Monthly Archives: April 2013

Product Aikido


Photo Credit: Sigurd R

I wrote a post some time about Doctrine, although in that case I was writing about business, and the potential value to an organisation in defining just what it means by the term “business”.

“I reject any doctrine that does not appeal to reason and is in conflict with morality.”

~ Mahatma Gandhi

Since then I have been working on a first draft of an exemplar of a “Doctrine for Product Development”, which I have named “Product Aikido” (presently, a document of some seventy-seven A5 pages). My motive for this has been the belief that there is much value in (product) organisations having a shared, common understanding of what product development is, and how it is conducted.

Note: The colophon at the end of the document explains a little more about the choice of name, amongst other things.

I offer this first draft here for your kind consideration. Any feedback, questions, comments or suggestions you might have for its improvement will, as always, be most welcome.


“The essence of product development is an intense and ongoing struggle between organising intent and entropy. Organising intent is the will of the company, manifest in the actions of its product development people, bent on meeting the goals of the company through the creation and evolution of products and product features.”

– Bob

Further Reading

Product Aikido – The Exemplar Doctrine

Optionality – The Double-Edged Sword

Having asked some difficult questions in my previous post, and not found many clear answers, I’d also like to bring up the question of optionality.

I’m pretty sure that many people, particularly those of an implicitly violent predisposition, might rail against the idea of folks being free to choose whether to participate in change, and what changes to embrace or decline. Is this not a recipe for anarchy and the undermining of all discipline and authority?

Well, as I see it, folks choose whether to participate in change, and what changes they will each embrace or decline, in any case—whether they are nominally “free” to choose, or not. It’s just that in many situations, they keep their choices secret, and when their opting-out of certain changes IS somehow noticed, other folks remark on their apparent “disengagement”.

We can of course choose to treat people like children, coercing or otherwise motivating them to (pretend) to accept the changes.

But in organisations more Theory-Y in outlook, where the idea of treating people like consenting adults has more traction, is it not more congruent to make the optionality of involvement in change something clear and unambiguous? Might this not reap benefits in term of the health of the social fabric of the organisation? And might it not allow us all to see more clearly which changes have wide support, and which are seen as unhelpful or irrelevant?

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading”

― Gautama Buddha

I titled this post “…the Double-Edged Sword” because optionality cuts both ways. If folks are free to opt in or out of something, both options will likely have consequences.

I have found that folks often think deeply about the consequences of change (the opting-in to change choice) but little or not at all about the consequences of no-change (the opting-out of change choice). Ackoff refers to this phenomenon as “errors of commission vs errors of omission” and observes that people rarely get criticised for errors of omission (e.g. not taking a decision).

Whatever the reason, sticking with the status quo generally has at least as many consequences as opting for change.

Disclaimer: It would make my life a bit easier if folks could wake up to this.

– Bob

The Ethics of Change

Engaged as I am in what some might choose to call a “change programme”, I’ve had some occasions to ponder recently the ethics of change.

It is ethical to change people? Even given the truism that we can’t change others, we can only change ourselves, is it ethical to even contemplate changes to a system (the way the work works) with the idea of maybe seeing some behavioral changes in the folks working within that system?

As my ethical system these days is fairly bound up with nonviolence, for me the question resolves to “is asking questions with an intent to raise folks’ awareness actually a kind of violence?”

And given that’s what I’ve been doing recently —asking such questions—how far can one travel down that road before it becomes an act of violence? Put another way, where does “making meaningful connections with folks, through dialogue” end, and “coercion through asking leading questions” begin?

My working position on the question, presently, revolves around the twin notions of informed choice and need.

Informed Choice

To the extent that people realise what’s going on, and that they understand that they have a choice whether to participate or not, then I can live with the situation.


In the vernacular of Rosenberg, do folks need some change? If not, then forcing or coercing anyone into change seems to cross the ethical line. But how to broach the question of needs with each individual? Is even asking the question, starting the conversation, on dodgy ground. How about if we ask the question “Would you be willing to have a conversation about the prospect of change here, and what your needs might be therein?”?

What about folks that don’t realise what’s going on? Or have not (yet) understood the optionality of the situation? Does it behove us to do everything possible to help them understand, or is that effort—in the absence of their consent and need for realisation—in itself unethical?

– Bob

A Simple Business Case For Treating People Differently

At present I’m engaged in helping a typical corporate move towards being a “software-led business”. Setting aside any strategic questions of why the organisation might see this as desirable, there’s the simpler question of why I’m advocating treating people differently (i.e. differently from the status quo).

Some folks may be bemused or confused by this new direction, so here’s the basics of the proposition:

In a software-led business – or any knowledge-work organisation, for that matter – the success of the business depends – in part – on the applied intellect* of the folks writing the software which forms the core of the organisation’s products. Top intellect, humanely applied, leads to better products, more suited to the demands of the market. And that leads to more customers, higher margins, more business, more revenues, and ultimately a more valuable business, generally expressed as a more salable company, or a higher share price (better for investors).

So, the task at hand boils down to hiring, cultivating or otherwise acquiring “top intellect” a.k.a. smart people, and seeing their skills, talents, enthusiasms – and brains – humanely applied to creating and evolving great products.

The thing is, “top intellect” is in short supply – no matter where in the world we are. These kinds of folks have their pick of companies to work for. And being smart people, they can see through the typical snow-jobs so beloved of corporate recruiters, and coolly evaluate companies as to whether they’re nice places to work (or, much more often, not).

“There’s no shortage of talent, only a shortage of companies that talent wants to work for.”

Companies that rely on these folks for their success stand or fall by their ability to recruit, retain, enable and engage these folks. Job satisfaction is all.

Typical corporates are utterly unequipped to understand these folks, their motivations, and what it takes to provide them with job satisfaction. And even in those corporates where some folks do understand, making the changes to effect suitable conditions can be nigh on impossible.


Here’s a brief list of things typical corporates take for granted in dealing with their employees, alongside a list of the things top talent looks for in a job:

Interchangeable employees of average competenceIndividuality and Mastery
CompensationA clear sense of purpose
Standard workBold challenges and opportunities to explore new ideas

Brain Work

There’s a lot more to getting the best out of people’s brains than just giving them job satisfaction. Modern psychology, sociology, neuroscience, etc., is just beginning to shine a light on the conditions necessary for effective cognitive function (having the brain work well). This research also shows the gulf between our typical level of cognitive function in e.g. a corporate work environment and the amazing levels of cognitive function possible when conditions are tailored to optimise for that.

Creative brainwork, as epitomised by software product development, demands conditions so dissimilar to the typical corporate workplace as to be all but unrecognisable to folks familiar with the latter.


Commercial success for “software-led organisations” is utterly dependent on the collective cognitive function of its product engineering – and arguably, other – staff. Optimal cognitive function demands conditions very dissimilar to those found in typical corporates. Only by cultivating conditions very counter-intuitive to the typical corporate view of employee relations will knowlege-work organisations open the door to future commercial success.

Oh, and by the way, these counter-intuitive workplaces are much nicer places to work for everyone concerned, and contribute much to the positive health and wellbeing of all the people involved, and of wider society too.

– Bob

Further Reading

Business Case for Better Software Practices ~ Steve McConnell (pdf)

*Here, I use the term “intellect” more to indicate EQ than IQ.

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