks of himself as the hero of the story, as he was genetically engineered to be a leader and a warrior and to protect Krypton against any threat. His goal is simply to enable the resurrection of Krypton; he doesn't care that this will destroy the human beings native to planet Earth. His villainy comes from being willing to sacrifice the 7 billion inhabitants to resurrect his lost civilization... under his control, of course. Superman, meanwhile, has sided with the human beings, which confuses Zod. Zod simply cannot understand why a Kryptonian would ally with anyone against him, another Kryptonian. The fact that Superman and the pesky humans have all but destroyed his Utopian plans drives Zod to threaten the Earth and Superman that he will personally kill all the humans Superman so cherishes. Superman cannot allow that, so a final, epic battle ensues between the two.

It is here that the charm, heart, and moral underpinnings get a bit muddled. Superman allows the epic battle with Zod to remain in a highly-populated place (the remains of Metropolis). Every punch, every blast of heat vision, every super-speed flight/jump at each other produces greater and greater destruction in the city, and, presumably, more loss of life. Finally, Zod forces Superman to make the ultimate decision between the Kryptonians and human beings.

This movie has a very solid story and incredible acting. I thought each and every person in the cast did an incredible job, but especially Henry Cavill as Superman. The world created and the mythology changes the writers made all work and make sense. Zod is a fascinating and multilayered villain. The action scenes are very well done.

I have a few main complaints about the movie:
  1. Shaky-cam. Zack Snyder, whom I know from his work on 300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch, and Dawn of the Dead (remake), knows how to direct an action movie. Yet he chose to use a single-camera, shaky-cam approach to every scene in the movie. Everyone in my group who watched the movie with me agreed that, had we seen the 3D version, we likely would have been nauseated by the constant, never-ending use of the shaky-cam. And I know that Warner Bros could afford to give Snyder at least one more camera to use during filming. His goal, I presume, is to make you feel like you are "there" during each scene. The problem is, you (the audience member) CAN'T be there for a lot of it, as the audience cannot fly at Mach speeds, nor go into space, or survive buildings collapsing all around them. And quiet scenes where two people are simply talking especially don't need shaky-cam. Even in 2D, I felt like I was on a roller coaster and got a bit nauseated. Shaky-cam, once again, took me out of my immersion in the film and the world within and negatively hurt my overall impression of the movie. Many people have no problem with shaky-cam, so this is not a strong negative to those audience members.
  2. Flashbacks. I am not a big believer in the flashback. In nearly every instance (there are exceptions!), I find that a movie would be better served simply starting with the flashback scenes and running in chronological order. I think that having most of Superman's youth and moral guidance sequences told in flashback is what primarily makes many reviewers complain that the movie has no heart. Had the movie simply provided the flashback scenes as the start to the movie, and shown Clark as a child, a youth, a teen, and then an adult, the audience would see his growth and maturity into the man he is today and more of the heart and charm would be readily apparent. Again, many people do not have this issue and don't mind having the narrative broken up and rearranged, so isn't a strong negative.
  3. Too much action? This seems like an odd negative in an action movie, but the final battle scenes may be overwhelming for some audience members. They are so action-packed that my wife and I felt tired after watching the movie. The last 30 minutes or so of the film you barely are allowed to take a breath as Superman hurdles from one conflict to the next trying to save the planet. There is a reason that so many action movies put a moment or two of levity or show the hero resting between set pieces in their action sequences -- the audience needs it, maybe more than the hero does. We were on the edge of our seats, watching this roller coaster of action for so long that it simply wore us out. That's a good problem to have, but one that should have been considered.
  4. Length. As with pretty much every single move we have seen recently, this movie is too long. I'd guesstimate that the 2:23 running time could be cut down to a solid two hours fairly easily by removing and shortening a few of the action sequences at the end and cutting a few of the slightly repetitive sequences from the opening. Rearranging the story order (per item 2) would also help the flow of the movie and for it to not feel as long.
All in all, this was an excellent genre movie with a stellar cast and great new mythology. I felt like the challenges were suitably world-threatening. The villain was layered and persuasive. The effects and action sequences were very well done. My complaints are primarily technical and concern how the movie was constructed and some of the decisions the director made in the making of it. This movie deserves to be mentioned in the same stratosphere with Marvel's The Avengers, Iron Man 1 and 3, The Dark Knight, Spider-Man, and similarly well-received genre movies.

And, if you're a Superman fan, it is a must-see movie.

Addendum (Major Spoilers)

There are quite a few negative reviews that are primarily negative because of Superman breaking Zod's neck in the third act. While this act was a serious negative for me, as well, I thought it fit into the story this movie was telling even if it didn't fit into my preconceived notions of Superman from over 30 years of being a fan, watching the TV shows, serials, cartoons, and reading comics of the character. But it fit with THIS story. Stories are coming out now that show that Christopher Nolan was against that action, too, but was talked into it by Goyer and Snyder. It has also been reported that the plan was to show this as a "true" origin story; i.e., Superman is not the "big blue boy scout" we all know and love, but rather a new hero trying to find his way and do what he thinks is right. He makes a decision that may have a lasting effect on him, and will be shown in a future sequel where he is more fully-formed as the Superman we all know. I can accept that.

That being said, I still think that this movie should have shown at least a dawning realization that his combat was destroying Smallville and Metropolis and that people were getting hurt. I think they should have shown more scenes of him saving someone and then getting hurt because of it (they did have a few scenes like this in the Smallville battle, where he saves some townspeople and army men, but Faora and "Nod" catch him and beat on him some more, but those scenes were mostly absent from the Metropolis battle). Had the Metropolis fight with Zod had more of these types of instance, especially if they actually showed Zod killing humans on purpose, the scene with Superman trying to stop Zod and then, finally, deciding to break his neck would make so much more sense and would show more the inevitability of Zod forcing him to make said decision.

Another aspect I notice is that most/many of these reviews basically like 2/3 or more of the movie. It is this decision and the constant, seemingly uncaring "battle porn" that threatens so many lives where these negative reviews focus. It makes Superman seem "cold" and "heartless" to those reviewers. I get that. And I somewhat agree with it. However, much of this is because of bringing multiple years of experience, understanding, knowledge, and preconceived ideas about the character of Superman to the movie and not allowing the writers to present something new. I was willing to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt and look to the movie as the first act of a larger arc (similar to Batman Begins). If those audience members cannot do that, or are unwilling to because the act of killing is too far removed from the Superman character they know and love, then I can respect it while not agreeing with it.

It is my opinion that the filmmakers took a subtle approach and tried to let the audience come to these conclusions on their own. I think Pa Kent responding to a young Clark asking if he should have let his classmates die with "Maybe... I don't know" was a key moment. Many viewers key on the "maybe" and completely ignore the "I don't know" part. I think that it is important, and very much a part of Clark's growth, that Pa Kent is the "hero" during the tornado scene, but silently asks Clark not to save him... for fear of what those around Clark in the underpass will see and think. Once he lets humanity know of his existence, however, that rule no longer applies, and he is willing to do what it takes to keep humanity from harm. Is it shown well? No. Could it be clearer and could they have shown his desire to save humanity in a more concrete way? Definitely. I also think that one of the subtle messages the filmmakers were showing is that Superman is one guy. One fantastically powerful guy, but even with his speed and powers he cannot save everyone. So they show him occasionally saving individuals and small groups, but needing to focus on the larger threat. He also insists on humanity helping to save themselves, by allowing the humans to take the bomb to the second ship and detonate it. He trusts them to figure it out while he is busy doing what they cannot-- fly to the other side of the world and take out the other device single-handed. 

So, in the end, I can see why these reviews are negative. I even agree with a lot of or even all of what they are saying. I was able to take the stance that this is part of a larger narrative and will have meaning and repercussions for the character down the road, while many of these reviewers do not or cannot. I also was able to divorce myself enough from it that it didn't ruin an otherwise well-done movie, while many of these people cannot or will not.

June 9, 2013

Alfred Hitchcock Presents...

Just finished watching first Psycho and then To Catch a Thief. I have watched Psycho before, but realized I hadn't seen it in a while and that I wasn't remembering much of it. I hadn't seen To Catch a Thief before, so it was new to me. It's fun to go back and watch older movies, as you see and learn so much from them.

Note: Minor spoilers ahead. However, if you haven't seen Psycho or To Catch a Thief yet... well, watch them first and then come back here. My blog will keep.

A few things struck me while viewing these old classics:
  • Acting, by and large, has gotten much better today. Or, at least, we expect more nuance and craft in what we watch today, no matter how frivolous or small the role may be. In Hitchcock's time, actors were simply a cog in the entire clockwork of a movie, and it didn't matter if some of the smaller roles were wooden or without nuance, as long as they drove the movie forward.
In Psycho, for example, the actor who played Sam was a bit wooden and had little range. The cop who follows Marion before she arrives at the Bates Motel was, at best, one-note and without character. Today, directors wouldn't stand for that. Even though what Hitchcock presented was enough to move the story along, today's audiences generally laugh and do not take seriously such one-note performances. Hitch thought nothing of completely redubbing all of one actor's lines in To Catch a Thief, because he spoke no English and his voice wasn't right (you can really hear the difference between when the character speaks French and when the re-dubbed voice speaks English).
  • How few chances that it seems like Hitchcock took in his movies.
This problem is really one of perspective. These moves were made in the 1950s and 1960s, and the fact that the angles and shots that Hitch set up were avant garde for the time is obscured by the fact that every director today has the freedom to use such shots and to spice up their work with interesting camera angles and lighting. And, frankly, many directors rip off... I mean, "pay homage to" ... Hitchcock whenever they can, as he was a master of his craft.
  • The "twist" movie has been around for much longer than M. Night Shyamalan.
Many of Hitch's movies are based on some sort of twist or surprise, like Norman Bates being caught wearing his mother's clothing at the end of Psycho or the "nice" girl winding up being the real thief in To Catch a Thief. But they simply don't have the same impact for today's audiences, that have twists thrown at them on TV, in video games, and in movies all the time. For example, although I hadn't seen it before, the very first scene that introduces the young girl, Danielle, left me saying, "Oh, well, she's the real thief." Low and behold, she was! This is not because Hitch did something wrong or that there was too much information given, it is simply that I'm a product of my time and that it is rare that any movie or TV show surprises me in a whodunnit.
  • Hitchcock didn't need to use "shaky-cam" to give his audiences a sense of action and intensity.
Any long-time reader of this blog knows that I HATE shaky-cam with a passion. It adds NOTHING to a movie except a sense of nausea and confusion about what is going on. Learn from the masters and put your damn camera on a stabilizer, tripod, or, if digital, ensure that picture stabilization is turned "on," please! If your action scene is so poorly conceived and directed that the only way you can save it is to add shaky-cam, stop and reconsider the scene in its entirety. If Hitchcock (and Spielberg, Scorsese, et al) do not need it, YOU DON'T NEED IT EITHER!

Watching these old movies is a great way to entertain and teach younger audience members about the craft of film making. Watching the humble beginnings of things helps new filmmakers to learn and grow their own style, while be cognizant of what has come before and the restraints under which so many directors used to work.

And, frankly, it is a heck of a lot of fun, too!