Monthly Archives: November 2010

Rightshifting and the Senior Management Pitch

[From the Archive: Originally posted at Nov 21, 2010]


A number of folks have said to me recently that although Rightshifting strikes a chord with them personally, it’s their senior management that really needs to hear the message.

Few indeed are the organisations where ideas from the rank-and-file are taken seriously by the senior management. It’s almost as if these senior people are conditioned to automatically discount anything said to them by their “minions”. Maybe that’s one reason why consultants seem to have more success in bringing ideas to the attention of decision-makers.

I’ve been using “Value Forward Selling” for some years now as a means to engage with decision-makers, and a key technique in Value Forward Selling is something the originator – Paul DiModica – calls “The Three Box Monty”.

Not that I’m suggesting technical folks start learning how to sell ideas to management – that could be a whole new career! And most software people I know prefer to get on with the job at hand, rather than spend time and effort on “politics” and the like. Whether that’s a productive perspective or not is a different question, and maybe one for a different post.

Aside: There are a number of people in the Rightshifting community, myself included, that can help practitioners build and present a *tailored* case for more effective software development to their decision-makers. Go ahead, don’t be shy, ask for help and advice – that’s one of the reasons the Rightshifting community is here!

So, let’s take a closer look at the Three Box Monty, and why approaching it from a Solutions Focus perspective makes it even more powerful than the original technique.

The Three Box Monty Explained

The justification for the Three Box Monty is the observation that executives relate best to people they trust, and an effective means to build mutual trust is to establish a peer-to-peer relationship. Simply put, people listen more to and are more open to advice from people like themselves (“Business Peers”).

The Three Box Monty helps build that kind of mutual trust and peer-respect in a quick and simple fashion (i.e. during a thirty-minute to one-hour presentation).

So what is a Three Box Monty?

Three Box Monty is a presentation technique using three boxes drawn on a Whiteboard or Flip chart:

BoxA            Box B


The Three Box Monty serves to position the presenter (typically, a sales person, coach, consultant, etc.) as a peer of the decision-makers in the audience. (An audience might generally consist of five to fifteen people, including decision-makers and members of their respective staffs).

The three boxes of the Three Box Monty are:

  • Box A: The general business issues (pain points and problems) that are addressed by the presenter’s idea, product, or service and faced by all organisations in the same line of business, or industry sector, as the organisation being presented-to.
  • Box B: The specific business issues currently faced by the people in the audience (and their organisation).
  • Box C: A short list of ways in which the presenter’s ideas, products or services will directly contribute to the reduction of the problems listed in boxes A and B – and thus to the organisation’s declared objectives.

The presenter starts a Three Box Monty by writing a list of known “industry-wide” issues or problems into box A. This helps establish “peer credentials”, credibility, a common frame of reference, early consensus, and a basis for tackling box B.

With some five to seven items in box A, the presenter then moves on to box B, listing two or three business issues or problems specific to and familiar to the audience. Most often, these will have been learned from earlier discussions with the organisation. After inviting the audience to validate and contribute more items to box B, the presenter moves on again to box C. In box C, the presenter lists key solutions to the issues already listed in boxes A and B. Box C both shows how those solutions will help the organisation reach its desired goals, and highlights the role of the presenter’s organisation in providing key elements of these solutions.

Note that there’s a lot more to an effective Three Box Monty presentation than this brief introduction covers. In particular, I have skipped some of its most powerful aspects, centred around the psychology and sociology of meetings. See the very excellent “Value Forward Selling” by Paul DiModica pp 190-220 for much more information and explanation.

So, the normal Three Box Monty as just described concentrates on *problems*. What is “Solutions Focus” and where does it come into the picture?

Solutions Focus and the Three Box Monty

Solutions Focus is an approach to coaching and positive change that’s finding increasing acceptance in the world of business. It’s based on the basic principle of “finding what works, and doing more of it”. Rather than spend time analysing the past and its problem, why not just head directly for a solution? I recommend reading the excellent book “The Solutions Focus” by Jackson andMcKergow if you want to find out why this is nowhere near as trite as it may at first sound.

I’m not going to go into the details of the effectiveness of a Solutions Focus approach, except to say that there are some number of case studies describing the remarkable results a Solutions Focus approach can deliver when applied to e.g. business change.

So, the three boxes for my modified “Solutions Focus Three Box Monty” looks like this:

  • Box A: What the leading businesses in the industry do (well)
  • Box B: Which of those things the audience’s business is also presently doing (well)
  • Box C: Which other things the audience would like their business to do (well) in the future

Note here that the key point is to change the focus of the Three Box Monty technique from problems to solutions, from the very outset. This is, of course, similar to the generally thrust of my “Perspectives on Rightshifting” presentation.

But wait! There’s another variant for us to consider:

The “Outcomes Focus” Three Box Monty

This variant adds to the Solutions Focus Three Box Monty by replacing the focus on solutions with a focus on outcomes:

  • Box A: What positive outcomes the leading businesses in the industry are seeing presently
  • Box B: Which of those outcomes the audience’s business is also presently seeing (and maybe one or two where they’re ahead of the competition)
  • Box C: Which other positive outcomes the audience would like their business to see in the future.

Note that here, in this alternate variant, which I’m calling “The Outcomes Focus Three Box Monty”, the key point is to focus on positive outcomes – both those already seen and those desired for the future – from the very outset.

I’d be happy to explain more, particularly about the psychology underpinning this approach, should anyone express an interest in this line of thought, or wish to begin using it to positive advantage in their own situation.

I’d also love to hear from anyone already doing stuff like this.

– Bob

Delivering Software is Easy

[From the Archive: Originally posted at Nov 13, 2010]

There’s any number of folks in the software community that can build and deliver quality software to order. Most often these folks are working in small software shops, or in other cosy, obscure enclaves, who study their craft and apply the many progressive and effective ideas now known, to make sure they give their clients a great experience and value-for-money.

And we’ve all been developing and delivering software for long enough that we know how to do it, and how to do it (more or less) quite reliably.

And, from a self-indulgent point of view, that’s as much as needs to be said. We can just forget about all those less fortunate folks who haven’t discovered the secrets to reliably delivering. And all those folks who are dependent on them. And the folks who have to pay for it all.

But let’s face it; there’s (maybe) some thousands of folks who can deliver reliably, and hundreds of thousands who have to try but don’t know how, or know how but can’t anyway because of where they work, who they work for and because of all the monkey-wrenches being lobbed into their daily routines, and the bear traps lurking around every corner. And then there are the millions of folks dependent on the latter.

”I’m all right, Jack” is not a message that appeals to me. Which is why I choose to study software development in the large, searching for root conditions for the monkey-wrenches and bear-traps, and trying to do what I can to help those hundreds of thousands of less fortunate development folks caught in what I refer to as the “aspiration gap” – that gap between the (high) number of folks wanting a job where they CAN just focus on delivery and the (low) number of opportunities where that happy scenario is possible.

– Bob


Here’s a picture showing “The Aspiration Gap” between where the majority of software development jobs are (blue curve), and the jobs folks would like to have (green curve):

The State of Agile

[From the Archive: Originally posted at Nov 1, 2010]


Agile at its most effective has the hallmarks of a social science or organisational psychology phenomenon, and not much at all to do with technical practices. If we accept this assertion, then I suggest it behoves Agile promoters to consider the implications of Agile adoption in the light of social science, along with individual and organisational psychology. From this perspective, the State of Agile is looking vulnerable – precarious even. But have no fear! Agile has already brought much pleasure and (job) satisfaction to many thousands of people, and points the way towards more effective organisations. Even if Agile crashes and burns, with its and a myriad of other contributions, I believe the world of work is changing for the better.

About me: I have been in software development and the technology business for nearly forty years. I’ve written compilers, interpreters, software tools, commercial, financial and embedded systems. I’ve designed and architected things from the very small to the massively huge. As a coach and advisor I’ve seen all kinds of development shops and approaches, from tech start-ups through to global corporates. I’ve been learning about agile since circa 1994, owning and running the UK’s first 100% agile software house in the process. I find my vocation lies in helping people, my motivation in seeing folks have a more fulfilling life at work in tech businesses, and I’ve spent 25+ years seeking answers to the question “why is software development most everywhere still done so badly?”.

“Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.”

– Wu Li

Tipping Point…

More and more folks within the Agile community claim that the Agile flavour of software development has reached some kind of tipping point. That non-IT people within businesses and other organisations have begin to appreciate the benefits that Agile software development has to offer over more traditional means of developing software, to the point where these business folks are considering trialling it, or even adopting it.

Certainly I’d agree that over the past few years we have seen a marked upswing in interest in the word “Agile” from the business community – although maybe less pronounced in the UK and Europe then elsewhere. And in an increasing number of cases, that upswing of interest does seem to have spurred businesses – or their IT departments , at least – to try out agile methods on one or more of their projects.

Some prominent opinioneers in the agile community even assert that in some years, Agile software development will sweep away more established approaches and become the “new normal”.

How realistic is this? We have seen false dawns before, in the shape of e.g. Structured Methods (SSADM et al), 3GLs, 4GLs, CASE tools, formal methods (VDM,Z), the 5th Generation (MITI), Object Orientation (OOA/D/P), Process Improvement (BPR, CMMI). Each of these has, of course, added to our sum of knowledge, and given us new means to do better. But none has swept the board(room).

Now, along with Agile (Scrum, XP, Kanban et al), we also have Lean software development, Systems Thinking, Deming, Theory of Constraints, “professionalism” a.k.a. certifications, Action Science, and more.

As a grass-roots initiative, Agile has come a long way in its short life, and garnered much support from practitioners.

But is Agile really the best bet for businesses looking to do something positive about gaining competitive advantage, better serving their customers and markets, or making more money?

Is Agile even a good bet? Have we, the practitioners – in our giddy delight at finding something that makes our work more enjoyable, interesting and meaningful, with the promise of transforming business itself – blithely ignored the elephant in the room?

…or Knife-edge?

Personally, I see the current state of Agile as less at a tipping-point than poised on a knife-edge. Many adopting organisations report relatively positive early experiences with Agile. Positive, at least with respect to the “usual” criteria; predictability, quality, cost, timescales, productivity. And positive even for “softer” or more general criteria such as employee engagement, effectiveness and stakeholder satisfaction.

My own work with Rightshifting, and in particular the Marshall Model of Organisational Evolution, however, has thrown up a key question. The aforementioned Elephant in the Room:


  • New-mindset-for-practitioners: Adopting Agile, so that it’s “done right” and delivers its promised benefits, necessitates its practitioners adopt a certain new (contrary to prevailing norms) perspective on the world of work. I refer to this as the “Synergistic” mindset.
  • Prevailing-mindset-for-organisation: Most organisations which are candidates for Agile adoption have a prevailing non-Agile view of the world of work. I refer to this as the “Analytic” (or possibly even “Ad-hoc”) mindset.
  • Cognitive-dissonance: Having different groups within an organisation, each holding markedly and observably different views of the world of work (e.g. Analytic, Synergistic) will inevitably lead to both tension and alienation.
  • Local-optimisation: As long as the scope of Agile adoption remains limited to practitioners (i.e. in one small corner of the organisation as a whole), their new mindset is likely to remain relatively unnoticed, and unlikely to cause significant tension and alienation in other areas of the organisation. But in this case, Agile will deliver little, if any, significant business benefit (i.e. to the “bottom line”). Practitioners, of course, might be relatively happy with the new ways of doing things, in the short term, at least.

The key questions, then, for me become:

In the case of Cognitive-dissonance:

How long can an organisation tolerate this state of tension and alienation, a.k.a. “organisational cognitive dissonance”, before feeling compelled to resolve it?

In the case of Local-optimisation:

How long can an organisation tolerate a new and opaque way of working that appears to indulge its practitioners without delivering any significant business benefit?

And as subsidiary questions:

How is a state of increasing tension and alienation likely to resolve itself? What are the alternative outcomes we can foresee?

And what relative likelihood for each such outcome?

And finally

Given the above questions, what is the prognosis for Agile adoption in most (i.e. Analytic) organisations? And thus, what is the prognosis for the way the world of business will come to regard Agile in future?

I leave the answers to these questions to you, dear readers – and to the unfolding future, which we explore together…

– Bob

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