The Origins of the Marshall Model

The Origins of the Marshall Model

[From the Archive: Originally posted at Mar 25, 2011]

A Series of Happy Accidents

Like many discoveries, the Marshall Model came about more or less by pure chance, through a series of happy accidents. In explaining this series of events, maybe some folks can glean a further insight into the model and its utility.

Accident #1 – Agile North 2008

I was rather late in submitting my proposal for a presentation to Agile North 2008, and in a rush to put together said proposal, found myself following a line of research from Steve McConnell’s (excellent) book “After the Gold Rush” to his related paper “Business Case for Better Software Practices” (in turn, excerpted from his book “Professional Software Development”).

McConnell’s “asymmetric bell curve” spoke to me, in that it articulated a truth that I had been struggling to state for some time. I resolved to use his chart as the foundation for my presentation, but how to turn one simple chart into a hour-long session? (You can see the derived chart, here.)

Reflecting on the curve, and on my own experiences in many diverse kinds of software development organisations over the course of some thirty years, a question bubbled-up in my mind: what would life look like from the perspective of folks working in different organisations at various points along the horizontal axis? Surely that might be of some interest?

As McConnell observes:

“…most software personnel have never seen software
development at its best. This gives rise to skepticism about whether things are really better anywhere. Even people who have worked in the software industry for 20 or 30 years might never have seen software development at its best.”

This is certainly apparent, and so it was but a small step to decide to base the presentation on the idea of illustrating the different experiences of people, in organisations from inept to highly effective.

The “Rightshifting” Name

So what to call this presentation? Given the talk was largely anecdotal (based on my own experiences, my own perspective) and given that I was attempting to illustrate the different perspectives on the world of work of the folks in various organisations, I chose the word “Perspectives”. But perspectives on what?

I had been working for a decade or more in the field of process improvement (OO, CMMI, Agile, Lean, TOC, etc.). I had come to see that the concept labelled “process” was not only widely misunderstood, but generally much disliked by all concerned – from developers through senior managers. Looking at the chart, it was immediately clear that any organisation wishing to improve their performance (a.k.a. effectiveness) would be trying to move “to the right”. So it was that the term “Rightshifting” was born.

As the presentation evolved (both prior to its first outing, and subsequently), I repeatedly added new slides illustrating different dimensions of life in software development organisations (waste; productivity; favoured SDLC; prevailing flow mode; attitudes to workers; levels of fun; etc.) Aside: In the course of researching my (forthcoming) book on Rightshifting, I have now assembled a list of some fifty different dimensions in which life in organisations differs markedly, along the Rightshifting axis. (You may be interested to see the Agile North 2008 presentation – “Perspectives on Rightshifting” on Authorstream, as well as an annotated version here on this blog).

Accident #2 – Feedback from Agile North 2008

The presentation at Agile North 2008 was very well received (being voted the joint best session of the conference), and many of the folks in the audience came up for a chat after the session with observations, questions and suggestions. In the following week, and reflecting on both the event and people’s suggestions, my subconscious began to assemble a narrative, categorising the different “modes” of organisations along the rightshifting axis. Soon, these ideas coalesced and emerged into the daylight of conscious thought as the “categories” of the (yet-to-be- conceived) Marshall Model.

Accident #3 – Dee Hock

To begin with, I only had three categories identified (and as-yet unnamed).
Those are the three categories that now bear the names “Ad-hoc”, “Anayltic” and “Synergistic”. But there was a (large) blank space on the far right-hand side of the chart (from around 3.5 onwards), begging to be claimed and named. It was clear that something should be here, but what? It was not until some weeks later, when reading a paper by Dee Hock, that the idea of the “Chaordic organisation” slotted into place.

Around this time I was also discovering Ackoff and his unique perspective on systems and systems thinking. From his work came the name for the second category “Analytic thinking”. And the great R Buckminster Fuller contributed the name “Synergistic” (after some to-ing and fro-ing with my [update: now, sadly, late] colleague and co-conspirator Grant Rule, who btw also inspired the name “Ad-hoc” for the leftmost category).

Accident #4 – Seeing the Categories as “Mindsets”

It was only some months later – whilst reading Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset” – that the idea emerged of these – now four – categories as being “mindsets”.

Accident #5 – Transitions

Armed with a revised Rightshifting Chart, overlaid with the four mindsets, a new question struck me: What happens in the spaces where the mindsets overlap? Yes, one way of looking at this simply means that there can be some e.g. Analytic organisations which are (slightly) more effective than some organisations who have adopted the Synergistic mindset (and so on for the other overlaps).

But in a more profound sense, these overlapping zones signify the root of the challenge facing ALL organisations on their rightshifting journey: changing the prevailing collective mindset of the organisation. Incremental improvement is all well and good, and fairly straightforward within any one particular mindset. But continual incremental improvement (if resulting in a net shift to the right) will inevitably result in an organisation entering a transition zone, sooner or later.

With this realisation, I felt I had reached a stupendous milestone on my own journey of discovery. This was the key piece of a jigsaw puzzle I had been seeking for some twenty years or more. The answer to the question “WHY are so many organisations stuck around the median for effectiveness”? i.e. in the words of Steve McConnell: stuck “performing much closer to the worst practice than the best”.

The Key Piece of the Jigsaw

So many organisations get stuck on their journey to improved effectiveness because making progress through a transition zone (aka changing the prevailing collective mindset) is at least an order of magnitude more difficult than simple incremental improvement – and yet looks no different to the simple case, from the perspective of the managers and workers involved in attempting such a challenge (cf William Bridges’ book, “Managing Transitions”, and the Satir Change Model).


The creation of the Marshall Model has been a story of how a happy series of accidents led me to an answer to a question that had been bugging me for more than twenty years. If it’s a question that’s been bugging you, too, then I offer you the model in the hope that it might help you find your own answer, or explain it to others.

– Bob

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: