Things We Could Be Doing

Things We Could Be Doing

I’ve spent much of my career exploring the world of knowledge-work, and especially the world of software and product development. I’ve seen many businesses, most of whom share a common view of the way work should work, the way to design products, the way to find and organise people to staff the business, and so on. I’ve seen how these common approaches fall way short in terms of results. And I’ve seen, or imagined, other, less common ways which could make a huge difference to the success and profitability of businesses everywhere.

There’s a whole passel of things we could be doing, that we’re not, presently. We could be…

Creating Environments Better Suited To Knowledge Work

Most “environments” in which I have seen folks trying to get work done are woefully ill-suited to doing effective knowledge work. Very few businesses seem to understand even the interplay between environmental factors and outcomes. And fewer yet, those who have actually created and sustained effective working environments.

Aside: By “environment” I have in mind various aspects:

  • Physical – the floor layout of the office space; the decor, lighting and general ambience; the architectural style of the office buildings; the situation of the office buildings themselves (city, parkland, countryside, wilderness); facilities (shared spaces, dining, leisure and recreation, etc).
  • Technical – webtone; the choice of hardware, OS, tools; and so on.
  • Social – how people generally relate to one another and treat each other.
  • Dynamics – High-energy or plodding; stressful or laid-back; studious or action-oriented; high-risk or safety-conscious; etc.

Reliably Designing Products Which Buyers Crave

We know now that people don’t buy products or services on rational bases. Rather, they buy on emotional bases, and then, maybe, use rationality to justify those decisions, post-hoc. Why then do so many businesses still spend so much time and effort designing their products to appeal to rational buyers?

Designing “Whole Products”

Most businesses cobble together new products and services, conducting a more or less random walk through their vertical silos for each new product development. And then stuff these new products into the existing silos in the hope that sales and profits will accrue. We could be recognising that development of new products is the lifeblood of most organisations, and organising along those lines.

Organising Around Flow

One common strategy for businesses has long been managing to reduce cost. Much more effective would be to manage (e.g. constraints) so as to improve flow (of new products to market, value to customers, or of needs, to all stakeholders).

Having Everyone On the Same Page

Most businesses I have seen have folks running around like headless chickens, hither and yon, with precious little alignment or general understanding of common goals, strategies, and so on. Many tools, techniques and other means to get and keep folks on the same page exist. Few business use any of them. Nor realise the cost and other impacts of such chaos.

Improving The Effectiveness Of Our Businesses

More-or-less random local improvements seems to be the best most businesses aspire to. We could be systematically and progressively improving our businesses on a near-continuous or continuous basis. We only have to look as far as e.g. Toyota to see the stupendous rewards this can bring in the long term.

I see very little of any of the above happening in any businesses. After all these years, I still wonder why. How about you? Would you be willing to share your perspective?

– Bob



  1. dancres said:

    Disclosure: I’m not going to discuss the specifics of my current employ. I would like to, I believe in open, honest dialogue but lawyers don’t and then there’s the risk of misunderstanding and associated politics. The latter being much less of an issue when I’m able to engage face to face in my place of work. In terms of what I’ve seen over the course of my career though….

    Often, when I encounter the desire to improve it’s within the context of what is already there. I hear terms such as efficiency, sometimes effectiveness but almost always related as “how do we do what we currently do better?” Presumably on the assumption that what is being done is the right thing to do?

    This tends to naturally lead to focus on a few of the things you listed (though not necessarily aligned with how you see/practice them):

    (1) Organising around flow.
    (2) Having everyone on the same page.
    (3) Improving the effectiveness of our business.

    What I almost never see is questioning of just what it is to be in the product business. There is a delusion of control, an unhealthy belief in causality (linear think, sigh). We do our requirements gather from our customers (albeit we might grab a few at a time and then deliver via an “agile” process) and then build what we believe satisfies them, then set about arm-twisting (or more polite but no less abusive approaches) adoption/payment out of those customers. There is little ability to broadly survey the world and leap out of this death-spiral, to ride the waves of opportunity and engineer a sustainable business that innovates repeatedly. Instead, each business is a one trick pony that gradually wastes away whilst chewing up human capital, all the while seeking “effectiveness”.

    Which brings me neatly on to what I would like to see, it’s less the focus on effectiveness (the items above) and much more on two things:

    (1) Treating humans like humans – so for example, better environments for knowledge work is appealing. If nothing else because I believe knowledge work is exactly what is required to find means to break us all out of the death-spiral I mention above.

    (2) Developing a recognition that product building as it is generally held to work is broken. That we have far less control, it’s not manufacturing or a linear process, that we must develop symbiotic relationships with the world, to sense and adapt to what is going on around us and to exploit it for mutual benefit. On that latter, I’m happy that the balance might be enduring happiness for the customer and a healthy financial picture for me. Nevertheless, I want to feel like the customer didn’t get screwed over in the process because there’s a kind of business Karma out there. In essence, when you treat customers badly, they become paranoid and act accordingly potentially damaging their current and future business relationships to everyone’s disadvantage. So maybe there’s a third thing…

    (3) Ethical business – but maybe that’s just (1) in disguise.

  2. “More-or-less random local improvements” seems to be a bit of a put down… I’ve just addressed this in #Skramjet – Heroes Admittedly, in a perfect world we’d be doing wide-scale systemic improvement. Being an optimist, I’m also a believer in grass-roots “local” improvements that build on each other that can result in larger scale improvements by leverage or critical mass

    • Would you be willing to help me understand how you interpret “more-or-less random local improvements” as “a bit of a put down”?

      – Bob

      • Certainly, as I said in my post, it comes from Denning an the interpretation / attitude about local optimisations – “oh, you’re doing a local optimisation, how quaint/pointless/…”. LO’s seem to be interpreted as a “lesser form” of optimisation, whereas I’m saying that in the real world, they’re the only form available to us “mere mortals” 😉

      • Also, taken in full “More-or-less random local improvements seems to be the best most businesses aspire to” there seems to be an element of frustration? “Being a county champion rather than national was the best Bob could aspire to”

      • “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” ~ Arthur Ashe. To which I’d add: “and keep one eye on the big picture.”

  3. Martien said:

    Hi Bob,

    How does an organization gauge itself on where they are on the right shifting curve?

    Succes en plezier,


      • Martien said:

        Thanks for the pointer to self-assessment. I will absorb it.

        I’d like to use an instrument (like Spiral Dynamics ‘Change Gauge’ or a Belbin Test) that allows any organization, small and large, to answer a few questions (≤ 20) to assess where they are, where they want to be, and if further exploration is valuable and meaningful.

  4. Martien said:

    Hi Bob, Martien again (splitting questions to stand alone),

    If an organization can assess where they are on the Rightshifting graph, how do they find out what to do (principles, pattern, pearls, practices) to shift more to the right?

    Succes en plezier,


  5. Martien said:

    Hi Bob (I’ll stop after this one),

    What if many companies shift right, does that recalibrate the graph? That is, if the bubble shifts right, so does the mean, thinning and elongating the tail? In other words, how does the graph evolve over time if (or when) more and more companies will shift right?

    Succes en plezier,


    • If many companies were to rightshift, then, yes, the distribution would shift to the right, too. So the tail to the right would become fatter, and the tail to the left thinner, and longer. I propose the transition zones in the Marshall Model would remain in the same locations.

      – Bob

      • Martien said:

        Clear. Thank you. Rightshifting reminds me of Spiral Dynamics and its evolutionary model and transitions.

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: