The Longer View

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

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