Monthly Archives: February 2014

Engineering Excellence


Is your business going to fail because your product development (engineering) capability is in the toilet? Probably not. Are you leaving much success (value) on the table? Definitely.

Maybe you don’t really want or need awesome “success” – however you define that. Growth, profits, fun, kudos, whatever. In which case no worries. Move along. Nothing to see here.

Maybe you’re satisfied – or simply resigned – to being a one-product company, with no real plans for developing any more products in the future. That can work. Even in the long term.

And there are other paths to a “successful” business than engineering excellence. You probably work in such a business, even now. One that has chosen another path, that is. How’s that working out for you? I mean, how’s it meeting your needs?

“People simply feel better about themselves when they’re good at something.”

~ Stephen R. Covey,The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness

Even if your business (more specifically, the folks in charge) wanted to take the engineering excellence path, it’s just so damned hard, isn’t it? Easier by far to pay lip service to the idea, delude yourselves and others – like customers and investors – that you’re serious, while actually just futzing around making it look like some progress is being made.

And let’s not forget, engineering excellence doesn’t just apply to your business’ products and services. It’s arguably even more relevant to the way you run your business (the way the work works).

Do I have any advice for those very few folks with the horn for actually doing something about engineering excellence in their knowledge-work business? Yes. It’s spread across the nearly three hundred blog posts I’ve written here over the past five years. Not that anyone’s listening. Which kinda demonstrates my point.

– Bob

The Longer View

The Long View

I accept that few and far between are the companies and organisations that take any kind of long term view regarding their capability to develop software systems and products. Between short-term financial pressures, peripatetic middle and senior managers, demotivated staff and ever-changing technologies and tools, the long term seems to get short shrift in most places.

But I have occasionally bumped into some companies that have a longer term view.

Given that, in the longer term, staff will be changing – if not actually leaving the company, then at least changing jobs internally – what are the implication of a longer term view? Particularly in knowledge-work businesses, where people, their relationships and what they believe, are the key factor? How might we go about creating – never mind continually rightshifting – a sustainable capability independent from any particular individuals or teams? How might we allow for our hard-won effectiveness to continue – even when the involvement of key individuals does not?

Plan A

Most folks faced with this conundrum seem to put their faith in the idea of process. In particular “process maturity”, as exemplified by the CMMI. If we have a comprehensive set of rules, so the logic goes, then it doesn’t particularly matter who’s involved in the work. We can gaily swap resources (sic) in and out as circumstances dictate. In fact, with comprehensive and detailed enough rules, we could even hire monkeys and still get quality software out the door.

This had been tried – and reported on – often enough for both the advantages and disadvantages of this logic to have become apparent.

Sadly – both for those in charge, and for those in the trenches – the practical disadvantages have come to be seen as greatly outweighing any notional advantages.

So, what other option do we have? Are we condemned to continue building soulless, violent and oppressive software “factories” where people are reduced to mere dispensable cogs in some Brazil-esque corporate machine?

“Managers will try anything easy that doesn’t work before they will try anything hard that does work.”

~ Jim Womack

Plan B

I propose that we do have an alternative. One that recognises the primacy of the human element, and works with that, rather than against it. One that understands that Man is a social animal. Pre-wired by evolution for society, and living together.

This alternate approach draws from ideas of community. By encouraging the emergence and evolution of a cohesive community, having a shared mindset and a storehouse of implicit community knowledge, with shared purpose and shared values, rules become unnecessary. Enforcement and coercion becomes unnecessary. Folks can intuit the “right” thing to do, without having to refer to guidelines or processes. Or be told.

In novel and unanticipated situations, folks don’t need to worry about not having comprehensive instructions to follow.

New hires – at least those possessing a certain basic “affinity” – can quickly pick up on the vibe, and fit right in.

Granted this is not a new idea. Senge was writing about “learning communities” in e.g. The Fifth Discipline more than twenty years ago.

But maybe now the time is coming where we can begin to see the folly of dehumanising work, and can more readily consider the heretofore unpalatable option of Plan B.

– Bob

Further Reading

The Fifth Discipline ~ Peter Senge
Product Development For The Lean Enterprise ~ Michael Kennedy

Wolf Magic

Wolves chilling

In a recent blog post I thanked @davenicolette for drawing my attention to an article by Eric Barker, and more specifically to the concept of the Omega Wolf. Setting aside the question of whether the behaviour in wolves is natural or forced, I share Dave’s view that the notion of Omega Wolf makes for a fine metaphor for a particular role in our organisations.

“A really successful team needs at least one person who is not a team player. Someone who’s willing to stand up to authority, to rock the boat. To not make everybody happy. To not pat everybody on the back.”

~ Eric Barker

“Every wolf pack has an omega who bears the brunt of pack members’ frustrations. This individual functions as a sort of social glue for the pack, defusing conflict and aggression before it harms the group’s cohesion…”

~ Dave Nicolette

When I read this, I instantly recognised myself and my roles in various organisations over the years. I also saw the way in which the Omega Wolf complements the Chaos Monkey so well.

And as with Chaos Monkeys, folks in the role of Omega Wolf can easily be misunderstood – as troublemakers, lamers, losers, doormats, clowns or maybe even worse, idealist.

“Looking at the big picture and the long view, the lowest ranking wolf—the omega wolf—may actually be the ‘cornerstone wolf’ — keeping the pack together and peaceful.”

~ Robert Lindsay

Looking at human organisations – and particularly the dysfunctional ones (there are other kinds?) – I’d suggest that the people in the Omega Wolf roles are the great unsung – and often unappreciated – heroes of highly effective – and joyful – teams.

My Omega Wolf Credo

  • I aspire to help people by defusing stressful situations and bringing people together in increasingly authentic fellowship and harmony.
  • I aspire to care for the young cubs, the new hires, and the other folks who may be feeling disoriented and wondering how to become more part of “the team”.
  • I aspire to help people by being playful and encouraging others to “play” more, too.
  • I aspire to help organisations and the folks therein by championing the value of joy and humane relationships in work.
  • I aspire to improve the quality of individual and collective relationships by illustrating the value of nonviolence.
  • I aspire to improve the cohesion of the team(s) and the organisation more widely.
  • I aspire to raise awareness of the value of authentic harmony, the role of the Omega Wolf in contributing to that, and to make Omega Wolf behaviours not only acceptable but highly sought-after.

Who are the Omega Wolves in your company? How much do they contribute to the well-being of the organisational “community”? And how well-understood are they – and the value they add – in this role?

– Bob

Further Reading

Wolfpack Programming

Different Worlds, Different Roads

Three roads diverge

“We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.”

~ Buddha

With our thoughts, we make the world. Indeed.

Through my own work, I’ve become pretty sensitised to folks’ thoughts, and the way they make their worlds. Their different sets of assumptions – illustrated by the words they choose and the solutions they propose for “making the way the work works, work better”, a.k.a. “Rightshifting“.

Just now, it looks to me that the sometimes-cosy, always fractious Agile consensus is beginning to implode. Let’s face it, results have been less than stellar, less than promised, even. And many folks who really care about this stuff have become pretty much sick and tired of all the hype and misdirection and crass commercialism now the norm in the Agile space. I know I have.

Three Roads

From my vantage point, I see the future opening up along three distinct and mutually exclusive roads. Three distinct choices for people and organisations to follow towards “doing things better”.

The High Road

I see some folks select “poor or inept management” as the core problem holding back progress, and thus a focus on making management better. Through education and re-education, training, selection, taking managers to the gemba, and so on, travellers on this road assume that if we “fix managers”, then progress can be made. Travellers on this road seem to hold in common the belief that “management” is something than can be fixed.

The Low Road

I see some other folks place their faith in “big process”. Process is good, right? So bigger process (wider scope, more things controlled, more emphasis on process compliance, more detail) is better, yes? And of course that implies much “process improvement”, too. Scaled agile (SAFE, DAD, LeSS, etc) is one example of this natural progression from structured methods, through RUP, ERUP, CMM, CMMI, Prince2 et al.. The common denominator I see amongst folks on this road is the belief that knowledge work (and workers) do best when they have a map to follow at all times. And the more detailed that map, the better.

The Road Less Travelled

We might choose to signpost the third road as “the people way”. Some folks have decided that people are at the heart of knowledge work, and so progress is predicated on better understanding of people – through e.g. group dynamics, psychology, neuroscience and so on. The common theme I see shared here is that people are generally trustworthy enough, and interested enough, to figure things out for themselves, together, as they go along.

You probably know where my sympathies lie, and have some idea of the world that my thoughts have made for me. I feel no need to rank these three separate roads. I’m sure each has an appeal for various folks.

Which road resonates most with you? For which road will today’s organisations want to pay the toll? And along which road would you prefer to travel?

– Bob

Further Reading

Why We Don’t Sell Process Improvement ~ David Anderson
Description Of The Scaled Agile Framework ~ SAFe Website
The Antimatter Principle ~ Bob Marshall
Product Development for the Lean Enterprise (“The Blue Book”)  ~ Michael Kennedy

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