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Monthly Archives: August 2013

Are You Sitting Comfortably?

comfortzone

[TL;DR: How most folks stick to their comfort zones, and what that means for the businesses they work in.]

“No matter how comfortable we are, we always have to take the next step.”

~ Steve Jobs, re: the creation and naming of NeXT and NeXTStep

I like getting outside my comfort zone. Well, not like, exactly. It’s more that I feel compelled to do so, and quite often. I seem to have some voice inside my head saying “This is not good enough. Break out of your comfort zone – and push the envelope, again.” I guess I like the feeling that psychologists call “eustress“.

“Everyone needs a little bit of [positive] stress in their life in order to continue to be happy, motivated, challenged and productive. It is when this stress is no longer tolerable and/or manageable that distress comes in.”

A Mentor Can Help

In “Great Boss, Dead Boss” the author Ray Immelman expresses his view that a leader has to have the psychological courage to take each next step on the company’s journey. To have the urge to transcend their own emotional discomfort, and make leaps into the unknown, nevertheless. He also talks about the value of leaders having mentors with the psychological strength to help them grow even further.

Business Partnerships

In my working partnerships, over the years, I have often felt a sense of frustration with said partners and their reluctance to step outside their own comfort zones. We have lost opportunities, and compromised progress towards the (shared, common) purpose of the business because of the mismatch between our different levels of tolerance for discomfort.

Aside: By “opportunities”, I mean opportunities for personal growth, joy, success, enlightenment, fellowships, etc., and not so much just commercial opportunities.

And when talking with potential clients, etc., I regularly see the same kind of dynamic; folks who are “settling”, comfy in their warm, cozy and safe comfort zones. History tells me these are folks I cannot work with for long – or at all.

I’ve often found myself introspecting:

“What’s more important? Harmonious relationships, loyalty, friendship, etc. – or progress, taking the next step?”

Somehow, finding an acceptable balance over the longer term has eluded me. Maybe this, too, has something to do with needing to take the next step, make progress, move on.

Consequences

Working in e.g. an organisation, team or partnership where there’s a mismatch in folks’ tolerance levels for discomfort; where some folks want to take the next step and others are comfortable in their comfort zones, can lead to:

  • Frustration.
  • Distress.
  • Demotivation – for the comfort-seeking and the discomfort-seeking folks, both.
  • Distraction.
  • Anxiety.
  • Withdrawal.
  • Maladaptive and depressive behaviours.
  • Dysfunctional social interactions.
  • Impaired cognitive function.

I see a tolerance for discomfort, an impulse to step outside one’s comfort zone, as closely correlated to organisational effectiveness (a.a. Rightshifting Index). And another reason to seek to match folks with similar tolerance levels.

Solutions?

I’m not sure even now, having experienced many instances of seeing folks stuck in their comfort zones, and the doldrums that result, that I have any answers or advice on how to deal with this, except perhaps Immelman’s:

“Strong tribal leaders have capable mentors whose psychological limits exceed their own.”

~ Ray Immelman

Oh, and talking about the topic. Maybe this post can serve your team or company as an entry point into that kind of discussion?

How about you? Are you inured to your comfort zone? Have you a story about some time when you stepped beyond that zone and found something wondrous?

– Bob

Further Reading

A Closer Look at Intrinsic Motivation ~ Kendra Cherry
The Science of Breaking Out of Your Comfort Zone ~ Alan Hendry

How Can We Do This Better?

ChessRice1

As you may know, I’m between things at the moment. Aside from enjoying the summer weather, and restoring a rather sad Z1000 (2008 vintage), it’s given me the chance to reflect on what I’d like to do next.

I like to work with people. I like tough challenges. (Those two things seem to go together, don’t they?)

But above all I like to exercise my passion for getting involved in making things better. This post explores just what “making things better” means to me.

Context

It never ceases to surprise me just how few people seem to grasp the power of compounding – something “both obvious and very surprising”. I’m also regularly surprised by how few organisations seem to understand the connection between compounding and continuous improvement. And I don’t mean understand it intellectually, but understand it viscerally – such that they take it to heart, ingrain it into the fabric of the organisation, act on it as if the very life of their organisation depended on it. Which, one could reasonably argue, it does.

 “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

~ W. Edwards Deming

And, again, I’m often surprised by how little priority deliberate and systemic continuous (e.g. in-band) improvement receives from senior management groups.

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

~ Chinese Proverb

Why it Matters to Me

I’m not so interested, myself, in making organisations more “productive” – with the implication of making a few rich people richer. I am interested, however, in helping as many of us as possible get more out of our lives. For those of us that might want to, of course. No pressure!

And, actually, I see no conflict between these two goals. The idea of obliquity suggests that it’s often a better strategy to approach goals indirectly, in any case.

I see “making things better” as a way to approach my goal of helping folks discover what fulfilment means to each, which can lead on to getting more out of our lives, and in turn to making everyone “richer” – in whatever way that suits each of us individually.

The Eighth Waste

Taiichi Ohno, widely considered as the father of the Toyota Production System, identified seven wastes of manufacturing (muda, in Japanese). He also considered an Eighth Waste – the waste of human creativity a.k.a. human potential.

Since very early in my career, it’s been this Eighth Waste – or rather, its reduction –  that has energised me and commanded my attention.

Doing Things Better

Putting these elements together, I’ve come to believe that there’s just one simple question that can act as a litmus test for what I’d like to be doing for the rest of my career:

“How can we do this better?”

Folks that constantly ask this question are the kind of folks I love to be involved with. Other folks, not so much.

It may seem like a very simple question, but I see some deep implications in each word:

How CAN We Do This Better?

People always have a choice. Although many organisations act as if its people don’t. The word “can” reminds me of this, and that we have many options – potential solutions – open to us for each improvement we consider. And many options as to which particular improvement to pursue, too.

How Can WE Do This Better?

For me, continuous improvement is primarily about people. About affording people the chance to realise more of their innate potential. And doing that together, in social groups, teams, units and communities. But more than this, the “we” here means, for me, the whole organisation. If we allow “we” to degenerate into small groups, cliques, silos or restricted corners of the organisation, it’s very likely (Ackoff says inevitable) that local improvements will make the overall performance of the organisation worse.

How Can We Do THIS Better?

Not “things”. Not “everything”. THIS thing. Here. Now.

How Can We DO This Better?

For me, improvement is about DOING. In other words about action. But action informed by theory.

“He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast.”

~ Leonardo Da Vinci

When we take action, informed by theory, we are in essence performing an experiment based on a hypothesis. This is the essence of the scientific method, as described by Bacon, and as more recently expressed in the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle at the heart of intentional continuous improvement efforts.

How Can We Do This BETTER?

Not “perfectly”. Not simply “how can we do this thing, today?”. Better.

Better than the last time we did it.

This of course implies we have some idea of how well this thing turned out that last time. Or even better, some idea of how well this thing turned out of the course of any number of previous times we did it. Ohno calls this idea “standard work”.

Note that we’re not so concerned with how we did this thing on previous occasions. Although that might be useful information, too. Assuming the previous way(s) of doing this thing are a good starting point for doing it better (kaizen). Sometimes, though, an entirely fresh start (kaikaku) offers more scope for improvement.

HOW Can We Do This Better?

I’ve saved this one ’till last, as in some ways the “how” is the least interesting for me.  I have faith that if the folks involved have a modicum of smarts, and a modicum of ability to work together, the “how” soon gets figured out. That’s not to say I see the “how” as unimportant:

“By What Method?… Only The Method Counts.”

~ W. Edwards Deming

Aim and method are essential. An aim without a method is useless. A method without an aim is dangerous. It leads to action without direction and without constancy of purpose. (from Wikipedia)

– Bob

Forecasts, Estimates and Cost Accounting

[Draft – please expect further updates]

#NoEstimates?

I’ve tried to avoid getting involved in the ongoing #NoEstimates debate. It seems more like a religious war than a discussion with much prospect of a useful outcome. And a classic case of the Analytic-minded folks butting heads with the Synergistic-minded (and a few Ad-hoc perspectives thrown in for extra confusion).

For me, it also seems like a non-argument. By which I mean that all the knowledge is out there, should folks only but seek to look. For myself, I have several perspectives, drawn from these bodies of knowledge, that I shall continue to apply in the context of estimating and #NoEstimates.

The Theory Of Constraints Perspective

I don’t recall much in Goldratt’s teachings about estimates, per se. But he has written much about the futility of forecasting, e.g. customer demand for products. I suggest his arguments also hold true for forecasting costs (estimating). For more info you might like to take a look at his books, and in particular “It’s Not Luck”.

The Systems Thinking Perspective

Systems Thinking has a relevance to cost estimation, in that systems thinking (c.f. Goldratt, Ackoff) observes that a system is a collection of parts, such that improving the performance of the parts of a system taken separately will negatively impact the performance of the whole. In fact, such “local” improvements can entirely destroy an organization.

Cost Accounting assumes that the cost of each part, each operation, can be known separately (“local costs”). This is a false assumption. I suggest that this means the estimation of costs can, in reality, only produce useful numbers when considered in the context of the system (organisation) as a whole.

See also: “Throughput Accounting” ~ Corbett

The Nonviolent Communications Perspective

From this perspective, we can choose to see folks’ requests for estimates as a means for meeting some of their needs. I’d suggest that some other folks see this means as sub-optimal, in that these other folks believe that there are better means for those folks to get their needs met than through estimates and estimating. And I’d also suggest that for those other folks, having to provide estimates is not meeting their needs. Which is triggering in them various negative feelings, possibly including anger, frustration, hostility and anxiety.

Feelings Inventory

So, applying this knowledge, we might choose to discuss what needs all these folks have, which ones are being met and which not, and some options for effective means for getting everyone’s needs met. Hopefully this might lead to an outcome where folks can agree on a mutually joyful way forward.

The Covalent Perspective

In any non-trivial endeavour, there may be some number of different stakeholders and stakeholding communities, each with their own set of needs. These different needs can and will, at least from time to time, conflict in possibly mutually-exclusive ways. The Covalent approach recognises this and focuses on making folks’ needs explicit and visible, such that these conflict can be resolved, to the extent that is ever possible.

See also: “Competitive Engineering” ~ Tom Gilb

– Bob

No More Stupid Punts

What do I mean by “stupid”?

“Mah momma says: ‘Stupid is as stupid does, Forrest'”

~ Forrest Gump

We’re all trying to get our needs met. How we go about that can span the whole spectrum between very smart, and very stupid.

In my vocabulary, “smart” means we’ve chosen, found, or stumbled-upon an effective way of getting our need met, and conversely, “stupid” simply means that we’ve chosen an ineffective way to get our need met.

And boy have I been stupid.

A Series of Stupid Punts

Over the past ten years or so, I’ve taken a series of engagements (jobs, contracts, etc.) in the hope of helping folks – folks who’ve assured me that they wanted help, btw. Generally I’ve directed my help towards improving their company in some way. Sometimes this has been related to an Agile adoption, sometimes to some kind of Lean transformation, and sometimes to improving e.g. software or product development in general.

These engagements have all been punts. That is, the outcomes have been uncertain, and the clients’ commitment to change, although avowed and often emphatic, unproven. Stupid punts.

Ill Met by Moonlight

In all cases – whilst, of course, getting paid for my efforts – I’ve just been trying to help folks. And have been focussed primarily on their needs. And in the process, not paying much attention at all to my own needs. So, unsurprisingly perhaps, my own needs have often been ill met.

My Needs

Here’s a list of the needs I’m talking about:

  • Meaningful connections – the opportunity to make meaningful connections with people. Given that my help is most often directed towards seeing the whole organisation thrive, flourish and become more effective, “meaningful connections” includes everyone in the organisation – from the executives (board, management team), to the frontline folks (devs, ops, sales, marketing, support, etc.).
  • Mutual learning – exploring interesting topics together with other folks , and learning together about things to do with making businesses more effective.
  • Contribution – actually making some appreciable contribution to the improvement of folks’ lives at work, and to the healthy growth and progress of the organisation as a whole, too.
  • A sense of progress – a.k.a. accomplishment. A feeling that folks’ efforts are not wasted, that things are in fact moving – and in the “right” direction.
  • Regard – being “successful” enough that folks would hold my contribution in sufficiently high regard that they would recommend my services to others.
  • Well-being (of self and others) – in particular, helping folks get their needs met, relating to one another humanely, and – for those who wish to – fully realising their innate potential.
  • Mutual joy – in the nonviolent communication sense of the term (through e.g. self-empathy, empathy, and honest expression). See also: Brahmavihara

Aside: The correlation between the above list and Martin Seligman’s idea of P.E.R.M.A. is a happy coincidence, yet unsurprising, I guess.

I wrote a post recently explaining how my then-job was not meeting my needs in that particular position. It may come as no surprise to hear that I resigned shortly afterwards.

Turning Point

To date, I’ve often been so focussed on the needs of others (clients, co-workers, employers) that getting my own needs met has been pretty much squeezed out. This regularly leaves me feeling depressed, angry and, often, alienated.

I’m resolved to find a more balanced position between my needs and those of others. And to begin to work on less stupid ways of getting my own needs met, too.

I’ve reached a point in my life, with the help of Marshall Rosenberg, where getting my needs met seems crucial to my happiness and peace of mind. This has become sufficiently important that I’m resolved to take some steps to significantly increase the likelihood of that happening in future. I am presently thinking on what such steps might look like.

If and when this is working well, I anticipate better outcomes not just for myself, for all. I will still keep taking punts, just not quite such stupid ones. Semper mirabilis, indeed.

Cobblers

In closing, I note a certain irony. For some twenty years now I have taken careful account of the needs of all stakeholders in whatever endeavour I have been involved. Just not, it seems, my own needs. Cobblers’ children, anyone?

– Bob

A System of Continuous Improvement

 

“If continuous improvement isn’t in-band then realistically it ain’t gonna happen.”

 

This post is about FlowChain (which btw, is the inspiration for my Twitter handle, @flowchainsensei). Not only does FlowChain afford a means for moving continuous improvement in-band, but also does away with the need for projects, and offers a means for dramatically improving product development flow.

These changes mean:

  • Shortest possible concept-to-cash times.
  • Steady, reliable flow of new features into the market.
  • Earliest possible return on product/software development investment.
  • Standardised, reliable numbers to manage by.
  • No more project overheads.
  • Simple coordination of work streams (no more PMO overheads).
  • Improved business agility.
  • Compatible with Agile development (team) methods.
  • Your highly-utilised specialists are always working on the company’s most important (highest cost-of-delay) features.

Continuous Improvement

A.K.A. Continual Improvement – for those who prefer that variant.

I wrote last year about continuous improvement as a vaccine. This was an attempt to raise the profile of the value of a systemic approach to making organisations work better and better (more and more effectively). In a related post I’ve explained how it’s fruitless to try to change people, but very fruitful to change the way the work works (“the system”) so as to effect changes in folks’ behaviours, without any coercion, obligation or other forms of violence (in that the folks doing the work are the same folks that choose and effect the changes to their collective way of working). And with transparency – both in terms of intent (to change behaviours) and so that everyone can see what is going on, every minute of every day.

FlowChain Basics

In FlowChain we see these themes (and others, not covered here) woven together. Flowchain illustrates a system of work in which continuous improvement is integrated right there into the way the work works, on a daily basis. The following diagram illustrates the general FlowChain idea:

FlowChainInPractice

Here we see the enterprise-wide backlog. This contains all the work-items – a.k.a. deliverables – the enterprise is presently interested in producing. Through BAU, the Operational Value Stream Owners, engaged as they are, daily, in dealing with the constraints (cf. TOC) in their respective value streams, make requests for changes to their products, line-of-business applications, and so on. Let’s assume they choose to do this through a succession of “User Stories”. The enterprise backlog, then, allows the organisation as a whole to review and prioritise this workload – most likely according to some set of agreed policies. (We might choose to think of this as black-box backlog prioritisation).

The folks who choose to participate in the Pool (of e.g. “engineers” – in the most general sense), when not working on an existing item, are free to “pull” an item from at or near the head of the enterprise backlog and start working on it. These folks will get to know that:

  • Their skills and experience – plus personal interests and enthusiasms – will suggest which items they might best pull.
  • Some folks might like to work with the same folks on each successive item (standing teams).
  • Some might choose to work with different folks from item to item (fluid, self-assembling teams).
  • Some might choose to flit from one mode to another, item by item, as the fancy takes them.

Note: As a rule of thumb, each work item will be of a size requiring the efforts of around three to four people for one to three days. There may be benefits in making work items a consistent size, and even in balancing the flow through e.g. Heijunka

Aside: The nature of FlowChain is also informed by an old Familiar policy:

“Absolutely no work in the organisation is done off-plan.”

Flow

The yellow arrows in the above diagram illustrate the flow of i.e. product development work through the enterprise. As each e.g. user story is pulled from the backlog and worked-on by folks from the pool, ideas and innovations pertinent to improving the way the work works – most likely item-dependent – may be generated. These potential improvement ideas are captured in the form of e.g. “improvement stories”.

(Remembering that each “story” is a placeholder for a conversation.)

These improvement stories then also find their way into the enterprise backlog (the blue arrow shows this route). This allows the enterprise – through the backlog prioritisation algorithm (set of policies) – to balance and adjust the flow of user stories and improvement stories in real-time.

The backlog “management” may also include visualisation of the demand, work and flow – through e.g. an enterprise kanban board with kanban (cards) for the user stories and improvement stories both.

The Holy Grail – In-band Continuous Improvement

In this scheme of things, then, we integrate continuous improvement into the heart of the flow of BAU. This allows Flowchain-type organisations to square the circle and effectively serve the two masters of production and improvement with full transparency, non-violence, real-time flexibility and control.

Incidentally, this also allows FlowChain organisations to do away with the whole rotten edifice of projects, programmes, Programme Offices, internecine strife over resources, and so on.

My thanks again to all those folks that have made this post possible. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

– Bob

Chasing the Dragon

goldendragonsI know many folks who have a powerful desire to build great products, and great software for great products. Many of these embrace the mantra:

“How do you build a great product? Build a great team and let them build it for you.”

Sadly, most of these folks are working in organisations that do not share their passion for great work. So they find themselves, quite naturally, and without much conscious thought on the matter, limiting their ambitions to their own little corner of the organisation.

Thus we see some “great” development teams, and development shops, embedded in the IT silo – or, more rarely, some other silo.

The folks with the passion beaver away, learning, experimenting, building, evolving, growing and adapting. Embracing change. Doing great work.

But it’s never going to be satisfying. Not really. Because there are so many other folks outside of “development” involved in creating a product that however engaged the development team, the customers’ experience depends on not only the development folks’ efforts and passion, but on many other folks’ inputs too. And getting this all joined-up across the silos of a typical organisation is so fraught with difficulties, missteps, confusions, conflicting priorities, ball-dropping – and other dysfunctions too numerous to mention – it’s just never going to happen. It’s never going to result in a truly great product, and neither in a truly great customer experience.

The bottom line is that in siloed organisations (by far the most common kind), the whole idea of a “great development shop” is a chimera, a delusion, a dragon.

Are you still chasing that dragon?

– Bob

Gaining Discipline

I’ve heard numerous folks in development roles express discomfort and concern with the idea that discipline has a positive role to play in development work. Similarly, I have heard numerous managers express frustration and concern that their development teams “lack discipline”.

Learning the value of discipline is the key thing that – to some extent at least – justifies the time, effort and relatively limited effectiveness that organisations spend in the Analytic mindset. In a nutshell, Ad-hoc minded organisations see little or no value in discipline; Analytic, Synergistic and Chaordic-minded organisations take discipline as a given.

The Term “Discipline” Can Confuse

Just in case you’re wondering what I mean by “discipline”, I wrote last year a post explaining the term. In that post I contrasted the two different types of discipline (extrinsic vs intrinsic). I suspect that the concern – and polar opposite attitudes – folks have towards “discipline” – stems from a confusion between these two types of discipline.

“Confusing extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is bad enough, but the fatal mistake is using extrinsic motivation (disciplining, using punishment-and-reward) and expecting it to foster intrinsic motivation or self-discipline. Unfortunately, that’s exactly backwards: extrinsic motivation corrodes intrinsic motivation.”

~ Gordon Shipley

I’m not going to rehash my aforementioned post here. Rather, I’d like to explore a question I’m often asked: “can organisations skip the Analytic mindset?” After all, save its role in illustrating the value of discipline (mostly extrinsic, in the case of the Analytic mindset), there seems little attraction in spending any time at all in the Analytic mindset, let alone the years or decades that some organisations languish therein.

So, I’m wondering if there’s a way in which organisations can progress to the Synergistic mindset, with a viable appreciation of the value of discipline, yet not learn that lesson through building a regime of extrinsic discipline and all the police-state paraphernalia that goes with that?

Would it be feasible to learn the value of discipline, from the get-go, through a focus on intrinsic discipline, and evolve from that position instead? In that way, could we avoid the cost and effort of setting up elaborate frameworks of coercion, with rafts of policies, procedures, contracts, standards, reporting hierarchies, and so on? Could we avoid the unpleasantnesses of coercion (aka violence)? And might we be able to avoid the costs and distress of eventually tearing down those same frameworks later, i.e. with the uptake of Synergistic thinking?

The challenge, as I see it, is to not get ahead of ourselves and attempt to put into place the whole Synergistic memeplex, as we work on fostering intrinsic discipline.

Is it possible to foster intrinsic discipline in place of extrinsic discipline – whilst still in a command-and-control, hierarchical management, siloed organisation?

Personally, I believe the answer is a cautious “yes”.

The Foundations of Intrinsic Discipline

First, a plea for balance:

“What does it say about our society that ‘the idea of self-control is generally praised’ even though it may sometimes be maladaptive and spoil the experience and savorings of life’?”

~ Alfie Kohn

Here’s some things I might do to foster intrinsic discipline:

  • Start a dialogue across the organisation about the value – and risks – of discipline and the distinctions between the two types of discipline.
  • Explore the purpose of the organisation, from the stakeholders’ perspectives, and the role of discipline in meeting that purpose.
  • Invite folks to consider the connections between intrinsic discipline and intrinsic motivation.
  • Question the nature and understanding of “intrinsic discipline” – it is like having an internal policeman, or more like something that helps everyone to explore and fulfil their own personal values, and needs?

As I’ve been writing this post, it’s been dawning on me that perhaps the idea of transitioning from extrinsic discipline to intrinsic discipline – as part of the wider Analytic-Synergistic transition – is somewhat misleading. Perhaps the transition is more about a change from joylessness to joyfulness (by degrees). We might also see this as a change from a focus on discipline (of either kind) to a focus on (intrinsic) motivation.

“In fact, though, there are different types of motivation, and the type matters more than the amount. Intrinsic motivation consists of wanting to do something for its own sake – to read, for example, just because it’s exciting to lose oneself in a story. Extrinsic motivation exists when the task isn’t really the point; one might read in order to get a prize or someone’s approval. Not only are these two kinds of motivation different — they tend to be inversely related. Scores of studies have shown that the more you reward people for doing something, the more they’re apt to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. Researchers keep finding that offering children “positive reinforcement” for being helpful and generous ends up undermining those very qualities, and encouraging students to improve their grades results in their becoming less interested in learning.”

~ Alfie Kohn

I’d love to hear how you feel about all this.

– Bob

Further Reading

Why Self-discipline is Overrated ~ Alfie Kohn
Discipline Defined: Understanding Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation ~ Gordon Shipley
Balancing Agility and Discipline ~ Barry Boehm, Richard Turner

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