Monthly Archives: January 2021

Six FAQs Explored

Recently, Adelbert Groebbens (@agroebbe) made an observation on Twitter to the effect that getting other people to understand what we’d like them to understand is a fool’s errand. He illuminated the point with a reference to my Six FAQs post. Al Shalloway expressed his disagreement with many of the points therein. This post explores the subject, via a dialogue between Al and myself, conducted over email recently, and in the context of the original Six FAQs post.

Note: the # numbers relate to the numbered points in Al’s original tweets.

The Dialogue

@alshalloway: (Opening): Thanks. but i disagree with most of the points there [in the original Six FAQs post].

@FlowchainSensei (response): Thanks Al for providing your take on this post. Maybe you’d be willing to enter into a mutual exploration of the subject of e.g. motivation? I guess your comments (provided via Twitter and copied, below) reflect your experiences when working with developers and teams? Likewise, my original post [link] reflects my experiences in similar environments (with a little borrowing from Bill Deming, Russell Ackoff, Marshall Rosenberg and Carl Rogers, to name but a few). It comes as no surprise to me that our experiences differ somewhat, and that our respective conclusions differ likewise. That’s not to say I’m right, or you’re right – we could both be right. Or wrong. Or somewhere in between.

The Annotated Original Post 

Questions I’m frequently asked about software and product development organisations.

Q1: How can we motivate our workers?

A1: You can’t. [see: Al’s #1 follow-up comment, below] Oh, you can dream up incentive schemes, bonus packages, and so on, but there’s plenty of research – and experience – to show that such attempts at extrinsic motivation of knowledge workers only make folks’ performance on the job worse. On the other hand, intrinsic motivation is very powerful – but that comes from the workers themselves. The only thing you can do is to work on creating an environment where maybe, just maybe, some folks feel a little better about themselves, their colleagues, and the common purpose. And hope – yes hope – that some intrinsic motivation emerges, here and there. You can’t change someone else’s intrinsic motivation – only they can do that.

@alshalloway: #1:  Pretty much agree but don’t like tone. Most workers will respond to not being de-motivated. the “maybe, just maybe” is what i don’t like.

@alshalloway: #1: (Follow-up): you can’t motivate, you can only stop demotivating. In other words, you can’t motivate them, but you can do other things that are useful. 

@FlowchainSensei: #1: I guess your assessment of the “tone” here differs from mine. How often do e.g. managers or others responsible for the workplace “environment”, when attempting to cultivate a climate conducive to intrinsic motivation, succeed in those attempts? My experiences suggest “occasionally”. I guess you concur on the main point here: that intrinsic motivation can only come from the folks themselves (the emergence of same being aided by efforts to reduce or remove demotivators – shades of Drucker, Herzberg)? 

@alshalloway: Agreed that most managers don’t do this [attempt to cultivate a climate conducive to intrinsic motivation]. But much of that is because it’s never been explained to them [as] a new role they can fill.

@FlowchainSensei: Explaining presupposes they’re motivated to listen to explanations. I’m minded of the following quotations:

“Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.”

~ Peter Drucker 

“If you want people to do a good job, give them a good job to do.”

~ Frederick Herzberg

Q2: How can we change the organisation’s culture?

A2: You can’t. [see: Al’s #2 follow-up comment, below] Culture is read-only. A manifestation and a reflection of the underlying, collective assumptions and beliefs of all the folks working in the organisation. To see any cultural changes, you have to work on – by which I mean work towards a wholesale replacement of – this underlying collective memeplex. And that involves working with peoples’ heads, and in particular, collective headspaces. You can’t change other people’s assumptions and beliefs – only they can do that. 

@alshalloway: #2: you can’t change an org’s culture directly, but you can change it indirectly. See my post “Improving Your Company’s Culture”. 

@alshalloway: #2: (Follow-up): you can’t change culture directly, but there are ways to do it indirectly. You can’t change it directly since culture is a result of many things in your company.

@FlowchainSensei: #2: I totally agree that “culture” can be changed indirectly (but not directly). To elaborate on this question, I propose that changing culture through examining assumptions and beliefs (more specifically, supporting folks who are interested in getting together to examine their own *collective* assumptions and beliefs) offers a way forward. For which see: Organisational Psychotherapy.

@allshalloway: I don’t think you need to change minds directly. Rather change how they [people] work.  It’s consistent with the idea “it’s easier to work your way into a new way of thinking than to think you’re way into a new way of working.”

@FlowchainSensei: I’d clarify that as “I don’t think you can change minds directly. Rather enable and encourage change to how the people doing the work choose to work. (See also:The People vs System Conundrum).

Q3: How can we change the mindset of managers?

A3: You can’t. Managers – anyone, really – will only change their mindset when they see how their present mindset is ineffective at getting their needs – and the needs of others – met. Change (of mindset) is a normative process – it emerges from direct personal experiences of e.g. the way the work works now – and the problems inherent therein. You can’t change someone else’s mindset – only they can do that.

@alshalloway: #3: I’ve changed mindsets by guiding people through their beliefs and showing them better ones. I’ve had special training in this.

@alshalloway: #3: (Follow-up): changing mindset is only possible when people are open to it.

@FlowchainSensei: #3: I agree with your follow-up statement. It’s been my experience that folks have difficulties when left on their own in this regard, even when open to the idea of “changing mindsets”. I have found that help, or support, or (your term) guidance can be valuable here. Hence, btw, Organisational Psychotherapy (support-for-changing-assumptions-and-beliefs-as-a-service).

@AlShalloway: Changing mindsets is difficult, and even when possible, takes a long time. It is important to show managers new opportunities and new ways they can interact with the people they work with.

@FlowchainSensei: When and if these managers are motivated to see and learn – see Q1. 

Q4: How can we get teams to take responsibility?

A4: You can’t. You can threaten, cajole, plead, bribe, appeal to folks’ better nature, etc. But again, research and experience both show these only serve to undermine folks’ goodwill and commitment. If you need folks to take more responsibility, maybe the best way is to just be honest about that, explain your need, and make a refusable request? What would you like the reason to be for them doing as you request? You can’t change someone else’s willingness to take responsibility – only they can do that.

@alshalloway: #4. Pretty much agree. But again, it’s the skeptic’s tone i object to. Many are ready to take responsibility, but like motivation, we’re de-motivating them to do so.  You could argue we agree – but it’s not clear.

@alshalloway: #4: (Follow-up): You can’t get people to take responsibility, but for those that are willing, you can remove the barriers to it.

@FlowchainSensei: #4: I guess our experiences differ here. I wonder how much that difference has to do with geographies and national cultures (I.e. UK vs USA)? In my experience (UK, and Europe too), many are not ready/willing to take responsibility, often through long experience of being punished or sanctioned for attempting to do so, or even for simply suggesting it. Is “Learned helpless” more prevalent in the UK, I wonder? I agree wholeheartedly with your follow-up statement.

Q5: How can we get managers to trust their teams?

A5: You can’t. Managers will only choose to trust their teams – or anyone else – if they find they have a need to do so. And that need only becomes obvious enough to spur action when managers come to understand just how trust helps them get some of their other needs met better. You can’t change someone else’s willingness to trust others – only they can do that.

@alshalloway: #5 Building trust is not easy but it’s possible. Most of the way Agile does it doesn’t work. You can’t presuppose it [trust] or blame people for not having it. Lean management can be helpful here.

@alshalloway: #5: (Followup): You have to build trust, and not everyone is willing to have this built.

@FlowchainSensei: #5: Agreed, especially with your observation that there are some folks who are, on the face of it, unwilling to participate in trust-building. I would love to hear more about the aspects of Lean management which you have in mind. For myself, I have found the Antimatter Principle and Nonviolent Communication both useful in trust-building efforts.

@alshalloway: Trust grows over time as people work together. An expectation that managers will all of a sudden trust their teams is doomed for disappointment. But we can teach managers how to work with people to build trust. Why am I not trusting their [the manager’s people] judgement? What is it that people need to know?

@FlowchainSensei: Agreed. Again, allowing for managers being willing (or unwilling) to be “taught”.

Q6: How can we develop people’s competencies?

A6: You can’t. You can, however, create conditions where those folks who want to develop their own competencies can do so more easily. So the question then becomes, how can we get folks to want to develop their own competencies? Which is Q1 (see above). You can’t change someone else’s willingness to learn – only they can do that.

@alshalloway: #6. Your title is inconsistent with what you say. You admit to being able to change competency if they are willing to learn. So it’s not possible.

@alshalloway: #6: (Follow-up): You can only improve people’s competencies when they are already willing to learn. 

@FlowchainSensei: #6: I’m unsure as to the meaning of your original comment. If your follow-up comment serves as a clarification, then I agree entirely. 

In a nutshell, the direct answer to all the above questions is: you can’t. But you can do at least one thing to make progress on all these questions: consider the Antimatter Principle.

Are you willing to be that radical? For that is what it boils down to. 

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

~ Albert Einstein

– Bob


@alshalloway: (Closing) I object mostly to the skeptic curmudgeonly style of the posts – the absolutism of it.  

@FlowchainSensei: (Closing): I guess I’m well-known and loved for my skeptical, curmudgeonly style. :}

Cost of Focus Revisited

[Recent conversations suggest that my post on Cost of Focus failed to explain the idea clearly enough for readers to grasp easily or quickly. As, for me at least, it’s a simple idea, I thought I’d summarise it in brief with a new post (this one).]

Cost of Focus

Let’s start with a definition in a nutshell:

Cost of Focus is the cost incurred when we fail to include key stakeholders* in our deliberations**.

* I generally refer to these folks, collectively, as The Folks That Matter™.
** By deliberations, I have in mind what old-school folks call “requirements capture” or “requirements analysis”, and what I, nowadays, refer to as “needs investigation”.

Put another way:

Cost of Focus is a way of communicating the impact – on the outcomes we hope to achieve – arising from excluding or including specific folks and their needs.

Note: I could have chosen the name “Cost of Flawed Focus” (the cost of focussing on less relevant stakeholders and less relevant requirements), but this seemed a little less snappy than “Cost of Focus”.

Typically, the costs in question accrue from rejection of part or all of the delivered project / system / product / software application by one or more key parties (such as users) whose needs have not been adequately addressed  – and these costs can be massive. In any number of cases, whole systems have had to be abandoned because one or more key stakeholder groups have refused to use the new system. And even when not totally abandoned, oftentimes major costs have accrued from the delays and extra work required to remediate the original errors of focus. (See also Cost of Focus’ kissing cousin – Cost of Delay).

The Folks That Matter™

[The following excerpt first appeared in my blog post The Folks That Matter™. I repeat it here for the convenience of the reader:]

Cost of Focus

Don Reinertsen states that the Cost of Delay – the financial or economic cost of delaying a given feature by prioritising another – is rarely considered in most organisations. Put another way, the way in which delivery priorities are selected and adjusted, the frequency and means of such adjustments, etc., are rarely discussed, and rarely even discussable.

I propose that Cost of Delay is a subset of the wider question stated above, i.e. the question of Cost of Focus.

By definition, we are failing to meet some folks’ needs when we choose to or otherwise exclude certain folks with their particular needs from the set of The Folks That Matter™.

Maybe those excluded folks and their needs are indeed irrelevant, or their exclusion has little impact – financial or otherwise – on the success of our endeavour. But maybe, contrariwise, some of those excluded needs are in fact critical to our “success”. How would we know? The arguments for Cost of Focus are much the same as for its golden child, Cost of Delay.

FWIW, I’ve seen countless projects stumble and “fail” because they inadvertently omitted, or chose to omit, some crucial folks and their needs from the their list of The Folks That Matter™. Get Cost of Delay wrong (prioritise less valuable features), and we lose some money. Sometime a little, sometime a lot. Get Cost of Focus wrong, and we more often lose big time. Cost of Focus often has a much more binary, black-and-white impact.

What is Cost of Focus?

Cost of Focus is a way of communicating the impact – on the outcomes we hope to achieve – arising from excluding or including specific folks and their needs. More formally, it is the partial derivative of the total expected value with respect to whose needs we focus on.

“Cost of Delay is the golden key that unlocks many doors. It has an astonishing power to totally transform the mind-set of a development organisation.”

– Donald G. Reinertsen

Similarly, I’d say that unless and until we have a handle on Cost of Focus, the golden key of Cost Of Delay remains firmly beyond our grasp.

Put another way, until we have a means for deciding to whose needs to attend, the particular order in which we attend to those needs (cf. priority, Cost of Delay) is moot.

– Bob

Further Reading

Cost of Focus ~ Think Different blog post
The Folks That Matter™ ~ Think Different blog post
Cost of Delay ~ Wikipedia entry

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